Group Solipsism

Oprah’s # 2 thing that she knows for sure: You define your own life, don’t let other people write your script. I used to think that this idea was existentialist, and at it’s face (excuse me, prima facie) it appears to be so. Telling a person to “define your own life” is straight out of the existentialist handbook. (By the way, there actually is one: The Ultimate Guide To Navelgazing and Self-Overexamination. I think it’s available on Amazon or something like that. Maybe not). Existentialist philosophy says that the meaning and purpose of life is defined by the individual. We have no innate nature that determines what or perhaps more importantly, who we become- which fits perfectly with the last half of the statement, ” don’t let other people write your script”. Existentialism, like Oprah, is all about how we relate to the world. Oprah’s #1 thing she knows for sure ” what you put out comes back all the time, no matter what”, certainly addresses the fact that we operate in a world with others, for and with whom our actions will be held in to account. And, like Heidegger, Oprah believes that the way that we live authentically is manifested in the way that we deal with the situations that we are “thrown” ( to use Heidegger’s term) into. The way that we act in a given situation, both believe, is reflective of who we truly are. So far, the philosophy of Ms. Winfrey seems to tell us nothing that we haven’t heard before. It may come out of the mouth of Deepak Chopra or Dr. Phil ( and you can absolutely trust that either of them has read Heidegger or Sartre, among others), but on it’s face, Oprah is giving us early 20th century French philosophy.And this totally falls in line with any other talk/advice show host that has taken a whack at the self-improvement tree of knowledge. And that’s what I thought while I started watching Oprah’s “best life ever”. I thought that she was purely, albeit a little mixed up, chatting the existentialist rag — until I thought a little harder about what she was saying. The first lightbulb ( I suppose Oprah would call it an “a-ha” moment) went off while I was watching Oprah’s show about weight. All the time she was speaking, she was singularly focused on herself. Nothing new, afterall it was Oprah. I know that existentialism, by its design, focuses attention, perhaps too much attention, on the self. After all, it’s all about figuring out how you, the individual, relates to the world. But then, I really started to pay attention: it wasn’t just ordinary self-centeredness; there was something else at work in what she was saying. The something else was revealed when Oprah said that we need to put ourselves back on out to-do list. It seems that we haven’t been self-centered enough. we’ve been spending too much time doing nice things for other people, and that is wrong. We need to reclaim the focus of our attention. We need to be at the top of the list. So, I thought, I’m at the center of the universe, and no one is going to define my life for me. I thought that defining something, especially when one is defining a life, is an act of invention or creation. It clicked: I create my life. I CREATE MY LIFE. It was if there were a flash of light and the sky suddenly parted. All my definitions are self-created. And, it seems, no one else can write the definitions for me. I am more than mastering my own life, if I follow Oprah, I am creating my own reality. I thought, this is amazing. Oprah is saying so much more to us than pop-psych clap trap that you can get any afternoon listening to Dr. Laura. Oprah is laying down some serious metaphysics. So, once more I thought about Oprah’s #2 thing she knows for sure: “You define your own life, don’t let other people write your script” I thought, that I would, break the statement in half and look at the two parts of Oprah’s #2 statement separately. I thought, what if the second half of the statement ” don’t let other people write your script” wasn’t just encouraging existentialist authenticity, but instead a statement about the states of other people’s minds? What do I know about other people’s minds, I thought. The answer: nothing. I can’t even be sure if other minds exist. Maybe this is what is motivating what Oprah is saying to us, I thought. I don’t know what intentions others have for me, so I cannot allow them to set my agenda. And if I cannot be sure of the existence of other minds, I surely cannot allow them to determine what is the best course for my life. I must be in control of what goes on in my own life because I only know what I think is good for myself. Likewise, I must be in control because I can only know myself so far as I know that I exist. So then, I looked at the first half: ” You define your own life”. I was reminded of something that I had heard that drifted along the same lines. Not to long ago, a Bush Administration staffer announced that the Bush Administration created