Solipsism

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Solipsism is an important theme in the works of David Foster Wallace. While there are several forms of solipsism, it is generally understood as the idea that one's mind is the only thing one can know exists. Frequently mistaken for loneliness and anhedonia, solipsism is best understood through Hal Incandenza's experiences in the novel Infinite Jest resulting from his inability to relate to his surroundings and subsequent issues with communication.

Understanding solipsism

Epistemology

Epistemology, the area of philosophy focused on the issue of knowledge and what we can know, is the key to understanding solipsism. Fundamentally, solipsism itself becomes an issue of the limitations of knowledge. A key component of the skeptic's approach to epistemology, solipsism is difficult to refute effectively simply because it is so steadily skeptical. For instance, the solipsist can simply argue that anything, including this article you're reading and its author, are merely hallucinations or products of an artificial reality (the classic example of such being The Matrix). Furthermore, as soon as the non-skeptic tries to argue that solipsism requires something other than the mind in question to provide a basis of reality (e.g., if this is all just an elaborate dream in the mind of a sleeping being, then there must be two things: the dream and the dream's inhabitant's conscious creating this skeptical hypothesis in the first place), the skeptic can assume another dreamer is dreaming the original dreamer dreaming the skeptic's environment, and onward ad nauseam in the form of a classic "chicken and egg" paradox.

Descartes' epistemological experiment

Because solipsism rejects everything other than the mind of the solipsist, Descartes uses that setting as the initial condition of his epistemological experiment in his Meditations on First Philosophy (after accepting the possibility that everything he sees is either the work of personal madness, fiction of dream, or evil demon creating illusion for him). In Meditation II, he notes that

I am--I exist: this is certain; but how often? As often as I think; for perhaps it would even happen, if I should wholly cease to think, that I should at the same time altogether cease to be. I now admit nothing that is not necessarily true. I am therefore, precisely speaking, only a thinking thing, that is, a mind (mens sive animus), understanding, or reason, terms whose signification was before unknown to me. I am, however, a real thing, and really existent; but what thing? The answer was, a thinking thing. (Meditations II.6)

a statement similar to his famous assertion, "cogito ergo sum" - I think, therefore I am.

However, when it came to proving the existence of objects independent of the mind, Descartes' experiment hit a snag. Up to this point, he has effectively recreated solipsism through a rejection of everything but the mind. In order to escape the gravity of solipsism, Descartes tries to prove that God exists - however, his proofs in Meditations all rely on flimsy assertions, such as "God is not a deceiver", which were quickly dissected by philosophers of his time. Modern philosophers are largely of the opinion that Descartes ultimately failed in his attempt at proving the existence of external objects, which opens the door to solipsism.

Other approaches

Locke's reflection

John Locke, in his Essay Considering Human Understanding, tries to rectify the problem of solipsism from the empiricist's perspective. He does so by arguing that one cognizant of the existence of his own mind witnessing other individuals acting similarly must have their own minds in the same way I do, through a process Locke calls "Reflection" (ECHU II.i.4). However, there are several flaws with this argument. One, it doesn't account for the implications of Descartes' mind-body dichotomy; two, it supposes that similar bodies translates to similar minds, but we know that this isn't true, e.g. one could create a robot resembling a human being in every way except that it lacks free will, which might suitably confuse an observer working from the Lockean perspective (though such a robot would probably have to pass the Turing test, so that example may not be valid, but even notwithstanding robot technology, examples of other beings such as philosophical zombies seem to exclude Locke's reflection.)

Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein also analyzes the nature of solipsism and this problem of other minds in his Philosophical Investigations. Key among his contentions is that language exists to describe living human beings, and that "only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees; is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious." (I. § 281) Thus, by its very constraints, language rejects the solipsistic idea that, say, everyone but me is a robot. We find the solipsist's approach bizarre because humanity and its description is our "fountainhead", the root of language and interpretation. In other words, there's no way the sentence "everyone else is a robot" makes sense - there's no connection between the language and that concept. Wittgenstein also uses this argument to criticize the philosophical zombie and other "conceivability" arguments.

Infinite Jest

Solipsism vs. loneliness

Speaking through Hal, Wallace draws a distinction between solipsism and loneliness. Meeting with his Little Buddies, who find themselves incapable of dealing with the isolation that comes with their success and the psychic state thus required, Hal criticizes Arsalanian’s characterization of this state as solipsism. Instead, Hal emphasizes that “what we’re talking about here is loneliness.” (IJ 113) Wallace draws this distinction to underscore the fundamental flaw in the solipsistic viewpoint. For one, in Wallace’s view, Arsalanian’s perspective smacks of postmodern discontent – he critically fails to state the meaning behind this solipsistic sensation, instead expecting the concepts to speak for themselves. In effect, he is ignoring the true problem – loneliness – by expressing it in postmodern fashion. Rather than true solipsism, Arsalanian is speaking from a metaphorical perspective – nonexistence substituted for separation. However, this metaphorical language is equally disingenuous. Hal (speaking for Wallace) attempts to make a case for earnest language as an alternative to the artificiality of the postmodern metaphor. He points out to his Little Buddies that “the point is it’s ritualistic. The bitching and moaning. Even assuming they feel the way they say when they get together, the point is notice we were all sitting there all feeling the same way together.” (IJ 111, emphasis DFW's) In effect, by bringing the kids together to air their grievances, meetings like the one Hal has with his Buddies are aimed at combating isolation – in effect transforming the loneliness of the kids into togetherness by demonstrating how they are unified by their loneliness. This is the key difference between solipsism and loneliness – namely, that the set of states containing the latter does not contain all the states of the former, much in the same way that not all rectangles are squares. Arsalanian’s solipsism, in Wallace’s view, is merely a coping mechanism designed to avoid confronting the true problem: loneliness. In short, if one denies that anything else exists, he is freed from any responsibility to anyone else, using skepticism and postmodern discontent as ways to escape togetherness, which Wallace refers to as “E Unibus Pluram” – of one, many (IJ 112). In the same way, the very concept of solipsism-as-metaphor is poisonous to itself. In essence, the conception of nature defined by the idea of solipsism – namely, a lack thereof – rejects any audience, which in turn means the metaphor itself becomes a meaningless reflection of a thought that exists in the mind. The difference between solipsism and loneliness is that the former rejects the audience and thus collapses under its own metaphorical weight, while the latter provides for the possibility of escape. Wallace uses Hal to draw a distinction between postmodern solipsism and loneliness and to highlight the former’s emptiness.

