What is Subjectivity?

“Subjectivity” has two related meanings. One is consciousness or the content of consciousness. The other is the property of being subject-dependent. In this essay, I will focus on the second meaning. I will discuss how experience, truth and value are subjective, and the implications of that. I will also discuss intersubjectivity: the dependence on multiple subjects.

A subject is a mind. Something is subjective if it is mind-dependent and/or perspective-dependent. Something is mind-dependent if it only exists within or relative to a mind. Something is perspective-dependent if it only exists within or relative to a perspective. In most cases, mind and perspective are equivalent notions.

Let’s start with a simple example: left and right. Your left is defined relative to you. Your left is not my left. If I am facing you, then my left is your right and vice versa. Left and right are perspective-dependent. They differ depending on one’s perspective. There is no cosmic left and right.

Forward and backward are similar. They depend on the subject’s orientation in space and/or direction of motion.

Up and down are also perspective-dependent, but in a less obvious way. Up and down are relative to a position on the Earth (or some other planet). Essentially, the up-down axis is a line from your position to the center of gravity of the Earth. The up-down axis is not perceptibly different for people in the same room or in the same city, but it differs a lot between China and Canada. There is no cosmic up and down.

In the past, many people naturally thought of the Earth as a flat surface, and up-down as a cosmic axis. In the more sophisticated Ptolemaic cosmology, up and down were not absolute, but the center of the Earth was the center of the universe. In modern cosmology, we know that the Earth is a ball in space that rotates and orbits the Sun. There is no cosmic up-down axis, and the universe has no center.

That is a good example of how something that seems objective/absolute can be reconceptualized as subjective/relative.

Experience is Subjective

Experience is “mind-stuff”. It is part of the informational content of the mind.

Looking into the blue sky is an experience, and the content of that experience is inextricable from the experiencer. No one else can experience my experiences. You can’t see the world through my eyes, and I can’t see it through yours. We could look at the same object and have very similar brain states, but our experiences would not be the same.

Suppose that I see you stubbing your toe and saying “ouch”. I would know that you are experiencing pain. I could empathize with you, and feel sorry for you. But I could not experience your pain. It would exist only from your perspective and within your mind.

Experience is subjective in two ways. It is tied to a perspective, and it exists within the mind of the experiencer. It is not accessible to anyone else.

Truth is Subjective

The notion of “objective truth” is philosophically naive, because it presupposes direct knowledge of reality, and/or a correspondence between reality and mental models. Knowledge is indirect. We know the world through mental models and mental processes. Our mental models do not correspond to what they represent, and they cannot be compared to reality.

When I see a tree, my brain creates a mental model of a tree. That model does not correspond to the tree. It is a completely different type of thing. It represents the tree, to me. The model is generated by applying an abstract concept to the current data of my senses. The concept was induced from past experience. It reflects the order of reality, but not in a mind-independent way. It reflects correlations between sensory, emotional and motor data (what I call “semex”). The concept “tree” contains information about how objective reality affects me. It depends on the properties of my body and brain, not just the properties of what it represents.

We cannot compare our mental models to reality. Our brains judge a model to be truthful based on its ability to compress/predict experience. The use of a particular model in a particular situation is a judgment made by the brain. Truth judgments are made by brains, and they depend on the properties of the brain. There is no subject-independent way to model reality, or make a truth judgment.

Truth can be (mostly) detached from personal biases and experiences. Science is a method for acquiring general knowledge of reality. Scientific knowledge is not tied to any individual perspective. However, science depends on human brains. It is not brain-independent. It depends on the way that human brains acquire and use knowledge. It involves multiple brains working together. It has processes (such as operational definitions, explicit theories and replication) that reduce personal biases. But it does not generate objective truth.

In ordinary life, we take truth for granted. Seeing a tree is considered adequate evidence of the tree’s existence. But we can’t take truth for granted in philosophy and psychology, because we can’t take our minds/brains for granted. We can’t just ignore the distinction between representation and reality. It is a very deep question how an idea in the mind, such as the perception of a tree, relates to objective reality.

Value is Subjective

Value judgments, like truth judgments, are made by brains, and are tied to the perspective of a subject. But value is also subjective in another way. Truth judgments are about objective reality. Value judgments are about the subject’s orientation/attitude toward existing or hypothetical events.

Mental models do not just represent objective reality. Our brains use mental models to generate action. The models have three aspects: truth, value and action. Value is projected onto real or hypothetical objects or events. Value judgments are then used to generate actions.

For example, if I see a $20 bill lying on the sidewalk, I will pick it up. The perception of money involves the concept of money, which includes the value judgment that money is good (for me). This value judgment then generates the desire to pick up the money, which generates the action of picking it up. Those mental events are rapid and subconscious. They are generated by pattern recognition.

The positive value of money (to me) is not an objective property of money. It is my value-orientation toward money: that I positively value having it.

Unlike truth, value is not convergent for similar brains. Tom and Joe could have identical brains, but they would make very different value judgments from their perspectives. For example, suppose that Joe and Tom both want to date Sally. They have the same value judgment, but from different perspectives. Taking the perspective into account, their value judgments are conflicting. Joe positively values Joe dating Sally, and negatively values Tom dating Sally. Tom positively values Tom dating Sally, and negatively values Joe dating Sally.

In What is Value?, I define different types of value: biological, psychological, social and philosophical. All are tied to a perspective. In this essay, I have been talking about psychological value.


Some things exist as an agreement between brains. Such things are intersubjective. They depend on many subjects, not just one.

Language is a good example. The English language exists in a distributed way, in the brains of English speakers. It is part of culture. The word “dog” means what it means because English speakers map it to the same concept in their brains. A language is a system of knowledge that is shared by multiple brains, and used to communicate ideas between those brains.

