I used to enjoy reading William Safire’s weekly On Language articles in the Sunday NY Times Magazine. Safire would look at how various words were being used in the press, in politics, or somewhere in the life of people. He then would look at the word’s etymology, wondering if the word’s meaning was still graspable or was it being changed by the new usage.
When I first started reading philosophy books almost forty years ago, I often had trouble understanding the words the philosophers used. Some philosophers spent their whole lives defining a single word or term. Sadly, at the end of the day, the word’s meaning was often still understood only by that philosopher. For instance, Karl Rahner’s use of the words “grace” or “transcendence” cannot be read with a dictionary understanding of those words, or even other philosopher’s understanding of those words. Rahner’s definition of some words was peculiar to him.
Sometimes I feel an odd sense of guilt or shame at not understanding some words. Two of the words I went a long time having trouble wrapping my head and heart around were subject and subjective. I still can’t say I understand them fully today. Now, you might ask, “What’s the problem? These are easy words to define.” Well, below are just a couple of very different ways to define the words—and there are others.
Subject: A vassal; someone who is under someone’s control.
Subject: A unique person; the mind; the consciousness; compare to an object, or a thing.
Subjective: one who lacks freedom; obsolete.
Subjective: a perception of reality peculiar to an individual; compare to an objective reality that is accepted by all observers.
I believe the words subject and subjective and their corresponding antonyms (object and objective) may be some of the most important words to wrap your mind and soul around. The reason that these words are so important is that if we are to live peacefully and cooperatively on this planet—with this planet, with the universe—then we are going to have to move towards greater intersubjectivity.
Intersubjective: the sharing of subjective realities by two or more individuals; compare to solipsism, where only my own mind exists.
Intersubjectivity respects the uniqueness and dignity of every person and recognizes that objectivity will always be a noble but, nevertheless, elusive goal. Starting from intersubjectivity, we ask the question, “What does this mean for my relationships with God, people, the universe?” Intersubjectivity, understood, rejects the objectification and commodification of life. Intersubjectivity is non-dual but still values seeing the differences. Intersubjectivity honors direct democracy but also emphasizes collectivism and the need to share without fear.
Anyway, these are some very imprecise, rambling ideas today. They are subjective, but I hope they spur some fruitful and hopeful intersubjective reflection.
© Paul Dordal, 2018