Monday, March 10, 2014

Medieval and Modern Meanings of Subjective and Objective

The modern meaning of these terms is what everyone is familiar with, so I'll begin there.

Subjective refers to the psychological and cognitive states in contrast to the "external world." It carries solipsistic overtones ("only in my mind" or "true for me"—hence, one can already see the relativism that will follow). Therefore, when we call a perspective subjective, its denotation (explicit meaning) is simply how a person happens to think or feel about something external at that given moment. Its connotation (implicit meaning) is that such a perspective is as valid as any other subjective perspective but useless for critical analysis, which requires "objectivity" (cf. Deely, Descartes & Poinsot (2008), 46).

Objective derives from modernity's humanism, stressing the "difference of man" (John Deely, "Primary Modeling System in Animals" (2007), 2-3;
The quintessence of modernity in matters human was to stress “the difference of man”, and to embrace the conclusion that not only is the rational intellect superior to the rest of nature but also that the human being in possessing this “superior mind” is separate from nature as well. Whence developed the myth of the “objective observer” in that false sense of the word “objectivity” intended to signify synonymy with what is apart from any observation by which it may happen to become known, and in contrast with the systematically required sense of “objective” as simply that which is known by whatever means and regardless of any further status the known may or may not have in the physical environment as something common to all animals. The “objective” observer is a participant in the universe he or she observes, and there is no other kind of “observation”, certainly not one “detached” from the human condition as an animal among other animals. [1]
Objectivity in the modern sense posits the possibility that the human mind can "go outside of itself" to observe something as though the human in its (modern) subjectivity were not observing that thing, observing something as though it were unobserved, how it is "in itself." Of course, this is impossible and is a very confused position resulting from an improper understanding of human nature when Descartes displaced "rational animal" with "thinking thing" (res cognitans). Recall that Descartes in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) argues that we have greater certainty as to our aspect as intelligent beings than beings with bodies, i.e. as being physical and hence animal. But when we are no longer animals but pure intellects, we become angels. The conclusions of our senses (our bodies) become subjectivity; our minds lead to objectivity.

All of this stems from nominalism, which denies relation as being in the order of ens reale (being that exists independently of whether it is within the awareness of a mind), reducing relation simply to ens rationis (purely mind-dependent being), for when there is no relation that exists suprasubjectively, then our connection to the "external world" is cut off, for there is no relation that takes us outside of our "subjectivity." Yet we find that we still have the capacity for "objectivity," for "going out of our minds into the world." Hence arise the curious, and strictly modern, definitions of subjectivity and objectivity and the problem of the external world (as well as epistemology) and all philosophy until semiotics took off.

The medieval notions of subjectivity and objectivity are far clearer and simpler.

Subjective refers to what exists in the order of ens reale, being either in itself (esse in se; substance), being in another (esse in alio; accidents dependent upon substance), or being towards another (esse ad aliud; relation). The subjective is that which exists regardless of whether any mind is aware of that being or not (cf. Deely, ibid., 40-41).

Objective refers to what exists in relation, being towards another (esse ad aliud), specifically when there is a terminus of a relation (an "object") and this terminus is in the awareness of the knower. A relation may exist physically (e.g. the relation between parent and child) but not objectively (e.g. the child was adopted and never was told about the adoption). The relation may exist physically and objectively (e.g. the child, under a set of circumstances, comes to realize whom its true parents are). Or the relation may not exist physically (the biological parents have since passed away) but only objectively (remaining in the memory of the child). Hence "things" with subjective being become "objects" of awareness with the relation being patterned after the thing (esse in) or, if the "object" of awareness is another relation, being patterned after the relation (esse ad) (cf. Deely, ibid., 42). It is only when there is an "object," whether the relation exists on the order of ens reale or ens rationis, that there is the objective dimension.

Anyone familiar with some of the Neo-Thomistic works will also notice that many Neo-Thomists foolishly assumed the modern usage of these terms, and many apologists today still use them as such (e.g. when talking about "objective morality" vs. "subjective morality" in trying to refute relativism, all of which ends up being another form of the same thing!), not realizing that they are what we could call "crypto-nominalists," unconsciously nominalistic, just as many believers are unconsciously fideists, separating reason from faith as Dr. Michael W. Tkacz has pointed out (cf. Tkacz, "Faith, Science, and the Error of Fideism," Logos 5, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 139-155).



1. Here should be mentioned the work of one of the great cryptosemiotians of the last century, Gregory Bateson, who (1972) identified just this view of “separateness” and “superiority” as the “original sin” of modern epistemology.

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