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Subjectivity and Collective Objectivity

Subjectivity and Collective Objectivity

3 Mins
September 30, 2010

Question: If objectivity refers to the reason of the individual mind, wouldn’t pure reason alone become superfluous? What about the subjective look of the individual? Objectivity in its simplest definition remains collective.

Answer: Objectivity , as Ayn Rand defined and clarified it, is a certain characteristic describing the use of one’s reason and the degree to which it adheres to or departs from the facts of existence. More particularly, objectivity, according to Rand, describes the volitional adherence to reality by the use of logic (i.e., non-contradictory identification). So while it is a concept that applies to individuals (because reasoning is an individual activity), it is also a universal that requires certain conditions be met to satisfy the definition.

Concept-formation and epistemology are some of the most deeply developed and explicated aspects of Objectivist philosophy. According to Ayn Rand, we form concepts by means of "measurement-omission," grouping concretes along certain dimensions according to essential aspects of similarity between them, while omitting other non-essential measurements that may differ among various concretes subsumed by that concept. For instance, we include in the category "table" a range of objects that consist of some surface supported by legs. Meanwhile, we exclude other factors, such as composition (metal or wood) and the number of legs, as non-essential quantitative differences between specific examples of the concept.

This process can correspond to reality because the similarities we use to construct concepts really do exist. "Deciduous trees" have in common the fact that they have leaves, not because that is how we have defined the concept, but because there are actually some number of leaf-bearing trees in the real world—and they can be distinguished from other trees precisely by identifying whether or not they have leaves.

Valid concepts neither exist as an inherent part of reality nor are they dreamed up in our minds in some process divorced from sense perceptions and real world data. In fact, the whole universe of concepts and abstractions arises from a relationship between human consciousness and the reality it perceives. Concepts themselves require a conscious mind to identify facts and integrate them, as well as an external world that provides the facts to be identified and integrated.

Ayn Rand contrasted her objective epistemology with intrinsicism and subjectivism. By thinking intrinsically, Rand meant that one attempts to discover facts and understand the world by looking outward, but failing to expend the effort of logic in ensuring that contradictions do not arise in one’s concepts. Instead, one attempts to discover these concepts intuitively, to "just know" on the basis of faith or revelation. Common examples of intrinsicism include Plato’s theory of Forms and belief in divine revelation.

Subjectivists, on the other hand, recognize the truth that concepts cannot be discovered by passive examination of reality, and leap to the conclusion that objectivity is impossible. Thus, they turn for truth either to collective or personal beliefs—divorced from their relation to existents—or deny the possibility of truth altogether. Radical skepticism and reliance for knowledge on public opinion are common forms of subjectivism.

The "collective" definition of objectivity to which you refer is a form of subjectivism. It posits that theories and abstractions become objectively true when embraced by a sufficient cross-section of the populace. This idea of objectivity is mistaken. The law of gravity is objective and true not because it has been widely accepted, but because it identifies a real force that masses exert on one another. The law of gravity will continue working even if you—or the entire world—choose to deny it. (I’m reminded here of another example of subjectivist error from The Simpsons: In one episode, there is a poster hanging in an advertising executive’s office that reads, "50 million chain-smokers can’t be wrong!")

I’m not quite sure what you mean when you ask if "pure reason" becomes "superfluous." If you mean the kind of reason propounded by Platonic or Kantian philosophy, which supposedly exists in some higher realm where it operates completely separate from physical reality, Objectivists hold that there is no such thing. "Pure" reason isn’t superfluous; it’s non-existent. Reason is a capacity exercised by individuals identifying facts of nature; it cannot be separated from—and indeed cannot even exist without—thinking beings.

On the other hand, if by "pure reason," you mean the belief in reason as an absolute, this is certainly not superfluous. In fact, in the Objectivist viewpoint it is essential, since it is our only method of understanding and grasping the facts of reality.

As far as "the subjective look of the individual" is concerned, if you are referring to personal tastes and preferences regarding things like food or clothing styles, Objectivism really has no stated position on the matter, except to acknowledge that these differences exist and, as far as we can tell, cannot usually be explained according to rational, explicit criteria. If, on the other hand, you mean to imply that individual perspectives must be subjective because they are individual, Objectivists adamantly disagree. Whether a given concept is objective depends upon the manner in which it is constructed and its correspondence to reality. A concept’s objectivity is not a function of the number of people who adopt it.

Andrew Bissell
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Andrew Bissell