(Excuse the sidetrack; this should probably be a new thread.)
The Homeric Greeks thought that human beings had no private life to speak of. All their feelings were expressed publicly. Homer considered it one of Odysseus's cleverest tricks that he could cry inwardly while his eyes remained like horn.2 A thousand years later, people still had no sense of the importance of their inner lives. Saint Augustine had to work hard to convince them otherwise. For example, he called attention to the fact that one did not have to read out loud. In his Confessions, he points out that Saint Ambrose was remarkable in that he read to himself. "When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still."3 The idea that each of us has an inner life made up of our private thoughts and feelings didn't take hold until early in the 17th century when Descartes introduced the modern distinction between the contents of the mind and the rest of reality.
In one of his letters, Descartes declared himself "convinced that I cannot have any knowledge of what is outside me except through the mediation of the ideas that I have in me."4 Thus, according to Descartes, all that each of us can directly experience is the content of his or her own mind. Our access to the world is always indirect. Descartes then used reports of people with a phantom limb to call into question even our seemingly direct experience of our own bodies. He writes: I have been assured by men whose arm or leg has been amputated that it still seemed to them that they occasionally felt pain in the limb they had lost-thus giving me grounds to think that I could not be quite certain that a pain I endured was indeed due to the limb in which I seemed to feel it.5 For all we could ever know, Descartes concluded, the objective external world, including our body, may not exist; all we can be certain of is our subjective inner life.
This Cartesian conclusion was taken for granted by thinkers in the West for the next three centuries.
I keep reading things like this, and I continue to find all such statements starkly unbelievable.
No-one in the ancient or medieval world knew when to keep their mouths shut? Even with the threat of severe punishment if they said the wrong thing in the presence of the powerful?
It took Descartes to come along and say, "Hey guys, you know what? I don't know what you're thinking, and you don't know what I'm thinking! How about that? What's that you say, you don't believe me? OK then, guess what I'm thinking. Go on, have a guess! Nope ... Nope ... Nope ... No, you're all wrong. Give up? OK. Cogito ergo sum
, that's what! How'd ya like them apples? Huh?"
On the other hand, at the deepest levels of my own supposedly private self, I seem to find that I am connected with other persons in a way which I hadn't consciously suspected, and which I seem to have been deliberately keeping from myself. So I'm in favour of attempts by Heidegger and others to expose the illusory nature of the apparent separation of the individual self from other selves, and from the world as a whole.
I don't take solipsism seriously. But however much I would like
to, I cannot deny the simple and evident fact of the complete isolation of one consciousness from another. Even telepathy (which I believe happens sometimes) doesn't give us clear knowledge of what is happening in another person's mind, only fleeting intuitions, at best.
We are connected to one another in mysterious and important ways, but each person's consciousness is separate from every other person's consciousness; and surely it was always so.
What am I missing here? What am I failing to imagine? It's not as if I don't want
---------- Post added 06-06-2010 at 07:24 PM ----------
If wily Odysseus could do all of that without even having a private inner life, surely that
was his greatest trick of all!