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Re: Distinction between the Subjective and Objective

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  • Jim Stuart
    Dear Een, Thank you for your latest post on the subjective/objective distinction. I don t have any major objections to what you say. The following remarks are
    Message 1 of 2 , Sep 4, 2004
      Dear Een,

      Thank you for your latest post on the subjective/objective distinction.

      I don't have any major objections to what you say. The following remarks are probably best seen as a response to what you say in which I claim neither to decisively refute what you write nor fully endorse what you say, but to attempt to clarify the extent to which we agree and the extent to which we disagree on these matters.

      Firstly, consider again my chair with four legs.

      Like yourself, I am an admirer of Ludwig Wittgenstein, although it is his later philosophy which has had most influence on me. (By the way, as you probably know, Wittgenstein was a great admirer of SK, describing him as the deepest thinker of the nineteenth century.) Our discussion of my chair reminds me of some of the things Wittgenstein wrote in his On Certainty when he discusses familiar 'almost beyond doubt' empirical propositions. His favoured example was 'I have two hands'.

      Wittgenstein might say, "Well if I am to doubt that the chair I am sitting on has four legs, then I have to doubt everything, including my own sanity." However, as Wittgenstein's discussion in On Certainty illustrates, there may be 'freak' situations where a person is wrong about the number of hands he has, so I grant that there is the outside possibility that my chair currently does not have four legs, so we can leave SK's doctrine of 'no objective certainty' in tact.

      Let me consider your crucial sentence on this issue:

      "Would you, if your eternal happiness depended on it, still claim that it is an 'objective fact that the chair has four legs'?"

      A problem with this sentence for me is the term 'eternal happiness'. I know SK uses this term a lot, but for me the expression has no content. So let me translate your sentence into something I can make sense of:

      "Would you, if your life (and the lives of your family) depended on it, still claim that it is an 'objective fact that the chair has four legs'?"

      Now put this way, I think I can appreciate SK's doctrine 'no objective certainty, only subjective certainty.' Taking the sentence 'The chair I am currently sitting on has four legs' as an example of an objective claim as close to certainty as any objective claim can be, let me contrast this with some subjective claims which are also as immune from doubt as possible: 'Kindness is better than cruelty', 'Love is better than hate', 'Honesty is better than dishonesty'. These claims are certainly not equivalent to 'In every situation, it is better to be kind than cruel', etc., as sometimes one is called upon to perform an evil in order to bring about a greater good. But, in general, overall, kindness is better than cruelty, love is better than hate, honesty is better than dishonesty. Now I think these subjective truths are certain; and I would stake my life (and the lives of my family) on these claims, so, yes, I can endorse your original claim (having put it in my own way).

      Secondly, consider again my claim with regard to my choice of a school for my daughter.

      I can endorse everything you say on this. However I still have reservations about what you do not say. If all you claim is the following: 'objective facts pale into insignificance when compared with the subjective facts', then I can agree wholeheartedly.

      If, however, your claim is: 'All there is is subjective facts', then I disagree. As I said in my last reply to John, I think the world consists of both irreducible objective facts and irreducible subjective facts, and any attempt to dispense completely with one of these categories of fact is wrong-headed.

      In fact, and this is something I haven't said before, I think the objective/subjective distinction is not an 'either/or', 'black or white' distinction. Rather there is a spectrum with 'pure' objective facts at one end, and pure subjective facts at the other.

      There are statements in the middle of the spectrum, which I would be reluctant to put in the 'purely objective' or the 'purely subjective' category. For example: 'He raised his arm', 'The cliff path is dangerous', 'The mother carefully shepherded her children across the road'.

      Just as I think there is no dichotomy - the objective vs. the subjective, only a spectrum, so I also think there is no dichotomy fact vs. value, again we have a seamless spectrum, with 'pure facts' and 'pure values' only at the possibly unattainable limits at each end.

      Finally, I have just finished reading Iris Murdoch's The Sovereignty of Good, which is the best book I have read for a long time. Whilst being a great admirer of SK's writings, Murdoch does raise a number of criticisms of SK's position. In particular, she implies that SK gave a one-sided account of the ethical life, with his emphasis on the individual's free will and absolute choice, whilst giving insufficient attention to the extent to which we are motivated to good and noble acts by calmly attending to the situation to detect the true reality of it. I wonder if you, or other Kierkegaardians, have read this book, and if so, whether you agree with Murdoch on this.



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