PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 37 28th July 2002
I. 'Subjectivism and Solipsism' by D.R. Khashaba
II. Pathways to Philosophy: the first seven years
III. Three interesting e-mails
I. 'SUBJECTIVISM AND SOLIPSISM' BY D.R. KHASHABA
Greek thinkers in the classical period, though they set no bounds to the daring of their thought, and though their wild speculations could easily lead to thoroughgoing scepticism, were yet too healthy-minded to entertain seriously either the problem of the existence of the 'outside' world or its specialized version, the reality of other persons. It was Descartes, the 'father of modern philosophy', who neatly chopped the whole human person into a knowing subject and a known object, that sired the rogue twins.
Doubt for Descartes was a methodological stance, but the thought that all of the world around us could conceivably be a delusion or a dream, which Descartes introduced simply as a thought experiment, nestled in the modern mind, so that there is hardly any major philosopher during the past four centuries who has not had to grapple with it.
How can we be assured of the existence of a world outside ourselves? All our knowledge of the external world reaches us through our senses. But are we justified in saying even that much? If we know nothing but what is given immediately in our experience, how can we speak of an 'external world' or say that the impressions 'reach us through' our senses?
Having recourse to the objective sciences only makes things worse. The impressions - sights, sounds, etc. - that in our naivete we take to be immediate registers of things turn out to be the outcome of long processes and the end-products seem to be far removed from the things we took them to stand for. I only mention this because it is often thought that such scientific analyses are relevant to the problem. Yet I think it is necessary to distinguish clearly between the scientific treatment of the phenomena of vision, hearing, etc., on the one hand, and the philosophical problem of what we mean or should mean when we speak of an objective world.
Philosophically, the meaningful distinction we can make is between the subjective aspect of experience and the objective aspect. This is the only 'inside' and 'outside' that has meaning philosophically. In what sense can we say that the image or the sound is in the brain? Inside the brain there are chemical and physical happenings, but the image and the sound are part of a continuum, in which my brain, like the rest of my body, is part of the objective world and is, subjectively, 'not-I'.
I am concerned to affirm that laying emphasis on the subjectivity of knowledge need not support the runaway subjectivism that breeds solipsism. Cogito ergo sum only festers with error when the cognizant is severed from the lifeblood of the total cognition and turned into a lifeless abstraction. Allow me to reproduce here a passage from my Let Us Philosophize (downloadable from my Website: http:--- ).
I am listening to Mozart's 'Eine kleine Nachtmusik' coming
to me over the radio. Where should this music be? i' th'
air or the earth? (The Tempest, I.ii.) The electronic
engineer will tell me of electro- magnetic radiation,
modulation processes and resonant circuits. The physicist
will tell me of wave motion, vibrations of molecules, and
fronts of compression and rarefaction. The physiologist
will tell me of tympanic membranes, ossicles and cochlear
nerves. The biochemist will tell me of the electrical
activity of the brain and of nerve impulses transmitted
electromechanically. All of these are abstractions that
kill the music. The women contending for the new-born babe
before Solomon are not two but legion, and the baby is not
rent in twain but fragmented into a myriad shreds.
Where should this music be? i' th' air or the earth?
The music is an aspect of a continuum in which my being
extends - quite strictly speaking and without metaphor - to
comprehend the whole system. Any fragmentation, any
separation of a member of the system, lands us into
contradictions and absurdities. The baby must remain whole
to remain alive. I believe that is what Whitehead meant in
asserting that the (secondary) qualities are in the real
Now let us turn to what I referred to as the specialized problem of solipsism. The French physician Claude Brunet, in the seventeenth century, starting from Descartes's Cogito, which bases all certainty in knowledge on personal intuition, gave for the first time in modern times a clear-cut exposition of solipsism (Latin 'solus ipse' = myself alone). Thus solipsism can be seen as a consequence of subjective idealism. Descartes himself evaded the consequences of his position by saying that God being no deceiver, and since He made us to believe in the existence of corporeal things, we must admit that corporeal things exist. ('Meditations', Sixth Mediation.) Berkeley, on the other hand, for whom things are only ideas, escaped solipsism because those ideas subsist not in the mind of the individual thinker but in the mind of God.
