Detached subjectivity

The more I encounter instances of the modern categories of “subjective” and “objective,” the less useful I find them. Etymologically they’re reasonable enough: if you’re talking about something that happened and was experienced, there is a subject being experienced and an object doing the experiencing. Molly went to the zoo. Molly is the subject, and anything said about her pertains to the subject — is subjective. The zoo is the object of Molly’s going, and anything said about the zoo pertains to the object — is objective. Or at least that’s the only account of the terms I’ve heard that I could understand. There is apparently a lingering doubt regarding our ability to say anything in particular about the object, though most of us blithely continue to suppose that statements like “there is an adorable baby panda at the zoo” are just as meaningful and better style than to say that “Molly had an experience of a baby panda which she interpreted as being exemplary of the attribute of adorability.” People like to blame Kant and Descartes for this doubt, though I don’t know enough to say. With five well-developed senses pointing outward and only a couple of highly uncertain ones pointing inward, it seems that it might be more certain I could say something true about the object than about the subject, but that is, of course, faulty reasoning.

I was thinking about this after reading a blog entry by a friend on American religion. I had begun to reply to it, and probably still will, but was suddenly struck by the way in which I was beginning to, both mentally and in print, hedge all my assertions about religious experience with clauses directed toward maintaining against some supposed doubt, that they must be experiences of something, and that what constitutes the something is quite important. Why on earth would I be in doubt that an experience must necessarily be of something. If I were to tell somebody about the panda, even if it were quite far away, even if my eyesight were very bad, I would not go out of my way to assert that if I had experienced the panda, then the panda was there to be experienced. If I were delusional and thought I had seen a panda but hadn’t really, then I had not had an experience of a panda, but of a delusion. We are generally pretty optimistic about our non-delusionality, however. Likewise, we generally do not generally count “I had a sight-experience” as constituting a description of what was seen.

I once read a story by abnormal psychologist Oliver Sacks called “the man who mistook his wife for a hat.” it was about a man who had some mental disorder that interposed some manner of dissonance between sight and recognition of the thing-ness of an object. Perhaps it’s a similar disconnect in sight that autistic people have toward connective emotions? Shown a top-hat he might describe it as a hollow cylinder affixed to a circle, but would not know that it was a top-hat, though all the while knowing what a top-hat was. in another story there was a man who had been blind since he was a very small child and then regained his sight. He could not make anything at all of perspective, and could for the most part not recognize objects at all until he had felt them; they looked like a disconnected field of light and color that was always in motion, rather than like houses, trees, lamps, and so on. Sometimes it seems like most of us are in the position of these men in relation to all things noetic. Perhaps that is why we are so careful to use uncertain language. “What is this object?” “I perceive it to be about five and a half feet high, a foot wide, roughly cylindrical, though with a split in the bottom portion and two protrusions from one seventh down the top portion; it’s colored yellow and cream…” “That is your wife.” Ah. “I had an experience.” “What was it?” “I perceived with some sense with which I am generally unfamiliar to me more or less from the center of my chest something like warmth and light and joy.” “Was it an emotion?” “No, except by analogy. By analogy I would call it happiness.” Well, OK — and how does one talk about that?

If it’s very difficult to make out what an object is then I suppose one is tempted to go entirely with the subject: “I can’t make out what the proper universal moral code is, but I can tell, in this particular situation and with this particular background, what I ought to do.” Or even “experientially it seems like I ought to do such-and-such, but that may turn out to be wrong.” Just as the fellow in the story might say “I don’t know for sure that this object is a hat, but it is cylindrical with a circle affixed about one end, and it is black, and I know that those things are also true of a top-hat, and that I own a top-hat, and so this probably is one.” There’s still enough uncertainty, however, that he’s never going to be able to say anything about hats based upon this kind of observation. In other words, there’s no sure way in that instance of going from a subjective to an objective stance, except by conjecture.

Of course, if one’s understanding of theology is not dependent exclusively upon the accuracy of one’s own noetic perception then it’s excusable not to worry too much about what this or that “experience” was of, because it’s still possible to know what to believe and how to live. But what if not?


One thought on “Detached subjectivity

  1. fascinating take. It really helps me to understand things. Let me see if I can get this right. To me, it seems that many subjective statements, such as enjoying a panda, have inherent objective truths, such as a panda exists. Likewise, in theology, religious experiences are subjective events that are based on something objective. It would make sense that the experience is objective: it is the event that really occured. But it is the interpretation of the experience that can be subjective. The conclusion a person reaches is based on her interpretation, maybe how she recognizes an experience???

    Test case: “I had a feeling that God was with me” is a subjective statement. It is prompted by a feeling that is objective: “What (object) did I (subject) feel”. But the conclusion is based in what manner I recognize the feeling. “I recognize a feeling of peace in dire circumstances as coming from God.” is one outcome, but so could be “I recognize a feeling of peace in dire circumstances comes from biology.” But objectively, I inherently imply I had an experience, even if the conclusion I come to is subjective.

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