There is no objective experience. All experience is subjective.
– Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature, 1979
Today, the concept of objectivity is subject to critique both in popular culture and in scholarship. So called “fake” news influences elections and the bottom lines of corporations. Media outlets assert the value of “fact-based” journalism or assert “fairness” or “balance”, yet disagreements persist and opinions polarize, sharply diverging.
Consequently, judging the value of information and the meaning of objectivity has become a subtle matter, although it may never have been easy. We could choose to believe in the existence of facts, truth, and objectivity; or we could accept that subjectivity and bias are inevitable, although something to be mitigated by a special procedure; we could reject knowledge outright; we could forge our own idiosyncratic understanding. Society has to regain its orientation with respect to terms such as “fact”, “opinion”, “fake”, “bias”, “spin”, “truth” and perhaps most of all, “objectivity”.
As an engineer, I feel that a grasp of the concept of objectivity is critical for making sense of social phenomena, whether scientific development, engineering decisions, or the formation of popular opinion. Yet it seems that views on objectivity, for or against, tend to overstate their case rather than face the essential quandary. I want to share a few insights that I have found useful during my quest to refine my understanding of objectivity, its function and its limits.
According to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the meaning of a word is how it is used; its function is understood by looking at the context of usage.
A definition is a summary of usage in a particular context. However, dictionary definitions are not usually technical enough to resolve philosophical conflicts. They represent common sense, not the cutting edge; otherwise philosophers would simply read dictionaries to solve their problems. For instance, Wiktionary reproduces the conventional understanding of objectivity, which is that it is the state of being just, unbiased, and impersonal. It also links objectivity with the concept of reality, which is of little analytical use. When the meaning of words like fact, real, true, bias, prejudice is disputed, they are no longer useful in dialectic exchange. This situation can be resolved only by deriving such words from something which is mutually undoubted. So far, it is unclear what they would be derived from (but later, I’ll discuss frames, which are a candidate).
Etymologies, in contrast to definitions, show us that words change meaning over time, and sometimes, how such changes take place. Thus they allow us to move beyond our attachment to contemporary common sense, into the prototypical world of the past. We learn from Etymonline that “objective” as “impersonal, unbiased” was first found in 1855, influenced by the German objectiv. The word is derived from Latin objectum, referring to something presented to the senses; literally, “a thing put before”. So we learn that the current usage is not inevitable, but emerged at a certain point in history, and was a modification of an existing usage. The connotation of “something presented to the senses” is not always present now, since in some ways objectivity has sought to hide its dependence on the senses and emphasize its basis in disembodied reason.
Etymology cannot settle what meaning a word will acquire in the future. Only philosophy can influence such things.
It is important to know that subjectivity has always been defined as the negation of objectivity, even as the meaning of objectivity inverted over the centuries.
Psychologist David Keirsey articulated a tightly-woven theory of personality in the last half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. He stated that there are four categories of human ability, which he called tactics, logistics, diplomacy, and strategy. Keirsey found that achievement in one category seemed to preclude a person from too high a proficiency in any other, so that persons tend to specialize in predictable ways—although their actions are always concretely aligned with their particular circumstances, and it is sometimes difficult to abstract “their personality” out of the thicket of idiosyncrasies. He guessed that singular achievement in one of the categories was an unfolding of innate potential, which can grow only so far as conditions allow, and cannot be achieved through circumstances alone.
Strategy, as defined by Keirsey, consists in adapting one’s actions to remote or long-term goals. Thus, it requires a degree of imagination about possible outcomes of one’s actions, but also a practical ability to size up the feasibility of such outcomes given the resources available. Thus, he equated strategy with abstract adaptation; abstract because it is demanding of the imagination, adaptation because it regulates results rather than operations. Persons fluent in strategic action he called Rationals, and counted among them scores of mathematicians, computer programmers, engineers, scientists, and system-analysts whatever their field.
Keirsey did not treat the concept of objectivity, but I developed a hunch that being objective might be a kind of adaptive, strategic action.
A book aptly titled Objectivity, written in 2007 by historians Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison, traces the history of objectivity throughout science. It discusses notions of objectivity as they emerged in response to different scientific challenges.
The book can be viewed as a treatise on adaptive action. Suppose that the difference between objective and subjective is no different than that between conditions necessary and unnecessary for some desired outcome. For example, the research mathematician, in reporting their work, omits the story of making the discovery, since their goal is to understand a mathematical result, not the process of achieving it. Their investigation is mathematical, rather than psychological.
Usually, the noun “objective” (something to be accomplished) is not associated with the adverb “objective” (to be unbiased), but what happens if we do it anyway? What if objectivity means conditions which are entailed by a goal? Then subjectivity means all the conditions that are not so entailed, that are incidental to a goal. Thus, to strive for objectivity is to strive to achieve or define precisely what one has set out to do; to subordinate one’s efforts to this end; to leave nothing to chance. (As Gregory Bateson put it in Steps to an Ecology of Mind: “[Objectivity] means you look very hard at those things which you are trying to look at.”) In this view, I cannot distinguish objectivity from adaptive action; objectivity, like adaptivity, is vague and context-dependent, impossible to pin down to specific methods or scientific norms. But the ambiguity is resolved through concretization. For instance, investigators will sometimes accuse each other of being subjective, of introducing conditions which are unnecessary to their analytic goals; this may only be an indication that they differ in their goals.
