Why do people think objectivity exists?

Question asked here

Because they learn that subjectivity exists.

Both categories are – if I should say this as a historian – relatively new. The preceding concept was one of the truth, the full truth versus any half truth of mistaken perceptions.

The “full truth” would not necessarily need the encounter with “reality”, a scientific experiment, an expedition of researchers which an academy would send to Africa. The full truth could even dismiss the empirical exploration and reject empiricism as philosophy that can only speak about coincidental aspects of individual things.

The “full truth” would be an ideal, attainable only with God’s perspective. It would be, beyond that and in the world of learning practically the view of the experts who had considered all the knowledge available. The full truth would – theoretically – be the recognition of the reality in its ideal, the recognition of the ideal behind the broken appearance of all things as they happen to be and as we happen to see them. The full truth about dogs is not a truth of your specific pet but a truth anyone can state with a look at any dog.

Subjectivity arrived slowly – in art with the turn towards central perspective. We are teaching our students that they all have an individual view, “their” view, and that this is “normal”: we all have views, personal, subjective views. We do not stop at this point: We teach our students to state these very views with an awareness of their very subjectivity.

The following might serve as a picture of how we are teaching and personally learning to get more precision into representations of the personal subjective view, the view which we can only get from a single point of view, the point of view which we personally assume. We teach techniques of self positioning and of bringing relativity into our perception:

Once you can give a subjective view you can aim at the opposite: an objective view – one which others can assume with a look at the very same object from the very same vantage point – both perspectives are extremely close neighbours.

Objectivity versus subjectivity create a switch of debates.

My students of literary history were extremely eager to stress the subjectivity of all their views. If we spoke about a Shakespeare poem they would always give me “their most personal, their most subjective interpretations”.

The cool thing about the subjective view, which they were trying to defend is its inherent justification. They should be personally, so their claim, allowed to entertain this view – in a democracy, as individuals. Our societies are built on the idea that we all are entitled to have our own views on whatsoever. These are subjective views, and we will often (erroneously) add: “There is no objective view, just by the way. There cannot be an objective view. Any view is subjective, because it is a view which you will get from that certain angle from which you look at the thing.”

As a university teacher I would confront my students with an alternative – and they would argue against my doing so – the alternative of a theoretically and consistent and practically viable view, and in that case a view you have to assume under given premises.

Was I telling them that our sciences and academic studies are the enemy of the subjective view? Not at all. They are there to define and to explore it. You can study medicine and explore sense organs, brains and the influence of drugs. You can study psychology and deal with “abnormal” and troubling views. Study sociology with an interst in trends. Get involved in the humanities where you can explore subjective views in all heir historical variety.

The academic and scientific debate in itself is, at this point, neither objective nor subjective, it is in its own room a debate of views that would – theoretically – be irrefutable. It is a debate of facts, of their possible and interesting interpretations and of models we could all use in order to handle these facts.

Objectivity is a massive construct in this context as Lorraine J. Daston and Peter Galison have shown in their book on Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007). The “objective” image of a splash of water (their prime example) is nothing but a complex construct. It removes coincidental unique and rare phenomena, it focuses on an average and on an un-mutilated ideal even if such an un-mutilated ideal specimen of plant or animal should be extremely rare.

But why would you want to think that objectivity should not exist?

The real question is then: Why do you think objectivity should not exist. My guess is you think it cannot exist, “because we can only entertain subjective personal views – even as scientists and scholars.” Having left my university classes behind me I continue to wonder why my students would always come up with that thought.

My radical answer is: It is a win/win situation they and we all have been offered by our modern industrial societies. The deal? We are permitted to have our very personal views, if we ourselves confess that they are “entirely personal, just our intimate views”. We get full protection for these views. We can even get the highest praise for subjective views – both as critics who give their subjective but cool views in the media, and as artists. The artist has the “exceptional” subjective and beautiful view; the public critic has rather the compelling view that can set trends, but both will be honoured: These are the views which we will discuss and prize publicly.

I would say that this is a win/win because I think that our societies are getting the better end of this deal. They neutralise all views by bringing relativity into the field:

If your view is just one of the many it will be “normal”. Do not complain, you have declared that your view is nothing more that yours and pretty normal. Others may have similar views – so it is normal, average, not worthy to discuss unless this view becomes a problem for our society as it is spreading.

You have a startling, an exceptional view? Then be proud of it. We will discuss it, if we agree that it is exceptionally beautiful. If it is just abnormal you should consider to be a lovable eccentric, a scary freak, a weirdo, a cool nerd, or (if troublesome to yourself:) go to a psychiatrist, before you begin to harm others with your view.

The moment every society has to fear is the moment of the individual who claims that this their view is “the truth” – and this is where part two of the social win begins. Our societies will not immediately contradict. If you are interested in the truth – change sides, become a scientist or scholar: Such views might exist – but they will be, in this case, non-personal, objective, theoretical options to be classified as such. Be invited into the fields of academic studies and develop these objective views in their nicely confined rooms. Have debates with colleagues about why this should be an objective view.

Most of my students did not like the invitation – shall I be cynical? – because it costs them the right to defend their own views as a full person, with such and such a past, such a personal taste, these particular personal nightmares and so on and so on. (They would usually give me such “personal reasons” for “their” interpretations.) They preferred to stay individuals with fully subjective views. They are the ideal voters and consumers – and in the more interesting cases: artists or critics – in both democracies and totalitarian regimes.

Our societies can live with all the views as long as they can handle them as only relatively valid. The subjective/objective declaration is a switch designed to demand specific further debates. The relativity is otherwise handled by separating rooms from each other: The rooms of the normal, widespread boring views, the rooms of the rarer views, the rooms of the challenging exceptional views of artists and their critics, that get our controlling attention, the rooms of the academic studies that deal with possible views in all their different fields of interst under tightest controversies. The real question is: how much and what quality of debate and that is public attention do we want to offer which view? Meta debates handle this question. As to you, a citizen – we would all be happy if you sorted yourself into the best fitting room. Be subjective and happy with the realisation that you are just one irrelevant particle in the mass we have to deal with.

  • Lorraine J. Daston & Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007) | Review link

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