Beware the solitary thinker

March 17, 2018 – 3:40 pm

TV Rodin by Nam June Paik (1976). One of several instantiations of this work that confronts the solipsistic thinker with his own image.

Far too much theorizing, thinking, and speculating is done in isolation, by solitary souls who believe they can interrogate reality alone, and on their own terms. The whipping boy de jour is, of course René Descartes who is unfairly held responsible for the bifurcation of man and nature, the hard problem of consciousness, and some terribly unconvincing proofs of the existence of the Christian God. Distrusting his senses, eschewing any empirical foothold in the world, he asserts, quite reasonably, “Je suis! J’existe!” But to assert that on one’s own is rather pointless, so he wrote it down and shared it with others. Had he sat with another person, his retreat from the world, and the melodramatic hypothesis of an evil demon who misled his senses, would all have been both unnecessary and, frankly, incredible.

Conversing in each other’s presence is an invitation to a kind of consensual realism. When we sit with each other, there is necessarily a shared quality to our experience that acts a wonderful antidote to the kind of solipsistic interpretation that Descartes seems to allow. Our joint presence makes the very notion of a discrete, unobservable domain of a private mind unintelligible. Being co-present to each other places limits on our ability to indulge in radical skepticism. When we are together, something is indubitable—though of course we will go wrong immediately if we try to pin down, describe, and represent what that is. The simple stark reality of co-being precedes any vain attempt at description.

In isolation, a lone individual might speak of an “external world.” When we sit together, there is just the world, for it is then clear that we are not trapped inside cranial caves, peering out, but we are instead co-habiting a largely shared reality. There are necessary limits to that sharing. We do not share perspectives, for example. Your view of the cup on the table is related to, but independent of my view of the same cup. We have histories that are only partially shared, no matter how intimate we may be. And when we are not actually talking, we are each capable of attending to a silent voice, the medium of a particular kind of thought. But unless one of us judges the other insane, we cannot doubt that we are grounded together in a single reality. This is true if we are lovers and if we are enemies, if our contact extends back over decades, or if we have just met. The condemned felon and the hangman are co-present no less than the couple dancing the tango.

Most metaphysical talk, written down in cold impersonal words on paper, treats of a first person perspective and a third person perspective. When we are tasked with interpreting these notions, the first person perspective is that of the solipsist, tragically alone, and set off against the notional “external” world. The third person perspective we are enjoined to consider is impersonal, all-seeing. It is, in fact, the mythical view from nowhere, or God’s eye view. This pair of view points, which we learn to discuss but never to inhabit, gives rise to the idea that subjects and objects are distinct, and opposed. Subjects, and the subjective, then acquire associations of idealism, while objects collapse into materialism.

But neither a first nor a third person perspective can lay claim to correspondance with reality. They are, in fact, both works of elaborate fiction, the result of a superabundance of isolated thinkers and their written words. The transcendental subject, nowhere to be found, becomes a model for the thinking “I”, and the associated notion of subjectivity thus becomes tainted with the stain of taste, opinion, capriciousness, irreality, and indeterminacy. The “external” mind-independent object must then be equally transcendental, knowable only through the mediation of the senses, instruments, or media. Objectivity then is set off against the diaphenous world of the subject, as something very very real indeed. It is the realm in which things exist, or fail to exist. It underpins the assertions of naive realism, though even the most enthusiastic realist will concede that we may never know this objective realm perfectly. For we are, after all, subjects, and Descartes’ evil demon could still be lurking under the bed.

These several conundrums seem to fade out if we come back to the embodied situation in which we converse face to face. Here, there is “us”, there is “we”, neither simply subject nor object, and yet here reality obtains—more real than any mind or rock, than any words or tree. This sounds dubitable on paper, or on a screen. It is obvious when we actually sit together. In writing, I am forced to lean on the syntactic crutch of sentences like “This is real”, “That is real.” In our joint presence, we need to no such thing, for it is indubitable that we converse from some common ground. In an important sense, just when we are co-present to one another, we share a “now.” From this common present, we launch our dialogue: “Now, what shall we discuss?”

This shift in our rhetorical situation, from the isolated thinker scribbling words to be read elsewhere by others, and to the familiar conversation among co-present embodied real beings, may be of use to those who find themselves unwittingly drawn into the game of metaphysical disputation. Most of us would prefer not to get involved in such disputes, because metaphysics is not a game of puzzle solving, in which a correct answer will some day be arrived at. All metaphysical positions, if insisted upon too strongly, look equally ridiculous. And yet there is a widespread assumption both within the world of science, and stronger yet, among the public, that any description of events and happenings must be couched in either a first person (subjective, unreliable, whimsical) or a third person (solid, scientific, objective) framework. What is neither acknowledged, nor exploited, is this simple truth: Both first person (subjective, unreliable, whimsical) and third person (solid, scientific, objective) accounts are no more than that: stories we tell to make the world intelligible—intelligible to us.

When we tell a story, we open up a representational domain, with its own consistency conditions. We might speak of metaphysics, but we might speak of baseball, of a historical occasion, of movies, or politics, or of our common aquaintances. Different discussions bring different entailments with them with respect to truth. The entities and events that feature in a discussion about baseball are not beholden to the same metaphysical commitments as the entities and events that feature in discussion of laboratory chemistry, of politics, or of music. We might, in one context, agree completely that the Eiffel Tower really exists, and that Batman does not exist. But in a different context, say when we discuss comic book characters, films, merchandising, urban culture, or the music of Hans Zimmer, we will speak in equal certainty of Batman, whose reality we do not, now, question. Normally, we are not careful to keep such representational domains separate. They flow into each other during one and the same exchange, wires get crossed, and the conversation goes on.

[This is a preliminary sketch at the start of a rather larger series.  Work in progress, as usual.]

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