Objectivity and the Human Sciences

© John Opsopaus

To the committed scientist no question is exempt from scientific investigation, and objectivity is the sine qua non of truth. Yet members of traditional societies often resent and resist the intrusions of anthropologists and other researchers; they may be offended and feel their beliefs are being trivialized or even profaned. In this essay I consider the causes of these differences and the role of objectivity in the human sciences. My conclusions have implications for our Western scientific society. (A Heideggerian undercurrent may be apparent in my remarks.) The characteristic stance of the sciences is to treat their subject matter as objects, which is the basis of objectivity. What do I mean by this?

Consider the relation of a hunter to his knife. He does not view it as an object but as a participant in his life, bearing - in some sense - a spirit of its own. In traditional societies the knife may be treated as a living thing - named, accorded respect, beautified, given a share in the fruits of its cooperation with the hunter, etc. It's imbued with a personality - a significance - that grows through its shared life with the hunter. In time it may be "killed," either in the line of duty, or when it has earned eternal rest.

Even in more materialistic cultures, craftsmen treat their tools with respect; they are in effect sacred. A craftsman and his familiar tool are a team functioning with a unitary soul to accomplish a shared purpose. The hunter and his knife is on the same continuum with the shepherd and his dog, the rider and his horse, and the master and his assistant.

Such a personal relation - cooperation in a shared life for mutual enrichment - is highly personal and subjective. For objectivity, the knife must be treated as an object, which means that it's treated as a thing defined by its publicly accessible properties: its weight, shape, hardness, material, structural relation to similar objects, appearance (e.g. in a photograph), role in publicly observable actions, etc. etc.

These objective properties are not directly relevant to the hunter, for he is not so concerned with the knife's public face as with its personal relation to him. He wants to know if the knife is eager to help in the hunt. Indeed, he might find the objective study of his knife to be rather offensive, as he would if some scientist treated his wife as no more than an object for scientific investigation.

Which brings us to the human sciences, such as anthropology, archaeology, sociology and psychology, whose goal it is to study people objectively, that is, to study as objects both people and their lives (including rituals, habits, institutions, beliefs, practices, artifacts, bones, etc.).

Naturally, most people don't like to be treated as objects - as animate slabs of meat. This is especially true in traditional (less objective) cultures, which see the spirits in many things. It's certainly demeaning for the hunter to be accorded less respect by the scientist than that hunter gives to his knife (or even to a friend's knife).

Certainly, it's sometimes necessary to treat people as objects (at least to a degree). For example, to gain the emotional distance necessary to do their jobs, the surgeon and the mortician must treat people as objects (to a limited degree). However, we know such objectivity can be carried too far, and patients often complain of not being "treated like a person." Objectivity is also necessary in the sciences, and I would not deny the important insights that have come from anthropology, archaeology and the other human sciences.

Nevertheless, rampant objectivity is the plague of our age; on every side it seeks to reduce everything, including people, to collections of objective properties. A person becomes a conjunction of a name, height, weight, race ("pick one of the following six, or Other"), ethnic group, salary, years of education, etc etc. The unique personal characteristics and private relationships - participations of lives in lives - of a person (let alone a knife!) are passed over as nonobjective and irrelevant. To the extent something is an object, it is spiritually dead, and thanks to rampant objectivity, most "civilized" people live in a (spiritually) dead world. For them (us), the gods are dead, as are all the spirits. Sad.

Nevertheless, objectivity has its function; it is proper that each of us sometimes relates to some things as objects. But the objective stance is a peculiar one, and definitely secondary to life as lived. The everyday life, even of an atheist or materialist, is suffused with spirit. The things which have become an integral part of one's life are thereby spiritual. This is the living context in which some things may be treated as objects some of the time.

Objectivity is secondary, and it should be acknowledged as secondary. I do not think objectivity should take precedence over life, yet objectivity depends on making things objects, which means killing (or banishing) their spirits. Needless to say, I don't think anyone has an unconditional right to go about killing, banishing or even insulting the spirits of another person's world.

We (by which I mean, approximately, "we of European culture"), have banished most of the spirits from our world. So naturally we find it hard to understand the concerns of people who live in a world that's still alive. That is our limitation. We are the ones who have put out our spirit-eyes.

My hope for the future of our "scientific" culture, as it spreads to the last corners of the globe, is that we will come to see objectivity as a peculiar attitude we may take, for a time, toward some aspects of our world, and that we will view it as a kind of killing - spiritual killing - which is sometimes needed, but should be accorded the same circumspection we give to biological killing. We kill bacteria, we kill insects, we kill dogs, we kill people. Rightly so. But it should never be done mindlessly. So also, I think, for the spiritual murder committed by objectivity. When we are considering being objective, we should say to ourselves: "I intend to treat this (animal, person, society, etc.) as an object, to a limited degree for a limited time, for the purpose of ... Is this spiritual killing or banishment justified? Why do I think so? etc."

With encouragement the spirits may even return to the animals, the plants and the minerals of our world.

Omnes spiriti vobiscum,
John Opsopaus

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Last updated: Mon Dec 22 17:25:55 EST 1997