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Solipsism as a logical cul-de-sac


To: Anthony K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Solipsism as a logical cul-de-sac
Date: 10th March 2009 11:33

Dear Anthony,

Thank you for your email of 27 February, with your fifth and final essay for your Pathways Introduction to Philosophy program, entitled, 'The Logical Cul-de-sac' on the problem of solipsism.

I liked this essay. We both agree that there is something 'worth salvaging' in solipsism, although we seem to disagree on what exactly this is.

Let's start with what the worthy members of the Vancouver Island Philosophy Society have to say: 'the solipsist theory... offers nothing, gives nothing, but the knowledge that we can truly know nothing, and it remains there.'

As an argument for rejecting a philosophical theory, this is actually very bad. One of the basic rules of philosophical inquiry is that it is indeed the appeal to reason and logic which has the final say, and not the appeal to our likes or dislikes, or to how 'useful it is to believe' a particular proposition or theory. If reason and logic dictate that we embrace solipsism, then that would be very unfortunate. Philosophers world wide would have every reason to lament. But the only recourse is to a better use of reason or logic.

What I am saying is that in defending the value of the discussion of solipsism, the objections raised against you by the worthy members of the society carry no weight. However, it is perfectly reasonable and proper for members of a philosophical society to choose which topics they like to debate, and if they don't like to debate solipsism (for whatever reasons) then you can't force them to debate it.

What exactly is solipsism? You raise the question of solipsism within the context of the challenge of scepticism (scepticism about the external world, scepticism about other minds). However, it could be argued that such scepticism *presupposes* that we understand what it would be for an external world, or for other minds, to exist. To the diehard solipsist who denies that the notion of a world which is not 'my world' has any meaning, this would be viewed as a kind of faint-hearted solipsism. There might be a world outside me, for all I could ever find out or know, but I can never be sure. Whereas the diehard solipsist already *knows* that there is not, and cannot be such a world, because the very notion is meaningless. The world IS my world.

As a sceptical challenge, solipsism is vulnerable to the same arguments which apply to any form of global scepticism: for example, in setting the bar too high for what is to count as 'knowledge', the sceptic has merely changed the subject, is not talking about *knowledge* at all but merely some ideal construct. Real knowledge has a point, and a use. The subject who possesses knowledge is an agent in the world, not a disembodied observer. And so on.

This is definitely worth discussing, because meeting the challenge of scepticism is a fruitful philosophical inquiry. But what about diehard solipsism? This is worth discussing too. The diehard solipsist has thrown down a challenge which, for the sake of reason and logic, we have to meet.

I think that the diehard solipsist can be refuted. As a logical basis for such a refutation, I would appeal to Wittgenstein's argument against a private language. However, when all the argument is done, something remains: and that is the core realization that *I* am the person asking the question. Each of us is in the same position; each of us is in the same boat. Yet, paradoxically, because of this each of us must face the ultimately unanswerable question, what it means to say that 'I am GK' (or, in your case, 'I am AK').

This is the 'partial truth' in solipsism which I defend in my article on the Wood Paths web site and also in my book Naive Metaphysics. I am not alone amongst contemporary philosophers in seeing this as a significant challenge: Thomas Nagel discusses this in his book 'The View from Nowhere', chapter 4.

Finally, I agree with you that even when we are sure that we have successfully refuted a theory, we should be prepared to rehearse the arguments whenever called upon to do so. In philosophy, more than any other subjects, one is constantly reminded of one's fallibility.

All the best,