Are There Subjective Concepts?

I can imagine four types of position on this question: (i) there are only subjective concepts (none are objective); (ii) there are only objective concepts (none are subjective); (iii) there are both subjective concepts and objective concepts; (iv) all concepts are both subjective and objective (in some respects). I am inclined to accept (iv), with (ii) as my second favorite, so I reject some standard views on this subject. Obviously the question turns on what is meant by “subjective” and “objective” in this connection. If we mean, “contributed by the mind and not by the world” by “subjective”, and “contributed by the world and not the mind” by “objective”, then the position I favor is that all concepts are partly a function of the mind and partly a function of the world. That is, our cognitive makeup partly fixes the nature of our concepts, but part is also fixed by reality, as it exists outside the mind. But I am not primarily interested in arguing for this position here; I want to discuss a more limited question–namely, is it possible for there to be both a subjective and an objective concept of the same state of affairs? Can we view (represent, describe, cognize) a single fact in two different conceptual ways, subjectively and objectively? To adopt a well-known locution, is it possible to conceive of a single property both from a particular “point of view” and also from no point of view (from “nowhere”)? Could we start by conceiving a property (fact, state of affairs) subjectively and then develop an objective way of conceiving it? Could we (do we ever) “transcend” a subjective concept and replace it with an objective concept, or simply retain both concepts? Granted, it is perfectly possible to conceive of the same property (object, kind) using two different concepts, but is it ever the case that one of these concepts is subjective and the other objective?[1]

We can accept that there are subjective and objective states or properties or facts, if by that we mean states of subjects and states of objects. Pain is a subjective state because it is a state of conscious subjects, but electric charge is a state of an object that is not a conscious subject (generally). But what about the concepts of such subjective states—are they too subjective? It is not immediately clear what this might mean, but the most obvious interpretation is that the concept of pain can be possessed only by someone who feels pain—you can only know what pain is if you have experienced it. So the concept is subject-relative: there are preconditions for possessing it that require a certain psychological makeup. There are two points to be made about this. The first is that it is not clear why this condition justifies the term “subjective”: isn’t it just a claim about the necessary conditions for possessing the concept? Why should the condition imply that the concept of pain embodies a subjective view of pain? Why not say that the concept is completely objective about pain, even though it can be acquired only by experiencing pain? Why should it imply that pain could be more objectively viewed in some other way? If the concept reveals the nature of pain as it is in itself, why is it described as “subjective”? Isn’t it entirely objective–certainly not limited or defective or biased in some way? Second, isn’t an analogous proposition true of any concept? Any concept, no matter how objective, can only be grasped by beings psychologically equipped to grasp it—isn’t that a tautology? You can only grasp the concept of electric charge if you have a certain cognitive makeup, perhaps involving language with its specific architecture (animals don’t grasp it). So that concept is also subjective-relative: it requires a certain kind of mind, a certain cognitive “point of view”. No concept can be possessed by a vacuum! The notion of an objective concept had better not require that there is no kind of mind-dependence. There are sensory “points of view” and cognitive “points of view”, and concepts can be possessed only by beings that bring those points of view to the table. So far we have found no meaningful distinction between so-called subjective concepts and objective concepts. True, the concept of electric charge doesn’t require any specific sensory apparatus to be possessed; but it is equally true that the concept of pain doesn’t require any specific cognitive apparatus to be possessed, such as that required for the understanding of physics.

Consider color: we can agree that color is a subjective phenomenon since it depends on the existence of sensory appearances, but why say that our ordinary concept of color is subjective? That certainly doesn’t follow from the subjectivity of color itself—the concept might be entirely objective. Indeed, I would defend the view that our ordinary concept of color represents color just as it intrinsically is—just as it objectively is—and that it cannot be improved upon by moving in a more objective direction. There is no such thing as an objective conception of color that is distinct from the conception we have by virtue of our experience of color (given that color is a subjective phenomenon). Thinking of color under physical concepts such as wavelength is not a more objective (more accurate) conception of color but rather a mode of thinking appropriate to the physical basis of color (compare pain and C-fiber stimulation). Our concept of red, say, is not one perspective on redness that might be supplemented or superseded by some more objective concept; it tells us what redness actually (objectively) is. So it isn’t that we have a subjective view of color that can be compared with an objective view; we simply have an objective concept of a subjective phenomenon. The fact that we can have this concept only by seeing color ourselves doesn’t entail that the concept itself fails of objectivity or is somehow “subjective”. A concept is a mode of presentation of a property and our ordinary concept of red presents it as it really is, objectively; we don’t render our concepts of color any more objectively penetrating by couching them in physical terms—on the contrary. I would say, then, that our color concepts are not subjective but objective—or better, that they are objective and also subjective in the trivial sense that you can only possess them if you have a certain type of psychological makeup. The nature of color is fully captured in our ordinary concept of color (in our ordinary knowledge of it), and that is what an objective concept is supposed to do (compare the concept of pain). A subjective concept of red might be expressed by “what reminds me of my true love”—since other people don’t share my romantic associations—but that is a far cry from our ordinary concept of red. I therefore think there is no good sense in which our color concepts are subjective. They are concepts of something subjective, but that doesn’t prove that they themselves are subjective—any more than that the objectivity of a fact implies the objectivity of any conception of it. Indeed, I would venture to assert that anyone who has an adequate concept of red has precisely the concept of red that I have, i.e. the concept that is derived from inner acquaintance with sensations of red. There is no more objective concept of red, and this concept is not subjective in any interesting sense. In fact, the whole idea that concepts contain “perspectives” on their reference is misguided (based on a false perceptual model); certainly our color concepts and concepts of sensations are not to be understood in that way.[2]