So the notions of objectivity belabored by Daston and Gallison—trained judgement, mechanical objectivity, truth-to-nature—might simply be different ends sought in different situations that shape scientific inquiry.
Max Wertheimer, writing in Productive Thinking, briefly discussed subjectivity as a lack of “structural” understanding of a system. He gave an example of an employee who, when asked to explain who their coworkers are, went through the relationships without regard to the organization of the business. When the inquirer still could not understand, the employee could not see the difficulty, because every coworker and their role had been mentioned.
According to Wertheimer, this is due to seeing or presenting one’s situation one piece at a time as opposed to as a whole. The workplace cannot be understood as a haphazard collection of unrelated persons and roles. It is a unit itself, and its organization defines the roles enacted. To understand the workplace is not merely to have been told the names and titles of persons who work there, but to understand what they do in concert, as a team.
One implication is that objectivity requires a measure of empathy regarding the desire of others to gain understanding, which entails an ability to identify and describe structures that would be of consequence to others.
Another implication is that objectivity is a goal sought by groups, not isolated persons. We see it pursued by persons not independently of society, but through participation in a community, each person having an individual view and a desire to make sense of their experience. Yet objectivity seems distinct from compromise, and should not be something decreeable by committee or by a panel of experts. It is not a consequence of authority or arbitrary consensus, but of insight that arises from the richness of collective experience.
While objectivity may coexist with consensus, neither is a necessary condition of the other.
Harping on “fact-based evidence” is a facile answer to the problem of unifying collective knowledge.
You have to recognize, with stage magic, that if you start by asking how the elephant disappeared, you’re already making a mistake—because the elephant might never have been there in the first place.
– Anwar Shaikh
Physicist and philosopher N.R. Hanson, following Wittgenstein’s lead, argued against the view of scientific progress as gradual accrual of empirical facts converging to truth. He saw the development of science as a sequence of challenges to the intellect (similar to what Kuhn later coined “crises” leading to “paradigm shifts”) brought on by ostensible “facts” that cannot be made to fit into an existing theoretical framework, such as elephants not really having been there in the first place.
It is a process of uprooting tacit assumptions that are part of our enculturation. (Scientific progress is a process of cultural adaptation. Not always easy! But as noted by Jacob Bronowski, mankind has stopped evolving physiologically, but cultural adaptation continues at a rapid pace.)
Facts do not speak for themselves. To appreciate a fact is not a basic ability, but contingent upon a point of view. In the phrase “objective fact”, the adjective is simply used as an intensifier, since facts are already supposed to be true and impersonal. But following developments from Wittgenstein, facts are not basic (“atomic”, as he said in the Tractatus) and neither is objectivity.
Dewey abandoned the idea that one can say how things really are, as opposed to how they might best be described in order to meet some particular human need. In this respect he is in agreement with Nietzsche, and with such critics of “the metaphysics of presence” as Derrida and Heidegger. For all these philosophers, objectivity is a matter of intersubjective consensus among human beings, not of accurate representation of something nonhuman. Insofar as human beings do not share the same needs, they may disagree about what is objectively the case. But the resolution of such disagreement cannot be an appeal to the way reality, apart from any human need, really is. The resolution can only be political: one must use democratic institutions and procedures to conciliate these various needs, and thereby widen the range of consensus about how things are.
– Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country, 1998
In humanity, as in physics, there are no privileged frames of reference. Our reckonings and interpretations of our world define it, because they constitute a relationship. Existence can be understood merely as entities in relation; no relation, no existence. In the case of mankind the relation, and therefore the existence, manifests itself in terms of opinion, attitude, philosophy, creed, dogma, assumption, presumption, preconception. The only way one can “be unbiased” is to cease to be, which is not worth the effort.
It may be worth the effort to adapt our relations in our favor, to explore possibilities of relation hitherto untried. Rorty suggests that this exploration is a democratic process.
While reading an article from the Columbia Journalism Review I realized:
To pursue objectivity in journalism is to assume that the audience is rational in the 17th-century Rationalist fashion. It is to think that one need only report “the facts” absolved of any scrutiny as to their presentation, and that the audience will naturally come to the “right” conclusions. It is to fail to note the importance of what Erving Goffman called frames.
To faithfully reproduce a fact does not merely convey its content, but necessarily asserts the frame which contains it. For to speak of content without a frame is to fail to grasp that there is no content that lacks a frame.
Facts are out, frames are in.
This is not to say that facts do not exist, but rather that they are no longer top dog. Delivering facts themselves might be what objective journalism aims for, but other results are inadvertently and perhaps unwittingly achieved, such as the parroting of concocted frames from official sources. To control such consequences requires frame analysis.
There’s a strong connection here with Gestalt. To call a frame a bias is to assert that one can view without a frame, which is nonsense. All perception is organized. It never becomes organized, which would imply a point at which it lacks organization. We have no way of stating anything that doesn’t give roles to the details. To state something requires details to be given roles. It is in this sense that simply emphasizing objectivity or factual basis is ineffective.
Rorty said that objectivity depends on needs. For George Lakoff, it seems that objectivity requires agreement on frames. In turn, frames partly constitute one’s identity. Rorty’s groups of people with similar needs would correspond to Lakoff’s groups with similar identities. Perhaps the two investigators are talking about the same thing; but I find Lakoff’s analysis a bit more to the point. The difficulty of objectivity is the difficulty of getting our brains synchronized.