In This Article Objectivity

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Collections
  • Conferences in the 2010s on Objectivity
  • Typologies
  • Historiographical Aspects
  • Early Philosophical Texts
  • Sociological and Political Approaches to Understanding Objectivity
  • The Broad Division
  • Key Texts since the Late 1970s
  • Feminist Analyses of Objectivity
  • The Invariance Account
  • Objectivity in Ethical and Political Theory
  • Objectivity in History and the Social Sciences
  • Work on Objectivity in Languages Other Than English
  • Objectivity in the Law
  • Objectivity of Interpretation
  • Objectivity in Crisis? The Issue of Replicability

Philosophy Objectivity
by
Fred D'Agostino
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0221

Introduction

Objectivity has two aspects. It means, in the metaphysical sense, a correspondence between a statement and the way the world is independently of human conceptual activities. It refers, in the methodological sense, to products of processes of inquiry disciplined by the demand to exclude all that would render those products dependent on prejudice or bias. Already in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, we see that the convergence from multiple unbiased perspectives that we expect from a methodologically objective process might be seen as evidence of correspondence with underlying independent realities. In some domains, convergence may be all that’s on offer, there being no mind-independent reality with which correspondence might be sought. This was the view of John Rawls, as for example in his “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory.” Among the many unquestioned certainties of the postwar scientistic settlement was that the pursuit of objectivity in science, ethics, and the professions was the key to the success of these enterprises. This was disturbed by scholarly developments, of which the profoundest was the feminist critique of objectivity from the mid-1970s. Another important development was the sociological and historiographical interrogation of objectivity, as manifested in “the strong programme” or “social studies of science,” but most strikingly exemplified in Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity, which gave the idea of objectivity a history that showed how much intellectual work had to be done to develop an idea that we later came to take for granted. Of course, the fact of the historical contingency and social entanglement of “objectivity” shows nothing about its usefulness, indeed effectiveness. It may, despite its historicity, still be effective in disciplining our inquiries. Among the more interesting aspects of the concept of objectivity is its perhaps essentially contestable character as a concept, as shown in its multiple manifestations, as identified by Heather Douglas, “The Irreducible Complexity of Objectivity.” As Daston put it (“Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective,” p. 598), “its thick layering of oddly matched meanings . . . betrays signs of a complicated and contingent history.” While the idea of objectivity has played an important philosophical role, its general cultural significance spiked in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election. Oxford University Press has noted this phenomenon. “After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth—an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’”

Reference Works

The idea of objectivity came to assume importance in relation to a wide range of academic disciplines and professional practices. Specifically or at least partially philosophical reference works engage with the concept either in itself or in the context of some other topic. Edwards 1996 and Borchert 1996 provide access to a range of relevant articles, including Hepburn 1996 on mysticism, Cudd 1996 and Nye 1996 on feminism, Timmons 1996 on constructivism, and Rosen 1996 on realism. Miller 2005 is a good overview, and Reiss and Sprenger 2014 gives thorough coverage of objectivity in science.

  • Borchert, Donald M., ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Supplement. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.

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    The 1996 Supplement is much more engaged with the concept of objectivity than the earlier Encyclopedia, with entries on analytic feminism; constructivism, moral; decision theory; feminist philosophy; Gadamer; moral relativism; philosophy of medicine; Platonism, mathematical; practical reason approaches; and realism.

  • Cudd, Ann E. “Analytic Feminism.” In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Supplement. Edited by Donald M. Borchert, 20–21. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.

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    This article provides a good account of how self-identified “analytic” feminist scholars sought to rehabilitate and improve the concept of objectivity rather than rejecting it as other, radical feminists might.

  • Edwards, Paul, ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 8 vols. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.

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    The Encyclopedia (originally published in 1967) contains no article specifically devoted to objectivity and only seven that make significant reference to this concept. These are “History of Semantics,” “Scandinavian Philosophy,” “Köhler, Wolfgang,”: Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of,” “Propositions, Judgments, Sentences, and Statements,” in which the idea is considered in relation to the “dyadic-relation theory of judgment” deriving from Franz Brentano’s analysis of intentionality, and “Weyl, (Claus Hugo) Hermann” (whose book Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science is cited as Weyl 1949 in the Invariance Account).

  • Hepburn, Ronald. “Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of.” In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 5–6, Logic to Psychologism. Edited by Paul Edwards, 429–434. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.

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    Hepburn observes that “The mystic . . . normally claims that his experience[s] . . . disclose the nature of reality, that [they are] cognitive, objective experiences . . . [i.e., are] disclosures about the entire universe in its ultimate nature.” He notes that the mystic might cite “the impressive convergences of testimony on fundamentals among mystics of different periods and parts of the world” (p. 432). Here we find the familiar metaphysical and methodological strains in thinking about objectivity.

  • Miller, Alexander. “Objectivity.” In The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward Craig, 751–753. New York: Routledge, 2005.

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    This short, standalone article, reprinted from the Routledge Encyclopedia proper, is one of 1,691 entries as of 10 August 2018 that reference the concept.

  • Nye, Andrea. “Feminist Philosophy.” In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Supplement. Edited by Donald M. Borchert, 185–191. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.

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    This article considers, inter alia (p. 189), the “radical questioning of objectivity in science” and of “a ‘God’s-eye’ view of the truth.”

  • Reiss, Julian, and Jan Sprenger. “Scientific Objectivity.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2014.

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    This is an extremely thorough presentation of the key issues associated with objectivity in relation to scientific claims and practices. It distinguishes process and product notions and includes discussion of the role of the concept in the special sciences. This is one of 353 entries as of 5 July 2018 referencing objectivity in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  • Rosen, Gideon. “Realism.” In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Supplement. Edited by Donald M. Borchert, 492–495. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.

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    This article provides a good general introduction to that conception of objectivity, which is, in terms of the discussion in the Broad Division, metaphysical rather than methodological in character. Perhaps Rosen’s most telling point (p. 492) is that “The nonrealist rejects the realist’s rhetoric of objectivity. But this rejection can take a number of more determinate forms, and their variety sheds considerable light on what realism requires.”

  • Timmons, Mark. “Constructivism, Moral.” In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Supplement. Edited by Donald M. Borchert, 106–108. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.

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    This article comments on the challenge to constructivist accounts of moral objectivity that is posed by the possibility of moral error.

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