Wittgenstein, Descartes, Solipsism

Wittgenstein, Descartes, Solipsism
TheManWhoWasThursday
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Posted Dec 4, 2008 - 1:21 PM:
Subject: Wittgenstein, Descartes, Solipsism
In my metaphysics class I am dealing with the problem of solipsism as it is raised in Descartes' work. My instructor has directed me to Wittgenstein as a good guide to overcoming the skeptical basis of the doubt Descartes raises but I need some help in deciding what to read. I have a copy of On Certainty at the moment and I have checked out a copy of the Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein because I felt that would help direct me to his arguments against solipsism but I haven't reached them yet. And from my reading in such sources as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Wittgenstein's arguments don't seem especially persuasive. This is why I want to read them directly, and this is why I'm asking for three things. One, I would love it if some of you would recommend where to look in Wittgenstein's work to find his more convincing arguments against solipsism. Two, I would also love it if anyone had any other recommendations for philosophers who have dealt with this issue. I may not be able to use them in the class, as it is nearing the end of the semester and I wouldn't have time to read them properly but I would still be interested to read more about it. Third, if any of you have dealt with this issue from a more rationalist perspective I would love to see how you personally have overcome it. I would appreciate any response and I am looking forward to reading your suggestions.
slothrop
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Posted Dec 4, 2008 - 4:46 PM:

The main road out of solipsism is Wittgenstein's private language argument in his "Philosophical Investigations".

The upshot is that the stuff of mind is not "internal", but social -- we think with language, which is a social product. Mere thought implicates the "external" world. Descarte's mistake was to assume that there was a private mental space, beyond space and time (e.g., culture, history, language). The Enlightenment got Reason wrong. The mind is always already embedded in the "external" world. [Read the Introduction to Pinkard's "Hegel's Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason" or MacIntyre's "After Virtue". Reason & culture are coextensive. Asking which came first is to repeat Descartes' mistake of assuming that they are separate in the first place. We think and act with language and values supplied by culture. We are born into a game with a pre-defined set of rules and moves. Descartes' belief that he had escaped uncertainty & bias was not some transcendent objective act, rather, it was mere absorption in the scientific pathos of 17th century Europe]

Heiddeger's concept of being can also get you out of solipsism because it presupposes embeddedness, but reading "Being and Time" is an act of pure sadomasochism.

If you want to read something less opaque, try anything by Richard Rorty. He provides really accessible summaries of how philosophy broke out of the Cartesian framework.




Edited by slothrop on Dec 31, 2008 - 12:40 PM
makerowner
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Posted Dec 5, 2008 - 2:51 PM:

The point of On Certainty isn't to refute skepticism, it's to show that it's not a problem. What 'certainty' and 'doubt' mean depends on context (language-game), and there is simply no context where doubt about the existence of the "external" world makes sense. This is connected with Moore's proof of the external world, but Wittgenstein thinks that even attempting such a proof is giving too much to the skeptic: in what context would "I know that I have a hand" be a sensible thing to say?
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Posted Dec 5, 2008 - 2:58 PM:

makerowner wrote:
The point of On Certainty isn't to refute skepticism, it's to show that it's not a problem. What 'certainty' and 'doubt' mean depends on context (language-game), and there is simply no context where doubt about the existence of the "external" world makes sense. This is connected with Moore's proof of the external world, but Wittgenstein thinks that even attempting such a proof is giving too much to the skeptic: in what context would "I know that I have a hand" be a sensible thing to say?

It would be better to say that there is no context where radical, Cartesian skepticism about the external world is well-grounded.

Myself, I prefer the Philosophical Investigations and Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (and Cora Diamond's excellent reconstruction of Wittgenstein`s lectures on mathematics) to On Certainty. None of them is an easy read.
TheManWhoWasThursday
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Posted Dec 6, 2008 - 8:27 PM:

slothrop wrote:
The main road out of solipsism is Wittgenstein's private language argument in his "Philosophical Investigations".
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_language_argument

The upshot is that the stuff of mind is not "internal", but social -- we think with language, which is a social product. Mere thought implicates the "external" world. Descarte's mistake was to assume that there was a private, mental space, beyond language, culture, history, pathos, etc. The Enlightenment got Reason wrong. The mind is always already embedded in the "external" world.

Heiddeger's concept of being can also get you out of solipsism because it presupposes embeddedness, but reading "Being and Time" is an act of pure sadomasochism.

If you want to read something less opaque, try anything by Richard Rorty. He provides really accessible summaries of how philosophy broke out of the Cartesian framework.



First of all, thank you for the direction, I'll try to use get my hands on some of Rorty's work. We have discussed Heiddeger extensively and honestly I really find him, to use your term, very opaque. I can make little out of what he says in sections of his work.

