Saturday, April 01, 2006

Solipsizing the "irreducibly social"

It is sometimes claimed that central features of our lives -- such as (linguistic) meaning, or even consciousness! -- are "irreducibly social". This is typically accompanied with a wave in Wittgenstein's direction. But it seems to me that the possibility of solipsism suffices to refute such claims.

It's possible that, despite appearances to the contrary, no-one else actually exists besides myself. Then there would be no real "society". But even if it turns out that this bizarre scenario is actual, it doesn't change the fact that I'm certainly conscious and thinking (linguistically) meaningful thoughts. A lot of my beliefs would turn out to be false, of course. But various others would presumably still be true. And even for the false ones, I could imagine scenarios where they would turn out to be true, e.g. wherein the appearances were less deceiving and other people really did exist. So my beliefs have content. And I can express them in English sentences, which I know well enough how to assess. Given a full enough description of the world, I can determine which of my beliefs or sentences are true and which are false. That doesn't change if it turns out that I'm the only person in the world.

So all these claims about language (or any other survivors of the solipsistic possibility) being "irreducibly social" must be false. Long live methodological individualism!


  1. I think that such claims as "irreducible sociality" are made in the context of it being taken for granted that solipsism and other such form of strong skepticism are false.

  2. Along the same lines as Jeff's comment: I think much of the point of emphasizing the irreducible sociality of things like intentionality or whatever you pick is that it is a denial of that sort of possibility. I'm not sure it takes it for granted, though, as much as it ends up being a straightforward part of the theory.

    For example, anyone who takes seriously the sort of notion you're arguing against would have no reason to accept your second paragraph as being at all true (in fact, I think you overestimate somewhat the likelihood of it being conceivable - at the least it's a place where you really do need to add in your own theory of meaningfulness, language, etc to make it plausible).

  3. But I take it to be absolutely certain -- given my internal evidence -- that I am conscious and having meaningful thoughts. (I don't need an underlying theory; these facts are beyond question. They are the raw data that any adequate theory must accommodate.) But it is just as surely not absolutely certain that other people exist.

    The 'irreducibly social' folks must deny one or other of my above claims. But both of the above claims are obviously true (other people will need to put themselves in place of "I", of course). So denying either doesn't seem to be a good move.

  4. Just to test the proposition...

    meaningful thoughts in what sense?
    Does the definition that you can prove suffice to reject the concept that some things are "irreducably social"?

    Also ones oppinion on where the seat of conciousness might change from time to time - for example, in a crowd one might come to the conclusion that the seat of conciousness was social or if one was thinking on multiple tracks it might seem to rest in one or two specific parts of your mind.

  5. Richard, I think you take for granted that you presumably learned how to think "meaningful thoughts", in part, from your social setting.

  6. Well, it's probably true in fact that that's how my learning occurred. But I don't presuppose this. If it turned out I learned it all from an illusory (non-existent) "society", that wouldn't make my current abilities any less real. Indeed, for all I know the world could have been created 5 minutes ago, false memories and all. And even if that's so, my current thoughts still certainly have content. (So this methodology also leads me to reject strongly history-dependent theories of content.)

    This is consistent with some degree of semantic externalism: certainly what my expressions refer to depends on external facts, as Putnam's twin earth taught us. But it seems to me that the 'sense', 'narrow content', or 'primary intension' of my thoughts is a purely internalistic matter. And in that case, what matters is how I am, not how I got here nor how the rest of the world is.

    G. - "meaningful thoughts in what sense?"

    How many senses are there to choose from? I mean thoughts that are about something, that have content, that can be true or false. Indeed, if given a sufficiently complete description of the world (and much improved rational powers) I could determine whether my beliefs are true or false. A simple example: if magically informed that the solipsistic scenario is actual, then I would know that my past belief that there are other minds is false.

