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Since I’m on a book-finishing, light-posting schedule this week, I thought I’d offer something I’ve already published—one of my entries from New Keywords, which appeared this past June and is edited by Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris.  I figure it’s perfect for blog material, insofar as it deals with the history of the meaning of the word “objectivity” in just under one thousand words.  Almost as much fun as Hideous Oldies, and sure to generate as many comments!

Particularly assiduous readers of this harried blog will remember that I mentioned New Keywords about four months ago and even linked to Blackwell’s .pdf of my entry for “experience.” New Keywords is intended, as its name suggests, as an update on Raymond Williams’ nearly-lifelong project.  And, of course, I present this little snippet here as part of my nearly-lifelong project of trying to demonstrate to skeptical onlookers that “cultural studies” does not consist exclusively of close readings of Madonna and Die Harder.

With that, then, here’s some objectivity (and I really did try to be objective about this):

Objectivity, together with its cognates, objective, objectively, and objectivism, has what might seem to contemporary observers a placid history. There is widespread agreement that the term “objectivity” is synonymous with such things as neutrality, impartiality, and disinterestedness; the objective observer, for instance, is able to give a reliable account of events precisely because she or he has no interest in the outcome and is able to make statements and render judgments regardless of their consequences. Apparently, we have managed to agree about what an objective observer is, even though we usually disagree about whether this or that person has in fact served as an objective observer in any given case.

These disagreements are most noticeable in politics—and, to a lesser degree, in journalism—where charges of partisanship and bias are so common as to give the ideal of objectivity something of a quaint air. Indeed, many politicians seem to work with a definition of “politics” in which “politics” itself is antithetical to “objectivity”; thus it is customary to hear that a “political” consideration puts party and partisan interest above all else, rendering objective assessments irrelevant or unavailable. In this sense of the “political,” one party will oppose something simply because another party has proposed it, without regard for the (“objective”) benefits or drawbacks of the proposal itself.

In journalism, by contrast, most parties agree that reporters should be bound by a code of professional objectivity. But in the US, with its weak public sector and its private ownership of most media, left-leaning critics of the media have long insisted that journalism is in practice conservative insofar as it is owned and operated by large corporate interests, whereas right-wing critics have insisted in return that journalists themselves are tainted by a liberal bias that prevents them from reporting objectively on such matters as race, sexuality, and religion (Chomsky and Herman, 1988; Goldberg, 2001).

What’s curious about the widespread agreement as to the meaning of objectivity in these debates is that the word is one of those rare specimens whose philosophical meaning was once directly opposed to its current meaning. In medieval philosophy the terms “objective” and “subjective” respectively meant what “subjective” and “objective” have denoted in Western philosophy since the C17, and especially since the eC19: the “subjective” denoted those features proper to what we would now call an object and that could be said to exist independently of perception, and the “objective” corresponded to the features of an object as they presented themselves to what we now call the subjective consciousness of an observer. With René Descartes, however, Western philosophy began to associate subjectivity with a perceiving “I”; and since Immanuel Kant, most Western thinkers have agreed to parcel the world into objective phenomena that exist independent of mind, and subjective phenomena that are in one way or another mind-dependent (such as injustice) or wholly attributable to mindedness (such as anxiety).

Subjectivity, then, has come to be aligned with the partisan and the partial, and objectivity with all that pertains to objects as in themselves they really are (in Matthew Arnold’s phrase). One of the central questions for the philosophy of mind in the C19-C20 has accordingly been how to construe the boundary between objective and subjective phenomena, particularly with regard to matters such as color (which may or may not exist independently of our perception of them). Similarly, one of the central questions for moral philosophy has been how to parse out the potential domain and applicability of moral truth-claims, such that sentences like “it is wrong to torture another human being” might be understood to be grounded differently—that is, more objectively—than sentences like “it is wrong to eat pastrami with mayonnaise.” The idea here is that the latter judgment is a mere “subjective” matter of taste, since the eating of pastrami with mayonnaise presumably affects no one but the person eating the sandwich, however much it may offend the sensibilities of everyone else in the delicatessen. The practice of torture, by contrast, is widely felt not to be a simple matter of taste, but rather a serious moral issue calling out for intersubjective forms of agreement that will allow us to condemn torture “objectively,” without regard to who is being tortured or why.