Money is another example. What makes money valuable is that people believe it has value. If people stopped viewing money as valuable, then it would no longer be valuable. The value of money exists intersubjectively.

Norms of behavior, such as politeness, are another example. In Japan, it is polite to bow when meeting someone. In America, it is polite to look into his eyes and shake his hand. Those behaviors are polite because people view them as polite. There is no objective standard of politeness, just different cultural standards.

Moral values are intersubjective. People naturally create collective values that solve social problems. Societies impose those collective values on their members. That is what creates the social order. Moral imperatives, such as “Do not murder”, “Do not rape”, “Do not steal”, etc, are not commandments from God, nor are they derived from logic, nor are they built into human nature. They are social rules that make societies work.

People often view social values and imperatives as cosmic. They are not aware that we create them, collectively.

See What is Value? and What is Morality?.

If something is intersubjective, it depends on a collective, not a single individual. It is mind-dependent, but it depends on multiple minds, not just one.

Subjectivity is not Random or Arbitrary

Many people believe that calling X “subjective” implies that X is meaningless, arbitrary or random. That belief is based on naive realism about truth and value. They believe a truth claim is correct if it corresponds to objective truth, and a value claim is correct if it corresponds to objective value. Calling a claim “subjective” implies that it does not correspond to objective reality, or is not about objective reality.

But no truth or value claim corresponds to objective reality.

Truth claims are about objective reality, but there is no way to objectively verify or falsify them. We subjectively verify or falsify them, from our own perspectives, based on the data we have available to us, and using the mental abilities that we possess.

Value claims are not about objective reality per se. A value claim is about the relation between a subject and an object. Value is a subject-object relation: “I value that”. In the case of social/moral value, more than one subject is involved. Instead of “I value that”, it is “we value that”. In both cases, value is a relation between a valuer and what is valued.

The subjectivity of truth and value does not imply that they are meaningless, arbitrary or random. They are perspective-dependent, and that perspective is not random. You could call them “arbitrary” in the sense that they are judgments, and the subject is the judge (arbiter). But truth and value judgments are not arbitrary in the sense of being whimsical or random.

Truth and value judgments are ultimately based on innate mental processes, and those processes are not random. Mental processes have functions within the brain, and the brain has a function within the body.

If I look out my window, I will perceive a tree, not a pink elephant or a seven-headed pig. That perception is regular, not random. It is generated by a mental process that evolved to work in a certain way. That process applies conceptual knowledge to the data of my senses. The conceptual knowledge was induced from past experience by another evolved mental process. The data of my senses are not random. Sense organs evolved to convey information about objective reality to my brain. So, the perception is far from random or whimsical. It depends on my brain and objective reality in regular ways.

“Subjective” does not mean “independent of objective reality”. Truth and value judgments depend on both the subject and the object, and the subject is not a random decision generator. The subject has a nature, which is regular and stable, and which was generated by evolution. Truth and value judgments are generated by evolved mental processes, and they have biological functions.

My judgments are arbitrary in the sense that I am the arbiter. They aren’t meaningless or random. I am not random or radically free. I have a nature.

Intersubjective judgments are also regular, not random. They are generated by multiple brains. They depend on the nature of brains and the nature of society. A collective value, such as “Murder is bad”, is not random or whimsical. It has an important social function. A society is not a random decision generator. It has a structure, and only certain social structures can exist.

There are objective constraints on subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Neither is random nor radically free. Both are ordered.

Subjectivity and Nihilism

Most people assume that their beliefs and choices have an objective basis of some kind. They presuppose the existence of objective truth and value. They believe in cosmic good and evil, and a cosmic imperative to do good, not evil.

This is all delusion.

Some people start thinking philosophically and psychologically about themselves: about truth, value, meaning, morality, etc. They question their naive assumptions. After a long search, they discover that there is no objective basis for beliefs and choices. Instead of an objective foundation, they discover the abyss.

This is a process of disillusionment. It destroys the illusion of an objective foundation. Nihilism is the resulting state of disillusionment (and enlightenment).

Very few people discover the abyss. Of those who do, many get stuck at this point. They view the absence of a foundation as an irresolvable problem. It seems to render their beliefs and choices meaningless. Life seems absurd.

But that is because they still have an unexamined assumption: foundationalism. They assume that meaning requires a foundation. They assume that truth and value must be objective, not subjective. But that is just another delusion. Truth and value are intrinsically subjective. They cannot be objective.

Truth and value exist from a subjective perspective. You are a subject. So, truth and value exist from your perspective.

Philosophy and psychology are the self thinking about itself. They require that we view ourselves from an imaginary detached perspective.

The Copernican revolution in cosmology involved a similar shift of perspective. We see the Sun moving across the sky. It is natural to interpret this apparent motion as the Sun moving. But we can imaginatively view the solar system from a position in space “above” it. From that imaginary perspective, we can model the Earth rotating and orbiting the Sun. This model requires that we “detach” ourselves from the ordinary perspective of an observer on the Earth.

Philosophy and psychology involve the self viewing itself from an imaginary cosmic perspective. In that view, we can see the subjectivity of truth and value. This destroys the illusion of objectivity.

The nihilist looks down on himself from an imaginary cosmic perspective. He sees a machine whose motions have no cosmic significance. This view conflicts with his ordinary assumption that his choices are important, and that he is important. From the detached perspective, life seems absurd.

But the imaginary cosmic perspective is not the “right” perspective. It is just a perspective that we can adopt, imaginatively. It allows us to better understand ourselves. And it is still subjective. We are not actually getting outside ourselves. There is no objective cosmic perspective.

We are subjects. Truth and value exist to us.