Sunday, 16 November 2014

Objectivity and Subjectivity

There is a baffling rumour circulating, namely that objectivity and subjectivity are mutually exclusive, such the presence of one obviates the latter. This results either in the denial of objectivity or the denial of subjectivity. The problem with this rumour of course is that is grounded in profoundly superficial sophistry.

In full, the argument for denying objectivity goes like this. "Objectivity is the absence of subjectivity. Yet at all times we operate as subjects. Therefore objectivity cannot exist." Certainly true, if objectivity is the absence of subjectivity. Yet given the conclusion objectivity cannot be the absence of subjectivity for objectivity does not exist then it can't be anything. When the conclusion obviates one or more premises we are moving into sophistry territory. Likewise with the argument for denying subjectivity, which goes like this. "Objectivity is the absence of subjectivity. We can and do know objectively. Therefore subjectivity does not exist (or at the very least can be set aside)." The problem with this is that, whilst logically valid, the conclusion is demonstrably false. We operate as subjects; that is indisputable. The conclusion is clearly unsound. And a clearly unsound conclusion supported by valid argumentation again moves us into the area of sophistry.

The key here is to simply cut the Gordian knot, and this by denying that subjectivity and objectivity are antithetical to each other. In the Lonerganian tradition objectivity is the subjective state in which one is more concerned about what is true than about what one would like to be true. A person operates objectively when she or he says "Although I would love to live in a world in which unicorns exist I know that we do not live in that world." Opting against one's preferences vis-à-vis the matter of truth is the hallmark of objectivity, and since people demonstrably do this there is demonstrably objectivity in this world. That is not to say of course that when someone judges that the truth is congruent with her or his preference that she or he is not operating objectively; it is simply to state where objectivity is more clearly evident. The objective subject is one who knows how to discover truth and sets out to do so.

The question then becomes how does one achieve the subjective state that is objectivity. Lonergan's work is largely dedicated to answering that question. He sees objectivity as the result of intellectual, moral, and spiritual development within the subject. Thus it follows that objectivity is not obviated by subjectivity but rather is the fruit of a highly developed subjectivity. Objectivity is the subject operating at her or his cognitive best. Put otherwise, "Be a subject. Just be the best subject that one can be." Consequently it has become my opinion that anyone who says "But that is all subjective," implying necessarily an absence of objectivity and thus any capacity to know truth, evinces an underdeveloped subjectivity, one that has not yet reached the breakthrough of recognizing that one can be both a genuine subject and a genuine knower at the same time.

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