One of the most difficult matters when having debates over aesthetics (that is, beauty and meaning in the arts) is the terms we employ. For example, the following terms often lack precision in discussion and thus cause confusion:
The first two terms are often equated with each other, as are the final two terms. In other words, when someone says that beauty is “subjective,” often either they mean “relative” and/or others hear them as meaning “relative.” Likewise, when someone says that meaning in music is “universal,” that idea is often equated with “objective.”
However, these terms are actually not equivalent, and more precision with the use and definitions of these terms would go a long way to clarifying debates over these issues. With that in mind, let me offer what I believe to be more precise uses of these terms in such discussions and ask for your thoughts on one particular problem I’ve encountered on this matter.
“Subjective” does not necessarily imply “relative.” Subjective merely means that the subject is in view rather than the object. So, we may call beauty “subjective,” and by that we do not (necessarily) mean that beauty is relative, we merely mean that the property we call beauty has more to do with pleasure in the subject than it does properties in the object itself distinct from the subject’s perceptions.
The opposite of subjective is objective, which means that the thing under discussion is more about properties in the object rather than in the subject. Something, therefore, cannot be both subjective and objective.
“Relative” means that something is true only for one individual and not another, or for one time and not another, etc. In other words, the thing under consideration (the pleasure of a subject, for example) is not true for all people in all cases.
The opposite of relative is universal, which means that the thing under discussion is true of all persons at all times. However, something that is universal is not always necessarily objective. In other words it is possible for something to be (in the language of Kant) “subjectively universal” when the thing under consideration (aesthetic pleasure, for example) primarily refers to the perceptions of the subject but is true of all persons in all times.
So the problem in discussions of aesthetics is that often when I argue that beauty and (at least some levels of) musical communication are universal, many people hear me to say that beauty and musical communication are objective. Yet they know by experience that music and things of beauty are so in the perceptions of the subject. Things are not beautiful and music means nothing without the perceptions of a subject. Thus, these things are not objective; they are subjective.
And they would be correct. When I say that beauty and musical communication are universal, I do not mean that they are objective. I readily affirm that these things are subjective.
The problem is that when people hear me say that beauty and musical communication is subjective, they assume I mean that they are relative. That is not what I mean.
Beauty and musical communication, in my view, are subjectively universal.
The question is, how do we avoid all the confusion over these terms?
One thing that I think is healthy (I have Kevin Bauder to thank for this) is to rid ourselves of the word “objective” almost entirely since it is impossible to be completely objective about anything. In truth, we only know by perceiving (contra Plato who believed we could know simply by recollecting the forms without ever using perception at all), and thus all knowledge in that sense is subjective. It would be better, in my view, to use terms like “absolute” or “universal” to describe things as such rather than the term “objective.”
But therein lies the rub. While we can get rid of the term “objective” and acknowledge that all knowledge is subjective, most will think we mean “relative” when at times we also mean universal.
I have not, as of yet, come up with an alternative term for “subjective” that does not connote to most modern people today “relative.”
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written several books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.