The Historical and Philosophical Understandings of Objectivity

Judy Hensley
Gustavus Adolphus College
April 13, 1996

Introduction: Objectivity: An Idol or a Myth?

"The idols imposed by words on the understanding are of two kinds," wrote Sir Francis Bacon in 1620. "They are," he continued:

either names of things which do not exist (...names which result from fantastic suppositions and to which nothing in reality corresponds), or they are names of things which exist, but yet confused and ill-defined, and hastily and irregularly derived from realities (Daston, "Baconian Facts," 37).

These "idols imposed by words on the understanding" he called "idols of the marketplace." "Idols of the marketplace" are what the logical positivists of the early twentieth century aimed at either eliminating or clarifying. The philosopher's task, according to the early Wittgenstein, was to eliminate or discard any language lacking referents and to clarify language imperfectly attached to referents. According to this particular philosophical criterion, idols such as phantoms, the gods of Homer, and other theoretical entities are nonsensical. Although Bacon and the logical positivist movement has long past, the problem of how to sensibly talk about theoretical entities has remained. Strict positivistic or empiricist philosophical consideration can only--just as the logical positivists did--reject these idols or theoretical entities as having no corresponding reality or a poorly defined corresponding reality.

This failure to solve this problem is most problematic not for terms such as phantoms or gods but for terms such as truth, individual rights, and objectivity. Lorraine Daston, a historian, warns other historians against these idolatrous terms when exploring the origins of the term 'objectivity.' There is a distinction between the historical nature of the term and the philosophical nature, between the concrete and the abstract.

Daston, in her essay "The Image of Objectivity," argues that "modern objectivity mixes rather than integrates disparate components, which are historically and conceptually distinct" (Daston 82). She continues that it is this mixing or layering which "accounts for the hopelessly but interestingly confused present usage of the term objectivity" (82). Daston implies that attention to the practical, historical understanding of the term addresses this confusion. She writes

We believe, however, that a history of scientific objectivity may clarify these debates by revealing both the diversity and contingency of the components that make up the current concept. Without knowing what we mean and why we mean it in asking such questions as "Is scientific knowledge objective?," it is hard to imagine what a sensible answer would look like (82).
The distinction inherent in Daston's passage demonstrates this distinction of historical and philosophical. The historical describes the contingent, contextual elements of objectivity. The philosophical answers the abstract questions regarding objectivity such as "Is scientific knowledge objective?". As Daston recognizes, without the historical, philosophy can only dismiss 'objectivity' as bankrupt of all meaning and, therefore, an idol of the marketplace.

Unfortunately, for the members of the marketplace, this philosophical dismissal of their idol as nonsensical disregards the very essence of an idol. The notion of an idol invokes an understanding not only of a misplaced assumption but of a sacred assumption as well.

Like Daston, Peter Novick is a historian of the term "objectivity." He writes in his book That Noble Dream about the debate over objectivity within the discipline of History. In this case, the historical profession is the marketplace. Novick's understanding of the term, looking from the view of the marketplace, rejects the philosophical dismissal of objectivity as inadequate. Rather than an philosophical idol, he understands it to be a myth. This understanding removes the judgment of "mistaken" or "nonsensical," yet maintains the sacredness invoked by the assumptions. Novick's defense of his usage is that it does not require a position on the truth or falsity of objectivity. "Rather," he writes,

it is a device to illuminate the important functions which "historical objectivity" has served in sustaining the professional historical venture; and, since myths are by definition sacred, the tenacity, indeed, ferocity, with which it has been defended (Novick 3).
A myth, as especially demonstrated with objectivity, is not just about origins but about dynamic concepts. Myths, as opposed to idols, function within a framework of cultural values and assumptions. Accordingly, myths can be adapted, challenged, discredited, and rejected (4). Novick's primary example of a myth working as objectivity does presently is demonstrated by the following:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.... That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men (7).
Such a brief passage has rarely been filled with so many of what Novick calls "ambiguous terms and dubious propositions" (7). By "rigorous philosophical criteria," this statement is nonsense. However, for more than two hundred years, belief in this nonsense has been the cornerstone of liberty and equality in the United States.

