The History of Objectivity in Light of Rand’s Epistemology and Ethics

Over the years I’ve heard plenty of people wonder why Ayn Rand would have named her philosophy “Objectivism.” Rand is best known in ethics for her advocacy of the virtue of selfishness, and many—especially the philosophically trained—have a hard time understanding why anyone would call this an objective approach to morality. The “objective,” after all, is associated with the impersonal, whereas the “subjective” is associated with the self.

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Over the break I read a book that will help answer that question. In connection with research I’ve been conducting on various debates in epistemology, I recently came across Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s impressive 2007 work, Objectivity. (As part of a workshop sponsored by the Anthem Foundation over a decade ago, I had read an earlier article of Daston’s that must have been the predecessor to this book.) The book is a fascinating history of the concept of “objectivity,” as developed by philosophers and used by scientists, and illustrated in particular by scientists’ use of the concept in the preparation of scientific atlases. Many of the 400 pages are filled with examples of images from these atlases.

What’s especially surprising from this work, if the author’s account is to be trusted, is just how recently the current popular usage of “objectivity” developed. Notably, the terms “objective” and “subjective” meant nearly the opposite of what they are currently taken to mean well into the 18th century. Readers may recall being perplexed by the terminology of Descartes’ ontological argument for the existence of God, pitched in terms of the “objective reality” of the idea of God (i.e. the cognitive content of that idea) as opposed to the “formal reality” (the actual existence of something outside of the mind).

According to Daston and Galison (30), it was Kant who gave “objective” and “subjective” something closer to their modern meaning, when he used “objective” to describe the concepts and forms of sensibility (space, time, causality) necessary for the cognition of objects, whereas “subjective” referred to the sensations which Kant famously claimed to be blind without concepts. Even still, Kant did not take “objectivity” to mean anything like mind-independence: far from it, since he took concepts like space, time and causality to be applicable only to phenomenal but not noumenal reality. It was left to English popularizers of Kant like Coleridge to transform Kant’s distinction into something like the distinction between the mind-independent and mind-dependent that is more familiar today. Only since about 1850 has it been used to mean that.

One lesson to take from this preliminary bit of the history is that the term “objective” is far from having a long-settled usage. The rest of the history helps to illustrate what purposes scientists were attempting to achieve with the concept. I want to briefly suggest ways Rand’s conception of objectivity reflects how scientists used the concept, and also how her philosophic perspective could have made the concept even more useful. But first, a little more history is necessary.

Daston and Galison begin their history before Kant with a survey of scientific atlases of the Enlightenment period. They suggest that many of these atlases were produced in a spirit of “truth to nature,” which emphasized the portrayal of plant and animal species as idealized types, individual instances of which may never have been found in exemplary form in nature. The approach embraced illustrations that were more like works of art than what we recognize as scientific diagrams today, but such drawings were seen as “true to nature” because they were thought of as representing the real essence of the species, abstracted from accidents.

By the nineteenth century, idealized illustrations were criticized as bearing the marks of scientists’ “subjectivity.” This practice was seen as projecting the will of the scientist onto nature rather than letting nature speak for itself. Truly objective images were to be produced by machines that had no will, free from the intervention of the scientist’s choices. Photography began to replace hand illustration as the scientific means of letting nature speak for itself—all marks of art were to be removed. Of course one could not represent a class of species with images of random individuals. The composite photography of Galton was seen as one solution.

In the early twentieth century, advocates of so-called “structural objectivity” sought to solve this problem by identifying invariant relationships, stripped of all reference to sensory particulars. This included the attempts to represent scientific discourse in purely symbolic form (as in Frege, Russell and Carnap). But in the mid-twentieth century, this approach was found to be unworkable by whole fields of science, from astronomy to radiology, which relied on classifying objects by multiple dimensions of similarity. Scientists saw themselves as rebelling against “objectivity” as it had been characterized, and invested in the trained judgment of experts to classify individuals according to multiple dimensions of similarity whose significance could only be appreciated by experience.

What’s remarkable is how these stages of scientific development map onto prominent philosophical theories of concepts, theories which were often popular in the same period. “Truth to nature” is very close to the moderate realist theory which claimed that concepts were formed by abstracting essences that were immanent to particulars. The ideal of “mechanical objectivity” is essentially nominalistic in its contention that scientists cannot capture essences in individual portraits. “Structural objectivity” is a kind of extreme Platonic realist reaction to nominalism, whereas the trained judgment view expresses a Wittgensteinian family resemblance quasi-nominalism. These connections are sometimes explored explicitly in Daston and Galison’s book.


It’s into this mix that I’ll now bring Rand. As ARS secretary Greg Salmieri argues in “The Objectivist Epistemology,” one of his contributions to the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Ayn Rand (now available as an E-Book), Rand saw her theory of concepts, as presented in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, as central to her epistemology and as informing her conception of “objectivity.” I won’t summarize her theory here, but I’ll point you to Greg’s essay and share a few passages that summarize relevant aspects of her theory for us:

[N]on realist theories stress the mind’s activity. . .but they think this activity makes concepts (or word usages) subjective. The realists, by contrast, have an essentially passive view of conceptual thought. Their account of the objectivity of concepts does not make reference to anything the mind does or produces, but only the existence of a universal to which the concept corresponds….

