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Objectivity (philosophy)

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Objectivity has various meanings in philosophy, and is surely one of the most important philosophical problems, since it concerns the epistemological status of knowledge, the problem of an objective reality and the question of our subjective relationship to others objects in the world.

Objectivity may be considered as a synonym of neutral point of view, as in journalism; in this case, it is more an ideal of writing, since certain subjective bias, such as ethnocentrism, can't, by definition, be completely put aside, as did ethnologists and sociologists observe. In science, objectivity is usually considered as the result of the observance of the scientific method by the scientific community, including a contradictory debate and agreements on certain paradigms, while in history, objectivity is to be achieved through the use of the historical method, defined in the late 19th century and by peer review. Taking an objective approach to an issue thus means having due regard for the known valid evidence (relevant facts and viewpoints) pertaining to that issue. If relevant valid evidence is denied or falsified, an objective approach is impossible. An objective approach is particularly important in science, and in decision-making processes which affect large numbers of people (e.g. politics).

Platonic epistemology

On one hand, objectivity may define the status of knowledge, as opposed to "subjective knowledge". In this common usage, (scientifical) knowledge is considered to be objective, while personal opinions are said to be subjective. The paradigm of this definition of objectivity can be found in the Platonic epistemology, which takes as model mathematics. Plato was famous for considering knowledge of geometry as a condition of philosophical apprenticeship, both being concerned by universal truths. Thus, Plato's opposition between objective knowledge and doxa (Greek word for "opinions") would become the basis for later philosophies intent on grappling the problem of reality, knowledge and human existence. Episteme is the Greek word for knowledge, and may explain why, according to Plato, there can be only scientific or philosophical knowledge, but no "subjective knowledge". Personal opinions are simply, in Plato's mind, irrelevant, since they belong to the changing sphere of the sensible, opposed to the fixed and eternal sphere of intelligibility. Henceforth, Plato's conception is often the core of the modern ideology of science, which considers only scientific knowledge to be legitimate and disqualify common, layman knowledge as ideological (or as "subjective knowledge", an expression Plato would doubtlessly criticizes as an oxymoron). However, various philosophies of science disagree with this Platonic epistemology, claiming its constitutive dualism is too simplest, or insisting in other ways of achieving objectivity, for example by intersubjectivity (i.e. by the way of a consensus reached by the scientific community through dialogue; cf. for example Jürgen Habermas).

Subjective knowledge

The expression "subjective knowledge" may refers to false claims of knowledge, as in Plato's critique of the doxa. However, critics have argued against the political implications of such an epistemology, claiming it legitimates technocracy if not scientism or positivism. Indeed, several authors have pointed out that such a conception, deeply embedded in Occidental ethnocentrism, is not only anti-democratic, but also intellectually insufficient. Famous ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, demonstrated in The Savage Mind (1962) that "primitive" knowledge was just as valid and objective as scientifical knowledge. Michel de Certeau would also argues in favour of a type of arts and crafts empirical knowledge; a position shared by Harold Garfinkel's "ethnomethodology", which focuses on the ways in which people already understand the world and how they use that understanding. The Greek metis (which can be roughly translated as "ruse") has also been defended by some authors as a practical form of intelligence and knowledge, opposed to scientifical knowledge [1].

In another, weaker sense, "subjective knowledge" refers to introspective knowledge. Objective knowledge than is knowledge of objects, including others subjects, while subjective knowledge would be knowledge of oneself. This meaning of objectivity refers to the supposed division of the world into subjects and objects, and poses the problem of consciousness.

Propositions and propositional acts

Main article: Proposition

In analytic philosophy, objectivity is generally considered as the compatibility of propositions distinct and independent of propositional attitudes or acts. A proposition is an objective constituent the meaning of which is the same as the object being named by it, and is either true or false.

If truth is considered to be universal (valid in all times and places) and not simply relative as in relativism, it requires that the content of several judgments, or propositional acts, be identical. This assures that:

  1. What is judged in different acts and attitudes is identical. If there is no objective constituent common to and independent of different judgments, communication and science would not be possible.
  2. A person or persons may think the same thought at different times and with different attitudes. Consistent belief systems and identity over time requires that there be propositions independent of propositional acts.
  3. Independent propositions are required in order to account for the incompatibility between different propositional acts. If I state that "Plato was a Greek" and you state that "Plato was not a Greek", the objective constituent must be a content independent of our propositional acts.

