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April 14, 2005


"303. 'I can only believe that someone else is in pain, but I know it if I am.'--Yes: one can make the decision to say 'I believe he is in pain' instead of 'He is in pain'. But that is all.--What looks like an explanation here, or like a statement about a mental process, is in truth an exchange of one expression for another which, while we are doing philosophy, seems the more appropriate one.

Just try--in a real case--to doubt someone else's fear or pain."

--from Philosophical Investigations

Doubt can conquer all, if we let it. Anyone who has studied analytic philosophy has encountered the solipsistic view at one time or another; a view, specifically, that we can know nothing but what occurs in our own thoughts. All other humans may be elaborate replicas, after all--mere robots devoid of true human feelings. We might be hooked up to simulated realities, a la The Matrix. The only things we know for sure are the thoughts we have ourselves...and even those can be suspect, in certain cases.

Most traditions in analytic philosophy have attempted to give some response to the points raised by solipsism, and Wittgenstein (at least in this case) follows suit. His argument: when we want to doubt, for example, other people's pain, we can certainly do so. But what we are actually doing in such a case is switching language games, from our normal, everyday language game to a specialized one we use when we are doing philosophy.

In this specialized game, the rules allow us to doubt other people's pain. But we should not allow ourselves to think this actually has any deep meaning, because in the context of our normal language game we do no such thing. We have sympathy in some cases, empathy in others--in either case we might even feel another person's pain so acutely that it becomes our own. Again, the "depth" of the philosophical problem presented by solipsism is illusory, and only presents itself when we are twisting our language up in the way we do while working on philosophy. But this twisted-up language is not the way we actually think or act; when we go about our daily lives, the "problem" of solipsism vanishes of its own accord. (This again is reminiscent of Hume's thought, but with the opposite conclusion.)

Posted by tiet0024 at April 14, 2005 10:51 PM | Investigations


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