OBJECTIVE – SUBJECTIVE DISTINCTION

It is difficult to isolate a fixed sense in which philosophers understand the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective,’ even though they agree that there is a sharp contrast between them—leading to a certain looseness of understanding of the distinction itself. In philosophical discussion and debate, one has to be careful to make clear the exact sense in which one intends the notions of ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ to be understood in the context at hand.

The objective/subjective distinction is best motivated or illustrated by a few main independent contrasts that can intuitively draw. These contracts are as follows:

(i) The contrast between so-called secondary qualities (such as color) and primary qualities (such as shape, size, and mass).

(ii) The contrast between an isolated agent’s perspectival limited, and perhaps biased, perceptions and opinions; and those beliefs that arise as the consensus of a group of individuals who can communicate with, hence, can also criticize one another.

(iii) The contrast between rational agents’ subjective assessments of probabilities (often called credences); and the supposedly independent, objective chances thought to build into the physical world.

(iv) Contrast between, on the one hand, thinking of ethical or moral qualities as ‘projected’ by the mind onto the world; and, on the other hand, thinking of them as properties of agents’ characters and actions and of situations in the world, which can be discovered, represented and reflected in ethical or moral judgments.

(v) Contrasting between the ‘first-person’ perspective on experience, on the part of the perceiving subject – how things seem to me, how things feel to me; and the ‘third-person’ perspective on the world that results from observers’ shared experience of things outside of themselves.

The first contrast (i) we owe to John Locke – (“An Essay Concerning Human[e] Understanding”. Tho. Baffet, London, 1689). He highlighted the intuitive difference between the shapes and the colors of physical objects. Shapes we take to be independent of our perceiving them; colors, we realize, depend on our perceiving them. Science, Locke thought, could address only the problem of describing the primary qualities of objects, and the laws governing them. The primary qualities are shape, size, mass and location of physical bodies, in the case of the science of mechanics. There are also, of course, the forces of interaction, such as gravitational and electromagnetic forces; but these relational properties are also primary, or (metaphorically speaking) ‘colorless’. They are ‘there in the world’ independently of any perceiving subjects. Objective truth, on this view, is to be had only about primary qualities. The rest – all secondary qualities included – is at best subjective. (Secondary qualities have recently been re-named within the analytic tradition: they are now called ‘response-dependent concepts’.) Another feature of Science, stressed to a greater extent by figures later than Locke (and especially by Popper), is its independent and objective testability.

Here is where the second contrast (ii) is important. Scientific hypotheses, unlike mere subjective opinions, earn their status as attempts to get at the objective truth about the world because they can be tested and criticized and possibly even refuted through the investigations of others.

The third contrast (iii) between subjective and objective is in the modern theory of probability. There are different accounts of what probabilities are. At the ‘subjective’ end, they are taken to be degrees of belief (credences) of rational agents. At the ‘objective’ end, probabilities are thought of as long-run frequencies, or as determined by certain objective features in the physical world (such as the uniform composition and geometric symmetries of a die). Interestingly, despite the apparent gulf between these two conceptions of probability, they both satisfy the mathematical laws of probability theory due to Andrey Kolmogorov (1903–87).

The fourth contrast (iv) between subjective and objective underlies the opposing meta-ethical views of emotivism and projectivism, on the one hand, and cognitivism and realism, on the other. The issue at stake is whether ethical and moral judgments are mere expressions of emotion, desire or sentiment, which are not fact-stating; or are genuine judgments of fact that can be evaluated as true or false.

The fifth contrast (v) between subjective and objective is the one explored in greatest depth by the area of Philosophy known as Phenomenology. It has ramifications for Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics, as well as for theories of personal identity and socio-political relations. Varieties of Phenomenology are professed by philosophers in the Continental tradition, such as Franz Brentano (1838–1917), Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), Jacques Lacan (1901–81), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86), and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–61). Vestiges of the phenomenological way of thinking are arguably to be found even in the epistemologies of the analytical philosophers Bertrand Russell and Rudolf Carnap, both of whom began with the sensory data of a perceiving subject as basic or given, and sought to ‘construct’ the objects of the exernal world out of those data
(exploiting the various similarities and continuities to be descried among the data). More recently, Thomas Nagel (b. 1937) has advanced an extreme realist
phenomenological thesis: that there is something that it is like to be a bat (say), or
any other creature that senses things and acts within the world. The inner nature of that ‘being-for-itself’ (as Sartre might have put it) is in principle inaccessible to us human beings; but, for all that, says Nagel, there is something that it is like to be a radically different life-form that perceives and acts.

If, after these five very different examples, the reader still wishes to have
univocal senses for ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’, and the distinction between
them, it would appear that the best one can offer is something along the following
lines. If one thinks of an axis joining a rational agent to an external world
that contains both other agents and objects of other kinds, the rule of thumb
is that those features that are located at the agent’s end (especially within the
agent’s mind) are subjective; while those located at the other end, ‘in the world’,
are objective. But of course as soon as one takes a naturalizing view of the
agent – regarding her as a complex physical object, interacting with other objects
in a shared world – the dual prospect arises of objectivity about subjectivity, and
subjectivity about objectivity.

Neil Tennant – Introducing Philosophy – God, Mind, World and Logic



Categories: Behold The Man

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