Solipsism

Ian Hacking

  • The False Prison: A Study of the Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy, Vol. I by David Pears
    Oxford, 202 pp, £19.50, September 1987, ISBN 0 19 824771 0
  • Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard
    Quartet, 120 pp, £8.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 7043 2611 6

This is the first half of a survey of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. The division into two quite slim volumes does not mean that Professor Pears accepts a received view: that the man had two philosophies. The split is practical. University courses are commonly about either Philosophical Investigations or Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published in 1953 and 1921 respectively. Pears’s own lecture courses at Oxford and UCLA (from which this book is drawn) may have followed this pattern, but he encourages continuity. He is not one to say, with Mr Bryan Magee in his recent BBC series The Great Philosophers,[*] that ‘since Wittgenstein repudiated his own early philosophy, and since in any case it is now his later philosophy that is much the more influential, I don’t think we ought to devote too much of our time to the early work.’

Pears’s subtitle says ‘development’, and we expect that the next volume will not be about a new beginning. Pears holds that a work published by Wittgenstein ‘is an artificial cut in a continuous process of growth’. And far from agreeing with Magee’s astounding opinion (derived perhaps from Sir Karl Popper) that the thread that connects the earlier and later work was a concern ‘to demarcate talk that made sense from talk that did not make sense’, Pears has a rather unusual thread of his own: solipsism.

Solipsism is the doctrine that only oneself exists, or, more modestly, that one can know only one’s own experiences, all else being at best conjecture, confabulation, or inference by some sort of analogy. Pears has a 38-page chapter on solipsism, despite the fact that Tractatus mentions it in only a page-length of text. It is far from clear why Wittgenstein introduced the idea at just this juncture. The preceding lead remark (which he numbered 5.5) looks like a technical observation about something fundamental in elementary logic. The next heading (labelled 6 in this elaborately crafted work) carries on discussing ‘truth-functions’. Two problems arise. First, what are the observations about solipsism (5.6 through 5.641) doing here? Secondly, do they prove, as some say, that Wittgenstein was then a solipsist, or do they prove, as others say, the opposite?

Pears’s answers to these questions are in the considered tempo of the lecture hall, but he does not forget that Wittgenstein’s few sentences using the word ‘solipsism’ are compelling beyond the confines of professional philosophy. When I myself first heard the name of Wittgenstein, I was a gauche and provincial mathematics student of seventeen or so. Walking from one class to another, a fellow remarked: ‘You know what Wittgenstein wrote: “what solipsism means, is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but it shows itself.” ’ I recall this event from over thirty years ago with peculiar vividness. There are lots of young people for whom Wittgenstein’s simple but sculpted sentences are tremendously charged. Pears tells us, in a characteristically more distanced and impersonal way, that he was one of that number, long ago taken by Tractatus, even if he understood hardly a word of what it said.

Pears has written a fair amount of philosophy that does not reveal to the casual reader much of an effect of an undergraduate fascination with Wittgenstein’s words, but he has also honoured his youthful enthusiasm. With a colleague he re-translated Tractatus, incidentally changing the sentence quoted above into: ‘What the solipsist means is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest’ (looking at the German, but also doubtless from sentiment, I prefer the older translation in this case, but most of the re-translating is a substantial improvement). Pears wrote a Wittgenstein for the Fontana Modern Masters series. He also did a painstaking Bertrand Russell and the British Tradition in Philosophy (1967), whose focus was exactly that Russell of 1905-1914 who was so close to the author of Tractatus.

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[*] The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy, interviews by Bryan Magee. BBC, 352 pp. £14.95, 10 September 1987, 0 563 20583 0.

[†] The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 7. Allen and Unwin, 1984.