• StreetlightX
    6.3k
    One of the more delightful facts of the history of philosophy is that in the Scholastic times, the terms 'subject' and 'object' meant almost exactly the opposite of what they mean today. The 'subject', far from being anything 'subjective' was rather that which stood apart from us in some way. This sense of the 'subject' still survives in some quarters today, as when painters speak of the 'subjects' of their work, or doctors of the 'subject' to be operated upon. The subject here has a kind of autonomy from human design, as that whose depths need to be plumbed.

    Similarly for the 'object' in scholasticism, which, curiously enough, was that which was strictly correlated to a knowing being. The object, far from being 'the thing out there', always meant the intentional object or the object of 'intention'. The esse objectivm ('objective being') is that which strictly exists for awareness. As Paul Bains comments: "For [Duns] Scotus and [John] Poinsot, something was an 'objective being' to the extent that it existed in awareness. The sun and the sea were 'objective beings,' but so were unicorns - they also existed 'in' our awareness. So, within experience, all beings were by definition objective beings. However, not all of them were physical things or events." (Bains, The Primacy of Semiosis). The phenomenological tradition - in Husserl in particular - will continue this notion of objects as intentional.

    That in Kant, the relation between object and subject was reversed (to roughly what we know them as today) was something of a sore point for a few thinkers of his day, who complained about the confusion sown by the reversal. Here is Coleridge, quibbling about the switch in terms by Heinrich Steffens, a notable post-Kantian of the time: "Steffens has needlessly perplexed his reasoning by his strange use of Subjective and Objective — his S[ubjectivity] = the O[bjectivity] of former Philosophers, and his O[bjectivity] = their S[ubjectivity]" (quoted in Galison and Daston, Objectivity). Worth noting also that in Kant himself, subject and object correlate to the categories of the particular and the universal, rather than the mind and world - although Kant himself was rather confusing on this score.

    As far as dates go, the use of the term 'subject' to mean something like a conscious or thinking subject doesn't in fact appear in the English language until almost the 1800s, while the idea of 'objectivity' in the scientific sense only emerges in the mid-Nineteenth century, and has a rather convoluted history which has in fact changed over time, although it seems to have settled - after Popper - on a notion of 'reproducibility under invariant conditions'.

    That our 'modern', intuitive understanding of 'subjective' and 'objective' are a reversal of the scholastics however, is not without lasting consequence. Not only has their meaning changed, but so to have their significance. To understand this, one first need recall that 'subject', from the latin Subjectum means 'that which lies under' - the substratum or the fundamental base from which other qualities were derived - think again of the 'subject matter' of the painting.

    Similarly the object, far from hewing to the side of substantiality, always remained on the side of the insubstantial. A bit more schooling in Scholasticism brings this out: for the Scholastics, 'knowing' took place by means of 'specification' - a "species" being an image which is impressed upon the mind (consider the semantic cloud associated here: specular, spectre, spectacle, speculum (mirror), specious - each harbouring a kind of 'insubstaintiality'). With this in mind, now only has to recall that another word for species in intentio - intension; Recalling again that an object was always an intentional object; the object here is an image, an impression, a species impressed upon the mind.

    With this micro-history in mind, we can now note what has actually happened in the reversal between subject and object: while the terms have indeed traded places, what has not changed is in fact the 'semantic weight' given to place which each term occupies: the object now has acquired a 'substantiality' which it did not have before (it has taken up the 'place' of the subject, which previously bore the brunt of the 'substantial'), while the 'subject' has itself taken the 'place' that the object once occupied: that of the insubstantial, the ephemeral. Interestingly, this trading of places has also entailed the forgetting of the original meanings of both terms, where the subject once stood apart from awareness and cognizance, and the object being that which is correlated to a knowing subject.

    --

    I was originally going to make this a post about what all of this entails about the modern concept of 'objectivity' (it's not as 'substantial' as people like to think...), but as it's getting a bit longer than I'd like, I'll keep it historical.
  • Mongrel
    3k
    Per Heidegger, the Latin subjectum was a translation of a Greek word that meant core. The idea of a thing (its unchanging identity) is the thing's core.

    Since an objective account is likely to treat these "cores" rather than the ever changing appearance of things, the objective account is apparently of the subjectum. And a purely subjective account (which would be rare beyond the population of the stoned) would be primarily the outward appearance, perhaps unhinged from identity and idea.

    But just as you can clearly see the valley when you're on the mountain (but can't see the mountain itself so well), and you can clearly see the mountain while standing in the valley (but you can't see the valley even though you're in it)... maybe subjective and objective accounts would be expected to be about the opposite of their namesakes.
  • jamalrob
    2.6k
    Similarly for the 'object' in scholasticism, the object, curiously enough, was that which was strictly correlated to a knowing being. The object, far from being 'the thing out there', always meant the intentional object or the object of 'intention'. The esse objectivm ('objective being') is that which strictly exists for awareness. As Paul Bains comments: "For [Duns] Scotus and [John] Poinsot, something was an 'objective being' to the extent that it existed in awareness. The sun and the sea were 'objective beings,' but so were unicorns - they also existed 'in' our awareness. So, within experience, all beings were by definition objective beings. However, not all of them were physical things or events." (Bains, The Primacy of Semiosis).

