Three Forms of Objectivity: Impersonal, Personal, & Interpersonal

There are three ways to look at objectivity; one impersonal the other personal, the third interpersonal. In this post I am thinking of objectivity especially in the context of disagreement or controversy.

What do we want? What we want in talk of objectivity, is to get at reality; to get at the truth of the matter. Worries of bias, subjectivity, objectivity are all orbiting the hope of getting at truth; getting at reality. People who are not objective get in the way of discovering what’s is real.

[1] Impersonal Objectivity. This notion of “objective” is what the person on the street tends to think when they hear the word. Here, objectivity is obtained when a person is neutral and unbiased. This is an older “modernist” notion of objective. The knower could stand aloof, see reality as it really is, “nothing but the facts thank you very much.” The basic idea is that the knowing/learning subject is not personally involved in the knowing process (in the sense of biases, hopes, interests, weaknesses, perspectival limitations). In short, she/he is unbiased. This notion of objectivity relies on the subject to retain an impersonal stance regarding what is being investigated. It trusts the subject to be neutral. If one is impersonal, neutral, or unbiased, the hope is that one can access “objective truth.”

However during the latter half of the 20th century many became convinced that this sort of neutrality is not likely. While some would state this worry in a negative way—can we really strip ourselves of personal interest/weaknesses/perspectives/agendas— I would prefer to state it in a positive way. Positively speaking, bias, personal curiosity, perspective, and subjective motivation are the fuel of learning. These are what drive us and provoke us to grow, learn, and investigate the world.

To me, neutrality and pure objectivity are only likely in one circumstance; circumstances where we do not care about the fact of the matter. I could genuinely care less about which brand of golf clubs is the best. This … might… put me in a neutral position regarding disputes over golf clubs. This “carelessness” however robs us of the motivation needed to struggle after the facts of the matter about some question or another. I have no bias. I also do not care enough about the merits of this or that brand of golf clubs to bother with questions about golf clubs. In short, the characteristics to be avoided for impersonal objectivity are those characteristics needed for prolonged and deep investigation.

[2] Personal Objectivity. The other form of objectivity is quite personal, and subjective. Here the knowing subject is trusted to be faithful to an object rather than neutral. Thomas Torrance proposed (as did Michael Polanyi) this sort of idea as objectivity rather than objectivism. Knowing is a subjective act and involves personal commitment. Here the hope is in subjectivity itself, where one personally commits oneself in a sort of faithfulness to the object of investigation even if it means being shaped and changed in the process.

It is not hard to see that personal commitment, and drive will push one to discover more than the man standing neutral and at arms length. However, there is a worry with this view as well. Is the investigator personally committed enough to the object (politics, golf clubs, historical accounts) to allow herself to be changed by investigating it or is she committed more to herself so as to prevent this growth? Will she allow reality to overcome her own hopes, perspectives, desires, biases, and so forth? The biased man will always be more driven to investigate than the unbiased man, but the biased man may not allow reality to shape him.

The impersonal investigator is moldable but not interested. The personal investigator is interested by not moldable. The interpersonal investigator is interested and moldable because of a “twist.”

[3] Interpersonal Objectivity. There is a twist here that ought not to be missed. But first, the third sort of objectivity (again objectivity being our attempts to get at the reality of a thing) is what we might call interpersonal objectivity. Here I am thinking about bringing people together (i.e. interpersonal) including the impersonally objective and personally objective sorts of people. Obviously, knowledge can be pooled when we put our heads together. All things considered, two heads (or three) are better than one. With certain topics there is too much information at play for any one person to know everything anyhow. Group investigation is a force multiplier. There is more. Yes, knowledge is pooled, but biases are acknowledged, perspectives are discovered, insights reachable only by the motivation that bias gives, are shared.

The Twist -Relationship and love can be a route to knowledge. In cases of debate, controversy, and disagreement, bias will be high. Bias fuels motivation; therefore motivation will be high to dig deep, pour over pages, to think hard. Unfortunately, motivation is also high to cause us to commit to ourselves more than the object of investigation. Here then is the twist. Interpersonal relationship is often a route to discovery. In the Christian New Testament, Paul wrote a letter to an early Christian church in Corinth, where he listed off the outcomes of “agape love.” Among them was the phrase that, “Love rejoices in the truth.” This is because love commits to the good of the other, values the other, endures the other, hopes for the other, is humble enough to listen to the other and so forth. Our relationships with others can double brain power but they can also open us to things we wouldn’t have seen on our own.

The Twisted Twist – unfortunately the twist can be twisted. The choice to treat others with agape love can open a pathway to learning, but dislike of others can close the path down. Excessive love for ourselves can shut down learning. It is easy to assume a negative about another and thereby justify our refusal to hear them. So many of us are so certain we are in the right. We are passionate. We are eloquent. We are busy, we are lofty. We are surrounded by people who agree with us. There’s nothing the other can teach us. Love of others can be a route to discovery, and self-love can keep us in the dark.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *