A Pluralist Theory of Objectivity: Guy Axtell’s Objectivity
1. A puzzle for theorizing objectivity
It is a common occurrence to find that a disagreement over a finding or claim is explained by the fact that the disputants disagree about what counts as objective. For starters, the term “objective” seems to apply both to things we can be objective about (e.g., events and things) and those who can be objective about those things (e.g., inquirers and judges). A longstanding challenge, one associated with the skeptical problem of the criterion, has been how one could have a view about one without a well-established view about the other—how can one think that some claim is correct about objective reality without having a view about how people have objectively arrived at that claim. And the puzzle goes the other way, too, since it seems one cannot identify those who proceed objectively unless one has the idea of what objective truths they are pursuing better than their non-objective rivals.
Solutions to this challenge come in two broad camps. On the one hand, there are those who hold that a theory of objectivity that does not start with a conception of what we must be objective about is empty. And so, a theory of reality, objects, facts, and so on takes precedence. These are the ontological theories of objectivity. On the other hand, there are theories that define objectivity in terms of the practices, processes, social exchanges, and methods we see as exemplifying good inquiry. These are epistemic theories of objectivity. The consequent puzzle for these two programs is for them to do the double-duty of answering both the how epistemic questions and the what ontological questions that seem to be objectivity’s double-demand. Those who have ontological objectivity take precedence regularly make the epistemic task of achieving proper intellectual contact with the real an impossible task, and so risk skepticism. And those who have epistemic objectivity take precedence regularly make the ontological output of these processes look like mere constructions, instead of discoveries, and so risk idealism. The challenge is to find a program that can achieve both desiderata.
2. Axtell’s three dialectical stages
Guy Axtell’s Objectivity proceeds in three dialectical stages. It is first a case for the epistemic model of the kinds of objectivity, though in support rather than rebellion from objectivity’s double-demand. Axtell’s argument against the ontological model is that in its mode, “philosophy will be prone to . . . skeptical problems” (30). And so, he hypothesizes, they show they are “self-defeating,” because the skeptical epistemic position undercuts any opportunity to have an ontological theory (56). Further, he argues that the independence thesis (the thought that the objects of thought must be independent of our thought to be objective) behind the ontological program is untenable, since it seems the existence of so many of our objects of thought (in ethics, politics, mathematics, and philosophy) seem to depend on us.
In reply to the idealism worry about epistemic programs, Axtell’s particular epistemic model for objectivity begins with a proposal of a kind of axiological pluralism, one that acknowledges the good thoughts behind the competing models of realisms and idealisms.
Any attempt to reconcile the intellectual motivations for realism and idealism must begin by rejecting their more presumptuous claims while acknowledging and showing the basic compatibility of their more modest claims. . . . If this is correct, then thee basic realist and anti-realist intuitions are not strictly incompatible, even if the philosophical systems built out of them typically are. (43)
Axtell terms this a pragmatic pluralist (52) program, and he develops it to capture the complexity of objectivity seen in the impartiality of inquiry (even when it yields false conclusions), and one that allows for different epistemic standards in different contexts, which he terms “disciplinary objectivity.”
Axtell’s second dialectical stage is to show how these concepts allow for some clarity in theorizing the objectivity of the natural and social sciences. In the natural sciences, Axtell argues that the positivist residue of models for objectivity is slowly being eliminated. The Hypothetico-Deductive (H-D) method of verification and falsification played a useful, but distorting role for answering the challenge of demarcating scientific from non-scientific questions. However, once holist and historicist features of theory-testing became clear, it became important to see the challenges of objectivity in a context of “cognitive values” at work (86).
In behavioral sciences, the core of Axtell’s program is to show that there can be degrees of objectivity in research that is itself not reducible to the model of objectivity seen in the natural sciences. Rather, Axtell recommends a “practice-oriented approach” to norms of objectivity (129). Without such standards as objective, Axtell warns, we open ourselves to a form of “boomerang relativism,” where the pursuit of objectivity is given up as misguided, starting in the humanities, but ultimately becoming a kind of global relativism (132).
The third dialectical stage of Axtell’s Objectivity is an engagement with “reconstructions” of objectivity, and with what might be called the objectivity-eliminationists. Objectivity’s most radical critics, including postmodernists like Richard Rorty, have argued that we should expunge notions like objectivity from our intellectual lexicon. The idea is prone to widespread abuse, they hold, in the service of sexist, racist, or classist prejudices. Axtell observes that much of the elimination argument is driven more as a rejection of the excessively restrictive models of objectivity; and he proposes that “it seems quite possible to reject scientism without rejecting either the possibility or value of objectivity per se” (140). What is needed, then, Axtell reasons, is neither “retrenchment objectivism” nor “boomerang relativism”; it is a reconstructive program, one that acknowledges processes of scientific research and intellectual investigation as social practices, and the complex interrelationships between cognitive and social values. He shows how leading forms of feminist and social epistemologies today support rather than detract from the view that objectivity is still possible and valuable, even when we have acknowledged the values, perspectives, and interests we have in pursuing research.
Objectivity is best achieved when we work “dialectically” back and forth between such factors as: the known facts of our situation; our ability to empathize or take perspective with other stakeholders; principles or rules we might apply; and context-specific considerations that we think heightens or lessens the pertinence of those identified principles or rules. (206)
With this book, Guy Axtell has synthesized a good deal of work not only in the service of a complete theory of objectivity but those who have criticized the project itself. The result is a synthetic, pluralist, pragmatist theory of objectivity.