Objectivity and Neutrality

From Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric Vs. Practice In Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream

I regard Nietzsche‘s attack on asceticism as a cultural calamity, all the more regrettable because of his high seriousness and the brilliance of the assault. Had he directed his wrath merely against Victorian passionlessness there would be no room for complaint, but his ridicule of ascetic values and practices became reckless and indiscriminate, reaching far beyond the foibles of a generation to renunciation itself. Morality is what suffers most from the devaluation of ascetic practices, but such practices are also indispensable to the pursuit of truth. The very possibility of historical scholarship as an enterprise distinct from propaganda requires of its practitioners that vital minimum of ascetic self-discipline that enables a person to do such things as abandon wishful thinking, assimilate bad news, discard pleasing interpretations that cannot pass elementary tests of evidence and logic, and, most important of all, suspend or bracket one’s own perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers. All of these mental acts – especially coming to grips with a rival’s perspective – require detachment, an undeniably ascetic capacity to achieve some distance from one’s own spontaneous perceptions and convictions, to imagine how the world appears in another’s eyes, to experimentally adopt perspectives that do not come naturally – in the last analysis, to develop, as Thomas Nagel would say, a view of the world in which one’s own self stands not at the center, but appears merely as one object among many.” To be dissatisfied with the view of the world as it initially appears to us, and to struggle to formulate a superior, more inclusive, less self-centered alternative, is to strive for detachment and aim at objectivity. And to turn thus against one’s most natural self- to engage in “this uncanny, dreadfully joyous labor of a soul voluntarily at odds with itself” – is to commit that very sin against the will to power that Nietzsche so irresponsibly comdemned.” Detachment does not promise access to any transcendental realm and always remains, as Nagel says, “under the shadow” of skepticism.” Although it is an ideal and holds out a standard higher than any of us routinely achieve, acceptable performance under its regulative influence does not require superhuman effort. It is that frail and limited but perfectly real power which, for example, permits conscientious scholars to referee one another’s work fairly, to acknowledge merit even in the writings of one’s critics, and successfully to “bend over backwards” when grading students so as not to penalize those holding antagonistic political convictions. We try to exercise this capacity every day; sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, and we assign praise and blame to ourselves and others accordingly. It is of course true that we sometimes delude ourselves, developing a pseudo-objective standpoint that functions mainly to obscure choice, shifting responsibility for what we want to do to a seemingly impersonal state of affairs. But to shrug off the capacity for detachment as entirely illusory – to claim that since none of the standpoints the self is capable of imagining are really that of “the other,” but are self-produced (as is certainly the case), and to argue that all viewpoints therefore are indistinguishably contaminated by selfishness or group interest or the omnipresent Nietzschean will- is to turn a blind eye to distinctions that all of us routinely make and confidently act upon, and thereby to blur all that distinguishes villainy from decency, veracity from mendacity, in everyday affairs. Not to mince words, it is to defame the  species. Fairness and honesty are qualities we can rightfully demand of human beings, and those qualities require a very substantial measure of self-overcoming – more than could exist if Nietzsche’s hyperbolic and indiscriminate war on asceticism were permitted to triumph. Objectivity is not something entirely distinct from detachment, fairness, and honesty, but the product of extending and elaborating these priceless and fundamentally ascetic virtues.’

If I am correct in thinking that these virtues of self-overcoming already rank high in historians’ practice, that should suffice to show that my strategy of keeping alive the term “objectivity” while ridding it of unwanted connotations is not a matter of appropriating a traditional name as a dignified cover for new practices. The tendency of past generations to associate objectivity with “selflessness,” and to think of truth-seeking as a matter of emptying oneself of passion and preconception, so as to become a perfectly passive and receptive mirror of external reality, has, for good reason, become notorious.” But in valuing (as even Nietzsche did, in his calmer moments) the elementary capacity for self-overcoming, we need not aspire to the unrealistic and undesirable extreme of extinguishing the self or denying that its situation in time and space limits the perspectives available to it.” Likewise, in making detachment a vital criterion of objective thinking, we need not make the still greater error of confusing objectivity with neutrality.

I see nothing to admire in neutrality. My conception of objectivity (which I believe is widely, if tacitly, shared by historians today) is compatible with strong political commitment. It pays no premium for standing in the middle of the road and it recognizes that scholars are as passionate and as likely to be driven by interest as those they write about. It does not value even detachment as an end in itself, but only as an indispensable prelude or preparation for the achievement of higher levels of understanding – higher not in the sense of ascending to a more spiritual plane, where the concerns of the soul displace those of the body, as an earlier generation might have understood it, but higher in Nagel’s sense of being more complete, more cognizant of that most powerful of all the world’s illusory appearances, which is that the world centers on me (or those with whom I choose to identify) and that what matters to me (or us) is paramount.

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2 thoughts on “Objectivity and Neutrality

  1. Neutrality is a principle that is applied primarily where there is conflict.
    Objectivity is a quality that can be applied in peace or conflict.

    It seems you’re making an apples & oranges comparison, mixing metaphors, comparing a principle to a quality.

    Here’s why you may be confused on the issue: the two are not mutually exclusive. Let’s use conflict to get the logic path.

    One should be objective when choosing to take a neutral position relative to a conflict.

    One should also be as objective as possible when choosing to enter in to a conflict or to a war, or choosing to be a protester, or even choosing to be a traitor. But in doing any of these things, on cannot claim neutrality.

    It is probably true that no one can be completely objective.

    But, one can remain completely neutral, even if they sympathize with one or both sides in a conflict. (A related term is nonalignment or nonaligned.)

    The meaning of “neutrality” has been muddled a bit, and many do tend to use it to mean a variety of things. However, its application as a principle has been globally applied for a thousand years or more, much written on it, and a rich history worth studying. If you can get hold a book called “Faces of Neutrality”, Herbert R. Reginbogin, it will give you a good sense of the meanings and applications of neutrality in the last century.

    My team is working to bring neutrality back to the fore in a new way, as a more viable (and less expensive) option for dealing with intercultural conflict in the workplace, and in society.

    Spend some time looking through my site at http://www.cultureneutral.com and let me know your thoughts.

    1. Of course, the person you really wish to address is Thomas Haskell, but I imagine you presume, correctly in this instance, that I agree with him.

      You seem to be conceiving neutrality specifically in the context of conflict mediation, where it will have its particular, but by no means wholly distinct conception. But I think you are mistaken to limit neutrality only to the field of human conflict. It is a possible stance where there is any kind of opposition, as in the world of ideas Haskell is considering.

      Rather than representing any confusion of categories, Haskell’s essay offers consideration of objectivity and neutrality as two principles, possibly conceived, too, as qualities, but in the case of objectivity, as Haskell describes it, as a methodology that is commonly confused with the quality of neutrality. He discusses the confusion with regard to historiography, but it is currently relevant in a more popular and lively way to journalism, where the ideal of objectivity is often misconceived either as entirely impossible because not entirely complete or as a valueless neutrality of the “Mr. Hitler denied the charge” variety.

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