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 neosocratic.net.

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.

Are philosophers arrogant?

Is it inherently arrogant to be a philosopher? I think maybe so. I think arrogance is a tendency philosophers should push back against in themselves, but I suspect it is inherent in the activity of philosophy anyway.

Maybe it’s inherently arrogant to think you can say something true, new, and useful about topics which have confounded humans and remained mysterious for all of recorded history.

Let’s analyze more carefully. For starters, what do I mean by “philosopher,” and what do I mean by “arrogant?”

In the past, people (e.g. Isaac Newton) did not draw clear distinctions between philosophy, science, and magic; these concepts were somewhat rolled together into one.

Historically, “philosophy” encompassed any body of knowledge.

In the 19th century, the growth of modern research universities led academic philosophy and other disciplines to professionalize and specialize.

Wikipedia

With the rise of the modern university system, there was a shift in the meaning of “philosophy.” The term went from referring to intellectual studies in general, to referring to a specific area of study, the area studied by philosophy departments in universities.

Basically, it seems to me that the department of philosophy in a university is the department which studies all the questions which aren’t the kind of question addressed by any other department.

Academic philosophers don’t answer questions of physics, biology, history, etc. Academic philosophers study a “miscellaneous” category of questions, which includes most of humanity’s deepest and most intractable intellectual mysteries. The category includes many questions which people have asked for all of recorded history without arriving at any agreed upon answers.

For this post I’ll assume that philosophers are people who ask and try to answer big questions, which can’t be answered by any established methodology in academia, and which relate to perennial intellectual mysteries. Is it inherently arrogant to engage in such activity?

What do I mean by “arrogant?” Here are some dictionary definitions I looked up:

  1. having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.” (Google)
  2. “exaggerating or disposed to exaggerate one’s own worth or importance often by an overbearing manner” (Merriam-Webster)
  3. “Someone who is arrogant behaves in a proud, unpleasant way toward other people because they believe that they are more important than others.” (Collins Dictionary)

Do philosophers necessarily meet any of these definitions?

I’ll set up a case which tries to maximize the likelihood of not meeting these definitions. Let’s consider a philosopher who says something like this:

I am interested in big questions which have confounded humans as long as we can remember. I don’t believe that I myself can answer these questions definitively, but I believe that humanity as a whole can deepen our understanding around these questions. I believe that I can build on the work of past philosophers, and perhaps help out future philosophers, towards furthering humanity’s progress around these questions.

This philosopher’s assumptions could be questioned. Maybe philosophy does not progress in the way the philosopher says it does. Maybe philosophers across history wander from opinion to opinion in an overall aimless way, always arrogantly viewing the opinions of the day as the pinnacle of human understanding.

Though the premise can be doubted, I would say it’s not arrogant to believe that humanity deepens its philosophical understanding over time, because this is a belief about humanity, not about oneself in particular.

Is it arrogant to believe that one can potentially help with humanity’s philosophical progress? If you accept the premise that many people have already done so, I would say not. It may be arrogant to think you can help with humanity’s philosophical progress if you’ve put no effort into training yourself as a philosopher (such as by studying what philosophers have said in the past). But somebody who has trained as a philosopher is not necessarily arrogant to suppose they may be in a position to contribute to humanity’s philosophical progress.

It might seem, then, that the statements above could be the statements of a non-arrogant philosopher. Of course a philosopher could say these things and still be arrogant. Yet there seems to be nothing inherently arrogant about this philosopher’s expressed attitude towards philosophy.

Let’s examine further, though. Maybe philosophers are necessarily arrogant whenever they stake claims. The complexities in philosophy are such that it is fundamentally hard to tell when a claim is justified. Perhaps, then, making any kind of general statement in philosophy is always hazarding a guess, and always implies the arrogance of jumping to a conclusion. Yet a philosopher who never staked any claims would arguably not be much of a philosopher. Perhaps for this reason doing philosophy is inherently arrogant.

It would be arrogant of me to assert positively that there can never exist a non-arrogant philosopher. I believe it would be arrogant of me to deny that I myself am an arrogant philosopher. I am not familiar with any philosophers who I am satisfied to call non-arrogant. I am inclined to accept the generalization, “philosophers are arrogant.”

I believe that arrogance is an important tendency for philosophers to push back against in ourselves. Jumping to conclusions is a good way to be wrong. Much of the challenge and reward of philosophy is found in unpacking the subtle moving pieces of our thoughts, teasing apart distinctions, and uncovering fallacies which we have unconsciously passed over.

The principal antidote for intellectual arrogance is intellectual humility. Intellectual humility, in my opinion, requires acknowledging that my perspective has deficiencies I’m not yet aware of, and others’ perspectives basically always have at least some merit.

For me, intellectual humility entails that if I am going to make positive assertions, then first I must take apart my thoughts and rigorously look for defects, and I must hear others’ points of view on the questions I’m asking. These steps are important counter-measures against the negative consequences of intellectual arrogance.

Yet, even if I take these counter-measures, it doesn’t obviate my worry that I am arrogant or can be viewed as arrogant in virtue of doing philosophy. I do still suspect that arrogance is the perennial condition of a human philosopher. Maybe the time we have in life is too limited to think issues through to the extent that our philosophical statements can be considered so cautious that it is not arrogant to hazard making them.

