'Objectivity' is a word at once indispensable and elusive. It can be metaphysical, methodological and moral by turns, occasionally in the same paragraph. Sometimes it refers to the ultimate reality as seen from a God's-eye point of view, sometimes to methods that replace judgments with algorithms, and sometimes to cool detachment from passions and interests. In one guise it hovers near truth; in another, it approximates disinterestedness. It's unclear how exactly these various meanings connect to one another: what does bedrock reality have to do, for example, with the suppression of emotion? It's still more unclear whether objectivity, in whatever guise, is possible, and, if possible, whether it is also desirable. In the past decade or so, a chorus of voices - feminists, environmentalists, cultural critics, politicians - have decried objectivity as arrogant, inhumane or simply quixotic. Since these critiques usually take objectivity (or pretensions thereto) to be part and parcel of modern science, the word has also become a banner (or target) in the revived debate between humanists and scientists about who should and does wield cultural authority and why. Objectivity is not just a word of many meanings; it is also a fighting word.
LRB 31 October 2002 | PDF Download