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 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.


* 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.”

I don’t know what I think or feel. On psychological indeterminacy

Somewhere in his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that, if you don’t think something determinate, you think nothing at all. I guess this assumption did catch on, because among philosophers of mind it’s still common to say that beliefs and desires are individuated by their content. So what makes your current mental state the state it is is that it’s p and not q you’re thinking or desiring. Although I can understand the idea, I always thought that this was odd in view of my actual mental life. I often think that I’m not sure what I believe or desire. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that this indeterminacy of mental states should perhaps be taken more seriously.* Why? Well, simply because I think it’s fairly pervasive. Our conversational maxims might demand that we be clear, but I think what’s actually going on is more like a duck-rabbit situation: given the context, we might be sad or angry, but we don’t really know, and there might not be a fact of the matter as to what is actually the case. So what’s going on?

“Do you love me?” This is a question we’d probably like to have a determinate answer to. But do we? Stating how we feel or what we think is common in our daily exchanges. If you asked me how I am now and what I think, I’d answer that I am fine, but a bit tired, and that I’m wondering whether to stay up or go to bed. It seems, then, that my mental states come in fairly clear categories: I feel fine in a certain way to a certain degree; I feel tired, and that makes me think whether I should go to bed. It seems, then, that my feelings and thoughts are determinate: I’m not angry or sad, but fine. My thought has a certain content: it’s about whether I want to go to bed, not about the aftertaste of the wine I had a moment ago. However, perhaps more often than I am aware, I don’t know how I feel and I don’t know what goes on in my mind. If you were to ask me in these moments how I am, I’d feel slightly embarrassed because I couldn’t tell. So my hunch is that we make our mental states seem more determinate than they actually are, not because we’d know how we are, but to spare ourselves and others embarrassment.

Now you might want to object that our own insecurity about what we think doesn’t actually matter. As a good content externalist, you might want to say that our thoughts are often about things we don’t know, but that doesn’t mean they are not determined by something definite; it just means that we don’t have the means to tell what that definite content is. To pick up an example my friend Markus Wild once gave me: You might be bitten by a poisonous or non-poisonous snake; even if you don’t know the least thing about snakes, it will definitely be one or the other. What matters is not what you know about snakes but the kind of snake that bit you. The upshot is that the content of our thoughts or desires or feelings might be determined whether we know it or not. In other words, the content that I am aware of might not at all be the content that my mental state is about. This is an important objection: I might want chocolate, but my body might in fact crave some sort of sugar, whether I know it or not.

That said, this externalist account might be important if we talk about beliefs and desires regarding natural kinds. I’m less sure this account figures in any instructive way when it comes to the question of whether we love someone or whether we have this or that opinion or association etc. What I mean is: even an externalist must accept that there are some thoughts and desires and feelings with regard to which it matters whether or not we are aware of their determinacy. If you ask me whether I love you, it’s no way out to say that I’m a content externalist…

So again: why doesn’t this figure in the philosophy of mind? If it does, please let me know. But as far as I can see, the fact of psychological indeterminacy is pretty underrepresented. That said, this is not quite true outside the narrow confines of philosophy. Although most philosophers (at least the ones I know, except perhaps for Wittgenstein) don’t seem to have picked up on it, literature and art is brimming with it. Thus, I’d like to close this post with one example.

Although there might be a number of instances, the short story “Suspicion” by my fellow medievalist and writer Evelina Miteva is the best illustration I can think of. It suggests psychological indeterminacy on four levels:

  • firstly, you don’t know what the main characters think of each other; so you don’t know whether they can ascribe determinate mental states to one another;
  • secondly, you as a reader cannot guess what the mental states of the protagonists are;
  • thirdly, the author does nothing decisive to make the mental states of the protagonists appear to be determinate;
  • fourthly, the protagonists themselves are portrayed as being unsure about their actual mental states.

