What Is Solipsism and What Are Its Main Ideas?

Have you ever wondered if the reality you perceive is a product of your own mind? Well, solipsism thinks so. Let's see what it consists of.
What Is Solipsism and What Are Its Main Ideas?
Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati

Written and verified by the philosopher Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Solipsism is a philosophical current that defends that the only thing that exists is one’s own consciousness; it says that everything we call “reality” is created by the mind. In other words, it’s a philosophical position that holds that nothing exists except the contents created by one’s own consciousness.

This idea was present in the theories of great philosophers such as René Descartes and George Berkeley. Below we’ll present the postulates of this current and discuss the criticisms it has received.

Main ideas of solipsism

The term solipsism comes from the Latin words solus, which means “alone”; and ipse, which refers to “oneself”. Therefore, its meaning in English would be “only oneself.”

Thus, the word brings the idea that only one’s own consciousness exists and that the rest of the universe (including other human beings), is nothing more than a figment of the human mind or imagination.

Only one’s own existence can be confirmed

In this case, solipsism defends that the only thing we can be certain of is our own existence. Therefore, we can never prove that anything else really exists.

One’s own experiences are private

It’s impossible to know the experiences and sensations of others, just as we can’t know whether they’re like our own.

Self is the only thing that really exists

What’s known as the external world is a perception of our own self. So, everything is reduced to this and there’s nothing that exists independently of it.

René Descartes.
René Descartes is considered to be a representative of some ideas of solipsism.

One’s own thoughts are the only true ones

There’s nothing else in the world but the individual and his consciousness. Therefore, the contents of this are the only really true elements of reality.

Objective science makes no sense

Since all knowledge is created in the mind of the individual, it makes no sense to speak of a science that objectively studies the external world and the laws that govern it.

Things are insofar as they are perceived

For solipsism, things can only exist if the subject is thinking or perceiving them. When they aren’t in the mind of the individual, they disappear or cease to be.

Types of solipsism

Within this current, different solipsistic positions can be identified. This has allowed the emergence of a typology.

Metaphysical or ontological solipsism

This is the most radical version and supports the premise that the only thing that exists is one’s own consciousness and everything else is dependent on it. An exponent of this type of solipsism would be George Berkeley, who rejected the objective existence of reality, both immediate and material.

This would be subordinated to man’s perception. In other words, the mind would be the only place where the true existence of things is found.

Gnoseological solipsism

It doesn’t necessarily deny the existence of a reality external to consciousness. But it does affirm that the only cognizable thing is that which comes from the mind, such as the ideas and sensations themselves. Therefore, the contents of consciousness are the only valid object of study

This would be the solipsism held by Descartes, who affirmed that true knowledge was obtained by exploring one’s own ideas through reason. In this case, we know things from the ideas that are formed of them in our consciousness and that are obtained from what we perceive.

In this same line, we find Christine Ladd-Franklin, who defended that human beings are mediated and limited by their way of understanding the external world. Therefore, the only certainty we have is our own perception. The rest can neither be known nor assured.

Methodological solipsism

This affirms that alone, and by oneself, we can arrive at true knowledge, independently of all social communication.

Empathic solipsism

This maintains that it’s impossible to precisely understand the experience of other sentient beings. Thus, we’ll always be isolated from others, despite the social contact we have. One of the most representative exponents of this current is Thomas Nagel.

Solipsism and emotions.
In its aspect of the study of social relations, empathic solipsism affirms that we can never know the real experience of others.

Criticism of solipsism

While it’s true that the only thing we can be more certain of is our own existence, it’s also true that there are solipsistic arguments that are untenable. And the latter has been reflected by the detractors of this current.

One objection to solipsism would be that, if it’s one’s own consciousness that produces all reality, why would someone take it upon themself to create pain and suffering for themself? Another criticism would be about language: why do we need a communication system if other people don’t exist outside our mind?

One could also question the idea of death in solipsism, whether it’s natural or provoked. When a person dies, does the mind survive or does it perish with the body? And if someone takes our life, is the attack imaginary? If so, why would we end our own life?

To the question about pain and suffering, a solipsist might respond that the pain we cause ourselves has a purpose. Whether it’s a kind of unconscious karma or a way to experience new emotions.

Likewise, another solipsistic counterargument for the existence of pain would be the need not to be bored. In this case, the pain experienced arises to entertain us.

While, for the detractors of solipsism, language serves to communicate with other humans who really exist, solipsists they that others don’t exist, so we invent a language to entertain ourselves by imagining that we speak.

The subjective to think and think ourselves

Not all solipsist positions are as radical as the ontological or metaphysical one, which denies the existence of an external world. Thus, we can find currents that affirm solipsism in one area of reality, such as knowledge or social relations.

Whatever the case may be, it’s important that we reflect on the extent to which human subjectivity permeates our lives.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.