The objective and universal nature of truth requires that there be temporally neutral propositions independent of propositional acts. Whether or not there are propositions is one of the most disputed questions of philosophy. The position that there are propositions which are timeless truths independent of our propositional acts, and which are not the products of or dependent upon our propositional acts, must be distinguished from conceptualism or relativism.


The ontological status of propositions independent of propositional acts is a compound inquiry which can be stated as "If they do exist, do they exist independently of the mind as do the objects of various objectivisms, or do they come into being when an object becomes the intended object of a mental act?" The answer to this question is not, however, essential to the fundamental criticism of independent propositions as the objective constituents of our propositional acts, i.e. the truth. Whether independent propositions exist as do the objects of objectivism, or as the timeless truths concerning an object once it has become the intended object of a mental act, their reason for being would appear to be essential only to the process of discovery. The fundamental criticism then becomes one that is similar to the criticisms levied against, for example, historical objectivity. "What is the basis for our selection of inquiries and methodologies, and is the selection tainted by considerations that can be considered as value-impregnated?" For example, if the intended objects of mental acts is a selective process guided by simply what is useful, then objectivity is based upon pragmatics, or perhaps some form of relativism, and should be considered as depicting propositional attitudes where the existence of propositions is dependent upon those attitudes.

The conclusion that one has found the "objective" answer to a problem (or the objective description of an ontological state) usually precludes the individual from exploring alternatives. This leads to problems because the premise may be incorrect or only partially correct.

Furthermore, taking an "objective approach" may not always be relevant, particularly in cases where it is impossible to be objective either because the relevant facts and viewpoints necessary are lacking, or because it is the subjective opinion or response that happens to be important. Thus it is possible to take an "objective approach" inappropriately in situations which call for an expression of subjective thought or feeling.

The conclusion that one has found the "objective" answer to a problem (or the objective description of an ontological state) usually precludes the individual from exploring alternatives. This leads to problems because the premise may be incorrect or only partially correct.


Objectivity is then the act of, or propensity for being objective, and is not the objective itself. The possibility of a complete objectivity has been often debated, in particular in the fields of history, journalism and epistemology (see also philosophy of science). It has been considered as the result of a specific historical method or scientific method, or even, as in the classic marxist conception, as the result of social interactions. In this sense, the discourse's objectivity is the result of social interactions, and the scientific discourse can't be disassociated from the social context.

Jürgen Habermas, to the contrary, believed in a dialogue which could be isolated from power relations, and finally reach a consensus, considered as the condition of possibility of the discourse itself. He thus thought that objectivity was achieved through a continuous dialogue, which would only lead toward further improvement and accuracy. According to this conception, objectivity requires communication and good faith. Even if one does not accept the existence of independent propositions or timeless truths, this does not exclude the possibility of viable communication or knowledge.

This optimistic view of necessary progress through conversation was criticized by philosophers such as Michel Foucault or Gilles Deleuze, whom solidified an alleged definition of philosophy as "marketing" or as simple "democratic conversation", where everyone would expose his personal point of view.


Objectivism tends to state, as in Platonic idealism, that there is a reality or realm of objects existing independent of the mind. Metaphysical objectivism, opposed to subjectivism (for example, Berkeley's empiricism), thus believes in the existence of an objective reality. Objectivism then is inclusive of objects which we may not know about and are not the intended objects of mental acts. Objectivity requires truth, and the objects themselves are not true or false. Only propositions, or the objective constituents of our propositional acts, are true or false.

The importance of perception in evaluating and understanding objective reality is debated. Realism sides that perception is key in directly observing objective reality, while instrumentalism holds that perception is not necessarily useful in directly observing objective reality, but is useful in interpreting and predicting reality. The concept that encompasses these ideas is important to philosophical foundation of science.

The relationship of probability and objectivism

The significance of probability to objectivism is recognized when attempting to understand situations with unknown underlying truths. For example, it can be supposed that a coin is flipped without looking at it, and then covered with a piece of paper. Objectivism assumes that there is an underlying truth about the state of the coin, regardless of the fact that it cannot be seen by an observer. Probability becomes useful in understanding and realizing possible situations of this unknown part of objective reality.

