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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