Subjective and objective philosophy

By subjective philosophy, I mean philosophy which sees itself as basically engaged in a project of thinking about people and their experiences. In other words, subjective philosophy self-consciously reflects and portrays the self-perceived nature of people, and inevitably the self-perceived nature of the philosophers themselves.

By objective philosophy, I mean philosophy which sees itself as basically engaged in a project of describing how the world really is, and (optionally) how people really are.

In the term subjectivism, I mean to include all schools of philosophical thought which are biased towards subjective philosophy.

In the term objectivism, I mean to include all schools of philosophical thought which are biased towards objective philosophy.

Philosophy can be both objective and subjective. The two categories are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, I’m not saying that all philosophy falls into at least one of the two categories; maybe there’s philosophy which is neither objective nor subjective.

Metaphysical naturalism, a.k.a. scientific materialism, is an objectivist school of philosophical thought which is popular among the academically schooled humans of Earth in 2017. Metaphysical naturalism purports that the things that really exist are the things which figure in the theories of natural science. These theories are either the theories of the natural science of today, or the theories of some hypothetical completed natural science.

Ayn Rand is a prime example of an objectivist philosopher. She originally coined the term Objectivism. I don’t think that Ayn Rand meant the term “Objectivism” in the same sense I define the term “objectivism.”

Existentialism is a school of largely subjective philosophical thought which is popular among the academically schooled humans of Earth in 2017. Existentialists are often concerned with examining how humans look at themselves, their lives, others, and the world. This includes how our environments and our choices affect our concepts of self, life, others, and world. Existentialists commonly believe that life has no inherent meaning but humans can choose what their lives mean to them.

Postmodernism is a school of subjectivist philosophical thought which is popular among the academically schooled humans of Earth in 2017. Postmodernist philosophers (not all of them, I assume) seek to explain human ideas by explaining how those ideas arise in the context of humans’ psychologies and social lives, and considering what purposes the ideas serve for the humans who hold them. This type of project has sought to undermine the claim to objectivity of ideas in fields such as science and history. For example, see Michel Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge.

One can find simpler examples of subjective philosophy throughout culture. For example, consider the idea that it is wrong to say things which make people feel uncomfortable. This is a subjective ethical principle, because it bases ethical judgments on people’s subjective feelings of discomfort.

Immanuel Kant is an interesting example to look at. Kant (e.g., in his Critique of Pure Reason) is a skeptic about objective reality. Kant doesn’t think humans can ascertain how things in themselves are. He says that’s because our contact with objective reality is always mediated by perceptions, which are mental constructs.

Kant’s skepticism about objective reality is interestingly combined with what can appear to be a rather naive objectivism when it comes to his own psychological theories. The Critique of Pure Reason is mostly a treatise on psychology, describing the structure and features of the human mind. The theory is quite detailed. It looks to me Kant thinks his theory is objectively true for all humans and perhaps for all minds. For example, Kant writes:

For there is no other function or faculty existing in the understanding besides those enumerated in that table.

Source: Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by J.M.D. Meiklejohn (1784). Published by Barnes & Noble, Inc. (2004). Part II, §6, p. 37.

My reading of Kant is that he thought of his psychological theories as objective and true for all humans. Let me know if you have evidence against that reading.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is an example of a text with major subjective and objective concerns. In it Wittgenstein is concerned with describing how language depicts the world: an investigation of how subjects relate to objects by studying the objective intermediary of language. Wittgenstein is also concerned in the Tractatus with demonstrating the distinction between that which can and can’t be expressed. In the Tractatus, that which can’t be expressed includes “the mystical,” which is of course subjective. Quoting Wittgenstein in the Tractatus:

6.51. Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked. For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said.

6.52 We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.

6.521 The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem.

(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)

6.522 There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.

Objectivist and subjectivist philosophers have had a lot of division. For example, see Ayn Rand’s attack on subjectivism in the final chapter of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. There she writes:

The crass skepticism and epistemological cynicism of Kant’s influence have been seeping from the universities to the arts, the sciences, the industries, the legislatures, saturating our culture, decomposing language and thought.