Subjectivism as the claim that knowledge is restricted to one's own perceptions is in one sense incontestable. Knowledge as knowledge is a subjective affair. But two further contentions that may be thought to follow from this are, in my view, unjustified: (1) that we have no knowledge of an 'external' or 'objective' world; (2) that all knowledge is reducible to what is given in perception. We may note in passing that though these two contentions arise from one and the same initial observation, they tend to lead to two diametrically opposed theoretical positions, denial of an 'external' or 'objective' world leading to subjective idealism, while the affirmation of the reducibility of knowledge to sense experience leads to a radical empiricism which presumes to do away with the subject and subjectivity altogether.
In an important article on "Subjectivism and the Problem of Other Minds" http:--- in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Professor Stephen Thornton, briefly examines various answers to the problem but dwells in some detail on the answer(s) that can be drawn from Wittgenstein's late works, mainly 'Philosophical Investigations' and 'The Blue Book and Brown Books'. I will here offer some comments on certain points in Professor Thornton's article followed by an examination in which I beg leave once more to draw extensively on my 'Let Us Philosophize' (LUP).
Having reviewed the 'argument from analogy' (advanced by Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer among others), Professor Thornton subjects the argument to criticism which, if valid, "demonstrates that the acceptance of the Cartesian account of consciousness...leads inexorably to solipsism." Further the argument he has advanced "can, and should be understood as a reductio ad absurdum refutation of these Cartesian principles." Thornton sums up his argument as follows:
If there is no logical connection between the physical and
the mental, if the physical forms no part of the criteria
which govern my ascription of psychological predicates,
then I would be able to conceive of an inanimate object
such as a table having a soul, and being conscious. But I
cannot attach any intelligibility to the notion of an
inanimate object being conscious. It follows therefore that
there is a logical connection between the physical and the
mental: the physical does form part of the criteria which
govern my ascription of psychological words.
The reductio as here presented is a plausible ad hominem. The notion of 'an inanimate object being conscious' is self-contradictory only if we start by admitting the concept of 'an inanimate object'. But are we obliged to do so? This concept is an abstraction, a useful working abstraction; beyond that it is a fiction. To see that no necessity attaches to it, it is enough to consider possible alternatives such as animism (nave or sophisticated), pantheism (Spinoza's, for instance), or Berkeley's God-grounded phenomenalism, none of which is intrinsically absurd.
Professor Thornton cites Wittgenstein's 'Investigations':
Only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves
like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations;
it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or
unconscious. (I. 281).
I do not find Wittgenstein's statement convincing. It is only descriptive of a limitation in our imaginative powers. I don't think that our conceptual powers are limited in the same way. I cannot conceive of a part being greater than the whole of which it is a part, but - however difficult it may be to imagine - I can conceive of the sands of the sea-shore being glad to receive the rays of the rising sun. There is no irrationality here as in the case of the part and the whole.
Again, Professor Thornton adduces in his rejection of the coherence of solipsism Wittgenstein's argument from language: solipsism is incompatible with the existence of a language, of which the solipsist must avail himself to express his view. I do not think this argument is conclusive. The solipsist may admit that s/he is inconsistent in using language but go on to say, "What of that? I am inconsistent because I allow myself to succumb to the delusion of there being other beings. If I could resist the seduction of that delusion, I would use no language at all."
Let us take the statement, "I know that I am in pain", which Wittgenstein considers nonsensical because "it cannot be meaningfully asserted of me that I know that I am in pain." I would say that the statement, like every determinately articulated statement, can indeed be shown to be contradictory. The contradiction stems from the necessity inherent in all thought and in all language of fragmenting what is whole. To say that I know that I am in pain is therefore necessarily contradictory but is not meaningless. It is meaningful since I know what it means when I say it. (I could put this nave assertion in various sophisticated alternative formulations, but I don't think we would gain anything by that since all linguistic formulations can be shown to be contradictory.) Wittgenstein, it seems, reduces meaning to linguistic functionality. This is a legitimate methodological proceeding. But then he proceeds on the assumption that that is all there is to meaning, thereby negating the meaningfulness of meaning. That is what I find fault with in the approach of Analytic Philosophy to the question of meaning as I have tried to show in my "On What Is Real: An Answer to Quine's 'On What There Is'" (downloadable from my Website).
The verbal locution "I am in pain" can be or mean various things. It can be an expression of pain when, all alone, I shriek it out to myself. It can be an informative statement when I speak it to my physician. It can be a meaningful proposition when I am introspectively reflecting and say, "I know that I am in pain." Here the predicate 'in pain' is not an expression of pain but the concept of being in pain.
