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The Science of Psychology: When Subject is Object

One misconception of mainstream psychology seems inescapable: beneath the studies and statistics, for anything to be known there must be a perceiving subject. Subject and object form a basic pair of philosophical opposites in the history of ideas; the confusion between them is only magnified when the subject is an object of science.

Jung’s work penetrated to the core of this problem, though his comparative method remains almost as misunderstood today as it was a century ago. An understanding of it begins with the facts of perception.

As he showed in Psychological Types, the argument has always turned around the projection of more or less extraverted and introverted viewpoints. These two ways of seeing the world determine how we experience it. To get a clearer picture of their effects on psychology, Jung’s general description of how we perceive is important:

The introvert is “… oriented by the factor in perception and cognition which responds to the sense stimulus in accordance with the individual’s subjective disposition. For example, two people see the same object, but they never see it in such a way that the images they receive are absolutely identical. Quite apart from the variable acuteness of the sense organs and the personal equation, there often exists a radical difference, both in kind and degree, in the psychic assimilation of the perceptual image.

Though the extravert’s accent is on a concrete world of objects, due to the subjective nature of perception, Jung’s description applies to both viewpoints:

The difference in the case of a single apperception may, of course, be very delicate, but in the total psychic economy it makes itself felt in the highest degree, particularly in the effect it has on the ego.

The scientific method began as the extraverted study of objects. Projections flowed only in one direction; repetition, verification, and prediction reduced the subjective effects of individual viewpoints to the extent that certain physical processes could be considered objective. Even so, Jung cautioned:

We must not forget — although the extravert is too prone to do so — that perception and cognition are not purely objective, but are also subjectively conditioned. The world exists not merely in itself, but also as it appears to me. Indeed, at bottom, we have absolutely no criterion that would help us to form a judgment of a world which was unassimilable by the subject.” Perception means assimilation which mean judgment which means subjective. 

Jung explained that because of this subjective factor, “absolute cognition” is impossible. We are only as objective as our senses allow. Objectivity is relative not only to the limitations of the senses (even when artificially magnified) but to personal judgments about what we perceive and for what purposes. Beyond these unconscious pre-conditions, the mere accrual of information is “the effect it has on the ego.”

This is “… an attitude of intellectual arrogance accompanied by crudeness of feeling, a violation of life as stupid as it is presumptuous. By overvaluing our capacity for objective cognition we repress the importance of the subjective factor, which simply means a denial of the subject. But what is the subject? The subject is man himself — we are the subject. Only a sick mind could forget that cognition must have a subject, and that there is no knowledge whatever and therefore no world at all unless “I know” has been said, though with this statement one has already expressed the subjective limitation of all knowledge.

This applies to all psychic functions: they have a subject which is just as indispensable as the object. It is characteristic of our present extraverted sense of values that the word “subjective” usually sounds like a reproof… brandished like a weapon over the head of anyone who is not boundlessly convinced of the absolute superiority of the object.” The freight train of objective science and its ego-effects have steam-rolled psychology into a glaring contradiction:

By the subjective factor I understand the psychological action or reaction which merges with the effect produced by the object and so gives rise to a new psychic datum.” As surely as we identify images with things, they are at once personal, collective, subjective, and objective. Here’s the stick dangling the apple in front of a scientific psychology:

Insofar as the subjective factor has, from the earliest times and among all peoples, remained in large measure constant, elementary perceptions and cognitions being almost universally the same, it is a reality that is just as firmly established as the external object. If this were not so, any sort of permanent and unchanging reality would be simply inconceivable, and any understanding of the past would be impossible. In this sense, therefore, the subjective factor is as ineluctable a datum as the extent of the sea and the radius of the earth.

A fact is a fact, right? Not until we have a wider conception of how relative they are to a perceiving medium. Grandiose notions of a “theory of everything” will sooner or later stumble onto these limitations:

By the same token, the subjective factor has all the value of a co-determinant of the world we live in, a factor that on no account can be left out of our calculations. It is another universal law, and whoever bases himself on it has a foundation as secure, as permanent, and as valid as the man who relies on the object. But just as the object and objective data do not remain permanently the same, being perishable and subject to chance, so too the subjective factor is subject to variation and individual hazards. For this reason its value is also merely relative.

For an example of how Jung’s comparative method may be applied to find subjective meaning beyond the limitations of intellect, read more.

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