Subjective and objective

by Neil Rickert

I have been reading Nagel: “The view from nowhere“, where Nagel attempts to give an account of objectivity. Here’s the book summary from Wikipedia:

The View from Nowhere is a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel. Published by Oxford University Press in 1986, it contrasts passive and active points of view in how humanity interacts with the world, relying either on a subjective perspective that reflects a point of view or an objective perspective that takes a more detached perspective. Nagel describes the objective perspective as the “view from nowhere”, one where the only valuable ideas are ones derived independently.

Nagel emphasizes the idea of becoming more detached. But I did not find a good account of what it means to become detached. I’m not at all sure that one can become detached without going into clinical depression. But perhaps I misunderstand what Nagel is suggesting.

An alternative

I will suggest a different idea as to what distinguishes subjective from objective.

In my last post, I discussed the idea of standards. And I suggested that there can be several sets of standards. In particular, we can have personal stands. And, additionally, there can be community standards. Here, I considered scientific standards as being a particular case of community standards, where “community” refers to the scientific community.

My suggestion is that we make subjective judgements when we base those judgements on our personal standards. And we make objective judgements when we base them on community standards.

Notice Nagel’s idea, that subjectivity derives from a point of view. I agree with that, but I see our personal standards as defining that point of view.

Looked at this way, objectivity is also based on a point of view. But it is the point of view defined by community standards. The idea that you can have a view of the world without a point of view does not make sense to me.

In Genesis 1:2, we read “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” That’s about what the world would look like without a point of view. Perhaps a newborn infant can be said to view the world without a point of view. But that infant has to quickly develop her own point of view so as to do better than see a world that is without form and void.

There are some things for which there are no community standards. For example, people often say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” That is an admission that we have to rely on personal standards to make judgements of beauty, and that there will be an unavoidably subjective component of such judgements.

Becoming more objective

As we go through our lives, we might see ourselves as becoming somewhat more objective. As I see it, this is because we attempt to align our personal standards with the community standards. We may fall short of perfection in doing that. I expect it is because we are a social species, that we have this tendency to align our standards with those of the community.

This aligning of standard is, of course, not possible where there are no suitable community standards. We see this, in particular, in making moral judgements. There are, of course, community standards for morality. But many of our important moral judgements are with respect to situations where the community has not spoken. So there are no standards available to us, other than our own personal standards. This is perhaps why people argue over whether morality is objective.

Divided communities

It can happen that there is division in a community. We currently see such divisiveness in the USA. with Trump supporters on one side of the divide and Trump opponents on the other. These divided communities disagree on what should be the community standard. In effect, there are two sets of community standards as a result of this division. And we see that the two sides disagree about truth, because each side judges truth based on the set of standards from that sub-community.

Meaning and reference

In an earlier post, “Against semantic externalism” I argued, contra Putnam, that meaning is subjective. However, I agreed that reference can reasonably be seen as objective, so that Putnam’s argument really applies to reference rather than to meaning.

Connecting that with this current post, I can make my point as follows: there are community standards for reference, but there are only personal standards for meaning.

One Comment to “Subjective and objective”

  1. On becoming detached, (vs being attached), possibly he’s injecting a Buddhic view where such attachment to “things” is the source of suffering, not detached as in mental health syndromes.

    Liked by 2 people

%d bloggers like this: