Let this be mistaken as some kind of solipsistic meltdown, I’m not suggesting that we that we’re all living in the Matrix or that there is nothing outside my mind. By “world” I just mean a unique “intersubjective” world in which we encounter fellow subjects and speakers, understand their mental states, interpret or keep score of the grounds and consequences of their statements. Intersubjectivity is a feature of the way we think or experience things. Things are thought or experienced intersubjectively when we understand that they are also there for others or experience them as being there for others. Much of the fun of re-watching the first season of The Wire with my partner, has been our shared appreciation of its grandiloquent dialogue and richly drawn characters. The Wire is not just there for me or her, but for us.
For transcendental philosophers, roughly speaking, intersubjectivity is the sine qua non of objectivity. An object is just something that can exhibit an open-ended set of aspects or properties in a common space and time. A very similar presupposition is at work in the pragmatist idea that rationality is a social trait mediated by norm-governed linguistic behaviour. As Davidson saw particularly clearly, you cannot situate another’s utterance within the “space of reasons” unless there is common topic of conversation:
Communication depends on each communicator having, and correctly thinking that the other has, the concept of a shared world, an intersubjective world. But the concept of an intersubjective world is the concept of an objective world, a world about which each communicator can have beliefs. (Davidson 2001, 105)
But if this sharing is a mode of thought or experience then it would be an error to identify it with a mind-independent reality since thoughts and experiences are paradigmatically mind-dependent entities.
It follows that intersubjectivity would have to be a property of a certain kind of phenomenology, not of anything that would exist even if the universe was a lifeless place without phenomenology.
But who shares this intersubjective phenomenological world? Could there be creatures – like Scott Bakker’s anemone-like Walleyes – so alien that their phenomenological worlds are utterly disjoint from ours?
If there are disjoint phenomenological worlds, however, there are some topics that we can never share in common with their occupants because we cannot adopt the idiomatic perspectives they afford (unless some radical transcendental re-engineering could insert us their orbit). Thus the space of reasons may be kinked or non-unitary.
I’m not in a position to determine whether this is so. But I think it is arguable that nobody is in a position to exclude this possibility. The only way to exclude it a priori is to show that there are certain structural features of human phenomenology that would have to be shared by any significantly intelligent creature – for example, embodiment, temporality, etc. However, I’ve argued elsewhere (Roden 2013) that there are good reasons to think that much of our phenomenology is “dark” – we gain no insight into its nature from experiencing it. Since this extends to the putative structures of experience, like temporality, pure philosophical reflection gives us no fundamental insight into the nature of our experience of worldhood. Phenomenology cannot tell us what phenomenology is. To be sure, there are other avenues of inquiry that might help us grasp its nature – e.g. devising computer models of neural networks – but these provide no a priori understanding of the structure of phenomenology or the “world”.
Since the shared world is a phenomenological datum and we have no future proof knowledge of our phenomenology, then we have no a priori guarantee that this world is a common, unique intersubjective world. It follows that the “world” as experienced is not intersubjective in this sense. Thus understood, there is no world.
Davidson, D. 2001. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Roden, D. 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology.” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169-88.