Objectivity Research Paper

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Objectivity in the sciences, especially the social sciences, is paired implicitly or explicitly with its opposite, subjectivity. Less obvious yet commonplace pairings with the term objectivity are partiality, relativity, and the arbitrary. This entry deals primarily with objectivity in  opposition to subjectivity. Subjectivity is associated with the  modern concept of the self. The shift to the notion of the modern self occurred concurrently with the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century.

Descartes and His Critics

René  Descartes (1596–1650),  who  is  considered  the father of modern philosophy, claimed to be able to doubt systematically the existence of anything except the fact that  he  was doubting.  Because doubt  is a  species of thought, he asserted, “cogito  ergo sum,” which usually is translated as “I think therefore I am” or “I think therefore I exist.” Even Descartes’s body did not survive his systematic doubt; only his mind—“a thinking substance”—did. He argued that upon  this rationally defended certainty rested all other claims regarding the existence of objects outside the mind.  In  that  absolute divide the mindful inside became the subjective state and anything on which the  mind  exercised its cognitive power was an object. Thus, objectivity came to refer on the one hand to the subject’s ability to consider or represent external objects without being influenced by subjective feelings, opinions, or prejudices and on the other hand to the description of those mind-independent objects. Despite Descartes’s many detractors, modern philosophy made bringing subjective thought into concordance with objects of external reality its signal challenge.

Descartes’s critics in his day and soon afterward could be divided into two camps: the idealists and the empiricists. Despite their differences, they held in common with Descartes the idea that the senses play a part in objectivity. The idealists described sensation variously as a species of thought but one that is unclear and indistinct, inferior, and unreliable or merely as confused thinking.  Among those  critics were Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677)  and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716).

Conversely, British empiricists reinstated the sensory perception of objects in experience as the source of all reliable  knowledge and  the  basis of  objectivity. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)  described thought  as merely the faint remains left behind by sense impressions, and John Locke (1632–1704) argued that all ideas about the external world arise from sensation and reflection; if not for the sensory input made available by the senses in experience, the  mind  would be a blank tablet.  For  David Hume (1711–1776) thought was nothing but the faint copies of “impressions” left behind by the senses. In Hume’s understanding, claims to objectivity are based not on reason but on habits of expectation that are developed from accumulated sense experiences.

Critical Philosophy

The response to the early British empiricists can be seen as twofold: critical philosophy on one hand and the philosophy of science on the other hand. The origin of critical philosophy most commonly is identified with Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant did not see objectivity-subjectivity as a proportionately inverse relation. They were distinct, and so one could not be considered an inferior form of the other or vice versa even though only together could they make objectivity possible.

Kant’s concept of the object, however, was very subtle, and he used three different terms for it: Ding, Gegenstand, and Objekte. Ding referred to the metaphysical thing-hood, as in ding an sich, the unknowable thing in itself, making the question of objectivity moot.  For even minimal experience to be possible, the contents of experience (“sensory data”) must be ordered and limited in certain ways. These ways are not determined by what is given to the senses but by the synthetic activity of the faculty  of  intuition  that  possesses certain  principles  of form—space and  time—that  constitute  the  synthetic unity of sensory apperception. For what is given is, as Hume held, nothing but a flux of sensations and images. The synthesis of this manifold of sensory data is an a priori and necessary feature of experience and not empirical. This object of appearance that is experienced in this synthesis is the Gegenstand. The Gegenstand, this experience of appearance as object, is only a re-presentation. It is transformed into  an object of recognition, thought,  or knowledge by virtue of it being subsumed by the universal categories of understanding, and thereby it becomes an objekt. Kant described the objekt as “that in the concept— of the understanding—of which the manifold of a given intuition is united.” (Kant [1787] 1965, p. B137). It is this objekt of knowledge about which the subject of the experience can make judgments that are true or false. By objectivity, then, Kant meant the object of a true judgment. However, this is not the judgment of an individual subject but that of a transcendental subject.

In  the  triumvirate of the  great sociologists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Max Weber (1864–1920) is the most (neo-) Kantian of the three.

Philosophy of Science

Whereas critical philosophy was a  reaction  to  British empiricism, the philosophy of science was its progeny. Among the many strands in the history of the philosophy of science, positivism has been the  most  conspicuous. Auguste Comte (1798–1857), who invented the term positivism, was an admirer of Hume  and with Hume  held that  there is no  objectivity beyond human  objectivity. However, unlike Hume, he did not begin with an empiricist account of the contents of the mind but instead with a history of human development. According to that history, inquiry begins with theology, which is transformed into metaphysics, which is replaced by positive science.