    That in Kant, the relation between object and subject was reversed (to roughly what we know them as today) was something of a sore point for a few thinkers of his day, who complained about the confusion sown by the reversal.
    StreetlightX

    Since your description of the scholastic conception of objects and the objective looks a lot like Kant's result in the CPR, he probably wasn't guilty of the reversal, and could even be said to have effected a restoration of at least the objective side of the dichotomy.

    But maybe this is because the distinction that Kant inherited from his precursors and that we use today was in a way latent in the scholastic distinction, in that modern philosophy could isolate according to its interests, from the wider scholastic conception of the subject, that subject that could intend an object, i.e., the subject of experience, thence 'subjective' as we use it today.
  • StreetlightX
    6.3k
    @Mongrel: Yeah, Heidegger was one of the few modern scholars who understood this quite well I think, which is one of the reasons he so studiously avoided employing the notion of the 'subject' and instead turned to 'Dasein' to ground his existential analytic. As someone after the 'Destruktion of Metaphysics', he tried to leave the baggage of the 'subject' with all it's overtones of 'fundationalism' and 'presence' at the phenomenological door.

    Interestingly, the metaphysical notion of the Idea (Eidos) also stands for - surprise surprise - the words 'Image' and 'Species'. One might think perhaps that the Idea - or the image - is situated at a point 'prior' to the bifurcation between object and subject. And in fact, the notion of the 'image' - which has a rich philosophical history itself - has in fact always played the role of the third terms between subject and object. (Here is Emanuele Coccia: "the image makes itself known as what stands opposite to bodies and subjects, to matter and soul; as that which is simultaneously external to the bodies of which it is the image and as external to the subjects to whom it gives the possibility of thinking these very bodies" Coccia, Sensible Life)

    One thing I left out in the history above is that the notion of the 'intentional object' was not always correlated with an observer. It became so - thanks to Scotus - but belonged, before Scouts, to a kind of intermediate realm that is neither 'real' or 'ideal' - this in fact is precisely what made it 'objective'. Here is Bains (recalling again that the intentional object acts on the intellect and accounts here for knowledge): "That which is known acts on the intellect in an 'intentional' way with- out modifying it entitatively (the scholastic adage: 'When I look at a' stone I do not become a stone'). The received form remains distinct and objective. It exists for the knower not subjectively but intentionally. This intentional or objective existence is neither in the thing as a physically existent subject, nor in the knowing subject; it is strictly suprasubjective."
  • StreetlightX
    6.3k
    Yeah, this is kind of where I wanted this discussion to head actually - the 'objective', even today I think, remains profoundly correlated with 'subjects': if we accept that objectivity today amounts to a kind of reproducibility of results, it refers in fact to a product of teche or human proclivity. There's a kind of artifice that is inherent to any notion of the 'objective' which is not often recalled when we associate objectivity with empiricism or materialism or whatever 'hard nosed' scientific enterprise. Math for example, can be entirely ideal - and hence objective - to the extent that it is almost entirely self-referential. I want to say something like: objectivity is a much 'thinner', 'insubstantial' notion that we tend to give it credit for.
  • photographer
    67
    I think Heidegger's most important claim here is that all metaphysics operates within the "horizon of production" and so this inversion between subject and object is in a very real sense pre-figured in the middle Greek reading of Being as eidos. I totally agree with you about the "thinness" of objectivity, and of course I think that Heidegger's destruction of metaphysics is an unimpeachable argument: philosophical thinking has always been bound up with technicity. I would also agree that the very fact that we can see our way to such a meta-philosophical conclusion hints at either a different way of thinking, or that we should be somewhat reticent in putting too much weight in our conclusion (as you clearly are).
  • The Great Whatever
    2.2k
    The old sense of 'object' also survives -- to objectify someone is to reduce them to what you make of them. You can't objectify someone without looking at them, and trying to assimilate them into yourself, and so deny their independence (their substance, their 'subjectivity').

    And the object of science is strangely simultaneously that which stands against humans, that they have to come to grips with because it exists in its own right, not on our 'subjective' demands, and that which is their for human manipulation, not existing in its own right but as something to be mastered. By contrast a 'subject' is both ontologically inessential and that which has some sort of intrinsic value or stake.
  • Wayfarer
    10.1k
    I would have thought that 'objectification' in the above sense is really pretty recent, isn't it?
  • The Great Whatever
    2.2k
    I don't know how old it is. But it makes use of the notion of an object in the older sense.

