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Can Humans Be Objective?

Session 9

Can Humans Be Objective?

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Session 9

Objectivity for Actual Human Beings

Executive Summary
Stephen Hicks is Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University and author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault.

1. Objectivity is a requirement of human cognition but it faces challenges in a skeptical or post-truth era—“the view that on principle nothing can be known and/or that concepts such as truth, objectivity, and certainty should be abandoned.”

2. Effective responses to skepticism require positive accounts of all cognitive processes: “perception, memory, conceptualization, proposition-formation, and mathematics and logic.” Yet, in a lengthy section, Hicks quotes major thinkers who undercut those elements: Augustine, Calvin, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault, and others.

3. The value implications of “post-truthism” also matter: “If we abandon reason and objectivity, we get subjectivism; and if we get subjectivism, then we get relativism; and if we get relativism without recourse to reason, then we get brutality.”

4. Hicks focuses on two mistakes that regularly plague accounts of objectivity. One is holding that naïve intrinsicism about knowledge is the only alternative to subjectivism. While objectivity is about actively maintaining the connection between reality and consciousness, intrinsicism and subjectivism sever the connection.

5. Intrinsicism “holds that reality alone sets the terms” and that consciousness should be like “a passive mirror.” Platonic knowledge, for example, is a passive receiving from perfect Forms. Subjectivism, the other “false alternative,” holds that consciousness’s activity makes reality unknowable. Hicks cites the Nietzschean claim that we are not discoverers but legislators of reality: “Their ‘knowing’ is creating, their creating is a legislation, their will to truth is—will to power.”

6. Hicks says “in philosophy, hidden premises are often killers,” and cites implicit assumptions about objectivity that make it impossible. For example, if one argues, “Humans make choices when thinking, so it’s all subjective,” then one assumes that only un-choosing beings could be objective.

7. By contrast, he argues, the human need for objectivity is because humans have choices. We each need to learn how to use our minds this way rather than that way in order to maintain our cognitive connection to reality.

Read Stephen Hicks’s full essay here. 2021 summary.


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