Last Friday, we ended our discussion of the Hobbes-Boyle debate with my suggesting that we have to rethink the idea that science as a field (and scientists as people) are disinterested parties. Today, we will go into more depth about the issue of objectivity, mostly through articles by two authors: Lorraine Daston and Bruno Latour.
Daston’s article “Objectivity and the Escape from Perspective” was originally published in 1992. The main point of her article is that the ascendance of the ideal of aperspectival objectivity came not from science but from moral philosophy. So don’t blame the scientists!
“Only in the middle decades of the nineteenth century was aperspectival objectivity imported and naturalized into the ethos of the natural sciences, as a result of a reorganization of scientific life that multiplied professional contacts at every level, from the international commission to the well-staffed laboratory” (Daston 1992:600) (page 112 in the Biagioli reader)
When we use the word ‘objective’ today, it implies fact – ideas associated with objectivity include empirical, impartial, or rational. We understand this as a desirable state, in opposition to the subjective (which is derided as individualistic, not really true). Objectivity, however, did not always imply this, as Daston points out in her review of the use of the term: its use in medieval times in ‘scholastic philosophy’ was specific to objects of thought, not objects or phenomena in the empirical world. Daston dates the association of objectivity with impartiality to the eighteenth and nineteenth century, with the rise of natural philosophy (as we discussed in the history of the Hobbes-Boyle debate).
Daston traces the move towards the common understanding of ‘objectivity’ in what she specifies as ‘aperspectival objectivity’ to Kant: “…Kant’s combination of the ontological meaning of a shared object, the epistemological meaning of shared reason, and the social meaning of shared information under the rubric of the “objective” invited a blurring of these distinctions, and proved prophetic of things to come” (Daston 1992:606, or pg. 116 in the reader). In other words, when the ‘true nature’ of an object, the method of explaining that meaning, and the generally-accepted social meaning coincide, then there is objectivity. Daston wants to emphasize the ‘aperspectival’ part because she sees this meaning of objectivity about removing the individual out of the scientific equation (or at least out of the rhetoric). This is why ‘scientific articles’ are often written in the third person, leaving out that it is a person (or group) that is making an argument (do you see the irony of this sentence?). But, as Daston argues, this is a rhetorical trick, meant to emphasize the disinterest, the rational, etc., making the truth claims of science (and scientists) more powerful, universal – statements of indisputable fact. In fact, Daston closes this article with great insight: “scientists may have given up writing in the first-person singular, but not signing their articles” (Daston 199:614, pg. 121 in the reader).
Bruno Latour, in the article ‘One More Turn After the Social Turn,’ examines this issue of objectivity from a different perspective; not from an analysis of changes in how words are used as in Daston, but from a social science perspective. More specifically, he wants to look at how society impacts the production of knowledge in science. Latour emphasizes that one of the key issues is differences between internalist vs. externalist models of science, what we in anthropology call an emic (internal) vs. etic (external) perspective. In fact, Latour starts his argument that what his field (sociology of scientific knowledge) has thus far been doing is largely an internalist approach.
As an aside, what may make reading this article difficult is that he is addressing an argument linked to one from the late 1980s/early 1990s (what I mentioned earlier about the ‘culture wars,’ in this case social constructionism – as also mentioned in Shapin and Schafer). Furthermore, Latour is dealing in birds-eye modeling of the production of scientific knowledge, so his language is firmly grounded in the abstract.
Let’s start with his pictures to understand what Latour is saying about objectivity.
First, Latour paints a picture of what he sees as the first attempt to understand objectivity and science; this is through the nature/culture divide that we discussed earlier, although Latour couches this as nature/society.
