By "subjective", I mean something that occurs only in a single mind and cannot be shared even in principle. A common example is pain. You cannot feel someone else's pain. You might observe some signs of pain in someone else, or empathize with their pain, but if you feel pain identical to what they are feeling, then it is your own pain and not theirs. Pain is subjective.

By "objective", I mean a thing that can be shared by multiple minds. Although my experience of a sunset may be subjective, you can experience the same sunset and that which is shared by both of us is something objective.

Clearly, objectivity is necessary for communication. I can't communicate my pain to you, but I can communicate to you the concept of pain and the proposition that I am feeling pain. By contrast, I can refer to a sunset that we both experienced, and then you and I are (assuming communication succeeds) both thinking of the same objective sunset. This need for objectivity, for something shared between minds, is why there have to be objective things corresponding to abstract objects. It is why abstract objects cannot be purely mental experiences. If the number three is just a thought in my head, then I can't share it with you any more than I can share my pain.

On the other hand, objectivity is often thought of, not merely as something that can be shared between minds, but also as a sign of, or a requirement of reality. I might have an experience of a sunset while I am dreaming. There is no objective sunset in this this case; it is not real. If it is real, then I can share that experience.

I have always assumed that because objectivity is bound up with reality, that the ability to distinguish the objective from the subjective is essential for practical interaction with the world, just as the ability to distinguish the real from the imaginary is necessary for practical interaction with the world. But now, I'm wondering if that assumption is correct. I can distinguish the real from the imaginary without appealing to the concepts of objective and subjective. I can conceive of a purely subjective mind, even a solipsistic mind, that has no thought of anything existing outside the mind. All experiences are just that--experiences. However, some experiences are real, meaning that they have ongoing consequences, while other experiences are imaginary, meaning that they vanish away, leaving no consequences behind.

For example, this mind might dream that there is a lion about to devour him, and wake in fear, and then realize that the dream was an experience with no consequences. But then a real lion appears, and the mind realizes that this experience is different from the dream in important ways. There are consequences that will follow from being caught by this lion--those consequences being negative experiences--so the solipsistic mind will avoid the real lion.

Is this right? Is objectivity only necessary for communication? Can an isolated hunter/gatherer safely be a solipsist? This would be a very startling result to me, but I'm starting to think that it may be true. It makes sense in a way, because the definitions of subjective/objective (the ones that I use) seem to only be relevant in a world where other minds exist and you need to interact with them.

  • "Objective" isn't about being shared by multiple minds. That's not the definition of "objective." Something is objective if it is about some real object. You're making a distinction between "real" and "objective" without a difference.
    – causative
    Aug 21, 2022 at 7:30
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    Conversely, "subjective" does not mean something that cannot be shared in principle, the latter is called "private". An opinion can be subjective, but perfectly sharable. If you are asking whether public practice is necessary for successful interaction with the world then that is controversial. If Wittgenstein's arguments against private rule-following are sound then Robinson Crusoe is doomed. However, e.g. Azzouni argues otherwise along the lines similar to yours, see his Rule-Following Paradox.
    – Conifold
    Aug 21, 2022 at 7:59
  • @Conifold, the only definitions I've seen of objective and subjective in the philosophical literature followed the lines I laid out. Aug 21, 2022 at 8:16
  • There is no way possible the only definitions of subjective & objective are the same ones you present here at least in English. I understand English is not your first language but come on. Something objectively true means there is an absolute. For instance 5 multiplied by 5 is 25 forever. I did not say negative 5 times a positive 5. Without changing the givens above how many answers does 5 x 5 have? In English that is objective. The answer does not depend on my title or position, my wealth, my influence on society, etc. It is independently true by itself. Subjective indicates x is not absolute
    – Logikal
    Aug 21, 2022 at 16:27
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    Then your solipstic self-dreaming speculation sounds more reasonable than any metaphysics admitting outside objectivity/reality since apparently you encountered far more disagreements than shared agreements (possibly by mere accident) at least in this site... As ancient Buddhist Vasubandhu used the example of mass hallucinations (in Buddhist hell) to defend against those who would doubt that mental appearances can be shared. He showed the equivalence of dream and reality, while the only difference is in dream our will is very weak so the karma is much weaker compared to reality... Aug 21, 2022 at 21:53

2 Answers 2


You cannot feel someone else's pain.

I do feel others' pain.

You dismiss this as something essentially different from the other person's experience of their own pain. However common that belief, it seems to be a mere guess, unsupported by any evidence. We have at least some evidence from brain-mapping experiments that the experience of pain is not concentrated in an infinitesimal point but is spread over a macroscopic region of the brain. That region is made of a large number of neurons that talk to each other via neurotransmitters. It seems plausible to me that inter-brain communication via sound waves differs only in detail, not in kind, from intra-brain communication via neurotransmitters. I'll happily concede that they differ enormously in detail. But I see nothing to suggest that the spread of pain across one person's brain is not at its root just another form of empathy.

