Solitude standing. How I remain a solipsist (and you probably, too)

“… solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism. The I in solipsism shrinks to an extensionless point and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.” Wittgenstein, TLP 5.64

When was the last time you felt really and wholly understood? If this question is meaningful, then there are such moments. I’d say, it does happen, but very rarely. If things move in a good direction, there is an overlap or some contiguity or a fruitful friction in your conversation. Much of the time, though, I feel misunderstood or I feel that I have misunderstood others. – Starting from such doubts, you could take this view to its extremes and argue that only you understand yourself or, more extreme still, that there is nothing external to your own mind. But I have to admit that I find these extreme brands of solipsism, as often discussed in philosophy, rather boring. They are highly implausible and don’t capture what I think is a crucial idea in solipsism. What I find crucial is the idea that each of us is fundamentally alone. However, it’s important to understand in what sense we are alone. As I see it, I am not alone in the sense that only I know myself or only my mind exists. Rather, I am alone insofar as I am different from others. Solitude, then, is not merely a feeling but also a fact about the way we are.* In what follows, I’d like to suggest reasons for embracing this view and how its acknowledgement might actually make us more social.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater. – In 20th-century philosophy, solipsism has often had a bad name. Solipsism was and is mostly construed as the view that subjective experience is foundational. So you might think that you can only be sure about what’s going on in your own mind. If you hold that view, people will ridicule you as running into a self-defeating position, because subjective states afford no criteria to distinguish between what seems and what is right. Rejecting subjective experience as a foundation for knowledge or theories of linguistic meaning, many people seemed to think it was a bad idea altogether. This led to an expulsion of experience from many fields in philosophy. Yes, it does seem misguided to build knowledge or meaning on subjective experience. But that doesn’t stop experience from playing an important part in our (mental) lives. Let me illustrate this issue a bit more so as to show where I see the problem. Take the word “station”. For the (public) meaning of this word, it doesn’t matter what your personal associations are. You might think of steam trains or find the sound of the word a bit harsh, but arguably nothing of this matters for understanding what the word means. And indeed, it would seem a bit much if my association of steam trains would be a necessary ingredient for mastering the concept or using it in communication. This is a bit like saying: If we want to use the word “station” to arrange a meeting point, it doesn’t matter whether you walk to the station through the village or take the shortcut across the field. And yes, it doesn’t matter for the meaning or success of our use of the word whether you cut across the field.  But hang on! While it doesn’t matter for understanding the use of the word, it does matter for understanding my interlocutor. Thinking of steam trains is different from not thinking of them. Cutting across the field is different from walking through the village. This is a clear way in which the experience of interlocutors matters. Why? Well, because it is different. As speakers, we have a shared understanding of the word “station”; as interlocutors we have different experiences and associations we connect with that word. As I see it, it’s fine to say that experience doesn’t figure in the (public) meaning. But it is problematic to deny that the difference in experience matters.

A typical objection to this point is that private or subjective experience cannot be constitutive for meaning. But this goes only so far. As interlocutors, we are not only interested in understanding the language that someone uses, but also the interlocutor who is using it. This is not an easy task. For understanding language is rooted in grasping sameness across different contexts, while understanding my interlocutor is rooted in acknowledging difference (in using the same words). This is not a point about emphatic privacy or the idea that our experience were to constitute meaning (it doesn’t). It’s a point about how differences can play out in practical interaction. To return to the earlier example “Let’s go to the station” can mean very different things, if one of you wants to go jointly but it turns out you have different routes in mind. So understanding the interlocutor involves not only a parsing of the sentence, but an acknowledgement of the differences in association. It requires acknowledging that we relate different experiences or expectations to this speech act. So while we have a shared understanding of language, we often lack agreement in associations. It is this lack of agreement that can make me vastly different from others. Accordingly, what matters in my understanding of solipsism is not that we have no public language (we do), but that we are alone (to some degree) with our associations and experiences.

