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Is the sentence "Bob likes eggs." objective or subjective?

To flesh it out a bit, I'm using "likes" in the usual sense when applied to food; some combination of finding the food pleasing to eat, relatively preferrable to some other (disliked) foods etc. Note that this is more about the sensual/emotional reaction to the food than an intellectual one, as might occur if Bob consciously values eggs' nutritional value.

"Liking" seems like a paragon of subjective assessments, and it is pretty clear that Bob's experience of this sentiment would be properly considered subjective.

However, for me, as a separate agent, it seems like Bob's attitudinal state is just another feature of the outside world. In particular it is independent of my subjectivity. If we're willing to make an assumption that Bob's behaviour is related to his attitude towards eggs, we can devise empirical tests (e.g. having him rank food items) to assess whether in fact he "likes" eggs.

Also note that there is an edge case where even Bob himself need not realize his attitudinal state: he can feel that eggs are disgusting, and be repulsed at the idea of consuming them; but when fed an egg-dish without him realizing that it is, in fact made (mostly) of eggs, he likes it. (This happened in my presence where the person "didn't like" yogurt, except in the case where he thought is was a type of sour cream.)

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You state:

it seems like Bob's attitudinal state is just another feature of the outside world.

I am not sure this is true, but it is going to hinge sharply on what we mean by world.

There's a really helpful feature of the Japanese language that actually helps with understanding whether this is subjective or objective, namely, that there's a different constructions for (a) my feelings (tabetai -- end in tai verb conjugation) and (b) feelings that I infer from actions (tabetagaru - end in garu constructions). (Sometimes you can use the same constructions for other as for yourself).

On the picture implied in the Japanese language:

  1. I have direct access to what I want or like. (certainly some qualifications are needed here, but I omit them as they don't affect the form being described).
  2. I do not have direct access to what others want or like
  3. For others, I see their actions
  4. I infer their wants and likes from their actions and thus these (generally) have a more tentative status than my own statements about my wants and desires.

On this picture, I have access to my subjective wants and can state these objective facts, and I have access to the objective actions of others and can state these as objective facts. I can infer with some success the feelings and desires of others (assuming I don't have a severe disorder in that area).

This seems like a pretty natural picture of the "world" to me. I don't necessarily know what others are feeling or desiring; I just see what they do. (E.g., this person is being nice to me -> leads me to infer they want to be friends ... but perhaps they just want to steal my money).

What you're pointing out with the yoghurt case is that people's subjective feelings can disagree with their objective behaviors and in this case their subjective beliefs about their tastes and desires can be objectively false. In other words, the naive picture lacks sufficient critical distance and reflection.

In the background, there's an issue about the ways that subjective and objective work. These words have actually changed meaning over history. The modern version goes back to around Kant, but in the middle ages, subjective referred to those things that truly inhere in a subject (actually are) whereas objective are those we impose upon it while rendering it in our mental faculty.

The words "objective", "subjective" and "world" are hard. Whether Bob's states are objective or subjective is one problem. Whether attitudinal states are in the "world" is a second problem. When we are clear on these, we can usually explain the edge cases (the few views, such as believing one's subjective views about oneself can never go wrong, that cannot explain edge cases are flawed views).

  • It pains me to accept an answer that does not accept the dichotomy presented in the question. – Dave Sep 1 '15 at 15:40
  • Reference for the final parenthetical remark that believing that one's subj. views cannot be wrong is flawed? – Dave Nov 6 '15 at 19:48
  • I don't have a particular reference for that. But here's an argument for it: Addie thinks he's a nice person and a good Kantian. Turns out he thinks he's helping the jews by accelerating their death. The rest of us know that he's not. Ergo, Addie has mistaken views about himself. Thus, believing one can never go wrong about one's own subjective views is an incorrect view – virmaior Nov 6 '15 at 22:19
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Short Answer: Yes and no -- it depends on what you mean/believe about "like" and subjective states in general.

Longer Answer...

If subjective states result from brain/body activity, then this activity can be measured (e.g.: neural activation patterns). This measurement is objective and can be used as a (for all practical purposes) synonym for this state. So in this sense, one can claim that liking eggs is objective in that one could theoretically measure this activity when Bob is eating eggs and match it with measurements that correspond to liking states.

Likewise, on a behavioral view, liking can be treated as a set of behaviors. Observing this set of behaviors is an objective activity, so one could say like is objective if Bob behaves in ways consistent with liking eggs (smiling, licking his lips, etc...).

On the other hand, there are those that would argue that the inner experience itself -- the phenomenology -- is not captured. This is where arguments about Philosophical Zombies or Wine Tasting Machines come up. How can we know that a given state or behavior carries with it the character of subjectivity we are looking for (or any character for that matter)? This is where debate about the cause of mental states comes in. To argue this raises questions about what causes mental states if it's not the brain state, but that's a whole other can of worms.

I recommend reading up on the different schools of consciousness studies (e.g.: identity, eliminative, mysterian, etc...) to get an overview of the possibilities. You may not get an answer to your question, but perhaps some light will be shed by allowing you to re-frame the problem.

  • Note that it also depends on who you call Bob. There is not only one guy in this world who is called Bob. – sure Aug 27 '15 at 7:26
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The sentence states a certain fact about Bob. I agree with you, that it is a statement about the external world. As a proposition, it is either true or false. Its truth value does not depend on you or me or any other observer. Hence I consider the statement objective.

On the other hand the statement has as its meaning - it is about - a subjective preference.

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