Symposium Introduction

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.



Objectivity or ‘Objectivity’?

A Response to Guy Axtell’s Objectivity

1. Introduction

In his recent book, Objectivity, Guy Axtell investigates the notion of objectivity as it appears in philosophy and the sciences. He surveys a number of debates concerning objectivity, especially those between analytic, feminist, and pragmatist philosophers from the past one hundred years, and he argues in favor of a pluralist approach to understanding objectivity and its role within these debates. Axtell does an excellent job in balancing accessibility and rigor when surveying the various debates, and so I do not take issue with this aspect of Axtell’s work. Instead, I want to press him to say more about his pluralism and how it fits in with his presentation of these debates.

In particular, I am concerned that Axtell may be overlooking the use-mention distinction as it applies to the word ‘objectivity.’ When we use this word, it picks out a certain property or set of properties relating to an inquirer, an object of inquiry, and/or a process of inquiring. Alternatively, when we mention the word ‘objectivity’ we are no longer talking about inquiry directly, but instead we are talking about a person and what she says or thinks about inquiry. To mark this difference going forward, I use the familiar convention of placing a string of letters within single quotes when I am mentioning the associated word, and leaving them unquoted when I am using the associated word. My ultimate challenge to Axtell is that it appears as if he is committing a fallacy of equivocation by identifying the phenomenon of objectivity with the word ‘objectivity.’

2. Axtell’s Pluralism

As I mentioned above, Axtell is concerned not merely with presenting the various philosophical debates surrounding objectivity, but also with arguing for a distinctively pluralist position within these debates. As Axtell highlights in his introduction, “the approach taken in this book runs counter to Nozick’s quest for a unitary sense of objectivity. Our approach will rather be a further development of what Heather Douglas (2004) calls the thesis of the ‘irreducible complexity’ of objectivity, and what Richard Bernstein (2010) calls a ‘pragmatic pluralist’ approach.” (7) My purpose in the present section will be (1) to summarize Axtell’s pluralism by contrasting it with what he calls objectivism and relativism, and (2) to argue that Axtell’s pluralism seemingly must be a pluralism about objectivity (as opposed to ‘objectivity’).

To understand Axtell’s pluralism, it is most helpful to begin with Axtell’s discussion of Richard Bernstein from chapter 2 of Objectivity. Richard Bernstein notes that modern philosophy has been in the grips of a distinctively Cartesian Anxiety. This Anxiety grows out of the desire some philosophers display for developing a system that delivers us with stable knowledge, and the Anxiety takes hold once one begins “to reason as if a complete victory of cognitive and/or moral relativism is the only viable alternative to establishing philosophically or scientifically secure foundations for our claims to know.” (47) In response to this relativistic reasoning, one in the grips of the Anxiety must then strengthen their system to deliver ever more stable (and therefore ever more unattainable) knowledge, which in turn makes relativism more compelling than ever. The result of the Cartesian Anxiety is that those in the grips of it are stuck with either an always-incomplete system, or an unsatisfying relativism, or an interminable oscillation between the two. Luckily, however, Bernstein highlights that the desire that leads to the Cartesian Anxiety is optional. As I understand Axtell’s presentation, (46–52, esp. 49–50) Bernstein’s point is that instead of desiring knowledge that is stable full stop, we can desire knowledge that is stable given the practices we are engaging in and the purposes we have within said practices. This move from absolute stability to pragmatic stability allows us to differentiate pluralism from relativism. Whereas relativism is the view that anything less than absolutely stable knowledge is mere opinion (in the pejorative sense of “opinion”), pluralism is the view that so long as certain beliefs are stable given one’s current practice and purpose then those beliefs count as knowledge in as full a sense as is ever possible.

Axtell’s pluralist approach to objectivity is simply an extension of Bernstein’s point to the topic of objectivity (instead of knowledge). Many people fear that the only alternative to the rampant subjectivism associated with relativism is a monistic approach to objectivity, or what Axtell call objectivism. Although it might be the case that there are multiple senses to the word ‘objectivity,’ for the objectivist they must all be grounded in one ur-sense of the word, a sense that is usually cashed out in ontological terms. Axtell’s discussion of Nagel’s “view from nowhere” is instructive on this front. (27–31 and 55–60) However, what is important for my purpose is that Axtell argues against the objectivist, insisting that there is an intermediary pluralist position between that of objectivism and relativism. In part, my challenge to Axtell in §4 below is me asking for more determinacy about what this pluralist position amounts to.

But before I turn to this challenge, I need to highlight an important feature that Axtell’s pluralism seemingly must include—namely, it seemingly must be a pluralism about objectivity and not merely about ‘objectivity.’ On my usage, a pluralism about ‘objectivity’ would amount to nothing more than the claim that the word ‘objectivity’ is used in many different ways in English, and that its counterpart in other languages is likewise used in many different ways in those other languages. Pluralism about ‘objectivity’ is therefore a largely empirical thesis about how people produce certain sounds in the air or produce marks on paper, and it is a thesis that is rarely if ever contested. Alternatively, pluralism about objectivity is something like the claim that objectivity itself has no single nature or essence, but instead that there are different types of objectivity with different natures or essences. For the pluralist about objectivity, it is not just that the word ‘objectivity’ has different uses within various language games, but that there is more than one phenomenon for these different uses to refer to.

I say that Axtell seemingly must be a pluralist about objectivity because this is what would distinguish him from the objectivist with whom he disagrees. The objectivist is able to concede that ‘objectivity’ is used in many different senses, and therefore she can accept pluralism about ‘objectivity.’ She need only continue by saying pluralism about ‘objectivity’ highlights that these different senses all refer to one and the same phenomenon, or at worst that there is a distinction between what we call objectivity and genuine objectivity. Even in this worst case, there is still only one phenomenon that is rightly designated as being objective, and the objectivist is simply pointing out that we are fallible speakers in the sense that we often ascribe properties to phenomena when they do not in fact instantiate said properties. It is only the stronger claim that I associate with pluralism about objectivity that the objectivist cannot accommodate, hence my contention that Axtell (seemingly) must be defending a pluralism about objectivity.

3. Axtell’s Justification

Now that we have seen why I think Axtell’s pluralism must be about objectivity, we should next look to see how Axtell goes about justifying his commitment to pluralism. I will focus my efforts on part 2 of Objectivity, because as Axtell notes in his introduction, “Part II also further develops the pragmatic pluralist account introduced in Part I by arguing that what constitutes objectivity differs substantially across the physical and social sciences, in historical research, and in philosophical subfields like value theory . . . and the philosophy of science.” (11) Notice that Axtell is here talking about “what constitutes objectivity,” suggesting that he will justify his pluralism with a consideration of objectivity and not ‘objectivity.’ However, as I point out below, Axtell in fact spends most of his efforts discussing ‘objectivity.’

