Breaking a Dichotomy

Two world views exist in a state of constant conflict and turmoil. The first is the view of objectivism. Those who embrace it believe that “science provides us with a methodology that allows us to rise above our subjective limitations and to achieve understanding from a universally valid and unbiased point of view” (Lakoff and Johnson 187). The competing view is subjectivism. Those who favor the subjectivist viewpoint support that which “denies the possibility of any scientific ‘lawlike’ account of human realities” (Lakoff and Johnson 223). This view is one of an unfixed and amorphous world that is wholly unpredictable. In some circles of society, a strong dichotomy is created between objectivity and subjectivity. In the words of Lakoff and Johnson, “if you’re not being objective, you’re being subjective, and there is no third choice” (185).

It has long been my common practice to rail against dichotomies like the one manufactured between objectivism and subjectivism. I find them to be distasteful and limited foundations from which to build; I have long believed that they oversimplify and generalize the scope of human understanding, forcing it into categories that strictly limit exploration. In this case, my unflattering perspective of dichotomies is easily validated. A person trying to be objective fails to consider that which he or she believes cannot be considered universally valid, strictly limiting his or her knowledge. For example, an objective person would not consider why an anthropomorphized domestic cat could consider himself a lion. He or she would just say that a domestic cat is not a lion. One attached to subjectivism is so intent on an unfixed reality that he or she can fail to heed realities that are supported by the experiences of many, considering such finding to be little better than speculation. A hardcore subjectivist might say that, in the domestic cat’s reality, he may be a lion. The subjectivist may believe that there is no way to invalidate the reality of the domestic cat, so his view is as valuable as any other. I believe both the subjective and objective perspectives fail to encompass the complexities of a situation.

Luckily, Lakoff and Johnson get down to business to break the absurd (at least in my view) dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity. They offer a third way of viewing the world, called experientialism, in which a perspective between the objective and subjective is sought. Lakoff and Johnson say that “we see the experientialist myth as capable of satisfying the real and reasonable concerns that have motivated the myths of both subjectivism and objectivism but without either the objectivist obsession with absolute truth or the subjectivist insistence that imagination is totally unrestricted” (228). This is what I have sought! Experientialism is a perspective that is inclusive of the helpful characteristics of objectivism and subjectivism but seeks to eradicate the extremism that can characterize both. An experientialist examining our anthropomorphized domestic cat would not ignore the fact that our interactions with cats tell us that there is a difference between a domestic cat and a lion. However, he or she may also say that an anthropomorphized domestic cat could metaphorically view himself as a lion due to experiences that have made him feel like a grand predator. After all, experientialism’s “emphasis on interaction and interactional properties shows how meaning always is meaning to a person” (Lakoff and Johnson 228). Or, in this case, a cat.

For some, a shift to the experientialist view may come as a bit of a shock. Some scientists may not be particularly pleased with the idea of a view of reality that is not objective. In their afterward, Lakoff and Johnson observe that “our basic claims have nonetheless met resistance for an obvious reason: they are inconsistent with assumptions that many people in the academic world and elsewhere first learned and that shaped the research agendas they still pursue” (273). For many, however, I contend that the experientialist view has long been commonplace in thought even if it has not been identified as such. I have met few people who are unwilling to consider any ideas that are not considered universally valid. I have also met few people who ignore all the findings of science because they think all views are equal. Social psychology is an example of a discipline that uses the scientific method but is deeply devoted to studying the effects of human interaction. The experientialist view was present even before Metaphors We Live By discussed it, just as the history of social psychology suggests.

The implications of the experientialist view are broad and far-reaching. The closer we get to exterminating the disturbing dualisms of objectivity and subjectivity, the closer our society will be able to get toward a shared understanding of truth and reason that does not seek to devalue art (like objectivity) or science (like subjectivity). Writers and thinkers could then have a superior chance to reach a wider range of others through their chosen means of communication. Lakoff and Johnson note that “meaning is negotiated: you slowly figure out what you have in common, what is safe to talk about, how you can communicate unshared experience or create a shared vision. With enough flexibility in bending your world view and with luck and skill and charity, you may achieve some mutual understanding” (231-232). What could a writer desire more than a world where meaning is more easily negotiated and more understanding is reached?

It would take me a great deal of in-depth study to devote myself entirely to the experientialist view. I still don’t fully grasp how it accounts for language and understanding outside of prior experience like insight learning can potentially produce. However, I think that experientialism is at least a step in the right direction. It is a step away from unyielding extremism and a step toward integrated theories of meaning.

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One thought on “Breaking a Dichotomy

  1. chutson says:

    Nice title, always fun to break established norms 🙂

    I think one of my favorite class discussions this semester was when we got onto subjectivity vs. objectivity while going over Pirsig. For a long time, I was more or less in the objectivity camp, then started to slowly switch over to subjectivity when I switched to the Writing major, because you can certainly make the argument that through creating what we do as writers, we are automatically subjective. And like you, I really like this third view of experientialism (except spelling it, why are there so many vowels?!)

    I think you can also view this discussion not as a dichotomy (or with three), that all have very different and non-inclusive viewpoints, but more as a spectrum. I don’t think you can be purely objective or purely subjective; any piece of writing may have both, or different degrees of one or the other. A research paper may incorporate prior scholarship (objectivity) then reflection/opinion (subjectivity) of the author, but you can bet that there will be both. Even science research papers, at some point, have the discussion of the researchers and what they think–subjectivity! I think one or the other can be useful depending on the situation and project, and a balance has to be found. And I think experientialism tries to hit the happy medium, so now we just have another marker on our spectrum 🙂

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