In defense of subjectivity

By Haines Brown, 3 December 2006

As heirs of the Enlightenment, we have a strong commitment to objectivity. A failure to achieve this goal is labelled subjectivism. Unfortunately because subjectivity is not distinguished from subjectivism, it falls suspect as well. In our quest to achieve objectivity, any subjective element is dismissed as undesirable and to be avoided. I would like to address briefly the association of subjectivism and subjectivity in historiography and attempt to salvage the necessity and the virtue of the latter.

What is subjectivism? To quote the Wikipedia:

Subjectivism is a philosophical tenet that accords primacy to subjective experiences as [the] fundament of all measure and law. In an extreme form, it may hold that the nature and existence of every object depends only on someone's subjective awareness of it.

This is a good example of the association just mentioned. If we inspect it closely, it amounts to little more than phenomenalism. Phenomenalism is the reduction of some object of study to bundles of sense-data; it reduces our knowledge of things to our perceptions of them. While there are well known objections to phenomenalism, it remains true that we experience the world though our perceptions of it. The trouble comes when we take the further step to suggest that our knowledge is limited to this experience.

To suggest that subjective experience is the “fundament of all measure and law”, we have to distinguish whether perception is the beginning point or is also the end point of knowledge. A foundation seems to refer only to the former, and so it appears unobjectionable as long as the knowledge that rests on that foundation is not limited to what can be perceived.

The difficulty arises in the second sentence in the definition, for it implies that unobservables are not real and cannot be known. The first sentence is epistemological; the second, ontological. It is here the problems we associate with subjectivism seem to arise. For example, in ethical subjectivism, actions have no objective value, and the way seems open to ethical anarchy. Another situation much discussed and widely rejected in the sciences, is that probabilistic outcomes refer only to how sure we are of our predictions, not to any real dispositions that a system under study might have.

In the case of historiography, subjectivism is often associated with an indifference to the factual evidence, but clearly that view is unwarranted. A subjectist is not indifferent to what is perceived to be the facts, but is only guilty of a reduction of things to only what is perceived, and this is an entirely different matter. Indiffernce to the facts is more akin to ethical subjectivism, which is a question of personal honesty. One' honesty should not enter into a discussion of subjectivism and objectivism.

In historiography, subjectivism more properly refers to a reduction of an historical conception to a perspective arising from one's social location. The implication is that the historian allows the facts of his personal existence or the values of his culture and peer group to tincture his interpretation of the facts.

The problem is, how can we acquire objective knowldge of an historical object without having our subjective existence come into play? It is safe to admit that the facts of our existence do have a real presence and tend to influence how we see things. Our experiences constitute much of what we are, and our values, of which we are often unaware, are always present. Some kind of counterforce would seem necessary to enable us to gain some distance from them, and here we face a challenge.

Probably most historians assume that if we are alert to our biases, we can somehow compensate for them through the expenditure of sufficient effort. One approach might be to familiarize ourselves with as many different viewpoints as we can, and then use this knowledge to assess our own views more critically. The problem is that these other perspectives are also necessarily biased by social location, and so how can one attain an objective view simply by combining them? The advantage of being able to assess one's own perspective more critically does not in itself offer any basis for objectivity, for there's still the problem of attaining the goal of objectivity while it remains undefined.

Being open to other viewpoints probably makes some sense if instead we do not assume there is an objectivity that is independent of social location, but rests instead on the totality of all social locations. A universal perspective that is the perspective of everyone would in principle offer a kind of objectivity that can be reconciled with subjectivity.

Unfortunately, things are not so easy. In what sense can there be a concrete universality, when we are all too aware of the great diversity of outlooks and social interests in our world?

The world historian Lefton Stavrianos once suggested that to gain a universal perspective on world history that does not reduce to a sum of this histories of particular peoples, we should strive for a “lunar vantage point”. That is, by distancing ourselves in thought from all particulars, we are left with the general.

The problem is that by doing so, we also distance ourselves from the human agents that drive history and from the particular events and causes that surely give rise to the whole. We are left in a position of generalizing trends rather than explaining those trends. Historians who abandon a commitment to explanation in this way are surely in trouble, for then what value would the study of history have to offer? Or, at least its value would be limited to only someone in your position, such as providing a sense of identity.

Is, then, an aspiration for objectivity (and a world history) a chimera? As long as one's social location is inevitably present in explanation, and as long as human society is contradictory, what hope is there? On the surface, very little indeed. The cultural and economic divisions in our world are intensifying as national divisions recede. The hope that they might be resolved is clearly not in the forseeable future.

The problem with this pessimistic assessment is that it is static, and instead we should be looking at some potential for universality, not the empirical evidence of it. That universality may only be incipient now, but if there were at least a real potential for accord, that could serve as the basis of objectivity—not because it will hopefully become manifest at some future time, but because it is the basis upon which movement toward reconciliation exists in the present. Put in sociological terms, real progress brings people together.

So, what would this potential be like? It can't be empirically defined, for development has a way of amplifying empirical distinctions rather than reduce them. Further, the aim can not be to create an empirically homogeneous world, for it would be a dull place indeed. Instead, the concrete universality has to be based on a universally shared relation of people to a source for their development. Their diversity will as a result increase because of this relation, but not their social contradictions. The only way for this to take place is for there to be a single social class. That possibility is already with us in the form of the modern working class.

This, of course will not eliminate differences nor even tensions, but it does offer a universal social location that embraces subjectivity while offering the basis of an objectivity based on a concrete universal.