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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.

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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.

Misunderstanding Objectivity

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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 would consensus be a decisive indicator of truth. However, in some disciplines—science, for example—consensus is epistemically significant; and in the realm of general principles, with which philosophy deals, its pursuit may be fruitful.

A second misunderstanding is that objectivity requires one to ignore the fact that knowledge and truth necessarily emerge from a specific culture or a particular kind of collective experience. Thus, cognitive relativism, which denies that there is a body of objectively true knowledge against which all claims to knowledge must be judged, rejects objectivity. It does so on the basis of an egalitarianism according to which there are different criteria of truth, each criterion being determined by the particular social group from which it emerges, with none being more valid than any other. However, its claim that there are equivalent “alternative standards of rationality” is incoherent; there is only a single, decisive standard of rationality. However, a uniform rational standard does not mean that rationality may not be exercised in diverse contexts or within different domains of experience; it does not demand a uniformity in human experience. Indeed, the exercise of reason is bound to particular social and cultural contexts. Cognitive relativists fail to realize that human activities, particularly scientific inquiry, are purposive, and certain procedures are more effective in realizing those purposes than others. Hence, the effectiveness of the means used to achieve one’s ends provides a criterion of the objective adequacy of those means to their ends.

A third misunderstanding of objectivity is that it reduces all human experience and knowledge to that which can be quantified and measured. However, Rescher states that objectivity does not presuppose quantification, and quantification by itself does not guarantee objectivity. Furthermore, measurement is something more than quantification; only occasionally do quantities actually measure anything. Measurement is a sufficient but not necessary condition for objectivity.

To the objection that the quest for cognitive objectivity does not guarantee certain success in human endeavors, Rescher replies pragmatically that the best hope people have of achieving their goals is through rational means, which presuppose an objective basis. Being rational in pursuit of ends makes more sense than not.

Objective Reality

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Rescher demonstrates that objectivity is a necessary presupposition of language and science: It is a postulate that makes these activities possible. Thus, ordinary language is committed to the existence of objective standards of truth. The existence of an intercommunicative community fosters objectivity. People’s beliefs about the world are always provisional; the correctness of their beliefs depends upon their rightly discovering the important properties of things. However, discovery of these properties depends on human intercommunication over time. Thus, human thought and knowledge revolve around the possibility of communal inquiry into and interpersonal communication about an objective order of things. Without the assumption of that objective reality, human intercommunication about a shared world would cease to work. The existence of objective knowledge rests on the existence of an objective reality that serves as a functional or “regulative” presupposition of it. Ontological objectivity is not discovered but postulated. If people’s purely subjective opinions wholly determined reality, then communication and the advance of knowledge would be impracticable.

Physical objects, which help make up the real world, cannot be perfectly known. This means that the world people know is only a limited part of the world that exists. This limited knowledge of the world suggests that there is a vaster reality out there independent of people’s minds (the thesis of metaphysical realism). This objective reality is not discovered through experience but is presupposed by people’s experience and empirical inquiries. Its presupposition (postulation) is justified not by evidence but by its enabling people to learn and know. Objective reality, then, is a functional postulate of experience and knowledge, it is ultimately justified pragmatically by being an essential part of a useful and necessary cognitive enterprise (the sciences).

Objectivity and Values

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Rescher next turns to the objectivity in value theory, particularly ethics. Morality, by definition, claims to be objectively true, and therefore to reduce it to subjectivity is to abandon it. Morality is an inherently functional institution insofar as it serves a purpose. Moral reasoning and disputes are possible only because morality is functional. Because morality involves the goods in life that people should pursue, there can be rational thought about the nature of these goods and how best to acquire them. Though the moral codes operative in various cultures differ, the moral principles underlying all these codes display a functional uniformity. Despite the diversity among moral codes, the moral code of a particular society should be normative for its citizens. Morality formulates moral rules and duties that are objective and universal, which means that all human beings must abide by them and that they are rational and true. Moral rules and obligations get their objective force from neither the social benefits that will accrue from abiding by them (utilitarianism) nor from a mutual promise to obey them (the social contract), but solely from their inherent rationality. Because moral principles are part of rational principles, which are absolutely true and universal, moral principles share these characteristics. Obeying moral rules and meeting obligations benefits everyone; thus, the polity of a just society will seek to harmonize morality with the self-interest of individuals.

