Some Musings on the Concept of Solipsism
The concept of 'solipsism' has been on my mind, off and on, coming and going, or staying resident like a gadfly, for a number of years now - the concept, the thoughts surrounding it, the inadequacy of discourse or language to capture its essence, the primacy of its place in the heirarchy of modern paradigms, the effortless methods with which it (as a concept) escapes the notice of those hungry or thirsty for concrete definitions of our zeitgeist, etc. When I was a student at a major American university in the middle of the 90's, I would often take long walks around the campus at night trying to feel, in some way or another, every aspect that this concept of solipsism had brought home to me - as it visited me first unawares, and then took up permanent residence in my consciousness despite my efforts to embrace it (and thus negate it). These walks were nothing more, I believe now, than an over-hasty attempt to come to terms with something that I could never really firmly grasp in my consciousness: something that was hiding from me in the realm of the unconsciousness, in the shadows or beneath the waking world, as a miasma that clouded my eyes during the day and poisoned my sleep at night. The stories of self-absorption and solipsistic self-determination (that evolution of the subject's personality that only comes about when it is faced with utter solitude) from university years are of course familiar to you, as they are the memoranda of public record, and the evidence, when needed, to explain the sometimes-alarming (how offended you are depends on the level of your misanthropy, outward-facing aggressiveness, or bitterness) rate of suicide among college students. But the character of that life-affirming solitude has never, I believe, been truly portrayed, accept as to offer an excuse for the subject's bitterness or self-loathing later in life (I am referencing Salinger and Sylvia Plath here), or to create a sense of alienation or confusion that will be later pressed, in the course of a narrative, to bear the blame of a subject's dissassociation from 'modern life'.
Be sure: there are those who can not 'handle' solitude, for a number of reasons, based on their personal histories or characters, and even more who would be able to suffer through a lengthy bout of alienation if they were not so terrified of it that they fled at the first opportunity into the illusion of communication with anyone, even perfect strangers. But is solitude really something that is to be 'handled'? As a necessary evil, or as an unnecessary annoyance? No. Solitude, I believe is an essential element - like fire, water, air, and earth, a pure item of experience, one that can only inspire reverence or fear. In the end it is only a matter of personal choice - that existential crux - that decides one's approach. But fear serves a purpose, of course - it warns of, or keeps the subject away, from pain and suffering...and suffering, I personally believe, is at the dark heart of solitude...and thus of solipsism. Whether or not one is in a position to grasp all the ramifications of suffering is another thing altogether.
Now, due to my personal biases, the construction of my personality, my character, my personal history, etc. I happen to have an immense affinity for, and empathy with, the concept of solipsism. The concept, taken as a definition strictly or applied to in the abstract, without personal reference, is of course a red-flag, in any mainstream psychiatrist's viewpoint, for misanthropy - and because misanthropy, in this day and age, is still regarded as an abnormality, it is seen as an episode of sociopathic behavior. As I write this I am grinning at the absurdity of these viewpoints, but they are there, ripe for your senses, in the currents of thought that run rampant through the supposed intelligentsia - those that prosper at limiting the viewpoints or power structures, in the abstract once again, of others. I am weary of even trying to justify the opposite viewpoint, or of declaring the relativity of all systems of thought related to 'normality' or correctness of behavior or idealogy (the first baby steps of fascist or totalitarian power structures are implying an objective standard of behavior), and of course that exhaustion (as it stems from my view of the complete uselessness of trying to change people's minds when it comes to accepted opinions) only adds to my bitterness, rancor, or animosity. Anyone can tell you that the root of misanthropy is a disappointment of expectations, whether in relations to other people, the ways that other humans behave or think or speak, or the methods with which they attempt to survive or 'prosper': a generalized anger that has been diffused, because of a disappointment in the fulfillment of revenge motives, over the entire spectrum of humanity. Reference Nietzsche and his theory of resentment here. But I believe that misanthropy serves a number of functions, right here and now, as a particular symptom and inevitable witness of 'modern life' - the present time - if not as a universal human factor and system of behavior. It depends on your thought: is human nature a concrete, defineable system of unconscious reactions to the environment, able to be catalogued, qualified with scientific disclaimers, and sent out into the world as data, theorems proven? Or is something else entirely - a reserve of behavior and instinct that changes with the environment, suits itself to its particular needs and the contrasting strictures of the subject's experience - something that is dynamic, ever-changing, ever-growing or shrinking? An athletic structure of learned behavior and instinct rather than a reservior of 'changeless' patterns? Or is human nature, in fact, a combination of these two points-of-view? This is not the place to advance or question, in detail, the contrasting theories of human psychology - but rather I would ask you to pragmatically consider, outside of what theories of self-reflective psychology you have been given or 'educated' (indoctrinated) to accept, which view of your own psychology or the behavior of those around you feels right to you, as a purely subjective decision or evaluation of your experience.
