The Transcendental Way with Solipsism

A favorite passage from my teacher, Lewis White Beck.  It is from his book, The Actor and The Spectator.

Only A. C. Ewing, I think, has indicated a possible transcendental argument against solipsism.  He said, “If solipsism is true, there are no solipsists, since I am not one.”  This short way with solipsism, almost a throwaway that Ewing consigned to a footnote, seems to me to be profoundly important.

The solipsist position has never been maintained if it is true, because if it is true I alone could have maintained it, and I have not done so…

I believe this argument, invented by Ewing, is likewise usable by others and not discountable when extended to others.  This argument will carry no weight, of course, with another person if he is a genuine solipsist who knows his business.  But, if there is such a person, I know that solipsism is false since that person is not I.

13 responses

  1. I always enjoyed Schopenhauer’s take:
    “Theoretical egoism, of course, can never be refuted by proofs, yet in philosophy it has never been positively used otherwise than as a skeptical sophism, i.e., for the sake of appearance. As a serious conviction, on the other hand, it could be found only in a madhouse; as such it would then need not so much a refutation as a cure. Therefore we do not go into it any further, but regard it as the last stronghold of skepticism, which is always polemical. Thus our knowledge, bound always to individuality and having its limitation in this very fact, necessarily means that everyone can be only one thing, whereas he can know everything else, and it is this very limitation that really creates need for philosophy. Therefore, we who for this very reason are endeavoring to extend the limits of our knowledge through philosophy, shall regard this skeptical argument of theoretical egoism, which here confronts us, as a small frontier fortress. Admittedly the fortress is impregnable, but the garrison can never sally forth from it, and therefore we can pass it by and leave it in our rear without danger.” (World as Will and Representation, book II)

    • Solipsism and Protagoras certainly touch. –What is transcendental is the structure of the Ewing-inspired argument, its way of showing that solipsism’s truth ‘undoes itself’. (A transcendental response to a philosophical claim is never a straightforward falsification of it.)

      • He’s demonstrating that solipsism is self-contradictory. Is that not a straightforward falsification? Sorry, I keep asking questions when something is not clear to me.

      • No, I don’t take the upshot of the response to be that solipsism is self-contradictory, but rather that it is, in a specific sense, void. You’d think, if solipsism were true, that there would have to be one (and only one!) solipsist–but, if it is true, there are none. I am not one. –That isn’t a demonstration of self-contradiction, but it does bring to light a deep difficulty for solipsism.

      • hmm, here is how I understand it: Let me know what I missed.

        The reason there has to be “one and only one” solipsist is because the solipsist has to be in unity, i.e., it cannot contradict and thereby falsify itself. If there are two solipsists and they disagree, they nullify each other. For the same reason, “I” can nullify solipsism by not being a solipsist.

      • I don’t have any real quarrel with the wording of your take; everything turns on what you mean by ‘nullify’: if it means falsify, then I think you’ve missed the point; if it means void then I think we agree. The Ewing/Beck way with solipsism does not conclude that solipsism is false. (In fact, the strategy is to hypothesize solipsism’s truth.)

      • To hypothesize solipsism’s truth and then demonstrate that it leads to contradictions, to me, is to “falsify” it, but perhaps not in the strict sense of disproving a proposition.

        “The very obviousness of the absurdity makes it difficult for us to find arguments to confute their unreasonableness; so that really their folly looks like an advantage to them; just as soft and yielding bodies offer no resistance, and therefore cannot be struck a stout blow. It is impossible to bring a vigorous confutation to bear on a palpable absurdity.” — St. Basil the Great

      • What a great passage from Basil! is that from the book on the Holy Spirit? Thanks for it.

        I have no desire to chivvy the details of the argument more than necessary. I just wanted to stress the fact that the argument does not actually reduce solipsism to a contradiction (at least not in the sense in which the term is often used in logic). If you wish to use that term as a genus into which a variety of argumentative predicaments (self-stultification, paradox, etc.) can be gathered, you are of course quite free to do so.

        Thanks again for the quote.

  2. That’s a lovely argument, but it reminds me that there’s something slightly frustrating about transcendental arguments. Yes, the sceptic is reduced to silence, but it’s a rather smug silence, don’t you think?

    • I think I know what you mean by ‘something slightly frustrating about transcendental arguments’ and, yes, I feel it too. But it is a lovely argument. –I’m not sure I know what to say about the smugness of the solipsist’s silence. After all, smugness is a typically, maybe even a peculiarly, other-directed attitude: can a solipsist be smug without undermining the source of his smugness (i.e., his being right about solipsism and his being right to be a solipsist)? 🙂

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