What Is Solipsism?

Solipsism argues that one’s mind is the only true certainty in life. As crazy as it sounds, there is some logic behind the argument.

Apr 5, 2024By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology



Solipsism is the philosophical belief that one’s mind is the only conscious entity in existence. As the argument goes, the universe only exists in your head, and when you die, it will disappear with you. While it might sound extreme, solipsism presents a way of looking at life and oneself that transcends the boundaries of philosophy itself. Although few philosophers are identified as solipsists, many are concerned by the difficulties solipsism might pose for philosophy. Even though not many people believe in solipsism, it is a theory like any other – one with many different versions. 


Solipsism Is Knowing Through Existence

Design for a print entitled “Allegory of Knowledge”, Pietro Berretini, 17th century, via The Met
Design for a print entitled “Allegory of Knowledge”, Pietro Berretini, 17th century, via The Met


Solipsism is a theory of knowledge, which – in philosophical terms – means that it is an epistemological theory. Epistemology is one of the major branches of philosophy, dealing with such questions as “What is knowledge?”, “What are the conditions of knowledge?” and “In what circumstances can we be said to know something”. In summary, solipsism can be roughly stated as follows: “all that I know is that I exist”. Or, we might state: “all that I know must follow directly from the fact of my existence”.


A Skeptical Approach Towards the World

Amassing Knowledge From the Course of Human Life, Pieter Furnius, 1570, via The Met
Amassing Knowledge From the Course of Human Life, Pieter Furnius, 1570, via The Met


At its most extreme, solipsism is an extremely skeptical attitude towards the world. This is because solipsism is largely contained in what it says that we cannot know. We cannot, for instance, know things in themselves. All we are capable of knowing is filtered through our experience of those things. Indeed, solipsism might go a little further than that. Certain philosophers – most prominently, Immanuel Kant – argue that we have no unmediated knowledge of things in themselves. However, Kant believed that the limits of knowledge lie much further from our own experience of things. He surmised that we could deduce the structure of experience, and thereby go beyond experience itself. Solipsism argues that we know less than this. Indeed, it presents an open question as to whether this kind of knowledge really deserves the name ‘knowledge’ at all. Perhaps a less loaded term like ‘awareness’ would be better suited.


Solipsism Has Interconnecting Philosophical Strands

Is a Mind a Prison?, Bob Law, 1970, via The Tate
Is a Mind a Prison?, Bob Law, 1970, via The Tate

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What is most distinctive about solipsism lies in what it calls for us to be skeptical of. Solipsism tends to involve skepticism about our knowledge of the world itself. It also involves a skepticism about the minds of others. These are two related strands of solipsism. The first – to do with the world in itself – has implications for branches of philosophy which are concerned with the world at large, and those which are concerned with our ability to know things in general. Branches of the former philosophy include metaphysics and ontology – the study of things in general and the study of being respectively (it is worth noting that the definitions of metaphysics and ontology remain controversial). The second – to do with the minds of others – naturally has implications for the philosophy of mind, but also for ethics.


Solipsism Leads to Egocentric Ethics and Ethical Nihilism

Self Portrait Wearing a Cap, William Roberts, 1931, via The Tate
Self Portrait Wearing a Cap, William Roberts, 1931, via The Tate


Because solipsism holds that only the self exists, certain ethical implications can follow from solipsism. One such implication could be a type of egocentric ethics – one which attempts to justify selfishness in our behavior. A justification might be that we can only know about our own minds, and not what is going on in other peoples’ minds. Therefore, shouldn’t we simply focus on making our own lives as good as possible? But the question is: would that be better than attempting to decide what is good for other people? It is also possible to think about the ethical implications of solipsism in another way. One could claim that the very essence of ethics relies on a recognition of the minds of others, and so solipsism can only imply a kind of ethical nihilism.



Does solipsism have any practical applications in daily life?

Solipsism, primarily a philosophical concept, doesn’t have direct practical applications in daily life as it challenges the existence of anything outside one’s mind. However, it can encourage introspection and a deeper understanding of personal perceptions and realities.


How do solipsists deal with common experiences like pain or emotions?

Solipsists approach common experiences like pain or emotions as manifestations of their own mind. They view these experiences as evidence of their existence and consciousness, interpreting them through a subjective lens that aligns with their solipsistic viewpoint.


Have there been any experiments or thought exercises to test the concept of solipsism?

There haven’t been definitive experiments to test solipsism due to its nature, which fundamentally questions the reality of external existence and other minds. However, thought experiments, such as the “brain in a vat” scenario, explore solipsism by questioning the direct knowledge of the external world, serving to stimulate philosophical inquiry and debate rather than empirically test solipsism’s validity.



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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.