30 July 1997
...I have been gate crashing a three-day conference being held at Sheffield on 'Transcendental Arguments: Problems and Prospects' (It wasn't possible to attend all the papers, so I didn't bother to register). Yesterday, I intervened in a discussion of Kant's 'Refutation of Idealism'! After the speaker and commentator had made their 20 minute presentations (no-one reads papers these days) John Skorupski asked why it wouldn't satisfy the requirement for a 'permanent in perception' to be aware of an increasing headache against the background of a 'permanent stomach ache'.
— Well! (I'll give you two minutes to think of the answer...)
There were several interventions all doggedly pursuing the same theme. Finally, I suggested that the concept of the 'permanent' requires the idea of objects which are there even when you are away, and which either change or do not change in the intervening period. So far, so good. But how did that relate to what Kant actually says? To be 'conscious' of objects implies that one is able to make judgements about them. But you can't make judgements in a case where false judgement is impossible by definition. So being conscious of my existence as determined in time requires the simultaneous application of the idea of objects outside me and the idea of myself as possessor of a point of view on those objects, capable of moving around and returning to them.
That didn't go down too well, however! The explanation seems to go too far from what Kant actually says. Could that have been what he 'meant'? — It occurred to me afterwards (it always occurs to you afterwards) that Kant's Paralogisms concerning the identity and substantiality of the soul were relevant. Kant attacks Descartes' idea of a persisting 'soul substance' by suggesting an alternative 'hypothesis', equally consistent with the observed facts of introspection: that I possess a succession of soul substances, each passing their states from one to another like a line of colliding billiard balls! The point here is not scepticism but simply to underline the fact that the contrast between identity and non- identity (like the contrast between true and false judgement) has no application here.
Now, a similar objection could be made to Skorupski's 'permanent' stomach ache: there is no basis for a distinction between an identical stomach ache to the one I had a minute ago, and a stomach ache that is merely qualitatively similar in all respects. That disqualifies the stomach ache from functioning as a 'permanent object'. I have a strong hunch that this is what Kant is really driving at in the Refutation of Idealism, though I need to think about it some more.
Before getting to your entertaining piece on solipsism, I shall just quickly answer your questions in the letter. For me, 'judgement', 'statement', 'proposition' are not technical terms. This is one case where I am happy to be a 'philosopher of ordinary language'. In ordinary speech, one talks of making judgements (whereas one has beliefs). We ask someone about their reaction to a certain statement. ('The Minister is not considering any proposals for including philosophy in the national curriculum' is one kind of statement, 'With their present line-up, Chelsea haven't a hope of avoiding relegation' is another.) We investigate and argue over the truth of propositions. ('The proposition before the house is...', 'The proposition that faster than light speed is attainable is becoming increasingly attractive in the light of these experimental results'.) In all these cases, sentences are used to give the content of what is judged, stated, proposed. The crucial difficulty for logicians is defining identity conditions. The same judgement, statement, proposition can be expressed by different sentences. There are a number of reasons (which I won't go into) why philosophers have in the past placed a lot of importance in giving identity conditions. Since Davidson's 'On Saying That' (where the issue is all but defused) the question has lost a lot of its bite.
Now, finally, to your story!
First, I must take issue with diagram 1, 'The world of the ordinary person'. There is in fact a critical ambiguity here. Certainly, the world for each of us is a world where we are, so to speak, outlined in red. I see things from here, you see things from there. But my representation of the world as such, the world you and I and others are all in cannot allow for any indication that one of these individuals is uniquely special. If you had drawn actual people instead of stick people you could have drawn an accurate picture of yourself, one that would enable others to recognise you. But the one thing absent from the picture is any sign that 'I am that person'. — I think anti-solipsism has problems too.
A factual observation. Another of my Pathways students, a psychiatric nurse, made the point that a psychiatrist would never confront a patient in that way. You don't tell the patient that their views are rubbish. ('Of course you're no being persecuted!' is just what a persecutor would say.)
The central point, though, is that the 'solipsism' you consider is effectively not solipsism as I define it but merely Cartesian scepticism concerning other minds. Descartes' 'evil demon' is basically a Berkelian God with all other finite spirits taken away leaving just me. But in that case there is an other, there is a subject with a point of view on the universe other than myself. For the solipsist, the world is my world.
So what is the philosophical challenge posed by solipsism? And how is it to be met? It is different from the challenge of Berkeleian immaterialism. Here, I think that throwing a notepad (or kicking a stone, as Dr Johnson did) can be seen as making a substantial philosophical point. But the notepad fails to target the solipsist's particular brand of God-less immaterialism, so to speak. — This is something you need to think about some more.