Many of us understand subjectivity as the opposite of objectivity; that they are mutually exclusive concepts. Evidence for that is all around; for example, take Wiktionary:

subjective (adj.):

  1. Pertaining to subjects as opposed to objects (A subject is one who perceives or is aware; an object is the thing perceived or the thing that the subject is aware of.)

But the notion of "subjective experience" seems to indicate to me that the word is often used in a subtly different way; that is, as a precise synonym for conscious awareness. Funnily enough it is even implied in the prior definition in stipulating that "a subject is one who perceives or is aware". Wiktionary otherwise tries to avoid this, for example by adding conditions:

  1. Experienced by a person mentally and not directly verifiable by others.

I'm using Wiktionary as an example but I think my point holds that people don't really use the word very precisely, and dictionaries reflect that.

I presume we all agree that we can only know about the world through our first-hand experience of it, and that objectivity is just the label we give to verifiable sense data (people and sensing equipment agreeing on observations). Would it not follow that all objective truths are necessarily subjective truths, in the sense that we can only observe them as "subjects" (creatures with awareness/perception)?

As far as I can see there are two competing definitions here and they are causing a lot of havoc in epistemological conversations I've been having lately. So; are objectivity and subjectivity mutually exclusive, or is the objective a subset of the subjective?

This question has been asked elsewhere on the internet, with unsatisfactory answers IMO:

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    Also, I presume we all agree that we can only know about the world through our first-hand experience of it, and that objectivity is just the label we give to verifiable sense data / this is not by a long shot the most common definition of objective... – virmaior Aug 4 '17 at 14:42
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    It seems like you're looking at the opposite between the objective and the merely subjective -- rather than grasping what subjective as a term (in its contemporary usage) means by itself. – virmaior Aug 4 '17 at 14:42
  • @virmaior regarding objectivity: "the state or quality of being true even outside of a subject's individual biases; uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices" is from an empirical perspective the same as "verifiable sense data". Verification is why we deem things as true independent of our interpretations of them (hence hallucinations=subjective). It it's deemed as verifiable, it's deemed as objective, unless proven otherwise with further testing. Yes it's not the most common way of phrasing the definition, but I think it's fine. – Thennicke Aug 5 '17 at 2:34
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    Not going to visit a blog post to read something, but the axioms of math are not empirical or at least most us don't think so. I'm also eagerly waiting your wholly empirical demonstration of the law of the excluded middle. – virmaior Aug 5 '17 at 4:06

This is a very tricky issue. As you say, the words are often used sloppily or in differing ways. You're right to say that all objective facts are subjective, and one strategy to allow for this is to use the word 'inter-subjective'. People sometimes use 'objective fact' to mean a fact that is inter-subjective, verified by a shared subjective experience. It is hard to see how an observation can be an objective fact.

A complication is that a major school of thought denies the reality of the distinction between the objective and the subjective. Schopenhauer for instance, speaks of his 'better consciousness', a level of awareness for which the subject/object dichotomy evaporates to be seen as a perceptual error. This is the common experience of those who meditate.

I feel that you're right and that the issues are muddled in much of philosophy. It's not that any one philosopher is muddled, but that the words are used in varying ways and with varying degrees of care.


are objectivity and subjectivity mutually exclusive, or is the objective a subset of the subjective?

I would agree with the second option (which I believe aligns with the intuition underlining your question) ... I would also regard it as a failing of philosophy, if in general philosophers are unable to answer clearly what they believe about these questions. Testing the reliability of our current models through such questions as these, I think, is precisely the life-blood of philosophy as a practice of discovering what we think we know about the world, and how we think we know it.

The bias towards privileging the value of "objective" information over "subjective" information, I think comes from modelling philosophy on science, at the expense of not seeing how philosophy is as much like art as it is like science - also, culturally, it seems that science is regarded as an inherently more reliable source of "truth" than art - yet, as you have pointed out, objective knowledge could be regarded as a subset of subjective knowledge, which has apparently passed a threshold level of reliability.

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    Thank you for a thoughtful answer; I also tend toward the second option. As to your comment about "truth", well then we get another semantic problem in asking whether truth refers only to the objective, empirical aspects of our lives, or rather to correspondence to standards in general, such as an aesthetic or moral standard. I prefer the first definition; truth=the objective/verifiable parts of our personal experiences – Thennicke Aug 5 '17 at 2:42

They're related, rather than being a 'subset' or a superset; take for example, Descartes cogito:

I think therefore I am

In which the subjective element is related to the objective.

  • Are you able to stipulate in precisely what logical way they are related? Are they mutually exclusive? Is one contained by the other? – Thennicke Aug 5 '17 at 3:04
  • @thennicke: it's not a matter of logic, but a matter of reasoning. – Mozibur Ullah Aug 5 '17 at 11:48

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