This quote, coming from the legendary Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, is the first to concisely explain the subjective vs objective relationship that would come to dominate many of the behavioral sciences. We’ll explain that in time, but for now let’s get to the full quote:
Most men are subjective toward themselves and objective toward all others, frightfully objective sometimes–but the task is precisely to be objective toward oneself and subjective toward all others.
Did he say it? Yes. This line appears in his disseration on Mastered Irony which argues for a “technique you must understand if you are to communicate a subjective truth, a truth which will change the way a person lives.”
For context, this quote first appeared in his dissertation. That dissertation, more specifically, was his master’s thesis that came to print in 1841 as part of his M.A. at the University of Copenhagen.
Kierkegaard Said It. So What’s the Story?
While Kierkegaard is perhaps most know for his work on the absurd and his work as perhaps the world’s first real biblical scholar (as well as the world’s first existential philosopher), he’s given far too little credit for this gem of 19th century thought. First let’s talk about what he meant and then we’ll describe why the quote is so underrated.
Kierkegaard was talking about how people are naturally critical of others because we’re able to view them objectively. Humans are all too often able to see someone being overwhelmed by their current environment and able to judge them as though they are things, swept up in the current moment. Then, when dealing issues we ourselves face, we are inclined to argue about how the state of the environment caused us to behave this way (I was busy, there was something in my face..etc).
However, Kierkegaard argues that the goal is to be exactly the opposite. When looking at other’s we should ask the question “What are they going through? How would I feel in that moment if it were me?” We should attempt to put ourselves, so to speak, in their shoes. Conversely when we look inward at ourselves we should try to be objective: how do I step back and see if I’m doing the right thing in the current moment? How do I get the most out of my one time on earth?
Why is this quote underrated? What’s the big deal?
In 1967, a landmark paper in social psychology was published titled The attribution of attitudes by author’s Edward E Jones and Victor A Harris. The paper describes an effect, that we now call the fundamental attribution error and is a mainstay of intro psychology classes, showed that people attribute mistakes made by others to be judgements of them as people (they made a mistake because they are stupid, for example). However when the subject (us) makes the exact same error themselves they are likely to point to environmental factors (the light got in my eyes, I was just thinking about something else…etc).
The author’s closed out their abstract by stating “The main conclusion suggested is that perceivers do take account of prior probabilities and situational constraints when attributing private attitude, but perhaps do not weight these factors as heavily as would be expected by a rational analysis.”