Of course, the story offers cues as to what you (or the protagonists or the author) might believe, but it never reassures you about your guesses. I guess that is pretty much what our (mental) lives are like anyway. It’s not just that we don’t know what we think or feel; it’s indeterminate what the content of our mental states is. Given the complexity of thoughts, feelings and perhaps traumata that are present beneath the surface of what we are aware of, it is not surprising that many of our occurent states appear to be indeterminate. But if this is so, why does it not receive more attention in theories of mind?


* Tim Crane kindly points out an intriguing paper on the issue. Here, the idea that mental states are determinate is succinctly questioned as a “textbook view”: “A lot of what we believe is incomplete, partial, confused and even contradictory. The single proposition-plus-individual belief state picture makes it hard to see how this can be the case, tending to attribute these features to our knowledge of our belief states, rather than to the states themselves. […] So we need to be able to say that it may simply be indeterminate whether Sam believes that his son is a great artist. But this is not because there are no psychological facts about what he believes — it’s rather because there are too many. Complexity and confusion can go right to the bottom of our worldview.”

What Is an Error? Wittgenstein’s Voluntarism*

Imagine that you welcome your old friend Fred in your study. Pointing at the door, he asks you whether he should shut the window. You’re confused. Did Fred just call the door a window? He’s getting old, but surely not that old. You assume that Fred has made a simple mistake. But what kind of mistake was it? Did he make a linguistic mistake by mixing up the words? Or did he make a cognitive mistake by misrepresenting the facts and taking the door to be a window? “Fred, you meant to say ‘door’, didn’t you?” If he nods agreement, everything is fine. If he doesn’t, you will probably begin to worry about Fred’s cognitive system or conceptual scheme. You might wonder whether his vision is impaired or something worse has happened, unless it turns out that you, in turn, misread Fred’s gesture, while he did indeed mean the window opposite the door.

This example can be considered in various ways.** We usually take such mistakes to lie in an erroneous use of words rather than in a misrepresentation on part of the cognitive system, such as a hallucination. The latter case seems way more drastic. But are the cases of linguistic and cognitive mistakes related? Is one prior to the other? In what follows, I’d like to consider them through the lens of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of mind and suggest that his account it has roots in theological voluntarism.

Let’s begin by looking at the accounts of error that suggest themselves. What kind of distinction is at work here? It seems that there are at least two possible ways of locating error:

  • linguistic errors occur on the level of behavioural interaction between language users: in this case an error is a deviation from a social practice;
  • cognitive errors occur on the level of (mental) representation: in this case an error is mismatch between a representation and a represented object.

The distinction between interaction and representation intimates two ways of thinking about minds. Representational models construe correctness and error on the relation between (mental) sign and object. Interactionist or social models construe correctness and error on the relation between (epistemic) agents. On the face of it, the representational model is the more traditional one, going back at least to Aristotle and the scholastics, before being famously reintroduced and radicalised by Descartes. By contrast, the interactionist model is taken to be relatively young, inspired by the later Wittgenstein, who attacked his own earlier representationalism and the whole tradition along with it. This historical picture is of course a bit of a caricature. But rather than adding necessary refinements, I think we should reject it entirely. Besides misconstruing much of the history of thinking about minds, it obscures commonalities that actually might help understanding Wittgenstein’s move towards the interactionist model.

What, then, might have inspired Wittgenstein’s later model? I think that Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of mind is driven, amongst other things, by two ideas, namely (a) that all kinds of mental activities (such as thinking and erring) are part of a shared practice and that (b) the rules constituting this practice have no further explanation or foundation. For illustration, think again of the linguistic error. Ad (a): Of course, calling a door a window is a case of mislabelling. But what turns this into an error is not any representational mismatch. What is amiss is not any match between utterance and object but Fred’s violation of your expectation (that he would ask, if anything, to close the door but not the window). Ad (b): This expectation is not grounded in anything further but the experienced practice itself. If you learn that people call a door a door, people should call a door a door. You begin to wonder if they don’t. There is no further explanation as to why that should be so. Taken together, these two ideas give priority to interaction over representation. Accordingly, Wittgensteinians will see error and correctness in reference to linguistic practice; not grounded in representation.

