Truth Without Objects

When I wrote about the subject-object distinction and its alternatives, I did not actually intend it to be a response to the argument Rob Kroese and I had on the meaning of the Confederate battle flag and the ontological status of that meaning. Though I did remember attempting to convey to him that this meaning was what McCloskey calls “conjective” and more commonly is called intersubjective. In particular, I remembered that the nonexistence of something beyond subjects and objects seemed simply obvious to him:

I actually forgot what the main content of the argument was about until he wrote his response to my subject-object piece.

In his piece, he not only affirms the subject-object distinction—while conceding that intersubjectivity exists, though it is merely “the relationship between two subjective viewpoints”—he also plants a methodological individualism flag firmly in the ground.

The individual is the seat of both consciousness and perception, and because of that, it is qualitatively different from both its constituent elements and groups of which it is a part. Neither an atom nor a government has ideas, perceptions, a point of view, or consciousness.

I think this presents a perfect opportunity to go after the ontology of hard methodological individualists, something I only did glancingly in the previous post. But first, I’d like to talk a bit about what I was attempting to do in that post and how I got there.

Intersubjectivity Is Not Enough

I’ve believed in this space “between” subjects for quite some time; I read Searle on it ages ago. The deeper I have gone into philosophy over the past couple of years, the more this sort of ontology has jumped out at me as something quite attractive.

Still, I don’t really like the term “intersubjective.” Searle’s “institutional fact,” or the bigger mouthful “ontologically subjective, epistemologically objective” seemed better, given its reference to something larger or at least other than mere subjects.

I prefer McCloskey’s “conjective” most of all, because the etymology of the word emphasizes that it is the sort of knowing that we only know together. Of course, at this point it’s simply a neologism…its own conjective status is quite marginal.


In any case, when Rob and I had our encounter a couple of months ago, this was as far as I had got in my understanding of the subject-object distinction. I’ve since moved on, but before I get to that, I want to stress that I think that Rob makes the very mistake that I think the term “intersubjective” invites us to make.

Here is his first stab at it:

The fact is that on some level intersubjectivity has to exist. It’s absurd to dismiss the idea of the shared meaning of symbols while writing in a language that depends on the shared meaning of symbols. It seems to me, though, that intersubjectivity is not a property of the symbol/meaning pair itself, but of the relationship between two subjective viewpoints. In other words, intersubjectivity isn’t a thing in itself; it’s an emergent property of a collection of things. Think of it this way: there are such things are parallel lines, but there is no such thing as a parallel line. A line cannot be parallel by itself, and a single symbol/meaning pair cannot be intersubjective. The intersubjectiveness arises as a result of isomorphism between two subjective points of view, in the same way that parallelism arises as the result of equidistance between two lines.

So to the question “Is there such a thing as intersubjectivity?” I would answer “Yes, but only as an emergent property that depends on subjectivity.” It isn’t a new class of thing in between (or otherwise in addition to) subjective and objective. It’s just a description of shared subjectivity.

Further down he adds:

So to say that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol, and to base this statement on the idea of intersubjectivity, is, I think, a cheat after all (and maybe that’s not what Adam was saying, but that is my interpretation of his argument). It’s a way of saying “Pretty much everybody thinks X; therefore X is true.” You can’t derive either objective meaning or moral authority from a bunch of people believing something, no matter how many of them there are or how fervently they believe it.

His standpoint on this is reflected in the very first tweet in our discussion a couple of months back:

As I understand his model of intersubjectivity, it’s simply an aggregation of subjective standpoints; no more, no less. Being around a bunch of other people who believe the same thing as you makes you more likely to believe it, and so it has (let’s say) intersubjective weight. But ultimately this is all just the subject-object distinction as usual; intersubjectivity for Rob is nothing more than successful coordination of belief and meaning among subjects.

But the whole point of throwing conjective (or whatever your preferred term is) into the mix along with object and subject is to emphasize that something different is going on here.

Again, you must contend with Searle’s example of the dollar. This is not about adding up percentages of people who believe a dollar is money. A dollar is money. It can certainly cease to be money. But when that happens, it is unlikely to look like a process where fewer and fewer people agree with you that it is money. If you’re just looking at subjects, it happens like a cascade—all of a sudden you can’t find hardly anyone who thinks money is money. And, I would argue, those people who you might be able to find would simply be wrong—it isn’t that you could gather all of them together and make it intersubjectively the case for that group. They would simply have failed to notice that the conjective reality on the ground had changed when they weren’t looking.

Rob complains that I “elevate intersubjectivity to the level of objectivity,” but that’s simply a symptom of being stuck in subject-object thinking. You begin to think “objective” is a synonym for truth.

And that’s the whole problem.

Beyond, Truly Beyond Subjects and Objects

Since our discussion on Twitter, I have read quite a lot by and on philosophers who have asserted the primacy of holism—that is, of the meaningful relationship between parts and wholes—over the subject-object distinction. I wrote my post primarily as part of my process of thinking this through, because I am incapable of thinking clearly without writing.

When philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer talk about meaning and symbols, for example, he isn’t thinking of intersubjectivity, much less is he thinking of symbols as objects observed by subjects. Instead he is thinking of the hermeneutic circle. As Wikipedia succinctly puts it:

It refers to the idea that one’s understanding of the text as a whole is established by reference to the individual parts and one’s understanding of each individual part by reference to the whole. Neither the whole text nor any individual part can be understood without reference to one another, and hence, it is a circle.

As I put it in another post:

For Gadamer, our horizon is a provisional understanding of the whole, and our prejudices are in turn our provisional understanding of a given part that we encounter.

To make this concrete, consider a novel. After finishing a given chapter of a novel, we no doubt have certain expectations about what the book as a whole will be like, based not only on the chapter itself but on our understanding of the genre conventions the novel is operating within, maybe even of our familiarity with the author herself or what other people have insinuated about the book. Once we have completed the novel, however, our understanding will have changed—not only of the novel as a whole, but even of a given chapter and its significance. Rereading the novel, we may find the chapter discloses things to us that it didn’t the first time—and these new disclosures, in turn, inform our understanding of the whole novel. In this way, even after we have read the whole book, we can learn from parts of it.

The division between reductionist frameworks such as the subject-object distinction or methodological individualism, on the one hand, and holistic frameworks like intentionality or the hermeneutic circle, on the other, has been a key intellectual battle ground for decades.

For my part, I think that the holistic framework provides a superior ontology to the subject-object distinction. Though rather than parts and wholes, at the end of my post on the subject I argue for an ontology of the whole and processes within the whole, with taxonomies of parts serving a merely pragmatic role. Or perhaps it would be better to call them, as Daniel Dennett does in a paper that Jon Lawhead has just recently drawn my attention to, “patterns” rather than “parts”.

Our own David Duke is fond of saying that wisdom is about finding meaningful distinctions. Implied in how he says it, I think, is the importance of not trying to turn any one of those distinctions into a theory of everything. The subject-object distinction is meaningful and useful, to be sure. As is intersubjectivity or conjectivity, as is parts and whole, and reductionism and holism, and substance and process. I definitely have a perspective on which of these is superior in most circumstances to the others—a perspective I tried not to be too blatant about in my last post, when I was more interested in exploring each own its own terms and using comparison largely to shed light. But all have proven to be meaningful distinctions.

But the subject-objection distinction does not stand alone. Indeed, it has enormous blindspots.

Blindspots that become evident when methodological individualists attempt to talk about groups.

More Than a Subjective Feeling

On this matter I have been greatly influenced by this Christian List and Kai Spiekermann paper on methodological individualism and holism. They draw specifically on debates within philosophy of mind to distinguish between “levels of explanation.” That Dennett paper mentioned above actually does a good job of making this distinction concrete:

Predicting that someone will duck if you throw a brick at him is easy from the folk-psychological stance; it is and will always be intractable if you have to trace the photons from brick to eyeball, the neurotransmitters from optic nerve to motor nerve, and so forth.

Part of the problem between holists and reductionists is that the latter often interprets the former as saying that neurotransmitters, nerves, and the like, do not have anything to do with beliefs or ideas or intentions. Or that macroeconomic phenomena have nothing to do with individuals. List, Spiekermann, and Dennett as well, argue for patterns that have their own explanatory power that don’t preclude the existence of the “lower” levels, nor their explanatory value in certain specific circumstances.

But explanatory power of an nerve-level perspective is much weaker than the perspective of intentionality for explaining—indeed, predicting—that most people will duck when a brick is hurled at them, and giving reasons why this is so.

The attempts to deny this and reduce macro phenomena to nothing more than microfoundations can be useful, but too often you end up with ridiculous results, as Arnold Kling puts it:

Solow’s problem with Lucas was that Solow thought that reality should take precedence over microfoundations. Solow equated Lucas’ approach to macro with deciding that because one’s theory could not explain how a giraffe could pump adequate blood to its head that one had proven that giraffes do not have long necks.

Rob doesn’t seem to have any problem with intentional concepts from philosophy of mind; indeed he thinks it is precisely because individuals are “the seat of both consciousness and perception” that “the individual viewpoint is irreducible and sacrosanct.” That is, that groups cannot be given any special ontological status.

But in my view, to think of groups as nothing but collections of individuals is just as mistaken as thinking of beliefs as mere illusions created by neurons. And this is precisely where the subject-object distinction, and even or especially intersubjectivity, fail us.

Let’s talk about language for a moment. If you try to think of language as an “object”, or as some kind of mere coordination between “subjects” for what “objects” they are making reference for with what symbols, you do not get the full view.

A language is a whole. It is a whole that is constantly created and changing through the participation of the individuals who speak, write, read, and listen with it every day. The gap between someone who is a good student in a second language and a fluent speaker is enormous. The key difference is that the fluent speaker has a greater grasp of the whole, and so even when he is exposed to parts he has never seen before—words or phrases—in the context of his understanding of the language itself, he is in a much better position to understand them almost immediately.