My teacher is more inclined to the pragmatic side of things in general which accounts in part for the difficulty she is having in helping me because while she has been through this issue she didn't come to it with the Cartesian bias I have, I have been an admirer of Descartes and his method for quite some time though I see more than most how large his failings are. His ambitions were high and when one aims that high one is likely to fall very far.

Yes, I'm actually familiar with the private language argument but it doesn't fully convince me. It seems like it's leading towards the right direction but I don't see it as really answering the main thrust of the issue.

The thing is that even if our language is not private in the sense that a theoretical other being could decipher whatever language, this does not mean the other being does exist to interpret it. Of course, this then leaves me to feel I have missed the entire thrust of his argument because I know enough of Wittgenstein and I have spoken with enough people who have said to look in his work for the answers to these questions that I have to assume his argument isn't open to such an obvious counter-argument. So help me to see his argument better. And also can someone explain how he has rendered the possibility of solipsism at a specific moment inconceivable. As William Todd says in Analytical Solipsism, for a lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust solipsism may actually be the best actual stance. Though, of course, short of such extreme circumstance it is a much less tenable position.

But this would account for having had the social framework to construct non-private language and yet there would still be an individual with no other intelligences of the genuine sort that is assumed by the last remaining individual. And you could combine this with the standard brain in a vat example and say that perhaps from the time the last remaining genuine intellect was still a fetus it had been in a world that was fabricated by those who new the cataclysm was coming and desired wanted this last person to have some form of interaction even if the individual would never have genuine interaction with other natural intellects, so they developed a brain in the vat type of machine with personalities programmed into it so that the individual would have the experience of interacting with other individuals despite the absence of genuine interaction with existent and sentient beings.

Anyway, I could go on but I doubt it's necessary as arguments such as this have been offered for a very long time and the only reason I raise it again is I am not yet convinced that they have been properly answered. And that doesn't mean I accept them, on the contrary I side with Descartes' original reason for raising his argument and with Wittgenstein in submitting his answers in that I think such beliefs would be patently false in general and therefore the arguments supporting them must be dealt with.

Kwalish Kid wrote:

It would be better to say that there is no context where radical, Cartesian skepticism about the external world is well-grounded.

But what of the referenced example of a lone survivor of some cataclysmic event, such as a nuclear holocaust, in which it is a potentially valid assumption that, even if there were other intellects at some point, these intellects no longer exist and therefore the lone surviving intellect would potentially be correct in it's Cartesian doubts as they relate to the existence of other thinking things.
slothrop
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Posted Dec 6, 2008 - 11:08 PM:

TheManWhoWasThursday.

The private language argument seeks to undermine the inner realm upon which the Cartesian universe is built, but I'm not sure how you break solipsism 100% once you decide to take it seriously.

But... let's take it seriously anyway. Let's assume Descartes is correct and the world is, potentially, an illusion. Let's assume that you -- a brain in a vat -- throw an illusory rock at your illusory friend's head (-he is, after all, just an illusion). Let's also assume you go to an illusory prison, where you are tortured by your illusory cell mate. When you're lying face down, bleeding in prison, a question arises: what difference does it make if your pain is real or illusory? The pragmatist would say no difference at all, and my guess is that you, in terrible pain, would concur. The reason you -- brain in a vat -- won't hit your hand with a hammer is because, illusion or not, you will experience pain. If Descartes is right and the illusion is 100% complete, than asking whether or not the hammer is real or illusory is a non-starter because nothing would count as a distinction, i.e., the real and illusory hammers are the same. Descartes has given us a difference that makes no difference at all, i.e., he has given us a completely vacuous concept of existence -- one that we have no good reason to take seriously.

Which is to say: the only way to escape the evil demon is to ignore him. And guess what? You won't even know he's missing.

But yes,

There is a chance that you are a brain in a vat.

But this doesn't get Descartes out of dodge. He still has a burden of proof, e.g., does it make sense to divide the world into completely distinct mental and physical entities? Does the Cartesian inner/outer distinction hold water or has it enslaved the Western world in a false metaphor?

When you get a chance, pick-up a copy of Rorty's "Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature". Read the first chapter, "The Invention of Mind". A great question arises. Does Descartes' concept of mind make sense? Do we have a good reason to take his starting assumptions seriously?



Edited by slothrop on Dec 31, 2008 - 12:23 PM
ciceronianus
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Posted Dec 7, 2008 - 9:23 AM:

I would recommend you visit Moore a bit on your way through Wittgenstein. I understand Wittgenstein has his problems with him, but I think his take on the issue is valuable. Moore opened a lot of minds by showing just how silly solipsism and Idealism are.
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