If we refuse to admit the reality of subjectivity, then of course 'to know that I am in pain' can only have a behavioural meaning. But if subjectivity, as I maintain, is our only access to reality, then 'to know' can be used in two distinct senses, so that I can say that others can know that I am in pain, in one valid sense, and that they cannot know my pain, in another valid sense. (We can of course restrict the term 'know' to one of these two senses and find another word for the other sense, but that is simply a matter of terminology.)
So does that make solipsism logically unassailable as has often been asserted? Only if we undertake to deal with the problem on the solipsist's own terms. F. H. Bradley formulates the problem in this way: "I cannot transcend experience, and experience is my experience. From this it follows that nothing beyond myself exists ..". But does it follow? Only if we fail to distinguish between two senses of the personal pronoun.
When I say that "experience is my experience" I am using the personal pronoun as a token of subjectivity. I am my subjectivity; that is true: but in that sense I am nothing else. All else - including everything that goes into the other 'I' - is outside me.
It is true, indeed it is tautologous, to say that all I
know falls ... within my experience; that all I know is
only known to me as object of my intelligence. But this
only means that I can only know it in so far as I subject
it to forms projected by my intelligence. It does not mean
that its existence depends on my intelligence. Its
existence, its givenness, is always there, staring me in
the face, pressing in upon me. My very body; my impulses,
my cravings, my pangs and my exhilarations; the whole of my
being in so far as it is in any way objective, is given, and
the function of my intelligence is to redeem that givenness
by conferring upon it forms that transform it into
intelligible experience indissolubly bound up with the
subject: to redeem it, I say, not to negate it." (LUP, Bk.
One, ch. 7, sect. 11.)
So there is no need for me to "transcend experience" in order to admit the existence of an 'external' world. The world as object of my experience is outside 'me' as subject, and the world as sum-total of things extends far beyond the 'me' that is a fragment of that world.
What of there being other persons, other minds? (I have my reasons for not using the word 'existence' here.) F.C.S. Schiller defines solipsism as "the doctrine that all existence is experience and that there is only one experient." What does the solipsist that falls under this definition demand? "That the subjectivity of others be transmuted into his own subjectivity? Or that it somehow be turned into objectivity for his scrutiny?...I know other persons in the only manner in which persons can be known. I know them as I know reality; I know them by their creative activity, by their autonomy; I know them in love given and received" (LUP).
(c) D.R. Khashaba 2002
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web site: www.Back-to-Socrates.com
II. PATHWAYS TO PHILOSOPHY: THE FIRST SEVEN YEARS
I was asked to write a piece, up to 1000 words, about my
work for the Pathways to Philosophy Distance Learning
Project. For recent subscribers to the Pathways e-journal
this will serve as a useful introduction.
It is difficult to know where to begin. I remember as a graduate student at University College Oxford telling my supervisor John McDowell that I would 'only be happy with my own school of philosophy'. That was in 1979. McDowell agreed. What was clear to both of us at the time was that with my disdainful attitude towards the work of academic philosophers there was little chance of my getting a University lecturing post, even if I'd wanted one.
I currently hold three jobs: Mentor for 40 or so students in five continents currently following Pathways programs; Director of Studies supervising the work of Pathways students and mentors around the world; and Webmaster for the various Pathways web sites. Since 1995, when Pathways was first launched, over 400 students in 43 countries to date have joined Pathways programs. Until last year, when pressure of work forced me to advertise for mentors, I did all the teaching myself.
In September 2001, I gave a presentation at the European Education Technology Forum held at University College Dublin. The title of my talk was, 'Pathways: the Leading Philosophy Open Learning Program on the World Wide Web'.
Originally begun in 1995, Pathways was launched on the web in 1997 as an e-mail correspondence course. Over the years, various components have been added to Pathways: an interactive 'Ask a Philosopher' web site, a First Class Conference on 'The Use and Value of Philosophy', a fortnightly electronic Journal 'Philosophy Pathways'. The core, however, remains what it has always been: a one-to-one dialogue between student and mentor, following the Socratic ideal.
The majority of students who enrol for Pathways have no special desire to gain a qualification, but do so purely for the love of the subject. Many are already highly qualified in other fields.
At Dublin, I emphasised the point that Pathways tuition is designed to be labour intensive, at a time when universities have been looking to distance learning and computer technology as a way of increasing the throughput of students per lecturer hour. Yet Pathways is entirely self-financing, receiving no grant aid of any kind.
