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Defining the problem of solipsism


To: Jim M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Defining the problem of solipsism
Date: 10 October 2005 10:44

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your email of 27 September, with your essay for the Associate Award, 'The Problem of Other Minds'.

This raises the problem of solipsism in a deep way, which goes beyond the academic discussions of the so-called 'problem of other minds'. However, I also feel that you are only half-way there.

Consider this. There seems to be something rather paradoxical about your claim that your sister is (or might be) a 'solipsist' because she is looking forward to the reunion and 'seeing so-and so again', she is unable to appreciate your point of view that the experience would be nauseating and unbearable.

Your sister is looking forward to the reunion, not for self-absorbed reasons (which would be a possibility) but because she feels a genuine desire to see her old friends and acquaintances again. (A self-absorbed reason might be, e.g., if she had 'made it good' and just wanted to bask in the glory of her old friends' admiration or envy.)

True, she hasn't reflected philosophically on what it is to 'meet' someone, or be 'reunited' with them. When she meets old so-and-so who went on to do this-and-that, she will interested, or shocked, or impressed - depending on her own point of view or prejudices - but whatever her reaction, it will be a response triggered by the meeting, a product of two 'realities', hers and that of the other person.

What you say about your sister sounds a bit like the old argument for egoism which goes: 'Whenever you do anything, you do what you want. Doing what you want is acting out of self-interest. So, if you want to help someone, then you are doing what you want, i.e. acting out of self-interest.'

As G.E. Moore once pointed out, this argument is fallacious because it is the essence of the definition of altruistic motivation that one 'wants' to help another person. Doing what you 'want' is, in this case, not self-interested by altruistic. (Once again, there are alternative scenarios e.g. where you 'help' someone only because you expect to get something out of it for yourself, but you lack the self-knowledge to realize this. It would take a lot to show that this is always the case, that whenever we act for apparently altruistic reasons we are self-deceived.)

At the heart of your essay there is an unresolved tension between two very different 'problems' of solipsism. The problem of the thought that one can never know what it is like to be another person, the realization that there exists unbridgeable gulf that separates one consciousness from another, is a popular subject of fiction. Whereas the thought that in a world containing billions of people, 'I am the only real subject' is one that only a philosopher - or a clinical psychopath - would express.

We are in effect dealing here with a 'dialectic' between two different positions: scepticism and anti-realism. Scepticism presupposes realism. I cannot be sceptical about the possibility of knowing other persons, unless I assume to start with that 'other persons' are real and not just a product of my own mind. As products of my own mind (anti-realism) they would be 'knowable', but for that very reason cease to be 'real'.

However, things are more complicated than that, because, as you show, the problem is not a simple 'all-or-nothing' issue. We sympathise, we partially see from another person's point of view, yet there are limits to sympathy - and some are more limited than others. Ultimately, we have to face the terrifying prospect that there is a limit to sympathy or empathy, even for the Saints and Mother Theresas of this world (and there is plenty one could say about Mother Theresa's limited vision). You can go so far, but no further. Ultimately, as the cliche says, 'we are all alone'.

I talked earlier in disparaging terms about the 'problem of other minds' as it appears in much academic philosophy. There are exceptions, which I have mentioned before (like Stanley Cavell). But generally, 'other minds' is seen as a 'problem' for which we are seeking a 'solution', like the problem raised by Hume of scepticism about induction. No-one seriously worries about the fact that there is no proof of the validity of induction. But other minds is not like that. As the many books and novels, and our own experiences testify, every human being has to face up to the challenge of solipsism in one form or another. Even your sister will have had her moments (you might not be aware of this) e.g. when someone she thought of as a 'best friend' turned on her, or maybe when she tries to puzzle out your behaviour.

What would be a real treatment - a genuine treatment - of the problem of solipsism, in philosophical terms? I don't know of any philosopher who has done this successfully. Cavell, Sartre, Levinas are all important, but there is still much that needs to be said. Maybe you have something to say that can take things forward, even if this only means asking questions which have not been asked before.

All the best,