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What is Objectivity?
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 26 Jun 99
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

Is Objectivism about method or content? While many writers and commentators on Objectivism have focused on its distinctive and controversial philosophical principles, these principles do not constitute the essence of the philosophy. That honor falls to Rand's revolutionary concept objectivity.[1]

Objectivity in the Objectivist view is not, as is commonly supposed, an "impersonal" or "disinterested" perspective, free from any personal considerations such as self-interest. Such views attempt to eliminate the active role that an individual plays in acquiring conceptual knowledge; they idealize knowledge without a knower. The Objectivist conception of objectivity, on the other hand, specifically concerns the relationship between existence and consciousness in acquisition of conceptual knowledge.

What is objectivity? In order to fully understand the concept, we must ask the question: To what in reality does the concept objectivity refer?

The answer is this: In order to survive, we need to understand the world around us; we achieve this end through the acquisition and use of knowledge, particularly conceptual knowledge. Is the process of forming concepts and making conceptual integrations infallible? No. What types of errors do we make? We might be unable to obtain certain relevant data or we may have been lied to. Can we prevent these errors? Not directly, for they originate outside of our own consciousness. Are there other errors that originate within our own minds? Yes. We can make logical errors, ignore relevant evidence, or allow our emotions to influence our evaluation of the facts. What can we do to prevent these errors? We can adhere to the laws of logic in all of our reasoning and we can use only the facts of reality as evidence. In other words, we can reason only on the basis of the facts of reality, always adhering to the laws of logic. Do we need a concept for this method of acquiring knowledge? Yes. That concept is objectivity.[2]

Thus, objectivity is a method of acquiring knowledge by reasoning solely based on the facts of reality and in accordance with the laws of logic.[3]

Given this definition, it is clear that objectivity is the fundamental normative principle of epistemology, for it defines how to properly acquire conceptual knowledge. But what of the concepts we already possess? How can we ensure that they are also objective? We ensure the objectivity of existing concepts by determining their exact meaning. In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand wrote:

To know the exact meaning of the concepts one is using, one must know their correct definitions, one must be able to retrace the specific (logical, not chronological) steps by which they were formed, and one must be able to demonstrate their connection to their base in perceptual reality (IOE 51).

So how is this done? By asking Rand's Question: What are the facts of reality that give rise to this concept?[4] My analysis of the concept OBJECTIVITY above was based on this methodology. Rand herself gives an excellent example of this analysis with the concept JUSTICE. She writes:

For instance: what fact of reality gave rise to the concept 'justice'? The fact that man must draw conclusions about the things, people and events around him, i.e. must judge and evaluate them. Is his judgment automatically right? No. What causes his judgment to be wrong? The lack of sufficient evidence, or his inclusion of considerations other than the facts of the case. How, then, is he to arrive at the right judgment? By basing it exclusively on the factual evidence and by considering all the relevant evidence available. But isn't this a description of 'objectivity'? Yes, 'objective judgment' is one of the wider categories to which the concept 'justice' belongs. What distinguishes 'justice' from other intances of objective judgment? When one evaluates the nature or actions of inanimate objects, the criterion of judgment is determined by the particular purpose for which one evaluates them. But how does one determine a criterion for evaluating the character and actions of men, in view of the fact that men possess the faculty of volition? What science can provide an objective criterion of evaluation in regard to volitional matters? Ethics. Now, do I need a concept to designate the act of judging a man's character and/or actions exclusively on the basis of all factual evidence available, and of evaluating by a means of an objective moral criterion? Yes. That concept is 'justice' (IOE 51).

By tracing the concept JUSTICE back to reality as Rand did in this example, we establish the validity of the concept; we know that it does have referents in reality. At the end of the analysis, we are able to offer a definition, in this case "the act of judging a man's character and/or actions exclusively on the basis of all factual evidence available, and of evaluating by a means of an objective moral criterion" (IOE 51). Additionally, we have identified logically related concepts, such as OBJECTIVE JUDGMENT and ETHICS. Perhaps most importantly, because the method requires us to separate the essential characteristics of JUSTICE from the inesential ones, we have clarified, refined, and perhaps amended the concept in our own minds. We know that justice is not a matter of treating everyone the same or of condeming all bad people. We know that it is evaluation based on the facts using an objective moral standard.

Thus by using Rand's Question as the starting point of philosophical inquiry, we then possess concepts that are

"neither revealed nor invented, but as produced by man's consciousness in accordance with the facts of reality, as mental integrations of factual data composed by man -- as products of a cognitive method of classification whose processes must be performed by man, but whose content is dictated by reality" (IOE 54).

Ayn Rand's method of objectivity permeates her philosophical thought; her consistent use of it explains the clarity and consistency of her philosophical principles. By explicitly adopting the method of objectivity as our own, we will find ourselves with a deeper and clearer understanding of the philosophy of Objectivism and of the world around us.


Note 1: A substantial number of prominent Objectivists have argued that the essence of Objectivism lies in its fundamental principles. However, I regard this view as incompatible with the Objectivist theory of concepts. Rand wrote that the essential distinguishing characteristic of a concept is "the one that explains the great number of others" (IOE 45). Her consistent use of the method of objectivity is that essential distinguishing characteristic, for it gave rise to the other distinctive features of her philosophy, including the particular principles of the system. Additionally, such a laundry list of the fundamental features of Objectivism violates the principle that a definition should not be a "conglomeration of characteristics" (IOE 42).

Note 2: This analysis of objectivity mirror's Rand's analysis of JUSTICE in IOE 51.

Note 3: This definition is somewhat different from Ayn Rand's, who defined objectivity as "the recognition of the fact that a perceiver's (man's) consciousness must acquire knowledge of reality by a certain means (reason) in accordance with certain rules (logic)" (VOR 18). Rand's definition emphasizes reason and logic (rather than facts and logic), thus promoting a more rationalistic method. However, it is noted that in the IOE justice examlple Rand described objectivity more strongly in terms of facts and evidence (IOE 51).

Note 4: Endless thanks to Dave Saum for bringing Rand's Question to the attention of myself and so many others in the Objectivist community.

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