From this first pass, the different arguments about science falls along this gradient, where what he identifies as ‘reactionary’ takes the perspective that science is the objective production of facts while the other extreme pole (what he calls ‘radical’) is where all knowledge is socially-constructed, including science. What is commonly understood as ‘objective’ is the Nature pole, and what is seen as ‘subjective’ is the Society pole. So while he’s not throwing the “sociological study of science” baby out with the bathwater, Latour argues that it’s not enough to stay within this model, and he uses Bloor to explain why staying in this model is a problem; here’s our second graph.
This graph is a model of explanatory models, 2 principles of symmetry. The first principle of symmetry (where truth is found in Nature, while errors are due to Society) is asymmetric: explain both truth and error with Society. The second principle of symmetry is the direction where Latour is headed (which is ‘actor-network theory,’ [Wikipedia link again]) is where both Nature and Society are explained in the same terms. In this model, there is no ‘aperspectival objectivity’ per se, since both nature and society are competing subjects. At this point, while he talks about the need for a second dimension, he has not yet specified what that dimension is.
So before we get to the third graph, we need to understand how Latour sees a fact. For Latour, “A fact is at once what is fabricated and what is not fabricated by anyone” (Latour 1999:282). For a fact to be a fact, someone has to say it (or cite it, but someone has to make it up); but at the same time, it is understood as well as not made up by anyone, since it is what it is, self-evident truth. Latour sees this as the nonhuman (nature) and human (society) origin of knowledge, and adds that there must be a complete separation of the two origins.
Latour essentially wants us to ditch this complete separation of the two origins as mythic, an article of faith. He argues that “Only when science in action and society in the making were studied simultaneously did this essential phenomenon become observable” (Latour 1999:283). For Latour, the best way to understand science is through what he calls “modifications” in this article (there are five of them):
- There is no opposition between Nature and Society.
- The nature pole and the society pole in the first graph above both come from a single cause (human cognition? The search for knowledge?)
- Neither nature nor society are transcendent (neither is above the other), but instead they are mixed together and co-constitutively created. He refers to this in his writing as the ‘Modern Constitution.’
- The key to understanding this ‘Modern Constitution’ is history, in that the interactions between nature/society can be better teased out after the fact.
- There are not two poles (for understanding science), but perhaps many poles – this can be seen best in actor-network theory.
For Latour, the point is that “we have never been modern.” This is the title of a book that goes into more depth than this article and that I used to assign for class (but this article covers a lot of what is in the book). So what exactly is modernity? Modernity is probably one of the most ill-defined yet most used concept in academia, and different disciplines use it in different ways. Academics toss it around as a starting point, an assumption. Most definitions circle around particular characteristics of modernity, including (but not limited to): rationalization, secularization, individualism, positivism, industrialization, commodification, bureaucraticization, etc.; modernity is often used as opposed to something else, such as modern vs. premodern, modern vs. postmodern, gemeinschaft (communal society) vs. gesselschaft (associational society).
But what is Latour’s definition of modernity? It is keeping separate the two practices of translation and purification. Translation pieces things together, purification keeps things (such as society and nature) separate. This definition is more of a koan [Wikipedia article link], so keep thinking about it and let me know what you come up with.
So in the end, Latour is saying there really is no pure objectivity, nor is there pure subjectivity.
So what then is Latour’s main point (in terms of understanding science)? Here are two quotes from the aforementioned book to help you think through this issue of what Latour means by translation and purification.
Sciences and technologies are remarkable not because they are true or different – they gain these properties in addition, and for reasons entirely different from those the epistemologists provide – but because they multiply the nonhumans enrolled in the manufacturing of collectives and because they make the community that we form with these beings a more intimate one (Latour 1993:108).
Every totalization, even if it is critical, helps totalitarianism. We need not add total domination to real domination. Let us not add power to force. We need not add absolute deterritorialization to capitalism, which is also quite real enough. Similarly, we do not need to credit scientific truth and technological efficacity with transcendence, also total, and rationality, also absolute. With misdeeds as with domination, with capitalism as with sciences, what we need to understand is the ordinary dimension: the small causes and their large effects (Latour 1993:125).