Since the mC19, but especially in recent decades, social theorists have debated whether the standard of objectivity pertinent to the natural sciences, which pertains to things such as quasars and quarks, is appropriate to the social sciences, which involve things like kinship rituals, torture chambers, and parliamentary procedures. Proponents of objectivity in the social sciences claim that neutral, disinterested scholarship is the only medium by which we can obtain reliable knowledge in such fields as history, economics, anthropology, and sociology. Critics of objectivity counter-argue that no observation of human affairs can escape the inevitably human parameters of the observation itself, and that invocations of objectivity with regard to human affairs are therefore (knowingly or not) veils for partisan agendas that do not recognize their own partisanship. Not all critics of objectivity, however, are wont to accuse their opposite numbers of bad faith; some argue more moderately that “objectivity” is merely the wrong term for complex intersubjective forms of agreement. Richard Rorty, for example, has argued in a series of books beginning with Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) that utterances designated as “true,” whether in the realm of the natural sciences or in the realm of moral philosophy, should be understood not as accurate descriptions of mind-independent objects but as useful claims that have managed over time to “pay their way” (R. Rorty, 1982), thus providing pragmatic grounds for broad agreement among human investigators.

Some moral philosophers claim that Rorty’s position on objectivity amounts to a shallow relativism in which all value judgments are of equal standing. Be this as it may, it can be safely—and perhaps objectively—said, at the very least, that while most people agree that objectivity is akin to impartiality, philosophers continue to disagree strenuously as to whether objectivity is merely another name for human agreement.

Posted by on 10/19 at 10:48 AM
  1. No matter how many times you or anybody else says it, Michael, it seems one of the things people will always misunderstand most about Rortyan pragmatism as well as postmodernism is that they do not, in fact, advocate an anything-goes relativism.  Neither Rorty nor, say, Lyotard would claim that objects in a vacuum do not fall at the same rate, given the same gravitational force.  They would say, however, that the whole scientific enterprise responsible for concepts like gravity is one (albeit very useful) way of making sense out of the world and the universe.  Lyotard (and I’m sure Rorty as well, in a slightly different vocabulary) would also say that the privilege and status science enjoys in western culture are not a priori determined by its objective rightness but, rather, by the persuasiveness of the narratives that have been deployed as justifications for it (see Lyotard’s *Postmodern Condition*, Minnesota ed., pp. 27-28).

    So, yes, I’d say objectivity is another name for human agreement, provided said agreement is systematic and large-scale enough to have the backing of one or more major social institutions (like, say, education or medicine).  Which begs the question:  where’s the “tipping point” at which a small cadre of whackos claiming that the earth rotates around the sun becomes an authoritative body of objective knowledge?

    Posted by  on  10/19  at  02:28 PM
  2. I don’t know if Bierce ever did objectivity, but it might go something like this:

    Objectivity - n., The state of being too apathetic to care about a topic while maintaining sufficient enthusiasm to ensure accuracy.

    Posted by  on  10/19  at  02:42 PM
  3. Wow.  Njorl gets extra extra points for channeling Bierce—and so accurately, at that.

    Lance asks:  “where’s the ‘tipping point’ at which a small cadre of whackos claiming that the earth rotates around the sun becomes an authoritative body of objective knowledge?”

    Mister Answer Man replies:  Right where Archimedes said it was, dude.

    And while I agree with you about what Rorty and Lyotard might say (and, within that agreement, I agree with Rorty about justice and disagree with him about mountains) in response to the oft- and inaccurately-hurled charge of “relativism,” you know that I did have to acknowledge that Rorty’s critics accuse him of it.  (Or, in Simon Blackburn’s words, of “complacency.") I was trying to be objective, after all. . . .

    So I suppose I should post my New Keywords entry on relativism one of these days. 

