On Objectivity

While this post is on objectivity more generally it is specifically about Objectivity by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison.

There are three main points that I took away from the book, though there is much more there that others might be interested in. The first is that objectivity is not a univocal concept. This isn’t a particularly surprising point for those who are familiar with philosophical literature on objectivity. Lisa Lloyd, Heather Douglas, and Marianne Janack has all written articles in which they have identified a variety of senses of “objectivity”. But the way in which Daston and Galison identify the various different concepts of objectivity is different. Rather than looking at one moment, an abstract philosophical “now”, they examine what they take to be concepts of objectivity that emerge at different moments in the history of science. They do this through an examination of the use of images in science (atlases which are used in a variety of ways to inform our and the experts’ understanding of the phenomena). Their contention is that these images track different epistemic virtues, which they identify as both virtues of science and of those that do science.

This leads to the second key idea, that “objectivity” can function as a stand-in for a slew of epistemic virtues rather than the pre-eminent virtue that it sometimes taken to be. This reminds me of Alison Wylie’s idea about how to reconceive objectivity. She too takes objectivity to be a shorthand for set of epistemic virtues, while also pointing out that at any given time we may not be able to maximize all these virtues. In fact, they frequently compete with each other and a judgment is made about which are more important in the particular context. While the list of epistemic virtues that Wylie has in mind is something like simplicity, conservativeness, empirical adequacy, maybe fecundity (some variation on a list that Kuhn and others have proposed), Daston and Galison are looking at three (actually four) different sets of virtues proposed in the different periods that they examine.

The third idea follows from the historical approach that they take. It is that the concept of objectivity can change. Changing, or reconfiguring a concept of objectivity that is useful for feminist philosophy of science has been a project that a number of feminist philosophers have been involved in and so the approach that book offers lends support to that project.

There are some questions that the book raises for me however. Virtues are virtues in relation to a particular goal. It would seem that if what are taken to be virtues change there are at least two ways in which this can happen. Virtues can change because the idea of how to achieve a goal changes or they can change because the goal changes. So, for instance, at one time chastity might be considered a virtue of women. It is a virtue because women are to be mothers of the children in a patriarchy and their chastity helps to ensure that the children they bear will indeed be the children of the appropriate father. But chastity might cease to be a virtue (as perhaps it has) and there are at least two ways in which this might happen. It might be the case that patriarchy ceases to have the hold on society that it once did and so the importance of linking a child to a particular father is diminished in society. This would be a case where the goal has changed. It also can turn out that the method for obtaining the goal might not work any longer in which case the virtue also ceases to be a virtue. So, if birth control is effective, chastity is no longer necessary.

So how does this work in the case of objectivity? What goals changed or was it that methods failed to work? Daston and Galison talk about the goals for which objectivity is a virtue in terms of the fears that people had of various ways in which we might fail to attain knowledge. As they see it, the different types of objectivity are each aimed at addressing these fears and the fears change. So, they begin by describing an ideal that they call “truth to nature”. With truth to nature the goal is to capture the real natures of the things that are being depicted. The fear is that the variations that individual examples of those things might exhibit will prevent us from seeing their true natures. After a while, a new ideal of objectivity emerges. This is what they call mechanical objectivity. This idea (the only one that they consistently refer to as “objectivity”) involves avoiding interpretation and mechanically reproducing nature (think of photography). The fear here is that we insert ourselves into understanding nature and we rather need to record what is actually happening. The interpretation is seen as a distortion. Which of the two ways that a characteristic can cease to be a virtue is happening in this account? For Daston and Galison it isn’t clear whether the goal has changed or the change has to do with a change in ideas on how to achieve the goal. I think that minimally understanding objectivity requires investigating what kind a virtue we think it is and this means being clear on what goals we are trying to achieve. Daston and Galison have a very interesting way of telling the story that they choose to tell but in the end I am not sure to what extent it illuminates the kinds of questions that are currently raised about scientific objectivity, particularly those that have to do with science and values.

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One Response to On Objectivity

  1. Lifergy says:

    I am not familiar with the book to which you refer, yet it seems that the dilemna of changing objectives in respect to new knowledge and goals, can be resolved by examining the fundamentals of objective reality and distinguishing them from changing circumstances and modified considerations; i.e, the nature of truth remains the same regardless of its evolving particulars and perspectives. You must be familiar with Ayn Rand’s work, to me she was a true objectivist.

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