Objectivity versus Subjectivity: The Great Divide


I’m not sure that there are any other words that elicit such passionate debate and emotional reactions as that brought about by the two words objectivity and subjectivity. Philosophers have developed systems of thought revolving around these two words in order to do battle; and battle is exactly what they have done over a period of centuries, if not millennia. Idealism, Romanticism, existentialism, and postmodernism have established a beachhead on one side of the battle line, while materialism, reductionism, empiricism, and positivism have erected a fortress on the other side. Those who consider themselves artists are more likely to fall on one side of the line while those who call themselves scientists line up on the opposite side. C. P. Snow, in his work The Two Cultures, excruciatingly marked this division, seemingly creating an abyss between the two camps that could never be breached.

Battle lines, fortresses, and wars are apt metaphors, but I would like to return to a metaphor I used in last month’s blog, that of a river. Except in this present blog, I’m going to accentuate things a bit, utilizing the metaphor of rapids. I think the notion of rapids envisions such experiences as adventure, angst, excitement, and danger. Rapids can take us over the edge of a cataract, plunging us into deep waters that can drowned us. I’m going to offer a suggestion in this blog, and a suggestion is all that it is. Still, another metaphor concerning these historical camps is captured by the notion of a great divide. After the exciting and adventurous riding of the rapids along this divide, I hope we can find moments of calmer streams that bring us to a place of rest, not necessarily with any final answers, but an acceptance of a tension we must hold regarding these two concepts of objectivity and subjectivity. To cast either one of these concepts to the shore of non-participation would indeed make our lives less adventurous, and in doing so would deprive us of the richness inherent in life.

Defining Our Terms

I don’t want to pull a logical positivist move here, claiming that we must define clearly and logically everything we discuss, but when exploring the two words, objectivity and subjectivity, we probably, to keep things from getting out of hand, need some clarification of what we’re talking about. The adjective subjective carries a variety of meanings, such as existing in the mind. Subjectivity speaks of that which belongs to a thinking subject rather than to the object of thought. From a philosophical perspective, subjectivity emphasizes the nature of an object as it is known in the mind as distinct from a thing itself. As if to add fuel to the fire, subjectivity also refers to an individual’s moods, attitudes, and opinions.

On the other hand, the adjective objectivity, refers an understanding of things not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudices. Instead, the notion focuses on things external to the mind in contrast to thoughts and feelings about things. Objectivity emphasizes characteristics that belong to the object rather than to the perceiver of the object. These external things exist independent of thought, observer, and mind. To add fuel to the fire, once again, objectivity refers to what can be known about reality external to the individual. The position of objectivity holds that things exist independent of observers, inquirers, and knowers.

The above are simple definitions that one can access with any dictionary or thesaurus. I used dictionary.com. Yet these two simple descriptions of objectivity and subjectivity have established a division that has been the ground of many philosophical battles, heated, inimical, and truculent, to say the least.

The Great Divide

There is neither time nor space (nor desire, quite frankly) in this blog to cover the entire history of ideas that have traveled through time along the rapids created by the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity. For those interested in such things, you can trace the ideas associated with these two concepts from Greek thought to the Middle Ages & Enlightenment, to the modernist age of philosophy brought about via Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, John Locke and David Hume. And the more modern and contemporary line includes the Romanticists & the existentialists, the postmodernists and logical positivists. Throughout the history of thought, philosophers, on some level, were trying to understand how these concepts shape our thought and experience. Indeed, the two adjectives are concepts as well as mere words.

Unfortunately, the fall out of these philosophical battles across time led to a schism, reflecting again on C. P. Snow’s, The Two Cultures. In modern and contemporary times, the philosophy of logical positivism equated objectivity with science and knowledge. Hence science became the ultimate form of knowledge, the only field of endeavor that attains knowledge. The endeavors of the arts, philosophy, and the social sciences do not quite measure up to the acme of understanding achieved by science. Although modern and postmodern critics have deemed such a position as scientism rather than science, the two streams of understanding are still at odds. The superciliousness of the positivist position has unfortunately led many practitioners in the social sciences to try and adapt the methods of the hard sciences and apply them so as to understand the human being from a psychological and sociological perspective. Others in these fields of endeavor have questioned not only the application of logical positivist methods to the human sciences, but have also questioned whether or not they adequately describe the growth of knowledge as depicted in the so-called hard sciences.

