Tag Archive for subject-object

A Christian Response to the Subject-Object Dilemma

For a while, it seemed chic to be able to say the word postmodern in a sermon. The belief-system behind the word is rather drab. No God exists, no human nature exists, and no essences exists. As such, beauty is a fiction imposed upon reality by humans wanting to order their meaningless existence. Truth is no longer what corresponds to reality; truth is merely the internally coherent and practically useful understanding of a single human consciousness. Postmodernism is hardly friendly to Christianity on this score.

Modernism introduced the division between subject and object. Postmodernism erases the object altogether, at least as far as our consciousness goes. Christians have responded in at least four ways to this subject-object dichotomy.

Augustine and Pascal: Loving Intuition
Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) are separated by more than a millennium, but are philosophically very close to one another. Augustine and Pascal held to a kind of affective rationality: the idea that right loves will correctly shape reason and further cognition. Subjects cannot know objects unless they are rightly related to those objects by loving them correctly. One cannot know how to love a single object without relating it to the universe of objects. One cannot know the correct ordering and relationship of all objects in the universe unless one loves the Author and Creator of all objects and loves objects for his sake. Humble, believing love toward God, in the right order, and to the right degree, is the basis of all progress in knowledge. We can know objects when we are in submission to God, the author of all subjects and objects.

Jonathan Edwards: Consenting Sensibility
Edwards (1703-58) agreed with Pascal and Augustine in saying that humble, believing love is the basis of right perception. Yet he went beyond them in stating that such love is the creaturely mirror of the love God has for himself and his works. Beauty and the sense of beauty are not divided. The perceiver is fundamental to recognising God’s beauty, but the perceiver must have been brought into a loving state in relationship to God, which he called “consent”. God’s beauty is “objectively” real, but only perceivable by the one beautified with the consenting disposition. Further, Edwards’ view of love pushes one beyond desire and delight into the concept of union. “Consent” is not simply pleasure, but the desire for compete conformity, for total union of wills and desires. Beholding beauty cannot be separated from becoming part of that beauty.

Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis: Imaginative Rationalism
Owen Barfield (1898–1997) and C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) were British intellectuals of the twentieth century. Lewis and Barfield can both be called imaginative rationalists, for both saw the place of reason (and used it persuasively), but both saw reason functioning only when in the service of a greater organ of truth: imagination. Perception is not passive, but an active construal into a “grid”, which is the imagination. Lewis and Barfield understood that this grid of pre apprehension is fundamental to reason functioning properly. Imagination, understood as the active lens of the interpretive perception of reality, is fundamental to knowledge. This lens is to be shaped by those forms that appeal to imagination. When the Christian imagination is in place—understanding the universe as God has revealed it to be—it will participate in that moral universe with ordinate affection towards it, and so rightly judge its truth, goodness, and beauty.

Michael Polanyi: Personal Knowledge and Indwelling
Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) was a Hungarian-British physicist and philosopher. Polanyi taught that people can know the world, not infallibly or with omniscience, because they are both part of the world and are able to transcend it through perception, imagination, and reason. Polanyi also spoke much of personal knowledge. By this he meant that human knowing is always an exercise of personal responsibility. Instead of Enlightenment philosophy’s notion of minimising or even eliminating the personal responsibility of the knower (by calling it “objectivity”), Polanyi insisted the knower must submit to reality as a responsible knower. He also spoke of “indwelling”. Indwelling is loving in order to know. By empathetically putting oneself inside the thing one wants to know, and taking it inside, one extends welcome, trust, and caring attentiveness.

These four proposals give us four distinctives necessary to a Christian realist correspondence model for beauty. First, the need for faith and love in one’s approach to God. Second, the necessity of a Christian imagination: a faith-filled grid that views reality primarily as a creation by a Triune Creator parsed by creatures who are subcreators. Third, the essentiality of union: union in being and in attitude with the object of knowledge is necessary to properly love, know and understand it. Fourth, the necessity of illumination. God’s voluntary self-disclosure and enlightenment of the heart and mind is fundamental to understanding God’s beauty.