The function that misanthropy serves is based in our ability to adequately measure, determine, and categorize our experience, and in the resulting value judgements that are placed upon that experience. The pessimist, as the saying goes, is very rarely disappointed - but is the pessimist a shoe-gazer because he is afraid of disappointment, of the pain of hopes or aspirations dashed against the wall of 'reality', the suffering that colors his horizon because of his past experiences with personal or general failure, or is he a pessimist through learned patterns of behavior - or once again, is it because pessimism has become the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, and pessimism is the survival skill handed out to him in his slow climb towards independence? In the same way, I would ask you to consider: in a misanthropic age, in an age that is hostile to man, destructive to man's creative or spiritual life on a myriad of macro- or micro-levels, could it be considered an aberration for the feeling, thinking, sensing human being to resist outworn and unappreciated optimism? Notice: society, like any organism, sponsors the prospering of any behavior that is pragmatically suited to its own survial. In a misanthropic age, where man (as a concept, abstraction, or concrete particular - the Subject) has been systematically reduced to the status of a helpess creature cowering beneath the reach of forces he can not hope to control, placate, or understand (but with this difference, considered historically: these forces are now man-made or man-sponsored), in an age where death is instananeous and random on the highways or through horrific diseases, where the 'prosthetic gods' of Freud have built an industry of war and a ritual of destruction on a global scale, where the boiling minutiae of modern life, the constant annoyances, harassments, sources of stress, etc. overwhelm a man instantly and place him at the mercy of power structures of belittlement that make him less than a cog in a giant murdering machine, where identities and faces can change with introduction of petro-chemicals, where the very laws of cause-and-effect as we have been basing our instincts on for uncounted ages, now warp, tremble, and disappear into thin air - is not pessimism, and the resultant misanthropy, not just a psychological version of our physical nausea at the experience of modern life? A turning away, in the mind and spirit, from the atrocity exhibition before us? A result of fear, perhaps, a means to protect ourselves from further trauma? How much pain, I ask, can a man take, before it corrupts his soul? Before it makes him decadent, in the Nietzschean determination?
But turning away from this aside, and back to the original questioning of the understanding of the term 'solipsism', I believe there are two general concepts of that word, both equally subject to the strictures of 'traditional' academic thinking, or the misleading currents of popular thought: one, the first common misunderstanding of the term, immune to philosophical theory or the historical basis behind the abstraction, a mistaken determination that equates the term with nihilism or psychological disease, and that politically motivated to 'misunderstand' the term in favor of a biased interpretation that sets in place a favorable environment for those that prosper beneath popular prejudices - i.e., the misunderstanding of the term that places those that are considered 'solipsistic' in positions of less power, that stains solipsists with the stigma of mental disease, or with the burden of a human 'aberration'. Second, there is the academic approach to the term: defining it, limiting it, correcting it, allowing the term to breathe fully under the microscope or bell jar of academic (read: anemic) or traditional speculation, only in order to render it harmless by infecting the indoctrinated with mistaken assumptions of the term's specificity or locus of penetration or importance. What I mean by this is: the assumption that exists, before an academic even approaches a subject of study, that his entire history of bias or prejudice - his learned manner or tradition (ritual) of examination - has the ability to deride the Subject before his investigation has started. The unconscious and conscious attitudes that an academic approaches all his subjects of study with: the notion that he has to prove or disprove with finality or risk the collapse of his 'system' (all academics seem to have 'systems' they are slaves to), the arrogance or emotional considerations that drive all the thoughts of these men, their lust for justification, glory, or whatever else, all lead, once again, to the politics of power: personal considerations, completely subjective and self-determined, color the data of 'objective' examinations. This is nothing new, of course...but it is important to consider this when you encounter an idea that is seemingly being sacrificed to the concepts of 'necessity', 'reality', or 'truth'.
I only offer this demonstration of inherent biases because 'solipsism' has been considered an academic or 'philosophical' term, one that is somehow out of the reach of laymen, and which, to understand it, one would have to undergo rigorous training (read: brain-washing) to even approach it with anything close to self-confidence. This is ridiculous. Beware the language of academics, as it is their only real method of creating structures of power, and as all systems of power, it is manipulated mainly in order to protect entrenched positions or hide weakness. One should always consider, or investigate, the source when reading something, and that goes for this writing as well.