For Comte objective science and observational science were near synonyms. Science, he held, should restrict itself to the observation of appearances and stop looking for or speculating about hidden “causes.” He believed that hypotheses must be based only on phenomena that can be grasped by the cognitive and sensory faculties and be open to positive verification; this alone could guarantee objectivity. Comte  saw the social world as unified with the physical and subject to laws that were identifiable by natural observation, hence sociology, the science of society. Émile Durkheim (1857–1917), the French sociologist and precursor of structuralism, considered his sociology to be in  the  positivist tradition  and  antipathetic  to  Kantian metaphysics, which nevertheless saturated his most important work, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

In the twentieth century the prioritization of the sensory was channeled into logical positivism with its focus on language and logic. In logical positivism the objective world is considered a world not of things but of facts. Objectivity describes the  capacity to  express verifiable facts—the truth or falsity of which can be determined— in meaningful sentences. A meaningful sentence is seen as one that in some way can be related to a foundational sense experience or analytically true statements. Bertrand Russell (1872–1970)  thought  that  he could derive the world  from  experience by  means  of  symbolic logic. Rudolph Carnap (1891–1970) was determined to prove the  world’s  verifiability, even though  Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1889–1951) Tractatus clearly signaled the ultimate failure of that attempt.  However, logical positivism persisted until  it ran its course almost a decade before Carnap’s death in 1970.

Georg W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) led Kantian insights even further from empiricism. For Hegel, objectivity was a matter of degree and an integral part of knowledge in which the subject is confronted with two types of objects: the external thing it desires to know and its own consciousness. In the Phenomenology of Spirit ([1807] 1977) Hegel’s  aim is to show that all claims to knowledge are best understood as historically and socioculturally situated. Empiricists hold that not only is objective knowledge—that is, knowledge that  is independent  of social practices—possible but that it is the only form of knowledge worthy of its name. The candidates that are proposed as being able to secure such knowledge, independent of any  historically specific social practice, are “sense-certainty,” “perception,” and the “force of understanding,” in that order. Hegel demonstrates that all three fail to provide, on their own terms, the kind of knowledge that their proponents’ claim for them. In fact, under the “force of understanding” the reader is forced to acknowledge that it is our recognition of a thing that makes it real. But who is this subject that does the recognizing? While it is true that both Hegel and Kant presuppose a unified self or subject that is capable of knowing, for Kant such a self is a given, whereas for Hegel it is we who presuppose or construct this self. But how do we construct a self without recognizing it? This is where the “other” becomes necessary, for it is only the other who can recognize and construct one, and thereby makes one real. Moreover, the other must not take me to be a mere object of his or her self-consciousness but as a self-conscious knowing subject in my own right.  It  is at  this point  that  Hegel uses his, by now famous, master-slave parable to begin the dialectical argument of why the objects of our knowledge are inter-subjectively and  socioculturally constructed  and  known. Thus a reflective socialized and historicized self-consciousness works its way dialectically through reason and spirit, toward  absolute knowledge in  an  ever-expanding and increasingly shared point of view that leads toward a universal point  of view, which would at least theoretically serve as the standpoint from which pure objectivity, both moral and epistemological, would be possible.

Hegel was the first philosopher to historicize objectivity and chart its growth in the dialectic of history. Unlike Kant, he did not base objectivity on the abstract analysis of its conditions but on the human sociohistorical subject. Even so, Karl Marx (1818–1883) accused him of positing a method of coming to know, which lost its way in the clouds of ideas and ideologies. If human history is to be seen in its reality, Marx claimed, it is necessary to look at human labor and relations of production and domination. This is the road to objectivity in history. Paradoxically, Marx may be considered to be the closest to Hegel among the great sociologists, even if the object and the objective are viewed materially rather than ideally by Marx.

Objectivity in Twentiethcentury Philosophy

The  influence of Kant’s and Hegel’s understandings of objectivity are vast and  varied, sometimes reemerging under different labels. In the pragmatism of the American philosopher  Charles  Peirce (1839–1914),  Kantianism, Hegelianism, and  British empiricism are modified and compounded. Here experiences are more than what the senses report; they include anything that is forced upon one’s acknowledgment, real or ideal, including sensory and cognitive surprises. Experiences are only perceptual judgments and therefore can be true or false but never infallible; they are authoritative only because people are compelled to accept them, if not in the short run, then in the long run.

For Peirce, the so-called outer and inner worlds are only vicinities with  no  boundaries. Therefore, neither metaphysical theses nor so-called analytic statements are immune from empirical evidence; their truth, and hence their  objectivity, depends on  their  ordinary observable consequences, not on their experiential origins. A correspondence theorist of truth would hold that a proposition or belief is true only if it corresponds to a mind-independent reality and as a corollary would insist that a hypothesis can be true even when its truth has no consequences for belief. A pragmatist would hold that such a view, insofar as it  has no  consequences, is spurious. Objectivity must be connected with the hypothesis that will survive the test of inquiry, experiment, experience, and life. As for truth, it is nothing more than the best inquiry can do.

