What is “subjectivity”?

What does subjectivity mean?” is an important question, and one that I seem to hear very different answers to, depending on who I ask. Here I intend to answer the question as clearly and rigorously as possible, because just like objectivity, the concept of subjectivity is an important philosophical foundation. However, somewhat unlike objectivity, I believe the general population is severely confused about what this term, “subjectivity”, means. Hopefully this article brings some clarity to the table.

If we want to be thinking and reasoning with clarity and insight, it is important to have unambiguous definitions of terms, as I have discussed in another post. Failure to do so can lead to pointless debate, hopeless confusion and paradox, as can be observed all too regularly in discussions of theology, metaphysics and philosophy more broadly.

Dictionary definition

The proper role of a dictionary is to compile the various ways in which people actually use words; to describe the real-world use of language. This descriptive assignment of meaning is known as a lexical definition. If we want to know what a word means out there in the streets, the dictionary is the place to look. So, what does the dictionary have to say about the word “subjective”? [1]

subjective (adj.)

  1. Pertaining to subjects as opposed to objects (A subject is one who perceives or is aware; an object is the thing perceived or the thing that the subject is aware of.)
  2. Formed, as in opinions, based upon a person’s feelings or intuition, not upon observation or reasoning; coming more from within the observer than from observations of the external environment.
  3. Resulting from or pertaining to personal mindsets or experience, arising from perceptive mental conditions within the brain and not necessarily or directly from external stimuli.
  4. Lacking in reality or substance.
  5. (philosophy, psychology) Experienced by a person mentally and not directly verifiable by others.

So, there are a few different senses in which people use the word, but there is a theme of subjectivity referring to the things that exist in someone’s mind; that we have a subjective experience of the world. This is sometimes known as “mind-dependence” in philosophy; the subjective is whatever requires a mind/consciousness.

Garden of Earthly Delights extract
The Garden of Earthly Delights was once “subjective” in that it lived in Bosch’s imagination before he manifested it on canvas. People seem to agree on this sense of the word.


There is a problem with the dictionary definitions of subjectivity. I want to draw your attention to an ambiguity which manifests itself even in the first definition. If “subjective” pertains to subjects and not to objects, and a subject is one who perceives or is aware, then how are we to know of the existence of objects in the first place? The correct answer is surely “through subjective experience”, which would imply that “subjective” does include the objective. So what’s it going to be? If we are going to use it, we have to make up our minds as to what this word refers to.

A visual depiction of the problem

Interpretation A: Mutual exclusivity

Definition (5) claims that subjective things are not empirically verifiable. Of course, that is very distinct from being unobservable; hallucinations, qualia and dreams are good examples of where information is available to one’s own mind, but not to the minds of others. So, with this information as background, we might understand subjectivity as follows:

The subjective is that which is perceptible but unverifiable

Here, the subjective and the objective are mutually exclusive – one is not a subset of the other. The subjective would be all the personal stuff that other people are not privy to. This would be distinguished with the “objective”, which, as I covered in the previous article, is the stuff that other people and sensors can also see. It’s the information that is available to our own senses, but also to other sensors, including other people. The point is that all the information we have access to is personally observable – and only personally observable. That includes perception, memory, imagination and everything else going on in our lives. When push comes to shove, we don’t have any other vantage point but our own consciousness from which to perceive the world.

There are a number of justifications for objectivity and subjectivity being mutually exclusive. Many would say that “Venus revolves around the sun” is not a subjective claim to make, in any sense whatsoever. The concepts are often thought of and taught as being mutually exclusive; “we have the subjective, and then we have the objective”. The idea that there is a rift between the concepts is a pervasive dichotomy.

It’s worth noting that by this interpretation, if technology were developed to make peoples’ internal perspectives measurable, the territory of “subjectivity” would shrink, because we could hypothetically plug ourselves into that information. This doesn’t seem intuitive.

