Home » On the Meanings of “Object”, “Objective”, and “Objectivity”

The word “language” often suffers a confusion in use because of a partial equivocation in signification.  Sometimes, we use it to signify the species-specifically human capacity to express semantic depth pertaining to a being known as independent of our cognitive activity; in other words, we use the word “language” to indicate our ability for signifying things as they are in themselves and not merely as they considered by reference to our pragmatic considerations.  To disambiguate the partial equivocation, we can call this the “linguistic capacity”.  Other times, however, when we speak about “language”, we signify a specific system of signs used for carrying out this linguistic capacity.  We can call such systems “languages” or “specific languages”.

Growth of Symbols

Every specific language is composed of words, which are signifiers by convention.  That is, there is no necessary correlation between the sounds I make with my mouth or the letters I write on the page and the objects that these words constituted through sound or writing (or any other means) are intended to signify.  Thus, two distinct words can signify one and the same thing, as “dog” in English and “Hund” in German both signify the same species of animal.  But the sound “snargglish” might just as well signify that very same species—that of dogs—and by a kind of stipulation, I can say that that is what “snargglish” signifies.  If enough other people start using “snargglish” in this way, the signification changes from being by stipulation (what I have attempted to authoritatively impose) to being by custom (where no one needs to know that I have imposed it).  Customary significations tend to become stuck in the minds of those who use them; thus, if I started using the word “dog” to signify a pile of leaves, there would be both confusion and resistance, for this does not hold as a custom in the minds of others, even if it holds this way in my own.  Nevertheless, the meanings of words—the objects they are used to signify—do change, grow, become clearer, shift, gradually dim, or fall into obscurity, and so on and on, depending on how they are customarily used.

That said (and by saying it we have broached the topic of semiotics) while the signification ascribed to any particular word belongs to it by convention, the specific languages we use are languages at all—that is, they are instances of our linguistic capacity—insofar as the words constituting the language immediately and proximately signify the concepts of our minds.  While the words of the specific language are conventional, the significations belonging to the concepts are not.  A longstanding tendency to conflate words with concepts obscures this truth.  But the simple fact that we have multiple languages whereby words composed of different sounds, letters, or even entirely different writing systems nevertheless convey the same ideas shows that the concept and the word are not one and the same.

It is an important point which we cannot elaborate upon here (but which has been well-discussed many other places) that our concepts themselves, too, function as signs: that all thought is through signs.

Sometimes, therefore, the ways in which we as societies and cultures affect changes in our words as used allow us to better signify and explain the significations of our concepts.  “Symbols”, Charles Peirce said—and words are the preeminent kind of symbol—“grow”.[1]  The conventional words across many languages for “sign”, for instance, have grown considerably as symbols since the early use in ancient Greece (which, in Greek rather than English, was “semeion”, used initially to signify the symptoms of a medical condition).  This will be the topic of another post.  But we can likely think of many other words which have grown over the course of history: “community”, for one, or “truth”; “Catholic” or “Christian”, “American” or “Russian”, “education” or “rhetoric”, and so on and on; that is, a growth which is not necessarily an increase of the term’s comprehension (including more particulars under it, that is), but perhaps a deepening, strengthening, or clarification of its meaning.

“Objective” Meaning

Other times, however, the changes of a word’s usage result in a concept being signified poorly, or perhaps even no longer being signified at all, such that the concept experiences a societal atrophy.  Or other changes, stemming from a lack of careful philosophical reflection on how terms are used or a blending of languages, a mix-up in translation, a mix-up in intellectual traditions, might result in a confusion not only of their verbal signifiers but of their concepts, too.

A little of each kind of confusion has happened with the word “objective”.  Here, we have to note that “objective” has two other forms commonly used today: namely “object” and “objectivity”.  Both “object” and “objective”, have an equivocal use as well, for both are used at times to signify a goal or aim, as in describing a “mission objective” or in the sentence, “She has always been the object of his affections.”  This is closely related to the grammatical use, where we talk about direct and indirect objects of verbs.  In contemporary discourse generally, however, the terms object, objectivity, and objective all alike have a common signification of pertaining to reality as cognition-independent.  Thus, the term “object” is commonly used as a synonym for “thing”; “objectivity” is used to signify an absence of vested interest in the outcome of a situation; and “objective” is used to reference things as they are “factually”, “scientifically”, or independent of any “subjective” interpretation or opinion.

Many people can be observed striving to demonstrate their “objectivity” in disputed matters, just as they are seen jockeying to prove their claims as “objectively true”—mostly by some reliance upon a scientific method of experimentation and statistical verification.  When it is said that we are treating another human being as a “mere object”, this indicates a diminution of their status from “person” to a “thing for use”—which (mis)use constitutes another albeit closely-related issue, since there is a depreciated sense of the aforementioned equivocal meaning of “object” as pertaining to a goal or aim in such a use.

However: none of these words in their contemporary usages signifies the same concept that the word “object” originally signified; or as it was in Latin, in which specific language the word originated, “obiectum”.  This Latin word, “obiectum”, was composed from two parts: a preposition, ob– meaning “against”, and iactum, a perfect passive participial form of the verb “iacere”, meaning “to throw”.  Thus, the “obiectum” was “that which was thrown against”.  Thrown against what?  As understood by the Latin Scholastic philosophers, the obiectum was thrown against some power or faculty belonging to a subject; that is, to be an object, for philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, John Poinsot—and many others—was something precisely and only insofar as it was in relation to some power, and most especially a cognitive power.  Noticeably, there is a remnant of this understanding in the equivocal meaning of the term “object” as pertaining to a goal or an aim.  But this is a very weak remnant compared to the full force of the original sense.  For being in relation to a power can occur in different ways which I will not go into here, for the sake of brevity, except to say that that potential relativity of objects-to-powers is far more complex than simply between an agent and its goal or aim.

