Monday, July 25, 2011

Rejecting egocentric subjectivism

To: Wendy B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Rejecting egocentric subjectivism
Date: 19 January 2004 12:11

Dear Wendy,

Thank you for your e-mail of 7 January, with your second essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Imagine you are a former defender of egocentric subjectivism who has been persuaded to reject that theory. Apart from being convinced that the theory you once believed in is false what is it that you now believe?'

One area of discourse which raises the question of subjectivity and objectivity is that of taste. In setting up the theory of egocentric subjectivism, and then criticizing the theory, I had not thought of this aspect of our experience - which is undoubtedly very important in our everyday lives.

So, let's see how this goes:

What can we say about taste? Although we tend to agree that 'each person has their own taste', we also talk of people having 'good taste' and 'bad taste' - in cooking as well as in art.

For example, if one of your friends says that she likes chile con carne and another says that she hates it, this isn't an argument, but merely a matter of different people having different culinary 'tastes'. On the other hand, if you invited someone to dine on nice hot chile con carne, and they proceeded to pour on dollops of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup in equal proportions, most cooking experts would agree (I assume!) that this is pretty disgusting taste. The argument, 'Well, I like it!' is not enough to counter what would be the agreed judgement of persons of 'good taste', i.e. people with educated palates.

However, as a way of getting to the crux of egocentric subjectivism, this approach also has some disadvantages.

On my account of 'sophisticated' as opposed to 'crude' egocentric subjectivism, the egocentric subjectivist could agree to all the things I have said about taste in the above paragraph. Indeed, there are no *empirical* consequences of holding egocentric subjectivism - that is the point about it being a metaphysical theory.

The egocentric subjectivist can 'compare, discriminate, measure, divide and categorise' (your words) just as well as the objectivist. As an egocentric subjectivist, - just as much as an objectivist - you can discover that your friend went shopping and forgot about the dinner date. You can discover that you mistakenly put paprika in the simmering mixture instead of chile powder. And so on.

Whether you are a subjectivist or an objectivist, experience proves that wishing does not make things so.

In short, the egocentric subjectivist's world is a world just like yours or mine, where one makes judgements, finds out sometimes that those judgements are wrong, and corrects the judgements that one previously made.

The egocentric subjectivist's world contains 'people' who use 'language' to 'communicate', indeed, whose 'judgements' one sometimes defers to (your doctor, business adviser, cooking instructor, philosophy teacher etc.) Everything *looks* the same. So what *is* different?

If I try to imagine myself occupying the standpoint of the egocentric subjectivist, reality or existence just is 'my world and everything in it'. Everything there is, exists ultimately for me and me alone. But this includes things I have never seen, aspects of the world I have never considered, like the centre of the earth or distant stars and galaxies. However, the subjectivist views this as ultimately *just* a story, a play laid on for my benefit. Without me there would be nothing.

Even this statement is still too metaphorical. As you have half-grasped, the crucial point concerns what it is that makes my judgements true or false. As an egocentric subjectivist, my judgements are true or false in relation not just to my present limited experience, but any possible additional experience I might enjoy, now or forever more. The objectivist, on the contrary, says, 'No, there is something else, something which can never be captured from any *one* point of view, which is how the subject, the possessor of that unique point of view, appears as an *object* from other points of view.'

'To see ourselves as others see us.' Of course, you can look in a mirror. You can ask a friend how they see you. But all these things are just more information which you have to take in. There is no way out of the subjectivist predicament by merely accumulating facts and information. That is because the problem is a problem of metaphysics.

There are a few poor souls who live as if other persons were only 'characters in the story of my world', psychopaths who see other persons as merely objects - tools to use or obstacles to overcome. The solution is not philosophical argument but treatment.

But the egocentric subjectivist is not a psychopath - merely a philosopher who holds a rather strange philosophical theory. That is why the solution has to be a philosophical solution: in other words, a logical argument demonstrating the 'warped logic' in the egocentric subjectivist's theory.

All the best,

Geoffrey