I believe that such debates are well-worth their efforts if indeed they can lead to some clarity about how we come to know and experience things. Unfortunately as stated above, many of the debates have become so entangled in diatribes, personal attacks, and calumnies, they resolve nothing at all. Moreover I believe that we stand on the possibility of falling over two deep cataracts if we embrace either strict objectivity or total subjectivity. The postmodern idea that we as human beings totally create our realities within the mind seems, to me, far-fetched. I’m not even sure of what the postmodernists are saying here. I’ll personally state my position that I believe in an external and objective reality. Yet the logical positivist notion that the only meaningful conversations human beings can have must be derived from statements that can only be observed and measured seems, to me again, a far-fetched and overstated notion. As Karl Popper demonstrated, the statement itself proffered by the logical positivists cannot be derived from observation, nor does it claim anything that can be measured. The claim, indeed, is metaphysical one. I’ll state my position, as well, here. Passion, beliefs, and values play a large part in any field of endeavor, including science. These two camps have divided fact from value, mind from body, science from life, and physics from metaphysics. A common ground is needed. Observation, empirical measurement, and rationality are necessary for our understanding of the universe. I would say to the total subjectivists that there is indeed a universe against which we bump, and in order to adapt, we have to have some form of objective understanding of how it’s put together. On the other hand, I would say to the logical positivists, that passion, valuation, and subjectivity have always driven the quest for knowledge, including science. The history of scientific thought does not bode well in supporting the positivist notion of how science has progressed over time. Works such as those by Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi have provided good grist for the mill in discussing these matters. Another position I’ll state is this: I believe that the universe in inherently rational and ordered; yet it is full of mystery that we discover, not just a construct within our mind. Yet that mystery is something we passionately pursue, applying our values to our work, and even holding theories and hypotheses for some time, whether or not they immediately have empirical support. I’m sure no Einstein, as the adage goes, but the great physicist himself held that the universe contains order as well as mystery.


Two good books to read regarding the discussion on this blog are Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge. My preference is the latter one. Polanyi is a physical chemist and philosopher of science who seeks to emphasize what he designates as the personal participation of the scientist in his pursuit of knowledge. Polanyi holds that although skill is involved in the pursuit of knowledge, knowing is an art that entails the skill of the knower. The scientist is guided by personal commitment and a passionate sense of increasing contact with reality and discovering its hidden mysteries, rationality, and order.

What Polanyi designates as personal knowledge, achieves several things. First, it emphasizes the passionate participation in the act of knowing and the growth of knowledge. By doing so, second, it can establish a bridge connecting the gap between subjectivity and objectivity, even if it is a tenuous one. Third, personal knowledge brings a personal coefficient in terms of an appraisal that shapes factual knowledge. And most importantly, fourth, personal knowledge implies that an individual can transcend subjectivity while striving passionately to fulfill universal standards. In other words, we need not get swept away over a large cataract by either pure subjectivity, or strict objectivity. I recommend this book along with others to explore this constant tension between objectivity and subjectivity. The false dichotomies between fact and value, passion and knowledge, and science and opinion have created a great divide, not only in our understanding of the growth of knowledge, but also as to what it is like to be human and to passionately pursue the growth of knowledge.

How many stories have you heard, and how many biographies have you read where scientists were spurred on by painful events in their lives to create, research, and discover knowledge that they hoped would end particular miseries that human beings experience? Even in the face of failed hypotheses, they nonetheless held to their beliefs until they succeeded on some level. The pursuit of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom is not impersonal. Passion and knowledge go hand-in-hand.

The debate, however, must rage on. We must hold this tension without trying to resolve it one way or the other. In the raging, however, one can hope we can become more civil, avoid the ad hominem, cease the name calling, and join together in the wonderful quest for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

John V. Jones, Jr, Ph.D., LPC-S/September 14th, 2016