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A Philosophical Perspective On The Myth Of Objectivity

We asked Nick Mailer, director and co-founder of our web hosts Positive Internet, and philosophy graduate, to write a philosophical perspective of the myth of objectivity. It accompanies our editorial on the subject, here.

Objectivity in games coverage? Blame Plato. Or maybe Heraclitus. Many bundles of twitted umbrage lie in the bonfires made by those so angry with the trade. One pyre has its fuel in a notion that the further games journalism strays from the Holy City of Objectivity, the more it corrupts itself. Rarely do the piqued prophets pause actually to inspect their wondrous “objectivity” bauble.

This proves testament to the power of ideas embedded in our culture by ancient philosophers. The notion of attainable – or even merely strivable – objectivity has lodged itself so firmly into our mindscape that few dare shine a light on its shadowy form.

In an early tributary of Western philosophy, Heraclitus famously invoked his “Logos”. This supposedly encompassed an essential organising and unifying principle of totality. Beneath our perception of chaos, apparently, lay a calm stream of objective reason. Heraclitus warned, though, that Logos “holds always, but humans always prove unable to understand it”. And lo, philosophers and theologians spent several thousand years arguing bitterly what this “Logos” entailed, and how one might grapple with it. (Or even Him). They kept turning over the crossword of the world, hoping to find Heraclitus’s answer printed below it. In a delightful mix of the trivial and the profound, many find themselves playing this ancient sport today, when they invoke an absolute ideal of objectivity.

Plato then took Heraclitus’s ideas for a spin. He postulated not just some vague “Logos”, a more-or-less unknowable rationality underlying all existence, but a whole realm of ideal forms, a dimension where the Perfect Table, the Perfect King and the Perfect Journalist glistened in absolute objective Truth. Literally. He concocted a famous metaphor of epistemology – the attempt to know and give meaning to the world: our heads chained in a cave, we stare at the shadows that these perfect forms from the realm just outside the cave’s mouth throw upon its walls. So our notion of a table, a journalist or love always arrives distorted, dark and flickery, the merest hint of the shape of the “Real Thing” just outside our grasp.

Plato’s ideas enticed the millennia, but not without opposition. The Sceptics wondered why we might accept as true a realm of forms that we never apprehend directly.

The Pyrrhonists doubted even their very capability properly to doubt! The fabric of even subjective reality unravelled in the gaze of their radical scepticism, foreshadowing perhaps some discoveries in quantum electrodynamics thousands of years later. These discoveries struck a blow against not simply cultural objectivity, but against any hope of final, precise essentialism beyond the veil of observation. Indeed, modern science turns the table on the usual assumptions of epistemology in suggesting that what precision we do manage to measure we get not in spite of the imperfections of our observation, but because of them. The shadows we see on the cave walls appear as such only because we deem see them at all!

Thus, the notion of objectivity comes with heavily conflicted historical baggage from a crashing cacophony of disciplines. And, in the midst of the obvious noise, it begs no less than the quiet acceptance of incorrigible correctness and inarguable completeness. It traps one into accepting a chimerical Platonic ideal.

The futility of pursuing objectivity becomes clearer when one grasps its tautological recursion: the validation of objectivity demands an absolutely “objective” arbiter, whose objectivity itself requires “objective” validation to prove worthy of such arbitration! Round and round we go, chasing our tails in Plato’s cave.

The tumult of the 20th century demanded a re-grappling with the notion of objective meaning. Post Structuralists argued that texts – and indeed all of culture – had no final interpretation, but instead comprised implicit privileged hierarchies of dualities, constantly at play with one another. We find no “meta narrative” solvent to sluice out the “objective” essence from the subjective sludge.

So in pursuing the ideal, we build Mr Objective, our straw man. We stuff him as full as we can. But omissions beget implications. Implications beget further analysis. The analyses further beget yet more cultural accretion. And so the game continues, awaiting a final umpire who never arrives. If he did arrive, the first little child to exclaim the umpire’s lack of clothes would simply restart the game. Those who still cling to “objectivity” in such circumstances use it as a battering ram or a shield they have no right to yield.

If objectivity as an aspiration necessarily fails to lead us into the promised land of eternal incorrigibility, what remains to determine an honest scribbler from a tendentious scoundrel? Since we’ve discussed several old Athenians, let’s introduce some more Greek: the enthymeme. Formally, the word describes a partial solecism stated without its premises. Informally, it describes cynically (or naively) taking certain values and postulates for granted, and rhetorically sweeping your audience into tacit acceptance of a potentially rickety argument without ever properly stating it. For example:

“These games contain so much gratuitous violence that it shouldn’t surprise us that women detest them!”

This represents an enthymeme. It takes as read a hidden solecism, with hidden premises:

“Unlike men, women detest the representation of gratuitous violence.

These games represent gratuitous violence.

Therefore, women detest these games.”

One justifiably yearns for a “citation needed” tag much more vehemently than in the compressed rhetorical enthymeme from which it was unpacked – even before we further unpack the enthymemes implicit in descriptions like “gratuitous”.

These hidden premises can litter our journalism, our criticism and our very understanding of the world. A few innocuously save our having to restate the obvious. Some fill our writing with stale tropes and hidden banalities. Others, though, contaminate our texts more malignantly, infecting our readers into a putatively shared arena of criticism that has no fundamental justification or basis.

Rather than spend our time pursuing an “objective” salvation we can never attain, perhaps we instead could work hard to shy away from the triteness of our more lazy and sophistic enthymemes, and strive to state our argumentative working more rigorously, so to speak. Rather than pretend we can swat away our biases like pesky fleas, as those who prize “objectivity” would demand, let us instead properly state the bases of these apparent biases and see if we feel shame when we reveal ourselves so rhetorically denuded.

“Objectivity” arrogantly presumes we dare approach a “God’s-eye-view” of totality. Perhaps we do best not to chase after Plato’s unicorns, but to finish off our more raw enthymemes into properly cooked arguments for all to sample, and simply invite those who like their flavour to eat their fill. So long as we share a varied and plentiful diet, with fewer enthymemic fishbones to get stuck in the collective throat, surely nobody starves whilst awaiting their tardy “objective” pudding?