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Return of the solipsist


To: James M.
From: Geoffrey
Subject: Return of the solipsist
Date: 16 March 2004 15:22

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your e-mail of 7 March, with your fifth essay for the Pathways Philosophy of Mind program, entitled 'when I Was King: Return of the Solipsist'.

First of all, congratulations on completing the program! I will be sending you my mentor's report and Pathways Certificate.

I think that solipsism would make an excellent topic for your Fellowship dissertation. The present essay opens up a number of leads to pursue.

Two books which you should read are Martin Buber 'I and Thou' and Emmanuel Levinas 'Totality and Infinity'. Buber's is the nearest thing in philosophy to a poem. Levinas, by contrast, is very hard going -- but also has his poetic moments. Levinas has come closer than any other philosopher, in my view, to grasping the problem of the self in relation to the other, or the 'otherness of the other'. Jacques Derrida's famous essay 'Violence and Metaphysics' is a homage to Levinas. The 'violence' in question is perpetrated when we attempt to reduce the other to an object of knowledge that we can assimilate and make part of ourselves.

The main problem with Anglo-Saxon approaches to this is (so-called because they characterize mainstream English-speaking philosophy) that they assume that the problem is precisely to establish the possibility of 'knowledge' of other minds.

Recently, I was writing a response to notes on the topic of solipsism from a US psychiatrist called Walter who is taking the moral philosophy program.

He wrote:

'I once had a teacher, an Egyptian, who trained in London with Anna Freud, who said, 'A neurotic can never be a decent chap.' He meant that no matter what good qualities the neurotic might have, his egocentrism would get in the way... I spend a good part of my day (public mental hospital) talking to people who may be involuntary solipsists. Many of them wouldn't deny it. Entering into someone's truly private reality can be disconcerting but, occasionally you can see an advantage.'

I replied, 'your reference to your Egyptian teacher reminds me that there are two rather different variants of practical solipsism that we have to consider: the out-and-out psychopath, on the one hand, and the neurotic with narcissistic tendencies on the other.'

It seems to me that your essay takes this one step further. Even amongst persons whom we would not describe as neurotic, there can be more or less of a solipsist tendency -- as apparently in the case of your sister Sheila. I would like to see more philosophical analysis of her case. (Should you ask her permission first?)

I guess we first have to decide whether we are prepared to allow that a little dose of solipsism is a good thing. Earlier in the essay, you say, 'So let me acknowledge the solipsist in me, and I will acknowledge the solipsist in you. Together we will make great music...'.

This can mean several things. Two neurotic solipsists can be friends to each other -- or at least the best substitute for friends. However, the music they make together is not always beautiful. It is sad, disjointed, at times comic and pathological, sometimes simultaneously.

In 'Naive Metaphysics' I argue for a partial vindication of solipsism, in the theory of subjective and objective worlds. There is only one subjective world, although from the objective standpoint, the person writing these words exists as merely one 'I' amongst a multitude of I's. However -- here is the point about acknowledging one another's solipsism in a philosophical sense -- this insight is meant to be generalized. The theory of subjective and objective worlds is something each of us can and must acknowledge, if we think along the lines recommended in the book.

In between the neurotic version and the 'two worlds' version (which is not solipsism in its ethically problematic form) there might seem to be room for a third possibility -- that each of us ought to be concerned for our self, this is healthy not unhealthy. To deny that my self is the closest thing to me does itself seem to be a kind of pathology.

But are we still talking about solipsism in any philosophically interesting sense? or merely making the anodyne point that it is perfectly right and proper that we concern ourselves with ourselves, as well as concerning ourselves with (or better: in order that we may effectively concern ourselves with) others?

Into this mix, comes an idea from Eastern philosophy: we are all Self. The problem with this as a theory of everything is that it basically makes the same Anglo-Saxon error of seeking to reduce the distance between self and other, instead of seeking to grasp the nature of otherness. In the universal Self, there are no 'others'. We are all One.

So long as the problem of solipsism is seen in the form, 'I know I have consciousness in me, but I'm not sure if there is consciousness in you', the only possible solution will be seen to the Anglo-Saxon one, which makes you and me 'the same'.

Good start. I look forward to future instalments.

All the best,