    Posted by Michael  on  10/19  at  04:10 PM
  4. I just wanted to say that this issue is pretty prominent with historical debates as well.  Anyone interested should read Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession.  Though I do think that Novick himself implicitly claims an objective stance that he’s unable to maintain.

    In terms of history as a subject, I think that people largely confuse critiques of objectivity for critiques of empircal techniques.  Acknowledging the subjectivity of the individual historian does not, and should not, imply a less rigorous approach to evidence.  Rather the presentation of that evidence is influenced by both the author and the historian himself.

    Posted by air  on  10/19  at  04:53 PM
  5. Is it relativism that differentiates the objectivity of superstring theory discussions between particle and theoretical physicists versus the long and highly detailed discourses of adherents and researchers of coincidental events surrounding UFO alien space beings????? Why is it that we give credence to one group and not the other in reciprocal relation to our understanding of the “facts” each group presents?

    Posted by  on  10/19  at  05:36 PM
  6. I like this idea of concepts that have paid their way.  That is a pretty good description of how science works.  Theories are stronger the better they are able to predict things.  Furthermore, I would say that the idea that “torturing people is bad” is an idea that has paid it’s way.  Preventative war, not so much.

    Posted by  on  10/19  at  09:07 PM
  7. It’s funny to see Rorty lumped with postmodernists, a group whom he would never seek to join, and also a group that would never invite him for membership.

    The problem with any “truth” is that it’s bound in the orthodoxy of its time. Most “objective” laws or principles from “science” represent some kind of consenus--the most convincing involves people coming to this consenus from different perspectives and backgrounds, as well as methods. Global warming rises to this level. OTOH, much of what passes for truth is often influenced by the methodology (or methologies) used to obtain it and the underlying consensus that supports it. If you go outside the the accepted methods or question them, you’re in trouble. In epidemiology and medicine, the randomized clinical trial is the “gold standard”, yet it may be inappropriate for answering many important questions about treatments. The incentives, reminders, and other supports that allow elaborate trails with complex treatments do not exist in the real world. The null hypothesis that is used to test many research hypotheses is devoid of meaning. One can go on....so i won’t.

    The problem with criticizing the media from a left or right perspective is that the media can’t see beyond its own prevailing orthodoxy. You can still seek something resembling objectivity (in the Rorty sense), but it stillr equires more rigor than we see anywhere on the political spectrum in the media---different forms of investigation, competition between real hypoteses, consideration of existing evidence so we don’t get “intelligent design” versus evolution, absent some consideration of the methods and assumptions involved and the degree to which these propositions have been subjected to situations where falsification is possible. Intelligent design is barely a theory--Popper would not even give it that much credit. Evolution, on the other hand, rests on varied types of evidence, under widely differeing conditions. Evolution also can be subjected to faslification. Intelligent design is a rickety tautology.

    Posted by  on  10/19  at  10:09 PM
  8. Re the misinterpretation of Rorty:

    I heard him give a lecture (on Pragmatism & Romanticism) at Columbia today, and I noticed something that, on reflection about his papers, seems to be a tendency of his that contributes to false accusations of relativism.  He was asked by an audience member why the desirability of dethroning science as the only legitimate knowledge implies that science is unconstrained by reality, to which he replied that he recognized discursive constraints on science - “I can’t repeat your experiment” - along with his usual schtick about reality as a ‘dormitive power’ explanation.  When Anthony Appiah (who headlined the talk with him though Rorty was clearly the star) accused him of leaning towards verificationism, and suggested breaking your leg as another type of constraint, Rorty said that he’s perfectly happy to admit “the world shoves us around,” but just doesn’t think that it follows that the world is something existing independently of our perspective to which we must conform.

    That was a longer anecdote than I’d meant to tell, but the point is just that the second was the relevant answer.  The apparent denial that the world pushes us around is I think what bemuses people about Rorty, and he compounds the problem by focusing on the social nature of truth in response to challenges that are really asking for a simple reassurance, that he knows that if I step out my 7th-floor window, I really am guaranteed to get hurt.

