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Why “Subjective” Doesn’t Get You Out of Jail Free

I was one of those who used the word ‘subjective’ to defend my own prejudices. My approach was to enter into debate with someone on the merits or failings of some music, book, poem or film. If at some point I felt that something I loved was in danger of being judged inferior, ugly, banal or otherwise in poor taste, I resorted to the “Well, it’s all very subjective” defense. And it worked. Subjective is the control+alt+delete word for locked conversations about beauty; it is the ref’s whistle for arguments about fitting worship; it’s the bugle call for all parties to retreat to the culturally acceptable position of tolerating all tastes. Remind people that the judgment of the arts is a subjective judgment, and you are sending them the cultural cue that only snobs and elitist bullies would argue that a man’s personal preference could be an example of bad taste. After all, that’s intolerant.

I didn’t see how using the word subjective to ward off attacks on my tastes was an incoherent use of the term. It was rather like saying, “Well, that’s what you think.”

Yes. And? Anything intelligent to say about what I think?

On closer inspection, we see that no one should get away with using the word subjective this way.

First, all knowing is subjective in some sense. All the knowledge you have is held by a knowing subject: you. Your education was a repeated process of one mind communicating knowledge to another mind – yours. This doesn’t make the knowledge fanciful or illusory, it simply means all we know is subjective to us. No one can step outside himself as a perceiving subject, render a perfectly objective judgment, and then return with that purely objective judgment into himself as a subject. This is the foolish and conceited thinking of some Enlightenment thinkers.

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Second, some things are known only subjectively. The knowledge of persons is such knowledge. To treat a person as an object to be studied violates his personhood. We must know people subjectively to know them truly – in a relationship of trust and commitment. Knowledge of ethics, and knowledge of beauty is much more like this kind of knowledge than the knowledge of arithmetic or physics. This doesn’t mean that truth in these areas is unobtainable. It means that truth in these areas is not gained through the scientific method, but through the process of subjective judgment.

Third, humans still seek consensus on matters obtained through subjective judgment. Witness people debating over the merits of certain music. Observe people disagreeing on history’s verdict on a person’s life. See how people argue over ethical issues. Debate (when carried out by rational gentlefolk) is an attempt to reach consensus. And the elephant in the room is the question, why work so hard to reach consensus, if subjective judgments cannot be held to a standard outside of themselves? Why seek consensus, if a subjective judgment reflects nothing more than a subject’s state of mind? We should by now be content to let every man be right in his own eyes. That the debates continue show that as much as we like to use subjective to defend our prejudiceswe do not fully accept the argument ourselves. We long for others to agree that our tastes are good, even if it be by their silent acquiescence. Culture is itself a form of moral and aesthetic consensus, without which man is blind and naked in the dark.

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Fourth, the whole use of subjective avoids the point:  what if a subjective judgment is true? Are we excused from believing or submitting to what is true simply because someone holds it as a  subjective preference?

Certainly, some facts can be more easily seen than others. An object that exists or an event that happens is easier to regard as objective than a judgment about morality or beauty. However, even these facts go through a subjective grid. That we notice some facts, and filter others out, demonstrates that a form of subjective judgment is taking place all the time. Yes, some things are easier to agree upon. Nevertheless, the fact that some knowledge requires a more difficult, critical, careful judgement does not render that knowledge unreliable or unstable. To think this way is to parrot the naive scientism of our day, with its blind belief in its own supposedly objective empirical observations (which are actually judgments).

Indeed, if the knowledge of persons, of good and evil, and of beauty is knowledge obtained through subjective judgment, then it turns out that this is the most important kind of knowledge, and these judgments are the most important – and difficult – kind we can make.

To the remark, “Well, that’s a very subjective judgment,” I now might reply, “Yes. It is. And I, as a subject, am attempting to judge reality correctly, using the truth God supplies in His Word or His world. I desire to get better at this judgment (Heb 5:14), so that I (the subject) can approve the things that are, in objective reality, excellent (Phil 1:10).”

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

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