Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Disputing Wittgenstein on Objectivity

Tibor R. Machan

Ludwig Wittgenstein is reported to have said, by O. K. Bouwsma, that "No one can write objectively about himself and this is because there will always be some motive for doing so. And the motives will change as you write. And this becomes complicated, for the more one is intent on being 'objective' the more one will notice the varying motives that enter in." (Wittgenstein, Conversations 1949-51, Hackett, 1986)

I believe the following would support a refutation of Wittgenstein’s skeptical thesis. Wittgenstein conflates ‘objective’ with ‘neutral’ or ‘impartial.’

Objectivity is something different. It means being honest, sticking to facts and reasonable inferences and theories, and distinguishing, rationally rather then with prejudice or bias, what is more from what is less important. It does not mean, as Wittgenstein implies, lacking motives or not caring. (Wittgenstein seems here to follow the famous German philosopher, Immanuel Kant who held that if one has motives or inclinations for doing what one does, then one is failing to be rational, impartial. But that is an esoteric, idiosyncratic conception of rationality. One can have sound motives for actions, or unsound ones.)

So, then, are there pitfalls in writing a memoir or about oneself and one’s beliefs? Why shouldn't there be when there are pitfalls in every kind of human activity? But pitfalls do not render the project impossible.

Just as Wittgenstein himself seems to suggest in his posthumously published book, On Certainty, we need not doubt if there are no reasons for doubting and unless one has good grounds for suspecting oneself of bias or prejudice, there need be no deep concern about one’s capacity to be objective in a memoir or autobiography.

Just consider in this regard that a medical doctor must be thoroughly objective as he or she approaches the patient’s malady and devises an appropriate cure; such a doctor is not impartial, not indifferent, not disinterested at all. Indeed, to satisfy his or her interests what is most needed is strict objectivity; otherwise the doctor will not be of help. (Same, by the way, with engineers or farmers.)

Now a lot of folks believe that philosophical ideas are kind of abstract, out of this world and not really relevant but in this case, as indeed in many others, philosophy matters. The idea Wittgenstein and Kant have propounded has been very influential. It is partly responsible for an insidious public perception, namely, that when it comes to anything in which one has some interest, anything that concerns one even just a little, never mind deeply, one’s views will be subjective, strictly personal, not based on facts but on how one feels about things. This is where the popular notion comes from that people’s reports on historical facts or events in the news must all be “from their point of view.”

After this is accepted, the only issue that remains is what accounts for one’s point of view. Is it one’s parentage, nationality, race, gender, age, or some such aspect of oneself. That this is the kind of stuff that many believe makes people think the way they do is evident from how they quite often explain away what someone is thinking by saying things like, “Well, you know she is a woman,” or “He comes from Europe,” or “It is he cultural background, of course, why she says what she does.” So when it comes to very important issues, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, everyone is supposed to be biased, no one can be objective.

But notice immediately that this also undermines these accounts--whoever gives it as an explanation of someone else’s position on some topic will also lack objectivity if he or she has any interest in the matter! And then can it be relied upon, trusted?

I am actually something of a fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein but in this instance I believe he was quite wrong.

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