Philosophical Objectivity

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Objectivity in Philosophy

Objectivity, as a method of philosophy, is dependent upon the presupposition distinguishing references in the field of epistemology regarding the ontological status of a possible objective reality, and the state of being objective in regard to references towards whatever is considered as objective reality. In other words, what is real and how do we know what we infer about the real is true. Inherent to the distinction is a paradoxical notion that despite the various meanings or definitions assigned to the concept by various disciplines, schools of thought, or individual philosophers, ultimately there is a body of knowledge referred to which is considered representative of a single reality.

Questions about objectivity are central to the different branches of philosophy. Philosophers debate what might be a definition of objectivity, and how, if at all we can ascertain truth (epistemology); or, contest that the concept of objectivity can be defined at all. Proposed answers may vary by subject matter. Empirical evidence based upon observations and experimentation in the physical world is conducive to the verification of scientific judgments, and adherence to the rules of deduction and the process of inductive reasoning implements the determination of the validity and soundness of scientific arguments and conclusions.

In logic, philosophers distinguish between the logical and real content of its arguments. While logical content determines the validity of its arguments, it must rely upon a scientific method in order to justify the soundness, or real content, of its arguments and conclusions. To a lesser degree, the same distinction between real and logical content can be made in regard to mathematical propositions. While mathematical proofs and theorems may lend a great degree of accuracy and precision to their practical application in the physical world, it must be noted that this practical application can be less than perfect. The obvious example of this distinction is the concept of a logical point in Euclidean geometry, which by definition is non-extended (it has no dimensions), but its practical application as a real content may in ostensive definition give it dimension, i.e. its physical manifestation is not possible except as a line, or distance between two logical points. The same can be said of the equilateral triangle which as a logical entity is a two-dimensional ideal where physical manifestation is practical and applicable, but as a real existent is less than perfect; yet its application nonetheless lends to objectivity. Euclidean geometry has its worldly objective application, but simultaneously on a larger scale of a universe admitting of curved space its objectivity may be less decisive.

Scientific and mathematical conclusions tend to have a determinable capacity for objectivity, unlike moral judgments and aesthetic judgments. Ethical judgments are dependent upon a wide spectrum of variables, relative to beliefs, cultural norm, personal feeling, situation, etc., all of which may be at an individual level be justified descriptively, but prescriptively may not be justified as a universal action are tenuous in that, while valid deductive arguments can be given in support of a course of action, the great degree of variables involved prohibit any formulation of a conclusive body of moral precepts which are true under all circumstances and justify the soundness of the general imperative. In ethics, objectivity is for the most part a function of such concerns as religiosity and legality. The subjective connotations of Aesthetical judgment is due to its general association with personal feelings of appreciation and satisfaction, as well as those variables which may influence ethical judgment. While subjectivity may influence ethical and aesthetic judgments to a greater degree than scientific or propositional judgments, that is not to say that these judgments are made absent of any function of objectivity.

Objectivity and subjectivity

The meaning of the term "objectivity", like the term "subjectivity", is by no means unambiguous, and rather than attempting precision in definition it is more practical to simply illustrate what it involves, and perhaps by elimination, what it is not. The ontological status of a possible objective reality and references towards the objective should not be confused with, or reduced to, the dichotomous relations between object and subject, or subjectivity and objectivity, without considerable qualifications. Essential to this notion is the reconciliation of the objective and references to the objective, where the state of being objective is to correctly represent reality. However, the term "reality" itself can lack clarity and is not without ambiguity. One only needs to consider the relation of an individual subject to the objective world in isolation to see that the relation is constituted by too many unknowns to give any meaning or content to the concept of objectivity, or that the state of being objective has no meaning where in an isolated relationship the subject and object may be indistinguishable except to an external observer. Thus, reconciliation of the objective with references to it involves not simply the object-subject relation, but at least one external observer and the possibility of discourse, even where communication is limited to ostensive definition (pointing).

The concept of objectivity in philosophy does not necessarily entail notions about a neutral point of view, as the term is defined and prescribed, for example, in such disciplines as journalism. A neutral point of view is not to personally take a point of view, that is, it is to represent all sides of the story without personal observation or conjecture. Logically, if represented as "A v ~A" (A or not A), a neutral point of view represents a tautology which some philosophers state has no content, or is meaningless because it provides no new information or knowledge. If represented as "A v B", it may represent alternative positions without regard to the possibility that both alternatives may be true, or false, simultaneously, when the rules of disjunctive syllogisms dictates that one or the other must be true. In philosophy, due to the rule of conditionalization in modern logic, objectivity and the possibility of knowledge always allows for the application of the rule of addition, that is, "(A v B) v C", meaning "(A or B; or C)"[1].

The Principle of Parsimony

The rule of conditionalization is qualified by the Principle of Parsimony or similar notions which dictate an economy in explanation as a principle of method, and states that generalization or plurality should not be assumed unnecessarily, and the least assumptions made in explanation is the optimum.