The issue of whether values in general (moral and nonmoral) are objective boils down to the issue of whether rational thought about them is possible. Philosophers who are disciples of Scottish philosopher David Hume claim that values are purely subjective, being nothing but expressions of personal desire—of people’s wants and preferences. However, humans have interests that may conflict with their desires and determine their validity. As soon as people start seriously to evaluate what is really in their best interest, independently of whether they desire it, they commit themselves to a rational activity. That people can rationally weigh their values means that they are not merely subjective but have a rational and, therefore, objective element.

Rationality and Texts

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Rescher finally considers objectivity as it applies to the interpretation and meaning of texts. He claims, against deconstructionists, that texts do have an objective meaning that is rationally discoverable. Deconstruction, a relativist theory about the meaning of texts, holds that no one interpretation of a text is correct or true to the exclusion of other interpretations and, therefore, that all interpretations are equally valid. The meaning of a text is purely subjective and relative to its reader’s viewpoint. However, notes Rescher, deconstructionists woefully misunderstand and underestimate the critical role played by a text’s broadest context in its interpretation. Indeed, it is the consistency of the interpretation of a text with its context—how well its presumed meaning fits in with the larger meaning of its background—that helps determine whether that interpretation is the right one and provides the basis for its rationality and objectivity. In communication, people’s purposes help establish whether their interpretations are appropriate or not.

It is perhaps a psychological necessity that each person has a private domain where subjectivity is the rule and one’s imagination is given free play, where one can freely indulge one’s prejudices, biases, idiosyncrasies, whims, and personal peculiarities. However, this necessity, if it is a fact, is objective and is disclosed to one by rational inquiry. There is, then, no limit to the scope of rational objectivity because it determines even the fact and propriety of a subjective domain.

Objectivity is significant because it defends the values of objectivity and rationality using pragmatism and the coherence theory of truth. More specifically, it demonstrates how pragmatism, which originated as a theory of scientific explanation, can be fruitfully used to combat subjectivism, skepticism, nihilism, relativism, and other manifestations of the cult of irrationality. It also shows the continuing relevance of pragmatism, which is arguably the United States’ most distinctive contribution to the history of philosophy, and demonstrates the relevance of the coherence theory of truth to domains outside its traditional ones of philosophy and the sciences.


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Additional Reading

Almeder, Robert, ed. Praxis and Reason: Studies in the Philosophy of Nicholas Rescher. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982. This volume, which is intended for specialists, considers specifically Nicholas Rescher’s pragmatism and theory of truth.

Marsonet, Michele. The Primacy of Practical Reason: An Essay on Nicholas Rescher’s Philosophy. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1995. This is perhaps the best introduction for the general reader because it deals synoptically with Rescher’s philosophy. It puts the philosopher’s thought in historical perspective as well as locates its place in contemporary philosophical thought.

Pragmatic Idealism: Critical Essays on Nicholas Rescher’s System of Pragmatic Idealism. Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1998. This book, addressed to specialists in the field, is a discussion of different perspectives of Rescher’s distinctive philosophical system.

Rescher, Nicholas. Instructive Journey: An Essay in Autobiography. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997. This informative work introduces the man as well as the philosopher and is particularly valuable in showing how Rescher’s distinctive ideas emerged from his life’s experience.

Sosa, Ernest, ed. The Philosophy of Nicholas Rescher: Discussion and Replies. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1979. This book records the discussion of Rescher by Ernest Sosa and L. Jonathan Cohen together with Rescher’s responses to their critique. It is most suitable for advanced readers who already have some background in Rescher’s thought.

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