Inquiring Deeply About Subjectivity and Truth

Subjectivity is a central philosophical concept, related to consciousness, personhood, and truth.  Though defined in different ways, the central idea is that information, ideas, and situations are true only from the perspective of a subject or subjects.

Do we regard truth as objective, a matter of fact? Or do we understand that truth always bears the stamp of what is subjective?  

This concept is illustrated in the well-known staircase drawing of the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher. Two people are moving side by side on the same staircase, yet they have different ideas of what is horizontal and what is vertical. If we don’t share the same reality, it is impossible for us to walk, sit, or stand on the same floor.

story that Gregory Bateson told about Picasso makes a similar point. The artist was traveling in a train, when a stranger asked him why he didn’t paint things as they actually appeared. Picasso said that he didn’t understand what the stranger meant, so his accuser pulled out his wallet and showed Picasso a photo of his wife. “You see, that’s how she is”, the stranger said.  Picasso replied rather hesitantly: Oh, she’s quite small, isn’t she…. and rather flat!

As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said, True and false are attributes of speech, not things.

Buddhist philosophy further illuminates this situation in its distinction between two levels of truth:  Conventional and Absolute.  That truth is irreducibly relative becomes apparent once it is understood (as it is in Buddhist doctrine) that there are no distinctive things or beings which can be said to be inherently “true” or “false”.

However, this philosophical conundrum leaves us squarely with the question “so what”?  What is wise view with respect to the relativity of subjective truth?

Clearly, the whole conception of my mind sitting safely in my body and looking out through its senses on to a universe which is not mind, and with which my own mind has therefore no connection except through the senses, is an impossible one.

The alternative, spiritual ‘solution’ to the problem is that once you experience who you really are – a core consciousness beyond the mind, intellect, and ego – all suffering will come to an end.  This is “enlightenment”. 

However, for me, the best solution to the quandary posed by these deep questions was expressed by the psychoanalyst George Atwood and his colleague David Klugman.  To paraphrase their idea, both the narrative impulse— the need to have and tell a story about one’s life— and the metaphysical impulse— the need for an eternal, changeless foundation for all that exists—are complementary formulations which both serve the human need for purpose, meaning, and wholeness. 

Narratives, including the meta-narrative we call “self”, provide a reassuring coherence and unity in the diverse elements of our otherwise unbearably chaotic personal lives.  And spiritual narrative (Absolute truth) provides an image of a cosmic ground that solidifies the transitory impermanence which otherwise may seems to threaten us with dissolving into nothingness.