People are often surprised—sometimes to the point of disbelief—when they are told that the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity was not a significant concern prior to the Enlightenment. Yet it is so. Granted that generalizations pose risks, from the ancient world until the beginning of modernity the majority of people assumed that they somehow participated in what we would now call the construction of reality. They assumed that the world as they perceived it was an appearance, and that the appearance represented some conjunction of reality and the perceiver.
Consider a rainbow. A rainbow can be seen. It can be described. If one knows the distances of objects on the horizon, it can even be measured. Its colors can be distinguished and their intensity gauged. Yet, as anyone who has tried to find the end of a rainbow knows, it is not “out there.” It exists in a world of appearance, but not in some world detached from and purely external to the perceiver.
Premoderns thought that all appearances were like the rainbow. The entire perceived world, whether seen or heard or touched or tasted or smelled, was always and everywhere shaped by the perceiving mind. Consequently, the distinction between the perceiver and the thing perceived was not absolute.
By this, they did not suppose that no world existed externally to and independently of their awareness. They were quite sure that it did. What they lacked, however, was a direct means of encountering that external reality. The enterprise of philosophy arose (at least in part) because of the desire to find ways of working past perceptions to a knowledge of things as they really were.
That approach to reality (it is called a “metaphysical dream”) began to disintegrate in the late Middle Ages, and it was finally rejected with the beginning of modernity in the Enlightenment. No one was more influential in its rejection than René Descartes. He thought himself capable of positing a distinction between the perceiver and the perceived, or, more correctly, between that which thinks and that which is thought about. The former (the perceiver or that which thinks) is the subject. The latter (that which is perceived or thought about) is the object. For a thing to be objective, it must exist independently of conscious awareness or perception.
The goal of modernity was to ground knowledge in external (objective) reality rather than in the internal (subjective) perceptions of the individual. For this goal to be accomplished, individual subjectivity had to be removed through the rigorous application of method. To the extent that a belief was supported only subjectively (i.e., by individual perception, intuition, judgment, or preference), it could no longer qualify as knowledge.
Consequently, the ideal of objectivity became abstraction, detachment, impartiality, and disinterestedness. The objective person was understood to be dispassionate and interested only in facts, not in perceptions or judgments. Examination of the facts (which are external and objective) would lead to the formulation of truth (which would also be external and objective).
The difference between premoderns and moderns was not over the existence of a reality independent of their perceptions. With some exceptions (Bishop Berkeley, for example), all agreed upon the existence of objective reality—i.e., a reality that existed outside the mind of the perceiver. The question was whether this independent reality could be known in an abstract, detached way. The problem for moderns was to find a method that would eliminate personal perspective in the apprehension of the world. Their goal was not simply to recognize an objective reality, but to invent an objective way of describing and knowing it.
In their quest for objectivity, moderns began to narrow the scope of the knowable. While different approaches were tried (e.g., rationalism and empiricism), moderns eventually came to rely upon empirical observation and quantification as virtually their sole means of gaining knowledge about the world. They developed a complete empirical method involving the measurement of empirical phenomena, the positing of hypotheses regarding the causal connections between these phenomena, and the testing of these hypotheses through experiments that were (in principle) indefinitely repeatable. This method they called “science.”
As a methodological principle, the scientific method forbade its practitioners to consider any explanation of phenomena that relied upon “occult” (hidden or non-empirical) causes. Such causes included not only the paranormal, but also categories like soul and God. Once the empirical method was thought to be the only sure route to knowledge, science was transformed into scientism or positivism. The only plausible explanations had to be found within the web of natural cause and effect. Aesthetic judgments were reduced to expressions of prejudice, and then moral judgments were reduced to mere assertions of preference.
Against a rigorous scientism and naturalism, however, three alternatives flourished. One was Romanticism. The Romantics insisted that feelings are also a way of knowing. Noting that science could offer no justification of intuited realities such as beauty, thinkers like Coleridge and Wordsworth labored to develop a critical method that would vindicate the reality of the aesthetic without reducing aesthetic judgments to exercises in objectivity. While Romanticism (especially Continental Romanticism) moved in some very bad directions, its core commitment coincided with the insights of many classically Christian thinkers.
The second alternative to the modernist fascination with objectivity was provided by Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant recognized the distinction between the world of things-in-themselves and the world of appearances. Not unlike premoderns, he suggested that the mind of the knower contributes something to the thing that is known—indeed, for Kant, that contribution is essential to its knowability. In effect, Kant initiated a delayed implosion of the notion of an abstract, detached knower. His work, published while modernity was still in its adolescence, began the process of dismantling the myth of objectivity. One finds few pure Kantians today, but one is also hard pressed to find contemporary thinkers who do not agree with his central insight: the mind of the knower contributes something to the thing that is known. Authors such as Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi have done much to show that even the empirical (scientific) method rests upon and is penetrated by a web of non-objective commitments.
The third alternative to modernist objectivity was Christianity. From its earliest days, Christian theology had evidenced an anti-objectivist strain. This strain can be glimpsed in Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm, Luther, and, to a surprising degree, in Calvin. It was summed up nicely in Pascal’s jibe at the Enlightenment: the heart has reasons that reason knows not of. This line of thinkers insisted that the most important things, especially God Himself, could not be subjected to abstract and detached inspection. Among more modern Christians, this perspective may be best represented by C. S. Lewis (who also represents the better versions of Romanticism).
The point of the foregoing is not to banish objectivity. If a reality exists separately from the perceiving mind (and it does), then the subject-object distinction must be upheld. If what is “out there” is really real, then there is an object, and knowledge of it can meaningfully be called objective.
If, however, any of the three alternatives to modernism is correct (and I think that they all are, at least in their critique), then humans do not have abstract, independent access to that reality. Our knowledge of reality is always filtered through the apparatus of sensation, perception, reflection, and cognition. The world that is “out there” is not identical to the map of the world that we construct “in here” in our minds. In the process of constructing it, our role as subject invariably introduces personal, non-objective elements that cannot be entirely filtered out. Nor should they be. Without them we would know far less than we do. We might even know nothing at all.
The quest for objectivity does not need to be rejected, but it does need to be chastened and a vital interest in the subjective needs to be reclaimed. Under the best of circumstances, our knowledge is always infused with and supported by a host of personal commitments. We never know anything in a purely objective way. Furthermore, some things can rightly be known only personally or subjectively. Among these are the most important things.
Amazement At The Incarnation Of God
William Drummond (1585-1649)
To spread the azure Canopie of Heaven,
And make it twinkle with those spangs of Gold,
To stay this weightie masse of Earth so even,
That it should all, and nought should it up-hold;
To give strange motions to the Planets seven,
Or Jove to make so meeke, or Mars so bold,
To temper what is moist, drie, hote, and cold,
Of all their Jarres that sweete accords are given:
LORD, to thy Wisedome nought is, nor thy Might;
But that thou shouldst (thy Glorie laid aside)
Come meanlie in mortalitie to bide,
And die for those deserv’d eternall plight,
A wonder is so farre above our wit, That Angels stand amaz’d to muse on it.