Dugs Papers

A collection of Douglas Racionzer's thinking on a variety of topics including assignments in ethics.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Subjectivity and objectivity

1st July 2005 Douglas Racionzer

Morality seems to float between ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’.

Subjectivity is a less popular word than objectivity in academic scholarship. Most of the references in books I have read do not mention subjectivity but will usually have a few references to its understood mirror opposite, objectivity. It seems to me that when we think of subjectivity we too often refer to the harshest form of solipsist psychologism suggesting that only the inner thoughts and feelings of a person are being taken as truth. We seem to use the word subjectivity in a taut pairing which places “objectivity” in direct opposition to “subjectivity” especially when this refers to “the truth of the matter” or “the facts”. Objective reality is too often used to refer to truth claims using the most empiricist of standards that all objective reality “is reducible to immediate sense experience and the reports thereof” (Drummond, 1988; p277)

I have a complaint against the use of the terms “subjective and objective” as a paired set of concepts. This is that they do not operate in the same way as other pairings such as “stop and go” or even “father and child”. These are either descriptions or formal names. Someone who has stopped is clearly not going and someone who is going is clearly not stopped. In the latter pairing, a father may also be child and a child may also be a father, but not to the same person (unless we speak of the Godhead). These are formal names, titles if you will and they express a necessary relationship in so far as every father must be a father to a child and every child must have a father (even if it is a renowned English witticism that it is wise man who knows his father).

My complaint with the pairing of subjective and objective as antonyms is that this pairing reduces the conceptual space for the words and may instead better be thought of as opposite ends of a continuum of ideas about reality and truth. It was with some relief that I noticed the words “float between” in the exam question because this allows me to place objectivity in a continuum with subjectivity.

My readings propose two aspects to the manner in which objectivity and subjectivity are deployed [1] that they invariably placed in relation to some truth claim or some fact. Indeed I cannot recall a circumstance where I have read or heard anyone discussing the objective fantasy of something or the subjective facts of the matter. And [2} that people are in some way acting subjectively and objectively. Objectivity and subjectivity are what people do. Newel argues “that objectivity attaches to persons through their actions” (Newel, 1986; p17)

Newel’s treatment of objectivity presents us with two faces of objectivity. The first is the Kantian sense of objectivity that attaches to ‘objects’ existing apart from perceptions more or less continuously in space and time called objective particulars and the beliefs, judgements and products of thought objective judgements. (ibid; p16) “Central to this picture of objectivity is the requirement that beliefs about an objective world must hold good independently of the experiences, or states of mind, on which people may rely for their assertion.” (ibid; p17)

Newel’s second face of objectivity is the one that attaches to persons in that their judgements are “associated with impartiality, detachments, disinterestedness and a willingness to submit to standards of evidence”. (ibid; p 17) In this view “objectivity becomes a quality of character applied or withheld on the evidence of what one does.” (ibid; p18)

Newel goes on to reject the first face of objectivity because it is essentially sterile and is unable to add us anything new or useful to our understanding of what things really are. (ibid; p 19) Instead we are urged to consider the socially embedded face of objectivity as it us used to deal with concerns between people.

“The route to objectivity has been historically marked by a search for some common ground guaranteeing interpersonal discussion and the settlement of differences. That an explanation of objectivity must pick out this common ground is implicit in the thesis that it is to be found in a world of external realities, but the postulation of common ground outside offered an impersonal basis and failed to be explanatory. The alternative of looking favourably towards agreement or consensus…makes access to objectivity dependent upon the things we consensually believe, trapping objectivity in the bias of agreed wisdom.” (Newel, 1986; p101)

This suggests that we regard objectivity as enacted between people in a kind of inter-subjective engagement between people. But how then can we ever know the truth if objectivity is merely some sort of social agreement between members of a social context ?

Raising questions about “the truth” and its know-ability lies beneath the surface of so much discussion around objectivity and subjectivity that it may serve us to examine various arguments concerning truth.

