Are Objectivism and Subjectivism Truly Antonymous? A Critique in the Perspective of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

18th March 2014

Bernstein defines the psyche of the modern thinker in a striking notion; (s)he most certainly passed through the grips of a Cartesian Anxiety! [1] It is very dramatic, almost theatrical, to assess the modern philosopher from the very modern angle of psychology, as pyschology itself is the soft underbelly, the debated frontier of knowledge debates, or as Foucault would put it, most probably a modernist construct of “the general sensibility to unreason” [2, p.66]. The one who suffers from anxiety then must be “without exact semantic distinction insane, alienated, deranged, demented, extravagant” [2, p.66].

Can one then deduce that from a Descartes allusion of Either/Or of the source of knowledge, the philosopher/the epistemologist had inevitably descended into a state of madness? Bernstein summarizes the main statement of this state of madness, the heart of the cartesian anxiety; “Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos” [1, p.18]. One must now split the Bernstein’s definition into two; cartesian and anxiety – and take a short semantic journey. Either/Or grips are certainly constructs of Descartes yet are they precursors to logic or madness? As much as Descartes establishes them to emphasize difference and exclude connections (resulting in dualism), Spinoza uses them to eradicate dualism and establish monism [3]. Thus the term Spinozian Anxiety could have been self contradicting, yet could also have indicated that it was a situation that one could find a way out of. Then Bernstein’s selection of term and its coupling with a psychological condition is voluntary – this is understandable as he later suggests that this anxiety needs to be exorcized and philosophy proper should be liberated from this dichotomy [1, p.19]. (It should also be mentioned that Bernstein matches this dichotomy with the disjunction of objectivism and relativism.) However Bernstein adumbrates that philosophy proper (one could also mention epistemology proper here) is obstructed by this Either/Or grip – if this barrier of clash between knowledge/madness or objectivism/relativism was to be removed, the philosophy would advance to its proper place. Yet what if the philosophy proper was exactly where it was supposed to be? What if by removing the Either/Or, one also removes the proper function of philosophy itself.

But before following Bernstein’s path any longer a critique of objectivism and relativism has to be formed. Bernstein states that;

“By ‘objectivism’, I mean the basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth, reality, goodness, or rightness” [1, p.8]

Objectivism then could be assessed as an appeal of outside authority. Yet this authority would not transfer us the knowledge of what is rational, true, real or good – in its stead we have to discover this authoritative framework and compare our objects to it to determine their nature. This makes several assumptions;

– The framework exists, and the comparer can understand it.
– The object exists, and the comparer can understand it.
– The comparer exists, and can understand the comparison.

Note that all these assumptions are divided into two parts; the first part is an existential crisis and defines the cartesian anxiety – either the framework exists or there is no comparison; which results in chaos. Yet this can hardly be accurate; as it is already accepted that the said framework does not inherently produce or transfer knowledge – it is the comparer (the subject) that discovers and sets out to understands it. Would this not also suggest that the actual existence of the framework is essentially irrelevant – if the subject is in the search of an epistemological / notional / moral framework, yet has no way to confirm / compare the innate existence of this framework, then the search itself is its construction process as much as its discovery process. Then this shortened Either/Or; “either there is a fixed foundation for knowledge or we cannot escape madness” becomes “either we accept and resolve to search for the existence of a fixed foundation for knowledge or we cannot escape madness” – because the actual existence of this fixed foundation becomes obsolote, since its discovery would be unknowable, it would always be the search that constructs it. Granted this approach makes objectivism very subjective (or maybe relative), but then this needs not be entirely true. On one hand this acts on the personal level, on preserving the personal sanity (as Bernstein would confirm referencing Nietzsche [1, p.14] and Reginster would elaborate [4]) since the absolute relativism is suggested to be almost the same as nihilism and the absolute nihilism is the denunciation of life itself. Yet on the other hand, on a more social level the said framework of truth is a collective effort and the formation of the subject could not be ripped from the formation of the society. Then even the emergence of subjective is a social science since subjective owes a considerable amount of its existence to the majoritative. As a result it is not personas that construct the framework by search, it is a collection of personas, that put effort over effort atop each other, and since the construction is already on its way, there seems to be no reason to contemplate over the question that whether our construct really resembles the framework of truth – it either exists or it doesn’t.

The shattering of objectivism brings us to subjectivism / relativism. It should be noted that this doxography does not dig clear trenches between these terms (and even the Husserl’s transcendental philosophy [5]) like Bernstein. At this side of the battle the existential crisis seems reversed;

– The comparer exists, and thus (s)he is the framework, and thus can understand both the framework and the comparison.
– The object exists, and the comparer can either understand it or not.

