Cog Brain

The Meaning of Subjective and Objective

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There seems to be a great deal of confusion today as to what the terms 'subjective' and 'objective' actually mean. Many people seem to think that 'objective' means 'something which everyone agrees on' whereas 'subjective' means 'something people disagree on'.

They're wrong: given almost any statement you can find some people who agree, and some who do not, that doesn't make nearly everything subjective (delighted as the relativist would be by this conclusion). There are people who think that the earth is flat, there are some who think it is roughly spherical. The topological nature of the earth does not therefore become a subjective matter! The disagreement is not a sign that the answer is merely a matter of opinion, instead it is a sign that some people are wrong. Similarly if everyone on earth agreed that strawberries tasted nicer than raspberries (a scenario that can easily be obtained by killing everyone with a differing view) this would not become an objective matter, it is merely a subjective matter on which there is a consensus.

What then do these terms actually mean? The clue is in the name. Here a brief diversion into the structure of language is required.
In sentence a verb usually takes a subject (the thing doing the action) and an object (the thing the action is being done to). So for example in the sentence "I like the colour blue" I am the subject, the colour red is the object (like is a verb). Now let's carry this knowledge back to our question.
If some property is objective then it is a property of the object only. For example if I say 'this pen is 7 inches long' then this is a statement about the object only. If a property is subjective then it is determined not by the object alone, but also by the subject. So if I say 'Strawberries taste better than raspberries' I am actually making a statement not just about strawberries and raspberries but also about myself. You see 'Strawberries taste better than raspberries' is just a shorthand for 'I prefer the taste of strawberries to the taste of raspberries' - it is not just about soft fruit, it is also about me.

We are now in a position to define these terms formally:
A proposition is objective if its truth depends purely on the object under study. A proposition is subjective if its truth depends not merely on the object alone, but also on the observer and the relationship between the two.

There are a few immeadiate consequences to our proper understanding of these terms which it is worth drawing out:

  1. For every subjective proposition there is a naturally equivalent objective one: we simply extend the object under study to include the observer and the relationship between the observer and the original object. So for example although the statement 'Strawberries taste better than raspberries' is subjective, the statement 'Neil prefers the taste of strawberries to that of raspberries' is objective.
  2. Being subjective does not neccessarily make the propsition in question an uninteresting one. For example whether a given meal prepared in a restaurant tastes good or not is a subjective matter - it isn't a question which makes sense without introducing a subject - the eater - it is still well worth a chef paying attention to his customers (albeit subjective) views on the taste of his dishes, and adapting his cooking accordingly.
    I have come across several people who feel the need to defend their work by saying 'this isn't subjective' (for example ' 'asthetics aren't subjective' or 'good user interface isn't subjective'). They are wrong of course, they are clear cut examples of subjective matters, but also matters on which there is a strong consensus, and so a useful study can be made of them.


©Neil Roques 2004
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