The "objectivity"/"subjectivity" spectrum: having one's cake and eating it too?
An interesting issue came up in my college seminar course today. Supposing one accepts that absolute "objectivity" is not achievable, ie that all understandings are "stories" that inevitably have a personal context dependence (some "subjectivity") to them. And one notices that many people are more attracted to stories with a personal element to them than they are to the "dry" stories told by scientists/academics. If absolute objectivity is unachievable, is there any rationale for putting up with (even aspiring) to "dryness", ie for preferring more objective stories to less objective things? for teaching students the virtues of trying to be more "objective"?
I think there in fact is but that it doesn't any longer lie along the obvious path of asserting that dryness is needed to get one to "Truth" or "Reality" .... those notions necessarily go out the window along with a recognition that the context-free view is not achievable. One needs instead to approach the matter from a different direction. Some thoughts about that direction ...
One of the more important lessons one learns as a professional scientist/academic is that the purely "subjective" doesn't play well in the marketplace of ideas. In fact, the more convinced one is from one's own perspective of the excitment/juciness/richness of one's understandings, the more critical it becomes to examine them skeptically, to step outside one's personal excitement and ask in what ways one's own observations and interpretations of them might be challenged by other people looking at them from perspectives other than one's own. To put it differently, a minimal reason to value a movement toward greater "objectivity" is to forestall criticism by others. Its better to onself find the problems that can be seen from other perspectives than to be embarrassed by someone else noticing and pointing them out.
On a somewhat larger but related scale, "I believe (feel/think/know/etc)" may be interesting to someone who is interested in finding out more about that person, or who already knows that person and trusts that they and oneself see things similarly. Its of no use whatsoever in trying to teach collective agreeements about what new avenues of exploration to pursue among people who don't start with similar presumptions. For that purpose, one wants descriptions of what one person has seen that provide as much assurance as possible that an arbiitrarily different person would also see the same thing under the same circumstances. To put it differently, the skill of examining and trying to eliminate one's own perspectival idiosyncracies is worth developing for the purpose of participating with the widest possible number of other people in a shared enterprise of ongoing collective inquiry. The "dryness" is a perhaps unfortunate but nonetheless necessary component of finding a common base of understandings from which group efforts can be productive. It is, I suspect, also a necessary component of creating within oneself a the kind of common basis of understandings from which new directions of inquiry can most productively emerge.
On a still related but also still broader scale., an aspiration to greater "objectivity" makes sense in terms of social interactions. Yes, individuals and social groups have coherent characterizations of "reality" based on their own experiences/interpretations. But its equally noteworthy that they are prone to dismiss, demonize, and even try to kill people with different, equally "objective" characterizations of "reality". I see no way to get out of this historically painfully obvious trap other than to encourage people (individuals and groups) to find a new perspective ("story") that doesn't deny the legitimacy of the stories developed from particular perspectives but encourages the creation of new stories that simultaneously make use of and transcend those developed form particular narrower perspectives. No, one cannot be "objective" in absolute terms, but one can indeed (and I think should) aspire to being less "subjective".
What's importantly similar in these three different scales is the idea that "Reality" and "Truth" are not abstract concepts that can serve as the arbitor among different "stories", but rather that "reality" and "truth" are important social constructions, and that the task of inquiry is to use the diversity of stories about both to achieve the best collective consensus that can be reached at any given time. The logic of aspiring to, and teaching, "objectivity" thus derives not only from our individual needs to make our individual ways in a mysterious world but equally from a recognition that we can better do so in state of the most effective exchange with people whose experiences/understandings are different from our own. In these terms, diversity is not a problem for "objectivity" (relative to where one is at any given time) but rather an asset to it.
Maybe "dryness" is easier to swallow in these terms? And that perhaps make sense, as well, of our interest also in the "personal" story? Maybe we can find in the idiosyncracies of others new directions for our own stories (as opposed to validations of its "rightness"?).