Arguably, these differences matter greatly in understanding or misunderstanding others. Let me give an example: Since I started blogging, I can see how often people pick one or two ideas and run. Social media allow you to test this easily. Express an opinion and try to predict whether you’ll find yourself in agreement with at least a fair amount of people. Some of my predictions failed really miserably. But even if predictions are fulfilled, most communication situations lack a certain depth of understanding. Why is this the case? A common response (especially amongst analytically inclined philosophers) is that our communication lacks clarity. If this were true, we should improve our ways of communicating. But if I am right, this doesn’t help. What would help is acknowledging the differences in experience. Accordingly, my kind of solipsism is not saying: Only I know myself. Or: Only my mind exists. Rather it says: I am different (from others).

This “differential solipsism” is clearly related to perspectivism and even standpoint theory. However, in emerging from the acknowledgement of solitude, it has a decidedly existential dimension. If a bit of speculation is in order, I would even say that the tendency to shun solipsism might be rooted in the desire to escape from solitude by denying it. It’s one thing to acknowledge solitude (rooted in difference); it’s another thing to accept the solitary aspects of our (mental) lives. Let’s look more closely how these aspects play out.

Even if philosophers think that experience doesn’t figure in the foundations of knowledge and meaning, it figures greatly in many of our interactions.** We might both claim to like jazz, but if we go to a concert, it might be a disappointment when it turns out that we like it for very different reasons. So you might like the improvisations, while I don’t really care about this aspect, but am keen on the typical sound of a jazz combo. If the concert turns out to feature one but not the other aspect, our differences will result in disagreement.  Likewise, we might disagree about our way to the station, about the ways of eating dinner etc. Now as I see it, the solitude or differences we experience in such moments doesn’t sting because of the differences themselves. What makes such moments painful is rather when we endure and paste over these differences without acknowledging them.

If I am right, then I don’t feel misunderstood because you don’t happen to care about the sound of the combo. I feel misunderstood, because the difference remains unacknowledged. Such a situation can typically spiral into a silly kind of argument about “what really matters”: the sound or the improvisation. But this is just silly: what matters for our mutual understanding is the difference, not one of the two perspectives. In a nutshell: True understanding does not lie in agreement, but in the detailed acknowledgement of disagreement.***

But why, you might ask, should this be right? Why would zooming in on differences in association or experience really amend the situation? The reason might be given in Wittgenstein’s claim that solipsism ultimately coincides with realism. How so? Well, acknowledging the different perspectives should hopefully end the struggle over the question which of the perspectives is more legitimate. Can we decide on the right way to the station? Or on the most salient aspect in a jazz concert? No. What we can do is articulate all the perspectives, acknowledging the reality that each view brings to the fore. (If you like, you can imagine all the people in the world articulating their different experiences, thereby bringing out “everything that is the case.”)

Writing this, I am reminded of a claim Evelina Miteva made in a conversation about writing literature: The more personal the description of events is, the more universal it might turn out to be. While this sounds paradoxical, the realism of differential solipsism makes palpable why this is true. The clear articulation of a unique experience does not block understanding. Quite the contrary: It allows for localising it in opposition to different experiences of the same phenomenon. In all these cases, we might experience solitude through difference, but we will not feel lonely for being invisible.

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* Of course, the title “Solitude standing” is also a nod to the great tune by Suzanne Vega:

** In this sense, degrees of privacy can be cashed out in degrees of intimacy between interlocutors.

*** And once again, I am reminded of Eric Schliesser’s discussion of Liam Brights’s post on subjectivism, hitting the nail on the following head: “Liam’s post (which echoes the loveliest parts of Carnap’s program with a surprisingly Husserlian/Levinasian sensibility) opens the door to a much more humanistic understanding of philosophy. The very point of the enterprise would be to facilitate mutual understanding. From the philosophical analyst’s perspective the point of analysis or conceptual engineering, then, is not getting the concepts right (or to design them for ameliorative and feasible political programs), but to find ways to understand, or enter into, one’s interlocutor life world.”