The principle has also come to be known as "Ockham's Razor" because of its frequent use by the fourteenth century philosopher William of Ockham, whose primary statement of the principle in his nominalist epistemology is that in accounting for the facts nothing should be assumed as necessary unless it is established through evidentiary experience or reasoning, or is required by the articles of faith.


"Objectivism" as a term in the history of philosophy finds its origin in the early nineteenth century, when Gottlob Frege implemented it in describing an epistemological and metaphysical theory in a negative response to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant's rationalism attempted to reconcile the failures he perceived in realism, empiricism, and idealism, and establish a critical method of approach in the distinction between epistemology and metaphysics. The application of the term "objectivism" to philosophies prior to Frege may then be tentative.

Objectivism, or metaphysical objectivism, is the view that there is a reality or realm of objects and facts existing wholly independent of the mind. Stronger versions of this claim might hold that there is only one correct description of this reality; they may or may not hold that we have any knowledge of it. If it is true that reality is independent of the mind, the reality of objectivism is thus inclusive of objects which one may not know about and are not the intended objects of mental acts. Objectivity in referring requires a definition of what is true, and is distinct from the objects themselves which cannot be said to be true or false. An object may truthfully be said to have this or that attribute, such as the statement "This object exists", but the statement "This object is true" or "false" is meaningless. Thus, only references, or the statements one makes about objects without assigning truth value to the object itself, are true or false. If objectivism is true, and there are things we can say nothing about, the disparity between reality and the statements we make indicates objectivity, or reality, is not necessarily independent of the mind. Essentially, the terms "objectivity" and "objectivism" are not synonymous, with objectivism being an ontological theory to which a method of objectivity would apply.

Plato's realism was a form of metaphysical objectivism, holding that the Ideas exist objectively and independently. Berkeley's empiricist idealism, on the other hand, could be called a subjectivism: he held that things only exist to the extent that they are perceived. Both theories claim methods of objectivity. Plato's definition of objectivity can be found in his epistemology, which takes as a model mathematics, and his metaphysics, where knowledge of the ontological status of objects and ideas is resistant to change. Plato considered knowledge of geometry as a condition of philosophical knowledge, both being concerned with universal truths. Plato's opposition between objective knowledge and doxa (opinions) would become the basis for later philosophies intent on resolving the problem of reality, knowledge and human existence. Personal opinions belong to the changing sphere of the sensible, opposed to the fixed and eternal incorporeal realm which is mutually intelligible. Plato's conception is a paradigm of the modern scientism, which considers only scientific knowledge to be legitimate and disqualifies common, everyday knowledge as subject to change and illusion. However, various philosophies of science would claim its constitutive dualism is too simplistic, insisting in other ways of achieving objectivity, for example by intersubjective verifiability. Where Plato distinguishes between what and how we know things (epistemology) and their ontological status as things (metaphysics), subjectivism such as Berkeley's and a mind dependence of knowledge and reality fails to make the distinction between what one knows and what is to be known, or in the least explains the distinction superficially. In Platonic terms, a criticism of subjectivism is that it is difficult to distinguish between knowledge, doxa, and subjective knowledge (true belief), distinctions which Plato makes.

Propositions and propositional acts

In philosophy, objectivity is also considered as the compatibility of propositions distinct and independent of propositional attitudes or acts. A proposition is an objective constituent the meaning of which clearly refers the object or entity being named by it. The value of a proposition is to be either true or false, and its many applications include the axioms and formulas of the sciences and mathematics, as well as the rules and processes of logic. The concept of truth requires that the content or meaning of judgments, or propositional acts, be identical with the proposition. This assures that:

1) What is judged in different acts and attitudes is identical. If there is no objective constituent common to and independent of different judgments, communication and science would not be possible.
2) An individual or individuals may think the same thought at different times and with different attitudes. Consistent belief systems and identity over time requires that there be propositions independent of propositional acts.
3) Independent propositions are required in order to account for the incompatibility between different propositional acts. If I state that "Plato was a Greek", and you state that "Plato was not a Greek", in order to establish an element of truth the objective constituent must be a content independent of our propositional acts.

Consistent belief systems and identity over time would require an objective and timeless notion of truth based upon temporally neutral propositions independent of propositional acts. Whether or not there are propositions is one of the most disputed questions of philosophy. The position that there are propositions which are timeless truths independent of our propositional acts, and which are not the products of or dependent upon our propositional acts, must be distinguished from conceptualism or relativism.