But where does this idea come from? Although Wittgenstein’s later thought is sometimes likened to that of earlier authors in early modern or medieval times, I haven’t seen that his ideas were placed in a larger tradition. Perhaps, then, straightforward philosophies of language and mind are not the best place to look. But what should we turn to? If we look for historical cues of the two ideas sketched above, we should watch out for theories that construe mental events on the model of action rather than representation. But if you think that such theorising begins only with what is commonly called ‘pragmatism’, you miss out on a lot. Let’s focus on (a) first. We should begin by giving up on the assumption that the representational model of the mind is the traditional one. Of course, representation looms large, but it is not always the crucial explanans of correct vs. erroneous thinking or speaking. Good places to start are discussions that tie error to acts of will. Why not try Descartes’ famous explanation of human error? In the Fourth Meditation, Descartes claims that error does not arise from misrepresentation as such. Rather I can err because my will reaches farther than my intellect. So my will might extend to the unknown, deviating from the true and good. And thus I am said to err and sin. Bringing together error and sin, Descartes appeals to a longstanding tradition that places error on the level of voluntary judgment and action. Accordingly, there is no sharp distinction between moral and epistemic errors. I can fail to act in the right way or I can fail to think in the right way. The source of my error is, then, not that I misrepresent objects but rather that I deviate from the way that God ordained. This is the way in which even perfect cognitive agents such as fallen angels and demons can err.

What is significant for the question at hand is that God is taken as presenting us with a standard that we can conform to or deviate from when representing objects. Thus, error is explained through deviation from the divine standard, not through a representational model. Of course, you might object, that divine standards are a far cry from social standards and linguistic rules.*** But what might have served as a crucial inspiration are the following three points: putting mental acts on a par with action, explaining error and correctness through a non-representational standard, and having a non-individualistic standard, for it is the relation of humans to God that enforces the standard on us. In this sense, error cannot be ascribed to a single individual that misrepresents an object; it must be a mind that is related to the standards set by God.

If we accept this historical comparison at least as a suggestion, we might say that divine standards play a theoretical role that is similar to the social practice in Wittgenstein. However, divine standards come in different guises. Not all philosophers who discuss error in relation to deviant acts of will are automatically committed to the thesis that the divine standards have no further foundation. Theological rationalists assume that divine standards can be justified, such that God wills the Good because it is good. By contrast, voluntarists assume that something is good because God wills it. Thus, rationalistic conceptions could allow for an explanation of error that is not ultimately explained by reference to the divine standard. In this sense, rationalism would clash with Wittgenstein’s anti-foundationalism, called (b) above, according to which rules have no further foundation over and above the practice. As Wittgenstein puts it in Philosophical Investigations, § 206: “Following a rule is analogous to obeying an order.”

How, then, does Wittgenstein see the traditional theological distinction? Given his numerous discussions of the will even in his early writings, it is clear that his work is informed by such considerations. Most striking is his remark on voluntarism reported in Waismann’s “Notes on Talks with Wittgenstein” (Philosophical Review 74 [1956]): “I think that the first conception is the deeper one: Good is what God orders. For this cuts off the path to any and every explanation ‘why’ it is good …” Here, Wittgenstein clearly sides with the voluntarists.**** Indeed, the idea of rule-following as obedience can be seen perfectly in line with the assumption that erring consists in violating a shared practice, just as the voluntarist tradition that Descartes belongs to deems erring a deviation from divine standards.

If these suggestions are pointing in a fruitful direction, they could open a path to relocating Wittgenstein’s thought in the context of the long tradition of voluntarism. They might downplay his claims to originality, but at the same time they might render both his work and the tradition more accessible.


* Originally posted on the blog of the Groningen Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Thought

** This is my variant of Davidson’s ketch-yawl example in his “On the very idea of a conceptual scheme”. I’d like to thank Laura Georgescu, Lodi Nauta and Tamer Nawar, who kindly heard me out when I introduced them to the ideas suggested here.

*** Thanks to Martin Kusch, who raised this objection in an earlier discussion on Facebook.

**** See David Bloor, Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions, Routledge 2002, 126-133, who also discusses Wittgenstein’s voluntarism.