Subjects and Objects
November 15, 2013
Stuart W. Mirsky in Dualism, Epistemology, Idealism, Perception, Phenomenalism, Philosophy of Mind, Skepticism, Stuart Mirsky, radical skepticism

We open our eyes and the world stands before us. It's there in all its variety and complexity, an array of things we can pick out via our senses -- things we see, smell, taste, touch, hear. Things.

But, of course, they might have been different than they seem -- other things entirely or, perhaps, even unthinglike -- under different circumstances. As humans embedded in certain cultural histories and belief systems, we see things like chairs and tables, roads and bridges, colors and shapes, etc., things we recognize as entities and features of entities in our world. Things that make sense to us, given the way we interact with them. But, if we were some other sort of entity, perhaps we would see other things?

A primitive man, extracted from his natural milieu, would presumably be somewhat awestruck, dumbstruck, to find himself thrust suddenly into this world of ours. What would he make of automobiles and high risers and televisions and computers? Or of tables and chairs (depending on how primitive he actually was)? And yet he would make something of them because he would be enough like us, share the same anatomical structures and brain mechanisms, to interrelate with the things we interrelate with. He could learn, readily enough, that chairs are for sitting, automobiles for mobility, houses for shelter, etc.

Were we different kinds of animals, though. we would see the world quite differently, however. My late cat had a markedly different view of things than I have. Tables and chairs were not tables and chairs to her, though she was certainly aware of their presence while making somewhat different uses of them than I did. If I ate on my table, or used it to hold various items, it was for her a place to settle down and nap, or a surface to cross and from which to leap onto other things. For her, my tables and chairs were objects in a very different kind of world though she and I shared awareness of them and the ability to make use of them.

The idea of thinking about their uses, though, or of using them as I did, was simply outside her framework. My living room sofa provided a pleasant place for her to settle down, as it did for me, though I saw a couch and she saw . . . what? Presumably something rather different though, lacking access to her mind, one can only speculate.

The world my cat saw and operated in would surely have seemed strange to me. Alive with sounds and scents and visual movement: she recognized birds (and the occasional mouse), not to mention local dogs and neighboring cats and the occasional visiting racoons and opossums – though she saw and reacted to them in markedly different ways than I did when we happened to see the same things. Wittgenstein once noted that "if a lion could speak, we would not understand him" and this was certainly the case with my cat. Could we learn the lion’s language on its own terms? Could a cat even have a language as we understand it – and remain a cat?

Mice see a world that's considerably different from that of my cat (though their worlds often intersected – unfortunately for the mice), but each species has the understanding of its world that its neurological systems enable it to have. And, of course, not all living organisms have even this much. At certain levels of evolutionary development, there is only stimulus and response without the intermediation of a nervous system and brain.

So the world stands before us, those of us with the right systems of course, and it is that world in which we live, in which we find ourselves when we open our eyes. But sometimes some of us take an extra step, especially among the subspecies of primates that we belong to, and then we become aware of this very fact of awareness itself. We think about how the entire world we encounter through our sensory faculties, our remembered experiences and the pictures we build of it, in what we sometimes call our mind’s eye, when we imagine or plan or seek to make sense of the things we recall, is really just our awareness of it. Subtract awareness and we are as inert as a stone, or as a mechanical device which moves through the agency of others and not by its own volition. Nothing is known by a stone and so, for the stone, nothing is.

And now we think here is the truth of it. We are, in the end, subjects and everything else around us is . . . what? Objects only, objects of our experiences. The only reality it begins to seem to us is the reality of ourselves, of this moment in which we perceive or remember, or think about the things we perceive or remember. And this now gains a significance for us that has the power to change how we view the world. No longer, we think, are we fellow objects in a world of objects, fellow objects, that is, which are members of a small class of those objects, that just happen to have the feature of being aware. Now it seems to us, or to many of us who go down this path, that there is a specialness at work, that the unique trait which our sub-class of objects has and which is denied the others, sets us apart from the rest in some unique and unbridgeable way. We are the observers, they the observed.