Is criticism of mismanagement and misconduct taken as snitching? How academia maintains the status quo

Recently, I became interested (again) in the way our upbringing affects our values. Considering how groups, especially in academia, often manage to suppress criticism of misconduct, I began to wonder which values we associate with criticism more generally. First, I noticed a strange ambivalence. Just think about the ambivalent portrayal of whistle blowers like Edward Snowden! The ambivalence is captured in values like loyalty that mostly pertain to a group and are not taken to be universal. Then, it hit me. Yes, truth telling is nice. But in-groups ostracise you as a snitch, a rat or a tattletale! Denouncing “virtue signalling” or “cancel culture” seems to be on a par with this verdict. So while criticism of mismanagement or misconduct is often invited as an opportunity for improvement, it is mostly received as a cause of reputational damage.

Now I wrote up a small piece for Zoon Politikon.* In this blog post, I just want to share what I take to be the main idea. (In the meantime it’s been published here.)

The ambivalence of criticism in academia seems to be rooted in an on-going tension between academic and managerial hierarchies. While they are intertwined, they are founded on very different lines of justification. If I happen to be your department chair, this authority weighs nothing in the setting of, say, an academic conference. Such hierarchies might be justifiable in principle. But while the goals of academic work and thus hierarchies are to some degree in the control of the actual agents involved, managerial hierarchies cannot be justified in the same way. A helpful illustration is the way qualitative and quantitative assessment of our work come apart: A single paper might take years of research and end up being a game-changer in the field of specialisation, but if it happens to be the only paper published in the course of three years, it won’t count as sufficient output. So while my senior colleague might have great respect for my work as an academic, she might find herself confronted with incentives to admonish and perhaps even fire me.

What does this mean for the status of criticism? The twofold nature of hierarchies leaves us with two entirely disparate justifications of criticism. But these disparate lines of justification are themselves a constant reason for criticism. The fact that a field-changing paper and a mediocre report both make one single line in a CV bears testimony to this. But here’s the thing: we seemingly delegitimise such criticism by tolerating and ultimately accepting the imperfect status quo. Of course, most academics are aware of a tension: The quantification of our work is an almost constant reason for shared grievance. But as employees we find ourselves often enough buying into it as a “necessary evil”. Now, if we accept it as a necessary evil, we seem to give up on our right to criticise it. Or don’t we? Of course not, and the situation is a lot more dynamic than I can capture here. To understand how “buying into” an imperfect situation (a necessary evil) might seemingly delegitimise criticism, it is crucial to pause and briefly zoom in on the shared grievance I just mentioned.

Let me begin by summarising the main idea: The shared grievance constitutes our status quo and, in turn, provides social cohesion among academics. Criticism will turn out to be a disturbance of that social cohesion. Thus, critics of the status quo will likely be ostracised as “telling on” us.

One might portray the fact that we live with an academic and a managerial hierarchy simply as unjust. One hierarchy is justified, the other isn’t (isn’t really, that is). Perhaps, in a perfect world, the two hierarchies would coincide. But in fact we accept that, with academia being part of the capitalist world at large, they will never coincide. This means that both hierarchies can be justified: one as rooted in academic acclaim; the other as a necessary evil of organising work. If this is correct and if we accept that the world is never perfect, we will find ourselves in an on-going oscillation and vacillation. We oscillate between the two hierarchies. And we vacillate between criticising and accepting the imperfection of this situation. This vacillation is, I submit, what makes criticism truly ambivalent. On the one hand, we can see our work-relations from the different perspectives; on the other hand, we have no clear means to decide which side is truly justified. The result of this vacillation is thus not some sort of solution but a shared grievance. A grievance acknowledging both the injustices and the persisting imperfection. There are two crucial factors in this: The fact that we accept the imperfect situation to some degree; and the fact that this acceptance is a collective status, it is our status quo. Now, I alone could not accept on-going injustices in that status quo, if my colleagues were to continuously rebel against it. Thus, one might assume that, in sharing such an acceptance, we share a form of grievance about the remaining vacillation.

