Behind the subjective and objective

The distinction between the subjective and the objective existed before Descartes but he seems to have both cast it in a definitive form and convinced everyone that it was a basic ontological distinction. I think this misses what Descartes was up to, and that our present distinction between the subjective and objective should be replaced by the older distinction between the mode of knowing and the mode of being.

The Cartesian division of the subjective from objective arises because the former can’t be doubted but the latter can. This seems to be the whole point of the cogito, where we discover a subject that alone is incapable of being doubted.

The distinction between modes of knowing and modes of being claims to be more basic by problematizing the supposed clear distinction between the inner and the outer world.  True, the cogito proves that there would be a contradiction in doubting at least one item in our mental world, but in order to spin this into a sharp distinction between the subjective and objective we need to rule out the impossibility of rationally denying the the extra-subjective, which Descartes himself insists cannot be done since, within his system, God is extra-subjective even though there is a contraction in denying his existence. And so even the cogito as Descartes originally understood it cannot suffice to divide a subjective from an objective world, since even if we don’t think Descartes’ theistic argument is sound none of his arguments suffice to rule out a contradiction in the denial of the external world.

Descartes raises the possibility of a theater from which we have to infer the existence of the exterior world, but what he seems to establish is that our experience can be analyzed into a subjective component with certain properties that may or may not distinguish it from an objective component. Our experience is constituted both by subjective and objective elements and the problem of his to distinguish them. If he called this ens commune, or being that is first divides into real being and beings of reason, he’d have succeeded in hitting on a fundamental distinction – not into the subjective and objective but into the jumble of being as first known.


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