I am reading Daston and Galison’s (2007) Objectivity for the STS grad student workshop meeting today. It’s a fascinating book, and a gorgeous one. Much of the evidence for the argument comes from scientific images – drawings, photographs, etc. – from the 19th and 20th centuries. Daston and Galison literally show us their argument about the history of objectivity through the varied styles of visual reasoning (not their term). The argument itself is relatively straightforward given the complexities of the subject: objectivity has a history, and is a relatively recent answer to a particular epistemological worry. Daston and Galison trace the movement from “truth-to-nature,” where images attempted to represent idealized forms, to “mechanical objectivity,” where images tried to minimize the role of the scientific subject (judgment, bias, etc.) in the mid-19th century, to a more recent model of “trained judgment,” which neither eliminates the knower entirely nor does it privilege the typical in nature. Rather than rehash the argument beyond that, I simply want to present a delicious quote about the history of epistemology and objectivity:
All epistemology begins in fear – feat that the world is too labyrinthine to be threaded by reason; fear that the senses are too feeble and the intellect too frail; fear that memory fades, even between adjacent steps of a mathematical demonstration; fear that authority and convention blind; fear that God may keep secrets or demons deceive. Objectivity is a chapter in this history of intellectual fear, of errors anxiously anticipated and precautions taken. But the fear objectivity addresses is different from and deeper than the others. The threat is not external – a complex world, a mysterious God, a devious demon. … Objectivity fears subjectivity, the core self. (372-374)
This quote gets at the heart of what Daston and Galison see as peculiar about the mid-19th century move to thinking about and discussing objectivity per se (as opposed to older epistemological debates going back to Kant, Descartes, and even Plato). The concern is no longer just that the world will elude our descriptions, but that the knowing subject is flawed and self-delusional, that the same feature that makes knowledge possible at all (the self) makes knowledge precarious.
Anyway, it’s a neat book, and has lots of insights for anyone interested in doing history of science, or conceptual history. Recommended.