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pathways (letters)

16 March 1998

Dear George,

Thank you for your letter of 3 March. Sorry you've had to wait so long for a reply!

I don't subscribe to the view that every philosophical theory can lay claim to a portion of the truth. (I am not sure that you would accept that either, but it's worth while examining the view nonetheless.) To take this extreme eclectic line (and there is nothing wrong with eclecticism as such, eclecticism that innocently seeks to learn as much as can be learned, from as many sources as possible) is effectively to deny that philosophers ever make mistakes, to deny that a philosopher is ever led down the garden path. Nor is it realistic to suppose that the only kind of mistake philosophers make is not taking on board every side to a question. Sometimes, one just gets things wrong, one jumps to the wrong conclusions or argues invalidly.

The case of solipsism and anti-solipsism is one I would put in a special category, however. First, you've got to see the clash here, see that it is not enough for me to say that 'your world revolves around you just as mine revolves around me'. This is not easy to do, not least because our minds are so conditioned against it. We are taught, 'Everybody is in the same boat; you too, along with all the others with all your airs and graces, your sense of being the unique one!' Those who show by their actions that they have not learned this lesson are expelled from society, drugged, and kept in padded cells.

I am not trying to convince you of a 'theory' (in my book Naive Metaphysics I describe a 'theory of subjective and objective worlds') but simply trying to emphasise that there is a deep mystery here. It is a mystery that can be expressed in various ways, one way being the sense of amazement that 'I' am here at all, a wonderment which is imperfectly expressed by talk of the 'improbability' of our being born. Perhaps ultimately there is no acceptable philosophical expression for the mystery. Then we shall have to say that we have come up against a limit to philosophising, a region where rational argument cannot ever enter. ' Insofar as the enterprise of philosophy is about saying what can be said' and knowing when to remain silent (as Wittgenstein advised) then one can talk, as I did, of a 'theory' of this or that. But in that case, to produce a theory in response to a perceived problem is not the same as making sense of that problem. As Frank Ramsay famously commented on the Tractatus alluding, for those in the know, to Wittgenstein's ability to whistle an entire Concerto in perfect key 'What you can't say you can't say, and you can't whistle it either.'

All the same, I find myself trying to whistle, trying to find a way to say what words cannot express. I am not in a position to see my subjective standpoint as merely one subjective standpoint amongst others, as I might see the clothes I wear as the same as clothes worn by others. 'No-one else can wear my clothes' is indeed false in two senses. Someone can wear a Levi shirt just like mine, or they could buy my discarded Levi shirt from an Oxfam shop. Of course, no-one can now wear these very clothes that I am wearing now: but no-one thinks that that is a problem. (It's worth asking why.)

Do you see the problem?

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Klempner