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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 notion of objective reality and the question of our subjective relationship to other objects in the world.

In science, objectivity is usually considered as the result of the observance of the scientific method by the scientific community, including debate and agreement on certain paradigms. In history, objectivity is often thought 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 known evidence (relevant facts pertaining to that issue). If relevant 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, (scientific) 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 criticize as an oxymoron). However, various philosophies of science disagree with this Platonic epistemology, claiming its constitutive dualism is too simplistic, 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 refer 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 scientific knowledge. Michel de Certeau would also argue 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 scientific knowledge [1].

In another, weaker sense, "subjective knowledge" refers to introspective knowledge. Objective knowledge then 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. Note that the term "subjective knowledge" as used in marketing and consumer behavior refers to a person's evaluation of the quality of his own knowledge.


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.


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

See also: Objectivity (journalism)Journalism ethics and standards, and Historical method


In political decision-making, ignoring relevant evidence or alternative interpretations could lead to policies which, although well-intentioned, have the opposite effect of what was intended. In this context, it is often argued that albeit democracy might hamper swift, decisive action, it is nevertheless the best guarantee that all relevant facts and interpretations are included in the 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 phenomena. Thus, Kant believed that reality ("noumenon") could not be objectively 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

  • Bachelard, Gaston, La formation de l'esprit scientifique : contribution à une psychanalyse de la connaissance, Paris: Vrin, 2004 ISBN 2711611507.
  • Popper, Karl. R. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, Oxford University Press, 1972, trade paperback, 395 pages, ISBN 0198750242, hardcover is out of print. See libraries.
  • David Castillejo, The Formation of Modern Objectivity, Madrid: Ediciones de Arte y Bibliofilia, 1982.
  • Thomas S. Kuhn, The structure of scientific revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, 3º ed. ISBN 0226458083
  • Allan Megill, Rethinkink Objectivity, London: Duke UP, 1994.
  • Ernest Nagel, The Structure of Science, New York: Brace and World, 1961.
  • Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986
  • Robert Nozick, Invariances: the structure of the objective world, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001.
  • Nicholas Rescher, Objectivity: the obligations of impersonal reason, Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1977.
  • Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991
  • Bernard Rousset, La théorie kantienne de l'objectivité, Paris: Vrin, 1967.
  • Israel Schaeffler, Science and Subjectivity, Hackett, 1982.

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