On Mon, Oct 26, 2009 at 21:56:52
Sherrie asked this question:
What is the nature and meaning of the egocentric predicament?
I ought to try to answer Sherrie's question, as this is what my book Naive Metaphysics is largely about. The phrase 'the egocentric predicament' was used by Bertrand Russell. It belongs to another age, when 'realists' battled it out with 'idealists', and the theory of knowledge was conceived along the lines laid out by Descartes in his Meditations: How can I pass from knowledge of my existence and my mental states, to knowledge of things or subjects of experience, outside me?
In his hostile reception of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Russell accused his former pupil of giving up 'serious' philosophy. Wittgenstein's theory of 'meaning as use' failed to address the egocentric predicament. It was as if Wittgenstein couldn't see any problem about our knowledge of an external world or how it is that human beings are able to communicate with one another. In My Philosophical Development Russell remarks dryly, 'We are now told that it is not the world that we are to try to understand but only sentences.'
On this occasion, Russell was wrong.
The key argument of Wittgenstein's that Russell failed to grasp is the argument against the possibility of a private language. To show this, I will recast the argument in terms of our 'understanding of the world'. But I also want to argue that Russell was right about there being an egocentric predicament, even though he misconceived it. Valid and important though it may be, Wittgenstein's argument merely serves to sharpen the sense of paradox of there being an 'I' in relation to a world, which is at the very same time an entity in the world.
The private language argument takes the form of a reductio ad absurdum. In other words, we will start with a proposition which we seek to disprove, in order to deduce consequences which are patently absurd. As Wittgenstein succinctly explains, 'My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense' (Philosophical Investigations Para. 464).
From my Cartesian 'egocentric' standpoint, I don't know anything about the world, other than what is given to me. That there is a 'world' outside me is something that has to be proved. In that case I can bracket all my former beliefs and opinions. I don't know that the Earth exists. I don't know that I am sitting at a computer, writing these words. I don't know that I have a physical body. All I know are the thoughts, feelings and sensations that I am experiencing now.
But do I know this? What is it to 'know' something? What is the absolute basic minimum needed for knowledge? Wittgenstein's answer is: you need a means of representation, a 'language'. So long as I concentrate on this, on that which is present to my mind, without trying to describe it in any way, I do not know it. If I try to say what I know, all I can say is THIS, or point, speechlessly. (If you're into meditation, you might thing that 'this' is a very important piece of 'knowledge' but that's just a dispute about semantics, because no factual proposition follows from this.)
'No problem,' says the Cartesian. 'It's quite apparent to me that the contents of my subjective experience have variegated properties, such as colour or shape, or sound, or smell.' OK, then, give us an example. 'I see a patch of blue now.'
I am staring up at a clear blue sky. Even if there is no Earth, no sky, no physical matter I know with absolute certainty that there is this blue.
Wittgenstein has a simple question which shatters that certainty: 'How do you know the meaning that the term, 'blue' has for you?' Remember, I am only going on what I know, I am not allowed to make any assumptions of any kind. As a term in my 'private language', the word 'blue' must have a meaning. It denotes areas of my visual field which have this colour. What colour is that, exactly? 'Blue, of course!'
What kind of fact is the fact that I call this blue? Well, I just did. It's blue. And now I have just done it again. The sky (or, rather, the patch in my visual field) hasn't changed colour. It's still the same colour, blue. But how do I know that?
I don't. This is where Wittgenstein drops his hand grenade:
Always get rid of the idea of the private object in this way: assume that it constantly changes, but that you do not notice the change because your memory constantly deceives you.
(Philosophical Investigations Part II, p.207)
You don't think that this is much of a hand grenade? You don't get it?
I've chosen the quote because it's all Wittgenstein needs; the rest is just heuristics. We are talking about knowledge, and I can only say what I know. I don't know that my 'private object', the visual patch, is not constantly changing, so that each time I say or write the word 'blue' I am describing a different colour. The meaning I gave to the word 'blue' is a second private object; maybe that's changing too. If I don't know either of these things, then on the assumption that 'all I know are the thoughts, feelings and sensations that I am experiencing now', I don't know anything. Q.E.D.
Cast in this mode, the argument is one which Russell was familiar with. It's a point he made himself: When consistently thought through, solipsism, the belief that only I and my mental states exist, retreats to 'solipsism of the present moment'. All Wittgenstein's private language argument does is deliver the final coup de grace. In the present moment, there is nothing to 'know', nothing but the wordless this.
Now comes the constructive part of Wittgenstein's investigation, the part that left Russell bemused. In order for there to be a language in which I can express knowledge about the world, the meanings of the words I use cannot be up to me. The language I use is one that I learned, from other language users, and if other language users must exist, in order for me to know anything at all, then I must know a lot more than I thought I did when I conceived of myself being in an 'egocentric predicament'.
My response? I agree up to this point. But in recasting Wittgenstein's argument against a private language, I gave a hostage to fortune. I conceded one very small but significant point: that there is this. Of course, the statement I have just made is nonsense. I'm trying to say what cannot be said ('and you can't whistle it either' was C.D. Broad's pithy comment on the Tractatus, where Wittgenstein claimed that there are things that 'cannot be said but can only be shown').
To say that there is this puts me in the picture. From my subjective standpoint, I am more than just 'an other to others who are other to me'. It's a point noted by Thomas Nagel in his book The View From Nowhere. The statement, 'I am GK' states a fact, but in the sense that I mean it or seem to mean it is a fact only for me.
One reviewer of an earlier version of Naive Metaphysics alluded to an underlying theme of 'the metaphysics of presence' Derrida's memorable phrase. Well, I'm not afraid of Derrida. But here's a less metaphysically loaded way to express the point: Someone is grappling with the egocentric predicament and seeking to refute it, or escape from it; someone is deploying the private language argument against Cartesian epistemology. And that someone is me. I am the one asking the question.
There, stripped of its metaphysical trappings, is what the egocentric predicament is really about. When you do philosophy, you are gripped by a question and you try to answer it. Each person must do this for him- or herself, because philosophy is ultimately about making sense of my world, or (what amounts to the same thing) my place in relation to the world of others. That's what makes philosophy different from all other forms of knowledge.