Objectivity should not be confused with any individual philosopher's specific criteria for objective knowledge or objectivism within the branches of philosophy. Notions of objectivism state that there is a reality or realm of objects existing independent of the mind, e.g. metaphysical objectivism. If objectivism is inclusive of objects which we may not know about and are not the intended objects of mental acts, then those objects are also not subject to propositional acts and subsequently propositions as the objective constituents referring to those objects. Thus, objectivism would appear to attempt to define the ontological status of the objects of reality and as a position which may be true or false, assigning truth value to the objects themselves of that reality. Objectivity and objectivism are then identical and the cost is the dismemberment of propositions as the objective constituents of the objects they name. Meaning, what one says cannot be assigned any real meaning or refer to any specific object. The critique of objectivism is that objectivity, or state of being objective, presupposes some definition of truth, but the objects themselves are not true or false. Only propositions, or references to objective constituents by means of our propositional acts and mutual intelligibility, are true or false.


The ontological status of propositions independent of propositional acts is a compound inquiry which can be stated as "If they do exist, do they exist independently of the mind as do the objects of objectivism, or do they come into being when an object becomes the intended object of a mental act?" The answer to this question is not, however, essential to the fundamental criticism of independent propositions as the objective constituents of our propositional acts, i.e. the truth. Whether independent propositions exist as do the objects of objectivism, or as the timeless truths concerning an object once it has become the intended object of a mental act, their reason for being would appear to be essential only to the process of discovery. The fundamental criticism then becomes one that is similar to the criticisms levied against, for example, historical objectivity. "What is the basis for our selection of inquiries and methodologies, and is the selection tainted by considerations that can be considered as value-impregnated?" For example, if the intended object of a mental act is a selective process guided by simply what is useful, then objectivity is based upon pragmatics, or perhaps some form of relativism, and should be considered as depicting propositional attitudes where the existence of propositions is dependent upon those attitudes.

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 (e.g. propositional attitude, statements, beliefs). Thus it is possible to take an objective approach appropriately in situations which call for an expression of subjective thought or feeling. In this the problematic relation of truth to objectivity becomes evident. For example, the statement "I am cold" may be considered by some philosophers as the expression of a subjective state, but unless the expression is an intention to deceive, it must also be considered a true statement. If it is true, then is it also objective? As a statement of fact it may not be a universal truth in the sense that it is correct for all time and place, but its facticity lies in that, given the particular time, place, and set of circumstances in which it was uttered, it will always be a true statement. The problem has its earliest formulation in Plato's Theaetetus, where Socrates addresses the suggestion that knowledge consists of true judgment or true belief, wondering if false belief or judgment is possible. A refutation of true belief or judgment is compromised by Socrates in the notion that false belief cannot be a belief in what is not, for as Parmenides had shown, there is no such thing as what is not.

Ethical subjectivism

Moral judgments are judgments made by people about the way they think or feel about men and their actions. Moral predicates are not present in men or their actions in the absence of people who pass judgment upon or react to others and their actions. According to ethical non-propositional or non-cognitivist theories, there are no moral propositions and thus moral judgments cannot be propositions about people's feelings. Terms such as "right" and "wrong" may be deemed meaningful according to the accepted code of that society, and is therefore not subjective. Ethical subjectivism holds that no ethical theory should state that the truth of ethical assertions is never dependent upon time, place, and the individual making the assertion. A statement which has been historically untrue may be true with the qualification "now". This view of objectivity precludes the notion that the non-objective is the same as subjectivism.

Ethical objectivism

According to the objectivist, the truth of moral assertions is independent of the person who uses the sentence and the particular time and place in which the statement is issued. Moral judgments expressing feelings of approval or disapproval of men and their actions do not count as objective independently of the criteria, time, place, and who is making the assertion.

Ethical naturalism

Ethical naturalism holds that ethical terms can be defined and the meaning of ethical sentences can be given in totally non-ethical terms. Moral judgments are just another set of facts about the natural world. This is a denial of the distinction between statements that may be factual and statements which may be an evaluative assessment of the facts. For example, we may accept the empirical scientist's factual assessment of the world while holding that his evaluative assessment is no more authoritative than anyone else's. The naturalist does not accept this distinction.


  • 1. Prior, A.N. "Traditional Logic". Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 5, p. 43. Macmillan, 1973. Also see relevant logic texts, e.g. the rules of inference in: Copi, Irving. Symbolic Logic. MacMillan, 1979, fifth edition, and Copi's Introduction to Logic. MacMillan, 1953.
  • 2. Section on propositions and propositional acts is based upon the article "Propositions, Judgments, Sentences, and Statements" by Richard M. Gale, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 6, pp. 494-496. Macmillan, 1973.
  • 3. Harrison, Jonathan. "Ethical Subjectivism". Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 3, pp. 78-81, Macmillan. 1973; also: Brandt, Richard. "Ethical Relativism". Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 3, pp. 75-78, Macmillan. 1973.
  • 4. Harrison, Jonathan. "Ethical Objectivism". Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 3, pp. 71-75. Macmillan, 1973.
  • 5. Harrison, Jonathan. "Ethical Naturalism". Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 3, pp. 69-71. Macmillan, 1973.

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