“Venus revolving around the sun” is often thought of as the antithesis of “subjectively true”

Interpretation B: Subjectivity incorporates objectivity

There is an alternative interpretation of this word which locates the concept a bit differently. If we look at definition (1) for subjective, and ignore definition (5), as anyone who is not a philosopher/psychologist would probably do, we see that there is another perfectly valid way to define subjectivity and objectivity. That is, we could always put objectivity as a subset of subjective experience. Something like this:

The subjective is everything perceptible, including the objective

This definition accounts for the way that the word “subjective” is often used, for example in definition (1), “a subject is one who perceives or is aware”. This usage implies that everything is ultimately subjective, because the only input that our conscious mind has is observation/awareness, and that “objective” is just a label for “the part of your subjective consciousness that other people and measuring devices can also observe”. This would also be the position of radical scepticism.

There are good reasons that subjectivity should be seen as incorporating objectivity. For example, the term “subjective character of experience” is widely used by psychologists and philosophers to refer to the “ego”, which represents all of the inputs to an individual’s conscious mind. This definition implies that if a conscious creature can be aware of it, then it is subjective, and that the objective world is just one part of that “subjective experience”.

Furthermore, we often think of ourselves as existing in an objective reality that transcends our own experience of it, and so intuitively we would think that our subjective experience is inside the objective world. But we would not know about the world without our consciousness, so it actually makes a lot more sense to think of the objective as being inside the subjective. It really does seem that this whole “life” thing is, in some sense, “in our heads”, at least when thinking in terms of information and inputs.

The outcome is that the distinction between mind and body, or mind and world, is actually a false dichotomy, in that it presupposes a world existing outside of our own conscious experience. The idea that there is world outside your own mind, or a mind outside the world, in general is a pretty big metaphysical assumption. Strictly speaking, we cannot know if there is such a thing, because that question lies outside of the scope of empirical research. My point is that we say such an “obvious” claim is true, when it is technically impossible to evaluate it.

To elaborate; just because you have a constantly-updated model of “the world” in your imagination does not mean that it corresponds to some permanent, eternal thing that is separate from your own awareness, even if it is useful to conceptualise things in that way. You could argue that semantically, the world is separate from your awareness, because it is defined in such a way, and that might be true in this life, but my point is that outside the scope of “this life”, we can’t know. That it’s arrogant to claim that you have the truth regarding these kinds of metaphysical questions. Truth is merely a hypothesis – a model – in the same way as “infinity” or even reality itself. You don’t know for certain what comes next, you merely have a reasonable idea.

If God doesn’t exist because it there is no evidence for him, then nor can we commit to the “transcendent world” assumption. There is and never will be any evidence to support it, because it is a metaphysical proposition.
Therefore, subjectivity should incorporate objectivity as one of its components, because to do otherwise is to invoke meaninglessness. This second way of conceptualising subjectivity does not have a dualistic assumption at its core; its only assumption is that we have conscious awareness.

Are astronomical facts not both objectively and subjectively true? (Elias Politis, CC-BY-SA)


At this point it seems quite clear that subjectivity is properly conceptualised as the origin, or superset of objectivity, as has been argued in this essay and elsewhere. [2][3] If we desire to think clearly about the nature of reality, it follows that we have a responsibility to avoid improper use of terms, gradually bringing the language into line with our conceptual understanding. There is a famous quote by Karl Marx:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

This attitude led to apocalyptic revolution; acting without thinking is simply reckless. Thinking without acting is quite the opposite, presuming time pressures are not too great, and is even understood by evolutionary psychologists as biologically adaptive. [4][5] However, time is never unlimited, and once the thinking has been done, and done well, making a decision is indeed the whole point, as Marx so aptly pointed out. Therefore I will use the word “subjectivity” as a synonym for experience, and not as an antonym for reality; that will be the “change” I make to my world.


There is an ambiguity in the way the word “subjective” is used, and I believe this causes needless confusion and should be ameliorated. It is not the fault of the dictionary that a word is ambiguous; it is the fault of people for using the word too loosely. The dictionary’s job is just to mirror this usage, but now that the proper thinking has been done, our job is to change it to better represent our worldviews. Let’s stop using the word “subjective” to mean what should more properly be referred to as the “imaginary”; this other word at least conveys the unverifiable, non-objective, and self-generated nature of those aspects of our conscious experiences such as dreams and hallucinations.


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