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Werner, Micha H. (1998):

IN DEFENCE OF SOLIPSISM?

Review of Manfred Frank: Selbstbewußtsein und Argumentation. Amsterdam 1997: Van Gorcum

Überarbeitete Fassung. Originalversion erschienen in: Ethical Perspectives 5 (1998), S. 80-82



This small booklet contains two "Spinoza Lectures" about self-conscience and argumentation, hold by the German Philosopher Manfred Frank in July 1995 in Amsterdam. The Lectures are short and easy to understand. Nevertheless they contain a lot of interesting and sometimes provoking arguments (not all of which, in my opinion, are convincing in the like manner).

Frank holds to a notion of subject, which may be called a 'Cartesian' one. According to him, Self-consciousness must be interpreted as an immediate (cf. 18 f.), infallible (cf. 17) and nonlingual (cf.32) kind of knowledge (cf. 28 f.).

In the first lecture, Frank tries to defend this interpretation against the position of naturalistic monism as well as against theorists, who interpret self-consciousness as founded in interpersonal linguistic and pragmatic structures (as for example Juergen Habermas). In the second lecture, he turns towards the theory of argumentation. He argues, that substantial arguments can never have some kind of coercive power, that they can never force agreement, because it's impossible to eliminate what he calls the 'subjective factor' (cf. 40) in argumentation. This problem of subjectivity returns on an intersubjective level by reason of the plurality of languages (cf. 50 ff.). Therefore a 'last foundation' of statements is impossible.

Frank's arguments against the naturalistic monism seems strong to me. In accordance with Colin McGinns thesis of the 'cognitive closure' of mind, Frank argues, that conscious states can never be objects of perception (cf. 15 ff.). The monists fault is to ignore this. To interpret self-consciousness as a possible object of observation, as the monists do, must lead to circularities, since, to observe x, we must always, at the same time, dispose of a kind of consciousness, which can never be identical with the observed x. Frank demonstrates this with references to problematic points in the theories of David M. Armstrong, Thomas Metzinger and Michael Tye (cf. 24 f.). The reason, why we tend to ignore the essential role of the non-propositional self-consciousness lies, according to Frank, in the traditional philosophical misconception of the world as something composed by entities, which can be objects of observation (cf. 23).

Frank's arguments against linguistic-pragmatic approaches in the philosophy of subject and also some of his arguments concerning the theory of argumentation don't seem likewise evident to me. While one surely have to concede, that self-consciousness can't be reduced to a function of lingual ascriptions, it is hard to see how self-consciousness, interpreted as a kind of knowledge, could exist without any of such ascriptions - without them, there may be some kind of awareness, but hardly self-consciousness. How could anyone have a knowledge of her or his being a self or a person, how could she or he have a knowledge of self-identity, without the ability to signify or at least to refer to such entities like persons? And how could somebody refer to something without taking part in any kind of communicative interaction?

There is another, perhaps less important, problem, which is connected with the last one. Frank's opinion seems to be in contradiction to the state of a historical development of self-conscience (understood as a kind of self-knowledge). If the philologist Bruno Snell is right, even the inhabitants of the world of Homer had no clear knowledge of their being individuals in a strong sense, since they had no concept of a person as a whole. And this phylogenetic problem returns, mutatis mutandis, as an ontogenetic one. The self-consciousness of a baby is undoubted another one than that of an adult person. The babies' awareness seems not to fulfil Frank's criterion of self-consciousness, for the baby doesn't know in the beginning, that it is person, which holds a definite place in the continuum of space and time (cf. 26 f.). But if this interpretation is right, Frank would have to show, that the genesis of self-consciousness (in the strong sense of self-knowledge) is independent of participation in communicative interaction, and that seems to be not a very promising attempt.

Furthermore, Frank's neo-Cartesianism raises the same questions, which are well-known from the Cartesian philosophy itself (respectively from the whole philosophical paradigm, which the advocates of universal pragmatics or transcendental pragmatics call 'Subjektphilosophie') and which may be hinted by the keyword 'solipsism': Within the conceptual framework of 'Subjektphilosophie', the existence of the objective world, and above all the existence of other subjects, gets questionable - but the questionability of other subjects contradicts Wittgensteins thesis of the impossibility of a private language and damages the binding force of validity claims. Frank seems to know this, since he speaks about a 'dilemma' which runs 'validity versus subjectivity' (cf. 56).

The reason for Frank's reservation against linguistic-pragmatic theories of self-consciousness may be, that his conception of speech is too narrow, since he understands it as 'the whole of what can be told in propositions' (cf. 32). He doesn't reflect on the pragmatic dimension of speech, he doesn't reflect on its 'double-structure' (Habermas), the possibility of performative use respectively the performative dimension of speech acts, which may be very important for linguistic-pragmatic interpretations of self-consciousness (cf. the important studies of Audun fsti, which Frank ignores).

The non-pragmatic conception of speech may be also the reason for problems in Frank's statements concerning the theory of argumentation: He neglects the specific, namely self-reflective, structure of transcendental-pragmatic foundations. Secondly it seems to me not convincing to suppose, that Habermas' interpretation of the 'power of the better argument' is near to causal necessity. Thirdly I think, that there is no contradiction between the power of arguments, or even the possibility of transcendental arguments, on the one hand and the free will of subjects on the other hand - freedom is not incompatible with the rational obligation to follow the best reason. Therefore it seems to me not a rational alternative to choose between 'the last foundation of rules of communicative interaction' and the 'ultimate certitude of self-aware subjectivity' (cf. p. 63 f.). Maybe it wouldn't even be possible to choose, if we were not able to 'choose' both options at the same time.




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