Solipsism and Capitalism, Part 2 of 2

In yesterday’s post I argued that some philosophers misinterpret perception as being a two-term, self-object experience, while I feel it is better captured by a three-term, self-object-world relationship, and that moreover it is this basic mistake which creates what I called the feeling of ‘claustrophobia’ that sometimes appears in epistemology and the philosophy of perception.

Now I want to consider why that mistake got made, and why it was shared among a variety of prominent, and often sharply disagreeing, early modern philosophers. I want to suggest that it reflects the sort of society they were trying to come to terms with.

I’ve remarked in the past on the ‘fit’ between the mentality appropriate to science (rational, reductive, totalising) and the mentality appropriate to market-based profit-maximising (rational, reductive, totalising). I’ve suggested that this results in an ideological bias in capitalist societies towards a dogmatic over-emphasis of science.

I would suggest here that there is also a certain ‘fit’ between the way that the social world appears to the capitalist mindset, and the way the world of thought appears to the sort of almost-solipsistic mindset I have criticised, that is liable to make such an approach, though mistaken, attractive to philosophers working in a capitalist milieu.

The primary point of resemblance is this: if one neglects the fact that all specific objects are always perceived (and thought of) against the background of the world, i.e. in necessary connection with the world, one gives to them a sense of independence from each other. When one then says that there is in fact a world (as there obviously is), that world will seem like the mere adding-together of a great number of discrete things, an aggregate, a heap.

Similarly, in a capitalist economic system, each actor operates independently, with their own goals, seeing no inherent connection or bond between themselves and others. Society as a whole then appears as simply a random collection of self-seeking individuals, a heap, an aggregate with no unity or meaningful connection.

Indeed, one arrives at Thatcher’s famous quote: there is no such thing as society. There are only individuals (and families, in the quote, but since house-bound home-makers are similarly invisible in capitalist ‘civil society’ and in most philosophy, we can ignore that). And the mistaken starting-point in philosophy that I discussed is the metaphysical equivalent: there is no such thing as reality, there are only individual objects.

A consequence of this is solitude. Capitalism as a market economy is the reign of ‘private’ interests and ‘private individuals’. If there is no such thing as society, then there is no meaningful subject of concern, pride, hope, or love beyond oneself and one’s handful of ‘private’ friends. Contrasted with, say, the confidently ‘public’ life of a citizen in democratic Athens, or the loyal member of a grand dynasty, a guild, a secret society, etc, the bourgeois operates within the narrow confines on their own soul.

It isn’t hard to see how this parallels the fear of solipsism in philosophy, the worry that just as the absence of a community beyond self interest prevents us from emotionally ‘getting outside our own heads’, so the absence of a world beyond discrete objects prevents us from cognitively ‘getting outside our own heads’.

In both cases, we could express this in a contradiction: socially, capitalism promotes a sort of self-interest that undermines the foundations for social cohesion – and yet social cohesion remains necessary, because without legitimacy and state force, property rights cease to be respected and the market vanishes. Philosophically, the very processes of thought and reason which are supposed to let us know the truth about reality threaten to abolish our knowledge of it.

I should stress, the aim of this parallel-drawing is not to substitute political critique for philosophical critique – it is merely to pick off where philosophical critique leaves off, to fill in the ‘logical gaps’ that philosophical crtique uncovers. By looking outside of philosophy itself, we see how these systematic errors reflect the systematic traits of society, and how the contradictions of capitalism infect even speculative philosophy.

Solipsism and Capitalism, Part 1 of 2

Reading modern epistemology often feels slightly claustrophobic. In Descartes, or Hume, say, there’s a sense of being confined, ‘shut up’ in our own heads, trying to get out. The best expression of this is the fear of solipsism: the (never really accepted but always present) fear that there might be nothing in the universe except us.

The way this gets set up in such writers goes like this: all I can really be sure of is my own perceptions – I know that I seem to see and hear certain things, but no more. Now I ask myself how I am to infer that there are also real objects out there that ‘correspond to’ or ‘lie behind’ my perceptions of them. But no argument to that conclusion seems very good. Oh dear. I will have to try harder, because if no such argument can be found, then I will have to conclude that there is nothing ‘out there’.

A major supporting argument for this anxious approach is the ‘argument from illusion’. It’s quite simple: sometimes I think I perceive a real object, but it turns out that I was wrong (hallucinating, dreaming, etc.) and there was no object. But my perception was just the same as when I (supposedly) perceive real objects. So how am I to tell the difference?

