Column on Objectivity

Disputing Wittgenstein on Objectivity
Tibor R. Machan
Ludwig Wittgenstein is reported to have said, by O. K. Bouwsma, that "No
one can write objectively about himself and this is because there will
always be some motive for doing so. And the motives will change as you
write. And this becomes complicated, for the more one is intent on being
‘objective’ the more one will notice the varying motives that enter in."
(Wittgenstein, Conversations 1949-51, Hackett, 1986)
I believe the following would support a refutation of Wittgenstein’s
skeptical thesis. Wittgenstein conflates ‘objective’ with ‘neutral’ or
Objectivity is something different. It means being honest, sticking to
facts and reasonable inferences and theories, and distinguishing,
rationally rather then with prejudice or bias, what is more from what is
less important. It does not mean, as Wittgenstein implies, lacking motives
or not caring. (Wittgenstein seems here to follow the famous German
philosopher, Immanuel Kant who held that if one has motives or
inclinations for doing what one does, then one is failing to be rational,
impartial. But that is an esoteric, idiosyncratic conception of
rationality. One can have sound motives for actions, or unsound ones.)
So, then, are there pitfalls in writing a memoir or about oneself and
one’s beliefs? Why shouldn’t there be when there are pitfalls in every
kind of human activity? But pitfalls do not render the project impossible.
Just as Wittgenstein himself seems to suggest in his posthumously
published book, On Certainty, we need not doubt if there are no reasons
for doubting and unless one has good grounds for suspecting oneself of
bias or prejudice, there need be no deep concern about one’s capacity to
be objective in a memoir or autobiography.
Just consider in this regard that a medical doctor must be thoroughly
objective as he or she approaches the patient’s malady and devises an
appropriate cure; such a doctor is not impartial, not indifferent, not
disinterested at all. Indeed, to satisfy his or her interests what is most
needed is strict objectivity; otherwise the doctor will not be of help.
(Same, by the way, with engineers or farmers.)
Now a lot of folks believe that philosophical ideas are kind of abstract,
out of this world and not really relevant but in this case, as indeed in
many others, philosophy matters. The idea Wittgenstein and Kant have
propounded has been very influential. It is partly responsible for an
insidious public perception, namely, that when it comes to anything in
which one has some interest, anything that concerns one even just a
little, never mind deeply, one’s views will be subjective, strictly
personal, not based on facts but on how one feels about things. This is
where the popular notion comes from that people’s reports on historical
facts or events in the news must all be “from their point of view.”
After this is accepted, the only issue that remains is what accounts for
one’s point of view. Is it one’s parentage, nationality, race, gender,
age, or some such aspect of oneself. That this is the kind of stuff that
many believe makes people think the way they do is evident from how they
quite often explain away what someone is thinking by saying things like,
“Well, you know she is a woman,” or “He comes from Europe,” or “It is he
cultural background, of course, why she says what she does.” So when it
comes to very important issues, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict,
everyone is supposed to be biased, no one can be objective.
But notice immediately that this also undermines these accounts–whoever
gives it as an explanation of someone else’s position on some topic will
also lack objectivity if he or she has any interest in the matter! And
then can it be relied upon, trusted?
I am actually something of a fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein but in this
instance I believe he was quite wrong.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s