Critical Thinking Note 26: Subjectivity and Objectivity

In everyday language we often treat “subjective” and “biased” as synonyms and likewise “objective” and “unbiased”. But we don’t really need two different words to say the same thing, and this way of speaking about subjectivity and objectivity leads to a good deal of confusion by obscuring important things about how our minds relate to the world.

We aim for greater clarity in philosophy. Among philosophers, “subjective” and “objective” are understood in a more specific way that doesn’t invite confusion with being biased or not. The subjective is what pertains to subjects. Or, as Oxford puts it, the subjective is “dependent on the mind or on an individual’s perception for its existence.” According to this definition, all of our mental states, our beliefs, opinions and perceptions, are subjective. But all we are saying here is that these are states of subjects. On this way of understanding what it means for something to be subjective, it remains an open question whether the contents of our beliefs, opinions and perceptions represent the objective world accurately, that is, truthfully.

We are subjects. Out there in the world are various objects (including our bodies, so really, we are both subjects and objects). Being a subject carries the with it the potential for being biased. We are shaped by our experiences and ways of thinking. These can present a rich variety of obstacles to forming a clear understanding of what’s happening out there in the objective world. And yet the goal of critical thinking is to negotiate these obstacles in order to get at the truth more clearly in the ways that we can, or at least improving our understanding of things by degrees.  That is to say, the goal of critical thinking is to filter out the biases in our representations of the world and get our subjective representations of the world more accurately aligned with the ways things are objectively.

Sometimes the obstacles to objectively true beliefs are not very significant. So let’s start with an easy case. A glance at my surroundings makes it pretty obvious to me that I am currently at home in my living room, in my favorite chair with a laptop on my knees and my feet propped up on the fireplace hearth. The content of my subjective perception and resulting belief is objectively true (barring bizarre Cartesian skeptical hypotheses). To say my belief about where I’m currently at is objectively true is just to say that the content of this subjective mental state represents objects in the world as they are. When it comes to medium sized objects and events, we usually have little trouble getting our subjective perceptions and beliefs into good alignment with objective reality.

Getting my belief (which is subjective in the sense that it pertains to me, a subject) well aligned with objective reality (the external world of objects) is so straightforward in many cases that we would ordinarily deem it not worth mentioning. Until we have to deal with the notion that “people are always biased because our perspective is always subjective.” This bit of fashionable nonsense is the product of the confused but commonplace way of thinking about “subjective” and “objective” we mentioned at the outset. Perspectives are always subjective simply because they are the perspectives of subjects. But this doesn’t mean that a person’s perspective can’t provide them with an accurate representation of how things are objectively. That remains an open question.

We typically aim for holding beliefs that provide accurate, truthful representations of the world. We are quite good at this when it comes to medium sized events and objects. We have a harder time when things get very big, fairly subtle, or abstract. But let’s not generalize from the hard cases. We aren’t hopelessly doomed to bias and distortion just because some cases aren’t as easy as realizing your presence in your own home. We have, over the course of millennia, developed some pretty good techniques for expanding our reach and grasping ever more universal, subtle or abstract objective truths. Indeed cultivating skill in using these techniques is exactly what critical thinking is all about.