As the country is deep into a divisive election year, with one convention behind us and another commencing this week, journalistic coverage has continued to mirror the different sectors of popular opinion to which each news outlet increasingly caters their message and appeal. In the midst of increasingly polarized coverage, public figures otherwise disinclined to express political views have done so vehemently (Clint Eastwood’s chair routine at the RNC provides one potentially historic example). Overwhelmed by a deluge of opinions, undecided voters look desperately for concrete evidence that either party’s platform holds concrete, actionable suggestions for the nation’s long-awaited recovery. As the American people consume a daily litany of information, poll results, claims of success, allegations, and controversy, with much more on the horizon in the coming debates, an important epistemological distinction should be held in mind: the nature of objectivity– what it is and what it is not.
One dictionary referenced defines the word objective as “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion.” This definition is close to perfect, with “based on facts” being its concise, shining star. Another class of entries, however, from the same source reveal a contrary conception of objectivity which is the root of its common misuse. One reads, “intent upon or dealing with things external to the mind rather than with thoughts or feelings, as a person or a book.” Another: “[B]elonging to the object of thought rather than to the thinking subject.” And another: “existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.” The distinction between the first set of definitions and the two latter sets is philosophical, subtle, and profound.
Ayn Rand was the first philosopher to explicitly identify the three overarching perspectives in epistemology*: subjective, intrinsic, and objective. She describes subjectivism as “the belief that reality is not a firm absolute, but a fluid, plastic, indeterminate realm which can be altered, in whole or in part, by the consciousness of the perceiver—i.e., by his feelings, wishes or whims.“** It can be observed in the many contortions of the world’s modern policy-makers who evade the success of capitalism and Western values in promoting man’s life by such petty retorts as, ‘Well, that may have been true for you, but that does not mean it to be true for us.’ Intrinsicism, by contrast, is the Platonic belief in non-material Forms or essences which define an entity, are entirely external existents, and are viewed as holding an identity independent of man’s mind. In common argument, it manifests in such illogic as “To those who understand, no explanation is necessary; to those who do not, none is possible.”
An objective epistemology, by contrast, recognizes that concepts represent neither metaphysical existents without reference to consciousness, nor consciousness without reference to existents. For a concept to be objective, it must be a) volitional, b) reality-based, and c) demonstrable by the subject through the use of a cognitive method. It involves both the subject and the thinker. As John Galt describes in Atlas Shrugged, it emerges in a learning infant
“when he grasps that he is not a passive recipient of the sensations of any given moment, that his senses do not provide him with automatic knowledge in separate snatches independent of context, but only with the material of knowledge, which his mind must learn to integrate– the day when he grasps that his senses cannot deceive him, that physical objects cannot act without causes, that his organs of perception are physical and have no volition, no power to invent or to distort, that the evidence they give him is absolute, but his mind must learn to understand it, his mind must discover the nature, the cause, the full context of his sensory material, his mind must identify the things that he perceives– that is the day of his birth as a thinker and a scientist.”***
How do the aforementioned definitions of objectivity differ from the proper conception which we have articulated here? By emphasizing an existent’s “external[ity] to the mind”, its “belonging to the object”, and its “existing independent of thought or an observer”, each of these flawed definitions errantly characterizes objectivity as a property which obtains even in man’s absence, which it cannot. A common phrase would seem to refute this: “objective reality.” This term is, in its typical usage, innocuous and well-intentioned. However, objectivity, in truth, applies only in epistemology where it describes the relationship between observer and reality. Metaphysically, though meant to imply the distinct nature of existence as apart from man’s mind, it has no meaning, making the phrase “objective reality” tautological, as it uses an adjective whose definition is dependent upon the concept reality to modify reality itself.
How do such distinctions relate to current public debates? In popular modern rhetoric, there is a prevalent misconception of objectivity which equates it with indifference, agnosticism, or any variant of epistemological egalitarianism and demands of individuals the renunciation of conceptual integration or the advocacy of any particular course of action based upon observed facts, particularly as regards politics. Such misconceptions affect the methods and presentation of work by professionals in many careers upon which we depend to understand and operate the world in which we live: intellectuals, researchers, educators, journalists, jurists, economists, historians, etc. Where their research, curricula, reportage, and rulings have cultural and political implications, there is the propensity by those who feel inconvenienced by them to mischaracterize such findings as favoritism and partiality.
This is commonly observed in Leftist criticisms of popular Right-leaning news outlets such as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal or research institutions such as the Heritage Foundation. While categorical defense of the editorial and journalistic approaches of such parties would be, at best, oversimplification, their ever-growing support for capitalism displays perfectly an instance of polemic objectivity— that is, advocacy for certain convictions (particularly those with political, economic, or social ramifications) by reference to the facts of reality. Reality is not moderate, nor accommodating to contradictory views. It is not to be discovered or understood through compromise and a belief that “the truth is in the middle”, but through (as one writer once described the work of Aristotle) “the passionate search for dispassionate truth.” The essential which the Leftist and moderate objectors evade is: reality possesses political implications. Emerging from a modern cultural climate wrought by contradiction and inconsistency, it can be expected that exponents of reason will continue to be, as they have always been, at the far end of the intellectual spectrum.
What alternative is possible? The answer is to be found by following the objectors’ pleas to their logical conclusion. They praise the intellect of the economist who amasses data displaying the inverse correlation of government protectionism and economic health, so long as he does not then convert that recognition into political support for lowering trade barriers. They admire the skilled analysis of a historian who undertakes to research the origins of poverty in America, but dismiss him as a corporate shill when he reports findings that the Industrial Revolution, “Robber Barons”, and modernization were not its causes, that destitution was the standard in human life until the nineteenth century, and that it was the advent of capitalism which brought man out of it. They encourage the scientist who undertakes to determine a correlation between carbon emissions and weather changes, but when his study finds no direct correlation, they ask that he defer to potentiality in favor of actuality and admit that where causal links are possible, they cannot be affirmatively denied. In each case, they dismiss inconvenient findings as failures to be “objective”, but in each case their intention is not to foster objectivity arrived at through reason, but doubt in their opponents fostered through skepticism.
Objectivity is not indifference, intellectual passivity, or the refusal to integrate percepts into concepts for the sake of maintaining the appearance that all parties to a debate have equal merit and substantiation. It arises from the application of a rational mind to the facts of reality, whatever contentions such application may support in an established context, however controversial or polarizing they may be. As our national debates articulate the sharp lines that divide Americans today who are displeased with the country’s current state, but who disagree about its causes, it is an increasingly crucial point which the advocates of reason and capitalism must uphold explicitly. Reality– and objectivity– is on our side. Or, to paraphrase Ayn Rand, the collectivists have dropped all claim to objectivity because they had no right to carry it; pick it up; you have.
* Epistemology, for those unused to formal philosophy, is the field of philosophy which deals with man’s means of acquiring knowledge about the world in which he lives.