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Objectivity and Subjectivity

August 28, 2015

Few terms carry as much authority in debate as “objective” and “subjective”.

The latter is often used (consciously or otherwise) to shut down debate by giving the impression that there are no impartial standards for the rightness or wrongness of a principle. For example, aesthetic and ethical matters are frequently said to be “subjective”. Often, an assertion that a certain matter is subjective ends an argument. For example, I recently had a debate about how we might distinguish between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. I suggested that appropriation is where an outsider makes use of a feature of a culture for their own purposes, whereas exchange involves some aspect of learning about, respecting and adopting the purposes of the feature in the relevant culture. In retort, I was told that the entire matter was “subjective and therefore fraught with difficulty”. My interlocutor did not explain the source of the difficulty. He seemed to think that merely labelling the issue as subjective was sufficient to undermine my claim.

Conversely, the label “objective” is often used in an attempt to make something immune from criticism. The most common usages of this term are attempts to defend science, some particular piece of scientific evidence or practice, certain moral principles or rules, and mathematics.

I suggest that the authority generally invested in these terms is false, and that their popularity is due to a misleading philosophical idea, which is a serious obstacle to intellectual progress.

What exactly does it mean to say that a matter is subjective or objective?

That is a difficult question to answer and it is not, to my knowledge, one which has been given a great deal of attention. That itself is some evidence to believe that when we use these terms we are in thrall to certain assumptions, which have enjoyed great influence over our way of thinking and arguing without our noticing them. If that thought is correct, then by attacking the authority of the terms “objective” and “subjective” we are also challenging these assumptions.

The best explanation I have been able to come up with of the meaning of objectivity and subjectivity, as those words are generally used, is the following: something is objective if it is true or false mind-independently. Something is subjective if it is true or false mind-dependently.

A mind-independent truth remains true regardless of what anybody thinks or feels about it. It is therefore, presumably, made true by how the world is – that is, how the world is outside of the “mental sphere”. Thus we say that a scientific truth is objective because we believe it is a truth about the world external to us. “The laws of gravity will continue to operate even if nobody believes that they will, or if no person even existed.”

By contrast, the truth or falsity of aesthetic propositions is usually considered to be mind-dependent. Consider the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. This phrase is usually used to give the impression that whether something really is beautiful depends on people’s opinions about whether that thing is beautiful.

It is essential to notice that this division of truths into the categories mind-dependent and mind-independent makes sense only if a certain view of the relation between mind and world is already assumed. Namely, it assumes that the mental sphere and the “external” world are clearly separable and distinct. Moreover, on this view, changes in one sphere need not affect the other. If, on the contrary, mind and world are closely connected and mutually affecting, then an explanation that purports to mark some proposition as purely mind-dependently or mind-independently true will be incomplete, since both mind-local and world-local factors will feature in a satisfactory explanation of the truth or falsity of a proposition. On this view things are not divided into minds and world, but rather there is a world which contains minds. Minds are just units within the world and there is no reason to think they are distinct from the world (although they may have distinctive properties).

The view that mind and world are clearly separable, distinct, and that changes in one need not cause changes in the other comes from Descartes, and it is enormously influential. It has, however, been attacked by Wittgenstein, who proposed something like the alternative view mentioned in the above paragraph.

Here I will not seek to show that Wittgenstein’s view of the relation between mind and world is correct. What I do hope to have shown is that Descartes’ view cannot be assumed without further argument, since an alternative and apparently equally plausible view is available which is not compatible with it. Hence, unless you have an argument in favour of Descartes’ view, you cannot invest any authority in the terms “objective” and “subjective”.

On the alternative (Wittgensteinian) understanding of the relation of mind and world, it is not ruled out that some truths might be entirely mind-dependent or mind-independent. However, if mind and world are closely connected and mutually affecting, the existence of such truths seems unlikely. I want to give some samples of explanations of moral and scientific propositions which can plausibly be classified as being partly mind-dependent and partly mind-independent.

Science is generally considered to be “objective”, and it does appear that scientific experiments give us direct information about how the world is independently of what anybody thinks about it. Scientific propositions are hence amongst the strongest candidates for mind-independent truths.

However, there is a strong case to say that scientific propositions are still partly mind-dependent. Any scientific hypothesis has to be formulated by using certain concepts. What the scientist looks for as evidence when it comes to empirically confirming or disconfirming the hypothesis will differ depending on her understanding of the concepts in the hypothesis. For example, Wittgenstein suggests, there could be an alien civilization which plays chess, only the moves are communicated by dance rather than on a board. If a human scientist went to study the aliens, they would likely conclude that the aliens do not play chess, since for us the meaning of “chess” is connected with certain customs, such as playing on a board, moving pieces, etc. Since this conceptual element comes into play in science, the results science gives us are partly dependent on mental decisions, such as how to define concepts.

Likewise, there is good reason to believe that the truth of moral propositions is partly mind-dependent and partly mind-independent. Hume influentially argued that sentiment alone lies at the root of morality, and this seems to me to be partly right. Who would deny that emotions and sentiments are relevant to morality? They are a central part of the human experience and a code of ethics which did not take that into account would be woefully unrealistic. But why think that Hume is right to say that there is nothing more to morality than sentiment? Why can’t natural facts about the world “outside” of the mind be relevant? For example, as a matter of contingent fact, human beings live in a state of dependency. We are dependent on others for food, water, love, and other precious resources. This may be so partly due to how our minds are, but not entirely, since it is partly due to our bodily, physical states, and is thus not entirely mind-dependent. Again, a code of ethics which failed to take our basic needs into account would be unrealistic and unhelpful.

I have just given two examples of explanations in which what is being explained is conceived as being partly mind-dependent and partly mind-independent, one regarding science and one regarding morality. When we assume that the categories objective and subjective are straightforward, neat, and useful, and think that the mere labelling of a matter as one or the other is sufficient to win or end an argument, we also fail to give explanations such as the ones just given enough respect, thought and, accordingly, criticism. I am not arguing here that those explanations are correct, although I believe that they are along the right lines. But we can scarcely even have a proper debate about whether they are right until we rid ourselves of the damaging dichotomy of objective and subjective that permeates so much philosophical debate. Let us rid ourselves of it: then things will start getting interesting.

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One Comment
  1. I really like this argument, Fionn. Just to add to the mind-dependent aspect of science, in alignment with Wittgenstein’s theory, historically what has been observed as ‘objectively correct’ has never really remained so… To scientists in the 17th Century, the world was flat, but as science is constantly developing, new truths are constantly being revealed, so in any case, I don’t think the argument of science as objective is a sound one.

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