PhilosophyCenterPhilosophyCenter | Odysseys
PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

A Question of Boundaries

A Question of Boundaries

So, this guy goes to a psychiatrist to get some help with his romantic life, which never seems to go well. The psychiatrist holds up a picture of a rectangle and asks the fellow what he sees. “That’s a window,” he says, “and there are two people in there having wild and crazy sex.” The psychiatrist then holds up a picture of a triangle and asks the man what he sees there. “That’s a keyhole,” is the reply, “and boy are they having wild and crazy sex in there.” Finally, the psychiatrist shows him a picture of a circle and asks, “And here?” The man studies it for a moment, then says, “That’s a porthole—and the people in the cabin are having wild and crazy sex.” Putting down the cards, the psychiatrist declares, “Well, I’ve heard enough. I can tell you without doubt that you’re sexually preoccupied.” “I’m sexually preoccupied?” the man replies. “They’re your dirty pictures.”

Funny joke. Not so funny when this sort of thing shows up in a real counseling session. Ideally, as we mature, we learn where we end and others begin. It’s a question of the boundaries of self. Seems simple enough. Yet many miss this crucial developmental advance, and end up caught in mazes of disowned responsibility, projection, blame-shifting, denial, exaggeration of the will, victimhood, excessive or otherwise inappropriate expectations of others, overreaction, and many other forms of what the ancient Greeks understood as a “disordered soul.”

There’s a philosophical term for this sort of failure to recognize the boundaries of self, that psychic demarcation where self ends and others begin. It’s called solipsism. According to the solipsistic position, “I alone am real.” Others are mere projections, figments of my consciousness, characters in my private play. While solipsism sounds bizarre on the face of it (and turns out to be self-contradictory), it is a position that has been to a great degree promoted by postmodern thinking, which has “deconstructed” truth into something subjective and relativistic. The doctrine of idealism, which has its roots in Platonic thought, became the central problem of modern philosophy, captured in Descartes’s famous, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”), and running through Berkeley, Hume, and Kant who, like the ancient Greek Protagoras, argued that “man is the measure of all things,” leading inevitably to the conclusion that what we call reality, and always have taken to be objectively “out there” in the world, existing independently of us, is an organized collection of sensory and thus empirical impressions—as far as we can know, made up of nothing more than the contents of our own consciousness, and thus having no identifiable “objective” or independent existence. Indeed, what else could we know but our own sensory data? There appears to be no escape from the “subjective predicament,” as it’s been called. Any reality, by definition, must be someone’s. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no experiencer present, we’re forced to conclude not only that the tree didn’t make a sound, but that there was no tree to fall. “Falling tree,” like the term “sound,” describes a certain kind of experience. “No experiencer” is a special condition that vetoes even hypothetical experience, since all experience, by definition, presupposes an experiencer, or if you prefer, a point of view.

This is not just semantics. It’s a philosophical Gordian knot that has far-reaching implications for every area of our understanding from quantum mechanics to what it means to love someone. In the subjectified world, “other” is reduced to the set of one’s reactions—in other words, otherness is denied. The complaint, “You made me angry,” serves to illustrate how this works. In such a charge, the plaintiff has projected his or her painful reactions onto another in a disowning of responsibility that seems to justify the accusation. In the denial of other, however, notice that the self also is denied, for “you made me angry” exports our authority and in doing so, forfeits the power we have to make choices about our inner life, reactions included. “They’re your dirty pictures” may be convincing to the subjectivist, but the stance comes at an extortionate price, robbing us not only of real others but also of our power to reinvent ourselves, to learn, to improve. When there is no standard for acknowledging a truth beyond our current view, there is nothing to call us to be more, to grow, to evolve. We can’t stand on subjective ground alone, or it soon becomes quicksand. Therein may lie the hope of our age. At some point, the reality of otherness must be acknowledged, in all its mystery, existing in its own right beyond our perceptions, preconceptions, stories, and projections. As Martin Buber tell us, reality in its fullest sense is discovered in the encounter between I and Thou.

We can begin to apply this in little ways that can make a big difference simply by slowing down and being willing to suspend judgments and conclusions, especially those that indict others in favor of taking responsibility for our reactions. No one can “make us mad” without our permission. The unwillingness to accept responsibility for our subjective states no doubt has ended many marriages and friendships that otherwise might have flourished. Everyone is carrying a burden, how great a burden, who can say? As Hesse writes, “To each his lot, and none is light.” If we take a moment to look at a situation through the eyes of another, we may be less inclined to condemn. To be sure, denying our inner experience can be as destructive, and at the end of the day, misappropriating responsibility, enabling, and willfully struggling to accept the unacceptable are no more sustainable than denial, projection, and exporting authority. It is, as always, a matter of balancing complementary truths. And this, as it turns out, is a matter of taking a moment to consider where the boundary lies between self and other. That moment can be an investment that pays priceless dividends.