It is a confusing enterprise to read philosophical literature on truth. Descriptive labels abound; correspondence theories jostle with coherence theories and realist approaches mingle with contructivists, relativists seem to take issue with foundationalism. The literature seems to, to the novice, to be in a mess. This may not be a bad thing, except when you are expected to write a pithy essay for an examination question on the foundation of ethics. As an aide-memoir I often find it convenient to grasp the essentials of the various positions in a field of knowledge using boxes into which various positions can be sorted.

When considering truth, there seem to be at least four basic positions with regard to its universal and its external character that may be adopted ;

[A]Foundationalism + Correspondence [B]Foundationalism + Coherence
[C]Relativism + Correspondence [D]Relativism + Coherence

The arguments about truth that we may cram into box [A] represent a variety of theories that have been identified as; Truth is a copy (Langer, 1948) that is, truth is a mental reflection of some external substance; Truth is an image or images (Hume, 1927; Locke, 1894) which imprint themselves in our minds; Truth is a reflex (Austin in Nagel and Brandt, 1965; pp161-176), that subsists in the properties of things and situations in the world; Truth is a test (James, 1949; Pierce; 1960) in so far as truth is something that we can verify as true as opposed to untrue.

These approaches to truth are, in my experience, the most commonly held especially among fellow church-goers and those of my circle who are natural and social scientists or professional engineers and lawyers.

Vardy etal (1999) argues that “realists operate with a correspondence theory of truth” (ibid; p 15) but “Constructivists operate with the Coherence theory of truth” (ibid; p 17). We can then equate Vardy etal’s (ibid) “realism” with correspondence theories of truth and “constructivism” with coherence theories of truth.

Vardy etal (ibid) assure us that there are those who promote Coherence theories of truth within a foundationalist perspective. These coherence theory foundationalists “maintain that although the truth of moral statements is dependent upon the evidence for these statements (i.e. on coherence), this evidence should not be confined within a particular time or a particular society –instead there is or should be a single set of true moral statements…” (ibid; p 18) Adherents of these positions to truth would fall into box [B] above.

Box [D] above corrals those who are coherence theory relativists. “Such people may consider moral statements to be subjective because they depend on the views of a particular group of people” (ibid; p19)

It is the population of box [C] that reflects the position to which I am most drawn. McHugh calls this approach “Analytic Truth or truth as method” and argues… “that a finding is ‘true’ (or false of ambiguous) comes to be so only after applying to it the analytical formulation of a method by which that finding could be understood to have been produced” (McHugh, 1971;p 332)

Husserl may, according to some , have belonged to this box [C] of relativists who maintained some form of foundationalism; “Truth then, does not involve the ideal of adequation between an idea or judgement and a state of affairs; it involves instead recognized identity” (Drummond, 1988; p 294)

Those who argue for relativism from within a foundationalist perspective tend to focus on the personal ontological experience of truth over its external reification, emphasise method or process as an intentional act and seem to claim that despite the contents of moral (and other) truths being different in time and space, the methods of making sense, of grasping truth are nonetheless universal.

This methodological emphasis has a champion outside of the German phenomenological school in Bernard Lonergan (Morelli etal, 1997). Lonergan’s treatment of objectivity offers one of many arguments for the process of what he calls “self-appropriation”. (ibid; p19)
“Principally the notion of objectivity is contained within a patterned context of judgements which serve as implicit definitions of the terms ’object’, ‘subject’. (Morelli etal, 1997; p212)

Lonergan argues that objectivity is made up of three aspects;
Absolute Objectivity on the level of judgement, Normative Objectivity on the level of understanding and Experiential Objectivity on the level of experience. (ibid, 1997;p 211)

Lonerganian subjectivity is a method of self-appropriation and authentic existence and makes use of intersubjective understandings and common-sense stocks of knowledge in order to operate. (ibid, 1997; p131)

The resolution of the objectivity-subjectivity-truth debates must occur on the horizon of personal and interpersonal meaning. “Meaning is the truth about oneself which creates the preconceptual horizon for moral knowledge and experience…Meaning has a narrative structure; our being-in-the-world is a being-with others-in-the-world.” (Kopfensteiner, 1992;48)

Bibliography and References
(Please note that I have included material that I have read that may not be directly referenced in the paper because I believe that my understanding of the topic has involved a wider reading than the texts quoted)

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