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.

I’ll return to solipsism, but first it is worth saying how well Pears uses his Russell to inform his Wittgenstein. Bertrand Russell is not fashionable today. Many who are moved by Wittgenstein take the man’s connections with Russell before the Great War as some sort of rite of passage. Russell didn’t even understand Wittgenstein, and it shows painfully in Russell’s preface to the Tractatus. Pears will have none of that. For example: in the passages leading up to the brief observations about solipsism there are numerous paragraphs that made no sense at all, to the serious reader, until 1984, when Russell’s suppressed Theory of Knowledge: The 1913 Manuscript was published.[†] This may be the only complete manuscript that Russell refused to publish, persuaded by Wittgenstein that it was wrong. Pears repeats Russell’s remarks to Ottoline Morrell on this event, suggesting too heavily that everything occurred on a walk on a single afternoon. In fact, Russell, in 1914, about to go the Eastern seaboard of the US to lecture on logic, sequestered himself for a week with Wittgenstein and a shorthand typist, in order to extract Wittgenstein’s new ideas and get criticisms of his own. At the end both principals, not noted for lack of stamina, were exhausted; collectors of trivia would dearly love to know what the secretary thought of it all. The 1913 Manuscript makes sense of some bits of the Tractatus, and although Pears was hardly the first to notice this, it is good to get the matter into what will doubtless become a common work of reference.

In passing: in 1913 it was Russell who wrote of ‘the prison of experience’. The idea is precisely the solipsistic one, that we must argue our way from our own immediate consciousness to the existence of anything else. Can it be that Wittgenstein’s sentences numbered 5.5 up to 5.6 address The 1913 Manuscript, and that solipsism enters in 5.6 to 5.641 just because Russell’s book speaks, albeit briefly, of the need to escape from the prison of experience? At any rate, Russell’s phrase must be the false prison of Pears’s enigmatic title – admirably (tiresomely?) illustrated with yet another Magritte for a philosophical dust-jacket. Those who joke with words and the soul have ample room for play here. Was Russell ‘taken in’ to a false prison by his conception of a world ‘external’ to our experience? Was Wittgenstein resisting? Curiously, both men were in true prisons within three years of parting, one as a conscientious objector, and one as a loser on the Italian Front.

Reflections of this sort are no part of Pears’s book, but others of a more sensible kind are. Pears seems to me the soundest commentator yet on ‘objects’. The ninth sentence of the Tractatus says that a state of affairs is a combination of objects. That’s portentous, since earlier sentences said that the world is the totality of facts, and that a fact is the existence of states of affairs. It looks as if we are going to get the whole world in our hands, if only we know what these ‘objects’ are. Unlike the word ‘solipsism’, the noun Gegenstand is profusely littered throughout Tractatus. Readers have proposed a quite amazing array of candidates for these objects, including, for example, sense data. A state of affairs, then, would be made up of ‘my’ sense data? Such a thought could handily go along with solipsism, for if the world is made up of sense data, and only I can have my sense data, the world is mine alone. (One could elaborate on the way in which this understanding of sense data was alien to the Cambridge of Moore and Russell: Moore pondering whether a sense datum could be identical to a physical surface, and Russell soon to construct a six-dimensional objective world in which three-dimensional looks are structured within a further three-dimensional reality.)

Despite the numerous distinguished advocates of the ‘sense datum’ reading of ‘object’, Pears will have none of it. In truth, Wittgenstein gives no clue as to what he thought his ‘objects’ are. Wittgenstein ‘detectives’ – and whole books by distinguished philosophers have been written deliberately in the thriller mode – have proposed clues to settle the issue. Pears calmly asserts that if Wittgenstein did not ever clearly state what his ‘objects’ were, their elucidation should form no major part of describing his considered philosophy. He also quietly observes that the failure to work out what ‘objects’ are remains a grave defect in this stage of Wittgenstein’s development. One can only praise a book that consistently takes Wittgenstein at his word like this.

But is Wittgenstein being taken at his word when solipsism is brought into centre-field? Pears argues, rightly, that the philosopher (and here I mean just that, the philosopher, not the man) was no solipsist. There is no important talk of solipsism in Philosophical Investigations. How can it be a core idea in the ‘development’ of Wittgenstein’s philosophy? Well, it does fit. There is vastly more about solipsism in Wittgenstein’s preparatory work, Notebooks 1914-1916. In lecture notes for 1936, conveniently half-way between the publication of the two great books, Wittgenstein talked at length about solipsism. The most famous aspect of Philosophical Investigations is something called ‘the private language argument’. In gross shorthand, the conclusion is often taken to be this: there could not be such a thing as my own experiences as I describe them to myself, were there not a communal practice within which my inner speech has a quite minor place.

Think even of the most personal experiences, not the coloured patches of Moore and Russell, but (to be more polite than truly personal) the sensations that you have when you have a toothache. They, at least, appear to be private and peculiarly yours. Wittgenstein can be read like this: solipsism, expressed negatively, is the doctrine that you are imprisoned in your experience. Let’s take the best possible case of ‘your’ private experience. Toothache. My own private pain, which the dentist’s analgesic will diminish and which the drill and amalgam will heal: isn’t that something in my world only? Wittgenstein (on one reading) argues no.

