The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Two philosophers shoveling snow

February 6, 2010

A brief non-Platonic dialogue.

Dramatis Personae:
Friedrich William Shotter-Wittgenstein (“Will”), a mind-world monist
Rene Roy Searle-Wight (“Roy”), a mind-world dualist

Roy: Hey there, Will. Surprised to see you out here shoveling snow.

Will: Hey, Roy. Why would you be surprised at that? It snowed a lot last night, and I need to get the sidewalk cleared in front of my house.

Roy: Well, can’t you mind-world monists just think the snow away? Why bother to shovel it?

Will (shaking head, to himself): Oh no, not this again.

Roy: Seriously. If you don’t believe in the separation between the mind and the world, then doesn’t it necessarily follow that the world is a figment of your imagination, or your mental projection, or something like that? And if that’s true, why are you imagining yourself this rather tiring task of shoveling snow?

Will: Roy, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a dozen times — you’re confusing mind-world monism with subjective idealism, and they’re not the same thing.

Roy (somewhat skeptically): Please, enlighten me.

Will (continuing to shovel snow): Subjective idealism is the solipsistic doctrine that nothing beyond perception exists, which implies that how we organize our perceptions is arbitrary — so we should be able to reorganize them, and thus the world.

Roy: where I come from we call that the “epistemic fallacy.”

Will: Yes, I know, and that’s actually part of the problem — you only admit two possibilities, either the world exists outside of mind or the world is a subordinate function of mind. Your “epistemic fallacy” is really just a reductio ad absurdum of subjective idealism, leaving the other pole of the dichotomy as the only option standing.

Roy: But the notion that the world is limited by what we know of it is absurd — as absurd as the notion that we make the world by organizing our perceptions. If we did, then I could make all of this snow disappear by wishing.

Will: I agree that the notion that thinking makes things so is absurd. I’m out here shoveling rather than inside wishing or praying or casting a magic spell, right?

Roy: Then you admit it — your mind-world monism is just an intellectual game, and when push comes to shove, you’re a dualist like the rest of us.

Will: How do you figure that? This isn’t going to be your uncle David’s thing about doors and windows again, is it?

Roy (grinning): How did you guess? Yes indeed, the mere fact that when you leave a building you use the door instead of walking out the second-story window shows that you respect external reality as much as the rest of us do. As does your shoveling snow.

Will (shaking head): Ah, Roy. Why is it so important for you whether or not I assent to your beliefs about how the world is put together?

Roy (sputtering): Because . . . because . . . because you’re wrong, that’s why! And because if this snow weren’t real, if it weren’t something that existed in the world outside of our consciousnesses and wills, then not only would our activity in shoveling it be an absurd waste of time, but the county officials wouldn’t feel any necessity to send out snowplows to clear the roads. It’s delusions like “the snow only exists in your mind” that lead people to cut back on funding for emergency preparedness and basic scientific research, mark my words.

Will (skeptically): I’m pretty sure that the arguments against spending more on snowplows were largely about relative priorities given the climate, but we can probably look that up online later. Scientific research — especially social scientific research in fields like Political Science — yes, you have a point there. A lot of government funding follows the logic that if science isn’t about an externally-existing world about which we could achieve completely solid and classically objective knowledge, then it’s not worth supporting. and since I know that you’re such a big fan of the government, they couldn’t possibly be wrong, could they?

Roy (fuming): Ha ha.

Will (continuing to shovel): In any event, my point is that there are options other than subjective-solipsist one that we both clearly think is absurd, and the mind-independent world that you claim to have knowledge of. I would suggest that there is another option.

Roy (exasperated): But you already admitted that you are also taking the world into account in your actions! How can you now deny that world?

Will: I never said that I was taking the world into account. I just said that I wasn’t sitting back and wishing for the snow to go away; I was out here shoveling it.

Roy: And how exactly is that different from taking the mind-independent world into account?

Will: Because I’m not conforming my mind to something mind-independent; I’m just doing what is appropriate under the circumstances.

Roy: This is just semantics.

Will: I would disagree.

Roy: Figures.

Will: But seriously, I think it’s an important distinction. In your account, the snow falls in a mind-independent way, and then all of us confront the mind-independent fact of the snowfall and take action, right?

Roy: Precisely. And I think that’s what we all did — even you, my friend.

Will: Well, even if we did — and I’m not saying that I do — that still wouldn’t prove anything except that we all assume that the snow exists independently of our minds; it wouldn’t prove that the snow actually does exist independently of our minds.

Roy: Right — it’s background assumption, like my cousin John always says.

Will: But the fact that it’s our background assumption doesn’t make it true, any more than background assumptions about the existence of witches among the Azande was true. In fact, truth and falsity are not at issue here; what matters is efficacy.

Roy: So you’re willing to accept mind-independent reality as a working pragmatic assumption?

Will: Sort of. Actually, I’m willing to accept intersubjective reality, and to reject solipsism, on that basis. But I’m not sure how we could get from intersubjective reality to mind-independent reality, so I’m not willing to accept that.

Roy: But we could all be wrong about it having snowed — we could all be laboring under a delusion out here. And, if snowfall is an intersubjective consensus, can’t we change it if we all wish hard enough?

Will: An intersubjective consensus isn’t just a summation of individual thoughts in heads; it involves publicly accessible rules and procedures, like my cousin Ludwig is fond of saying. If I said that it hadn’t snowed, you’d think that I was using the words wrong.

Roy: You would be using the words wrong, because it snowed a lot last night.

Will: Right — “it snowed” is the description that makes sense in our language-game.

Roy: So if we had a different language-game, it wouldn’t have snowed?

Will: If we had no word for snow, then we couldn’t very well say that it had snowed, could we?

Roy: But what about all of this white crap on the ground?

Will: It’s only “snow” under a particular description, within a particular language-game. And it’s only a “heavy snowfall” under a language-game that emerges from a form of life where this amount and frequency of snow is an unusual occurrence.

Roy: But it did snow.

Will: Yes, that’s what we say.

Roy: But it snowed! It really did!

Will (smiling): Now, Roy, what does saying “really” add to that sentence?

Roy: It adds a certain non-delusional reality constraint, so you can’t just pretend that it didn’t snow.

Will: But I can’t pretend that it didn’t snow — not under this language-game. We established that. So we don’t need “really,” or the notion of a mind-independent reality, to dismiss solipsism; we can do that with intersubjective consensus just fine.

Roy: But we could be wrong! Intersubjective consensus isn’t enough to ensure that our perceptions and actions are actually lining up with reality; we need to be in touch with what really exists in order to ensure that we aren’t accidentally reproducing the conditions of our own oppression. If it didn’t really snow, why are we out here shoveling? Why are we accepting what might be a coercive appropriation of our labor-power? Only knowledge of mind-independent reality can make us certain that we’re doing the right thing.

Will: You worry about whether we’re reproducing the conditions of our own oppression. I’m going to go shovel the driveway.

[Loosely inspired, as the names should indicate, by the works of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, William James, John Shotter, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rene Descartes, Roy Bhaskar, John Searle, and my ISA sparring-partner Colin Wight. Snow courtesy Snowmageddon 2010.]

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.