Subject-object problem

Subject-object problem

tone=December 2007
confusing=September 2008
unbalanced=July 2008
refimprove=July 2008
The subject-object problem is a longstanding philosophical issue. It arises from the notion that the world consists of "objects" (what is observed) which are perceived or otherwise acted upon by "subjects" (observers). This results in multiple questions regarding how subjects relate to objects.

Kant's "Copernican revolution" was the inversion of the traditional relation between the subject of knowledge and the object of that knowledge. Instead of the observed objects affecting the observing subject, the subject's constitution affects the way that the objects are observed. Following this transcendental idealism theory, the possibility of knowledge was thus to be found in the structure of the subject itself, instead of in an objective reality from which nothing can be said.

The omniscient perspective

By far the most common problem in discourse since the Enlightenment is the assumption of the existence of a God's eye view. That is, assuming that society can select a single perspective and apply it to all events, without needing to take into account the varying point of view of many cognitive beings moving through time and the fusion of this into one, omniscient, unified, perception of what "is". E Prime is a proposed solution to this problem in the field of General Semantics. This objective perspective, as opposed to all others subjective points of view, is also what Georg Lukacs refers to with the concept of "totality". Writers and critics of narrative prose call this view the omniscient narrator, who appears to know everything about the story being told, including what all the characters are thinking, and usually speaks in the third person.

In 19th and 20th Century philosophy

Immanuel Kant and especially his followers Fichte, Schelling and Hegel raised the issue of the relationship between the subject and the object, or what perceives and what is perceived. Fichte reduced the notion of the self to the pure passive self that is not really an object. This notion was later explored by Husserl and by Dilthey in his notion of Das Verstehen.

Karl Marx's philosophy of dialectical materialism is founded on Hegel's doctrine of dialectics; although Marx, being concerned mostly with economics and political matters, rejected Hegel's idealism for materialism while keeping the Hegelian dialectic. 1960s New Left thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, while coming out of a Marxist background, found the class struggle seemed irrelevant to current political issues. Racial, and later, sexual politics were important matters of social debate at the time, leading the New Left to use sex roles, race, and similar identity politics divisions as proxies for the proletariat and the bourgeois capitalism of orthodox Marxism.

A firm conviction that race and sex were subject to political manipulation therefore became an article of faith for these Marxist revisionists. This opened the back door for a sort of linguistic, anti-materialist idealism. The doctrine of social construction took centre stage, as does the incorporation of deconstruction and critical theory. We are ultimately barred from certain knowledge of an outside world, if it exists, because all we know is in our mind, mediated by language; and language is a social game and a social convention. Therefore, not only is "the personal political," but indeed, all of science, physics, and anything else that is the subject of human discourse can and must be politicized.

The popular names of concepts from physics and mathematics, from Albert Einstein's theory of relativity to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, were used as metaphors, with the assurance that difficulty in observing subatomic particles translated into a universal, epistemological malaise, and that Einstein's relativity somehow lent support to moral relativism.

Those who accept these premises believe that in ethics, social science and linguistics, the subject-object problem is a confusion resulting from a shifting, inconsistent or vague assignment of observer and observed, active and passive, status in a sentence. Depending on how one views language, and mathematics as a language, this confusion may extend quite deeply into philosophy of all kinds including that of law, science and mathematics itself.

In science

In physics

There are related concerns in philosophy of physics where observers are known to affect a result, e.g. in quantum mechanics, in a way which defies the conventional assignment of an object role to experimenter, with everything else as a subject. This can lead among other things to confirmation bias.

In mathematics

Cognitive science of mathematics raises some similar concerns with philosophy of mathematics. Among them, the assignment of objective status to mathematical objects as in Platonism, although they are formalisms used in a linguistic fashion for communications between living beings, and thus subject to the same subject-object problems as other forms of such communication. This raises some concerns, dating back as far as Eugene Wigner's 1960 observations on the matter, that what we call foundations of mathematics and cosmology may be not observable or discoverable absolutes, but rather, aspects of humanity and its cognition. Nick Bostrom in 2002 addressed this concern with a theory of anthropic bias.

In clinical trials

One of the purposes of blinding clinical trials is to avoid the introduction of bias caused by investigators beliefs about the therapy being tested influencing perceptions, measurements, and actions. Making effective decisions and ensuring patient care while investigators remain unaware of what treatment particular patients receive has been a continuing problem in the design of clinical trials.

The phenomenon of adaptive designs - designs whose characteristics can change mid-trial based on the information obtained so far -- has created further problems in avoiding bias. Susan Ellenberg, Thomas Fleming, and David DeMets expressed concern that using data monitoring committees to alter the parameters of a clinical trial through an adaptive design in a manner known to the investigators could introduce bias into the trial. Increasing the sample size, for example, could signal that the experimental product was not as efficacious as originally hoped. The authors expressed concern that participant-observer bias would need to be assessed and addressed in order to ensure the reliability of adaptive designs. [Susan Ellenberg, Thomas Fleming, David DeMets, "Data Monitoring Committees in Clinical Trials: A Practical Perspective" (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2002) ISBN 0-471-48986-7]

Other approaches

* Analytic philosophy discusses various aspects of the problem of subject and object such as the mind body problem, first-person versus third-person perspective and also issues of non-referential use of I presented by G. E. M. Anscombe.
* Robert M. Pirsig's philosophy of the Metaphysics of Quality is largely concerned with the subject-object problem.
* Sun Myung Moon's philosophy, Unification Thought, treats subject and object in a way different from classical ideas of Hegel and Marx.
* Philosopher Ken Wilber has written extensively on this, calling the omniscient view (or subject-object distinction) the fundamental modernist paradigm, and cataloging its effects on society, and in the way many subjects have been compressed into a "flat" view by this perspective

See also

* Mind-body problem


External links

* [ Subject-object problem and double hermeneutic]
* [ N. Lektorsky's approach]

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