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Schrenk, Markus (2011): Ernst Mach on the Self. The Deconstruction of the Ego as an Attempt to avoid Solipsism. [PDF, 913kB]


In his Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations (Mach 1885) the phenomenalist philosopher Ernst Mach confronts us with a difficulty: “If we regard the Ego as a real unity, we become involved in the following dilemma: either we must set over against the Ego a world of unknowable entities […] or we must regard the whole world, the Egos of other people included, as comprised in our own Ego.” (Mach 1885: 21)

In other words, if we start from a phenomenalist viewpoint, i.e., if we believe that the manifold of sensations we are confronted with is ontologically fundamental —as Mach clearly does: “For us, colors, sounds, spaces, times,… are the ultimate ele-ments” (Mach 1885: 23)—then we are in danger to end up in solipsism. Unless, that is, we assume that some underlying thing-in-itself substratum from which matter, we ourselves, and all the others emanate. The only other alter-native seems to be—and Mach advertises it vehemently for he denies any “mons-trous notion of a thing-in-itself” (Mach 1885: 6)1—that we get rid of the Ego. For, if there is no Self in the first place, then the question whether there are others dissolves. To put it the other way round, it is ok that the others do not exist because, really, I do not exist either. If the Ego is a Myth solipsism is not just wrong but nonsense.

There are two questions this paper wishes to address: first, do we need independent additional support for the denial of the Self or is the avoidance of solipsism reason enough to assume the Ego’s non-existence? I will argue that we do need additional reasons and I will evaluate those that Mach indeed gives to prove that “the primary fact is not the I, the Ego, but the elements (sensations)” (Mach 1885: 19). Second, is the deconstruction of the I, even if further sufficient support can be found, really adequate to stop us from worrying about solipsism? The doubt I will put forward is that the illusion of a Self might conjure up enough of an Ego—just like feeling a pain is having a pain, even if it is located in a phantom limb—to start us wondering whether it also occurs elsewhere.

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