Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Subjectivity vs. Objectivity in the epistemic and ontological senses (John Searle)

Here’s a video in which John Searle discusses AI with Luciano Floridi. I haven’t watched Floridi’s section, nor the discussion afterward. Here and now I’m interested in a distinction Searle makes, starting at about 9:12:



He points out that the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity has both an ontological and epistemic aspect, which is generally neglected. This is VERY important. He uses it to clarify what’s doing on when we worry about whether or not or in what respect computers can be said to think, or be intelligent. That’s a complicated and worthwhile discussion and if the topic interests you, by all means listen to what Searle has to say.

My immediate interest is somewhat more restricted. For some time now I’ve been complaining that, unfortunately, “subjective” has come to mean something like “idiosyncratically variable among different individuals.” But a more basic meaning is simply, “of or pertaining to subjects.” Well, Searle informs me that I’m distinguishing between “subjective” in the epistemic sense (idiosyncratically variable) and “subjective” in the ontological sense.

Ontologically, subjectivity has to do with existence, being experienced by a subject. The experience of a literary text is certainly subjective in this sense. And, as the meaning of texts depends on experiencing them, meaning must be subjective as well. This is a matter of ontology.

Claims about the meaning of a text must necessarily be observer relative and so those claims are epistemically subjective. There are no objective claims about the meanings of texts, though some claims may well be intersubjectively held among some group of readers (an interpretive community in Fish’s sense?).

My claim about literary form is that it is an objective property of the interaction between texts and readers. It is thus not subjective in either the ontological or epistemic senses. By studying the form, however, we can learn about how literary subjectivity works. For literary subjectivity is a real phenomenon of the human world.


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Information about the talk, A Discussion of Artificial Intelligence with John Searle and Luciano Floridi:
Chair: Simon Head, University of Oxford, New York University, and the New York Review of Books Foundation

John Searle, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley

Luciano Floridi, Director of Research, Oxford Internet Institute, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information, University of Oxford

JOHN SEARLE is Slusser Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Language at the University of California, Berkeley, and a winner of the US National Humanities Medal, 2004. He is the author of Seeing Things As They Are: A Theory of Perception (2015) and of The Making of The Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010).

LUCIANO FLORIDI is Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at Oxford University. He is the author of The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality (2014).

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