Here the existential crisis focuses on the object, not the framework. Since the subject already accepts subjectivism it also already accepts the existence of the framework too. Yet this time the framework is not universal but it is personal. But about the object this question arises; since the framework is not universal but innate, the notion of object’s true self loses its value. The subject does not need to understand the object (it either understands it or not), it can already compare whatever subjective understanding it constructed to the similarly devised framework. This brings us to the strange spot where the object does not need to exists at all. From a subjective point of view the innate knowledge of “things” seems to be non-existent, thus the existence of “things” are also in question. Then the act of knowing simply becomes inaccessible. Yet what is the ascription of subjectivism here; it is not known, it cannot be known or it does not have to be known? This almost reverberates Kant’s Is/Ought (a discourse of objectivism) inside subjectivism. As Kant concludes;

“The idea of an ought […] indicates a possible action [… which] must certainly be possible under physical conditions.” [6, p.323]

So “does subjectivism indicate a possible action or not” is the main question that causes its downfall. Since every knowledge is accepted to be subjective then the need for knowing is seemingly cancelled. If it does not seem possible to compare a body of knowledge to an authoritative framework (whether fictional, constructed or innate) then it is of no consequence whether the knowledge is produced or not.

As a result it is seemingly possible to go beyond (trace forward) objectivism and relativism, as Bernstein suggested, but not necessarily inside the footsteps of Bernstein. A different model will be offered here, one that will be named the Wittgenstein Anxiety/Aberration.


1 The world is everthing that is the case.
2 What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts [7] / states of affairs [8].
3 The logical picture of the facts is the thought.
4 The thought is the significant [7] / sensible [8] proposition.
5 Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions.
6 The general form of truth-function is: [p; ἐ; N(ἐ)]. This is the general form of proposition.
7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Above are the main 7 conclusions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus [7] [8], two translations were given side by side to draw even more attention to the point that will be made.

The anxiety focuses on the 7th main conclusion and ironically this conclusion does not have any sub items. It is possible to begin from Bernstein’s quote of Geertz;

“What do we claim when we assert that we understand the semiotic means by which, in this case, persons are defined to one another? That we know words of that we know minds?” [9]

Epistemology and language have been linked more than once in the modern discourse. It has been suggested that thought is clearly and closely linked to language; and thus man cannot think what he cannot talk about (and not vice versa). Yet this is also linked to the 3rd tractatus conclusion that all language is a logical picture, since when one says “table”, one sees a table (or one sees the table, if one knows to which table does the word refer to). From Wittgenstein then one can deduce that there is seemingly no higher language of philosophy or thought, all is just about the language one can speak and the language one can picture. If this is the case, from here it is possible to move onto the anxiety / aberration, since mankind is haunted by aberrated words that they cannot picture, thus they should not speak of – hence whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. This is because that certain words are not associated with a pictorial model and the man does not, will not and cannot know what they refer to – they exist in a semiotic limbo. Here is a rather crude case; suppose that two men who speak the same language are in front of a room. One goes in, sees what is in the room, comes out and tells the other. He says; “there is a table in the room”. The other knows and can picture what the word table refers to. Granted he may or may not picture the exact table, but a knowledge was generated and transferred. This happened because the language is an objective and subjective entity at the same time. It is subjective because the individual selects the words and forms the expressions, it is objective because societies consent on the pictorial models of these words. If the second man goes in and sees a chair instead, the first man cannot say “for me (my subject) tables are chairs” – it would be the madness that has been referred so far. Yet in a follow up case let us assume that the first man gets in, sees what is in the room, comes out and says; “there is God in the room”. The other knows the word, but cannot picture it, does not know what the word refers to, there is no pictorial model to it. Thus no knowledge was generated or transferred about what is inside the room – the anxiety about the contents of the room continues, in its stead an aberration is created about what is in the room.

Then combined with Wittgenstein’s model about language and thought, what if one does not assess objectivism as a means compared with the outside world but instead assesses it with the social consensualism of the language. In this case the thought becomes objective not when it is compared with an outside framework but with the framework of the pictorial language model – thus it would be possible to conclude that all words drifting outside the pictorial language are innately subjective and cannot point to facts or generate knowledge.

To conclude this short doxography, here is an imaginary discussion between Wittgenstein and (Bertrand) Russell from a fiction novel [10, pp.259-261];

Russell: […] Look at this branch: three leaves exist on it, therefore “at least three things exist in the universe!”
Wittgenstein: No, no, no! You are so wrong! You can say “at least three leaves exist on this tree” but you cannot say “in the universe”! Logic must not allow it, since you cannot picture the universe! […] Logic is vacous… It cannot speak reality!
R: […] What about the statement “tomorrow it will either snow or not snow”? It’s “empty form” yet totally true!
W: Yes, but it tells us nothing of the weather tomorrow!


[1] Bernstein, Richard J. (1983). “Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis”. University of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania.
[2] Foucault, Michel (2001). “Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason”. Vintage Books, New York.
[3] Curley, Edwin M. (1985). “The Collected Works of Spinoza”. Princeton University Press. New Jersey.
[4] Reginster, Bernard (2009). “The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism” Harvard University Press. Cambridge.
[5] Husserl, Edmund (1970). “The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Northwestern University Press. Evanston.
[6] Kant, Immanuel (2010). “The Critiques of Pure Reason” trans. J.M.D. Meiklejohn. The Pennsylvania State University Electronic Classics Series Publication, accessed on 20.01.2014 and retrieved from
[7] Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2010). “Project Gutenberg’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” trans. C.K.Ogden. Project Gutenberg, accessed on 20.01.2014 and retrieved from
[8] Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1961). “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” trans. David Pears and Brian McGuinness. Routledge. New York.



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