But what, one may ask, can this historicizing of objectivity reveal? Novick describes objectivity as "a sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies" (Novick 1). A historian of the term, if successful, will provide for the reader an account of this sprawling collection. Peter Novick, in his history of the notion within the American historical profession, does exactly this.

A historical understanding, as opposed to a philosophical, demonstrates that certain contextual elements are shown to contribute to a faith in the possibility of objectivity, and lack of these elements encourage a dismissal of the possibility of objectivity. William Dean writes, in The Religious Critic in American Culture, that Novick "treats the objectivity question, not as an esoteric issue, but as a nest of related methodological and cultural issues rooted in attitudes of optimism, pessimism, and confusion" (Dean 33).

Novick states that the principle assumptions of objectivity for the profession of history

include a commitment to the reality of the past, and to truth as correspondence to that reality; a sharp separation between knower and known, between fact and value, and above all, between history and fiction. Historical facts are seen as prior to and independent of interpretation: the value of an interpretation is judged by how well it accounts for the facts; if contradicted by the facts, it must be abandoned. Truth is one, not perspectival (Novick 1-2).
Fred D'Agostino, in his essay "Transcendence and Conversation: Two Conceptions of Objectivity," argues that there are two salient motivations for objectivity. The first he sees as the avoidance of nonparochial orientation. The second he argues is "the urgent practical requirement of finding an 'authoritative' basis for the coordination and orientation of our social practices" (D'Agostino 87-88). Each of Novick's principle assumptions about historical objectivity can be explained by one or both of these motivations. Providing an authoritative basis which was universal in truth and avoiding regional and generational parochialism with permanent contributions were the central aims of objectivity in the profession of History as well as in related disciplines in the last half of the nineteenth, and portions of the twentieth, centuries.

Novick attempts to address why the historical profession found these aims desirable, and how they attempted to fulfill them. The result of Novick's approach is an understanding of the full range of contextual factors and elements that influence objectivity and the way in which they do influence them.

These elements within the profession of History were inextricably tangled with assumptions about science and the nature of professional consensus and comity. Professionalization was crucial for historical objectivity to accomplish its aim of providing an authoritative basis. Novick explains that "the foundation of an historical profession--a community of the historically indispensable prerequisite for the establishment, identification, and legitimation of objective historical truth" (Novick 52). This authoritative basis required the search for universal truths. Science and its methods were the avenues of such nonparochial truths. Therefore, the two essential goals of objectivity were fulfilled by an authoritative basis through professionalization which enabled the discovery of universal truths and the avoidance of parochialism through the scientific method.

Accordingly, historically, objectivity is a social phenomenon dependent on the establishment of methodological consensus (52). The task of professionalization is to regulate, promulgate, and enforce this consensus. Operating upon this foundation of professionalism, the role of science provides a mode of universal discourse. Philosophically, since these factors are not acknowledged, objectivity is discussed on a very different level. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate how this estranged relationship of the philosophical and the historical, of the abstract and the concrete, is indicative of and caused by confusion about objectivity.

The History of the "Question of Objectivity" in History

Peter Novick's history of the term within the historical profession best demonstrates this interaction. Novick describes how, historically, the varied axioms of science and the multifarious circumstances of professionalization altered or interacted with historians' understanding of objectivity. Novick divides this history of the past one hundred years of the American historical profession into four phases, each adjusting to cultural circumstances. The following is a phase-by-phase summary of Novick's history of the question of objectivity within the American context.

Phase I: "Objectivity Enthroned"

This phase addresses the creation and dissipation of the question of objectivity within the profession of History and spans from the 1880s until the outbreak of World War I. The understanding of historical objectivity resulted from confusion. American students, studying in German universities, misinterpreted much of German historiography, resulting in a belief that the objectivity of the natural sciences was applicable to other disciplines. Because of this understanding, historians' greatest aim was to imitate the method of their scientific model. This scientific method, Novick writes,

must be rigidly factual and empirical, shunning hypothesis; the scientific venture was scrupulously neutral on larger questions of end and meaning; and if systematically pursued, it might ultimately produce a comprehensive, "definitive" history (37).
This was the methodological understanding that provided historians access to universal truths and, therefore, an authoritative basis.

