Column on The Subjectivist Paradox

The Subjectivist Paradox

Tibor R. Machan

Although most people encounter philosophy primarily in college, the discipline has a way of sneaking up on them elsewhere as well. A simple and familiar example is when one says that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," meaning that when one judges something to be beautiful or ugly one is just expressing how things seem to be to oneself. Making such judgments, the idea goes, is really impossible–at best they amount to stating what one feels or believes but without the possibility of proving it true. Indeed, by this account truth and falsehood do not apply to aesthetic judgments. 

Some go much further and claim that all our judgments are of this sort, subjective or mere statements of personal outlook or preference, not of anything that could be true or false. Not just beauty but the ascription of any property is merely in the eye of the beholder. Although well represented throughout the history of philosophy, most people tend to shy away from embracing such a position directly. But indirectly they often endorse it, as when someone claims that "From his (or her) point of view, something is difficult or easy or whatever." As if the property of being difficult or easy where merely some personal aspect. Is tennis easy? Well, depends on your point of view. But even this is a relatively mild version of subjectivism. 

The more global variety would claim that anything you think you know is really just imputed by you about the world and doesn’t actually amount to knowing things at all. In short, objective or real knowledge is impossible, it’s all subjective. So that no one is really wrong or right about what he or she claims, since that is all dependent on the subject’s viewpoint–shaped by culture, race, geography, gender, age, or whatever.

In a atmosphere of multiculturalism this attitude is in fact widespread. And, oddly, it is widespread among educated people, so much so that it influences the policies of colleges and universities, even governments. But there is a problem with this, big time. 

After all, the claim that everything–all judgments about anything at all–is subjective is itself aspiring to be an objective judgment. The subjectivist is, in fact, pretending, for a moment at least, to have escaped subjectivity! But if it is possible for the subjectivist to escape it, then why not for the rest of us and about a lot more than about how we know the world around us? Because what the subjectivist claims is that only he or she knows how the human mind relates to the world, namely, by imposing its categories or properties instead of by perceiving and understanding how things really are. So it is one’s point of view that makes reality instead of reality being apprehended by one. (Of course, even if each of us does have the capacity to know the world as it really is it doesn’t follow that we are going to succeed–many people don’t care enough to know, are happy in their ignorance, or like their prejudices too much to figure things out correctly.) 

This is a theory about the human mind, after all. As the British psychologist Bannister once wrote, a theorist “… cannot present a picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture.” And that is just what a subjectivist does, presents a picture of the human mind which contradicts the behavior of correctly identifying the human mind (since correct means accurate, objectively true, the opposite of subjective).

OK, but of it? Why should anyone care about this outside of obscure philosophical discussions? Aside from the already mentioned issue of multiculturalism there is the problem of the relationship between members of different groups, religions, nations and so forth. If subjectivism is even remotely true, no mutual understanding, no tolerance, nothing that solves problems among us, either in our personal lives or more broadly, is possible. Everyone is stuck with his or her point of view which cannot be escaped. Tolerance, for example, is impossible since one cannot gain even a minimal understanding of what others believe, let alone might know. 

In the end the only "solution" to the inescapable global human diversity would be power–some with a certain viewpoint will overpower the rest and impose theirs, no questioned asked. And that prospect is truly horrifying. 

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