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Private language argument and the objective standpoint


To: Chris E.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Private language argument and the objective standpoint
Date: 14th August 2009 10:53

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your email of 6 August, with your essay towards the Associate Award, 'The Objective Standpoint', looking at the argument for the reality of the objective standpoint in Naive Metaphysics.

As you may have gathered, the argument for the reality of the objective standpoint is, in effect, my 'take' on Wittgenstein's argument against a private language. The existence of the objective standpoint depends on the logical 'gap' between what is established in Kant's Refutation of Idealism (Critique of Pure Reason 2nd Edn) and the Private Language Argument.

Armed with the Refutation of Idealism, we are able to construct the world of the transcendental egocentrist, a world based on just two elements: the 'given' of intuition, and the concepts which the transcendental ego applies to that given.

The question we have to ask is, What does this Kantian 'my world' lack? Judgements are made, and corrected. Different points of view are occupied at different times. Other persons appear in 'my world', and I defer to their judgement when, in my judgement, they are better qualified or in a better position to judge on a particular matter than I am.

This entire world is constructed from a capacity for judgement applied to a given; so in this sense I (the transcendental ego) am (as you observe) a 'passive observer'. However, this is fully consistent with my experience of being an agent who moves around under my own power.

I wonder whether you have fully appreciated these two points: that the 'Kantian egocentrist' can defer to the judgements of others, and is an agent capable of moving around the world and thus coming to occupy different points of view at different times.

If all THIS is not sufficient for the existence of an objective standpoint, or, equivalently, for the possibility of a genuine distinction between true and false judgement, then what more is needed? Is there anything one can add to this picture? It seems to be complete. It is against this background that I raise the question of what it would be for an object to have 'any sides or aspects different from the aspect it presents to me'.

I think you are right to question whether there is any meaningful distinction between the 'existence of a point of view' and 'the existence of an aspect'. Why stress the primacy of the existence of an aspect? Surely the two are symmetrical notions, neither being 'prior'. Frankly, I am not sure what I was thinking here. One possible thought is that aspects are the more abstract notion, whereas point of view is tied to the perception of objects in space. For example, imagine a world where people are able to perceive one another's thoughts by telepathy. Then in this world thoughts would be non-physical 'objects' capable of being perceived by different subjects, but there would be no role for the idea of point of view. (I'm glad I didn't try to pursue this line in the book!)

For the Kantian egocentrist, spatio-temporal objects are mere constructs of a theory. What is ultimately real, is the given of intuition. No-one apart from myself is in a position to make judgements about this given, because logically there can only be one transcendental ego. Other persons are constructs, in the same way as objects are. I can correct my own judgements, I can discover inconsistencies, and (as we have seen) I can allow another person's judgement to override mine. In the book, I refer to this as 'using another person as a measuring instrument'. In principle, it is no different from using a thermometer to measure the temperature. It is always my decision, my judgement whether to accept or reject the thermometer reading.

The reality of the objective world is logically equivalent to the claim that there IS no Kantian 'intuition' or 'given'. The starting point, the foundation for the existence of a world is persons interacting with spatio-temporal objects. One of these persons happens to be myself.

But if these worlds are experientially indistinguishable, if living in the Kantian egocentrist world is experientially 'just like' living in an objective world, how can we so much as form the idea of a distinction? What is the difference between talking of 'deferring' to the judgements of others (using others as measuring instruments) and recognizing their 'authority' to override my judgements?

The difference can be encapsulated in the following thought: It is possible that I have totally lost my grip on reality, that what I term 'the world' is just my own paranoid delusion. This isn't about empirical psychology but rather a point of logic. I have the concept of a 'truth' which does not simply reduce to 'what I can discover in the sufficiently long run', for I may be constitutionally incapable of ever making such a discovery. And supposing I did 'discover' it, there's no guarantee that this would not in turn prove to be another paranoid delusion.

Recognition that others occupy a position which I can never occupy is what underlies what I term their 'authority' to correct my judgements. Truth is not my truth but our truth. The unimpeachable authority of the transcendental ego is demolished.

This idea is incredibly difficult. It's like having the rug pulled from under one's feet. In the book, I try in various ways to express this difficulty, sharpen it, with the aim of arguing for the incoherence of a a 'nonegocentrist' metaphysic, where all that exists is the objective world, where I am just another person to persons who are other than me.

As you can see from this, your essay is more or less OK up to the point where you ask (p.3) 'What happens if we look at this situation from the subjective standpoint?' Your example of the bean frame shows that it is possible for the Kantian egocentrist to correct his judgments. Some vantage points are better than others, and the rational thing to do is go with the judgement based on the best vantage point. (Just as, some conditions for making judgements are better than others, e.g. it is not a good idea to set up your bean frame if you've had a bit too much to drink.) The egocentrist has no problem with saying this.

All the best,