It might be thought that theoretical identification affords an illustration of subjective and objective concepts of the same thing. We have discovered that water is H2O and heat is molecular motion: aren’t these cases in which a subjective concept is coupled with an objective concept? The ordinary concepts embed our modes of sensibility while the scientific concepts don’t; the former can only be grasped by beings that share our “point of view”. But these cases repeat what we have already seen: the concepts are really objective concepts of a subjective fact. The subjective fact is the way water and heat appear to us in sensation, and this is incorporated into the concept (“the thing that appears thus and so”). We have a concept of this appearance—a sensory concept—and the appearance is a subjective fact, i.e. a fact about conscious beings: but the concept itself is not a subjective view of an appearance. It is an objective representation of something itself subjective. Anyone who shares the concept accurately and completely grasps the appearance in question; and the appearance can’t be grasped properly unless that concept is possessed. It is not that the scientific concept is another way to grasp that appearance, which is somehow more objective; it is a concept of a physical thing not of a mind-dependent mode of appearance.[3] Maybe it is true that you can only grasp the concept of that appearance by being subject to it, but why should this imply that the concept inherently involves a subjective way of apprehending what it represents? The concept denotes the appearance “directly”, just it is objectively is; it is not a subject-dependent “perspective” on its referent. It is not that in these cases we have two types of conceptualization of the very same fact or property, subjective and objective; rather, we have concepts of water and heat, the physical things, coupled with concepts of other facts, facts of appearance. The latter concepts are just as objective as the former, since they capture the objective nature of the appearance (which is a subjective fact). To repeat, concepts of the subjective are not thereby subjective concepts—just as concepts of the objective are not thereby objective concepts (“the metal I love best”). There is no coherent sense in which one’s concepts of one’s subjective states embed a subjective perspective on one’s subjective states—a “point of view” on them that might reveal more about the subject than about them.  Of course, any concept embeds something about the constitution of the conceiver, since it must be conditioned by a given cognitive structure; but that just gives us the trivial truth that all concepts have a “subjective” dimension as well as an objective one. The paradigm of a subjective way of thinking is one in which a person lets emotion interfere with reason (“Do try to be more objective and not let your emotions run away with you!”), but our ordinary concepts of subjective states are nothing like that—they don’t let emotion affect how they represent the mind.

The correct conclusion, then, is that all concepts are objective: they represent things as they objectively are (except when they don’t, as when we pick something out by reference to our personal idiosyncrasies, e.g. “my favorite metal”, “the color I most dislike”). The ordinary concepts of color or sensation or emotion are objective concepts because they pick out what they do in virtue of actual intrinsic properties of the things in question, not by virtue of accidental relations to the conceiver’s peculiarities. It isn’t that philosophical reflection has discovered that concepts we thought were objective turn out to be merely subjective. Common sense concepts are not subjective in some way that contrasts with the concepts of science. True, we perceive the world in ways conditioned by our given modes of sensibility, which are not necessarily shared by all sentient beings, but from this it doesn’t follow that any of our concepts are themselves subjective.


[1] The obvious reference here is to Thomas Nagel’s discussion of subjective and objective conceptions in The View From Nowhere (1986), particularly the first two chapters. However, inspection of Nagel’s text reveals (to me) no outright contradiction between what I maintain and what he says—though there certainly seems to be a difference of attitude and terminology. Much the same can be said about my book The Subjective View (1983).

