15 JANUARY 2006

If you ask an absolute thinker why they believe as they do, the answer you’ll most commonly get is, “because it’s the truth, of course!” Their cherished theory of life is not something they are making up; not something “that works” for them at this point in their life; not some story or theory; it simply is what it is: the true facts! – end of story.

What these people desperately lack, in my view, is a concept of objectivity that allows them to recognize their own participation in their view of the world, what they are adding or subtracting from their day-to-day experience — and personal reflections — to get what seems to be “the truth!”

I think “Therapeutic Action: An Earnest Plea for Irony,” by philosopher-psychologist Jonathan Lear, presents a concept of objectivity that gives us more flexibility in interpreting our world, and it keeps us on track in a context where “getting things right” is clearly of stupendous importance.


Lear tells of a patient who “inhabited a disappointing world.” While this person had friends and some success at work, “there was no success in the social world that would not be interpreted by her under the aura of disappointment. If she got a raise at work, it was because the boss was shamed into it … if someone congratulated her on some accomplishment, they were just being polite. And so on.”

“From a distance it is clear to us, as it was not clear to her, how active she was in understanding her world in ways that were bound to disappoint. And, of course, much of the analysis was spent working through these repetitive attempts at disappointment.”


“But if we ask ourselves, ‘What did this working through consist in?’ it is not enough to say that it consisted in helping her to see how active she was in creating her own disappointments. For that transition itself consisted in a shift in her own conception of objectivity. That is, it was easier for her to experience the world itself as disappointing if she experienced the nature of the world as utterly independent of her. It was as though disappointment were written into the stars. Obviously, she did not have an explicit concept of objectivity — she was not about to make a speech about what objectivity meant for her — but her understanding of objectivity was implicit in the ways she inhabited and understood her world.

“It seems to me that developing a subjective sense of objectivity was crucial to the analysis. For if one lives with a confused but overall objective sense of objectivity, it is as though the human world is just like the stars — it is just the way it is. But as one develops a concern for oneself as a subject — concern for oneself as someone who sincerely wants to ask the question of how he or she should live — then the question of objectivity becomes a question of understanding the world aright, in terms of one’s own decisions of how to live within it.

“That shift to a subjective conception of objectivity occurs when one is able to ask oneself, ‘Am I sure I understand the boss correctly when he gave me a raise?’ In the confused sense of objectivity, the sense of the way the world is is meant to preclude any further questions about it. That’s the way the world is, and that’s that. In the subjective sense of objectivity, by contrast, there is always a further question about whether I have understood myself and others accurately. For now we raise the question of objectivity within the context of our own concerned engagement in the world and in a context where it clearly matters to be getting things right.

“When one is concerned with the human realm, that is, the realm of hopes and fears and desires and wishes and projects and designs, the objective use of objectivity closes down questions, and the subjective use of objectivity opens them up.” (My emphasis.)


Which is to say that the therapist — or the philosopher — facilitates a process by which the patient slowly comes to recognize that what he or she had taken to be the world as it really is, is in fact the imposition of a distorting point of view. The person has been living “with a skewed sense of himself and others, and all along he has assumed that he has been the passive recipient of the world as it really is. What he had taken to be objective is in fact subjective.”

This results in questions like, “What is the correct view of the social world? What is the correct view of my inner world? What is the correct view to take in regards philosophy and religion … eternity, contingency, irony?” Lacking the ability to ask these questions, shallow notions about objectivity get used as erroneous foundations for belief and action — and as a defense against deep questions about self and world, questions that are as disturbing and complicated as they are important.


©jonfobes 2005