Inquiry must begin against a background of beliefs held with or derived from a community, and therefore its objectivity can be fixed only by a community of inquirers committed to its truth, a truth that is capable of having consequences. In Peirce’s theory of the Sign, the object is one of three correlates that constitute the Sign, the other two being the representamen and the interpretant. Objectivity is a significant act of which the interpretant (of which the interpreter is a subset) is an indispensable component.

The view of knowledge as human understanding that was initiated  by Hegel’s  dialectic of self-consciousness admitted “interpretation” into the human  sciences in a major way. If in Edmond  Husserl’s (1859–1938)  early Cartesian  writings  there  appeared  aspects of  sensory objects that an empiricist or positivist could have recognized as such, by the time he wrote his last work, The Crisis of  European Sciences and  Transcendental Phenomenology, consciousness  had become his prime, if not  sole, object of inquiry.  In  his phenomenology of human experience in the world Husserl saw no way of getting around the fact that consciousness is always someone’s consciousness, and so he proposed that the process of investigating human  capacities and  faculties had  to begin with  the  rigorous self-examination of one’s  self. Husserl called this the standpoint of transcendental solipsism. This methodological solipsism, however, leads one to the recognition of intersubjective communal grounding of the knowing activity as well as the ethical dimension of that intersubjectivity, how the “I” stands in the “we.” He came to see objectivity  as the achievement of intersubjective confirmation and acceptance in the “life-world,” a pre-theoretically experienced world.  The  influence  of Husserl’s phenomenology in sociology can be seen mainly in the writings of Alfred Schutz (1899–1959), who combined that phenomenology with the interpretive sociology of Max Weber.

Among the philosophers considered thus far, objectivity was seen as possible because objects are re-cognizable. Heidegger, Dilthey, and later Gadamer became interested in  understanding  the  unique  and  unrepeatable—and hence unre-cognizable—in history and culture. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) held fast to the possibility of scientific objectivity with the proviso that the method for achieving objectivity in the human sciences was different  from that  employed in  the  natural  sciences. Both Weber and Dilthey had a strong influence on the interpretive anthropology of Clifford Geertz (1926–2006). Heidegger and Gadamer rejected the very notion of objectivity  and  the  subject-object model  as  a  vestige of Cartesianism. Hans-Georg  Gadamer  (1900–2002)  saw understanding as an aesthetic experience of history and as being quite different from but no less valid than that of the natural sciences. Indeed, the natural sciences were no less value-free in his opinion and no less free of the art of interpretation.

Nietzsche and Foucault

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) spoke about objectivity in a manner that was consonant with all the historicalhermeneutic  sciences. He  believed that  to  understand objectivity as a “contemplation without interest” was nonsensical and absurd. “[L]et us be on guard,” he cautioned:

against the dangerous old fiction that posited a “pure, will-less,  painless, timeless knowing subject”; let us be on guard against the snares of such contradictory  concepts as “pure reason,” “absolute spirit,” “knowledge in itself.” … There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about a thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can lend to the thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be. But to eliminate the will altogether, to suspend each and every affect, supposing we were capable of this, what would that  mean but  to  castrate the  intellect. ([1887] 1967, p. 119)

In this view, if Hegel’s hope for an absolute knowing that could synthesize a range of perspectives must come to naught, the rejection of objectivity by Heidegger and others who employ the hermeneutic method is premature:

“Objectivity” [ought  to  be understood] as the ability to have one’s For and Against under control and to disengage them, so that one knows how to employ a  variety of  perspectives and  affective interpretations in  the  service of  knowledge. ([1887] 1967, p. 119)

Nietzsche’s  subject is embodied  and  governed by desire and passion more than by thought, but it is still Cartesian in  that  it  is the  arbiter of being and  value. Nietzsche’s  influence has been especially strong in  the writings of Michel Foucault (1926–1984).


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  3. Durkheim, Émile. [1895] The Rules of the Sociological Method. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  4. Foucault, M 1984. What Is Enlightenment. In The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, 32–50. New York: Pantheon.
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  6. Gertz, Cliffor 1973. The Interpretation of Culture. New York: Harper Collins.
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  12. Locke, J [1689] 1996. Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
  13. Marx, The German Ideology. [1845] 1998. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  14. Nietzsche, F [1887] 1967. On the Genealogy of Morals. New York: Random House.
  15. Peirce, Charles 1992–1998. The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, ed. Carl Houseman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  16. Schutz, Alfr (1970).On Phenomenology and Social Relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  17. Weber, M ([1922] 1949) The Methodology of Social Sciences. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  18. Winch, Peter. The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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