Since part 2 consists in chapters 3 and 4, let me quickly survey these chapters in turn. Chapter 3 focuses on the role objectivity might play in the natural sciences, and begins with a quick sketch of the debate between the logical positivists and Thomas Kuhn within the philosophy of science. The first main section of this chapter focuses on the positivists, with Axtell briefly mentioning Auguste Comte, A. J. Ayer, and Hans Reichenbach before turning in detail to those aspects of Rudolf Carnap’s thought that concern objectivity. The next section focuses on what Karl Popper has to say about objectivity, the following one on what Pierre Duhem and W. V. O. Quine have to say, and the next following one on what Imre Lakatos has to say. This pattern of Axtell telling us what others have to say about objectivity continues until the end of the chapter, meaning that Axtell is merely mentioning how these others have been using the word ‘objectivity.’ What Axtell rarely does is to use ‘objectivity’ in his own voice in order to explicitly elaborate on his pluralism. This leaves chapter 3 as being only directly about how other people use the word ‘objectivity,’ and any connections to objectivity as such are left implicit.

This might be well and good if Axtell were to discuss objectivity more directly in chapter 4, but when we turn to the details we again find him focused on ‘objectivity’ instead. Chapter 4 is concerned with objectivity in the human sciences and in history, focusing on Carl Hempel, Richard Rorty, and their various critics. Again, Axtell does a more than admirable job of relaying what these figures have to say about objectivity, but in doing so Axtell himself ends up talking about ‘objectivity’ and not objectivity.

4. My Challenge to Axtell

At this point, we can turn to my titular question: Objectivity or ‘Objectivity’? We have seen that Axtell’s pluralism seemingly must be a pluralism about objectivity, but also that Axtell talks almost exclusively about ‘objectivity’ when he attempts to justify his pluralism across chapters 3 and 4. If this were the end of the story, then Axtell would be committing a fallacy of equivocation insofar as his discussions about ‘objectivity’ across chapters 3 and 4 justify a commitment to the weaker claim I associate with pluralism about the word ‘objectivity,’ and not a commitment to the stronger claim I associate with pluralism about objectivity as such. My challenge to Axtell is to show why this is not the end of the story, presumably by identifying something I have gotten wrong in my presentation of the story so far or else by supplementing my story with something I have not included.

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    Guy Axtell


    Reply to Dabay

    Thomas Dabay compliments the balance of accessibility and rigor in Objectivity, but does not find a matching balance between its providing wide-ranging surveys on the various debates on this concept, and it’s contributing something definite to the debate. More specifically, he does not find that I develop my pragmatic pluralist reconstruction of objectivity with enough clarity and depth. The challenge Dabay thus puts to me is a quite reasonable one: To either clarify how a unique, pragmatic pluralist account of objectivity is developed in the book, or to use the opportunity of this exchange to expand on this further. I am glad for the opportunity, and though space is short, shall try to do a little of each.

    To first situate my reply, I do not believe myself guilty of equivocating between use and mention—between the task of developing a pluralist account of objectivity and just referring to or counting up the plural ways that others have treated the term. As one task of volumes in the Key Concepts in Philosophy series is to provide a useful overview of debates on one’s topic, there were numerous aspects of the debate where I found it useful to stay neutral, and of course others where I needed to take a stand in order to situate and develop my own account. Certainly I thought of pragmatic pluralism as genuinely an account of objectivity, one meeting the “dual demand” described in Scott Aikin’s introduction to this exchange, and not merely a survey of the plural different ways that the term “objectivity” is used in the literature. Dabay is surely right that cataloguing what people “have to say” about objectivity is not to provide an account of one’s own. But I perceive Dabay to be dichotomizing between use and mention—between what theorists think of write about a concept, and the “what it is” question. Certainly dichotomizing in this way does not fit well with the “practice” orientation of pragmatism and social epistemology. Relatedly, it strikes me that a good deal of difference between us may be a matter of the philosophical style to which we each adhere, and with this, what exactly we expect that a philosophical theory should do. I am a historically inclined writer who finds history and practice to be quite relevant to theory; very early in the book I said that my approach would have aspects of genealogy, rather than attempting to analyze the concept of objectivity into a set of necessary and sufficient conditions (8). I consider myself a moderate historicist about norms of objectivity.1 So it was fitting for me to develop my views through and in relation to the exiting debates and debaters on my topic, and it doesn’t bother me that I “spend most of my time” discussing those on whose shoulders I stand. But of course it certainly should disturb me if readers find that this gets in the way of my making my own argument clear, or that an original contribution to the debate is lacking. I do wish in hindsight that I had provided chapter summaries and an overall book conclusion to better outline the positive argument of the book, and to draw it all together better.

    Analytic definitions are best for concepts that are univocal in meaning, but my view of the concept of objectivity is that it is not. Indeed, the close connections between a pragmatic pluralist account for which I took Richard Bernstein’s work as an initial model, and Heather Douglas’ “irreducible complexity of objectivity” thesis, were asserted very early in the text (15), and, I thought, developed at multiple points along the way. From the start the irreducibility thesis was contrasted with examples of people who assert that objectivity has univocal meaning, or a single “core” meaning that its various uses can be systematically reduced to (most notably Robert Nozick’s “invariability under transformations” account) (7). Although I was not interested in formal definition, I was very interested in the adequacy of the many proposed taxonomies of senses and kinds of objectivity. For the sake developing a pluralist account tied closely to the argument for irreducibility, I took on board Heather Douglas’s taxonomy of eight modes in three kinds (machine-aided, individual, and group, or Objectivity1, Objectivity2, and Objectivity3, respectively), and referred back to this plural taxonomy when discussing various scientific and non-scientific fields. These later instantiations of the adopted taxonomy of the modes and markers of objectivity were meant to underline for readers that while the recognized kinds of cognitive objectivity all reflect norms of impartial reasoning, these machine-aided, individual, and communal kinds of objectivity are non-reducible one to another.

    The book is concerned primarily with pluralism in the context both of dialectical objectivity and of disciplinary objectivity.2 Although a good deal of my pluralism is developed in the context of the objects, aims, and methods in the sciences (part 2), pragmatic pluralism is also connected with dialectical objectivity as a concern with broader oppositions like those between realism and non-realism, or between philosophy and skepticism (part 1 & 3; see my reply to Levine). I found Richard Bernstein’s pragmatic pluralism in Beyond Relativism and Objectivism and The Pragmatic Turn useful to my concerns with dialectical objectivity. Radical axiology, which re-describes the core claims of metaphysical systems as normative claims about the conditions for the intelligibility of all knowledge, I tried to show, provides resources to pursue the concerns of dialectical objectivity (40–44). The shared task of identifying core axiological posits of contending theories and assessing them for logical compatibility is what I elsewhere term the dialectics of objectivity (2012; 2015). It involves trying to understand the philosophical motivations and dialectical give-and-take of thinkers involved in these debates. Although I discussed many non-scientific contexts where norms of objectivity are still rightly valued and maintained, it is natural that more of the discussion focused on the sciences, and in particular on the similarities and differences between the natural and the human sciences. Dabay’s concerns are primarily with part 2 and the sciences, so I will largely restrict myself to pluralism about disciplinary objectivity in the remainder of this reply.