In the history of philosophy — with some very rare exceptions — epistemological theories have consisted of attempts to escape one or the other of the two fundamental questions which cannot be escaped. Men have been taught either that knowledge is impossible (skepticism) or that it is available without effort (mysticism). These two positions appear to be antagonists, but are, in fact, two variants on the same theme, two sides of the same fraudulent coin: the attempt to escape the responsibility of rational cognition and the absolutism of reality — the attempt to assert the primacy of consciousness over existence.

To speak in generalizations, objectivism (in my sense, not the Randian sense) and subjectivism have the following dynamics.

  • Objectivism accuses subjectivism of arrogance, narcissism, or romantic weak-mindedness, for placing the self at the center of philosophy.
  • Objectivism holds itself superior for its focus on reality and its practical successes.
  • Subjectivism rasies skeptical challenges to objectivism. Subjectivism accuses objectivism of arrogance, for claiming too much insight into the real world.
  • Subjectivism accuses objectivism of being unconscious of the self’s degree of influence on philosophy.

These generalizations of course do not apply at all times or to all subjectivist or objectivist philosophies.

To put it simply, objectivism looks down on subjectivism for its self-conscious indulgence of humanness, whereas subjectivism accuses objectivism of being unconscious of its own indulgence of humanness.

“Objectivism vs. subjectivism” is not a war to be won by one side. There is no single issue at stake in the dynamics between objectivism and subjectivism. I can’t envision what a comprehensive answer to the “objectivism vs. subjectivism” question would be. I don’t think there’s just one question.

My philosophy has often been about bringing together objective and subjective philosophical threads in some coherent way. For example, I have for about seven years been concerned with the problem of reconciling rationality and mysticism. I have shared thoughts about this problem in my books Eh na? and Winning Arguments, and in my posts on

Rationality is first and foremost an objective philosophical paradigm, whereas mystical philosophy is a highly subjective philosophical paradigm. It is hard to make rationality and mysticism play nicely together. I would like to be able to point you to a nice overview of how I make them work together in my thinking, but it doesn’t exist yet. Stay tuned.

Objectivism was the prevailing philosophical mentality in my formal education. My professors were mostly just concerned with describing reality as it actually is independent of human sentiment and opinion. Even when studying humans, as in my Psychology courses at Arizona State University, my professors focused on objective studies, facts, and figures, most of the time studiously neglecting anything subjective.

This struck me as a backwards way to approach studying ourselves. To me it’s clear that much more can be learned about humans by thinking and talking, as opposed to studying human behavior in artificially limited experimental circumstances which are usually designed to demonstrate a pre-determined conclusion via statistical methods that are often flawed. Of course there are highly informative experiments in psychology, but in my opinion they are the exceptions, not the rule.

I think my experience with the Arizona State University Psychology Department exemplifies the extreme degree of intellectual aversion to the subjective which is prevalent in much of academia.

It has been personally challenging for me to publicly advocate unpopular subjective philosophical ideas, as I have done and am preparing to do further. A lot of my challenges have been caused by cognitive dissonance from the clash between subjective thinking and the ways of thinking I developed from my objectivist academic education.

I am interested in subjective philosophy centrally because I believe that it is very beneficial for us to exercise judgment in how we think about ourselves, how we think about others, and how we think about ourselves in relation to each other and the world, I think a great deal of human potential can be unlocked by thinking about these topics in more constructive ways. We humans are relying on numerous failing patterns of thought, feeling, and mentation, particularly in the areas of self and other. It is important to consider that we can choose how we think around these topics, and that the choices we make have effects on our personal and social realities.

In short, some of the most important philosophical issues are deeply personal and subjective in nature. I think it’s essential for philosophy as a whole to embrace the mysteries of subjectivity deeply and completely as possible. Equally, I think it’s essential for philosophy as a whole to embrace the mysteries of objective reality deeply and completely as possible.