This authoritative basis, as previously stated, was found in professionalization and its ability to regulate and operate on this methodology. The nature of this young profession was of immense homogeneity, ideologically and methodologically. At the turn of the century, the limited autonomy, lack of ethnic or class diversity, and the narrow approaches to the field of history insured an anomalistic degree of homogeneity that would never again be seen. Correspondingly, there was an anomalistic degree of the acceptance of objectivity as well.

Phase II: "Objectivity Besieged"

Beginning with what Novick calls "a most genteel insurgency," in the early twentieth century, a progressive historicism began to present an ideological and methodological challenge to the positivistic historicism and, in the process, challenge and undermine this understanding of objectivity. Novick writes in his introduction that "in the case of historiography, as particular axioms of 'the scientific method' were called into question, ideas of objectivity rooted in older conceptions of science came to be seriously at risk" (5). The development of non-Euclidean geometries and non-Aristotelian multivalued logics as well as the popularization of Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Niels Bohr's principle of complementarity, and Werner Heisenberg's indeterminacy all altered the conception of science and the principles which were based on this conception. The extent of the alteration resulted in nothing less than the loss of the optimistic confidence that marked the prewar historians. "Science," Novick argues,

had offered prewar historians not just a method--well or ill understood--but above all a vision of a comprehensible world: a model of certitude, of unambiguous truth; knowledge that was definite, and independent of the values or intentions of the investigator. None of these characteristics were to survive the first third of the century (134-5).
The application of the interwar axioms of science resulted in a new vision of history in which truth was "man-made, social, and perspectival" (152), and, therefore, relative in that there existed a plurality of criteria for knowledge.

This undermining of the methodological consensus both reflected and reinforced certain assumptions about the nature of the historical venture. Novick's two chapters, "Professionalism Stalled" and "Divergence and Dissent," are dedicated to the description of the relationship between confidence in objectivity and confidence in professionalism. As would be expected, they both declined. The failure of the profession to converge on some very essential issues resulted in a necessary revision of previously accepted claims on the nature of history and of historical investigation. This divergence held serious implications for the nature of the historical venture. "The assault on objectivist epistemology," Novick writes,

opened up a long-overdue consideration of what historical scholarship could and should do; what it couldn't, and shouldn't try to do. Criticisms of previously unexamined assumptions entered the collective consciousness of the profession, and could never be permanently quieted (277).

Phase III: "Objectivity Reconstructed"

At the onset of the 1940s, a historian wrote: "war admits of no relativism" (287). With the dangers of the ideologically- enforced political parties of the '40s, the new consensus historians abhorred an understanding of truth that granted equal status to the fiendish totalitarians and the enlightened liberals of the Free World. Spiritual and ideological mobilization began in defense of the West. This required attachment in morality, detachment in cognition, affirmation, and a desire for certainty. The accusation of lack of detachment in totalitarian science earned it the adjective "ideological" (299). Science in the Free World could achieve objectivity, the facts of reality, by excluding the ideological (299). History could not be tainted as ideological. Historians were strained because objectivity as nonpartisanship seemed incompatible with their political beliefs and morality. In 1952, a member of a symposium observed that "intellect has associated itself with power as perhaps never before in history" (301). With the exception of Physics, there was no worse culprit in this association than the historical profession. American historians could only justify their political commitments and moral attachments with certainty in their objective cognition.

The result for the profession was a reversion to an almost uncontested convergence on methods as well as ideas. Consensus on this certainty of a common objective scholarship resulted in optimism and self-confidence in the old ideal. "Albeit in a very different global climate and in a much weaker form," William Dean writes, "this phase was an implicit reversion to the... objectivism of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries" (Dean 35). Despite the recognition of mild relativism, this climate was indeed similar.