    One way that I developed my own form of pluralism distinct from Douglas’s was in the treatment of objectivity in the natural and human sciences. Dabay mentions the extended discussion of the positivists and of Carl Hempel as a prime example of my talking mainly just about how other philosophers understood the concept of objectivity. What I thought of myself as doing was quite different. Chapter 3 directly exposed the flaws of the positivists’ “unity of the sciences” thesis, and the associated “logicist” conceptions of theory-choice, whether verificationist or falsificationist. Chapter 4 carried this challenge to the unity of the sciences further by critically examining and rejecting what I termed Hempel’s Demand, the demand that to be considered scientific, the human or social sciences need to operate within the “covering law” model of explanation that he and other logical empiricists considered the epitome of scientific methodology. Thus, there is a sustained critical attack running through and connecting the chapters on method in the natural and human sciences, an attack explicitly targeting the methodological unity of the sciences that logical positivism endorsed. I firstly employ Wesley Salmon’s argument (1989) that the covering law model is both too weak and too strong to characterize the goals and methods even of the physical sciences. My discussion of verstehen and of the classical divisions between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften had to cover a lot of thinkers quickly, but was not neutral. Here too I was working to ferret through different conceptions and rationales for such divisions, in order to assess which were the weaker and stronger naturalistic grounds for rejecting Hempel’s Demand.

    Now all of this may seem to be negative argument; while to a substantial degree a “pluralism” may be established by refuting the argument for monism, this would be only a thin rationale, and one that I would not have been satisfied with. So I also tried to provide more positive support for, and characterization of, pluralism about disciplinary objectivity. This account was buttressed by examples of the different kinds of objects that are the focus of study in the human as compared with the natural sciences. It examines for example how the objects of study in the human sciences tend to be value laded (“poverty,” for example), in ways that the objects of the physical sciences are not. So choice of methods is very often a function of features specific to the problem and of the particular aims of the research. I am sure that I did not do enough to harness extant arguments that support scientific pluralism to the service of pluralism about objectivity (114). Scientific Pluralism holds that multiple scientific theories can offer valid accounts of known phenomena, their validity or correctness being judged in light of different background assumptions and cognitive goals. These two forms of pluralism are overlapping and I think mutually supportive; their connections are another way to explicate the view that method, rather than unitary.

    The pluralist account I develop is closely connected with the issue of the chronic or temporary nature of the underdetermination problem in various fields of study, and this may be the most original aspect of the book’s argument. Verificationism and falsifications both, though for somewhat different reasons, fail to take proper account of the problem of the underdetermination of theory by data. I reject radical meaning holism, but argue that a moderate confirmation holism drives us to recognize both synchronic and diachronic epistemic values as needed to address local (or discipline-specific) underdetermination problems.

    These problems are closely connected to theory-choice, and so in turn raise the thorny problem of the relationship between cognitive and social values. In the debate over science and values that ensued in the post-positivist era, what I argued was a very unsound way of treating underdetermination problems was to insist that one or the other, cognitive value or social values, must be what resolves the problem when one moves from dissensus to a new consensus in the field. That grand either/or that was at the heart of the “Tie-Breaker Model,” I argued, was a faulty shared assumption of the positivists and those early, radical post-positivist accounts that tended to devalue the concept of objectivity altogether. While I think we have largely ridded ourselves of it, in chapter 5 I distinguish two main contemporary camps on the relationship between cognitive and social values as “entanglers” and “disentanglers,” and I take a tentative stance in favor of the latter. Earlier, the field of historiography had come in for extended discussion in elaborating the underdetermination problem and its relevance to debates about objectivity. Debate over methods and over the value of the objectivity ideal for history writers was chosen in order to best illustrate the difference between fields of study where theory virtues are generally sufficient to overcome local underdetermination problems (typically leading to a new consensus after a brief period of competing theories), and fields such as history where underdetermination worries are chronic, or ever-present. The very different aims that history writers can adopt, the diversity of methods that serve those aims, and the lack of a shared list of theory virtues, are all the result and reaction to the chronic condition of historical facts underdetermining theories in this field. But I also suggested that the identification of fields where underdetermination problems are chronic as opposed to just temporary does not match the traditional distinctions between either “natural” and “social” sciences, nor again between “hard” and “soft” sciences. So a major conclusion of these chapters focusing on norms of objectivity in the sciences was that in order to account for these differences, we need a more varied —a more “mottled”—conception of the relationship between the sciences.

    Works Cited

    Axtell, G. (2012). “The Dialectics of Objectivity.” Journal of the Philosophy of History 6 (3): 339–68.

    ———. (2015). “Navigating the Dialectics of Objectivity.” In The Future of Social Epistemology: A Collective Vision, edited by James Collier, 97–106. Rowman & Littlefield.

    Bernstein, R. (1983). Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    ———. (2010). The Pragmatic Turn. Cambridge: Polity.

    Daston, L., and P. Galison. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.

    Eldridge, M. (2007). “In Defense of Pragmatic Pluralism.” Draft paper at http://home/

    Rosenthal, S. (1994). Charles Peirce’s Pragmatic Pluralism. New York: SUNY Press.

    Salmon, W. (1989). Four Decades of Scientific Explanation. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

    Talisse, R., and S. Aikin. (2005). “Why Pragmatists Cannot Be Pluralists.” Transactions of the Charles Sanders Pierce Society 41 (1): 101–18.

    1. See also Daston and Galison (2007) and discussions of historicism in my chapter 3.

    2. Values pluralism in ethics and politics is also discussed, mainly in chapter 6 (and to some extent in my reply to Dea). Had I pursued this further I would have used such additional discussions of pragmatism and pluralism as Talisse and Aikin (2005), Rosenthal (1994), and Eldridge (2007).

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      Guy Axtell


      Let’s start a conversation

      Thanks to Scott for the fine Introduction, and to Thomas for his insights and a challenging set of critical responses to the book. Welcome to all those who would like to leave their comments or start a conversation on these issues.



