‘Objectivity does not exist’ is both a popular and an awkward notion. What’s going on?
Let’s agree it’s about sentiment, not science or any other form of clear thinking. The notion has most appeal when we think about someone else’s objectivity. For when we recognize that, we supply someone else with power over ourselves. We don’t want rocks on our path, let’s put it that way.
On the other hand: when our own truths are concerned we want them to be recognized. People who deny things which are extremely self-evident to me, drive me nuts. Yes the Nazi’s were the bad guys in WWII, life after death is obvious BS, the only reason people believe in God is they were indoctrinated by that idea as children and because our brains were shaped through evolution in a way which make them susceptible to religion. Evolution is an objective fact, creationism is a lie, Ella Fitzgerald was a great singer. Those are some of the things I consider objective truths and anyone who argues them drives me nuts.
So is objectivity something like sexual faithfulness, something others should respect but is quite something else when we ourselves are the unfaithful ones?
I believe not.
None less than the great sociologist Norbert Elias has it right when he puts the matter of objectivity in a day-to-day perspective, this way: ‘When Peter says something about Paul, he always says something both about himself and about Paul. The degree in which his statement is about Paul is the degree of objectivity of his statement.’
Who can seriously disagree with this idea? I certainly can’t and I challenge anyone who thinks he can.
Where does that leave us? Does this idea make objectivity into something arbitrary? Absolutely not! Claims to objectivity yes, they can be arbitrary, but the underlying concept is not. In other words people may think to be objective, but the proof of the pudding is the degree to which their statement is consonant with reality, or, in Elias’ terms is ‘reality adequate’. The fact that it’s often very difficult – especially with emotion laden issues – to stick as close to reality as possible doesn’t mean reality isn’t out there.
None less than the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has said something to this effect: ‘When at night my candle shines out of my window, the light dissolves into darkness. The fact that no one can say where the light stops and the darkness begins is no reason to abolish those concepts.
So: objectivity does exist, it’s just very hard to come by.