The reconstruction of objectivity

By Haines Brown, 30 November 2006

Since the Second World War (although it has deeper roots), there has been an assault on the ideal of objectivity that we might very loosely call postmodern deconstructionism.

An implicit point in contention is the word “modern”. Conventionally we associate it with the capitalist era in world history, and so the question is whether this criticism of the Enlightenment ideals of objectivity, rationality and progress offers a post-modern alternative to capitalist ideology or merely manifests its (late-modern) contradictions.

The point of this modest essay is to suggest that a reconstruction of objectivity is at least possible. If this be so, it suggests that postmodernism, at least in respect to objectivity, does not mark the beginning of a new era, but merely the failure of the old.

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of attack on a presumption of objectivity.

First is the suggestion that facts are socially constructed. Postmodernism has probably carried its point that social interests play a major part in determining what becomes the prevailing truth (”paradigm”) and also that a researcher is largely blind to his own biases and assumptions.

Second is a contention that the observation of a phenomenon transforms it. While this is sometimes inferred from quantum mechanics, it can be argued in respect to our world of daily experience in that any observation is necessarily selective (reductionist) and static. As a consequence, the data of observation are at best only an incomplete truth regarding objects of study that realistically are usually inexhaustibly complex processes.

Third, the measure of objectivity depends on some standard of truth that is not part of what is under study, but lies outside it and is more universal in the sense of being more comprehensive. No such standard exists because the truth value of this standard itself depends on something yet more universal. We end caught in an infinite regress.

I believe most people would agree that is some truth in these objections. However, it will be my contention that it does not imply we must therefore abandon the goal of objectivity. I won’t presume here to reconstitute an alternative basis for objectivity, but only to offer the far more modest point that it is premature to attend its wake.

But first, why trouble oneself so much with the issue of objectivity? I believe there are several obvious reasons why we should take it very seriously indeed and, if possible, preserve it in some fashion. I will just mention a few, and they are extensively discussed in the literature.

It seems to me that objectivity brings with it three advantages:

It is a condition for the growth of knowledge, for knowledge is cumulative, and a truth depends on the truth of its foundations. Because the current state of knowledge is often taken for granted, we often don’t appreciate the extent to which people's basic assumptions have differed fundamentally in different times and places. The result is that what might seem obvious to us actually depends on a set of axioms that must always be open to question. However, in spite of this need for a critical stance, the amount of fairly certain knowledge has grown very quickly, and it provisionally at least offers a solid foundation for the further advance of knowledge. Just because history shows that people's basic assumptions tend to have a modest life span, it does not imply that the assumptions we employ today are no better than those of the past, for otherwise our knowledge of the world today would be no more valid than that of many thousand years ago. This is obviously not the case.

Another advantage of objectivity is that it is required by inter-subjective communications. While it is true, as Thomas Kuhn insisted, that the social position of a body of scholars might explain the hegemony of their paradigm, this does not mean their view is in fact the truth, but only that it is difficult to challenge. A closure of views resulting from their reduction to subjectivity would seem to block the very possibility of mutual understanding or social accord. Communications require that there be a significant amount of shared culture, and it is our sensitivity to objective truth about the world that makes culture open, flexible and able to develop. Some of the worst evils visited on our world today are closely linked with the inability to see beyond one's own nose.

It seems that our sense of morality depends on a set of values having legitimacy. That legitimacy is often little more than what happens to be the values shared by our social milieu. While this is often reasonable enough, it does present difficulties. One's own social milieu is never homogeneous and is becoming less so with each passing decade. The resulting need to be tolerant and forbearing necessarily limits the legitimacy of any values based on their being shared. A presumption of shared values when in fact few are shared can be an instrument for the cruel repression of non-conformity. A traditional solution to this problem was to appeal to more universal values. Because this broadening the scope of our community only increases the diversity of its content, it was necessary to abstract this universal from its empirical specifics, making it a set of metaphysical truths. For example, in the Enlightenment there was a metaphysical definition of “human nature” that transcended social distinctions. While we are today sensitive to the vacuousness of these metaphysical universals, it seems that a universal of some kind is needed in order to maintain a stance of objectivity, for on it depends our moral sense.

