Subject-object problemIn philosophy, the subject-object problem is a problem chiefly for Marxists, and for that idealistic revision of Marxism that supplies the background for postmodernism, social construction, and a constellation of related movements.
The problem arises out of the metaphysics of Hegel. Hegel's metaphysics distinguishes between subjects, roughly, observers; and objects, what is observed. Hegel attached deep significance to these statuses; subjects were active, internal, socially participant, gifted with cognition and will. Objects were passive, external, acted upon but never really internalized by the subjects. According to Hegel, the original philosopher of dialectics, the subject and object become thesis and antithesis, which according to his views unite in a new synthesis.
Karl Marx's philosophy of dialectical materialism is founded on Hegel's doctrine of dialectics; although Marx, being concerned mostly with economics and political matters, rejected Hegel's idealism for materialism while keeping the Hegelian dialectic. Fast forward 120 years to the 1960s, and New Left thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, while coming out of a Marxist background, found the class struggle seemed irrelevant to current political issues. Racial, and later, sexual politics were important matters of social debate at the time. It dawned on them that they could use sex roles, race, and similar identity politics divisions as proxies for the proletariat and the bourgeois capitalist of orthodox Marxism.
A firm conviction that race and sex were subject to political manipulation therefore became an article of faith for these Marxist revisionists. This opened the back door for a sort of linguistic, anti-materialist idealism. The doctrine of social construction took centre stage, as does the incorporation of deconstructionism and critical theory. We are ultimately debarred from certain knowledge of an outside world, if it exist, because all we know is in our mind, mediated by language; and language, as Ludwig Wittgenstein showed, is a social game and a social convention. All we know is language; and language is a social construction: therefore, not only "the personal is political," but indeed, all of science, physics, and anything else that is the subject of human discourse can and must be politicized. The popular names of concepts from physics and mathematics, from Albert Einstein's theory of relativity to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, were used as metaphors, with the assurance that difficulty in observing subatomic particles translated into a universal, epistemological malaise, and that Einstein's relativity somehow lent support to moral relativism.
When feminists speak of "sexual objectification", they knowingly or unknowingly refer to the Hegelian metaphysic, without which "objectification" seems an odd choice of word. The ethical postulate of egalitarianism remains as the one remaining moral absolute, unchecked by social constructionism, or the notion that all discourse is about power. Thus, a concern that no one be treated as a Hegelian object becomes a paramount concern of neo-Hegelian idealists. Moreover, by accepting a strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, issues of language and usage were seen as important political foci.
Those who accept these premises beleive that in ethics, social science and linguistics, the subject-object problem is a confusion resulting from a shifting, inconsistent or vague assignment of observer and observed, active and passive, status in a sentence. Depending on how one views language, and mathematics as a language, this confusion may extend quite deeply into philosophy of all kinds including that of law, science and mathematics itself.
By far the most common problem in discourse since the Enlightenment is the assumption of God's eye view. That is, assuming that a single perspective can be selected and consistently applied to all events, without needing to take into account (as relativity requires) the varying point of view of many cognitive beings moving through time and the fusion of this into one, omniscient, unified, perception of what "is" (see E Prime for General Semantics' solution to this problem). It is a commonly noted mistake made by new writers - in which context it is also called the omniscient narrator, who appears to know everything about the story being told, including what all the characters are thinking, and usually speaks in the third person, in other words no character is referred to as 'I' or 'you' except in dialogue.
In languages generally, one's choice of pronoun chooses a particular subject or subjects to address a particular object or objects. For instance, the always-capitalized "He" refers in English to God, and to say "we..." is always to imply that there is more than one, seeking to state something that has been decided by them, to some other. The range of pronouns available in a language is a key influence on how the subjects and objects are perceived by any native speaker of that language as a mother tongue. For instance, the English language has only the one word for "we", ambiguously implying all levels of consensus from "me and my invisible friend" to "me and the whole Royal Navy". The listener must guess the degree of force that is backing the statement. Other languages, not so closely associated with raw power, such as that of the Penan, an aboriginal people of Borneo, may use several words for varying degrees of commitment and consensus among different groups - the Penan have six words for varying levels of "we" - but yet have no word to describe the status of a domestic animal. The idea of taking in an animal, caring for it, and then killing it, is abhorrent to them. Living things are either in the family, and thus can be hunted, or not. Power is thus reflected in the language directly. To the Penan, all discourse in English probably has a serious subject-object problem, as who's we is never quite clear - it requires cultural context to actually understand who "we" might be, when.
In an ethical sentence, as often formed in law, a subject-object problem, is particularly serious, as someone's actual fate may depend on the impression people get from the communication.
For example, the concept of guilt in the sentence, "You are guilty" is not the same as the sentence "I am guilty" since guilt can be admitted (by the guilty) very directly, but cannot be assigned by another so directly, as this is a power relationship. So if in a single paragraph one were to confuse the two quite different concepts of guilt, treating them as equivalents, drawing inferences on that assumption, etc., then that paragraph would have a serious subject-object problem, even if the sentences themselves, taken individually, did not. philosophy of law is especially concerned with details of such issues.
A closely related power issue in ethics, sociology and philosophy of science is that of the "other", that being, an entity or group-entity which is always treated as an object, assuming oneself or "those like oneself" as the subject. In making such a universal assignment of object status, a group such as slaves, women, workers, foreigners, or debtors can be assigned some subordinate status reinforced by language. The master, man, owner, citizen, creditor, respectively, can legally (using force) assume some power for the other, and speak for them in the same manner as the fictional literary omniscient narrator.
Marxism, feminism and Queer studies are particularly concerned with these problems as they relate to work, women, and gender and sex roles respectively. However they are a general concern of meta-ethics which increasingly is concerned with body as the housing and the motive for the mind. See also philosophy of action, ethical relationship, perspective.
There are related concerns in philosophy of physics where observers are known to affect a result, e.g. in quantum mechanics, in a way which defies the conventional assignment of a subject role to experimenter, with everything else as an object. This can lead among other things to infrastructure bias and confirmation bias.
Cognitive science of mathematics raises some similar concerns with philosophy of mathematics. Among them, the assignment of objective status to mathematical objects as in Platonism, although they are formalisms used in a linguistic fashion for communications between living beings, and thus subject to the same subject-object problems as other forms of such communication. This raises some concerns, dating back as far as Eugene Wigner's 1960 observations on the matter, that what we call foundations of mathematics and cosmology may be not observable or discoverable absolutes, but rather, aspects of humanity and its cognition. Nick Bostrom in 2002 addressed this concern with a theory of anthropic bias.