Subjective and Objective

Subjective and Objective

The distinction between subjective and objective is often used in philosophy, but it is less often articulated, still less analyzed.[1] I will do that. The task is not particularly difficult, though there are glitches to be ironed out. The distinction is well-founded and its basic nature easily understood. We can begin with the dictionary (OED) definition: for “subjective” we have “based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinion; dependent on the mind for existence”; for “objective” we have “not dependent on the mind for existence; actual”. For philosophical purposes, the second definition is the appropriate one, not the definition in terms of personal feelings etc. Many things count as subjective without being based on feelings, tastes, or opinions (see below). The main limitations of the mind-dependence definition are (a) specifying what kind of dependence, (b) saying what is meant by “the mind”, (c) the lack of any positive characterization of the objective, and (d) the restriction to the mind as the sole source of subjectivity. We don’t want to say that logical inference produces subjectivity simply because the premises of an argument are beliefs (states of the mind) on which a conclusion depends. Also, the mind is a very various thing, so what specifically generates subjectivity? Is it anything mental or only some mental things? But more important are (c) and (d). First, let’s make it explicit that we are talking about mental representations and their content: we want to know what makes a representation subjective or objective—a perception, a thought, a sentence, an item of knowledge. Then question (c) is what a mental representation is dependent on when it is objective, granted that it is not dependent on the mind (whatever that is taken to include). Also, must the subjectivity-producing fact always be a mental fact? Can it ever be a physical fact?

The answer to the first question must surely be: the world, what exists outside the mind. For simplicity, let’s just speak of the physical world: then we can say that a representation of the physical world is objective if and only if it depends on the physical world. To be more precise, it must depend on the physical world beyond the subject’s body—ordinary objects surrounding the subject. These cause instances of the representation to occur; they explain the occurrence of the representation. In short, objective representations are dependent on external objects, while subjective representations are dependent on internal states of the subject. I say “internal states” because I want to lift the restriction to mental states, for several reasons. First, a mindless zombie could in principle have subjective representations, given that it allows its representations to be influenced by internal physical states just like those occurring in someone with genuine feelings etc. Second, an eliminative materialist can make use of the subjective-objective distinction while denying that minds exist at all, so long as internal states of the subject exercise control over the formation of representations instead of external facts. Third, illness or injury could induce the subject to form beliefs that are not appropriately sensitive to external facts but stem from internal physiological pathologies—these need not be mental. Representations can be subjective just by virtue of their internal causation, whether mental or otherwise; what matters is their detachment from external reality. We might even say that the dictionary has it the wrong way round: a belief about the external world is objective if and only if it is appropriately caused by that world, while a subjective belief is one not so caused (being caused by an internal state of the subject, mental or physical). What matters, intuitively, is what led up to the formation of the belief—external objects or internal states cut off from such objects. Is the belief object-generated or subject-generated? Is it held because of the facts it concerns or is it held because of certain internal perturbations? That is the crux of the distinction.

With these glitches taken care of we can now turn to classifying philosophical positions as subjectivist or objectivist: does our definition capture the intended notions? First, color (and other secondary qualities): perceptions of color are subjective in that the origin of such perceptions lies within the perceiver, and similarly for beliefs about color. The cause of color perceptions is internal to the perceiver (according to subjectivist views), so they come out as subjective by our criterion. Perception of primary qualities comes out as objective, since it is external features of objects that cause these perceptions; exogenous not endogenous causation. Colors come from the subject; shapes come from the object. Likewise, hallucinations stem from within, whereas veridical perceptions stem from without, so the former are subjective and the latter objective. In the case of perceptual constancies, objectivity arises when (for example) the retinal image is corrected in the direction of veridicality; the image is an aspect of the organism, and it can create subjective impressions of things that belie the objective facts.[2] Image and object are out of sync and objectivity requires correction of what the image suggests. Constancies are the result of amending the proximal retinal image to fit the distal objects, i.e., removing subjectivity from the visual output. Ethical subjectivism is precisely the doctrine that values originate from inside the subject: desires, inclinations, emotions. Ethical objectivism, by contrast, claims that moral judgment is responsive to facts external to the subject. So, this pair of doctrines tracks the definition I have proposed. The same goes for aesthetic values: if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then it is in the subject, not in the object: hence aesthetic subjectivism and objectivism. Questions of taste obviously follow this model: what you happen to like is a fact about you not about the object, and therefore subjective. According to Kant, space and time are in us not in mind-independent reality; hence, representations of space and time are deemed subjective (mere appearances). Indexical representations rely on the location of the subject in space and time, so they too will count as subjective, as opposed to non-indexical representations which reflect the condition of the object represented without reference to the subject. It is all a question of whether the representational content owes its allegiance to something within (or about) the subject, or to the nature of the object represented.

We should not confuse subjectivity and objectivity with subject and object as such. All representation (intentionality) involves subject and object: a thing representing and a thing represented. So, every act of representation is both subject-involving and object-involving. There is no such thing as a view from nowhere (a subject-less view), and there is no such as a view of nothing (an object-less view). Subject and object are locked inexorably together (that is the logic of intentionality). But it doesn’t follow that all such acts are both subjective and objective; it all depends on the generation and composition of the representing content. Does it owe its existence to the world or to the mind (strictly, the internal)? The picture we have is that the external world exerts some control over how we represent it but that our inner nature also shapes how we represent things. Thus, we speak of the “subjective” and the “objective”. On occasion, both coexist in the same representation, as when we see both color and shape. Sometimes the subjectivity is undesirable, if it leads the subject into error (e.g., misperceptions of size when size constancy breaks down); but sometimes it is beneficial to the subject (e.g., in food selection or color vision). Both traits can be defended; neither is exclusively correct or useful. The search for an “absolute conception” is motivated by the reasonable ambition of expunging ourselves from our maximally objective picture of reality, but it would be misguided zealotry to try to eliminate all subjectivity from our modes of representation. Subjectivity has its uses, its virtues. Subjective and objective both deserve a place in the sun.[3]

[1] For background, see Colin McGinn, The Subjective View (1983) and Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (1986).

[2] For a discussion of objectivity and perceptual constancy see Tyler Burge, Origins of Objectivity (2010).

[3] Setting aside technical issues of formulation, I take it that what I suggest here is not particularly controversial; indeed, it might be thought not terribly exciting. I agree, but sometimes it is nice just to have something obvious for a change. And clarity is never a bad thing.

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