I see great value in doing philosophy. I think it is very important for the future of humanity. Because I love philosophy more than I love having a squeaky clean public image, I am willing to expose myself to ridicule by publicly exhibiting arrogance for the sake of philosophy. Those who don’t like what I’m doing are entitled to ridicule me for it. I’m writing, with the hazard of attracting ridicule, for the sake of people who may find what I’m doing helps them with their projects and problems.

Still, you might ask, if doing philosophy is arrogant, and arrogance is wrong, then how can it be a good idea to do philosophy? As far as I can see, this question only arises if you assume a perfectionist attitude about morals. A perfectionist attitude about morals would say that behavior must be free of moral flaws in order to be moral. This is not a realistic perspective on morals.

So, maybe the activity of philosophy has embedded in it an inherent moral flaw, arrogance. If so, that does not mean that philosophy is not a morally good activity to engage in. It means that philosophy is a morally imperfect activity. In a world where moral imperfection is ubiquitous, if not universal, this is hardly much of an argument against philosophy, at least if you think that philosophy has enough positive value to counter-balance its moral imperfections.

What is a Neo-Socratic?

This blog is called Neo-Socratic. Why? What’s in the name? To answer this, I will start with some background on the term “Socratic.”

Ancient Greece is generally considered to be the birth place of Western philosophy. The Greek root φιλοσοφία (philosophia) of the English term “philosophy” literally means “love of wisdom.”

As far as I know, the term philosophia was coined by Socrates to refer to an approach to intellectual inquiry and rhetoric that Socrates first demonstrated to the people of Athens. Socrates, in my opinion, has the best claim of anybody to being the father of Western philosophy. Socrates was the progenitor of the Socratic line of philosophers, including most importantly Socrates, Socrates’ student Plato, and Plato’s student Aristotle. As far as I understand, the Socratic line of philosophers were the first, seminal practitioners of the discipline of philosophy as the Western scholarly world knows it today. No other school of philosophers have been more influential in the development of Western scholarly thought.

We know the thought of Socrates mainly through the writings of Plato and Xenophon, which contain retellings of many philosophical debates which Socrates allegedly participated in. It is widely suspected that Plato made up some of the debates he wrote about, using Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own views. There is less suspicion that Xenophon did this, because Plato was a philosopher, whereas Xenophon was a historian. Both writers were friends of Socrates, and the view of Socrates which both writers present is fairly rosy.

Socrates’ approach to philosophy was a first draft which subsequent approaches have improved upon in numerous ways. However, I regard Socrates’ philosophy as continuing to be a fresh and valuable wellspring which offers bold challenges even to modern thought. By reading Socrates I am taken to a place of ignorance where I feel called to re-examine fundamental assumptions.

I would describe Socrates’ project as primarily destructive in nature. Socrates developed the Socratic method of using questions to uncover incoherencies in people’s beliefs and deficiencies in people’s ability to articulate their own assumptions. This slash and burn rhetorical technique has the effect of creating room for new intellectual growth.

Socrates was largely not a systematic theorizer. We can contrast Socrates with Aristotle, who wrote extensive and complex theoretical dissertations which have provided foundations for much subsequent Western thought. Aristotle carried out a positive project of attempting to discover and articulate many true propositions through the method of reason or philosophy, following the way initially paved by Socrates.

Socrates did, however, do some “positive” work of arguing in favor of certain perspectives, as well as his “negative” work of destroying misconceptions.

Socrates’ biggest area of philosophical concern seems to have been the area of morals or ethics. Socrates was very concerned with the question of how one should live. Many of the debates he engages in are ethical debates wherein he attempts to persuade his colleagues that some behavior they regard as ethical is unethical, or that some behavior they regard as non-advantageous is advantageous.

I think we can most easily get a sense of Socrates’ moral views by examining what has been reported to us about his life and his behavior.

Socrates lived a life of poverty. His primary activity was philosophy, and he did not charge money for his philosophical engagements with people. As such he was largely without income. He lived primarily off of charity.

Socrates claimed to be very happy with his life. He derived fulfillment and the gratitude and admiration of others from his philosophical activity. He lived in a relative state of physical deprivation, frequently being exposed to the elements and living off of simple food in modest quantities. According to him, being used to this way of living, it did not bother him and he enjoyed a subjective sense of comfort in life.

Socrates did not charge for his philosophical activity, he explains, because if he did then he would not get to choose who to do philosophy with, and he would need to do philosophy with wealthy people who might not be his favorite people.

Emulating these details of how Socrates lived is not part of my conception of what it is to be a neo-Socratic. Let me explain my conception of what it is to be a neo-Socratic.

Neo-Socratic. A philosopher, a seeker of the truth, who does not obediently follow tradition or popular opinion, but who aims to follow only reason and intuition. Who seeks to reveal falsehood and incoherence for what it is. Who seeks accurate moral discernment, between right and wrong, good and bad, advantageous and disadvantageous, etc. Who seeks to actually live a moral life and to be a moral example to others.

With this conception I aim to describe, as well as I can in a few sentence fragments and with my limited wisdom, what is most centrally good and valuable about the Socratic philosophical spirit.

Many philosophers, of course, meet this definition without calling themselves neo-Socratic. The term “neo-Socratic” is not a widely used term. I’m not aware of any philosophers besides me who are alive today and call themselves neo-Socratics. Regardless, I believe that the Socratic spirit is alive and quite well today in many, many philosophers. Perhaps, even, this is more so today than it has ever been in the past.