With modernism, Christians agree that there is beauty, whether subjects perceive it or not. The rainbow is there as a phenomenon of light and water vapour, even if observers are not present. With postmodernism, we agree that beauty requires subjects to perceive it. The rainbow requires human eyes to be perceived as a rainbow. With premodernism, we agree that we must be in the right posture toward God and creation to properly perceive beauty. The rainbow must be seen at a certain angle and position, for not all can see it. Nevertheless, the rainbow is real, as is true beauty.

12. Beauty’s Difficulties: Subjective vs Objective?

Perhaps the most frequent objection levelled at those wishing to see beauty restored to a central place in Christian thinking is that beauty represents “subjective” knowledge: inward experience known only to a perceiving subject. Thinkers in the modernist tradition still hold that some forms of knowledge can be known objectively, while transcendental values such as beauty, cannot.

Conversely, those in the postmodern tradition take subjectivism to its logical conclusion. According to them, whatever is outside the consciousness of the subject cannot be known independently or separately of that subject; indeed, any claim to “objective” knowledge would once again originate from within a subject, meaning the claim would be circular or incoherent. A claim to know anything comes from a subject; how then could any subject claim access to a knowledge independent of his or her own cognition?

Actually, the problem is mostly a 500 year-old Western problem. Premoderns did not wrestle with the question of the conflict between subjective and objective knowledge. The ancients understood themselves as participants in reality, and they understood that sense perceptions of the world outside the observer were conjunctions between reality and the perceiver. For example, the phenomenon of a rainbow is real and is perceived as such by a subject, but it does not represent a concrete object with independent existence outside of the observer. It requires a subject to perceive the phenomenon of a rainbow. And yet the phenomenon is not merely a psychological one; it represents something real in the world. Subject and object combine. Premoderns saw all sensory experience like the rainbow.

Plato’s theories were similar. Plato understood that knowledge of the external world is verified through access to permanent, unchanging universals. In other words, certainty is not obtained through an interrogation of particular phenomena, but by knowing to what ideal form or essence the material phenomena correspond. This view of “metaphysical realism”, that there are ultimate realities, such as truth, goodness, and beauty, prevailed through the Middle Ages.

The rise of nominalism in the thirteenth century changed all that. Originally an attempt to preserve God’s absolute freedom, nominalism severed the link between ultimate realities (such as beauty), and their presence in our world. All that remained were concrete instances of things, to which we gave the name (or the descriptor) beautiful. This would develop into the rationalism of Descartes. Descartes’ scepticism about the reliability of the senses leads to the idea that perception and reason are entirely different. The Cartesian view is one of the great disintegrating philosophies of all time, setting the mind against the sensory and the intuitive. Participation is all but dead: objects exist without observers, subjects perceive passively and then choose to interpret these perceptions. Meaning is moved from the world to the mind. Meaning no longer inheres in things, it becomes a property of minds who perceive or judge meaning internally. External objects may be a catalyst for perceiving meaning, but the meanings are self-generated by the subject.

You can see what this means for beauty. Beauty cannot be a universal or transcendant property instantiated in our world. Instead, all that exist are objects upon which we project the notion of beauty. Beauty exists not jointly between subject and object, but solely in the subject.

This would develop into the empiricism of Locke and Hume, where transcendentals like beauty are all but fictions we impose upon our experience. Immanuel Kant attempted to come to the rescue, suggesting a two-storey approach to knowledge: matters that can be empirically and rationally proved (phenomena), and those that cannot (noumena), such as morals and beauty. Unfortunately, Kant did not solve the debate; in many respects, he created a permanent wedge between subjective and objective knowledge. Positivists were willing to go beyond Kant to abandon the concept of the noumenal altogether. Whatever cannot be verified by empirical means may be, for all practical purposes, non-existent. Romantics, on the other hand, felt that science had discredited Christianity and saw Kantian noumena as the epistemological way out. Kant’s upper story of the noumenal could be safely protected from the lower story of empiricism, rationalism and materialism.

The result of the Enlightenment was a two-storey view of truth: an objective category for matter, subject to empiricism’s exacting methods; and a subjective category for mind and transcendentals, subject to an increasingly existential outlook. Beauty had gone from a real universal, to a property of objects understood by the mind, to a relational property sensed by those with taste, to a construct of the mind imposed upon objects. Kant’s early transcendental idealism would blossom into the existentialism of postmodernism: a full blown subjectivism and an anti-aesthetic. What are the Christian responses to this dilemma? We’ll consider that next.