on this page

Or send us an email

Application form

Pathways programs

Letters to my students

How-to-do-it guide

Essay archive

Ask a philosopher

Pathways e-journal

Features page

Downloads page

Pathways portal

Pathways to Philosophy

Geoffrey Klempner CV
G Klempner

International Society for Philosophers
ISFP site

Home   Barry 1   Barry 2   Barry 3   Barry 4   Barry 5   Barry 6   Barry 7   Barry 8   Barry 9   Barry 10   Barry 11   Barry 12   Barry 13   Barry 14   Barry 15   Barry 16   Barry 17   Barry 18   Barry 19   Barry 20

pathways (letters)

15 July 1997

Dear Barry,

I'm sorry you've had to wait so long for my comments on your second attempt at your essay on solipsism (4 July), and also your unit 7 notes (28 June!). As I write, Ruth, who is off school today with a mystery 'complaint' is keeping little Francesca amused. I don't know how long that will last!

Let's start with the essay on solipsism, which seems a great improvement on the previous version.

The first paragraph does a good job of laying out the steps that connect 'I must judge things for myself,' with 'All objects in the world are mere constructs of my perceptions.' One way of facing the challenge of solipsism is to attempt to locate the fallacy in the argument thus laid out. By contrast, the argument that the solipsist's world is only a 'dream world' directly attacks the conclusion of the argument. We 'know' there must be a fallacy because we 'know' the conclusion is false. But that's not the same as being able to demonstrate where the fallacious step occurs. — Something worth thinking about.

Now you are absolutely right to say that, in Kantian terms, the accusation that the solipsist's world is a 'mere dream' does not cut any ice. So long as a 'dream' is defined in terms of a purely internal criterion of coherence that I can apply for myself, then I can say, 'This experience of typing a letter, according to my best judgement, is not a dream, although it might yet prove to be.'

The point of the accusation rather focuses on the solipsist's commitment to an internal criterion. For we also seem to have the idea of an external criterion that someone could apply to me in just the same way as I might apply a simple test to someone else to determine whether they are awake or dreaming. Regardless of the coherence of my present experience, another subject might at this very moment be observing my rapid eye movements as I lie asleep in my bed. While I as a solipsist can apply this external criterion to others, I can have no conception of how, at this moment, the external criterion might be applicable to myself. (I can later undergo the experience of being told, 'The time you said you were writing a letter you were actually asleep in bed,' or I might be shown a timed video clip of myself snoring away. These are examples of things I can experience, but the idea of 'what I might later experience' is merely a refinement of the internal criterion.)

Of course, the solipsist can turn round and say, 'What's so wrong with a merely relative distinction between a more or less "coherent" experience?' The answer is that the reply fails to do justice to the distinction between being in contact with the actual world/ not being in contact with the actual world, which implies an external criterion for dreams, hallucinations etc.

Asking, as you do at the top of p. 2, 'what difference' the existence of other perspectives/ consciousnesses makes to my experience is not the right question. That is the question as the solipsist sees it. But we are not looking for an empirical difference, a difference I could experience. The difference is one of metaphysical interpretation. — As you note at the end of the essay, this metaphysical difference has a vitally important practical upshot.

You make some interesting moves with regard to the question of the relation between the I-consciousness (or Kantian 'transcendental ego'), my empirical body and other empirical bodies. For the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, 'solipsism coincides with pure realism' because the solipsist's 'I' 'shrinks to a point of no extension'. However, I would argue that for the solipsist there remains one vital difference between my empirical body and other empirical bodies. My theory, as an I-consciousness, of an external world is in fact a two-part theory. One part says how things are in the world; the other part picks out, from all the stories of the empirical subjects existing alongside one another in that world, the story of a journey taken by one particular empirical subject and the experiences it consequently enjoys. It is the second part of the theory that is directly matched against the uninterpreted 'data' of subjective experience or Kantian 'intuition'.

It is possible that I might have had two bodies. My visual experience might then take the form, say, of a 'split screen'. When one of the bodies dies, half the screen goes black. In fact, the death of other bodies is something I can experience, but is not something that affects my capacity for experience. When my body dies, it is conceivable that my experience will continue, possibly in an attenuated form. According to my present 'theory of an objective world' (a theory according to which the Spiritualist hypothesis is false) my physical death is not something that I shall experience.

