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Refutation of egocentric subjectivism


To: Andrew A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Refutation of egocentric subjectivism
Date: 29th November 2010 13:01

Dear Andy,

Thank you for your email of 20 November, with your second essay for the Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'Imagine that you are a former defender of egocentric subjectivism who has been persuaded to reject the theory. Apart from being convinced that the theory you once believed in is false, what is it that you now believe?'

You offer an elegant exposition of the arguments leading up to the rejection of egocentric subjectivism, including the 'transcendental' version of subjectivism which arises when Kant's second Refutation of Idealism is employed to correct the errors of 'naive' subjectivism. As you explain, you no longer believe that the world is ultimately made up of the material of your subjective awareness. There has to something that is not 'mine'. Or, as you put it, 'I understood that to seek to define reality was to seek to lay bare the illusions I held about my position in relation to the world. I could no longer place myself at the heart of the question because reality simply didn't begin with me. Neither could I set any store by an answer that pictured the raw subjective data of my world as the stuff of actuality.'

OK, so what is it that you now believe?

I feel this question keenly. The idea of metaphysics as a 'dialectic of illusion' is tempting precisely because it seems to dispense with any need to 'say what I believe'. Metaphysics isn't about beliefs. it is about rejecting illusions. -- That is, in fact, a thinly disguised version of the later Wittgenstein's view of philosophy in general. We are battling against the 'bewitchment of the understanding', seeking to 'show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.' Once this is done, we find ourselves back here, in our familiar world, no longer needing to do philosophy. The ideal solution is one which enables me to 'stop doing philosophy whenever I want to' because it is no longer needed. I am cured.

Somehow, to me, this doesn't seem enough. I believe that there is more work to do. Maybe that work is just more of the same, more 'dialectic of illusion' (as we scour the history of philosophy for suitable targets), but I wouldn't be so quick to make assumptions. We started off with the grand idea of 'defining reality'. I, for one, would be hugely disappointed if the *only* thing I could say is, 'Reality is these hands, this table, the tree I see through the window...'.

The idea that 'reality simply didn't begin with me' is where I was when I started the work which eventually became my book, 'Naive Metaphysics: a theory of subjective and objective worlds' (see My Oxford D.Phil thesis was all about the 'rejection of the ego and truth illusions' (see But was that it? everything? I was beginning to have my doubts. If the ego (or 'transcendental ego') is just an illusion, what's the reality behind the illusion? How do you explain, in a non-circular way, how the illusion arose in the first place? It's easy enough for me to do this in your case, explain *your* illusion, it's the existence of *my* illusion which seems so problematic.

I know what the younger me would have said: this is nothing but shameful backsliding. But I know of no other way to do philosophy than to consider all the elements of the problem or question, and not rest until one has a theory which is fully consistent, one which we can believe in without any sense of strain.

So I embarked on an investigation which little did I realize would leave me in a place beset by paradoxes. The theory can only be true (the theory of subjective and objective worlds) if we are prepared to accept the 'truth of a contradiction'!

The point of bringing up all this biographical material is that I composed the Metaphysics program with the intention of avoiding the 'two world' idea, if I could, or at least postponing it as long as possible. To a large extent, I think I succeeded. (Maybe I shouldn't say that, but leave you to judge for yourself.)

At any rate, we are still stuck with the question 'what is it that you now believe?' If reality is not constructed from 'this', then what is it made of? Can we ask that question, or, if not, what question can we ask? The solution I suggest in the program concerns the way we understand the notion of truth. Reality isn't 'made' of anything. It is just, as Wittgenstein stated in his Tractatus, 'All that is the case.' Making judgements about what is true or false is something *we* do, but it is part of the very notion of truth that we recognize a gap between verification and truth. Even if everyone agrees that witches exist, it is still possible that we are all wrong, that there are no witches.

The finesse here is that the idea that 'we could all be wrong' doesn't require some external observer or external perspective, in the same sense that the idea that 'I could be wrong' implies the possibility of 'another person'. It is not as if what I can't do for myself you can do for me (because the same question arises for you, leading to an infinite regress of 'third persons'). It is sufficient that I have the concept of truth, as something which is essentially public, not private 'property', something shared because it is the same for you and me, and indeed for all.

Is *that* what you now believe?

But isn't this idea of 'one truth for all' just a little bit worrying? What is truth, anyway? And so the dialectic continues.

All the best,