The “objectivity” of knowledge(s)

by Aftab Nasir

Objective knowledge or objectivity in producing knowledge and the elements of method, both are myths. It is mythological in the literal sense of the word. Before we untangle this concept, let’s revisit what a myth is. Myth is something non-real, imaginary yet authentic or authoritative. Myth has an intrinsic value that makes it appealing and relevant. It contains an aesthetic core, something of a sort that makes it attractive, and an inner logic that is mostly relatable, due to the fixity in its meaning and utility for everyday praxis. Take the myth of Sisyphus as an example. The structure of the tale provides a strong imagery, the aesthetic part, that is combined or embodied beautifully in the figure of Sisyphus, or more abstractly, in the dialectical forces represented by the body of the man, the stone, the uphill and the top. This story has a direct message, regardless of the fact that it is created as a metaphor. The message is clear, that of defiance, and is relatable for two reasons; first it shows the structure and agency in most discernable way, second it has a utilitarian value. As a thinking being, one can relate to it because it offers respite in the conundrum of fixities one encounters at every second of one’s life. In short, myth has both aesthetic and utilitarian value.

Why objectivity is a myth? As a construct, objectivity defies the very foundation of the activity of producing knowledge. The act of objectification demands the distancing and disentanglement of the subject from the object of the thinking process. Thus created, the binaries ruptures the space and produces gaps in the space in which the object and subject are endlessly interwoven together in a dialectical movement, ever reproducing each other, just like Sisyphus and the stone, as both of them occupy the same uphill and endlessly reproduce the meaning by sharing this space, this uphill.

When I try to situate the discussion on and around objective knowledge, I cannot help but return to Weber’s thesis of “value-free knowledge”. A superficial look might also say that this statement produces itself on a value that is objectivity; hence the claim of being “ value” free does not stand intact. Aside from semiotics, this claim contains serious consequences for human sciences. Normally, the object-subject duality is attributed to Descartes. I contest that the Cartesian duality actually was an act of formalization, an arbitrary construction. In “I think therefore I am” he introduces the duality only to combine it later in “I”. The thinking I has no existential claim outside the existing “I” and vice versa. Hence that duality itself dissolves into a unity, i.e., I. why does it all matter? It matters because the way we have got used to producing knowledge assumes these processes as a given, a belief, and less as a problematic. Since every duality is in a constant state of dissolving in one form of unity or another and every unity is simply disintegrating into duality or multiplicity of small ruptures in space, I see no reason to advocate for objectivity when human knowledge and more importantly human experience is busy structuring itself along dialectical lines and among the intermediary spaces of these dialectical poles, the in-betweens. It seems that objectivity is only one of the two legs on which consciousness rests or moves. I do not deny the existence of this leg but I contest the idea that the whole apparatus, this highly sophisticated mechanism, can walk on this leg, that this leg is enough for mankind to walk on the moon.

So the question  if objectivity is possible becomes redundant. We are always involved and entangled in the phenomenon we study. May be this objectivity is nothing but an illusion. The more we deny that such objectivity is impossible, the more we are involved in the game of justifying that it is. While we are social being, professional aid experts, at last we are still humans with our own set of fears, prejudices, uncertainties and identities. If I pose as an aid professional but lack compassion and am poor at being relatable, there is greater chance that I find all these values lacking in the “other”, outer social groups. Since doubt and insecurity become the motivating factors, the result is an equation that lacks the fundamental human value, i.e., trust. Therefore, one is inclined to take charge of the situation, control the variables in such a manner that they pose lesser threat of uncertainty. These insecurities are deep-rooted, rather veiled beneath the surface of objectivity. Since the inner working is far more complex and demands far greater responsibility and sensitivity, it is better if a short cut is available, i.e., objective knowledge is guiding the decision making processes. This depersonalization reduces humans to non-human objects, to pieces of a puzzle that are to be solved. Human faces thus turn into images and variables that are studied to be made sense of, and the individuals, the agency behind these faces, individuals are rather reduced to targeted needs that should be satisfied. So, may be there is more to knowledges than subjectivity-objectivity dichotomy and may be the primacy of one over the other is nothing more than a matter of professionalism.

Icy waters gush through the rhythmic rivers of imaginations

rest finally and distantly

in the laps of soothing seas

there comes Columbus in his Poseidon robes

unsettles the waters for good

Elderly winters call him home

but he travels far along

streams of thought took me away

to the valleys of words

where every face wears a veil

of semiology, metaphor and some more

let the axe of logic cut through

this heart of imagination

produces some objective and sun-dried pieces and scraps of assumptions

Old like Panini’s grammar

yet purified by the holy waters of new data

Aftab Nasir is lecturer at Foreman Christian College, Lahore, Pakistan. He is a scholar, a writer and a philosopher and one of the most thoughtful and eloquent people Julia knows. 

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