In critical literature

This distinction between solipsism and loneliness is lost in some of the critical literature on Wallace. Mary K. Holland's article "'The Art's Heart's Purpose': Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest" is the primary offender in this respect. Holland's article argues that Wallace critiques the "pathological narcissism" (Holland 221) of society, but overlooks Wallace's own delineation between the isolation of narcissism and full-blown solipsism. After analyzing Freud's two conceptions of narcissism, Holland draws attention to the "solipsistic narcissism of contemporary American culture" (221), which is both an oxymoron and a fundamental misunderstanding of Wallace's argument. With respect to the former, narcissism requires an external being to create pleasure for the narcissist. While the infant may be unconscious of the difference between the mother and the self, in Freud’s “secondary narcissism”, the adult is conscious of the gap between self and other and merely chooses to distort it. But this doesn’t eliminate that difference, which puts the solipsistic narcissist in a double bind: he is forced to seek pleasure in shaping the universe in his image, but there is no universe for him to shape. Wallace is cognizant of this difference, which is why, speaking through Hal, he argues for the distinction between solipsism and loneliness. What Holland's "solipsistic narcissist" really wants is to be loved, as Freud conceived of it, and thus is alone - but they are not epistemologically isolated, just emotionally. Holland herself quotes Wallace arguing that what we are “really lonely for” is “this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pulses and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.” (695) However, this “hip empty mask” of anhedonia, the separation of pleasure from the self, is merely a stage of solipsism. As soon as the solipsist is forced to accept his own desires, pleasures, emotions, viz. his narcissism, he can’t exist within the confines of the rational mind.

Solipsism and the Entertainment

Holland's "solipsistic narcissism" exists in only one form for the non-infant: for viewers of the Entertainment, who have succeeded in returning to the infantile state. By offering the fulfillment of every desire, the Entertainment replicates the relationship between infant and mother that Freud represents as the primary form of narcissism, in which the mother fulfills every need for the child and the child in turn comes to view the mother as merely an extension of itself. In the same way, the Entertainment's endlessly cyclical nature locks the viewer in an infinite pursuit of what the film offers: an apology from one's mother, and a replication of that state we have exited by returning to the infantile form. By the first scene of the film, the Entertainment makes clear that this chase is endless, and the fact that the cartridge replays itself keeps the process going. This is the epitome of solipsism - because all who view the Entertainment are transfixed by it and incapable of thinking of anything else, they come to view the Entertainment and its content as merely an extension of themselves, reducing the universe to one object: the mind. Ironically, this solipsistic loop differs from the one between mother and child in one important way - it lacks any actual sustaining force, and thus kills its participant. In the end, Wallace contends that all of these solipsistic forces working on us, and this aspiration to return to the infantile, are merely deleterious, and will inevitably kill us.

Also see: Solipsism and Narcissism in Infinite Jest

In other works

Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness

Solipsism briefly makes an appearance in "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness." Because tennis is so psychologically intensive, Michael Joyce is incapable of letting anything else distract him, which borders on solipsism. This is encapsulated in Joyce's match with Mark Knowles, a capable player by any standard, but prone to getting distracted and frustrated by his surroundings and how the match progresses, while "Joyce, preparing to serve, will stare affectlessly straight ahead while he waits for Knowles to finish yelling, his expression sort of like the one Vegas dealers have when a gambler they're cleaning out is rude or abusive." (Tennis Player Michael Joyce 243) In essence, on the court, there is only Joyce (technically, there is also the ball, but that seems to be wrapped into the fundamental nature of the game in Joyce's eyes - abstract, mechanistic, bordering on hallucination). This singleminded focus on the game seems to extend into every other aspect of Joyce's life - Wallace at the end recognizes that the guy "really has no interests outside tennis" (253), having reduced his entire life, and, in the process, existence, to playing tennis, effectively reaching an approximation of solipsism.

Oblivion

The story Oblivion is focused on the difficulty a husband and wife have interacting with each other. Specifically, the former has been asleep while he feels he is being awoken by his wife's alleged snoring, and indeed the latter may be dreaming the entire story. This inability to distinguish reality from illusion is similar to solipsism's skeptical hypothesis.