Saturday, April 19, 2014

Is It Objective or Subjective? – Clearing Up a Confusion

The terms 'objective' and 'subjective' are central and commonly used terms in discussions of facts, and in our discourse in general. They appear in everything from political and scientific discussions to informal conversations at the dinner table. But what do they mean? Do they have a clear and self-evident meaning?
It is seems commonly assumed that the meaning of these two terms is unequivocal and self-evident – that elaboration about what they mean is unnecessary. This is, however, far from the case.

Two distinct meanings
The root of most of the confusion over the terms 'objective' and 'subjective' is that both these terms have two distinct meanings, and the distinction between these is often overlooked. The one sense in which we use the terms can be said to be ontological, while the other is epistemological.[1] Expressed in common terms, we use both words in a sense that relates to “what is” in general – what we describe – and in another sense that relates to our knowledge of the world – how we describe something.
When we say that something is objective in the ontological sense, this means that we can describe it in third-person terms – in terms that are not about our direct experience, but about “objects” in the widest sense; for instance, an equation, a flying arrow, a firing neuron etc. In contrast to this, when something is subjective in the ontological sense of the term, it means that it relates to the first-person perspective – to our direct experience; the experience of an equation, the experience of a flying arrow, the experience of love etc.
So, for instance, if an arrow is flying over your head that is an objective fact in the ontological sense of this word, and if you experience this arrow then this – your particular experience – is a subjective fact in the ontological sense of the word.
In the other sense of the terms – the epistemological sense – these two words are each other's total opposites. When a description of something is objective, this means that it is not distorted or biased, while a subjective description is one that is exactly that: distorted and biased. Expressed in simpler terms, an objective description is simply a description that is true, while a subjective description is untrue. The term 'subjective fact', in the epistemological sense of this term, is therefore an oxymoron, since there obviously cannot be untrue truths. There can only be objective facts in the epistemological sense of this term – otherwise, we are not talking about facts in the first place. But, again, we can meaningfully talk about subjective facts in the ontological sense of subjectivity – if I, for instance, feel tired, this is a subjective fact about me, in the ontological sense of this term, but it is an objective description of my subjective state in the epistemological sense of the term 'objective'. It is not difficult to see how confusion about these terms can easily arise.

Points of confusion: Generalizable facts and unspecific questions
An objection might go something like: there really are truths that are not objective. For instance, just take the statement “Jones is beautiful.” Is this true or false? I think that Jones is beautiful, but this is not an objective fact – it is a subjective fact that is true for me, but not necessarily for everybody else. It is just my preference, ergo, it is a subjective fact.
If you think Jones is beautiful, this is indeed an objective fact about your experience, in the epistemological sense of the term objective (again, all facts are objective in the epistemological sense of the term; so the word 'fact' alone actually means 'objective fact'). First of all, this objection confuses a generalizable fact with an objective – a true – fact. Although these terms are commonly confused, they are not the same, since a description obviously need not be generalizable in order for it to be true – that a fact is specific and only true in one case does not negate its truth.
Another source of confusion in the question posed above, and in discussions about subjectivity and objectivity in general, is that the question being asked is unclear and not well-defined. To take the objection above as an example of this, asking whether someone is beautiful or not is an unclear question that overlooks that beauty is not an intrinsic feature of human beings even though we might experience it in that way. Whether something or someone is beautiful or not basically depends on what is going on inside the head of the beholder, and it is therefore an unclear, even meaningless, question to merely ask whether somebody is beautiful, because the question only has a clear meaning if we ask according to who. This does not, however, make the question about beauty a subjective one in the epistemological sense of this term; how beautiful we perceive someone to be is a fact – no matter who we ask, it does not change how pretty we find Jones in a specific moment (and if something does change how pretty we think Jones is, this change will still be a fact about our experience).
An assumption that seems to lurk in the objection and above, and which seems common in general, is that subjectivity in the ontological sense implies epistemological subjectivity – that we only can talk in a distorted and biased way about our own conscious experience – but this does not follow. We can talk about our experience as unbiased as we can talk about anything; after all, everything we can understand and speak about appears in our conscious experience, so if we can speak unbiased about anything, we can also speak unbiased about our conscious experience.

The interests behind knowledge and its “situatedness”
Another common objection against the claim that we can talk objectively, i.e. unbiased and factually, about anything is that we are always personally motivated in some way when we describe something, and that every description we make therefore is bound to be subjective – to be biased and not really factual. What this objection misses, however, is that whether a claim is true or false does not depend on how it has arisen or how it is used. Even if some people have made a discovery about the world with a certain motive, and no matter how morally and politically motivated that motive is – for instance, the motive to make a powerful weapon for war – that does not change the fact that the discovery they made is true.
A similar objection refers to the fact that our knowledge always is situated – it exists in a certain place and time – and therefore it must be subjective. Again, the same reply is true: the fact that our knowledge exists in a certain place and time does not make it untrue. For instance, the fact that the claim “the moon is closer to earth than the sun” just came out of my brain and now appears in your conscious experience – in a certain place and time in this world – does not make this claim false or biased in any way. It is simply a non sequitur to say that it does, and this non sequitur seems to arise exactly from confusing the ontological and the epistemological sense of the term 'subjective': it can be argued that all our knowledge is subjective in the ontological sense – that it appears in our conscious experience – but it does not follow from this that it should be subjective in the epistemological sense of the word, which it cannot be to the extend that we really have knowledge in the first place. This is why the distinction between the two different meanings of this same term is so important to be aware of.

The fact that there are two distinct meanings of both the terms 'objective' and 'subjective' reveals that we cannot merely use these terms as if their meaning is self-evident and as though the terms only have a single clear meaning. They clearly don't, and for that reason we should acquire the habit of making it clear in what sense we use the terms when we use them, and to ask ourselves in what sense they are used when we see them used. Are they being used in the ontological or in the epistemological sense? It is rarely unequivocal or self-evident.

[1] The same distinction can be found in John Searle's The Construction of Social Reality.

This post is a translated and edited version of a post previously published on