Friday, October 5, 2012

Challenge of egocentric subjectivism

To: Christodoulos P.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Challenge of egocentric subjectivism
Date: 12th June 2008 11:25

Dear Christos,

Thank you for your email of 2 June, with your second essay for the Pathways 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?'

I am pleased with this essay, which shows a good understanding of the difficult issues around idealism and egocentric subjectivism. A reader who had not encountered these issues before would gain a firm grasp of the 'dialectic' and its importance. You have succeeded in avoiding some of the stumbling blocks that students encounter when they grapple with the nature of idealism and egocentric subjectivism.

I think you have grasped the point that sceptical hypotheses -- such as the Matrix scenario or the 'layered' Matrix scenario (which you will find in another sci-fi film which I can strongly recommend, 'Existenz') are used -- to quote Wittgenstein's analogy at the end of the Tractatus -- as a ladder which one throws away after one has climbed up. Even the Berkeley scenario, where God assumes the role of the Cartesian evil demon, is a 'sceptical hypothesis' so far as other minds are concerned. I know I am a 'finite spirit' and I believe that corresponding to other 'people' who appear in my experience there are other 'finite spirits', but I cannot verify this belief. It is a matter of sheer faith. If God wanted to create a world just for me, the one and only finite spirit, he is perfectly capable of doing so.

But, of course, this still is not egocentric subjectivism because we still have not got rid of God. The world is God's world, not my world, and I merely have a perspective on it. This logical structure is no different, in point of drawing the appearance/ reality distinction from common sense realism which states that there is a world 'out there' and I merely have a perspective on it.

'Getting rid of God' is not such an easy thing to do, however. You draw the correct conclusion that if we dispense of God the 'creator' then the only being left is myself. Therefore the world is my 'creation'. How can that be?

In the absence of any basis for drawing a distinction between 'true' and a 'false' judgement, other than my subjective impression which changes from moment to moment, one can say that I 'create' a story about my world. There is nothing to make this story true or false. However, we are still stuck with the question of how it is that there can be *anything at all*. I can create the story, the interpretation, but the given is given. I didn't create *that*.

What has the egocentric subjectivist to say about this 'given'? Nothing. But do they have to say anything? does the dialectic require it? I think here the egocentric subjectivist can simply turn the tables and argue that whichever metaphysic one holds, the existence of something rather than nothing has to be accepted as a brute, inexplicable fact. There is me, or, rather, my world. It's a fact. No explanation, no creator, no cause. It just is.

So now we move on to the question of how egocentric subjectivism is to be 'refuted'.

You first give Kant's 'Refutation of Idealism', according to which, in your words, 'In order to have a consciousness of an 'I' then I must believe in 'things outside me' so that there is a matter to make judgements about.'

I think you miss the point here that this merely sharpens egocentric subjectivism -- making it 'transcendental' -- without touching the egocentric subjectivist's central claim. Kant does not see the argument this way because his target is Descartes who never considers for one moment the possibility that there might 'nothing' apart from I and my world. But if we do apply the argument here then all that results is a refinement of the original theory, according to which, as a matter of logical necessity, there cannot be an 'I' without a 'my world', where this world is *represented* as objects in space. It remains the case, that for the egocentric subjectivist, these 'objects' exist only for me. The have one side, the side that points towards me.

What finally establishes the incoherence of this picture is, as you state, Wittgenstein's argument against a private language. Care is needed, however, in the way one states the necessity for a 'social context'. If you have grasped the point about using Kant's Refutation of Idealism to establish a transcendental version of egocentric subjectivism, then you will readily see that any argument for the necessity of identifying other subjects of experience in the course of my experience, can easily be taken on board by the egocentric subjectivist as just a further refinement of their theory.

What is missing from this picture is the radical break from the first person standpoint to the third person standpoint, the recognition that I can be 'wrong', that I can make 'false judgements' in a way which does not reduce to merely 'changing my mind' when some new experience comes along. There is, there must be, something outside the world of my possible experience, howsoever refined, in order for there to be a genuine distinction between truth and falsity, reality and appearance.

Overall, a very good piece of work.

All the best,

Geoffrey