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Subjectively universal

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:

  1. relative
  2. subjective
  3. objective
  4. universal

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.”

Any ideas?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

17 Responses to Subjectively universal

  1. Scott,

    This is helpful. But I don’t quite agree with you. Rather than say beauty is subjective, I prefer to insist that beauty is objective, i.e., located in the object being perceived, but that beauty is the perceptibility of the object’s truth and/or goodness. So a tree is beautiful insofar as its truth/goodness (i.e., the tree’s conforming to God’s design for it by growing toward the light, performing photosynthesis, etc. ) becomes perceptible to a subject. An invisible tree might be true and good, but not beautiful because its truth and goodness wouldn’t be made available to a viewing subject. Similarly, God is always fully Truth and Goodness, but He doesn’t always make Himself perceptible to creatures. When He does, the Bible calls that ‘glory’ – as when the glory cloud covers the tabernacle, or when God’s glory descends on Sinai and the people can not only see His presence, but feel it in the earthquake and hear it in the thunder. We talk about gory when God’s presence is perceptible. I define glory as “the sort of beauty particular to God.” To call beauty or glory ‘subjective’ suggests to me that I as the perceiving subject am the source of the beauty or glory that I perceive, that I’m constructing beauty as an interpretive grid through which I’m looking at the world. Instead, I want to insist that beauty is in the object itself, while acknowledging that it is a quality that concerns perception. (This is my attempt to distill Balthasar; if there’s anything original here, it’s by accident.)

    Does that make any sense? And does it go far enough for you to preserve the role of the perceiving subject in the experience of beauty?


  2. Guess you’ll have to circumscribe it. My own use of the term, subjective would also mean ‘relative’, i.e. I would understand it as your audiences, meaning it may differ from one subject to another.
    Your proposed use of the term confuses me, and likely confuses others as well. So you’d have to say, “within the observer/listener” or so to make it clearer. But I also have a similar problem as Laura, i.e. if God created everything He also created rules of beauty, i.e. something will be beautiful (to some degree) whether there is a subject or not (God is always there, so I don’t see Lara’s point that another observer is needed to validate or trigger beauty in an object – I think we merely discover beauty but it exists independently of the observer). Can you explain in more detail why you need the term subjective, then?

  3. Thanks Laura and Martin. I agree with you both, of course, that beauty is absolute and universal, and I’d even agree that what causes aesthetic delight is something in the object itself. I’m with you on all that. And, Laura, I agree wholeheartedly that glory is God’s visible beauty; I argue such in my book.

    However, (a) I’m trying to acknowledge that the subject’s perception is where the beauty or musical meaning occurs and (b) that no person can really perceive something objectively; everyone comes to a judgment with presuppositions, etc., that cloud objectivity. Objectively, I’m afraid, is a modernist concept.

    So this is why I sort of like Kant’s category of subjective universality or universal subjectivity (which does not mean relativism).

    But again, I’m not really satisfied with any of these terms at this point.

  4. I think that both Scruton and Lewis would disagree with you on this one. Something is beautiful whether someone ever perceives it being beautiful. A flower that blooms one day in the woods, that is never seen by a sentient being, that the next day is eaten by an animal, still may be beautiful.

    Concerning your two points (A and B)
    A – is meaning an event? Events occur. Things do not occur. My appreciation of beauty is an event – my connection with the beautiful object is an event. My interpretation of that object is a task. But I’m not certain that the meaning itself is an event.

    B – So we can never escape our presuppositions or cultural background? Being locked into ones presuppositions permanently, I’m afraid, is a postmodernist concept. Certainly we have presuppositions, but we can also, through the Spirit and the Text rise above those presuppositions to a better and more refined set of presuppositions.

  5. Again, let me clarify, which I probably should have done from the start, but I assumed my views on this were already known! My bad.

    I completely affirm that beauty is universal, absolute, rooted in God himself, and a property of the object, etc. I just think “objective” is the wrong word to use because (a) it gives the impression that the perception of the subject is not involved at all and (b) “objective” means that we come to the object without any bias or presuppositions whatsoever, which again, I am going to argue is impossible.

    In other words, the outer two terms above (relative and universal) by definition refer to the thing, the inner terms (subjective and objective) by definition refer to the perception of the subject. Therefore, I am arguing that “objective” is the wrong word to use to defend the idea that beauty (and some levels of musical meaning) are universal, absolute, and properties of the object.

    And Christ, I would have to disagree with you: the idea that we cannot free ourselves from our presuppositions is not only a postmodern idea, it is also a premodern (and, I would argue, biblical) idea. It is modernism that gave us the notion that we can somehow evaluate an object scientifically and perfectly free from any bias or presuppositions.

    Now, I will agree with you that as Christians we can work through a sort of hermeneutical spiral, by the power of the Spirit, to make our thoughts agree with God’s thoughts, but even then, we are not free of bias and presuppositions; we are just making sure our presuppositions are God’s presuppositions. So even then we are not objective.

  6. What if we viewed the opposite of “universal” as being “local”?

    Personally, I view “relative” as being the opposite of “absolute,” but not the exact opposite of “universal.”