Strong Objectivity in the Age of Trump

In his discussion of standpoint theory and strong objectivity, Guy Axtell quotes as exemplary this passage from Julie Nelson: “Strong Objectivity, or objectivity that does not degenerate into ‘objectivism,’ is based not on an illusion of detachment, but rather on a recognition of one’s own various attachments and on the particularity this lends to one’s views” (153). Nelson’s advice that we ought all to be cognizant of our attachments is of course sensible. However, Axtell’s choice to use Nelson rather than Sandra Harding as the spokesperson for Strong Objectivity is puzzling. Harding, not Nelson, is the originator of the phrase and the associated concept. Further, Harding’s version of Strong Objectivity is more subversive, more overtly political than the characterization Axtell quotes from Nelson. Axtell associates Strong Objectivity with the more or less uncontroversial claim that all inquirers have different experiences and perspectives—a claim, it bears noting, with which Enlightenment thinkers with Enlightenment conceptions of objectivity typically agreed—by contrast, for Harding Strong Objectivity is crucially grounded in the recognition of historic power differentials and their affect on inquiry and judgment.

Harding tells us that it is crucial to be aware not only of our own standpoints, but especially of the standpoints of those who wield and who have historically wielded power since those perspectives are more likely to be amplified. Concomitantly, the perspectives of those with the least power are most likely to be neglected. Famously for Bacon, knowledge is power. Harding cautions us that, conversely, power is (or constitutes) knowledge.

An example here might be helpful. On Harding’s account, an androcentric bias in economics for a long time made scholars in that field inattentive to the fact that only paid work in the public sphere, and not unpaid work in the private sphere, was factored into economic theories. She argues that this stems from an androcentric bias that rendered women’s work not merely less valued, but in fact invisible as a form of work. The inability to perceive women’s work as work not only treated women unjustly (and served to perpetuate material injustices for women); it also vitiated inquiry in economics by excluding from study an entire domain of economic goods (and the associated data).

Harding argues that traditional conceptions of objectivity, and associated norms in inquiry, are little help in addressing such lacunae. She writes: “Objectivity has not been ‘operationalized’ in such a way that scientific method can detect sexist and androcentric assumptions that are ‘the dominant beliefs of an age’—that is, that are collectively (versus only individually) held” (Harding, 52). Traditional scientific methods and ideals—including the ideal of objectivity—are themselves historically situated and reflect their specific historical context. In particular, they reflect the values of the groups in power within those historical contexts. Thus, application of those methods, no matter how careful, will serve to reproduce the values of the dominant groups. Harding writes:

The starting point of standpoint theory—and its claim that is most often misread—is that in societies stratified by race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, or some other such politics shaping the very structure of a society, the activities of those at the top both organize and set limits on what persons who perform such activities can understand about themselves and the world around them. . . . In contrast, the activities of those at the bottom of such social hierarchies can provide starting points for thought—for everyone’s research and scholarship—from which humans’ relations with each other and the natural world can become visible. (Harding, 54)

Harding argues that if we wish to rid science of sexism and androcentrism, we must do so not by applying the allegedly objective methodologies of the dominant group, but by taking the methods, values, data and experiences of marginalized groups as the starting point of inquiry. In this way, she argues, it may be possible to overcome the bias inherent in the dominant approaches in science, and hence to arrive at what she calls Strong Objectivity. Put simply: power differentials skew inquiry in favor of dominant approaches. If we wish to be truly objective, says Harding, we need to recalibrate by lending extra weight to neglected and marginalized approaches.

Since Harding’s characterization of Strong Objectivity is especially at odds with some of the more traditional accounts of objectivity Axtell presents earlier in the volume—and since Harding is arguably on solider footing than Nelson to answer Susan Haack’s characterization of standpoint theorists as “new cynics” (154)—Axtell’s decision to discuss a weaker, less political version of Strong Objectivity is disappointing. Further, although Axtell could not have anticipated this when he wrote Objectivity, the 2016 American election poses difficult new challenges to Harding’s Strong Objectivity that bear examination.

Earlier, I characterized the extra weight that Strong Objectivity demands we place on marginalized voices as a kind of recalibration. That recalibration requires an antecedent conception of which standpoints are amplified and which are muffled under the current system of power. One of the many painful lessons of the election of Donald Trump is that we are very far from agreement about which views in fact are dominant and which are marginalized. Whereas feminist epistemologists typically assume that the marginalized perspectives are those of women, racialized people, LGBTQ people, etc., a sea of “Make America Great Again,” ball cap–sporting white folks now loudly disagree. To them, so-called “identity politics” (and a fortiori the accompanying epistemological approaches) serve to further empower urban, coastal, educated “elites” and to obscure the hardships borne by the rural working class, Rust Belt white poor.

Indeed, since the Nov. 8 election, the liberal media’s handwringing over “the liberal bubble” rehearses some of the core tenets of standpoint theory, but with a twist. Whereas Harding would have us attend in particular to the experiences of women, racialized people, LGBTQ people and so forth, the now ubiquitous narrative of the liberal bubble is premised on the notion that we (scholars, liberals, the media . . .) have tended to overlook the perspectives of the white working class, and that inquirers must recalibrate to compensate for this.

Of course, many of the cries of elitism are purely polemical. Trump and his cabinet of billionaires (Kopf), for instance, are smart enough to know that they are elite if anyone is. However, millions of Trump’s enthusiastic supporters are sincerely persuaded that they are the beleaguered minority. Rightly or wrongly, they regard government and mainstream media as amplifying the perspective of an elite that serves feminists, Muslims, and black, Latinx, and LGBTQ folks to the detriment of poor whites. In the judgments they make about media, about science, and about politics, they see themselves as effecting objectivity through recalibration, just as Harding (unbeknownst to them) urges feminist epistemologists to do.

Much of the current painful schism in the United States today amounts to a disagreement over who is dominant and who is marginalized, over which perspectives are amplified and which are muffled. While Democrats can point to scads of evidence that, to cite just two of many examples, climate change is anthropogenic and that black people are disproportionately subject to police violence, Trump supporters can reply thus in good standpoint theorist fashion: “Those are exactly the kinds of things we’d expect researchers operating under the dominant liberal paradigm to conclude; we therefore give this evidence less weight.”

Axtell-cum-Nelson’s generic Strong Objectivity, with its injunction to mind our own biases, is weak sauce in the face of this challenge. My own money is on Harding, but post-Trump, Harding-style Strong Objectivity proponents will have a long uphill battle ensuring that Strong Objectivity isn’t deployed as a basis to put even greater weight on the dominant views of the newly emboldened white male status quo.

Works cited

Harding, Sandra. “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is ‘Strong Objectivity’?” In Feminist Epistemologies, edited by Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter, 49–82. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Kopf, Dan. “Trump’s 17 Cabinet-Level Picks Have More Money Than a Third of American Households Combined.” Quartz, December 15, 2016.

