Word Of The Day

February 21, 2010

Some words are elusive. Regardless of how many times you encounter them and look their definition up in a dictionary, the meaning slips your grasp. Retention is temporary; gone as soon as you try summoning them again.

Solipsism.

A philosophical theory that the self is the only thing that can be known or verified. A view that the self is the only reality. From the latin, solus, alone and ipse, self. One who practices solipsism is said to be a solipsist. If one tends toward solipsism, one can be labeled solipsistic.

I can read the word over and over in an attempt to commit it to memory yet invariably the definition fails to stick. It’s not as if I have a beef with the word and am subconsciously trying to keep it at bay in order not to deal with it. Like say, subcutaneous. A perfectly good word that gives me the creeps. It’s too medical-y, clinical. Brings to mind a corpse or something that is said during an autopsy. Subcutaneous reminds me of my own mortality. Subcutaneous freaks me out a little. It gets under my skin. So I don’t go out of my way to remember what it means.

Part of the problem with the word solipsism is that from a philosophical perspective a debate rages as to whether there exists a rigorous enough definition of the word for it to have any concrete meaning. If philosophers can’t agree on a definition, how can I be expected to keep on top of it? On the other hand, to a true solipsist wouldn’t the ultimate meaning of the word be theirs and theirs alone? How many solipsists does it take to screw in a light bulb? One, because who else is there to do it?

What am I talking about and why does it matter, you’re probably asking at this point. So what if there’s a word you don’t remember? There are plenty others to choose from, hundreds maybe even thousands. If only philosophers understand the word solipsism, what use is it in the real world anyway?

True enough and not to toot my own horn here and insinuate that I am the bookish type immersed in highfalutin texts but I do come across the word fairly regularly. Why just the other day I saw it used 3 times by Lewis Lapham in a Harper’s editorial from last May. (You may ask why I was reading a Harper’s magazine from last year just the other day. As a magazine subscriber, I always keep a distance of a year or so from the most current issue in order to see if what’s being written has been proven to be bullshit. If so, I then stop reading anything further that the writer has written.)

To hear Lewis Lapham use solipsism is to get the sense that it is a derogatory word. Being solipsistic in Lewis Lapham’s view is a bad thing. Militant anti-smokers represent the height of solipsism to a long time smoker like Lewis Lapham because they only see the world through their eyes, opinions and sensibilities.

The word itself drips derision. Solipsistic. Sloppy. Slurry. A staggering, incomprehensible drunk. You.. stupid, fucking solipsist, you. Onomatopoeic almost.

Yet I think the word might’ve come from a more positive place. In a pre-Socratic world of oracles, seers and divination through animal entrails, to believe that only your existence was real because everything else around you was ultimately suspect due to your perception of it through fallible human senses was to reject given orthodoxy. You were questioning societal hierarchy, authority and even the gods. It paved the way to René Descartes and his ‘I Think Therefore I Am’; one of the cornerstones of modern philosophy and scientific methodology. Solipsism once did battle with the darkness of superstition.

That modern science has proven one aspect of solipsistic theory correct – our 5 senses are undoubtedly fallible – is only a minor irony of the word’s usage today. As Lou Reed sang (channeling Benjamin Franklin), don`t believe half of what you see/And none of what you hear. Trusting our instincts, ‘gut’ or screaming front page headlines may be the surest way to get things wrong. But to believe nothing is real aside from our own existence is, well, a little shortsighted and self-absorbed. It displays an inhuman lack of empathy.

The major irony of solipsism’s fate is that its ranks have been filled with those who believe in all sorts of extraordinary things outside of their own being. The inerrant word of an all-seeing, all knowing, ineffable God. Adam Smith’s perfectly tuned invisible hand of the free market and its corresponding faith in a laissez-faire, trickle down, government bad, business good economic system. (See? We got to politics eventually.) Those with an unshakeable conviction that Avatar is the greatest movie ever.

Solipsism is now the exclusive realm of the worst kind of solipsists and the only good news about it is that I may finally have a firm grasp of what the word really means.

In our next installment of Word of the Day: epistemological.

pretentiously submitted by Urban Sophisticat