Behind this constellation of theories, Rand saw the premise that in order to apprehend reality accurately, a consciousness would have to passively mirror it. This premise generates a false dichotomy between the “intrinsic” and the “subjective” that she thought had “played havoc” with “every issue involving the relationship of consciousness to existence.”

Something is intrinsic if it is a feature of reality “unrelated to man’s consciousness” that can be “perceived by man directly,” on the model of sense perception, without requiring any volitional work. Something is subjective if it is an arbitrary creation “of man’s consciousness, unrelated to the facts of reality.” Both forms of realism regard universals or concepts as intrinsic, and the conceptualist and nominalist schools regard them as subjective.

“None of these schools regard concepts as objective, i.e., as neither revealed nor invented, but as produced by man’s consciousness in accordance with the facts of reality, as mental integrations of factual data computed by man—as the products of a cognitive method of classification whose processes must be performed by man, but whose content is dictated by reality.” (ITOE 54)

Objectivity, as Rand understands it, is not a matter of the mind’s passively mirroring intrinsic features or structures in reality. Rather it consists in identifying existents by implementing a specific process of volitional action that is required by the nature of man’s cognitive faculties and the natures of the existents to be identified….(Salmieri 2016, p. 290)

There’s a lot more here that I can’t summarize. Since this post has already gotten too long, I’ll just raise a few points and questions about Rand’s view in relation to the history of objectivity for others to comment on:

  • Objectivity, for Rand, is essentially a norm guiding our cognition to the end of the truth; the same is true for those who originated the modern philosophical and scientific use of the term. For Rand, concepts are “objective” not because they passively reflect “features or structures” in reality, but because they are formed in accord with a certain method aimed at grasping relevant facts in the most cognitively economical manner. For the early advocates of “mechanical objectivity,” for instance, objectivity is also a normative concept, though the norms they advocated differ significantly from Rand’s. Objectivity was primarily an attribute modifying cognizers or scientists. Only later was it taken to designate mind-independent properties, and then only because these were the properties graspable by cognizers adhering to a norm of objectivity.

  • At the same time, the “mechanical objectivity” that demanded non-intervention by cognizers quickly proved impossible. Daston and Gallison document how scientists had to make choices to set up machines, photographs, and of course, controlled experiments. Even the most untouched photograph of a single particular is of little help in grasping something about a species, and so judgments about which particulars or aspects of such particulars were relevant were unavoidable. And of course resisting intervention occasioned by wishful thinking is itself a significant intervention. This leads Dalston and Galison to suggest that “objectivity” was at best an unachievable ideal to be strived towards. But is this the right way to conceptualize it? Is an unachievable norm worth having? If a norm directing our scientific choices against wishful thinking is needed to reach the truth, the fact that we are making choices isn’t the problem; the problem is that we might make the wrong choice.

  • Critics of objectivity rightly saw that its prior advocates had emptied the norm of its usefulness: why not return to “truth to nature”? This is true whether it was nominalistic mechanical objectivity, which made it difficult to represent species rather than individuals, or Platonistic structural objectivity, which made knowledge of universals difficult if not impossible to relate to sense perception. But in embracing “trained judgment,” how did twentieth century scientists differ from the Enlightenment idealizers who sought to represent “truth to nature”? Mainly in their commitments over the significance of their trained judgment: it could at best latch onto a family resemblance network of similarities, not anything essential to a species. This is where Rand’s theory has the most to offer: Enlightenment scientists may have been wrong to think essences could be represented in the portrayal of a single individual. But what if an essentialized understanding of a concept is a norm that can help organize and economize our knowledge–say, by showing which similarities in a network of similarities are fundamental to the others? In that case, there may be norms that can train the judgment of a scientist, such that this judgment is not “subjective”—but objective in the most relevant sense.

How does all of this relate to Rand’s ethics? One of the most fascinating subthemes of the Daston and Galison book is its emphasis on how the meaning of various conceptions of “objectivity” has been driven by the “subjectivity” it opposed. As a result, an understanding of scientific objectivity has always implied a conception of the scientific self.

Especially because of the early influence of Kant on conceptions of objectivity, the norm of mechanical non-intervention was frequently understood along the lines of a kind of selfless duty: the scientist was seen as a hero of disinterestedness. The self was seen as a danger to the acquisition of the truth: its willful bias had to be eliminated. So the self of mechanical objectivity was one expressing a “will to willessness” (to use a phrase from Schopenhauer).

But what is the self? In her defense of ethical egoism, Rand reminds readers that an understanding of the concept of “self-interest” presupposes an understanding of the nature of the self whose interest it is. (See her essay “Selfishness without a Self.”). Like Aristotle, she thought that the self was not a bundle of instincts and desires, but more fundamentally, the rational mind. This would imply a very different conception of self-interest than is conventionally accepted.

What then, would happen to our conception of objectivity if the self and its choices were not seen as an inevitable sources of corruption? What if, instead, the self were identified with the very mind whose function it is to know? Would the norm of objectivity need to be framed in terms of a form of Kantian selflessness? Would the uselessness of objective reporting be seen as a virtue? And what of the conception of objective value? Would it be understood as something impersonal and unrelated to the needs and interests of human beings?

I welcome your further thoughts!

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