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’.