Denying the Past

Among the cluster of notions known as postmodernism is the assertion that there exists nothing but the present, that no individual can know another individual (or anything at all, apart from the inside of his own head). It follows, as regards the historical enterprise, that no age can know another age, so that the historical enterprise is entirely invalid and illusory. An extreme version of this view is that there is nothing "out there" to be known about in the first place. There are then no precise solutions, no right or wrong answers, only "more or less persuasive accounts," and so "scientific" methods are irrelevant to history. At that point, the door is open to frankly advocational accounts of "history," for which sham see the Two Kinds of History page.

Ancient Claims

One version of the solipsism position holds that we see everything through our own desires; that ultimately only our own desires exist.There is nothing new in this position. It is found in the Brhad Aranyaka, the earliest of the Upanishads. BhA 2:4 (nearly identical with 4:5) puts it thus:

One holds a husband dear, you see, not out of love for the husband; rather, it is out of love for oneself (atman) that one holds a husband dear. One holds a wife dear not out of love for the wife; rather, it is out of love for oneself that holds a wife dear. . . [and so on through children, livestock, the priestly power, and finally the Whole].

This rather frigid idea is expressed on the Chinese side of the Himalayas in the famous Bridge over the Hau passage (Jwangdz 17:7) by the uptight minister Hweidz. Hweidz holds that Jwangdz cannot know if the fish swimming happily beneath them are in fact happy.

Jwangdz retorts that, by that rule, Hweidz can't know what Jwangdz knows, and so can't be sure that Jwangdz doesn't know that the fish are happy.

Thus do the sensible Chinese refute the metaphysical Indian position: Your doctrine of the impossibility of knowledge cannot prove that my knowledge is wrong. It only proves that you cannot know whether my knowledge is wrong.

The Jwangdz story ends with the possibility of being aware of other sensibilities than one's own. In this matter, we are with Jwangdz. The trap of the self is not entirely inescapable.

Modern Refutations

We should not end without quoting another famous refutation of solipsism. Boswell is speaking:

Samuel Johnson

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."

Dau/Dv Jing readers will recall that text's frequent dialogue with the reader: "How do I know this is so? By this." It may be noted that the Dauist mystic, like the careful historian, is concerned to empty himself of his own desires and distractions, as a preparation for becoming aware of something else. Whether mystical, intuitive, empathetic, or simply observational, the refutations multiply. They do not prove that awareness outside the self is perfect. They demonstrate that it is possible.

The difficulty of getting things right remains. The impossibility of getting anything right may be banished from consideration as somebody else's bad dream. We do our best. And it is sometimes good enough. Those who feel it is impossible are perhaps right, as respects themselves. If so, their best plan is probably to go into another line of work. Coal mining, for a start, might be salutary. Philosophically salutary. Of course the dust "out there" is bad for the lungs, but the question of whether there is any causative dust "out there" is the whole point at issue, is it not?

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15 June 2004 / Contact The Project / Exit to History Page