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Monday, May 7, 2012

Hamlet on Subjectivity

Hamlet: "For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so;"

This is one of the great polarities of philosophy: subjectivity vs. objectivity. Do things have an objective, knowable nature of their own, independent of what I think about them, or is the essence of the thing assigned by my thinking it, and each of us is left to our own determinations (even though they be mutually exclusive)? For the purposes of this post, I shall avoid the broad and absolute debate on the ultimate nature of things, over which so much ink has been shed. Rather, I would like to focus on this quote in its context.

Hamlet here is talking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he says that Denmark is like a prison to him, but they say it is not so, and he says that for them, it is not then. Many things in life fall into this strange category of things that can be good to one person and bad to another. I say strange, because if you think about it, logically, something should be either good or bad. But many things are, as is often said, a matter of perspective. Let us take something as simple as a sporting match with two opposing teams. Only one team can win. If team A scores a goal, then it is both good for team A and bad for team B. This is undeniable.

Likewise with our variable human personalities and dispositions, one person may find a given place good and another find it bad, each for their own reasons. And when Hamlet says that Denmark is like a prison, or someone says that a certain place (a certain city for example) is "bad" for him or her, what does that person really mean? I think that rather than making a qualitative judgment about the location, the person ultimately is saying more about him or herself. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no problem with Denmark; Hamlet thinks of it as a prison because of the recent events of his life and his position within the country. He is really making a statement more about himself than about Denmark.

I think this is often true when we talk about things with a fixed character. Certain things (well-established places, genres of music, books, dead authors, dead artists, etc.) are fixed in time and don't change. For example, Plato's "The Republic", isn't going to change. Throughout history various people have engaged "The Republic" intellectually, and have considered it (and the ideas within it) good or bad according to their disposition (NB I do not say "taste"; this is more than an opinion. An educated person's like or dislike of the text is based not on "feeling", but rather on how well the author has argued his point and how well the reality described by the author lines up with what the reader experiences in his or her daily life.). What people have to say about "The Republic", and how they judge it, sheds more light on those individuals and their beliefs, backgrounds, ideologies, and philosophies, than it does about "The Republic" itself.

Keep reading friends! We're closing in on the end of the school term here, so my posts should pick up soon!

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