No, as I wrote at the beginning of this essay, I understand the term 'solipsism' in a much more personal way, and thus lend my own subjective meaning to its train of conceptualizations. First among these are my attempts to rationalize, or think about, the emotions that brought my attention to the term in the first place. As I would walk around at night, lost in thought or trying, inefficaciously, to reach for a pattern of concepts that could define, to myself if to nobodyy else, what exactly it was that I was feeling - something that went completely beyond mere 'loneliness' or 'alienation' or the common conceptions of 'misanthropy' - no, I was mired, at one specific period, in an extremely decisive point in my life, in what I can only now term as a complete failure of my reason to cope with experience, to shape it, draw lessons from it, 'judge' it (placing it in an heirarchy of understanding), to understand, in short, the world around me or what I was being offered, at face value, on the streets of Austin. Here, I would say to myself, is the essense and inner pearl of reality: the heat arising in numbing waves off the sun-bleached sidewalks, the mesmerizing swirl and hum of electric lines shuttling commerce or tragedy even in the dead of night, the shuddering increase and decrease of arc lights arching above, the whisper of traffic, of conversation, of human movement all around me, the shadowed ways that I would walk and where I would find secrecy or true flashes of mystery even within the heart of a prosaic metropolis...above all the stifling repetition, multiplicity, and swarming number of moments, events, or incidents that added nightly to my store of treasured experience - dross to pick through in the heat of the day while entombed like a forgotten idol - a God in an alcove - in my room, wary, watching, sleepless.
So then, proceeding directly, you can see that I am trying to hint at the fact that I consider solipsism to be a symptom, more than anything else, of being unable to adequately process experience and assimilate it into one's understanding of the environment. This is not as simple as it seems - I believe this 'inability' to process experience is a universal malady, a fault built into our natures, a throwback to earlier times where the internal psychological structures that controlled the rate at which the human animal could adapt to the changes in his environment were limited along a space/time axis - and that humans, now pressed to adapt effortlessly to an environment that is almost constantly changing, are thrown back upon themselves, into the shells of their old experiences, memories, hidden confusions, dreams, sensoria, etc. (is this becoming redundant yet?) where they have already made themselves comfortable. Yes, this is an enormous oversimplification, and complete pseudo-science, but I am not a biologist and I would never claim to be. In fact I only evoke Social Darwinism - or my own perverted form of altruistic social darwinism - because it is something of an inside joke in my writing, and I like to mock this touchstone of pseudo-science. In any case, it is a well known psychological demonstration that I am offering here: reference, for example, the obsessive/compulsive with his mania for trying to control every single facet of his personal experience because, at bottom, in the depths of his unconscious, he feels himself cast adrift on a bottomless black ocean of limitless experience, filled with the nausea of infinite existence. Solipsists are island natives arranging every broomstick in their huts in perfect order as a hurricane bears down on them...
Self-destructiveness is encapsulated, as a virus of thought, deep inside solipsism - the logic is easy to follow: if utter alienation is the 'normal' course and result of existence, if true communication is impossible because of the limiting nature of abstractions in language (what you mean by 'table' is not the same thing as what I mean, etc.) , if all tenets of our education crumble beneath the eye of skepticism, if our goals end up destroying us, our loves dying or falling to meaninglessness, our passions only leading us to forms of imprisonment, our understanding always failing to steer us through the maze of existence...how is the solipsist to find his way back from complete self-determination and/or escapism to another (I am not saying 'better') mode of life? And if suffering leads to further pain, solipsism to a profoundly relativistic view of existence, doesn't the grand tradition of violence then step in? Violence as a means of decreasing suffering - suicide - or to increase it in others - homicide. If there are any clearer paths in our culture than the roads that lead from despair to violence, I am unaware of them. Even the young know that is equally judicious to kill others when on the edge of suicide - as if a suicide in the near future makes one somehow impervious to moral judgement - this is a lesson learned very early from the masochistic/demonstrational moral structure that fallen Calvinists such as the Americans embrace: our failures have to be tragedies on the grand scale, or they are not satisfying.The nihilism springing from solipsism, then, is a protracted suicide...an eventual suicide stretched through interactions and experience of countless hours, days, years, it is an exhibition, above all, of an atrocity waiting to happen, and the attitudes, judgements, beliefs, and character of the nihilist are the darkest results of a displayed despair. The nihilist makes an abstraction of his awareness of the nothingness behind all experience, extrapolates it, polarizes it, makes it political, paints the scenes of the world with its monochrome colors. He is a performance artist, be sure of that...and his suicide, if his art is to be seen by the rest of us as somehow 'legitimate' must constitute the final act in a sordid melodrama - but then again, 'all the world's a stage'...
18 July 2000