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History Of The Term

The terms subjective and objective were introduced in European medieval philosophy. Their meanings then were nearly the reverse of their current use: subject meant that which exists, whereas object referred to what is perceived in consciousness. These uses of the terms persisted at least until George Berkeley in the eighteenth century. Lorraine Daston suggests that the current use of the terms was introduced in 1856 by Thomas De Quincey, although the concept of objectivity as knowledge based on fact had already been made in the seventeenth century. Previously, the Aristotelean tradition considered factual knowledge, historical knowledge of specific events, or knowledge of anomalies and novelties inferior to knowledge of "essences" and generalities. Daston attributes to Francis Bacon the novel promotion of facts to a level worthy of natural philosophy. These facts are the precursors of objective knowledge.

Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787) is probably responsible more than any other single thinker for spurring a debate about objectivity by "splitting" the world into "things for us" and "the thing in itself" (Ding an Sich). Kant analyzed human cognition and concluded that for anything to appear in our consciousness, it must fit into certain innate internal categories such as temporality and causation. It is impossible for us to perceive any phenomenon but within the matrix of these categories. For example, all phenomena must appear in time and be caused by other phenomena. Kant concluded that it is impossible to have knowledge of the world as it is, independent of human observers, beyond our categories, or to use later terminology, objectively.

Much of subsequent philosophy attempted to rise to the Kantian challenge. Phenomenology has attempted to reunite the world by eliminating the distinction between subject and object. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) sought to unite them as aspects of an ideal world spirit that we can know by an act of self-consciousness, because we are parts of this world rather than distinct from it. Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) designed his phenomenology to study pure consciousness through the method of epoche, the suspension of belief in subject-object distinction. Husserl claimed that prior to cognitive processes, such as scientific abstraction, that distinguish the objective from the subjective, we live in an immediate asubjective "life-world." Husserl and his immediate and remote intellectual progeny (Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas) attempted to recapture this lost preobjective life-world. However, their analysis resulted in a new chasm between what they considered to be universal immediate human consciousness and the objective scientific world view.

Conversely, the nineteenth-century school of positivism (Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill) and the twentieth-century school of logical-empiricism (Ernst Mach, the early Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolph Carnap) claimed that the scientific method offers objective knowledge of the world, and therefore philosophy should explicate this method, and other disciplines would do well to use this philosophic blueprint to reform themselves. The logical empiricists shared an analysis of language as composed of distinct units that correspond with distinct chunks of reality. The objective meaning of words or propositions is then their empirical truth condition, a state of affairs in the world. For example "the cat is on the mat" is objectively true if and only if indeed the cat is on the mat.

The objectivity of our beliefs has been criticized by traditions that descend from Karl Marx (1818–1883)and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Marx thought that the material conditions of production are the objective aspect of society. Systems of belief merely reflect economic interests. Nietzsche tended to reduce beliefs to power relations. Karl Mannheim (1893–1947), the founder of sociology of knowledge, and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), one of the founders of the Frankfurt School, concentrated on economic or political influences over apprehensions of reality. Horkheimer argued that it is impossible to produce a metatheory to transcend the limits of a temporal worldview. Later, Michel Foucault (1926–1984) and Bruno Latour showed the dependence of research on social power relations, on what Foucault called discourses.

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