    I don't think there was really any reversal with Kant, either, at least transcendental idealists after him used it in the old way -- 'no object except for a subject.'
  • Wayfarer
    10.1k
    That is the name of a chapter in Magee's book on Schopenhauer.
  • StreetlightX
    6.3k
    I would also agree that the very fact that we can see our way to such a meta-philosophical conclusion hints at either a different way of thinking, or that we should be somewhat reticent in putting too much weight in our conclusion (as you clearly are).photographer

    Ya - perhaps it's just semantics, but I've always been more of a 'rejig metaphysics' guy than a 'destroy it' kinda guy.

    The old sense of 'object' also survives -- to objectify someone is to reduce them to what you make of them. You can't objectify someone without looking at them, and trying to assimilate them into yourself, and so deny their independence (their substance, their 'subjectivity').The Great Whatever

    This is a good point actually, another way of rounding out the picture. One of the lessons to draw from this I think is that 'objectivity' is simply not a very good metaphysical bulwark to rest our picture of the universe on. Or rather - from a naturalist perspective anyway - that the appeal to 'objects' over and against 'subjects' isn't a very good strategy to the degree that objectivity itself isn't exactly 'natural'. There ought to be 'a different way of thinking'. This is all rather 'mythological' of course - one could actually look at the tenets of the model-theoretic science where predictions are really 'predictions-in-a-model' which are then projected back upon nature to see if those predictions - and hence the models - pan out. There remains something very Kantian about modern scientific epistemology.

    As for Kant himself, it's true that he did in fact keep up the notion that an object is an object for a subject, but his novelty was perhaps to introduce the notion of the 'Thing-In-Itself', which pretty much gets completely overlooked or rather intentionally erased in the post-Kantian tradition that followed him up (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel...).
  • Mongrel
    3k
    Or rather - from a naturalist perspective anyway - that the appeal to 'objects' over and against 'subjects' isn't a very good strategy to the degree that objectivity itself isn't exactly 'natural'. There ought to be 'a different way of thinking'.StreetlightX

    The average thing can be either a subject or an object. It just depends on the story that's being told, right? For instance, "The ball hit the window." We all know the ball isn't supposed to have agency or any other unnatural qualities... but that's how we speak of it.

    "Karen hit the window." Here we need to know more about the story to see what kind of action-maker Karen was. Was she conscious when she hit the window? Does it matter in regard to the distinction you're drawing between subject and object?
  • The Great Whatever
    2.2k
    As for Kant himself, it's true that he did in fact keep up the notion that an object is an object for a subject, but his novelty was perhaps to introduce the notion of the 'Thing-In-Itself', which pretty much gets completely overlooked or rather intentionally erased in the post-Kantian tradition that followed him up (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel...).StreetlightX

    I won't harp on this because I generally think Kant is vastly overrated in terms of his importance to the history of philosophy, but I'm almost certain the thing-in-itself is not his invention, but the technical articulation of an idealized end of knowledge that is probably prehistorical, but is certainly at least Socratic-Platonic. Various schools beginning at least with the Sophists, Skeptics and Cyrenaics denied the existence or the importance of this thing-in-itself to various degrees (a denial which would make no sense if the concept were a modern one), and all of modern epistemology held it in some sort of abeyance, with arguments directly traceable through Descartes to these ancient schools.

    I'm more liable to trace the subjectivity-objectivity switcheroos and confusion not from recent historical developments but rather from the goals and practices of industrialized science and abstract philosophy not having much to do with life as we live it otherwise (hence their importance and meaning get swapped around depending on what mode we're inhabiting). My dime-store philosophy of science in this regard would just be that sciences circularly set up instrumental criteria of success, some of which have more effect on the world than others (physics has consequences that literary theory really doesn't), and which effect can't be comprehended by the science itself, which has blinders on and only sets about twiddling its models to fit its own criteria of success yet further. When we live our lives ordinarily, using standards that stem from our own lived experiences, we find that what was important in the science was not important to us in life, and the object and subject play games.
  • StreetlightX
    6.3k
    The average thing can be either a subject or an object. It just depends on the story that's being told, right? For instance, "The ball hit the window." We all know the ball isn't supposed to have agency or any other unnatural qualities... but that's how we speak of it.

    "Karen hit the window." Here we need to know more about the story to see what kind of action-maker Karen was. Was she conscious when she hit the window? Does it matter in regard to the distinction you're drawing between subject and object?
    Mongrel

    The average thing? Surely the 'average thing' can be a lot more than subject or object? Perhaps 'the average thing' is a movement, a threat, an environment, a look of joy, an unfolding process, an atmosphere, a game, a set of relations, etc. And if so, subject and object are just heuristics which we use to organize experience according to certain ends every once in a while. That the world itself has object-like or subject-like qualities might well be - and I'd in fact suggest it - an epistemological abstraction read 'back into' nature.
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