Phase IV: "Objectivity in Crisis"

The decade of the sixties saw the demise of this ideological consensus that marked this climate. "The political culture lurched sharply left, then right; consensus was replaced first by polarization, then by fragmentation; affirmation, by negativity, confusion, apathy, and uncertainty" (Novick 415).

In this phase, it was not the axioms of science that altered the notion of historical objectivity; instead, axioms about the very nature of science resulted in a serious reinterpretation of science as the universal bedrock for truth. In 1962, Thomas Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn's theory of scientific revolution provided access to discussing science as a "human and historical matter" (526). "To be sure, there now really was a unity of science, in the sense that all of science was brought under history rather than, as before, history having been brought under science" (526). The implications of this for the traditional understanding of "objectivity" was that it could only have meaning within an unfalsifiable frame of reference. This denied the absolutist understanding of "objectivity" and threatened suppositions based upon this understanding. "As the scientizing of history had provided the discipline with a stable objectivist foundation, the historicizing of science destabilized that foundation" (537).

As would be expected, as a result of this broken bedrock, professional comity and convergence were nowhere to be found. Dean states, "from the 1960s on, there was to be no dominant cultural style or methodology" (Dean 35). Novick similarly argues that "ideological disarray replaced the consensus on which ideas of objectivity had always depended so heavily" (Novick 573). History experienced a loss of definition for the historical venture as a whole (584). This loss resulted in radical fragmentation and segregation of fragments between schools of thought and ideological commitments (e.g. Black history, Women's history, Marxist history). "The objectivity question" was particularly indicative of this. Each group defined objectivity as well as history in their own way and used this notion of objectivity to defend this notion of history. In most cases, the understandings of the two terms among schools were grossly incompatible and created mixed and, therefore, confused understandings of each. "Discourse across the discipline," as Novick explains, "had effectively collapsed" (592).

Dean describes the "rhetorical power of Novick's four-phase narrative" as "that he does not take the expected last step" (Dean 36). "The fourth phase," he continues

does not reiterate the second phase, as the third phase...had reiterated the first phase.... Novick breaks what could have been a symmetry and argues that recently dominant styles have been replaced by a chaos of styles in the lives of intellectuals. In this last phase there is not even a clear standoff between relativist and objectivist historians; instead, there is something more like an abdication of theory (36).

Conclusion: When Prophesy Fails

So, where, then does this leave the objectivity question? The present time has inherited this layered, sprawling idea of objectivity. The value of Novick's mythic and historical understanding of objectivity is its clarification of the use of the term. Historians of objectivity such as Novick and Daston can avoid confusion by writing of a specific notion of objectivity for a specific time.

Confusion arises when objectivity is removed from its appropriate historical context. Because myths are only understandable within a cultural frame of reference, to make a statement on the truth or falsity independent of that framework is to express an observation empty of content: "to say something neither interesting nor useful" (Novick 6). Thus, with respect to objectivity, a historical understanding is necessary for any substantial, philosophical understanding.

The discrepancy between the two understandings, philosophical and historical, is indicative of the problem of objectivity. Philosophy shares the aims of objectivity, of absolute and universal truth. History, in its very nature, is the description of parochialism of time and of space. The distinction between a philosophical and a historical approach is the distinction of the objective and relative nature of objectivity itself. Yet, from this distinction, a clearer, fuller understanding of objectivity seems possible. Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that "in formal logic, a contradiction is the signal of a defeat: but in the evolution of real knowledge it marks the first step in progress towards a victory" (Whitehead 187).

"Myths are at risk when that which they prophesy fails to materialize" (Novick 5). Historically and philosophically, this described objectivity requires substantial agreement on goals, values, and cognitive organization of perceptions of reality (Novick 61). This requires an ideological and methodological homogeneity that admits parochialism. An authoritative basis and the avoidance of parochialism, the two aims of objectivity discussed here, have certainly failed to materialize and, more accurately, have failed at even the possibility of materialization because of the incommensurable notions of each and lack of homogeneity. This is reflected in and reinforces the fragmentation that plagues the historical profession and academic America.

