The World, Others, and I

Abstract of talk for the Oslo meeting of the Nordic Society for Phenomenology. I hope to have a draft of this paper up before too long.

Solipsism holds that the I is, in some sense, alone. Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty, hold that solipsism captures a deep truth about human subjectivity, which hinges on the idea that to be a subject is essentially to have a point of view. Wittgenstein argues that if the self is a perspective on the world, then it shrinks to a point without extension. One’s bodily and psychological life must be thought of as events in the world. There is no essential difference between my sadness and a hurricane. At the same time, to see the world from a perspective is to see it as laid out around one, implying that it is a solipsistic world: my world. I argue that Wittgenstein’s account perfectly characterises certain forms of schizophrenic experience, and so cannot be accepted as a faithful account of human experience in general. Merleau-Ponty’s account of solipsism reveals the flaw in Wittgenstein’s reasoning: he fails to acknowledge the importance of one’s own body. One’s perspective on the world is an embodied perspective; bodily interaction with the world gives one a sense that it can be viewed from elsewhere and is thus shareable; and the body’s existence is ‘anonymous’ in that it is able to occupy the bodily perspective of other embodied selves. There is thus a tension at the heart of human subjectivity – my own perspective is both privileged in that I always see the world from my own point of view, and not privileged insofar as my body can occupy the perspectives of others. This, for Merleau-Ponty, is the truth in solipsism: intersubjective experience is unstable. Schizophrenic experience illustrates how this delicate balance may be upset.

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