    Yes, this redefinition points the discussion in interesting directions. If we discuss universal vs. local meanings, we can address three interesting “local” questions: 1) how musical meaning changes from place to place (i.e, from culture to culture); 2) how musical meaning changes changes over time; 3) how individual performers (“local” performers) contribute to meaning.

  7. Scott, what about the word “tinted”? I’m thinking of an analogy of the presuppositions and biases we bring to an object when viewing its beauty as tinted glasses that we wear when viewing the object that skew our perception of it. The object is beautiful in beholding it as it really is, but because of our presuppositions we don’t really see if just for what it is, that is to say, objectively. We see it through tinted glasses. On second thought, “tinted” would probably not work for the word to use, but maybe in the context of the analogy it could help give understanding to a subjectively universal paradigm.

  8. I am still struggling with defining the differences between “relative” and “subjective”. Can someone comment?

  9. Luci Shaw had an interesting comment about universality in beauty, “Around the globe we all gasp at the sight of wild breakers sending up violent white curtains of foam as they crash on the coastal rocks. We breathe in the silent greenness of a meadow after rain, with its moist fragrances. We marvel at the icy glory of the Antarctic, the subtle earth tones of the painted deserts of Arizona and New Mexico and the Kalahari. We call our neighbor on the phone to witness with us a double rainbow over the lake, or the golden glory of the sun setting behind spectacular purple clouds.”
    She sets God’s creation as the standard that we could all accept universally as beautiful. Bach’s work is beautiful in her estimation because his work “is linked to his celebration of the Creator’s work and worth.” Soli Deo Gloria.

  10. Luci Shaw has an interesting view on the universality of beauty. She describes,

    “Around the globe we all gasp at the sight of wild breakers sending up violent white curtains of foam as they crash on the coastal rocks. We breathe in the silent greenness of a meadow after rain, with its moist fragrances. We marvel at the icy glory of the Antarctic, the subtle earth tones of the painted deserts of Arizona and New Mexico and the Kalahari. We call our neighbor on the phone to witness with us a double rainbow over the lake, or the golden glory of the sun setting behind spectacular purple clouds.”

    She believes that Bach’s music is beautiful because “it is linked to his celebration of the Creator’s work and worth.” Soli Deo Gloria. Whatever we create that looks back to God and uses his work as a criterion, perhaps, could be seen as universally beautiful.

    Leland Ryken, The Christian Imagination, Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2002, 83-4.

  11. When we perceive things as beauty from inside-out, that is, the things are beautiful because they pleased us, and the perception is subjective. If we perceive things as beauty from outside-in, then the perception of beauty can be objective, that is, the things are beautiful as they ARE.

    If we perceive things with the proposition of an existing absolute/universal truth, the perceptions of beauty can be either universal-subjective or universal-objective.

    One the one hand, we may find relativeness when we combine a lot of subjective perceptions; on the other hands, relativeness can be found within a load of objective perceptions as well.

    When talked about an object reflects God’s glory as beauty, do we obtain pleasure from perceiving the glory of God or from the objects? What if we do not obtain any pleasure from the object but still perceive God’s glory from it?

    Subjective beauty → relative
    Subjective beauty → universal
    Objective beauty → give pleasure to human mind → relative
    Objective beauty → give pleasure to human mind → universal
    Objective beauty → do not give pleasure to human mind → universal

    Am I making sense?

  12. I believe the term “local” although it may have at one time been a possible corollary to universal is necessarily redefined in a global culture that is often defined by electronic rather than spatial relationships.

  13. First of all, a subjective view of beauty is built on the basis of an individual perception (emphasis on an introspective idea of oneself) whereas a relative view is recognized on the basis of the gaps between individual thoughts. In other words, subjective view has something to do with a personal awareness in oneself but a relative view meets an individual view in *others, who independently have subjective views. Neither subjective view nor a relative point of view of beauty has absolute truth or validity.

    Second, Scott claims that something that is universal is not always necessarily objective, and beauty and musical communication, in his view, are subjectively universal. My question is “What is the major difference between “subjectively universal” and “relatively universal”?”

    Beauty and musical communication can be subjective, relative, universal, or objective. It depends how each person perceives and what individuals mean by it. According to Plato, (“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”), music is universal. Every single person has a different perception and understanding of beauty and music communication according to their belief or philosophy. Truth of beauty of musical communication are universal. Everyone naturally appreciates it without educating themselves what TRUE beauty is because ABSOLUTE beauty itself reflects God’s aesthetic character.

  14. Perhaps the best alternate term for subjective is “not universal.” If the stated purpose is to negate universality, this seems to be the most specific terminology that accomplishes that purpose.

  15. I have thought about a possibility of the words such as ‘autonomous,’ ‘self-determined,’ ‘independent,’ etc. However, it seems that there is no perfect word that can replace ‘subjective.’ In a literal sense, I could not notice any close connection between ‘subjective’ and ‘relative.’ Defining a meaning of the term, before discussing, would be the better way to solve the problem.

  16. Instead of subjective, what about the word, individual. If we are talking about the perception that happens in the mind of the individual, doesn’t that describe it rather accurately? It is universal, but the universal perception is individual (or perhaps, individualized) for each person. It doesn’t imply subjectivity, but acknowledges the different presuppositions each person brings with them to the perception table.

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