Objectivity in journalism and history

Objectivity has always been a main issue in journalism, especially opposed to yellow journalism or media bias. Journalistic professionalism, in particular in the U.S. tradition, has therefore accorded high importance to a neutral point of view stance, devoid of any bias or explicit positioning for or against a particular group or interest (advocacy journalism is more common in Europe). Journalists are thus expected to record all facts without adding subjective interpretations to them. Henceforth, objectivity is here identified to accuracy, truthfullness, impartiality, fairness and public accountability.

However, the distinction between plain facts and interpretations, and therefore the possibility of achieving a pure objectivity and impartial perspective, has often been disputed. Nietzsche, for example, claimed that no pure fact without interpretation could exist, while Michel Foucault's analysis of the historical and political discourse has opposed this purposefully subjective discourse to the supposedly objective classical juridical and philosophical discourse of sovereignty. While positivism thinks that plain facts could be reported as such, most modern philosophers considers today that an interpretation giving it a meaning is always necessary (Kant used to say that a sensible intuition without a concept is blind, while a concept without a sensible intuition is empty; thus, "facts" as received as sensible intuitions are always shaped by an abstract concept). Henceforth, biases such as ethnocentrism or class biases are always included in historical and political interpretations.

Obviously, the same comment about the impossibility to clearly distinguish facts from interpretations is also valid for the historical method. However, due to the different nature of journalism, which may be characterized as "immediate history", and historical studies, which are more scholarly and involves tight analysis of documents, the type of objectivity welcome in both disciplines differs. Furthermore, journalism often involves the transcription or rewriting of politicians or layman comments on various events, while historians dedicate themselves to describing the chain of causality which led to a particular event. The journalistic transcription of people's comments must respect the spirit, if not the letter of them, otherwise being a clear case of fraud (truthfullness and fairness).

Beside these journalistic ideals, objectivity in journalism is obtained, as in historical studies, by the respect of a specific kind of method, in particular cross-checking sources as to never have to trust only one authority and finding primary sources and secondary sources.

However, this journalistic ideal of objectivity has often been criticized as impossible to achieve - a pseudo-argument since, as an ideal, it never claimed to be perfectly realized - and, more importantly, as ideologically dissimulating very precise bias, for example class, ethnic or sexist bias. Advocacy journalism (and also Civic journalism or alternative media) take an explicit and clearly defined point of view, arguing that honestly describing one's opinions allows for better objectivity at the end. Alternative media in particular argues that the supposedly objectivity standards of mainstream press serve corporate bias, as if they are usually not subjected to political censorship, their freedom is limited by economical censorship and media concentration.

Whatever one's personal opinions on the matter, it must be underlined that both types of journalism pretend to be the most truthful, the first one by claiming to suspend any bias as in the philosophical epoche ("suspension of judgement"), while the later claims to be the most honest by first declaring where one stands.


In decisions affecting large numbers of people (such as in politics) ignoring relevant evidence or alternative interpretations could lead to policies which, although perhaps well-intentioned, have the opposite effect of what was really intended. In this context, it is often argued that although democracy might hamper swift, decisive action, it is nevertheless the best guarantee that all relevant facts and interpretations are included in the decision-making process, resulting in policies with greater long-term benefit.

Taking an objective approach often contrasts with arguments from authority, where it is argued that X is true because an authority Y says so. The presumption is that Y is an authority capable of taking the most objective approach. But it may be necessary to evaluate the view of Y against other authorities likewise claiming to take an objective approach. This is an important aspect of academic scholarly method in the modern sense.

Some Marxist authors, such as Georg Lukacs, have argued that true objectivity is in fact achieved only by dialectical materialism, which would be the only "science" to have a perspective on the "totality" of the historical process. Beyond the polemical intent in criticizing "bourgeois science", Lukacs' famous book, "History and Class Consciousness" (1923) was a powerful critique of Kant's critique and of his "bourgeois conception of science", which induced an unbridgeable gap between the subject and the object of knowledge, and thus condemned reason to the knowledge of simple phenomenons. Thus, Kant believed that reality ("noumenon") could not be objectivally known. Lukacs criticized this idealist conception which set aside the social and historical process, which, according to his project of an "ontology of the social being", is in fact the ultimate reality.


  1. ^  Vernant, Jean-Pierre and Detienne, Marcel, Les ruses de l’intelligence - La mètis des Grecs, Paris, Flammarion, 1974.

See also

External links

Further reading


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