What is Objectivity?

Philosophically the idea of objectivity is, when examined, one of the odder notions we have. So says Lorraine Datson in a review of a new book, Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England by George Levine.

‘Objectivity’ is a word at once indispensable and elusive. It can be metaphysical, methodological and moral by turns, occasionally in the same paragraph. Sometimes it refers to the ultimate reality as seen from a God’s-eye point of view, sometimes to methods that replace judgments with algorithms, and sometimes to cool detachment from passions and interests. In one guise it hovers near truth; in another, it approximates disinterestedness. It’s unclear how exactly these various meanings connect to one another: what does bedrock reality have to do, for example, with the suppression of emotion? It’s still more unclear whether objectivity, in whatever guise, is possible, and, if possible, whether it is also desirable. In the past decade or so, a chorus of voices - feminists, environmentalists, cultural critics, politicians - have decried objectivity as arrogant, inhumane or simply quixotic. Since these critiques usually take objectivity (or pretensions thereto) to be part and parcel of modern science, the word has also become a banner (or target) in the revived debate between humanists and scientists about who should and does wield cultural authority and why. Objectivity is not just a word of many meanings; it is also a fighting word.

Although I admire science a great deal, and believe it to be one of the most effective methods for understanding the world, I’ve seen plenty of arguments in favor of science harp on its objectivity, as though that must be the only measure of truth. The recent tempest over the possibility of a reverse Sokal hoax show science is not foolproof. Too often the proponents of science support objectivity at the expense of all other modalities of knowledge. I wonder if skepticism is a more appropriate defense of science.