You might object that I can (after the fact) only describe the pain that I felt on hearing Fred's scream, not the pain that he felt that prompted the scream. This objection is somewhat weakened by the fact that you're also claiming that Fred can't even describe his own pain very well. But to the extent that he can, I can too. I just need to relay the questions that you ask me to him, and relay his answers back to you. If you think that's cheating, why is it not cheating to allow Fred's language center to translate your question into the neuronal language, forward it to the rest of his brain, then translate the response when it arrives? I doubt that these communication issues have any bearing on whether the number of experiences of pain (back when it was happening, and not just remembered) was two, or one, or the number of involved neurons, or the number of microtubules in them, or the cardinality of the continuum.

You suggest objectivity is what allows multiple people with multiple pairs of eyes to crosscheck their sensory experiences. What they agree that they saw is objective reality. That kind of cross-checking occurs intra-person as well. For example, the reason seasickness exists is most likely that there's an evolved part of the brain that cross-checks different sensory modalities, and if enough inconsistencies accumulate, guesses that you're hallucinating because you were poisoned and induces vomiting.

The lion experienced by only one person is objectively real by the same criterion. There is one human being, but they (arguably a plural "they" here) experience the lion in more than one way, and over a period of time, with a consistency that isn't found in dreams or drug-induced hallucinations.

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    @DavidGudeman I'm arguing that the distinction you made between multiple and single people is (or may be) a false one, and in support of that I mentioned some facts about how the brain functions. I don't think it works as a rebuttal to object that you didn't mention those facts first. Facts are like lions, they don't go away just because you ignore them. Sure, it may be that all this scientific evidence is a red herring and minds really work in a different way, but... at least the argument is grounded in something beyond mere guesswork.
    – benrg
    Aug 21, 2022 at 22:00
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    @benrg, you cannot refute a claim made in one domain by making claims in another domain. No matter how the neurology is linked to the subjective state, it's not identical to the subjective state, just as the radiation reflecting off of an object is not identical to the color I experience when I see the object. The radiation is out in the world; it has a location, a velocity, and a range of energy levels. My experience of color has none of those properties. Aug 22, 2022 at 3:52
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    @DavidSchwartz, if you are not experiencing my pain the way I experience it, then you are not experiencing my pain. You might be observing my pain, you might be measuring my pain, or you might be experiencing your own pain that is caused by my pain. None of those things is experiencing my pain. If you aren't experiencing exactly what I'm experiencing, you aren't experiencing what I am. And if you are experiencing exactly what I'm experiencing, you are experiencing your own pain. Aug 22, 2022 at 3:56
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    @DavidGudeman Yes. but this pain you are referring to is not a subjective or whatever-special entity. It is an entity which is linked to your body that's true. But that's true of your arm, too.
    – user14511
    Aug 22, 2022 at 6:31
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    @DavidGudeman I am argueing that what you (try to) define cannot exist in principle. The more you write the clearer it gets that you are inventing language problems in the best sense of the analytic word. That's why you need more Wittgenstein, and probably some Carnap.
    – user14511
    Aug 22, 2022 at 7:12

Is objectivity necessary for anything beside communication?

Yes, everything communication allows to flourish, including society, philosophy, and culture. In fact, in some views in cognitive science, such as extended cognition (SEP), cognition is not an internal process exclusively, but rather extends to others as well as tools in the environment such as notepads and computers. Even if one rejects externalist notions of cognition, society wouldn't exist without communication. One position, called naturalistic social constructivism (SEP), holds that the biological origins of individuals is the appropriate framework for grounding an understanding of reality, society, and language. From SEP:

Determination of our representations of the world (including our ideas, concepts, beliefs, and theories of the world) by factors other than the way the world is may undermine our faith that any independent phenomena are represented or tracked, undermining the idea that there is a fact of the matter about which way of representing is correct. And determination of the non-representational facts of the world by our theories seems to reverse the “direction of fit” between representation and reality presupposed by our idea of successful epistemic activity. For both of these reasons, proponents and opponents of constructionist thought have held it to embody a challenge to the naturalism endemic in contemporary philosophy.

Thus, it is important to see that a great number of philosophers challenge the notion that the individual is primary to cognition, society, or even knowledge. It is possible to view society as an emergent phenomenon (SEP) that arises from individuals instead. In the last case, epistemology itself is viewed through the lens of collaboration, such as scientific constructivism, which inspired Thomas Kuhn. All of these ideas are grounded in the notion of Wittgensteinian notions of the language-game and traditional notions of realism and objectivity.

In fact, the debate between the subjective and objective is a bit cliche much in the same way that nature-nuture arguments are. Thus, the subjective/objective dichotomy might best be viewed in the same way as the grain-pile distinction in the sorites paradox: useful, but difficult to demarcate. If you subsume both under a larger theory of intersubjectivity, then the problem disappears, because the objective is built from the public collaboration of subjective perspectives. Dennett's take on this is heterophenomenology and he discusses it at length in Consciousness Explained.

  • When you find yourself engaged in debates, like some of the ones below, a good question to immediately ask is, is this a debate that can be dissolved by a theory which subsumes two aspects? In the Continental tradition, this is known as a Hegelian dialectic. Odds, are there is some constructivist/contextualist/pluralist theory that combines aspects of both positions and provides something much more useful.
    – J D
    Aug 22, 2022 at 15:44

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