I am very fortunate, however, that Sheffield University and the Philosophy Department there have given provided me with all the facilities I need, including space on the Sheffield University web server. The Pathways First Class Conference is hosted at the Institute of Education, London University.
Each of the six Pathways programs - Introduction to Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Ancient Philosophy, Philosophy of Language, Ethics and Metaphysics - consists of fifteen units of around 5000 words per unit. Each program is designed as an original contribution to philosophy. I wrote the programs between 1995 and 1997. The students who joined Pathways in that first two years had an enormous impact on the development of the Pathways programs. Their insistent questions and objections forced me to continually review my plans from one unit to the next. Each unit was, in effect, a contribution to an on-going dialogue.
To give some idea of what is involved in teaching one Pathways student. A student taking a fifteen unit Pathways program has the opportunity to submit their notes and questions on each unit plus five essays. In response to each piece of work submitted, the student can expect to receive an 800 word letter from their mentor. Each letter is required to be an original piece of writing: cutting and pasting standard responses - a common practice amongst Open University tutors - is strongly discouraged.
In my talk at Dublin, I said:
"Since the Middle ages and before philosophers had
produced...volumes of letters. Some of the most precious
documents we possess about the Modern philosophers such and
Descartes and Leibniz are the letters they wrote. To all and
sundry. People who were asking them about their philosophy.
Students they took on, or people who were working in other
fields. And I had this ...idea that when I wrote to my
students...that if at some future date someone was going to
collect my works, I wouldn't be embarrassed to see the
letter, amongst those works. So that every letter that I
wrote was an attempt to do philosophy in an honest a way as
In order to make Pathways attractive to prospective students, I realized early on that it would be necessary to offer more than just an e-mail correspondence course.
Started in 1999, the Pathways 'Ask a Philosopher' interactive web site has accumulated upwards of a thousand questions and answers totalling well over half a million words. Anyone can submit a form to post a question on the Questions page. Answers from a panel of philosophers are posted every two weeks. The panel consists mainly of Pathways mentors, as well as academic philosophers who have taken an interest in the Pathways project. I contribute answers as well as vetting and editing all questions and answers submitted.
The electronic journal 'Philosophy Pathways' (current Issue 37, 28 July) goes out every two weeks to over 700 addresses. Articles are contributed by Pathways students are published alongside articles by academic philosophers, and by philosophers working independently.
Launched last year, the current round of the First Class Conference on 'The Use and Value of Philosophy' has received over 400 postings since January. In previous rounds, I had actively participated, setting questions and evaluating responses. The response was rather slow. This time, I let the conference participants know that I would be joining the conference incognito. The ruse worked. None of the participants knew which of the other participants was Geoffrey Klempner. As it turned out - none of them were.
(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2002
III. THREE INTERESTING E-MAILS
From: "Ken Knisely" email@example.com Subject: pathways website 12 July 2002
Hi. Your website, which I first visited today, looks great.
We produce 'No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed', the philosophy television program that is seen in the US and will be seen this fall Canada, in Eastern Europe and around the Pacific rim. We are working on a new website and producing new programs for 2003.
Best of luck to you.
Ken Knisely Milk Bottle Productions, Inc.
From: "Justin Woods" firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: Next MG/PC meeting 15 July 2002
Dear Melbourne Group/ Philosophy Cafe member,
Here are the topics for the upcoming meetings. Meetings take place at Border's bookshop cafe, in the Jam Factory, Sth Yarra, third Tuesday of each month, from 8pm 'til 9:30pm.
Tuesday 20th August, 2002 'Authority and the Individual: Bertrand Russell's Social Theory' Speaker: Justin Woods, The Philosophical Society of England
Tuesday 17th September, 2002 'What is Privacy?: Ethics in Information Technology' Speaker: John Lenarcic, RMIT
See you there, Justin Woods
Justin R. Woods ADipPh 4/32 Langmore Lane Berwick, VIC 3806 Tel. 03 9707-5739 Melbourne Group Co-ordinator, The Philosophical Society of England http:--- Australasia Editor, 'The Philosopher' http:--- Philosopher.htm
From: "Anthony Flood" email@example.com Subject: Caricatures of philosophers 25 July 2002
Spinoza blew glass for a living; Antony Hare illustrates. His caricatures of philosophers are delightful.
Wish I could hire him to illustrate an entire encyclopedia of philosophical biography! Can you note this in the next newsletter?