Some notes on modern conceptions of objectivity

Allan Megill (1994, pp. 1-20) edited an interdisciplinary volume of essays on the topic of rethinking objectivity. Megill distills four senses of objectivity from the essays. The first sense is one of absolute objectivity. This view sees objectivity referring to presentations of the world in which the world is presented as it really is. The second sense is one of disciplinary objectivity. This view sees objectivity referring to consensus among researchers in a particular discipline, rather than a universal consensus upon a view of the world as it really is. The third sense is one of dialectical objectivity, whereby “objects are constituted as objects in the course of an interplay between subject and object…The dialectical sense leaves room for the subjectivity of the knower” (p. 1). The fourth sense is one of procedural objectivity. This view sees objectivity referring to methods of investigation and administration which control for and minimize or remove any partiality on the part of researcher. Relevant critiques of these senses of objectivity are found in feminist philosophies, though these feminist critiques by no means exhaust the directions from which critiques of objectivity are launched. Sandra Harding (1993) is an example from within the feminist philosophies of science. Harding argues that objectivity, conceived both as value neutral research results and as the escape of human ideas from their subjectivity, is implausible. She argues that political power alters social and scientific conventions in a way that directly affects the very grounds upon which people can build knowledge and the standards that determines what counts as knowledge. Harding’s view, referred to as standpoint epistemology, opposes those feminist empiricists who want only to reform traditional conventions of scientific research and explanation. The reformers see a way to reduce prejudice and bias while working with the conventions. Harding’s standpoint epistemology targets the conventions themselves and proposes new, more objective, grounds for building knowledge—building knowledge from the standpoint of politically and socially marginalized persons, a position she says has its roots Hegel’s distinctions between master and slave. Achieving maximum objectivity requires that scientists and their knowledge practices also become the objects of investigation because, Harding argues, their conventional methods of value-free research have removed “only those social values and interests that differ among the researchers and critics who are regarded by the scientific community as competent to make such judgments” (p. 70).

Lorraine Code (1993) criticizes modern epistemology and its concept of objectivity for hopeless belief in impartial observation and value-free research results, for unrealistic belief that the individual alone is responsible for knowledge, and for focusing on phony or toy thought experiments to derive standards for justifying knowledge—standards not relevant to actual social and political lives. Code traces these faults back to the beginnings of positivist empirical science. “The legislated (not “found”) context-independence of the model generates the conclusion that knowledge worthy of the name must transcend the particularities of experience to achieve object purity and value neutrality” (p. 19).

Helen Longino (1993) goes beyond what she calls the descriptive nature of previous feminist epistemologies and offers normative standards that can be used to justify knowledge in ways that account for the faults pointed out by Harding and Code. Longino’s proposed standards involve the communal production and justification of knowledge whereby standards within the community allow for, and enshrine, public forums, dissent, criticism, change, intellectual equality, and public standards for evaluation of the knowledge production process and the produced knowledge (pp. 112-113).

Louise Antony (1993) sympathizes with the need to challenge androcentric practices in epistemology and science. She faults Code’s views as relying on a conflation of the histories of rationalism and empiricism. After correcting these histories, Antony rejects the idea that appealing to the partiality of all knowers justifies rejecting objectivity, for three reasons. First, it does not follow from our situatedness and partiality that objectivity is impossible. “Impartiality is not a matter of where you are, but rather how well you do from where you sit” (p. 570). Second, we can maintain objectivity as an ideal even if we cannot achieve perfect impartiality, according to Antony. Third, she sees no way to criticize partiality in science without reliance on some appeal to impartiality. Antony appeals to Quine’s naturalized epistemology to argue that there is no presuppositionless position from which to assess epistemic practice, that we must take some knowledge for granted. The only thing to do, then, is to begin with whatever it is we think we know, and to try to figure out how we came to know it: Study knowledge by studying the knower (p. 571).

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Antony, Louise, [1993] 2008, ‘Quine as Feminist’, Epistemology: an anthology, Sosa, E. ed. Blackwell Pub., Malden, MA, pp. 552-584.

Code, L., 1993, ‘Taking Subjectivity into Account’, Feminist epistemologies, Alcoff, L., & Potter, E. eds. Routledge, New York, pp. 15-48.

Harding, S., 1993, ‘Rethinking standpoint epistemology: what is strong objectivity?’ Feminist epistemologies, Alcoff, L., & Potter, E. eds. Routledge, New York, pp. 49-82.

Longino, H., 1993, ‘Subjects, power and knowledge: description and prescription in feminist philosophies of science’, Feminist epistemologies, Alcoff, L., & Potter, E. eds. Routledge, New York, pp. 101-120.

Megill, A. (ed.), 1994, Rethinking objectivity, Duke University Press, Durham.