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    Guy Axtell


    Reply to Dea

    Shannon Dea is concerned with the treatment of standpoint epistemology in my book. That treatment comes in Chapter 5, “Objectivity Rehabilitated,” where my reconstruction tries to take on board many of the insights of social and feminist epistemologies, but also distances itself from certain doubtful claims made by standpoint theorists. Dea holds that by focusing more on Julie Nelson’s than on Sandra Harding’s account of what feminist standpoint theorists term “strong objectivity,” I made its accommodation too easy on myself, through characterizing strong objectivity as a less challenging thesis than it is.  According to Dea I also missed seeing the advantages for modern liberals in the age of Trump, of a “more subversive, more overtly political” version of standpoint theory.

    Perhaps I could have done more to distinguish between different versions of standpoint theory. But in response to the first point, although it is correct that I favored Nelson’s work, I did also discuss Harding directly in the book. Indeed, passages that were discussed from Nelson’s book Feminism, Objectivity, and Economics included the same example of bias in economics that Dea described as unique to Harding’s ‘strong’ version: that labor statistics leave out unpaid domestic labor, tending thereby to render it invisible (152). But in the bigger picture, it is undoubtedly true that I find it easier to take on board insights from what Dea calls “a weaker, less political version of Strong Objectivity.” What the book does in this regard is to describe what I take to have been an important ‘turn’ within feminism itself, from being pretty dismissive of the concept of objectivity in the 1970’s and 80’s, to instead, post-1990, offering positive, reconstructive accounts of it. The book’s Introduction and Chapter 5 both point out how this shift is well-documented within feminist circles, and how it was mirrored to an extent in a serious rethinking within standpoint epistemology as first formulated.1

    These moderated approaches are those that I could most easily be taken on board; by contrast, approaches characterized by the notions that inquiry is inevitably political, that dominant ideas are always a function of the interests of a ruling class, or that that knowledge and truth are community-bound, are ones that miss taking this positive, reconstructive turn. Another way to put this is that these more radical standpoint epistemologies are those that seem most subject to Susan Haack-style charges of ‘cynicism.’ Interestingly, Dea suggests that her overtly political version of standpoint theory makes for a better response to Haack’s criticisms, but she doesn’t explain why she thinks this. There is not a lot of detail on what a “political” version is in her short paper, but one would think that the more overtly political or partisan an author’s standpoint is, the less resources they have —not the more— for answering to such worries. An especial concern I have with the standpoint theorists’ dependence on a rhetoric of circumstantial ad hominem. It is “good standpoint theorist fashion” she concedes, to dismiss others on the grounds that “Those are exactly the kinds of things we’d expect…” from people of a certain pre-categorized class, race, sex, etc. to say. This indeed strikes me as a cynicism about motives, and a fallacious ‘fashion’ to the extent that it leads us to look at the persons making an argument, rather than at the argument they make. Such an approach cannot help us to distinguish between more and less biased views, which feminists and critical race theorists should want to do.

    Thus far I have responded only to general worries about Dea’s ‘strong’ qua ‘overtly political’ version of standpoint theory. To summarize, let us note that when she describes less overtly political versions as “weaker” and more overtly political versions as “stronger,” this is merely formal: It describes how challenging or in her own words, “subversive” the view is, relative to others. More moderate or circumspect views will always be ‘weaker’ on this scale. What we need, however, are reasons to think that the version she prefers is stronger in a philosophical sense i.e., better supported or more plausible. This I do not think she has done, but we have yet to look at her actual test case: liberal politics in the ‘age of Trump.’ So let us consider this now, as it perhaps makes for a good way to update and extend this debate over different versions of standpoint theory.

    In describing Donald Trump’s rise to the Presidency, Dea very nicely points out the irony that the middle-class whites who drove him to office were essentially borrowing a page from the politics of standpoint theorists. They used a formally similar rhetoric, she allows, while persuasively reversing the prevailing narrative by describing themselves as a class forgotten or marginalized. Both groups could use standpoint tactics and argue that power differentials skew inquiry in favor of dominant approaches. Barack Obama’s liberal supporters, and Washington insiders more generally, were effectively branded as the ‘elite’ doing the marginalizing and disempowering. The standpoint theorist’s recommendation to accord more weight to marginalized voices requires an antecedent conception of which standpoints are amplified and which are muffled under the current system of power. It is precisely this narrative that this has been successfully challenged by Trump’s supporters, by ignoring the plight of historically marginalized groups such as women and minorities, in favor of the ‘muffling’ of the working white middle class in recent administrations.

     Dea seems well-aware that it is a problem for standpoint theorists that their tactics could be appropriated and re-directed by their right-wing political opponents. “Recalibration” is a basic notion for how to amend bias, according to feminist standpoint and critical race theory. So to follow the parallel with standpoint theory further, they might well hold that we should now recalibrate for this by making the perspective of this marginalized group the primary one, or the “starting point for inquiry” going forward. Some of these cries about who constitutes the elite do seem to be “purely polemical,” as she notes. So Dea has supplied an interesting analysis of the situation, to be sure. But what lessons should we draw from it? The lesson she wants liberals to draw is a need to adopt a still more “subversive,” and overtly political stance. But again, I wish she had explained why. I do not see compelling reason to think that this as the right lesson to draw; nor do I think Dea’s suggestion is politically advantageous if we want more political dialogue and less polemics, more cooperation and less partisanship, in American politics. Once we get past the confusion between becoming more activist, as many liberals are today, and accepting the correctness of an overtly political account of inquiry, I would argue that the latter is less rather than more helpful to the liberal cause than the moderate versions of standpoint theory. We must be careful about any discourse which rubs shoulders with the circumstantial ad hominem, or which relies on the over-generalized prescription that the previously marginalized should become “the starting point” for inquiry. For this is also what those people across the aisle are able to mirror, if perversely, in their own demands.

    One alternative to all this polemical discourse, I would like to suggest, is a new and more functional means of diversity inclusion, one that promotes more bipartisanship and value pluralism. I think of this alternative as supported by Jonathan Haidt’s social constructionist view in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), an approach which not-incidentally would have allowed liberals to better anticipate how the messages of the Trump campaign might find the strong support that they did, in what had seemed to most a deeply-divided political right. Haidt is able to explain the rift between right and left in a way that lends itself to recognizing that there are good moral and political motives on both sides of the isle, but also to awareness of the different core values and symbols that each tend to find appealing. Prescriptively, Haidt points to the need for more awareness by all citizens of the moral intuitions of people on the other side of the political aisle. Thus, his is an empirically-informed, descriptive value pluralism. If many liberals cannot understand conservative values and their multiple “triggers,” and instead simply take conservatives as narrow-minded, as duped, or as people of bad moral motivation, then arguably they fail to be open-minded enough themselves. A quote I used in Chapter 6 still seems to me to make the crucial point quite well:

