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The concept of objectivity

'Objectivity' and its opposite, 'subjectivity', are elusive concepts, which are widely used in philosophy and beyond, but are rarely clearly defined.1 I suggest nevertheless that this old conceptual pair is very useful for expressing what is at stake in historiography. In brief, historiography practically always falls between objectivity and subjectivity and all works of history are combinations of 'objectifying' and 'subjectifying' elements. To put it bluntly, historiography is not categorically either subjective or objective but always lies somewhere in between these extremes. Before explaining this view further, it is worth considering what these concepts, and particularly that of 'objectivity', mean.

One can distinguish between a number of meanings of 'objectivity'. My intention is not to give an exhaustive account of the various meanings but to outline some main ways for understanding the concept. A natural starting point is in noting that 'objective' is the opposite of 'subjective'. Thus, if something is objective, then it is not subjective, and vice versa. These two are opposites. Tastes, for example, are said to be subjective, which means that they cannot be objective at the same. By contrast, measuring is thought to produce objective results. For example, the height of a building is the same for all. A more specific study reveals a number of different senses of 'objectivity'.

(1) Let us imagine a subject, such as a historian, who constructs a view of an object, such as the past or perhaps some part of the past. The resulting view is objective if it is entirely of the object and thus devoid of any subjective elements such as personal or cultural tastes, bias and other prejudice. The object is given, and an objective view reflects what is given. I call this first sense of the 'objective' ontological objectivity because the objectivity of the view is determined by an independently existing reality as given. This sense is typically applied to nature and to naturally existing entities, but can be seen derivatively to cover also artifacts. Although they were once created by humans, they can be seen to exist objectively after the initial act of creation.2 (2) The second sense of 'objectivity' is related to the first, but whereas ontological objectivity is an attribute of a view, this second meaning is about a certain attitude to one's research object. In order to be objective the researcher is required to approach the research object without any prejudice: neutrally. A famous expression of this view is the one by Ranke that the (scientific) historian must 'extinguish' oneself, that is, empty one's mind of all prejudices and interests and distance oneself from society and from societal interests. Discussion regarding the method(s) of science relates to this issue. Suppose that some individual is not, in fact, neutral, but his or her view is biased by political, religious, etc. preferences and viewpoints. It might still be possible to arrive at a neutral view if there is a method that guarantees it. To put it another way, a communist or a conservative can, according to 'methodological objectivism', in principle produce an objective view as long as one follows the right method. A good example of an attempt to guarantee objectivity in this sense is Popper's falsifica- tionism. Popper does not place any restrictions on how knowledge can be produced, but every hypothesis has to stand the test of falsification, which eventually produces an unbiased view answerable to experimental testing.3 (3) The third sense of 'objectivity' is a derivative of the second. Some have concluded that neutrality is an impossible requirement and have also lost faith in methods such as source criticism as an objectivity-generating means for historiography. The suggestion is that one should nevertheless try to be as neutral or as fair and honest in one's judgments as possible (e.g. Appleby et al. 1994). Further, it has been proposed that if one cannot 'extinguish' one's subjectivity, one can at least consciously explicate one's hidden interests and biases in order not to project them onto the research object. It is clear that this kind of aspiration to be neutral is a weak conception of objectivity and has already granted much to the critic of objectivity. There is no guarantee that even one's best effort produces anything like bias-free and fair descriptions. (4) The fourth and final sense of 'objectivity' involves justification. Its starting point is perhaps the most realistic of the four. It assumes that all views are subjective but that this is not the end of the matter. Subjective idiosyncrasies may be removed by subjecting the views to intersubjective evaluation and criticism, possibly governed by some specific standards of evaluation. A view is thus objective if it is intersubjectively justified. The concept of 'objectivity' as intersubjectivity is common nowadays (Longino 1990; Martin 1993, 38), but it also has prestigious predecessors in the philosophy of science in logical positivism (e.g. Uebel 1992, 133-134). It must be pointed out that justification is quite a different matter from the ontological objectivity of the 'given'. Even the most stringently intersubjectively justified account may fail to reflect the world as it is. At the very least, in order to pair these two concepts, one needs to include assumptions on ideal communities or on the ideal limits of agreement in the manner of C. S. Peirce.

 
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