A Dangerous Idea

“Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” – Napoleon Hill [Hill was a mid-20th Century author of self help books]

This is utter bullshit and dangerous. The idea that we make our own reality and that an independent reality exercises no restraint on what we do is silly, as is the notion that overcoming obstacles is a matter of re-conceptualizing them according to our will.

Since at least the mid-20th century, self-help books have promoted this view that you can create your own reality, no doubt helped along by the popularization of Sartre’s idea that we are more free than we think, radically so. Modernism’s problem, and Sartre was very much a product of this, was to throw off the shackles of tradition and the mental constraints that tradition imposes on us. Subjectivism seems to give us permission to ignore the parts of reality that hold us back, and it gradually becomes the spirit of the age. That is ironic given the importance of science to modernity.

Today this commitment to subjectivism has taken its toll. It’s now thoroughly owned by right wing radicals who have destroyed any sense of a shared reality and have undermined the authority of science along the way. From Covid 19 and climate change skepticism to Trumpian lies and the obvious facts surrounding the January 6 insurrection, they proudly occupy an alternative universe where up is down. This is the ultimate consequence of subjectivism—the loss of the concept of a shared reality.

Subjectivism was based on two insights, one perfectly good and the second more questionable. The good insight is that my experiences are my own and no one else has direct access to them. The questionable insight is that I can know best what I’m closest to, i.e., my own experience and the contents of my own mind. Throughout a certain strain in the history of philosophy, these are ginned up into a claim that there is no independent reality to which are separate experiences refer.

This form of radical subjectivism is an old idea worthy of study if one has antiquarian interest, and it supplies endless puzzles for philosophers to brood over about how we can demonstrate the existence of an independent reality. But antiquarian ideas and logical puzzles don’t travel well outside the walls of academia.

There may be no greater task we now face than to thoroughly discredit this notion. The psychological truth that the above quote and the self-help books respond to is that people are held back by what they think they cannot do and the limits that society or their own personal history imposes on them. This psychological point remains true, but the practical solution cannot be subjectivism.

The obstacle to overcoming subjectivism is this: Given that my experiences are mine and others lack access to them, how can they be tested for reliability? How can there be a non-subjective way of determining which subjective impressions hook up with reality if every attempt to do so is just another subjective impression. It seems there is no way to escape one’s subjective impressions.

In fact, there is no escape from our own subjective experiences, but the discovery of subjectivity’s limits can be found within that experience. From the fact that my experience cannot be had by someone else, it doesn’t follow that our separate experiences share no common references points nor does it follow that our separate experiences are not caused by the same independent phenomena. The fact that conceptual analysis cannot prove their reality does not entail that such common reference points don’t exist. In fact, almost all of our real-life experience suggests otherwise. We routinely act as if common reference points are shared. We successfully communicate using language, and we navigate the world in similar ways, making precisely the same assumptions about the location of objects and their basic character. When we fail to act on these assumptions our ability to navigate the world comes to a screeching halt. Given the overwhelming evidence that we share access to basic features of an independent world, the skepticism that gets subjectivism off the ground is unwarranted.

We need no proof of an independent, external world; just a practical knowledge of how the recognition of that world is embedded in every step we take no matter how private our experience of it may be.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

One thought on “A Dangerous Idea

  1. Catching up on my reading, so a bit late to this one.

    I agree with the contents of this article. In fact, I quite enjoyed the way you put to words the pain that I feel around radical subjectivism and the extreme right (does one even have to be extreme anymore to fall into this growing camp?). Interestingly (to me at least), I was discussing this exact topic with my 24 year old daughter yesterday. While I tend to be centre-left on the political spectrum, the left makes me mental with its own radical subjectivism, particularly as captured in the expression “my truth,” as in “I’m speaking my truth.” So we don’t share truths anymore? I don’t think the expression merely intends to capture “my experience.” It feels like the positing of a/the Truth without bothering to put forward any kind of coherent argument. How does one argue with another’s “truth?” It’s a bit of a conversation ender. And while the right’s subjectivism is literally planet destroying, the left’s version feels enfeebling to me. Where’s the power in “my truth?” How will we make the world a better place with my truth?

    Liked by 1 person

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