    If value pluralism is in fact at the heart of political disagreement  . . .  then the virtues of reflexivity, reciprocity, and “distanciation” with respect to one’s own values really are required. But these virtues may be less essential when conflict is viewed as a clash of political interests… indeed, where disputes are grounded in political conflict rather than value pluralism, the call to abstract from one’s conception of the good, or from individual and com-munity interests, can seem like a pernicious move in a political game. . . .2

    To conclude, the ‘age of Trump’ may well be an age of greatly-increased activism for progressives. But I think it marks a confusion in thought analogous to the one discussed in this quote, to identify that activism with Dea’s ‘overtly political’ version of what standpoint theorists refer to as strong objectivity. Dea’s suggestion does not seem not to push us to be more objective by freeing ourselves from one-sided perspectives. Again I need details of just what the political version of standpoint theory comes to, but what I worry may not be found in it that I think is better-maintained in its moderate forms is explicit support of scientific integrity, and a fact-based approach to public policy. For a problem in holding that scientific knowledge is uniformly politicized is that we can no longer set conditions for violation of scientific integrity, or detect special cases of the politicization of science. So which version of standpoint theory, I want to ask, best supports citizens standing up for long-term thinking about the environment; for the independence of scientific facts about global warming; for the need for rigorous and independent journalism; and for the need for checks and balances, and fiduciary obligations that are so easily made lax by corporate self-regulation? The cynicism about science we have seen expressed in President Trump’s campaign and early months in office has led the age of Trump to have been recently dubbed a ‘post-truth’ age in several editorials. Until alleviated, my worry with Dea’s proposal is remains that the irony she well-articulates in the ‘mirroring’ of standpoint theory by the President’s supporters may actually be substantially greater than she thinks. For this irony is surely enlarged if it turns out that the far right she opposes and the left-liberal response she recommends, share a cynicism about norms of impartial reasoning, and about deliberative virtues of distanciation with respect to one’s own values.

    Works Cited

    Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

    Intemann, K. (2010). “25 Years of Feminist Empiricism and Standpoint Theory: Where Are We Now?” Hypatia 25 (4): 778–796.

    Kahane, D., D. Weinstock, D. Leydet, and M. Williams (eds.). (2010). Deliberative Democracy in Practice. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press.

    Longino, H. (1990). Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press.

    Nelson, J. (1996). Feminism, Objectivity, and Economics. London: Routledge.

    1. See especially Longino (1990), Intemann (2010), and additional sources discussed in my Introduction (14) and Chapter 5 (153-154).

    2. Kahane, et. al. (eds.) (2010), 13–14.

    • Avatar

      Guy Axtell


      Trump and withdrawl for the Paris Environment Agreement?

      I just heard an informative and fascinating talk by Andrew Light, on the history of international environmental accords, and the distinct threat of the Trump administration moving to withdraw (either explicitly or effectively) from its commitments to green-house gas emissions under the Paris Climate Agreement. The next month will be very telling with regard to the stand that the administration takes. Is this another good example of a trend that flies in the face of a fact-based approach to policy? Stand up for the U.S. staying in the Paris Climate Agreement, both explicitly and effectively!



Comment on Axtell’s Objectivity

Before getting to my comments, let me put on record my admiration for this book. It is rare to find a book written from a pragmatic perspective that engages so intensively and intelligently with current debates. In that respect I think it is a model for future work in a pragmatic vein. But, as always, one has questions.

In this short piece, I am going to pose a question about Axtell’s initial definition of objectivity. Axtell takes it that the primary sense of objectivity is epistemic, having to do with “a set of norms that obliges persons or groups of persons to apply impersonal modes of reason in the course of their inquiries or deliberations. This working definition makes objectivity a characteristic of our processes of inquiry . . . and, derivatively, of the products of those inquiries” (Axtell, 2). Many philosophers also posit a second sense of objectivity, an ontological sense, which has to do with the way the world is as it stands independently of our thinking about it. Something is ontologically subjective if it is dependent on the way a subject or a group of subjects takes things to be, while something is ontologically objective if it is not so dependent. Axtell’s controversial move is to reject the ontological sense of objectivity, arguing that “objective world-talk really isn’t a kind of objectivity” (2) at all.

Axtell’s main argument for this claim is that this view of objectivity presupposes metaphysical realism, the view that there is a single ready-made world of facts that stands as the norm for the correctness of any description of it. As Axtell says, an account of objectivity undergirded by this metaphysical view “elicits a mental image of a world of facts or static physical reality conceived as separate from and prior to all of our strategies of inquiry. Could objectivity be what belongs to the object of thought rather than to a knowing subject? This would make objectivity something static and absolute” (2). As Axtell notes, many philosophers—for example Nagel and Williams—argue that metaphysical realism is a necessary condition for epistemic accounts of objectivity, for they think “pure inquiry” is motivated by an ideal in which our representations of the world are correct only if they describe what is “there anyway.” So inquiry, if it is to be epistemically objective, must abstract as far as possible from our subjective endowments, must be maximally a-perspectival. Axtell resists this picture by endorsing a pragmatic and conceptual pluralism in which there is no single way the world is independent of our multifarious descriptions, interests, and purposes. As James famously said, the tail of the human serpent is over everything. This does not, Axtell argues, rule out giving robust yet pluralistic epistemic accounts of objectivity, but it does rule out the idea that epistemic objectivity depends on there being a single way the world is, and so the idea that ontological objectivity is an intelligible stand-alone notion.

The question I want to ask is this: can one, on pragmatic grounds, argue that there is an intelligible notion of ontological objectivity distinct from the epistemic sense of objectivity, which does not depend on metaphysical realism?

Because of pragmatism’s theory of content the usual answer to this question is no. On the pragmatist account, for a concept to have content such content must stem from the concept’s role in experience. But if the concepts we use to think about the world have content because of their role in experience, then such contents clearly cannot refer to extra-experiential objects (Kantian Noumena). In Axtell’s terms, the pragmatists accept wholeheartedly the “epistemological turn” taken by Modern Philosophy—the turn to thinking that because our access to the world is always mediated by our procedures of understanding that we must focus, in our account of objectivity, on the nature and quality of this mediation, on “the means by which we come to know something” (Axtell, 23). The main burden of part 1 of Axtell’s book is to show, following Bernstein, that taking this turn only leads to relativism and anti-realism generally if one’s account of objectivity is so stringent that in not being able to meet it one “boomerangs” back to relativism and anti-realism. If one accepts a pragmatic pluralism about objectivity—one that recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all account of our inquiring practices—then one can escape the oscillation between objectivism and relativism/anti-realism.

But is there not, I want to ask, another more “Hegelian” way to avoid this oscillation, namely, by questioning the epistemological turn from within by: (1) working through the presupposition that subject and object, mind and world, are distinct existences that stand opposed to one another, and (2) by providing an account of cognition in which self and world are dynamically coupled through time?