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  01:24 AM
  9. Michael -

    Off the topic for this post, I just went back and read your post #3 to this blog, on the subject of blogging, and more specifically, you as a blogger, from so many eons ago.  I imagine I’m not the first to do this, but I have to quote you:

    “But I’m not sure I can do this kind of thing on a regular basis, in all honesty.  Here’s why.”


    Thanks for being wrong.

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  03:05 AM
  10. (I always feel like a minor leaguer stepping into the batter’s box against a big leaguer when I comment here.) I have two questions--issue spotters--for you, Michael:

    Can it make sense to say that The Daily Show’s ‘fake news’ (DS) is sometimes better news than mainstream media’s ‘real news’ (MM)?  Comparing the ‘Patriot Acts,’ clip airing now where the DS pulls back the curtain on Bush’s ‘unscripted’ teleconference with Army PR officers in Iraq with the MM reports of the same event, I think the DS gives a ‘truer’ picture.  And yet how would the DS and MM describe their motives, their processes, and their results in terms of subjectivity and objectivity?

    Second, I have a friend (really, doc, it’s not me) who says that the driver behind skepticism is the same as underlies fundamentalist religious belief:  the desire for ontological certainty.  ("It may be true we don’t have a pot / but at least we’re sure of all the things we got.") Not a flattering comparison that, but the rancor between proponents of ‘essentialist’ and ‘constructivist’ views of gender, for example, do suggest a Suni / Shiite, Protestant / Catholic, what-have-you, shall we say, zeal.  What say you to greater epistemic humility?

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  07:42 AM
  11. I’d like to just add that I agree.

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  08:52 AM
  12. Just for the record, I had no intention of equating Rortyan pragmatism and postmodernism, which is why I named each of them separately.  Their separateness, however, does not mean one cannot compare them (indeed, for Patracia Waugh, the similarities were strong enough for her to include an excerpt from Rorty in her reader on pomo).

    And as for falling from the seventh story window, that’s the point I was making when I said the so-called relativists wouldn’t disagree that objects fall at the same rate in a vacuum.  They just acknowledge that there are other systems of meaning besides science, and that there are no a priori standards for choosing one over the other. 

    Johnson stubbing his toe on the rock proves little more than that he may have been a masochist.

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  09:40 AM
  13. Totally off-topic, but I love the new pic.

    “putting on the foil coach, every game, you want some?”

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  10:57 AM
  14. I was sorry to see that you didn’t mention my favorite philosopher from undergraduate days, GWF Hegel, and his observations about the dialectical relationship between subjectivity and objectivity (or for those just getting their feet wet in this stuff, how the inherent contradictions in one tends to generate the other).

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  11:28 AM
  15. I’m with Jay S-G on this.  Philosophy is nice and everything, but there’s a more important question:

    Who own the Chiefs?

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  12:13 PM
  16. Owns, Marita, owns.

    I should probably admit (i.e., boast) that one of my teammates was an extra in Slapshot (Johnstown is only 75 miles away, after all), and that everyone in the Nittany Hockey League can recite the film word for word.

    Silverside, sorry about omitting Hegel.  I figured the blanket “everybody since Kant” would include him, though I should’ve given him a hat tip anyway.  If it helps (though probably it makes things worse, for the Hegelians out there), I spent a few hundred words in my entry on “materialism” on Marx’s account of that dialectic.

    air, I completely agree.  Now I think I should also post my entry on “empirical.” I’m not kidding about this, by the way—I was assigned the words <objectivity,</i> and relativism.  “Excuse me,” I said to the editors, “you must think I’m some kind of Western philosophy guy or something.” Suffice it to say that I spent many, many hours with encyclopedia entries on these words, dictionaries of philosophy and theory, etc., trying to figure out how the hell people condense these things into a thousand words or less.  And then I was told not to make my entries sound so . . . well, encyclopedia-like.  That was the fun part.

    Rich, Kalkin, I have a followup on truth.  Coming to a blog near you, later today.