Language is a property of groups rather than individuals, just as thoughts and ideas and beliefs are properties of individuals, not atoms. To claim that groups cannot have such properties because they don’t have ideas or beliefs, is tantamount to saying that thinking of termites or ants in terms of the whole colony is incorrect because colonies don’t have legs or antennae. I am not saying that human individuals stand in the same relationship to their groups as eusocial insects; I am saying that we have plenty of examples from nature where groups make better levels of explanation than individuals.

There are right and wrong ways to understand a sentence. This sometimes gets obscured by polyvalency, which is simply the fact that there is usually more than one right way to understand a sentence, or especially a paragraph or a whole book. Nevertheless, there are wrong ways to understand all of those things.

Rob trips up because he think truth just is objective truth. But the subject-object distinction is very young, compared the the distinction between truth and falsehood.

A foreigner who consults a menu and then repeats part of it phonetically, thinking that he is ordering beef when in fact he is ordering fish, is wrong. He has misunderstood the text. He is not objectively wrong. He is perhaps conjectively wrong. But he certainly has demonstrated an incorrect grasp of the relationship of this part of language to its whole.

Now,  on to that contentious issue, the Confederate flag. I am not going to die on this hill. But I will talk about how one might make an argument on this subject.

Rob says:

Group A says: “This symbol means X, and that is offensive. Take it down.”

Group B says: “No, this symbol means Y, which is not offensive. I won’t take it down.”

Now the charitable, rational thing for Group A to say at this point is “Maybe it means Y to you, but I want you to know that it means X to a lot of people. So out of respect for those people, you should take it down.”

But that is not what I have in mind.

I understand that there are plenty of scenarios where people could have been raised to see the Confederate flag as simply a matter of heritage, something that stands for the heroism in battle of their ancestors. And that isn’t necessarily wrong. But when it is claimed that it does not also stand for the defense of slavery and subordinate race relations, a claim is being made that is contestable as right or wrong.

When people make this claim, I don’t assume that they are racist. I just think that they are wrong. I would point out that members of the Confederacy proclaimed that the cornerstone of their cause was “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” I would also point out that the designer of the flag argued that “we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race”. Finally, I would point out that the flag was not even flown by the state of South Carolina after the Civil War until 1961, precisely to signal its position on the Civil Rights Movement, which was mounting at the time.

Do these facts have an objective force which makes anyone and everyone see a revealed truth? No. But they are enough to persuade me. And persuasion is the mode not only of establishing the meaning of symbols but also of adjudicating the status of scientific theories.

Which brings me to my final point: there are no guarantees.

Rob reaches for an argument pretty common in libertarian circles, that we must assert the primacy of the individual or else we risk falling into totalitarianism.

The problem is this: the moment that you elevate intersubjectivity to the level of objectivity, or pretend that groups have some kind of importance above and beyond that of the individuals comprising the group, you are on very dangerous territory. This is the domain of groupthink and collectivism, where the lone dissenter is marginalized and crimes against individuals can be justified on the basis of the good of the group. After all, if people are to the nation-state as cells are to a human being, then executing a few dissidents should bother us no more than excising a suspicious mole. Unless we recognize that the individual is something qualitatively different from the group, and that the individual viewpoint is irreducible and sacrosanct, we risk falling into the trap of believing that human beings are just collections of atoms or that a single human being has value only insofar as he contributes to an arbitrarily defined group.

Two responses, one quick, and one not as quick.

First, as David Hume pointed out long ago, pointing out the consequences of a theory does not make it false. This is misleading in as much as it’s important to point out consequences so we can get an appropriate idea of what is at stake. But there’s something to it, in that if consequences are your only argument, you’re essentially saying that even if a theory isn’t true, we need to perpetuate it as a Noble Lie for people’s own good.

Second, there simply are no guarantees. The idea that believing that groups have no ontological status outside of aggregating individuals will protect us from tyranny seems to overstate things quite a bit. For one thing, there are people from history like Robespierre who believed they were fighting for the primacy of individuals and reason who became prototypes for the tyrannies by terror of the 20th century. For another, a radical individualism has its own risks—namely that there won’t be enough to hold the individuals together to serve any common purpose.

A moral nihilist might argue that believing in right and wrong could give people an excuse to do terrible things in the name of right causes. A moral realist might argue that nihilism leads to anything goes outcomes where Hobbes’ fictional state of nature is made real, or cynical power politics receives no corrective at all from organized idealists.

Not only do each broad approach to morality or ontology carry their own risks, but there is virtually an infinite range of particular versions of each approach, some of which are more dangerous than others.

In short, I don’t think the potential risk of sinking into tyrannical collectivism that some group ontologies carry with them is enough to claim that a giraffe’s neck is not as long as it is. For one thing, the devil’s in the details. For another, opposing ontologies often have the same risks arrived at by different paths, as well as risks of their own.

Precisely because I think the stakes in this matter are important, I’m not going to say I conclusively have any answers here when it comes to the right ontology that posits the right relationship between individuals and groups, parts and wholes, subjects and objects. But I’ve grown pretty damn sure that our assumptions about the last distinction carry with them tremendous blindspots which are detrimental to understanding most of the important things in life.

One thought on “Truth Without Objects

  1. Pingback: Flags, collectivism, and quantum physics (seriously) |

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