Scandal of unsolved problems

The Inescapable Self
April 7, 2006

In this short, lively book, written primarily for the layperson, Timothy Chappell uses sceptic epistemologies to introduce a number of ongoing themes in Western philosophy.

"The problem of the inescapable self" is Chappell's name for a group of related sceptical problems that run through moral philosophy, the philosophy of mind and action, and epistemology itself. While he does not claim that all Western philosophy is reducible to the theory of knowledge, Chappell nonetheless contends that these problems are central to it, and that it is a "scandal" that they have not yet been solved.

Thus, in some ways the book is best described as a negative introduction to philosophy, for a great part of it is designed to show that all philosophical attempts to escape the self (from Plato to Donald Davidson) have failed. The difficulty in question is that of knowing that there exists anything "external" to our own consciousness, let alone a world that contains other minds, altruistic agents who are free to act as they choose, and objective moral facts.

While Chappell's prose is on the whole clear and refreshingly devoid of unnecessary jargon, he mischaracterises some of the views he is describing.

To cite one example among many, he writes that "Berkeley's view is that Descartes was right to worry about the 'evil demon' - and failed mainly in not taking his worries far enough... Berkeley's God creates, for our benefit, a systematic illusion: the illusion that the physical world exists". But nothing could be further from the truth. Berkeley distinguishes between the physical world and the material world, concluding not only that the physical world really does exist, but that we can know this for certain.

Moreover, whatever we might make of it, Berkeley's official position is that only philosophers postulate such things as "material substance", the rest of the world making do with the true and commonsensical view that physical objects exist and that we can have knowledge of this.

Consequently, God cannot be deceiving them into thinking that a material world exists, for they think no such thing. As for philosophers, Berkeley argues that they are fooled not by God but by their own mistakes, many of which are mistakes about language. Similarly, he unfairly remarks against Wittgenstein that the latter offers "no satisfactory answer" to why questions such as "am I now dreaming?" appear to make sense if, as Wittgenstein held, they are actually nonsense. But it is common knowledge that Wittgenstein gave an elaborate account of the multifarious ways in which language (including surface grammar) can impose the illusion of sense. Indeed, Chappell himself admits as much in a different context, several chapters later, though only to dismiss Wittgenstein's efforts.

Chappell's shenanigans also raise the question of whether epistemology is really as central to philosophy as he claims. It is, no doubt, one of many ways into philosophy, but if, in the end, anti-scepticism remains a viable (if not the only serious) option, then we must surely rethink what role scepticism ought to play in our overall view.

Finally, we come to Chappell's (and others') proposed sceptical solution to the problem that proposes that while we cannot be certain that the external world exists, we have a moral reason to risk taking it on trust or faith that it does, where Chappell also says we can "realise the world by attending to it" (though I have no idea what this means).

This stance seems to me to be problematic. First and foremost, it, at best, relies on a circular argument (and, at worst, on a contradiction), for one cannot have a moral reason to do anything if one has no reason to believe that solipsism is untrue.

Second, the assertion that I am simply taking it on faith that, say, Timothy Chappell exists involves a perversion both of our ordinary notion of faith and of various theological conceptions that have been developed (and the same goes for the claim that I am taking some kind of epistemic risk in taking it to be the case that Chappell exists). There are, I think, a host of additional reasons for objecting to Chappell's "moral answer", but it would not do to appeal to them here without entering into a more detailed defence of some of the anti-sceptical arguments he dismisses in the book.

Constantine Sandis is lecturer in philosophy, Oxford Brookes University.

The Inescapable Self: An Introduction to Western Philosophy

Author - Timothy Chappell
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 288
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 297 84735 X

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