    Barry, check out the Daily Show’s demolition of “objectivity”—just after the Swift Boat nonsense, I believe—in which Steven Colbert told Jon Stewart that it was his job, as a journalist, to repeat whatever he was told.  (E-Robin has since taken one line of that skit for her blog:  “It’s been widely reported, John, and that makes it fact-esque.") See also, under this heading, the NYT’s Jodi Wilgoren taking evolutionary theory for a ride in the Grand Canyon.  As for your “friend“‘s point about skepticism and ontological certainty, I think s/he’s playing a rhetorical game:  is not the atheist as certain as the believer? Sure, there can be dogmatic skeptics out there.  But most of us are reasonably humble when it comes to making truth-claims about human affairs.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/20  at  12:57 PM
  17. I think I’m being pretty objective when I state that Richard Cohen continues to explore new horizons of wrongness in his latest column.

    Posted by corndog  on  10/20  at  03:10 PM
  18. Great news, saltydog corndog!  Cohen has clearly begun taking some of the sage advice our readers offered him over the weekend, exploring new and post-Aristotelian ways of being wrong.  Onward to the abyss!

    Posted by Michael  on  10/20  at  03:21 PM
  19. God, I knew I shouldn’t have read the objectivity post right before leaving to teach _Jane Eyre_.  I feel like a fraud, or rather one that restrains its emotions to better present the truth.

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  04:08 PM
  20. Fun, though possibly subjective, facts about “Slapshot"”


    Posted by  on  10/20  at  04:29 PM
  21. Thanks, Njorl!  And hey everyone (but especially Jay S-G), check out the back story on that bit about the foil on the hands.

    And Greg, how did this post throw you off your game?  Was it the pastrami with mayonnaise?  I know I couldn’t go teach after reading about pastrami with mayonnaise, myself.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/20  at  04:39 PM
  22. Michael, I appreciate that in the middle of writing footnotes etc. that your eyes may have gone a bit squiffy. However, my comment was trite and silly, and it was CORNDOG who reported on Cohen maintaining his batting average.

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  07:20 PM
  23. Squiffy is just the word, saltydog.  Although “bleary” would also work.  And my apologies, corndog.

    Posted by Michael  on  10/20  at  08:00 PM
  24. Hi All,

    I have long been a lurker on this sweet site but then this post was the tipping point, in line with the recent economics Nobel. Here are my two cents…

    Scientific Objectivity of the Hard Sciences Kind comes at the cost of the “Problem of Measurement”. The biggest concern/worry for the hard sciences, say like quantum mechanics, is that human observers are rather a nuisance to the fundamental/elementary particles. a quark could care less about the human ontology and epistemology and morality, but then being the good quark that it is, it “behaves” provided the human measuring instrument can “observe” it. You got to go down to its level and measure it “objectively”. In hard sciences you cannot talk in the conventional human speech acts to the objects of study or to the subjects of study; if we are believe in that dichotomy. Granting Searle his version of “external realism” is necessary to even think about “doing basic hard sciences research; what is deemed sufficient is the “problem of measurement”.  The day we come across an alien species doing “hard sciences” with out an ontological belief/certainty in some version of “external reality” then we can throw out the “objectivity” argument on the epistemological grounds.It would be a human mistake, one more to pile on our growing list( should have gotten down that tree all that while back...)

    But in the Arts, Humanities and the Social Sciences, the facts/truths are at best of “intersubjective nature”. Most empirically observable facts in, lets say social sciences, can be changed and we hope to change them.  Its one thing to say that there are 20,000 slave electrons captured in a space-time fabric and totally different thing to say that there are 20,000 human beings trapped in the Superdome, NOLA. They can both be “objective” facts. Both can be measured/estimated. We can do something about the human beings and that we didn’t or wouldn’t or only grudgingly did, doesn’t make an electron or a quark weep or angry (of course we all are made up of them but we are talking objects/subjects of inquiry/study here not the constitutional elements). There is no objective fact that says that the free electrons will try to save the 20,000 captured electrons. If they are doing so, then on our planet, its got to be us or something we keep on doing to ourselves. This to me is the essence of all value judgments and arguments of science.