As demonstrated by the historicizing of science in this last stage, the abstract understanding of objectivity symbolized by the scientific method was subordinated to the concrete, positional historical understanding. When one talks about objectivity philosophically, one is referring to a term with various different meanings in various different worlds; a historical understanding is necessary to give the term sensible meaning. But one must ask: if only considering the historical, how is an understanding within a present cultural context possible? A historical understanding fails to give current notions.

The time has come for the search for an understanding of objectivity to be located in the abstract confines of the ivory tower and the historical marketplace. The characteristic of objectivity that makes it inappropriate solely at the theoretical level is that it is not a "merely philosophical question" (11). Rather, "it is an enormously emotional issue: one in which the stakes are very high, much higher than in any disputes over substantive interpretations" (11). Currently, the notion of objectivity is not only essentially contested; it is essentially confused as well. It is for exactly this reason that Novick and Dean understand objectivity to be an emotionally charged issue. Novick argues that "for many, what has been at issue is nothing less than the meaning of the venture to which they have devoted their lives, and thus, to a very considerable extent, the meaning of their own lives" (11).

If knowledge is not self-justifying, the responsibility of human endeavors are based entirely on human decision. Objectivity is and was sacred because it provided security and confidence in action. Placing truth with a communal context, places responsibility for failure there as well. The quality of life will reflect the decisions made. This is a radical free will with enormous consequences. A community can realize it was mistaken only when the chapters are closed.

Yet, in a sense, it seems arguable, that it is exactly this danger that makes the combination of the practical and theoretical level most beneficial for resolution. "Is it possible," questions Dean, "to understand how a national myth can abandon universal structures of thought and still frame a common culture?" (Dean xx). It is this question that must be answered by intellectuals in American academia. In short, he is asking if we can maintain an 'authoritative' basis that provides confidence in our practices as well as admit parochialism. We must arrive at a notion of objectivity that accounts for the entire range of human experience. Strict philosophical consideration results in the discarding of the term or essential elements of the term. Sole historical concentration lacks a rationale for a current notion. Philosophy is necessary to criticize abstractions and goals; history is necessary to ground this criticism in reality.

The avoidance of parochialism, historically demonstrated and philosophically enforced, is no longer a viable goal of objectivity. The fragmentation described is the product of maintaining this goal as desirable. With the realization of the impossible and undesirable character of this goal, we can unite the two understandings based on a common desire for an authoritative basis in which relations and values are admitted and accounted. Cognitive anarchy will not be the result of relinquishing this goal. Alfred Whitehead is very useful in demonstrating how the attempt to avoid parochialism can result in an estranged relationship of the two understandings as well as how cognitive anarchy can be avoided without this goal. He writes that

any verbal form of statement which has been before the world for some time discloses ambiguities; and that often such ambiguities strike at the very heart of the meaning. The effective sense in which a doctrine has been held in the past cannot be determined by the mere logical analysis of verbal statements.... You have to take into account the whole reaction of human nature to the scheme of thought (Whitehead 190).
History reveals the heart of the meaning, and philosophy polices the entire reaction.

Historians and philosophers must begin to have a higher understanding and value of the importance of the whole. Philosophers can no longer neglect real elements of experience, and historians can no longer refuse to admit commonality. And, most importantly, discourse must continue, taking into account the historical and the philosophical nature of objectivity.

Works Cited

D'Agostino, Fred. "Transcendence and Conversation: Two Conceptions of Objectivity." American Philosophical Quaterly. Volume 30, Number 2 (April 1993), 87-108.
Daston, Lorraine. "Baconian Facts, Academic Civility, and the Prehistory of Objectivity." Rethinking Objectivity. Durham: Duke UP, 1994.
Daston, Lorraine and Peter Galison. "The Image of Objectivity." Representations 40. University of California, Fall 1992, 81-129.
Dean, William. The Religious Critic in American Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession. New York: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York: The Free Press, 1967.

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