Thursday, April 21, 2011

Can the solipsist be refuted?

To: James D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can solipsism be refuted?
Date: 7 February 2002 11:28

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your e-mail of 24 January, with your essay, 'Solipsism' for the Philosophy of Language program.

You are responding to the question, 'Can the solipsist be refuted?'

It is my turn to apologize - for the lateness of my reply. This has nothing to do with how fast/slow you are in submitting work, as I respond to students strictly on a 'first in, first out' basis. Send me work when you can, and don't worry about deadlines. I set myself a deadline of ten days for responding to work, but unfortunately I don't always succeed in keeping to that deadline.

In your essay, you advance several arguments against the solipsist:

1. The solipsist cannot say, 'I think' but only 'It thinks'. - The idea here is that the concept of 'I' only has application in a world where one distinguishes one's own 'I' or self from other 'I's or selves. A version of this argument can be found in Chapter 3 of P.F. Strawson's book 'Individuals'. The solipsist, on this account, is someone who wants to have their cake and eat it, claiming the use of a term while 'silently repudiating the conditions for its application' (to use Strawson's formulation). The conditions for the application of 'I' involve identifying oneself as a subject in a world in which there are, or at least it is possible for there to be, other subjects. If the solipsist denies that there can be other subjects, then they must give up the use of the term 'I'.

2. '...the idea that everything exists in only one person's being defies any existence of a world in itself which would be contradictory.' - The denial of the 'existence of a world in itself' is a consequence which the solipsist gladly accepts. There is no world 'in itself', there is only 'my world'. Why is this contradictory? Is it because the very idea of being or existence is something that cannot be relativized to a subject? To say that X exists for A means that X exists, so far as A is concerned. But is A right or wrong in taking X to exist? According to the solipsist, that question has no meaningful answer. I wonder whether an effective argument against the solipsist could be constructed on these lines? It looks good.

3. '...if we follow the route of the solipsist...anything we said would in effect have to make sense.' - In fact, we know that there are real conditions, the social conditions that give rise to language, that make it possible to say something that makes sense. According to the solipsist, the meaning of one'swords is granted automatically, magically, by the mere fact that one's words *seem* to have a meaning. This is a clear indication, if not a proof, that something is wrong with the solipsist theory.

4. '...I can only relate words to my own experiences and live in a world of only "I".' - Above, we questioned whether the solipsist can use the word 'I'. Here the thought is similar to 2. above, that for the solipsist there is no actually existing world, but only a seeming world constructed out of one's own experiences.

5. '...the evidence would have to be checked by the person himself therefore it would appear to be a catch 22 situation.' - This is my main argument against the solipsist: that the solipsist cannot give any real content to the notion of 'being right' or 'being wrong' , i.e. the notions of truth or falsity.

6. 'When there is a chance that the "I" concerned could indeed be wrong, the thoughts...may not take into account the objective reality of thought itself. As it is not possible to have these inner thoughts as 'a priori'. - This looks to me the same as 3. above. For the solipsist, the meaning of one's words is guaranteed a priori, simply by the fact that the words seem to have a meaning. But meaning cannot be guaranteed a priori. In the actual world, we can think we mean something by what we say and be wrong. The solipsist cannot acknowledge this possibility.

7. '...this would mean that the understanding...would need to be innate.' - The very idea that something is innate presupposes a story about a real world, for example a Darwinian story about how certain innate ideas develop through evolution. So the solipsist cannot claim that the meaning of their words is 'innate'. This blocks a last ditch attempt to get out of the challenge posed by 3. and 6.

8. 'Surely also it is motives that would indicate the real thoughts and beliefs of how a person is these actions being non-linguistic...'. - I did not understand what you were trying to say here. Possibly, a word or words have been accidentally omitted. It seems there could be room for criticism of the solipsist on the grounds that we cannot make sense of the idea of a subject *having* motives or intentions, if that subject is not a being in a world. Is that what you meant?

9. '...objects in a world must exist independently of my thoughts and language.' - This looks like a version of 2. In the 'Critique of Pure Reason' Kant says at one point, 'There cannot be appearances without something that appears'. The language of this paragraph is reminiscent of Kant. The solipsist ultimately wants to say that 'my world' is constructed or woven together out of mere appearances. But that idea is absurd, because an appearance must always be an appearance *of* something external to the appearance. The solipsist cannot make any sense of their experiences coming from anywhere or being caused by anything, because there is nothing besides experience.

- A good effort. It would have been helpful to me if you could have referred to the books that you used as source material. In an essay like this, it is a good idea to signal to the reader when you are reporting an argument given by someone else ('Geoffrey Klempner says...', 'Joe Bloggs says...') and when you are contributing your own thoughts to the debate.

All the best,