  7. I'm still not at all sure that you've made a legitimate claim here, though. For example, when you argue:
    But I take it to be absolutely certain -- given my internal evidence -- that I am conscious and having meaningful thoughts. (I don't need an underlying theory; these facts are beyond question. They are the raw data that any adequate theory must accommodate.) But it is just as surely not absolutely certain that other people exist.

    If we grant that you are absolutely cetain that you are conscious and having meaningful thoughts (are you really though? I'm not sure what it could possible mean to deny this - but neither am I certain what it means to assert it either) it may well follow that it is absolutely certain that other people exist. Consider the following argumentative strategy:
    1. I know that I am conscious and have meaningful thoughts.
    2. Having meaningful thoughts is a matter of having meaningful internal speakings (either in whole or in part).
    3. Having meaningful speakings* requires a community of entities in which the context in which those speakings are meaningful can appear. (This is, I would imagine, the premise in which we claim that meaning is irreducibly social.)
    4. Therefore it follows from my knowledge that I have meaningful thoughts that I am or have been at some point in a community of entities in which meaningful speakings can occur.

    In other words, I'm not at all sure it isn't just as certain that you have meaningful thoughts as that there are other people, where people is kept as a loose term covering the necessary requirements (they could presumeably be robots, or constructs in an artificial intelligence program, or whatever I suppose, as long as they are sufficient to create a social community in which meaningful tokens might arise).

    If you want to argue that solipsism is possible, and that as a result the above sort of argument has to be false there needs to be a stronger argument than what you've given so far. We can easily construct an argument to the effect that solipsism is in fact impossible, after all, and given that all you've got is the claim that if we reject a consequence of a thesis (in this case, the impossibility of solipsism) we have the grounds to reject the thesis. But this is just begging the question without a decent case for the possibility of solipsism - one which, specifically, can't be met with the above sort of argument.

    *(There is an interesting question here: I would suggest that it's quite possible that having meaningful speakings is prior to having meaningful thoughts. This may or may not be true, of course, but I don't know any argument that is decisively to the contrary, and it would (or might, I'm not pushing a hard line here) capture a lot of our practice in teaching language to children.)

  8. But you can't know (with certainty) a priori that other people (or "social entities") exist, that's just silly! I take it as a reductio of your premise 3.

    "We can easily construct an argument to the effect that solipsism is in fact impossible, after all"

    A good argument? I doubt that. Again, it's just obviously possible, like the BIV, 5-minute history, and other radical-skeptical scenarios. The force of such cases comes from the fact that they are wholly consistent with our internal evidence.

    Again, I grant that the social theorist can escape my argument by biting the bullet and insisting either that it's absolutely certain that social communities exist, or else that one's own consciousness and intentionality is less than absolutely certain. I simply insist that both claims are transparently (and pre-theoretically) false.

  9. how about this,
    1) the debate between you and me exists in the interpersonal domain. therefore any statement that there is an interpersonal domain can't be wrong (it wouldn't exist otherwise).

    (I can also have fun arguing this in the other direction)

    2) even if we conceed somthing like "you have free will" as a meaningful thought (along the same lines as we justified the existance of the interpersonal comunity) can we not conclude that some or most other things are not "irreducibly social"?

    3) Do more than an absolutly minimal list of thoughts have any meaning in a soliphisized world?
    Does even a thought like "there are other people" or "there are no other people" have any meaning in a world where there is no such thing as people? does that not just have a truth value rather equivilent to any other random statement? like "there are dfqwes" or even "feea asera dfqwes" since "there" and "are" may be ill-defined also.

  10. Again, it's meaningful because I could provide truth-conditions for the statement, in the form of a primary intension. That is, a function from scenarios to truth values. If you give me a full enough description of a scenario, I can tell you (a priori, without appeal to experience or any contingent facts) whether or not "there are other people" is true of that scenario (conceived of as actual). I can't tell you whether "feea asera dfqwes" is true in any scenario, because I don't associate those words with any primary intension or meaning.

