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Problem of other minds – Solipsism

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Solipsism (from the Latin solus, alone, and ipse, oneself) is a general “attitude” that can be theorized in a philosophical and metaphysical form, according to which there would be for the thinking subject no other reality acquired with certainty than himself. The question here does not first arise from “the mind”, but from an observation that the “self” (and not the “me”) is the only manifestation of consciousness that we cannot doubt. Only the self can therefore be held to be assuredly existing and the external world with its inhabitants only exists in this perspective as a hypothetical representation, and therefore cannot be considered, without abuse of language, other than as uncertain. The phenomenon of the Self differs completely according to the authors, in particular in C. G. Jung where it is compared to the archetype of consciousness and the Me. It could only be a “constructivist” epistemological position. If one also considers it on an ontological level, one then approaches somewhat “pyrrhonism” since the knowledge of anything external to oneself remains only an uncertain conjecture.

According to the philosopher Lalande, solipsism is a “doctrine presented as a logical consequence resulting from the ideal (idéel) character of knowledge; it would consist in maintaining that the individual ego of which one is conscious, with its subjective modifications, is all reality, and that the other selves of which one has the representation have no more independent existence than the personages of the dreams; or at least to admit that it is impossible to prove the contrary. Still according to Lalande, the doctor Claude Brunet would have been the only authentic representative at the beginning of the 18th century, with his work Projet d’une nouvelle métaphysique. Kant uses this term in the Critique of Practical Reason (3rd section, 3rd paragraph), but to designate the self-love experienced by the empirical ego, in contrast to the transcendental ego.


Solipsism is an attitude generally conceived as the borderline case of idealism, according to which the existence of the questioning subject constitutes the only certainty. If no philosophy is based on definitive solipsism, on the other hand a momentary solipsism can accompany an attitude of systematic doubt, as is the case of Descartes at the beginning of his Meditations on First Philosophy, when the philosopher, challenging the common evidence, poses the only certainty of its existence. It is therefore the “conception according to which the ego, with its sensations and feelings, constitutes the only existing reality of which one is sure.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)

Doubt in Descartes

The use of hyperbolic doubt, which is the basis of the cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), by Descartes in the Discourse on the Method (1637), exposed him to accusations of solipsism. However, if the cogito is sufficient to found, by a thought experiment, the subjective certainty of the existence of the thinking subject, it is in no way sufficient to found the absolute reality of the thinking substance. Indeed, only God could be such a foundation, by his continued creation. Also, Cartesian theory is not exactly solipsistic.

According to one interpretation, dominant in the history of philosophy, Descartes would thus prefigure the advent of subjectivity in modern philosophy, that is to say of self-consciousness (Hegel attributed the emergence of this to Christianity).

Berkeley’s empiricist idealism

George Berkeley is perhaps one of the philosophers who have gone the furthest in the field of solipsism since ancient Pyrrhonism. His empiricist idealism indeed referred to God the origin of our sensations. From then on, the world had no material existence as such: Berkeley opposed any realistic position which would consider that the world possesses an external reality beyond our perception: “to be is to be perceived and to perceive” , according to his famous formula. But in fact all our subjective perceptions refer to divine perception. Does the other then exist?

This position shares certain aspects with Leibniz’s theory of the monad, each monad being in immediate connection only with God, and each expressing the entire universe.

Solipsism in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Solipsism can be defined from Proposition 5.63 of this work – “I am my world. (The microcosm.) ”

In itself, solipsism cannot be said but it can be shown and as Wittgenstein underlines in his foreword, “everything that can be said can be said clearly, and about what cannot be spoken, we must keep the silence.”

Solipsism as a philosophy or as a doctrine is therefore necessarily part of the “Mystic” (6.522 – “There is certainly something unspeakable. It shows itself, it is the Mystic.”) And is therefore not “a method. correct in philosophy” (aphorism 6.53) although “what solipsism wants to mean is quite correct” (aphorism 5.62).

If one can only simply show solipsism, it is because as a definition of the world, it is absurd: 5.631 – “There is no subject of the thought of representation. If I wrote a book called The World As I Found It, I would also have to report there on my body, and say which limbs are subject to my will, which are not, etc. Which is in effect a method for isolating the subject, or rather for showing that, in an important sense, there is no subject: for it is only him that could not be discussed in this book.” Indeed, the subject who sees the world in him (radical solipsism) cannot strictly define himself since he should be outside himself, outside the world: “the eye, in reality, you don’t see it. And nothing in the visual field allows us to conclude that it is seen by one eye.” This implies an impossibility of the metaphysical subject (the I of solipsism) to be “in the world”.“The philosophical I […] is the metaphysical subject, which is border – and not part – of the world.” (Aphorism 5.641)

But this also implies that solipsism is a kind of empty place of thought (absurd) and of reality (border of the world which therefore has by definition no space) since “developed in all rigor, [it] coincides with pure realism. The I of solipsism is reduced to a point without extension, and there remains the reality which is coordinated with it”. (aphorism 5.64)

At Sartre

In his first work La Transcendance de l’Ego, Jean-Paul Sartre proposed a refutation of solipsism supposed to be more relevant than that of Husserl, then he returned to it in L’Être et le Néant (chapter: “L’écueil du solipsisme”).

Buddhist solipsism

Solipsism is, in fact, the attitude of a minority of Buddhist schools of thought; this is a theory which does not necessarily follow from the middle path, and which may even seem opposed to the idea of ​​samsara (the worlds in which beings evolve), to Buddhist cosmology, even to the ethics that emerges both from this representation of the universe and from the causality expressed by the law of karma.

Every Buddhist indeed considers the impression of being “one” (the ego or the self) as obscuring reality, or as an illusion. The ego would only come from an incomplete perception of the world induced by pleasure and pain, and which conditions consciousness itself over time. Most Buddhist philosophies therefore admit the existence of external phenomena, of a tangible reality, characterized in that it is without Self (taken in the sense of impersonal) (everything is without Self, anatta: without atmân).

Some schools of Mahayana Buddhism have formulated interpretations leaning towards the obligatory solipsism of the ego, in opposition to that of the post-awakening (in Sanskrit “buddha” meaning the “awakened”) which then makes it possible to see the world, as that it is. See for example Yogacara, known primarily for her idealism.

Bertrand Russell

The philosopher Bertrand Russell mentions in his Skeptical Essays a letter from one of his correspondents writing “that she was a solipsist and that she was surprised that there were no others”. He adds “the lady being logicienne, her surprise surprises me”.

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