Mystical philosophy is an especially problematic form of subjective philosophy. It can be accused of asserting the primacy of consciousness over existence, as Ayn Rand did. More sharply, one can accuse mysticism of asserting the primary of mystical consciousness over other forms of consciousness and existence, when it comes to discerning truth. Basically, mystical philosophy can be viewed as being supremacist, in a bad way, putting some forms of consciousness over others. That thought has been a source of a lot of cognitive dissonance for me. Here’s what I say about it.

Truth can be perceived and talked about. Generally, conscious perception of a truth precedes talking about it.

It is undeniable that some forms of consciousness are more likely than others to be correlates of true perceptions of a given kind of truth.

For example, the consciousness of a sober, sane, awake adult human will yield perceptions of their immediate physical surroundings which are reliably true. Humans make errors in perception, but our sensory perceptions are typically accurate to reality.

On the other hand, schizophrenic psychosis frequently involves hallucinations and delusions: highly convincing perceptions of phenomena that are not real. (If the phenomena are real, then the diagnosis of hallucination or delusion is mistaken.)

Unlike the consciousness of a sober, sane, awake adult human, the consciousness of a schizophrenic is not a reliable correlate of true perceptions.

To give another example, the consciousness of a professional mathematician is a far better tool for discerning mathematical truths than the consciousness of somebody with no training in math.

It is not necessarily an attractive reality that some forms of consciousness are better than others as correlates of true perceptions. It is, however, a reality.

Whereas I think the examples of the schizophrenic and the mathematician will arouse little controversy, there is much more basis for controversy about whether mystical consciousness is a usual correlate of true perceptions. This is a matter of opinion. People are free to reject the point of view that mysticism is a source of truth, and I’m not aware of any general way to talk people out of the point of view that mystical consciousness is a variety of true perception.

Nonetheless, I believe that mystical philosophy has the potential to help people to unlock their inner potentials. I believe I have witnessed how mysticism has helped to bring depth and energy to my consciousness. I have attempted to demonstrate this energy and depth in my philosophy (to what success, the reader to judge). I feel an urgency from a service to others perspective to create new and useful mystical philosophy to share with others.

To balance these conflicting concerns, I think it’s useful to say that anybody who isn’t interested in mystical philosophy should ignore it. I also think it’s useful to say that the recognition of truth in mystical philosophy is rooted in subjective perception. Therefore if an idea in mystical philosophy doesn’t resonate with you, let it be, leave it behind.

I think this idea can be extended to subjective philosophy in general. The standards of evaluation are generally subjective. People’s perceptions of subjective philosophy are informed by their personal biases. Depending on people’s biases they will resonate differently with different subjective philosophies. A philosophy that is healthy food for one person might be harmful food for another.

With objective ideas, there is the hope that expert consensus can cause true ideas to spread throughout the population. This dynamic makes most participants passive consumers of truth, with the responsibility for discerning truth resting with experts.

Especially with subjective philosophy, in my opinion there is the need for the responsibility for discerning and finding truth to rest more with each individual. Everybody will resonate differently with different ideas, and there are a lot of different ideas to choose from, so that we only have time for a small fraction of them. We can derive many different kinds of value from ideas, we all want different things, and there is room for all of us to make our choices.

The most informed and intellectually responsible people about a topic think for themselves about the topic. The idea of thinking for oneself can be opposed to the idea of trusting experts and authorities. Trusting experts is generally a better tactic when one is relatively uninformed and appropriate experts exist. On some subjects, such as various philosophical subjects, one may contend there are no experts. Where there are no experts, intellectual responsibility necessarily devolves to each of us.

I think that mysticism is one of the areas where there are no experts. Or, more modestly, unthinkingly trusting experts won’t take you on a very informative journey with mysticism, because a non-expert in mysticism has no real hope (in my opinion) of discerning who might be an expert in mysticism vs. who is a mere performer or a mere academic without deep experiential understanding of mysticism.

I think the same goes for subjective philosophy more generally. There are no experts on it. Or, more modestly, expertise in subjective philosophy is in the eye of the beholder. It’s an open playing field. The game is whatever you want it to be.

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