If there are good reasons to insist upon objectivity, is there any way we might salvage it without finding ourselves in the now discredited position of trying to defend the Enlightenment?


A fundamental element of Enlightenment thought that has long prevailed is the notion that the basis of truth arises from our perceptions of the world. Any relations among these phenomena can only be inferred, and these relations lack the truthful quality of the perceptions themselves.

In the last century or so this view suffered an onslaught, particularly in the natural sciences, which at the same time was emerging as the model for critical truth. As the natural sciences gained in prestige they were undercutting the foundations of phenomenalism, which seems unlikely to survive.

To put the matter in very simple terms, it appears that our perception of space and time is an accidental function of our situation in the cosmos. Furthermore, there are phenomena that are unobservable, but in certain sciences had to be taken as being very real. The most accurate of all the sciences works with systems that have no measurable state. It is well understood today that our perceptions, even aided by instrumentation, offer only a limited and crippled representation of things.

There seem to be two reactions to this assault on phenomenalism. One is to remain agnostic about the nature of non-observational phenomena and worry about them only to the extent they manifest themselves to us. For example, if things don’t seem to have a real state in terms of a set of measurable values, but rather dispositions for change, you measure their outcomes to establish statistical laws that tell you about how likely they are to end up in a certain static state. That is, one gives up trying to explain things, and instead represent statistical laws as a measure of our ignorance and an explanation only in the very limited sense that it allows one to predict outcomes.

An alternative is to represent such unobservables as process, causation, and dispositions as being real. This “scientific realism” has several advantages. One is that it purports to offer a real explanation in terms of the inner causal mechanisms of change. The science of statistical mechanics, for example, depends on this, for it explains thermodynamic laws in terms of unobservable micro-processes. Another advantage of scientific realism is that it allows the critical assessment of theory in terms of theory, such as its reduction to ascertain the basic mode of existence of matter per se. This has contributed to what is expected to be the eventual unification of all sciences.

It is important to note that in both these cases, the retreat from phenomenalism does not at all imply an embrace of subjectivism. My examples were from the natural sciences, where subjectivism is not tolerated. What we are seeing is a movement toward an objectivity that is no longer metaphysical in the sense that it detaches itself from concrete particulars, but remains universal in that it finds a unity in all concrete particulars. A concrete universality must include human beings if it is really universal, and therefore the objectivity must include a human subjective component.

However, this is not the same as subjectivism, which reduces everything to that subjective component. Perhaps we would represent this better by saying that the real world constrains the content of our subjectivity, lending it a degree of truth value that is a function of its universality.

Static state vs. process

A second hint that we may be able to reconstruct objectivism on a new basis is not as well developed as the point I just made, but it has long been an aspiration.

The Enlightenment notion of objectivity tended to assume that it referred to an identifiable object. “Identity” is an interesting philosophical issue in the natural sciences, but at least we can say that it implies that things have a “state”, which is a concept basic to the “non-evolutionary” sciences. The reason is that these sciences are heirs of a tradition that creates an artificial (closed) world in which the behavior of a system necessarily arises from inner forces that are then taken to represent their essential truth. Through a repeated measurement of successive closed system states, scientists derive “general laws”, which were thought of as being somehow real and necessary.

We now realize that such a closed situation is what is called a “limiting case”—a hypothetical logical limit that does not describe how things really are in this world. A relatively closed system does tell us something truthful about the system, but that truth remains very one-sided, for systems are never really closed. We can’t reduce a system to the effect of its interacting parts (a common definition of “system”) without getting into serious trouble, for it implies a categorical distinction between a part and the whole.

The intuitive response to the inadequacy of thinking in terms of parts and wholes has been to suggest that our basic unit should not consist of parts and wholes, but represent a unit that transcends that distinction. Arthur Kroestler's “holons” is just one example, and David Bohm's interesting explorations of the issue are another and more developed one.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking has not gotten very far, which is a shame because intuitively it would solve many problems. One way to overcome the whole/part dichotomy might be to suggest that things should be understood as the causal relation between an empirical structure and its wider world. Such a unit is not parts because their nature depends on their environment, but at the same time they are not mere epiphenomenon expressing that greater whole because their empirical qualities only constrain that process.