In my view, the question of objectivity operates for the pragmatists at three levels: at the epistemic level, the level of content, and the ontological level. We get to the ontological level through thinking about the limits of the prior two levels. At the epistemic level, the question of objectivity for the pragmatists concerns the question of how our inquiries must be structured so as to issue in products that can be counted as knowledge. At this level, which is the one that is usually discussed with respect to the pragmatists, one is concerned with how inquiry, though value-laden, fallible, and without foundations, can nonetheless be objective. It can, so the thought goes, because inquiry is a self-correcting enterprise, the authority of which is determined solely by evidence and open, unconstrained reason-giving by a community of inquirers. At the level of content, in contrast, the question is how potentially knowledge-bearing thoughts or judgments can have objective content, i.e., can be rationally answerable to the mind-independent world. Here the question is how the world can stand as the norm for the correctness of thought and judgment about it.

I’d like to make two points. First, for the classical pragmatists this second question is not completely independent of the first because, on their view, thought or judgment is answerable to the world by being part of an inquiry-like structure, namely, a feedback governed cycle of perception, thought, and action in which reflective problem-solving informs our bodily habits and skills, and in which the bodily habits and skills that embed us in the world prepare us for intelligent future praxis. This cycle is inquiry-like in the sense that the patterns of the disciplined forms of inquiry that come to be developed in Modernity are implicit in, and a development of, this anthropologically basic way of coping with the world. But nonetheless, an answer to the second question will be distinct from an answer to the first, having to do not with the correct procedures for getting objective knowledge, but with the way that subjects and their cognitive abilities are situated within, and transact with, the environment.

Second, while the question about the objectivity of content can remain within the presuppositions of the epistemological turn, for example, when we ask what the conditions are for subjects to grasp that their thought has objective content, we can also ask whether thought or judgment is in fact objective, regardless of what a subject grasps. To answer this second question we must, for Dewey and Mead at least, go beyond an individual subject’s self-understanding and engage discourses like biology and anthropology that view subjects from sideways-on. Here we get not just a critical account of the Cartesian ontological assumptions built into the epistemological turn (something that is necessary for the “Hegelian” strategy I am describing), but also a positive account of the relation between the body, cognition, nature, and culture that draws upon the special sciences. Here, we do not just reflect on ourselves from the first-person point of view, but reflectively situate ourselves as a kind of being in a larger naturalistic story. In this move to objectify ourselves we come up against the limit of the epistemological turn. For in making ourselves an object of inquiry in this way we are able to grasp that the ground for our cognitive capacities goes beyond those capacities themselves, and includes the larger natural and cultural context in which they are situated. So the enabling conditions for thought and judgment, and hence knowledge itself, are not just our own, as Kant thought, but include this wider “cosmic” context. In going back and forth between the agent-perspective and the sideways-on perspective, the account of the objectivity of content goes beyond the limit of the epistemological turn.

What does this have to do with ontological objectivity? In giving an account of the objectivity of content inquiry is itself pushed to identify, in the order of knowing, conditions that it itself depends on, which are in the order of being. Inquiry can aim to identify these conditions in the order of knowing because it presupposes that this order depends on a prior order—the order of being. Ontological objectivity, when given a pragmatic construal, concerns the presupposition that there is a way the world is in the order of being upon which our inquiry into the possibility of content depends. This presupposition informs our thought and practices of inquiry generally, insofar as they are guided by the notion that they must answer to the way things are. In making ontological objectivity a presupposition rather than a substantive position, we get an account of it that is not based in metaphysical realism. So Axtell is right that there is no ontological account of objectivity that concerns what is “there anyway” in complete independence of our take on things. But he is wrong, at least by my lights, in thinking that this leaves us with no intelligible account of ontological objectivity.

  • Avatar

    Guy Axtell


    Response to Steven Levine

    Steven Levine challenges the sufficiency of the role that I give to “ontological objectivity” in my account. He argues that even thinkers of pragmatist orientation—an orientation we share—should acknowledge a “notion” of ontological objectivity, where he then associates this notion with a “level” or “kind” of objectivity. “The question I want to ask is this: can one, on pragmatic grounds, argue that there is an intelligible notion of ontological objectivity distinct from the epistemic sense of objectivity, which does not depend on metaphysical realism?” Answering his focal question affirmatively, he concludes that “Axtell is right that there is no ontological account of objectivity that concerns what is ‘there anyway’ in complete independence of our take on things. But he is wrong, at least by my lights, in thinking that this leaves us with no intelligible account of ontological objectivity.”

    Levine’s comments make me aware of an apparent tension between what I say about epistemic and ontological senses of objectivity in my introduction, and my subsequent attempt in part 1 to dialectically reconcile the core axiological posits of realism, constructivism, and idealism. So let me first address a point I would concede to Levine, and then I will defend a key distinction, which was perhaps not clear enough in the book, between “senses” and “kinds” of objectivity. Thereafter we can address more directly what I take to be a misinterpretation of the book: that it doesn’t aspire to provide an intelligible account of ontological objectivity.

    What I would concede to my critic is my mistake in claiming in the introduction that the notion of ontological objectivity presupposes a suspect metaphysical realism. Some objective world talk clearly does; but my subsequent rejection of Nagel’s metaphysical realist account of ontological objectivity may give the impression that the whole notion of ontological objectivity loses its validity and value in the account. This would be inconsistent with the work of part 1, which tries to treat a dual demand by reconciling the axiological posits of realism and anti-realism (idealism and constructionism). On the whole it would have been more self-consistent for me to have reversed my claim, and said that metaphysical realism is suspect for the specific account of ontological objectivity it presupposes.

    I made two further claims in the introduction that without adequate clarification might appear at odds with each other, and as further suggesting a simple dismissal of ontological objectivity: the first, that the “primary sense” of objectivity is its cognitive or epistemological sense, and the second, that metaphysical or ontological “objective world—talk really isn’t a kind of objectivity” (2). Levine especially wants to challenge the second claim. That is fine, and below I defend my claim. But let us start by pointing out that the claim that ontological objectivity is not a kind of objectivity need not be equated with any claim that there is “no intelligible account” of it. The “kinds” as I have said are all of them epistemic, but the “senses” of the term are not. Ascribing to it a “secondary sense” would presuppose rather than negate its having a role to play in the dialectics of objectivity. But in retrospect I could have made much clearer this distinction between senses and kinds of objectivity. It is only by assimilating these that we can get from my claim that objective-world talk is a “secondary sense” to Levine’s interpretation: that my account leaves us with “no intelligible account” of ontological objectivity.

