On the Limits of Language
Who is the real bloody solipsist? I think it’s me, though it may be you. If it’s you then I don’t exist, according to you. If it really is me, then why are you still reading this essay when you could just throw this paper away into the (please, recycling) bin? Unless you wrote this essay, it is very unlikely that I don’t exist. Moreover, I know I exist because I’m the one who wrote this essay and you are reading it. If I am right that I exist and that you cannot confirm objectively whether or not I exist, then I propose that either we must have a private language, or language has its limits. Ebbing away from the notion of “private languages” as nonsense, I will be arguing for the fact that language has its limits. What follows in this essay will be a series of true statements that cannot be proved true by means of language alone and for that reason I shall show that language qua (in so far as) words can be used to represent internal signs and conceptions contrary to what the conventional theory of language hopes to believe as metaphors or representations. To conclude, I will entertain an answer to my initial question “Who is the real bloody solipsist?” The point will be to present the examples.
Consider the following passage from John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, Book III, Chapter II:
“Words are sensible signs, necessary for communication of ideas. Man, though he have great variety of thoughts, and such from which others as well as himself might receive profit and delight; yet they are all within his own breast, invisible and hidden from others, nor can of themselves be made to appear. The comfort and advantage of society not being to be had without communication of thoughts, it was necessary that man should find out some external sensible signs, whereof those invisible ideas, which his thoughts are made up of, might be made known to others. For this purpose nothing was so fit, either for plenty or quickness, as those articulate sounds, which with so much ease and variety he found himself able to make. Thus we may conceive how words, which were by nature so well adapted to that purpose, came to be made use of by men as the signs of their ideas; not by any natural connexion that there is between particular articulate sounds and certain ideas, for then there would be but one language amongst all men; but by a voluntary imposition, whereby such a word is made arbitrarily the mark of such an idea.”
In consideration of the last part of this passage, where Locke argues that the connection between words and the ideas they stand for do not have any necessary connection and hence are in this manner arbitrarily conventional, I argue against it. I argue against Locke because if the connection between words and the ideas they stood for didn’t have a necessary connection, then there would be a serious lack of meaning in life in regards to our use of language as a means of thinking. Is it not the case that when I say something it is because there’s an intention or a sense of immediacy that provokes me to act and speak? Who can deny that by myself? Is my own self-willed action not what I intended to do and did it, and by doing it and watching it succeed I can affirm the fact that that immediacy within me caused the outcome of the word or act?
For example, if I wanted to bid someone farewell in English I would use a word like “goodbye”. They would perhaps respond by bidding farewell to me too and say something like “goodbye” or even “farewell, “peace”, “later”, etc. It would be very puzzling to an ordinary person if person A bid another person B farewell and both persons just stood there… perhaps uttering another farewell statement such as “goodbye” as a secondary or even tertiary utterance of the same word. At this point the ordinary person would claim that they are not speaking correctly—that they are not participating in language, at least not in the rules of language that the ordinary person is participating in. At this point the secondary and tertiary “goodbye’s” are quite arbitrary—persons A and B could’ve been uttering back and forth something like “pooppoo” and they would be in the same scenario: misunderstood by our ordinary person’s subjectivity.
In the above example, clearly there is something going on between persons A and B. They are communicating to each other and are both uttering words. We just can’t know for sure what they were doing with (the English) language, unless we asked them. Why don’t we ask them? Unless we’re paranoid solipsist, asking person A and B whether you could join in on understanding their “goodbye”/” pooppoo”-ing should be a noble venture, because it is a philosophical one. A faithful solipsist I define as one who understands what Locke understands as the “conventionality of language” and what Wittgenstein recognizes as “language-games”—a world and life where the thinking and the language to do so are represented in a way that cannot essentially describe itself yet is able to seemingly communicate thoughts and ideas. As a faithful solipsist, language surely has epistemic meaning according to the language that is being spoken—it’s just not possible to describe how it is so because people can’t fully reveal their subjectivity. It’s unable to be shown because, though it exists just like how the rules of a high intensity chess game exists, or how the meaning of language exists, it ends up being a never ending iteration of explanation if we ever try to “reveal” our subjectivity, describe how meaning in a language exists, or how I exist for you to know it without a drop of doubt.
Locke follows his claim of conventionality by stating that the meaning of words come from “a voluntary imposition, whereby such a word is made arbitrarily the mark of such an idea”. I agree and think Locke is correct in his claim that there is a “voluntary imposition” when we choose to say the words we say, but not that it is arbitrary nor is the word that it is composed of. I know that words have meaning the same way I know how to will a spinning heel kick—sometimes I don’t mean what I say, and sometimes I miss my target. Nonetheless, the meaning is there for me to confirm. If I need to be more clear, I’ll be clear enough. And, if I need to be more accurate, then I’ll be precise enough. The meaning of words should not be accounted for by some phenomenological construct that blurs the “meaning” of when I speak. If words were merely sensible signs without a natural or necessary connection between itself and the ideas they stood for, then this would be analogous to not feeling pain when you are hit with a baseball-bat or depression. These things are very undeniably real for the ordinary person, to persons A and B, and to anyone else reading this. The only things that aren’t real are what Wittgenstein states as “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” So if we can’t talk about my subjectivity or your subjectivity in a meaningful way, are we real?