In Latin antiquity, therefore, “subjective” and “objective” were not opposites as meaning “what belongs to the opinion of an individual mind” and “what is true regardless of what any individual person thinks”, respectively (and as commonly used today), but were a correlative pair: the obiectum was “thrown against” the cognitive faculties or powers of the subiectum, and it was by the faculties of the subject that the thing was an object at all.  That is to say, that everything having existence is a subject, but only subjects with psyches, with cognitive powers, can have objects, properly speaking.  Or to put it otherwise, ontologically speaking, everything is in itself subjective and becomes objective only by relation to a cognitive agent.

Lost Meaning

The shift of the words’ use to our contemporary meaning is, frankly, a little funny to think about: for now they are used to convey the precise opposite of what they originally were intended to signify.  But it is only a little funny, because this opposition constitutes not only an inversion of the terms, but, in fact a loss of the original meaning.  Moreover, the rise of the new meanings has had two profoundly negative consequences.

First, the idea of “objective” knowledge or of “objective truth” badly mangles the meaning of “truth”.  Truth—the revelation of what is and the subsequent adequation of thought and thing—unfolds through interpretive means.  That is, the “adequation” is not a simple 1-to-1 ratio of matching something in your mind to something in the world but requires effort; it requires us to inquire into what really is, since very often we are mistaken in taking a mere appear for an essential reality.  Our concepts, which are the means through which the adequation occurs, are not dropped into our heads as perfect, precise means, but must be worked out through various operations—and it is never the case that we get the full, unblemished, absolute truth about the objects those concepts signify.  Our concepts are never perfect signs.  They may be sufficient, adequate, and accurate; but never perfect.  Our intellects are so weak, as Thomas Aquinas says, that we can never perfectly know the essence of even a single fly.

Second, the original concept signified by obiectum, the intelligible “thing” precisely as it is in relation to a cognitive power, is not sufficiently signified by any other term or succinct phrase of the English language.  Indeed, even the word “thing” misnames what an obiectum is.  There occurs a certain parallel in the German word Gegenstand, but their language, too, has suffered a similar confusion.  And it is difficult to make known just how incredibly important the concept signified by obiectum is when the misuse has become stuck in the minds of the many.  That is: the objects of our thoughts are not always the same as the things themselves.  Our concepts may present to us objects which differ from the things they include, either by being more limited than those things (which is almost always the case in at least one regard) or by including in their signification to us certain aspects which are outside those things themselves (which also occurs almost always).  To give brief examples, I saw a picture the other day of the “dumpy tree frog”.  Both my concept—signifying the kind of creature, the essence of such frogs—and my percept or mental image—composed from particular experiences of such tree frogs—are extremely thin; I have one picture in mind, and almost no specific knowledge about the frog beyond what I know about all frogs, and even that isn’t very rich knowledge.  Thus the frog as an object of my cognitive action is much less than the frog as a thing.

On the other hand, in seeing any bulbous, dumpy-looking frog, because of the cultural exposure I have had in my life, I immediately think of the frog not just as an animal, but as one that sits on lily pads, hops around small ponds, perhaps retrieves a golden ball, and gets kissed by princesses—the first two being things that follow from its nature, but which are nevertheless relational, and the last two being fictional relations.  Since I know they are fictional, I’m not deceived, but a young child might be.  Regardless, they certainly signify something more than the frog itself.

Something very similar to this relational conceptualization happens, however, in most of our experiences.  Certainly, it happens in every experience of culturally-shaped socialization.  That is, every object we encounter which has something in it that does not belong to it strictly on account of its own nature is an object expanded beyond the boundaries of what is presented by the thing in itself: for instance, friends, lovers, teachers, judges, police officers, and so on.  There might be a basis for their being such objects—as some people make better friends than others because of how they are in themselves—but being such an object entails something more than that basis.  The mug on my desk is my mug—on my desk.  But neither desk nor mug has any property in it which makes it mine.  It receives this designation only by an objective relation: what we call extrinsic denominations, which may be more or less fitting, but which fittingness depends upon a myriad of factors irreducible to the mind-independent realities themselves.

Conclusion: The Need for Semiotics

In conclusion: it is important to distinguish between our “linguistic capacity” and our “languages” so as better to grasp the nature of concepts and the means of their signification.  Language never exists in a fixed reality—“rigid designators” being, as John Deely once wrote, “no more than an intellectual bureaucrat’s dream”—but always shifts and alters over time, through use.  The conventional nature of our languages and their symbols allows us to improve our signification—but also to lose our concepts.  Such lacunae can be destructive to understanding: not only in that we misinterpret the works of the historical past but in that we misunderstand the reality which we inhabit.  For instance, the very real presence and effect of extrinsic denominations cannot be coherently understood without a robust distinction between “mind-independent things” and “mind-dependent objectivities”.  Simultaneously, the notion of “objective truth” results in “truth” being misappropriated as something entirely impossible.

Deep and consistent reflection upon the function of our signs—not only in general but in the particular languages we use—proves necessary to ensuring our conceptual coherence and clarity.

[1] c.1895: CP.2.302.

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