Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Anatomy of the egocentric subjectivist

To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Anatomy of the egocentric subjectivist
Date: 3 June 2006 11:28

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 21 May, with your second essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Imagine that you wake up one morning to discover that you have become a fully fledged egocentric subjectivist. Describe your process of conversion, and your present state of mind. What is the philosophical challenge posed by such a theory?'

Metaphysics presents a stark contrast between egocentric subjectivism and its rejection. You are either locked 'in' to a single viewpoint which defines all of reality, or you manage to break out.

As you show, 'real life' shows a different picture. As a matter of psychological fact, some persons are more 'locked in' than others, or the same person can be more or less locked in depending on his external circumstances (retreating 'inwards' is one way in which people might respond to a challenge or threat).

There is an important question here (which is explored in a very entertaining book, 'The Philosophers: Their Lives and the Nature of Their Thought' by Ben-Ami Scharfstein) about the relation between psychological conditions and philosophical theories. There are sufficiently many cases of sane philosophers boldly arguing for positions which, were they to be held literally would qualify a person as requiring urgent psychiatric treatment.

This is where we need to keep track of the difference between 'metaphysical' and 'mundane' thinking.

Mundane thinking is not by any means literal thinking. It is shot through with metaphors and mythical pictures. We can always ask how helpful or harmful these metaphors are, how well or how badly they help in keeping the individual concerned in touch with the real world. Magical thinking is just one example of losing touch. Another is what you describe as 'self-referential' thinking. By contrast, other kinds of metaphor and myth help us to keep touch with reality, for example, the scientist who conceives himself as 'putting questions to nature'.

The question posed, 'Imagine that you discover that you have become a fully fledged egocentric subjectivist' is deliberately intended to put pressure on the distinction between the metaphysical and the mundane. As you say, it is not like waking up to discover that you have turned into Kafka's beetle. In fact, nothing changes at all. You do not start behaving in any deviant way that a psychiatrist could detect. That's the whole point of metaphysics 'leaving everything as it is'.

When Berkeley described perception as looking at the inside of God's mind, he didn't base this claim on anything that can be discovered through perception. The claim is based on an a priori philosophical argument. The world to the idealist looks exactly as it did before, the idealist behaves exactly as he did before. Dr Johnson kicking a stone proves nothing. And yet, everything is changed. One could almost describe Berkeley's vision as an epiphany. Brute 'matter' is transformed into the living mind of God.

The egocentric subjectivist experiences an epiphany too, Godless this time. Everything is part of ME. No evil demon, nothing outside me, nothing on the other side of THIS. There is no change in the quality of my perceptions. The table is still a table, the moon is still the moon. The world is the same and yet everything is different.

But is this position 'without consequences'? This is where the original distinction between the metaphysical and the mundane breaks down. The empirically discoverable facts may remain the same in the egocentrist's world. What disappears is ethics. There can be no genuine 'response to the other'. Of course, you can still choose to behave ethically towards the characters in your egocentric dream world, but the ultimate philosophical justification has evaporated.

Wittgenstein remarks in the Tractatus, 'The self shrinks to a point of no extension, and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.' This is his proof that 'solipsism when thought through coincides with pure realism'. But this is not a rejection of solipsism. The naive egocentric idea that 'everything is me' may disappear but it is replaced by a more subtle, 'transcendental' egocentrism.

So I agree that there is no sharp line of demarcation between the metaphysical and the mundane. The distinction breaks down when we consider ethics. However, I would still resist the claim that there is a 'continuum from these mundane examples and the philosophical challenge posed by egocentric subjectivism.'

There is a continuum, between mild symptoms of egocentrism, and serious cases of, say, autism or the psychopath. However, the relation between these and the metaphysical theory of egocentrism is analogical. Like Berkeley and idealism, you can be perfectly sane and well adjusted and yet argue for and hold an egocentric subjectivist position.

All the best,