Now I want to point out how, in quite a simple way, this fear and this ‘claustrophobic’ tone are mistaken. But I should be clear that I’m concerned with solipsism (the possibility that there is no world and no existence apart from me) rather than scepticism (the possibility that I don’t know anything). Responding to scepticism means providing a comprehensive account of knowledge, what it is, how we get it, etc., which is heavy work. So I’ll shy away from that.

Why is the fear of solipsism mistaken? Philosophers are usually good at drawing out the implications of their starting points, so their mistakes usually reside in the starting point itself. Here, I would suggest, the mistake is that the basic ‘data’ of consciousness, the initial form of perception, can be understood through the two terms ‘self’ and ‘object’. Rather, I think, a proper understanding must involve three terms: ‘self’, ‘object’, and ‘world’.

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Capitalist Philosophy of Mind, Part 3 – Communist Philosophy of Mind?

If my last two posts were right in discerning the movements of concrete social forces – feudal religion and bourgeois science, at first individual, then systemic – behind changing currents of consensus in the philosophy of mind, what does this imply about philosophy of mind under different circumstances? And what does it mean for people actually working in that field?

It might be imagined that if first religion and then science created a certain philosophy based on a certain class society, a classless society will have neither religion nor science. But this is only half true. For both of these terms, as for many others, one must distinguish two things: a reasonable, inescapable and important element of the human condition, and then a narrow and distorted worldview based on misconstruing that element and requiring all other elements to be subordinate to it.

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Capitalist Philosophy of Mind, Part 2: Descartes and the Class Struggle

In my last post I ran through the history of Western philosophy of mind. Now I want to look at how the philosophical developments mirror the social developments over the same period.

Now for each position there are positive arguments and there are negative arguments, and typically they have all been argued by someone. But what’s interesting is how some arguments, but not others, are able to win widespread support.

For example, there is a certain argument that goes something like this: “science in general, in particular physics, is bound to look for explanations of every event that happens, and we have no reason not to expect it to find them eventually. Thus for every event a physical explanation will be found, hence all the world is physical in nature, and no facts about it are irreducible to physical facts.”

This argument has been made in one form or another at many points in history. But the acceptance it’s won has varied. Prior to the scientific revolution, doctrines of this sort (like Ancient Greek atomism) were fairly minor phenomena. At the time of Early Modern philosophy, i.e. in the middle of the rise of science, the argument was strong enough to make full-on ‘materialism’ (in the metaphysical sense) a fashionable doctrine among many people. But it didn’t win majority assent until the 20th (maybe 19th) centuries.

And at this late stage, up to the present day, the argument does not even need to be made: it is now common-sense, the natural assumption. Almost all work is done within a ‘physicalist’ framework – either as an enthusiastic endorsement or a cautious criticism.

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Capitalist Philosophy of Mind: Part 1 – Philosophical History

While I wouldn’t call myself a ‘Marxist’, I do identify with the idea of ‘historical materialism’, a term that has been used for Marx’n’Engels’ approach to society. I’m also very interested in philosophy, and so in this post I want to give a historical materialist account of the history of philosophy of mind.

What is ‘historical materialism’? It’s the belief that society forms an inter-connected whole, so that each part reciprocally influences other parts, and moreover that in this web, the dominant influence is had by ‘material’ factors: people’s concrete lived experience. For example, the forms of artistic expression that are widespread in a society will reflect the conditions in which most people live, albeit in complex ways.

This is sometimes mischaracterised as ‘economic determinism’, which is wrong on two counts. Firstly, it’s not (on my understanding) deterministic because it doesn’t claim that each individual’s actions must be the result of their material conditions – merely that the overally statistical averages will.

Secondly, it’s not (on my understanding) purely economic, since things beyond ‘economics’ narrowly-conceived can fall within ‘material conditions’: technology, sexual relations, climate, etc.

So with that hopefully a little cleared up, I want to talk about applying this to philosophy, in particular to dualism/materialism/physicalism in philosophy of mind. (As I use them, metaphysical ‘materialism’ is a different idea to sociological ‘historical materialism’, just as both are different from ‘materialism’ as a graspy, avaricious personality). This first post just runs over the major movements in the history of the subject in recent centuries.

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