A Short Piece

On the Term “Subjective”

It might not be a sign of humility.

We use the term “subjective” to refer to a person’s personal take on this or that. We have subjective opinions, subjective views of the world — pretty much everything humans do can be called “subjective.” Tastes, sights, likes — all of it. But the word “subjective” is problematic, for though we tend to know what it means when asked directly, it bears some problematic connotations.

When things are “subjects,” I have control over them. They are not threats, and I am the master. If I am locked in my “subjective view of the world,” we tend to think of that as a very humbling thing, for it means I can never access objectivity. And yet if the world is a subjective experience, this implies the world is my subject(ive). I master the world more than the world masters me.

Why is this a problem? It usually isn’t, but if the world is my subject, and I am in control of it, then the world can’t hurt me. I don’t need to worry about the environment or “what’s out there” (say the economy, the government, etc.). I don’t need to worry about the future or taking preparations for possible calamities; after all, the world is my subject. If it tries to hurt me, I will order it to stop.

Now, if we’re not privileged, and the world forces us to acknowledge that we aren’t in control, then the problems with the term “subjectivity” lessens. However, if we are privileged, “subjectivity” might feed the ego.

Traditionally, acknowledging “subjectivity” has been considered humbling, and certainly people can still use that term in that way (and do note that I argue elsewhere that the whole “objective/subjectivity dichotomy” is problematic). Unfortunately, perhaps it is the ostensible humility of “subjectivity” that has allowed its discreet egotism to go unnoticed.

To say “I am subjective” has been considered a sign of willingness to accept fallibility and error (and it certainly can be), while claiming “I am objective” has been viewed as a sign of arrogance (and indeed, that can be the case, and do note that no one can view the world as a mere object). But in the act of claiming “I am subjective,” the world becomes a collection of my subjects. It is possibly a claim that I am a god. Worse yet, it could be a claim that I am an imperfect god.

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