Regarding your speculations on the last page about the solipsist's 'construction' of 'other bodies to take part in his creation', one has to be on guard against sliding between the notion of constructing a theory about something, i.e. an explanation designed to make sense of given data and the more full-blooded sense of physically or metaphysically constructing or making something. The solipsist does not see himself as God! However, it is true, from our critical standpoint, that the solipsist appears unable to justify the belief that his theoretical 'creativity' is limited to 'fitting a theory to the given data'. The solipsist's world is like a dream because there is no standard by which my theory might be judged false other than the one I myself apply. So there is nothing in reality in virtue of which it would be true or false to say that I was altering the story line as I go along (to suit my paranoid delusions).


126-128 an alternative to solipsism and anti-solipsism As you will no doubt have discovered by now, I reject the assumption that an 'objective' ethics must be an ethics of the disinterested view! The metaphysical principle behind our ethic can be the same, even though rights and duties vary for different individuals in different circumstances; indeed, even if it allows different, incompatible views concerning what those rights and duties are. — That is in stark contrast to the application of Kant's categorical imperative.

129-133 the uniqueness of 'I' In the two-world theory, there are two worlds, the objective world and my subjective world, each of which contains the very same objects. If the objects were different (say, 'objective' objects and 'subjective' objects) it would merely be a version of mind-body dualism: every person would be on the same level in having their own consciousness, their own 'subjective objects'. There would be no way to pick out the individual who is I. — In the programme, I perhaps do not emphasise enough (as I do in my book) the extent to which this dual vision involves a deep conflict or clash (I call it a 'metaphysical contradiction') that has no ultimate resolution, but which we must 'reconcile' ourselves to all the same.

One may not think about this all the time, and certainly not when hurrying to catch a train — indeed unless one happens to be a philosopher who holds a two-world theory one does not explicitly think about it at all! — but according to the theory there is an 'objective GK' or GK as conceived as part of the objective world, and my 'subjective GK' or GK as conceived as part of my subjective world, just as for me there is, for me, an objective AB and my subjective AB. (My subjective world is of course not limited to the contents of my direct experiences. To repeat, everything that is in the objective world is also in my subjective world and vice versa.)

134-137 the 'two-worlds' theory According to the two-world theory, there is only one subjective world, viz. 'my subjective world'. The reality of others must therefore be accounted for in some other way than in terms of the 'existence of something': that is what sets up the two-world account of the objective basis for values and moral conduct. — I find it difficult to follow your speculations here, but I shall think more about it! (To start with, I would question the idea that we each might have different objective worlds with different contents; even if only marginally different. Of course, each of has different beliefs about the world, beliefs which would be true in different possible worlds. But it is indeed the world which those beliefs are about. — The possibility of cognitive relativism, analogous to ethical relativism, leading to a limited plurality of objective worlds, is a different matter altogether.)

138-140 urgency of action My subjective world is what, added to 'the experience that is occurring to GK' makes it the experience that is present. So, in terms of action, my subjective world is what, added to 'the action that is happening at GK's computer terminal' makes it the typing that GK is doing. — The contrast between the 'passive' and the 'active' formulations, and indeed the role of the latter in overcoming the 'double vision' of subjective and objective worlds is still something I feel a little uneasy about, however. Your comments here are OK (except for the bit about any 'difference' between objective worlds not being 'noticeable'). — You could have contrasted kicking a ball to one another with, for example, occupying adjacent seats at the cinema.

141-144 consequences of the theory In saying that my values colour objects I mean to contrast my account of the objectivity of values with a subjectivist account of values according to which 'objects in themselves have no value'! My likes and dislikes appear 'merely subjective' when these are seen as merely one set of likes and dislikes on the same level as the likes and dislikes expressed by other subjects. (A chocolate coated flapjack cannot be both objectively delicious and objectively disgusting.) It is the uniqueness of my subjective world that radically alters this picture. I don't care what you say, so far as I am concerned the reason I like the the flapjack is because it is delicious. ('My values are objective because they are mine.') Whether you find it delicious or disgusting, meanwhile, can be a matter of indifference to me. (On the other hand, I can be in a position correct your expressed value judgements in cases where there is room for self-deception or 'not knowing your own mind'.)

Freedom of action is something to value. But not everyone, nor every human society, places the same value on it. Given that I value freedom of action, in taking the interests of others into account as a moral agent I will naturally wish to promote their freedom of action. But suppose (as in an episode of Star Trek I seem to recall) I am faced with people who recoil in horror at the thought of such freedom, to whom freedom appears a penance and a torture. (Bells chime regularly throughout the day telling them when to eat, when to sleep, when to take a walk, etc.) Do I take the Captain Kirk line, and attempt to prove to them the error of their ways? — I must be prepared, in principle, to acknowledge that things I value for myself, or that members of my society value for ourselves, might not necessarily be seen in the same light by others. This is one of the features that distinguishes what I term an 'ethics of dialogue' from the ethics of the disinterested view.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner