Subjectivity is a central philosophical concept, related to consciousness, agency, personhood, reality, and truth, which has been variously defined by sources. Three common definitions include that subjectivity is the quality or condition of:
- Something being a subject, narrowly meaning an individual who possesses conscious experiences, such as perspectives, feelings, beliefs, and desires.
- Some information, idea, situation, or physical thing considered true only from the perspective of a subject or subjects.
These various definitions of subjectivity are sometimes joined together in philosophy. The term is most commonly used as an explanation for that which influences, informs, and biases people's judgments about truth or reality; it is the collection of the perceptions, experiences, expectations, personal or cultural understanding, and beliefs specific to a person. It is often used in contrast to the term objectivity, which is described as a view of truth or reality which is free of any individual's influence.
“SUBJECTIVITY”—WHAT IS IT?
I’ve been throwing this pretentious word around a lot and I ought to define it. The way I’m using it, “subjectivity” means “sense of self.” I’d argue that a colonial American has a different sense of self than a modern American, and to varying degrees women have a different “subjectivity” than men, and slaves have a different “subjectivity” than masters.
So why not just say “sense of self?” Well, “subjectivity” implies something about larger power relations. If you’re in the Army, you have a different sense of subjectivity than if you’re a civilian, because in the Army you’re “subject to” the Army’s rules and regulations. You are also the “subject of” its efforts to train you (the enemy is the object) and you are subject to the Army’s goals and structures. A farmer is subject to the weather and the cows: he’s the subject ofpolitical squabbling or policy debate. I have a different “subjectivity” as teacher than I do as a husband than I do as a parent then I do as a voter than I do as a taxpayer or a recipient of health care services. As an adult citizen I’m subject tothe IRS and also the subject of the IRS’s interest. The IRS was invented in the early twentieth century: it made a new kind of subjectivity possible. To be a medical patient is to experience a different kind of subjectivity. You are subject to invasive medical procedures and also the subject of the medical profession’s interest. As a consumer, you’re subject to the advertising profession and to economics: they create an identity. “consumer,” which you then inhabit.
Think of it maybe this way: “drunkard” and “alcoholic” both concern the same basic problem, but a “drunkard” is a moral failure, a person of weak will. An “alcoholic” is a sick person, suffering from a disease. They are different “subjectivities.” In the 1830s, you’d be a drunkard: in the 1990s, you’d be an “alcoholic,” and the way people understood you, and you understood yourself, would be different in the two eras.
People use “subjectivity” to get at the way the sense of self is composed of social forces that bear on individuals. They also use it to describe the way the sense of self varies with circumstances: it isn’t static. Disciplines like psychology or criminology invent new kinds of subjectivities: in the gilded age, a whole bunch of new “subjectivities” were made available/forced on people. For example, you could be a kleptomaniac or a nymphomaniac: you could be “normal” or “perverse.” You cold be this new thing just invented, a “homosexual.” “Subjectivity” in this sense might be described as “a new way of thinking about people.” and “a new set of possibilities or procedures for dealing with those people.”
So “subjectivity” implies not just the individuals sense of self, but the ways that sense of self is acted on and even made up by outside forces.
We are starting our enquiry from the premise that everything in the universe responds to a universal order which is independent from our thought (see metaphysics). Nature is a physical order in an objective physical reality. It is in the physical world, which is both external and immanent to us, where we find the elements that reflect the invariable, transcendent, unitary and universal qualities of Nature (these, in contrast to the elements of thought, imagination or fancy which are subjective, circumstantial and transitory constructions of our mind).
The problem is that the physical world is not immediately known to us. The world that we know, is the world that appears to us from perception and that we integrate through conception. So we live in two worlds. One is the objective real world, and the other is our subjective mental world.
Our mental world is subjective in many ways. The main ones are:
- Human natural subjectivity
- Cultural subjectivity
- Personal subjectivity
- and Developmental subjectivity
- Natural subjectivity is related to the subjectivity inherent to our human nature. We didn’t evolve to see the world objectively, but we evolved to satisfy a nature of self-preservation; and our interpretation of the world adjusts to this nature. There are two forms of natural subjectivity: subjectivity on our perception and subjectivity on our conception.
- Cultural subjectivity is related to the subjectivity on the values, ideals and beliefs that we learn from others. These change in time, and differ among social groups, like among nations, social classes or family groups.
- Personal subjectivity is related to the subjectivity of world views that adjust to our individual needs, inclinations and personalities.
- and Developmental subjectivity is related to the unique learning experiences that we have in life.
Each one of us live in a world of our own; with our own beliefs, values, joys, problems and priorities. What is important for one is irrelevant for another. What is truthful for one is false for another. And what is inspiring for one is indifferent for another. Yet, we all exist in the same objective reality. We might conceive, value and appreciate it in different ways. But independently of our thought, the world is one and the same for us all.
We are confined, by nature, to see the world from a subjective point of view. But subjectivity is relative. Some point of views are more subjective than others. More objective point of views are more independent from culture, character, the particularities of development and our nature of self-preservation. In other words, more objective point of views are more independent from place and time. They are points of views that adjust better to the universal and invariable reality of the world. Objectivity is not given to us by nature, but it can only be gained through a developmental process (for more on this subject see The relativity of truth).