It is of course difficult to pin down such a phenomenon, as it obtains mostly tacitly. But we might notice it in our daily interactions when we mutually accept that we see a tension, for instance, between the qualitative and quantitative assessment of our work. This shared acceptance, then, gives us some social cohesion. We form a group that is tied together neither by purely academic nor by purely managerial hierarchies and relations. There might be a growing sense of complicity in dynamic structures that are and aren’t justified but continue to obtain. So what forms social cohesion between academics are not merely factors of formal appraisal or informal friendship. Rather, a further crucial factor is the shared acceptance of the imperfection of the status quo. The acceptance is crucial in that it acknowledges the vacillation and informs what one might call the “morale” of the group.

If this is correct, academics do indeed form a kind of group through acceptance of commonly perceived imperfections. Now if we form such a group, it means that criticism will be seen as both justified but also as threatening the shared acceptance. We know that a critic of quantitative work measures is justified. But we also feel that we gave in and accepted this imperfection a while ago. The critic seemingly breaks with this tacit consent and will be seen like someone snitching or “telling on us”. As I see it, it is this departure from an in-group consensus that makes criticism appear as snitching. And while revealing a truth about the group might count as virtuous, it makes the critic seemingly depart from the in-group. Of course, companies and universities enjoy also some legal protection. Even if you find out about something blameworthy, you might be bound by rules about confidentiality. This is why whistle blowers do indeed have an ambivalent reputation, too. But I guess that the legal component alone does not account for the force of the in-group mentality at work in suppressing criticism.

This mode of suppressing criticism has pernicious effects. The intertwined academic and managerial hierarchies often come with inverse perceptions of criticism: your professorial colleague might be happy to learn from your objections, while your department chair might shun your criticism and even retaliate against you. Yet, they might be the same person. Considering the ubiquitous histories of suppressing critics of sexism, racism and other kinds of misconduct, we do not need to look far to find evidence for ostracism or retaliation against critics. I think that it’s hard to explain this level of complicity with wrongdoers merely by referring to bad intentions, on the one hand, or formal agreements such as confidentiality, on the other. Rather, I think, it is worthwhile to consider the deep-rooted in-group consensus that renders criticism as snitching. One reason is that snitching counts, at least in a good number of cultures, as a bad action. But while this might be explained with concerns about social cohesion, it certainly remains a morally dubious verdict, given that snitching is truth-conducive and should thus be aligned with values such as transparency. Going by personal anecdotes, however, I witnessed that snitching was often condemned even by school teachers, who often seemed to worry about social cohesion no less than about truthfulness. In other words, we don’t seem to like that the truth be told when it threatens our status quo.

In sum, we see that the ambivalent status of criticism is rooted in a twofold hierarchy that, in turn, comes with disparate sets of values. Shared acceptance of these disparate sets as an unavoidable imperfection binds together an in-group that will sanction explicit criticism of this imperfection as a deviation from the consensus. The current charges against so-called “virtue signalling”, a “call out culture” or “cancel culture” on social media strike me as instances of such sanctions. If we ask what makes the inclinations to sanction in-group norm violations so strong, it seems helpful to consider the deep-rooted code against snitching. While the moral status of sanctioning snitching is certainly questionable, it can shed light on the pervasive motivation and strikingly ready acceptance of such behaviour.

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* Following a discussion of a blog post on silence in academia, Izabela Wagner kindly invited me to contribute to a special issue in Zoon Politikon. I am enormously grateful to her for the exchanges and for providing this opportunity. Moreover, I have benefitted greatly from advice by Lisa Herzog, Pietro Ingallina, Mariya Ivancheva, Christopher Quinatana, Rineke Verbrugge, and Justin Weinberg.