This unit that brings together empirical specifics and the universal is understood to be process. It seems that if we represent all things as processes, they might dissolve the part/whole dichotomy.

However, a broadly held view objects that behaviors can be intrinsic to things. For example, it is argued that the singularity we associate with cosmic Big Bang represents a far-from-equilibrium (very low entropy) system. Since all reality is ultimately an heir of the Big Bang, all reality inherits its disequilibrium. Therefore, all things (including “temporarily closed branch systems”) are inherently processes moving toward an attractor equilibrium state. In other words, that all things are processes may not depend on their having a causal relation with the broader world, in which case they would not be considered as having a universal dimension.

However, I believe that in principle these two views can be reconciled. While temporarily isolated branch systems (i.e., the scientific laboratory), do offer structures that seem to represent an independent process in that they must move toward a more probable state, that is only the effect of an initial condition that arose from a relation with the environment. Furthermore, this tendency to change is only a disposition until it is placed into a causal relation with some other system such as our measuring apparatus. In other words, the disequilibrium of a system is only arise from and be realized through what lies outside it.

In any case, it does not seem the nature of things is “essential” to them, but is the effect of a constrained causal relation with the broader world. What is internal to it is only certain dispositions associated with its empirical structure. It may seem that we have wandered away from the issue of objectivity, but that is not the case. If objectivity depends on universality, truthful knowledge of a system that necessarily includes its relation to the broader world seems to open the way for us to acquire objective knowledge of it.

Social universality and objectivity

Of course, our being part of that wider world means there is a subjective component in objective truth. Does this hint that perhaps our presumed contradiction between subjectivity and objectivity is not inevitable? This has been extensively discussed with a variety of conclusions that will not be elaborated here except for one particular approach that will serve as an example.

While the detachment of interests is a professional ideal among historians, and while surely it is a worthwhile goal having real benefits, it does not follow that being self-critical about one's own biases automatically means we have achieved the nirvana of pure objectivity. To be self-critical we have to mentally stand outside ourselves in order to look at our views critically.

We can do that because we fortunately live in complex societies that allows us to weigh different views. This is why we feel the ideas of someone who admits his biases are more accessible than of someone who believes he is free of them. But, of course, there are limits to this reliance on our social milieu to get outside ourselves.

In particular, we are far more aware of and responsive to differing views within our own social milieu than when we try to cross social barriers. One reason for this is that our development has a social basis, and so our capacities depend on our class location. One response might be that our ideas are emergent and so necessarily differ from received ideas, but since the basis of development is social, this self-criticism is necessarily within the framework of a social unit of development, not across social groups. If our intellectual life and the world are aspects of a more universal system, the potential truth value of our ideas should be a function of social universality.

In short, we are real human beings that are embedded in time and place. Rather than strive to disengage ourselves from our social location, which is really almost impossible, perhaps we should instead aim to engage a more universal social location.

This raises some rather controversial issues. In political sociology, it is pointed out that any ruling class tries to represent itself as being universal. Of course, we today would dismiss any such claims as empty, but that situation changed in the late nineteenth century, for in the context of Marxism it was suggested that the modern working class lays a valid claim to be universal in the sense that it is in principle possible for a society to consist of just that one class.

Empirical distinctions among workers, such as their differences in standard of living or culture do not contradict this concrete universality because Marxism does not define class in empirical terms, but primarily as a causal relation shared by workers to a common source for their development, their “relation of production”. Because modern workers develop through their social bonds rather than a private possession of the means of production, it is a class in which particular distinctions and a concrete universal are reconciled. Empirical distinctions among workers constrain social relations, but generally don’t contradict them.

I should remind the reader that my purpose here is not to construct a new basis for objectivity, but only to show that there are approaches that appear to have the potential for reconciling universals and particulars as long as those universals are concrete and particulars are understood as processes that are necessarily manifestations of the broader world. The other side of this coin is a subjectivity that is universal. The resulting objectivity is never be absolute or complete, but it represents a real truth value for our knowledge, for it is simultaneously objective and particular.