Carried to extremes some who think this way may begin to question whether or not even the other members of the small class of objects which give the appearance of a subjective life are, in fact, subjects at all. Can they really be subjects as we are if the only real evidence we have of them is as observed objects? And so the explicit discovery of our own subjectivity leads eventually to the idea that being a subject is outside the world the subject has its subjectivity about, the world of which the subject is aware. We imagine ourselves as a source of light shining on this or that object to illumine it in the glow of our observation and then passing on. This, too, of course is a picture derived of our experience of the objective world but it seems to crystallize the relationship between subjects and objects and so we latch onto it, and to similar pictures.

Hence idealism (the notion that the mind is the primary stuff of the universe and that we, being mind, for that is what a subject seems to be, are of that stuff); hence dualism (the notion that the mind is radically different from the rest of the stuff that makes up the fabric of the universe and so we exist in a universe of duality, a universe of two fundamental and irreconcilably different kinds of things); and hence, too, the ideas of solipsism (that there is nothing of the things we experience of which we can be certain, nothing save for our experiencing of them itself); and radical skepticism (the notion that we can know nothing at all, not even who or what we are -- or if we are).

These ideas have bedeviled thinking humans for centuries, perhaps longer, and not only in western philosophy for the eastern civilizations have their full share of idealistic and skeptical creeds as well. How we humans solve the problem of subjectness in a world of objects has been a source of heady argument and disagreement throughout history. It has undergirded the move toward mysticism and the idea of religious faith and prompted any number of attempts to reconcile the world in which we find ourselves with the world in which the logic of the subject/object dichotomy prompts us now to draw back.

Of course there are few, if any, who espouse the various conclusions which reflections on the state of being a subject among objects can lead us to, who actually abandon operation in the world of objects as we have it. How many idealists, after all, will ignore the truck barreling down upon them in the middle of a busy street because, well, it’s just a mental construct? Or fail to act on his or her knowledge gained from some important bit of experience just because all knowledge is, well, in doubt? Or ignore the role the brain plays in his or her consciousness when the doctor reports a lesion or other damage has been discovered and offers us a means to repair it?

Everyone dies, of course, and this is another issue that troubles subjects like ourselves, because we must reconcile ourselves to our own dissolution. We don’t all do it equally well. Some pretend it will never happen (maybe most of us act that way most of the time, in any case) while some develop or enroll in narratives which promise continuity of a sort after physical dissolution, i.e., that the core of the self, the subject, which is radically different, ontologically separate at the deepest level, from the body and brain which “house” it, persists in some other way or in some other place. The dilemma for the subject is its own subsidence into non-existence as a subject, and so the motive is strong to embrace the uniqueness of, the separateness of, the subject from the world it is a subject in.

Thus the pull of the idea of transcendence, of reaching beyond this domain of objects in which we, as subjects, find ourselves enmeshed, and so we grasp at another explanation of our condition, of the circumstance of existing as a subject. We reach for idealism or dualism or solipsism or even skepticism – all are strong attractants for subjects who have once begun to contemplate the very state of being what they are, subjects in a world of objects.

It’s hard to fight that attraction once the possibility has been glimpsed, hard that is to fight it intellectually – though it is equally hard to cling to it when making one’s way in the world of objects. There is that hurtling truck, after all, and the cliff from which we draw back when we stumble near it. Philosophy in the west has sought to grapple with this dichotomy and to construct ways by which we can reconcile the conflicting attractions of the two viewpoints, finding ways to negotiate between the various possibilities they present.

There seem to be no good arguments, though, to settle the question since subjectness and objectness co-exist, apparently necessarily, in the realm of our experiences. You cannot have subjective experience without the things experienced, and our experience of those things tells us every day that we cannot experience except insofar as we are, ourselves, an experienced thing. One may choose one viewpoint or the other -- to espouse to others, or oneself -- but one cannot cut loose the other viewpoint while doing so. We are, in the end, subjects and objects, both, and the work of philosophy must be nothing less than that of teaching us to reconcile a dichotomy that divides.

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