Objectivism vs. Intrinsicism vs. Subjectivism: A Short Summary

Objectivism-The Philosophy of Ayn RandAt root, subjectivism, intrinsicism and Objectivism are theories of the nature of concepts or “universals.” Here, I summarize them in regard to their view of the nature of truth and knowledge. Since truth is an attribute of statements composed of concepts, each school’s view of truth is a direct outgrowth of its view of concepts.

Subjectivism holds that truth, in effect, resides only in the mind. For a subjectivist, a particular statement can be true for one person and false for another, based solely on one’s mental choices, subjective processing, or emotions. (Kant (by implication), Wittgenstein, James, Sartre, etc.) “Truth” amounts to whatever one believes, and there is no such thing as “knowledge” of reality; only some sort of “experience” inside one’s own mind.

Intrinsicism holds that truth resides disembodied out in the world. Typically, intrinsicists hold that all people have to do is somehow “open their hearts to God,” or “pay attention to their intuitions,” or “open their minds to the light of truth,” and the “external truth” will infallibly push its way in. If the truth is already “out there,” then there’s no reason to think that any special processing is required to reach it; one merely has to absorb it. (Plato, Aristotle (partially, in regard to essences), Apostle Paul, Augustine, etc.) For an intrinsicist, conceptual knowledge is whatever external truths one happens to have absorbed. A particular statement is “true” for everyone, whether they have any evidence or not. (And it’s an arbitrarily answerable question whether various people can be held responsible for not grasping all the “floating truth” out there.) (1)

Objectivism holds that truth and falsehood are aspects of conceptual knowledge. Truth (and perceptual knowledge) is a relationship between a consciousness and reality. Truth is reality, as conceptually processed by a consciousness. Truths do not exist disembodied in external reality. Only physical entities (and their aspects–including other consciousnesses) exist in external reality. I can only reach a truth when I choose to conceptually process percepts by reasoning (by the method of logic.) For an Objectivist, a particular statement can be true for one person and false for another, only when there is a radical difference in the relevant perceptual evidence available to the two people. It does not depend on mental choices, subjective processing, emotions, or whims. (2) A statement can also be arbitrary for one person and either true or false for another: People can have different levels of evidence that change how the statement ranks on their “epistemological determinacy” scale. (From arbitrary, to possibly true or false, to probably true or false, to certainly true or false.)

There is much more to be said about this topic, and I recommend Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Leonard Peikoff, for more.


(1) To be clear, most modern, intellectual intrinsicists (and many such subjectivists) go to great pains to cloak their theory of knowledge in the appearance of reasoning from observation. They use the language of natural science and the formalism of deductive arguments. But this is all rationalization or inconsistency, because, for intrinsicists, the ultimate basis of “knowledge” is just to “feel the [allegedly external] truth.” For subjectivists, whatever their pretenses about subjectivism being necessitated by objective science, that self-contradiction wipes out objectivity on their part, and they thus imply that there’s no such thing as knowledge of reality. (What distinguishes knowledge of reality from fantasy is that knowledge is objective.)

(2) Some clarification on mental choices and truth: When I say that truth does not depend on mental choices, I am referring to what one might call “normative truth”: what the person ought to consider true. This depends solely on what parts of reality the person has observed, (i.e. what evidence he has.) What the person will actually claim as truth does depend on a mental choice: the choice to think about the evidence or not. This is why I say, “I can only reach a truth when I choose to conceptually process percepts by reasoning…” The normative truth is a potential I have, based on my current context of perceptual evidence. Reaching this truth is exercising the choice to fulfill (recognize) the normative truth.

Note also that the position of one’s body can be affected by prior mental choices. Only in this narrow sense can what one perceives–and thus one’s normative truth–be affected by mental choices. Once one has actually perceived something, mental choices are irrelevant to the normative truth.

[Substantial Edit: 2/28/15: My statement that, “For an Objectivist, a particular statement cannot be true for one person and false for another, (2) but it can be arbitrary for one person and either true or false for another,” in the fourth paragraph was altered to say that it is possible for something to be true for one person and false for another, based on evidence. I no longer agree with the old statement, and I don’t think Objectivism supports it. Footnote (2) was also altered to explain the current view.]


Related Posts:

Proceeding from Axioms in Objectivism – YouTube Edition

The Proof of Free Will (Libertarian Volition)

Taking Philosophy Seriously…

A Refutation of the Argument from Design


7 thoughts on “Objectivism vs. Intrinsicism vs. Subjectivism: A Short Summary

  1. You say that “typically, intrinsicists hold that all people have to do is… [something subjective to come to the truth]”. Can you make a distinction between the nature of truth and how people come to discover it? Does truth being “disembodied” necessarily mean that it must be sought and treated subjectively? It seems that truth being “disembodied” is just a slanted way of saying that it is “objective”; i.e. apart from the subject. And that objective truth should be sought and treated objectively (NOT with faith and feelings, since those subjective things are not essentially related to the objective thing: truth).

    Conversely, to say that it is a relationship between reality and a subject — that truth is reality *as understood by a subject* — seems to imply that there is an essential subjective element to truth. One subject may understand reality differently than another. If there is no such thing as truth “disembodied” (i.e. apart from subjects, and their varied understandings; i.e. objective truth), then there is nothing higher to appeal to in order to resolve differences in opinion (i.e. subjective differences). As long as subjects are finite (non-omniscient) and fallible, objective truth cannot be essentially linked to them in that sort of “relationship”. However, if you were to suppose an omniscient and infallible subject — a consciousness which related *perfectly* with reality, then your theory might be onto something… 😉

    • Facts are external to everyone’s consciousness and are the standard by which the truth of statements is judged and disputes resolved. But facts cannot be known independent of any consciousness to know them. The attempt to know facts independent of one’s basic means of knowledge (sensory input) is the attempt to know without consciousness. It is the attempt to jump out of one’s own consciousness, which is impossible.

      I can know concrete, perceptual level facts by direct perception, which is not subject to error. Knowing conceptual level facts requires that I validate a conceptual proposition as true. The statement is objectively true in my context, when I have observed enough facts to perform a proper induction for it and the statement conforms (without contradiction) to all the facts I have observed perceptually.

      (Note that when I say “conceptual level facts,” this is not the most precise terminology. Concepts are not external to human beings, but “conceptual level facts” are our way of identifying concretes–and relationships among them–that exist outside our direct perception or perceptual memory.)

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