    There are legitimate epistemological and ontological senses of the term “objective,” but the kinds of objectivity are all of them epistemic because the kinds are constitutive of activities: processes of inquiry and assessments of the products of inquiry. So to say that objective world-talk really isn’t a kind of objectivity is not to make the far stronger claim Levine associates with it. Levine’s Hegelian answer to his question distinguishes three “levels,” the epistemic, the level of content, and the ontological level. The taxonomy I employed does not distinguish levels like this, but it does distinguish and allow legitimate epistemic and ontological senses. In discussion of kinds, I largely defer to Heather Douglas’s taxonomy with eight modes within three kinds. The modes invoke specific agreed “markers” of objectivity, and the kinds refer to different sorts of processes of inquiry, divided by direct or machinery-extended interface with the natural world, the reasoning of an individual, and the reasoning of a group (objectivity1, objectivity2, and objectivity3, respectively). We could talk about comparative advantages of our Hegelian (Levine) or pragmatic pluralist taxonomies, but both approaches clearly aim to understand and account for dual demands of realists and their critics, and to that extent both aspire to provide an intelligible role for the ontological sense of “objective.”1

    Let us look closer at the account I do provide, in order to show more fully that my account treats the dual demands of epistemology and ontology, rather than being unduly one-sided. I distanced my account from metaphysical realism, especially as Thomas Nagle develops it as inviting skepticism. An initial chasm between the subjective and objective worlds in this approach leads to a kind of futile “bridge-building” that can never put perception (appearance) and reality back in touch adequately again. But Levine, too, distances himself from metaphysical realism, and wants to meet the dual demand with something short of it, so that is not the issue between us. For both Levine and myself I take it want to rehabilitate ontological objectivity apart from the strong thesis of metaphysical realism understood as the “block universe” (James) or the “view from nowhere” (Nagel), etc. I appreciate in Levine’s account that like myself he wants to avoid the Cartesian Anxiety and the oscillation between objectivism and relativism that it motivates. The main argument Levine uses to establish a sense of ontological objectivity distinct from epistemic or cognitive objectivity is that inquiry into the order of knowing (his two levels), “presupposes that this order depends on a prior order—the order of being.” But he seems to miss that I also drew upon the useful distinction between the order of being and the order of knowing. I wrote that a realist demand “seems reasonable if maintained as a point about the order of being.” But to qualify this I continue, “It is quite different to claim that (1) what exists in the natural order exists independently of our epistemic standards (the ‘presupposition in ontological objectivity’ claim), and that (2) we have independent access to the true or real in a way that allows it to be a direct arbiter of conflicting theories or beliefs.” (Objectivity, 37; see also 31)

    I agree with Levine, then, that making ontological objectivity “a presupposition rather than a substantive position” is the way to understand this sense of objectivity apart from metaphysical realism. What really divides Levine and myself, I think, is mainly the nature or status of this “presupposition.”2 I would want to insist that this “notion” is of a status that—in order to make good that mentioned distinction from the epistemic—is neither a “kind” nor a “level” of objectivity. Arguably, these latter sorts of status are what threaten to make of the ontological sense a “substantive position.” Instead of philosophy, the independence of the order of being is a value-charged presupposition of inquiry: an axiological posit.3 So I would propose we eschew Levine’s language of levels along with the language of primary and secondary, which in retrospect is not helpful either.4

    The dialectics of objectivity means to me an account uncommitted to over-strong metaphysical conceptions of realism and idealism, while affirming that the more moderate claims might be understood as legitimate expressions of conditions of the intelligibility of all knowledge. The reconciliation which the dialectic of realism, constructivism, and idealism seeks to show forth is the explication of the axiological sources of their conflict, and thus holds the potential to find them, thus re-construed, logically compatible. They are still more than compatible, but complementary, if the intelligibility of knowledge requires a mutually-implicating “minimum” of each.5 An account of objectivity must meet an at least “double” demand, and disputes over primacy are attempts to deny this by ignoring that the initial premise of each side is a logically-underivable evaluative claim. Some such claims are more legitimate than others, but the realist minimum as I affirm it in the book is a principle of intelligibility such that the enterprises of knowledge, truth, and meaning could not take flight except at least implicit acknowledgment of it. Both Levine’s account and my own seem optimistic. Of course none of us can claim to have a magic bullet to kill off such long-standing theoretical oppositions as we are here concerned with. The prescription for a dialectics of objectivity—for an account of realist, idealist, and constructivist “minimums” that would be logically consistent—has a long way to go.

    1. I think there is a slide from an intelligible role for the ontological sense of “objective,” to a defense of ontological “objectivity.” Here the ontological sense already threatens to become something not so much reified, as rendered a form of knowing. The “ity” language of activities jibes with the role of the ontological sense of “objective” as a presupposition of inquiry. But I will not pursue this here and will just use “ontological objectivity” in this reply.

    2. The presupposition of an order of being independent of the order of knowing in which practices of inquiry are situated, may be assimilated to an ontological sense of the term “objective”; but this posit is very much value-laded rather than the descriptive one that it would need to be to constitute a kind or level of objectivity.

    3. This idea is also important in Peirce’s communal account that identifies what would be affirmed at the end of inquiry as a normative ideal. Even in Peirce’s communal account of scientific truth, an objective world is a presupposition of intelligibility. But stronger specifications of the objective world, whether empiricist or rationalist in motivation, often arguably works to reduce rather than enhance the intelligibility of knowledge. Peirce is in fact providing his response to Kant, a response that concedes that external reality affects our senses according to regular laws, but that eschews the Kantian thing-in-itself as an unrepresentable reality or an unknowable cause of sensation. His emphasis on the community as the interpreter of experimental results, and a corrector of individual faults was also a response to the verificationist empiricism (logicism) of his day. Peirce’s intended middle path between objectivism and relativism does not dispense with the ontological grounding of cognitive objectivity, but neither does it reduce the meaning of truth to any present test of truth.

    4. I wrote that the order of knowing and the order of being are “confused by” their association with polarities like those between the subjective and the objective, or the critical and the empirical (30–31). The way they are kept from such confusion is by recognizing their contrary primacy claims as value-charged demands. For philosophy they have the status of axiological claims, or value-charged claims about the intelligibility of all knowledge.

    5. Such a conciliation may be though unduly optimistic, but talk of “priority,” conceptual or temporal, and of “primary” and “secondary” status of the one order to the other, might be expunged from the debate altogether by this axiological turn.

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      Guy Axtell


      Content objectivity

      I really benefitted from Steven’s thoughtful comments on my book. Distinguishing content objectivity was not something I considered, but makes a good deal of sense as part of a taxonomy. I hope my own distinction between senses and kinds of objectivity, though, clarifies why I think I do justice in the book to that sense of objectivity typically referred to as ontological objectivity (but why on my account it isn’t a ‘kind’ or ‘level’ of objectivity).