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The 'world' of the solipsist


To: Vasco_Kunft
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The 'world' of the solipsist
Date: 4 March 2004 12:42

Dear Vasco,

Thank you for your email of 25 February, with your second essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'The solipsist's 'world' has no more substance than a dream, a story one makes up as one goes along' (6/109). Discuss.

I want to start with your last sentence, 'Please do not forget the individual.' As you may have realized by now, I agree with you that there is indeed a 'danger' lurking in the strategy of 'using solipsism as an example in discussing other philosophical hypotheses' in order to make them seem 'viable theories by comparison.'

The argument which refutes solipsism takes us to a view which is the polar opposite of solipsism: the anti-solipsist or nonegocentric view. The problem with the nonegocentric view is that it leaves no place for 'I', for the powerful intuitive sense which each of us has, that there is 'something that makes me me'. Ultimately, what we want is a theory which combines the insight incorrectly expressed in the form of solipsism, with the realization that, *in addition* to 'I' there is the world of 'the other'.

How does 'I' relate to 'the other'? We are not talking about psychology, or even ethics (construed as rules for conduct) but rather something metaphysically ultimate. 'I' cannot be reduced to 'one of the others'. The otherness of the other is absolute, not relative.

I agree with you that solipsism is terrifying. This is worth saying. However, I think that things might be even worse than you seem to think, because there cannot be room for a 'malevolent evil Deity' in the solipsist's universe, as I have understood solipsism. To admit such a Deity is to admit the existence of 'the other'. The point of solipsism is that there is no counterpoint to 'I', no 'other'.

In Meditation 1, Descartes uses the evil demon hypothesis as a way to challenge in the most radical way, 'all my former opinions'. The one opinion he does *not* challenge is that there is more to reality than my perspective. Descartes never questions the assumption that the objects that 'appear' to me have an *other side*. Either they exist as material objects in space, *or* they exist as thought entities in the mind of the evil demon. Either way, the table-for-me is also a table-for-the-other. This gives even the most radical epistemological sceptic a grasp on the metaphysical concept of truth.

That is what is missing from the world of the true solipsist. Hence the claim that such a world 'has no more substance than a dream'.

The most intriguing part of your essay is where you say that in the debate between the solipsist and the anti-solipsist, 'hypothetically this may create [a] paradoxical situation, where the seemingly ultimate egocentric may take the totally disinterested viewpoint and I, his opponent, would seem to be the stubborn egocentric...'.

I have tried hard to puzzle out what exactly you mean here. Here are two interpretations I considered. If I have been to stupid to see the point, I apologize!

A. The solipsist in arguing against the nonegocentric view, is required to put himself in the shoes of [conceive the world from the standpoint of] the nonegocentrist, just as the anti-solipsist arguing against the egocentric view, is required to put himself in the shoes of the egocentrist.

B The solipsist refuses to 'recognize anything to compare [his theory] with or measure [it] against'. This creates the illusion of a godlike perspective which allows no room for challenge, hence a 'totally disinterested viewpoint'. Meanwhile, his nonegocentric opponent, in struggling to argue the case for nonegocentrism, remains always an 'I' struggling to argue 'my' case, 'which in this scheme of things must be to him the one and only.'

Of the two interpretations, B. looks the more interesting. But I have a sneaking feeling that neither A. or B. is what you meant.

Back to the conclusion of your essay. Yes, I agree that the ultimate socio-political consequences of ruthlessly pursuing the nonegocentric theory is a totalitarian society whether the individual is subordinated to the interests of the group. My vision, by contrast, of an 'ethics of dialogue' is not a return to individualism but rather a deeper conception of *responsibility*. In dialogue, I do not sacrifice my point of view, but rather I stand up for myself, while at the same time remaining fully open to the reality of the other, and the sense of obligation which flows from recognition of that reality.

I enjoyed this essay a lot. Good work!

All the best,