Sunday, 2 November 2008

Objective and subjective knowledge (the epistemic distinction)

Speaking of the epistemic distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, John Searle (video) asks us to separate objective knowledge, of the kind x was born in 1606, and subjective knowledge, of the kind x was a better artist than y. Supposedly, the former is a fact of the external world and the latter is an opinion held by the internal psyche.

But consider what happens if the new evidence comes to light suggesting the birth actually took in 1605 due to a miscalculation in the way calendars were drawn up in the early 17th Century or a mistake in the attribution of a birth record. A dispute then erupts between scholars of the period, some of whom retain the belief that the birth occurred in one year and others who hold it occurred in another. The apparently objective fact now becomes subjective, being dependent on the views of different minds.

And in the case of the belief that one artist is better than another: presumably Searle has grounds for holding that one artist is better than another, i.e. there are some criteria by which the judgment can be made, else it is an entirely fickle one. Given that there are such criteria, it is conceivable that these could be formalised and tested across the population as a whole, allowing us to arrive at 'objective' view of who is the better artist — at least by those criteria.

Since no-one alive now was witness to the birth of x we are reliant on evidence, gathered according to certain criteria and agreed consensually, to determine our beliefs. The same could be true of the relative merits of the artists, providing the criteria and evidence were consensually agreed.

The epistemic distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, therefore, may not be as clear cut, or as useful, as it might appear.