Nicholas Rescher’s Objectivity: The Obligations of Impersonal Reason is his critique of the subversion of objectivity and rationality by three intellectual trends that gathered steam in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The first of these trends was cultural relativism, a dogma of the social sciences that maintained that because codes of value emerge from and depend on particular cultures, there is no way to judge their relative superiority and, therefore, they are all equally valid. The second trend was a liberal egalitarianism that denied that any set of values (particularly Western values) is superior to another and urged tolerance of them all. The third trend was postmodernism, which contended that there are no objective, transcendent, and absolute values in the world such as truth, goodness, and beauty, and that the normative distinctions between truth and fiction, or sense and nonsense, are wholly subjective.
Rescher’s aim in this volume is to defend the claim of objectivity against its various cultured despisers. He argues that a relativistic indifference to truth and rightness is inherently self-destructive and self-contradictory. To abandon objective standards of truth in fields such as physics, history, and ethics is in effect to abandon those fields altogether. The source of objectivity, Rescher claims, is found in human rationality itself. Thus, to relinquish objectivity is nothing less than to relinquish reason. He conceives of rationality in terms of pragmatism (the view that the meaning and truth of a statement is the sum of its logical and physical consequences) and the coherence theory of truth (the view that the truth of a statement is determined by its consistency with other statements in a system of logically consistent statements). The prestige of objectivity suffered a decline among some thinkers in the last quarter of the twentieth century because either its link to rationality was not understood or, if it was, rationality itself was disparaged for some reason.
Objectivity requires putting aside one’s prejudices and personal preferences in choosing one’s beliefs, values, and actions and instead following the dictates of impartial reason—in other words, consulting one’s head rather than one’s heart. Reason is universal: What is rational for one person to believe, value, or do must be so for anyone else in the same situation. Reason does not accommodate itself to the idiosyncratic needs, dispositions, or needs of any individual. Though it does not ignore differences in people’s situations or contexts, rationality (objectivity) stipulates that people in similar contexts ought to believe, evaluate, and act in uniform ways.
Various academic groups have attacked objectivity for different reasons. Some anthropologists have claimed that different cultures have different kinds of rationality, none of which is universal and transcendent. Some historians and sociologists have despaired of ever attaining objectivity in their respective fields. Personalists have believed that objectivity conflicts with our humanity. Feminist epistemologists and Marxists have thought that objectivity, even if attainable, would be undesirable. Postmodernists have regarded all claims to objective truth as specious and nothing more than subjective opinions. Social activists have deemed objectivity illegitimate because it is incompatible with personal commitment. However, Rescher contends that all these attacks are based on misunderstandings of the nature of objectivity.
One such misunderstanding is that one must enter into a consensus or agreement with others concerning truth to meet objectivity’s requirement that personal idiosyncrasies be ignored. However, this is not so. Consensus does not guarantee the truth at which objectivity aims; only in an ideal world...
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