  11. But again, Richard, I you really need to justify what you've argued you can't just appeal to the fact that you think you're right.
    But you can't know (with certainty) a priori that other people (or "social entities") exist, that's just silly! I take it as a reductio of your premise 3.

    Or, as someone who holds that meaning is irreducibly social would probably do, we could take it as a reductio of (1) as something we immediately and certainly know. The argument merely attempts to draw a line between knowing with certainty that we have meaningful thoughts and knowing with certainty that we exist in a social context. Your argument needs to be, as I took myself to be pointing out earlier, that you need to provide an argument to the effect that it's (3) that is wrong and not just (1), or the statement "Solipsism is a possible state of affairs".

  12. Yeah, I'm just taking that as given. (1) is pre-theoretically obvious, whereas (3) is not. It's true that logically speaking, one could just as well resolve the inconsistency by rejecting either. But there's more to reason than just logic. I take it that people would affirm (3) for reasons of theoretical commitments. But theories should respect the data, and (1) is as straightforward an instance of the raw data we need to work with as anything else I've come across. It is unreasonable to construct a theory which contradicts (1), and then justify this outrageous claim on the basis that it's supported by your theory! The reasoning's all backwards.

  13. > If you give me a full enough description of a scenario

    Isn’t this a nonsense statement assuming solipsism?
    I.e. there IS no scenario for you to have a description of.

    I guess you could make an internal statement like "I exist" or "I just thought of X" (where X is defined as the thing you just thought of) and then "I thought of X again" (where X is the category of things you can’t tell the difference between which includes object X)

    But, with no external world to test your ideas against it gets hard to verify that you are indeed sane and having meaningful thoughts?

    Again I suppose you could say 1+1=2 and 2+1+3 so 1+1+1=3 and say as long as such things hold in your mind at those times you have meaningful thoughts. So maybe your belief can be logical (I guess rarely) and in sense meaningful but is that enough to say most things or all things are not "irreducibly social" or just that "there is something at least which is not "irreducibly social"? Does "irreducibly social" require everything to be "irreducibly social"?

    Still that could just result from randomness, so surely one would want a tougher test than that?

  14. Richard - how does that argument from differential certainty go? in the discussion, both you and dr. pretorius seem to be granting some closure principle of absolute certainty that's not convincing. Just because p -> q, and p is absolutely certain, it doesn't follow that q is.

  15. But Richard, Pre-theoretic certainty, for lack of a better phrase, is cheap. For example, whether or not you have pre-theoretic certainty that you are conscious and have meaningful thoughts (as far as these things go, the extent to which I am certain of these is not one that supports an inference to an account of their nature which you seem to take your certainty as doing) only gives you so much. I also, say, have a strong pre-theoretic certainty that when I hear my alarm clock goes off in the morning it is because my alarm clock is going off in the morning, and that hitting the button will make it stop. I also have a strong pre-theoretic certainty that when I talk to my room mate (generally, not necessarily when it comes to, say, philosophy of language) he understands what I say and replies in a way such that I can understand what he's thinking. I have a pre-theoretic certainty, in other words, in many things that might well be denied were solipsism to be true - at the very least if my pre-theoretic certainties were to all get together and vote it wouldn't be the possibility of solipsism that survived, or the pre-theoretic certainty that meaning and consciousness are as you've (at least I think implicitly) taken them to be.

    Finally, of course someone who argues for the irreducibly social aspect of meaning won't just assert (3), since (3) is the basic assertion that meaning is irreducibly certain. I take it as fairly uncontroversial that anyone who wants to hold (3) is going to have to have a serious battery of arguments (private language, for example, or some sort of analysis of intentionality, or however one gets there) sitting behind it. The fact that the force of the counter argument I presented depends on it, then, just means that the strength of the counter argument puts the vague intuition that something like solipsism might be possible against what is, at the least, a serious set of arguments.


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