EXPERIENCE AND SOLIPSISM

Millar, Roderick David Gartley (1980). EXPERIENCE AND SOLIPSISM. The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000fc80

Abstract

We begin by noting that the thesis that experience is never of material objects but is rather of sense-data does, when coupled with certain plausible enough empiricist theses regarding knowledge and sense, seem to lead to dramatic solipsistic challenges to common belief about the world.

After clarifying key concepts such as those of experience, sense-data, material objects and sensibilia we argue that the arguments for the specific sense-data thesis themselves require that the thesis be reconciled with the substance of common belief about the world, e.g. that there are material objects etc. However, we argue that the two principal sorts of attempt at such reconciliation, representative realism and phenomenalism, are far from immediately convincing.

On the other hand, however, we remain unconvinced by Wittgenstein’s ’private language argument’, the point of which seems to be to establish that experience could not be of private objects such as sense-data. Neither do we find Strawson’s treatment of persons the bullwark against solipsism which it may at first appear.

In view of the difficulty into which the general thesis that experience is never of material objects leads us we give the arguments normally adduced in favour of this thesis a more thorough examination. Our main concern here is not just to establish that this thesis is mistaken but to discover precisely where and how mistakes may have been made. We identify errors in all the arguments and so continue to maintain a position of ’direct surface realism’, i.e. the position that our experience is largely of the surfaces of material objects. In this way we find that we are not committed to the sense-data thesis and can, consequently, avoid the solipsistic positions into which we seemed to be forced by the thesis if we also accepted the empiricist theses of knowledge and sense.

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