    Yes, human do all the science on this planet and yes, science is socially constructed even if the Hitchhiker’s Guide is correct, but till we hear from an absurdly advanced alien civilization that it is not the case, the world we find ourselves is indeed the case but it could care less about us. Atoms and living cells don’t complain when we abuse them and they will not complain if the Martians take over us. It might be that the Martians can not change these facts too. This to me is essentially the scientific argument for “objectivity”.

    If there are any Martians out there, I was just kidding and please don’t destroy us to disprove the hubris of a lowly perpetual PhD student. And, btw, sorry about those primordial probes.

    Posted by  on  10/20  at  08:10 PM
  25. My game was thrown, since, as the Commissioner of Objective Truth (C.O.O.T.), pastrami and mayonnaise always already constitutes a moral truth-claim.  Phrenology and the bumps on Mr. Rochester’s forehead, on the other hand . . .

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  12:52 AM
  26. I know this is a stale post by now, but getting back off-topic, thanks for the Slaphsot links. Great stuff.

    I’m from Kalamazoo, home of the K-Wings. IHL, big time fight league in the early years—no helmets and lotsa scars. We had IHL ironman Kevin Schamehorn, I believe one of the penalty minutes leaders of all-time (and a franchise leading scorer as well at one time).

    I couldn’t get the full backup (my footnote also lacking) but it seems he had a career 3106—that would put him in the top ten NHL PIM leaders, I believe, but they don’t mix the stats.

    Curiosly, mid-80s Flyer Craig Berube is #7 on the NHL top PIM leaders, with 3149. Any relation?

    Posted by  on  10/21  at  11:33 AM
  27. "Granting Searle his version of “external realism””

    As you grant it yourself when you sit down to eat your quicheburger. It’s one thing to hold that indeterminancy or chaos plays a part in some subatomic quantum process; it’s another to deny objectivity itself ala postmod or uphold some cheesy relativism. The depletion of crude oil reserves is not some “intersubjective fact”; the most effective or just way of dealing with the crisis may be to some extent, but the “ding an sich” is as real as the sun. I woudl assert that Kuhn agrees with that--with external realism--but realizes that theories predicated on those external facts may be in a state of flux.

    Posted by Bing Bada Boom  on  10/21  at  03:49 PM
  28. Crashing, albeit artfully, through open doors.

    Posted by  on  10/22  at  06:59 PM
  29. Coming in late on this, but I would think that in a book on keywords, the use of subjectivity in this entry is going to be potentially confusing given that subjectivity’s meaning tends to go much deeper into Cartesian territory than objectivity, that objectivity has many common usages which do not directly involve the Cartesian terrain, but subjectivity does not.

    Posted by Timothy Burke  on  10/28  at  03:23 PM
  30. True enough, Timothy—and I have to admit that this question would’ve been easier to handle if I’d also been assigned the entry for subjectivity.  But I did link this entry to my other entries on “relativism” and “empiricism,” for what that’s worth. . . .

    Posted by Michael  on  10/28  at  04:38 PM
  31. Post festum, Google sends me here #5 in a search for “Mike Gane” + “On Relativism.” No Gane, but no pain:  nice article, happy accident.  Among other things, it gives context for your propensity to incommersurability where somebody else (me) might see all-too-commensurable disagreement (as in your response to Jodi Dean).  The presumption of incommensurability (local or global) can be an evasion of productive conflict, no?

    Anyway, a friendly bibliographic reference:  the dossier of (translations of) articles on Gegenstand/Objekt/Object/Res from the Vocabulaire européen des philosophies, in Radical Philosophy, no. 139 (Sept-Oct 2006), pp. 20-50.  The articles are by Dominique Pradelle, Olivier Boulnois, Barbara Cassin, Jean-François Courtine, transl. by David Macey & w/ an intro. by Peter Osborne.  All very good.  If you haven’t read them in one place or another, do.

    Posted by  on  11/29  at  04:17 AM
  32. we have managed to agree about what an objective of observer…

    Posted by Advocate  on  04/06  at  12:43 AM





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