it’s own reality. Meaning, that if the president said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, then by golly, they did, even if your “reality” contradicted theirs. (this may be a slight distortion of the real meaning of that statement, but this distortion fits the point that I am trying to make, so bear with me). Well, I think that I wouldn’t be wrong if I assumed that, as far as Ms. Oprah defines it, that “define” and “create” are similar in this context. I define who and what I am. If everyone else thinks that I am a dork, so long as I do not share the same sentiment, I am not. I must remember that I refuse to let anyone else define my life — all evidence to the contrary. If I take Oprah’s advice (to the extreme), so long as my “life” is defined by me, then that life — at least my sentiments and beliefs about that life — is true, meaning that life is my authentic or “real” life. And, being the empiricist that I am, my beliefs about the world are my basis for what I hold is true about the world. If I see the bullet to the heart kill the fisherman, than I believe that the bullet to the heart killed the fisherman. And it is true, because I cannot let others define it for me, because I cannot be sure of their intentions for me. I am the only mind that I can know, or at the very least, I am the only mind that I can trust. So, if my mind is the only mind that I can trust, and that mind is the mind that defines, or creates my life , and my life (or beliefs about) is a reflection of an overall “reality”, then I define reality. Wow. But it’s not just that, it goes further. If everyone who follows Oprah’s advise will also define their own lives, the result is the creation millions of separate “realities” — each for every Oprah viewer. If this is the case, then Oprah isn’t advocating existentialism, but group solipsism! Each of us exists in a self-defined universe of one. As crazy as it may seem, I believe that this is what Oprah is truly getting to. We not only create our own perspective on what we believe is real or true, we create our own universe — a separate entity wherein we reside, creating and changing its own separate reality as we see fit. ( so, if I say that someone is on a different world than I am, this statement may be more than mere metaphor, but a statement of fact. Stew on that for awhile). I know that there are some non-adventurous philosophers who would say that Oprah and her ilk are damaging the philosophic enterprise by allowing people like me to take what she says and distort the bejeezus out of it. I will not disagree. On the othre hand, I would also assume that there is some posmodernist who welcomes the destroyers and distorters of philosophy and welcome the opportunity of finding a new way of beating a dead horse. As disfond as I am about fence-riding, I think that there is room here to split the difference. I think that it is, at least, worth the effort to look at what our popular culture is doing to the theories that philosophers hold so near and dear to their hearts. We must remember that philosophic ideas are out there, and that it would do philosophers a little good to roll around with those who may be more clever at peddling distorted philosophical theories than they are at peddling the correct ones. But for now it seems, the media reigns, Oprah is more popular than Swinburne, and so we stand on the precipice of a new view: Oprarian philosophy. I’m not sure where Oprarian philosophy will get us, but I’m sure if it gets us to somewhere where we don’t want to go, we can simply choose to redefine it, our lives and the whole universe, and start over again. Maybe by then, some talk show host will have succesfully distorted Kant.

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2 thoughts on “Group Solipsism

  1. One thing I noticed is that even if we all define our realities, if we choose to take Oprah’s advice, we’re actually giving her the authority to tell us how to define our lives. It’s kind of paradoxical, isn’t it. We define our lives, no one writes our script…but Oprah is doing just that by telling us that we have to define our own scripts!I can’t stand Oprah…

  2. wow. i hadn’t thought about that. (I figured I would have). I guess, if I wanted to be a real worm, I’d say that yes, it appears that we are surrendering to Oprah — unless Oprah herself appeals to some sort of biological explanation, like all humans are rigged to act like such and so, so what appears to be following my (Oprah’s) orders is actually something more to do with how human brains re rigged, and not mere sheep following my lead. Of course, that pushes her away from any claim to existentialism ( I don’t think she’s actually made any), but I think that, by going reductionist, she saves her ass and we can still say that we act independent of Ms. Winfrey, despite all apearances to the contrary.

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