Monday, December 10, 2007

Galison on science and objectivity

Virginia Postrel, of Dynamist Blog and former editor of Reason, comments on an interesting new book, Objectivity, by Harvard philosopher of science Peter Galison and co-author Lorraine Daston of Berlin's Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. The book explains the different connotations of objectivity by examining its history in science and philosophy.

Our modern notion of objectivity presupposes the modern division of subject and object, which itself is the latest transformation of the older body-soul dualism. Post-medieval science has seen three different meanings to the term "objectivity":
  • "Truth-to-nature" (representing an underlying type or species of, say, a plant)
  • "Mechanical objectivity" (all-seeing, all-knowing)
  • "Trained judgment" (finding patterns and "family resemblances" in samples)
The oldest form, from the time of Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth century and the century following, mainly encompassed the first type, with a little of the third. Our concept of objectivity today is distorted by the intervening mid- to late-nineteenth century form, which was mainly the second. Being "mechanical" meant "no wandering attention," "no falling asleep," "ever-attentive," etc., the machine equivalent of a god. The trouble is that this conception of objectivity is not human. It sets up a false ideal, the starting point for something called "scientism," which inverts the relationship between rational-thought-in-general and scientific method. The best-known type of scientism is positivism - the "just-the-facts" school of philosophy. This mistake is one of the causes of our present division of the Two Cultures and the collapse of the humanities since the 1960s. It gave rise to the Romantic reaction against the Enlightenment, in turn the basis of the reactionary and utopian movements of modern times.

The hopeless naiveté of this approach was known before the rise of the false nineteenth century ideal. The trouble started with Descartes' mind-machine dualism, his universal skepticism, and Kant's attempted solution. Kant postulated "real objectivity" as the "thing-in-itself" free of space, time, mind, and the conditioning of the senses - by definition unattainable and meaningless. A generation later, Hegel had a better solution, because he grasped the key condition implicit in the Enlightenment ideal of "disinterestedness": objectivity is a relationship between subject and object and not about one or the other separately.* Unfortunately, both Hegel and Kant were poor stylistic examples and often very hard to understand. A major opportunity was missed to catch the division of art, philosophy, and science before it became what it is now, apparently irreparable.

In the last century, a more social conception on objectivity, "trained judgment," has replaced the nineteenth century's ascetic and sacrificial conception. While it's fine as far as it goes, it doesn't go far enough. Taking it seriously leads back to number one. Students today typically never get to it, except by accident. But it's wrong to view objectivity as a given finished product. The point made by Hegel and the early Pragmatist philosophers (like Charles Peirce) is that objectivity is the endpoint of a process, even a struggle. Considered in its fuller sense, objectivity is a process. And it's not about you or it; it's about you and it.

POSTSCRIPT: And Virginia Postrel is back! She is struggling with breast cancer - head over to her Web site and wish her well!

And consider her comments on journalistic objectivity: think of a better formulation of "objectivity" than the "mechanical C-SPAN camera" metaphor.
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* This process is Hegel's famous "dialectic," but not the cookie cutter presented to generations of students or its misappropriation and misuse later promoted by Marxism.

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