The Edwardian world was one of large pieces of furniture (objective) and of perceived colour patches (subjective); the task of the philosopher was to establish that knowledge of the former could be well founded upon experience of the latter. If not: solipsism. So you can understand Wittgenstein as passing from those awarenesses of colour known as sense data, and which locked us in the prison of experience, down to personal hurt. If talk of the latter is not essentially private, nothing can be. The classical ego of Cartesian philosophy becomes a point, not a foundation for our knowledge of the world, but a quality-less point alongside the world.

That is one way to go from solipsism to the private-language argument, but a superficial one. Pears rightly contends that more central preoccupations – readily traced back to Schopenhauer – are about the role of the subject in the world. That means not the Edwardian knowing subject who is drawing inferences about the external world, but a person attempting to locate himself in the world. ‘Life and the world are one.’ Or the dark saying: ‘Solipsism, when its implications are carried out strictly, coincides with pure realism. The self of solipsism shrinks to a point without extension, and there remains the reality co-ordinated with it.’ There is certainly a disappearance of the ego which undercuts the possibility of solipsistic thinking: it shows up later in the challenge to the very idea of an intrinsically private reference to an experience of mine.

Pears recalls a letter about Tractatus to Ficker, the Viennese through whom Wittgenstein channelled money for Austrian artists such as Rilke. ‘My work consists of two parts, the one presented here plus all that I have not written.’ Naturally that recalls the celebrated last sentence of the book: ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.’ But passing over in silence does not mean doing nothing. It means doing, living. This is Wittgenstein’s other ‘work’, deliberately to be put in no book. Pears quite properly says nothing of Wittgenstein’s troubled life. Without doing so we can wonder if Pears is, despite his recognition of Schopenhauer, not still too much of a British intellectual about solipsism. Can we ask, for a moment, what it would feel like to be a solipsist? I don’t mean someone grappling with our ‘knowledge of the external world’. I mean someone who actually feels alone, that there is no other world but that now being experienced by him. We can, it happens by chance, now consider just such a person, Ludwig’s mad nephew Paul Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s Nephew: A Friendship is a brief memoir by Thomas Bernhard, the poet and novelist, naturalised Austrian. It reeks of a Central Europe some thought was extinct, but the narrative begins in 1967, when Paul was 60 – although it reminisces about many earlier events. It will be read at one sitting, almost breathlessly – unless you so loathe that world that you toss the book aside in vexation. The importance of Paul for Bernhard is asserted, not described: we get no glimmering of the context of the intense conversations that were such a central part of Bernhard’s life when Paul was sane. The two were an odd pair. ‘Just as Paul for decades lived the lunatic so I for decades lived the chest patient, and as Paul for decades played the lunatic, so I for decades played the chest patient, and just as he exploited the lunatic for his ends, so I exploited the chest patient for my ends.’

Now Paul was a part-time solipsist. Part of the time he was very much in the world, racing driver, large yachts, long-suffering wife, known to every fashionable barman in Europe, devoted to divas, determining, or trying to, the success or failure of every new performance at the Staatsoper, hater of Karajan. Intensely selfish (he did, like his uncle, give away all his wealth, but self-indulgently, and ended up sponging on his relatives): a solipsist he was not. Yet part of his life, with increasing frequency as he aged, was in Ludwig Pavilion, the mental wing of the great Viennese hospital. There he stood silent in the gardens, contemplating the sun, sitting on a bench, in a world of his own, from which he was from time to time jolted by electric shocks. Whatever medical name his doctors may have given to his disease, he was, in common with some but only some of the people diagnosed as schizophrenic or paranoid or manic-depressive, quite simply solipsist, sometimes wryly but deliberately self-described in almost so many words.

Paul declined to speak of his uncle who had become famous in England. But Paul, says Bernhard, was ‘no less famous – at least in Vienna, and just there, even more famous’. He was ‘just as philosophical as his uncle Ludwig just as, the other way about, the philosophical Ludwig was just as crazy as his nephew Paul. The one, Ludwig, was possibly more philosophical, while the other, Paul, was possibly crazier, but it may be that we believed the one, the philosophical Wittgenstein, to be a philosopher only because he had put his philosophy down on paper and not his craziness, and the other, Paul, to be a lunatic merely because he had supressed and not published his philosophy and only displayed his madness.’ Most people to whom that thought might occur would be shallow or flippant: not Bernhard. Imagine Ludwig a real or at least part-time solipsist too, but using that part of his work that he did write to work on that part which consists of ‘all that I have not written’. Bernhard seems to imply only that Ludwig’s writing his philosophy down is what makes us think of him as philosophical, not crazy. But suppose that it was his very doing of philosophy that preserved him from madness? It was the writing-down of what could be written down that was Ludwig’s way of resolving the felt solipsism that he could not speak about. People like to quote Ludwig’s (rare) later remarks to the effect that philosophical activity ought not to aim at solving problems, but at therapy. This has been compared, metaphorically, to psychotherapy. We might pause, if only for a moment, to consider whether Wittgenstein might have meant just what he said, without metaphor.

[*] 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.