“If one has to imagine someone else’s pain on the model of one’s own, this is none too easy a thing to do: for I have to imagine pain which I do not feel on the model of the pain which I do feel”
Taking the passage above as analogous to someone feeling another person’s subjectivity, Wittgenstein would assert that this would be nonsense! If one had to imagine someone else’s subjectivity on the model of one’s own’ – one wouldn’t be able to: one could not even be skeptical about others’ subjectivity. This very idea would be nonsense.
What seems to be left at this point are the things that we can talk about. That I’m sitting here at the university library, writing an essay, that I got an X-ray today, that I worked two jobs this week, that the end of this essay is about to come, etc. In all of these examples, the skeptic would insist that my words don’t have meaning because meaning requires necessity. The skeptic would follow by forcing me to a corner and demanding me to show my subjectivity otherwise she would not take me seriously because her objection is that I “lack meaning”. I, however, would turn the tables on her and present this essay again to her and add the question, as if Gödel had flown down from heaven and presented to me a sapphire trump card, “assuming this is true, prove me wrong?” In her response, she would not be able to because she would either be bringing up my claims or making her own assumptions about meaning and ways to reveal her own subjectivity to me. In either case, I would accept as an answer so long as I understood it.
From what has so far been said, we see that there is a limit to language. One of which is very important right now: we cannot give an answer in regards to “who is the real bloody solipsist?” This is because this question is nonsense, it rests in a private sphere that is beyond any possibility of conceiving in a form of language what the answer may be. If it can’t be conceived in language, then how else could it be conceived? I repeat my claim that it cannot be conceived in any thinkable way. All I know is that I am a thinking thing and although I don’t know if you or anyone else outside of my subjectivity is, I can at least find it more reasonable than not to participate in this thing we call language and life.
Philosophy concerning the notion of a private language is thus regarded as meaningless. It seems more reasonable at this point to not talk about it if what we are seeking is a sole answer. A language that cannot be known to anyone except the person who uses it could be said to be intrinsically valuable to the person herself. However, I don’t see how this value would be portrayed if the person couldn’t even articulate it in her public language and life. If philosophy would like to continue to discussion of a private language, then it would start by discussing the limits of language and seeing where we go from there. So far in this essay, we have discussed in philosophical terms the notion of solipsism and the fact that it is something philosophically meaningful yet ordinarily unproductive. For what other meaning other than a safe practice of “mental masturbation” could the notion of solipsism qua philosophy provide?
Philosophy dating back to Plato has been the practice of seeking Truth through linguistic analysis. As shown in Plato’s dialogues, particularly in Euthyphro, contemplation has always been an analysis of what we mean by certain words in order to get closer (or not) to the truth of the world and life we live. So, from our present example, why do we even need to entertain the idea of solipsism? Because if we didn’t have this idea lurking behind our consciousness when we speak, then we would be able to do everything that it prevents us from doing. Language may not even be possible since knowing the existence of others implies knowing their subjectivity. How would we understand the existence of others if we didn’t experience it for ourselves? Moreover, a world of “unsolipsistic consciousnesses” would also be able read other peoples’ minds, feel their pains, etc. We would all be subjectivity connected as one and solipsism as a notion would not exist because it may be unthinkable, unheard of, and closed out of thought. But even if it were to find its way into the language of the world of the universal consciousnesses, it would be considered as nonsense like a flying unicorn. However, they may have their own philosophical problems that may also be considered as nonsense perhaps even solipsism.
From what has so far been said, it seems like philosophical problems are necessary to dissect and analyze the nature of our relationship to the world. Problems like solipsism and duality present to us, respectively, the subjective and objective problems of language and experience. For the former we cannot feel another consciousness’ pain or subjective understanding of language, and for the latter we cannot accurately depict what is out there in the phenomenal world through our senses and thus language as metaphor for those perceptions. What other problems do we thus have? By understanding the issues at stake in our experiences, if we are to live moral lives, then we must find a way to rationalize the foundations of knowledge such that it would be more rational to be a faithful solipsist and thrive in the world rather than a pessimistic one that goes under and gives up on meaning because it’s too difficult to will faith. I conclude with quote by Bruce Lee while remarking that we are all solipsist and it is our own decisions whether or not to live with an intention of meaning, “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, passage 7.
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, passage 302.
This example was adapted by me from an essay by Severin Schroeder at the end of part 2 of “Schopenhaur’s Influence on Wittgenstein”
 Godel’s “incompleteness proof” was published as a revolutionary paper that challenged basic assumptions underlying the foundations of mathematics and logic, especially against Whitehead and Russell in “The Principia Mathematica”. Here, Godel proved how the foundations of mathematics could not be supported by a complete logical structure because it required its own system to describe its own underlying foundation.