Monday, March 07, 2011


I always associate the idea that objectivity is really just intersubjectivity with Donald Davidson, the analytic philosopher. There is nothing perfectly out there, we might say; things are imperfectly between us. This idea, as I recall it, occurred to me while reading Davidson's ideas about the "coherence theory" of truth, especially when I came to understand his image of how we "triangulate" our sense of reality. We discover what is real, what is really "out there", what "objects" there are, by discovering what other people take to be real. Reality never impresses itself upon us as such, by itself. We are impressed largely with the impression reality leaves on others.

This social sense of "what there is" (ontology) is now quite commonplace. In the strong form of social constructivism, reality itself is a social accomplishment. A somewhat weaker version (and a more defensible one) says that, while there's obviously something "going on" out there beyond our shared experience of it, what we call "reality" is that which we can agree on the existence of. Davidson made me see that this constructivism (which I don't think he ever called by that name) does not imply any sort of relativism. "There is exactly one world," he says somewhere.

Why am I thinking about these things this morning? Academic writing is a great example of intersubjectivity. A journal article deals with a shared reality, grounded in a shared body of knowledge. Our "objects" are merely the stable themes of an ongoing conversation between knowledgeable peers. Keep that in mind when you are writing. You are not just trying to establish an individual relationship to the individual things you find in your field work. You are representing your peers when you go out to observe the world. You must see what they would see, not just report your own impressions. And then you must talk about what you have discovered with them.

This means that each paragraph you write should, ideally, make a claim about reality, and this claim should, in each of those paragraphs, then be related to the concerns of a network of already interrelated subjects, who are interested in, and know something about, the object that the claim is about. Knowledge does not get any more objective than our ability to take our responsibility to other inquirers seriously.


Charles Nelson said...

"Shared reality" is a fiction as we cannot "discover" others' understanding of reality. How would we do that without telepathy?

Rather there are only individual perceptions of reality in we assume that we understand others' perceptions of reality and that those others' perceptions are the same as or similar to our own. To the extent that our coordinated actions are successful is the extent to which we assume that others think like we do.

So, what exists, as Ludwik Fleck would say, is a "harmony of illusions."

Thomas said...

Why can't we say that the extent to which our coordinated actions are successful is the extent to which others actually think like we do? Musical chairs is fun because the shared reality includes one less chair than there are people in the game. The chair is missing relative to a specific social context, but it is also "really" missing. I think this is precisely the sense in which it is "objective" in so far as it is intersubjective.

Charles Nelson said...

When I was taking a phonetics class, I learned that babies/toddlers learned to produce the sound /r/ (in English) in two different ways. From the listener's perspective, they are the same, but from different speaker's perspectives, they are different internally.

For practical purposes, we assume that others think like us when performing as expected, but as with /r/, we may be thinking quite differently.