[2] It is possible to have a subjective view of reality, as when one projects one’s subjective states onto reality, perhaps not realizing that this is what one is doing. This is plausibly what happens with color. Thus one arrives at a view of reality that has subjective elements. But none of this implies that concepts of color are subjective concepts, only that one’s perceptual view of reality involves projected subjective states. One’s entire picture of reality could be constructed from such projected subjective states without any concept being itself subjective (except in the sense of being a concept of a subjective state). There is the conceptual analogue of a use-mention confusion lurking here.

[3] None of this is to deny the distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image: it is just that both “images” are objective.


6 responses to “Are There Subjective Concepts?”

  1. Joseph K. says:

    I found this quite compelling. I feel that this is somehow related but I can’t quite express why in advance: I wonder what you think about Nagel’s “speculative proposal” that it might be possible to develop an “objective phenomenology” of experiences, by which he means descriptions of experiences that can be understood even by creatures who are unable to have them. This always struck me as vague and incoherent. What do you think about it? I’ve copy and pasted the relevant passage below.

    “I should like to close with a speculative proposal. It may be possible to approach the gap between subjective and objective from another direction. Setting aside temporarily the relation between the mind and the brain, we can pursue a more objective understanding of the mental in its own right. At present we are completely unequipped to think about the subjective character of experience without relying on the imagination-without taking up the point of view of the experiential subject. This should be regarded as a challenge to form new concepts and devise a new method-an objective phenomenology not dependent on empathy or the imagination. Though presumably it would not capture everything, its goal would be to describe, at least in part, the subjective character of experiences in a form comprehensible to beings incapable of having those experiences.

    We would have to develop such a phenomenology to describe the sonar experiences of bats; but it would also be possible to begin with humans. One might try, for example, to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see. One would reach a blank wall eventually, but it should be possible to devise a method of expressing in objective terms much more than we can at present, and with much greater precision. The loose intermodal analogies-for example, “Red is like the sound of a trumpet”-which crop up in discussions of this subject are of little use. That should be clear to anyone who has both heard a trumpet and seen red. But structural features of perception might be more accessible to objective description, even though something would be left out. And concepts alternative to those we learn in the first person may enable us to arrive at a kind of understanding even of our own experience which is denied us by the very ease of description and lack of distance that subjective concepts afford.”

    • I thought about putting in a footnote about this, but decided it would be too cumbersome. If there could be such concepts, they would be further objective concepts of experience–so there would be two types of objective concept of a subjective state. The original concept would not be shown to be merely subjective. But it is a question whether concepts of objective phenomenology make sense, since they don’t involve phenomenal qualities. Compare “subjective physiology”.

  2. Joseph K. says:

    Reading your essay “Consciousness and Content”. There you say the following: “Our concepts of the empirical world are fundamentally controlled by the character of our perceptual experience and by the introspective access we enjoy to our own minds. We can, it is true, extend our concepts some distance beyond these starting-points, but we cannot prescind from them entirely (this is the grain of truth Kant recognized in classical empiricism).” Can you explain what you mean by this?

    By the way, reading the summary of Mysterianism you give in that essay, I am struck once again by its overwhelming plausibility. Why do so many philosophers fail to grasp it when it’s so obvious? Just as there are subject matters that it is physically impossible for me to understand, lacking the requisite talents and intellectual power, so there are subject matters that it is physically impossible for humanity to understand: it just isn’t the case that a creature belonging to the species Homo Sapiens is going to come along who will understand this thing, much like it just isn’t the case that a creature belonging to the species is going to come along and jump off the surface of the earth to the moon. Some of the failure to see this point is no doubt explained by what Nagel calls “the epistemological criterion of reality,” the assumption that “only what can be understood in a certain way exists”. There’s no sense to the Mysterian thesis on this view, since whatever we can’t in principle understand is ipso facto consigned to nonexistence. Another factor might be a dearth of vivid illustrations of our cognitive limitations as a species. It is easy to be impressed with our intellectual capabilities since we are the in general smartest group in our neighborhood. The last factor I can think of is that people tend to practice self-deception when they compare their own intellect to the intellect of others, and the illusions created by this process might give rise to a fantastic concept of the nature of intellectual limitations, which might retard thinking about intellectual limitations in general, including those attached to our species.

    • I meant that our empirical concepts are not free of our sensory apparatus, so that anything radically outside the scope of that apparatus will present problems of intelligibility for us. Even innate concepts are geared to the perceivable world in some way. As to mysteries, no doubt those are some of the reasons the view is not well-received, as well as a general resistance to human denigration. I also think many people fail to grasp the positive benefits of the view. Chomsky likes to describe it as truism rather than a bold thesis.

  3. R. Persaud says:

    Wouldn’t something that can be both objective or subjective mostly like belong to another category altogether? I’m referring to the material-immaterial and the synthetic-analytic dichotomies.

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