Friday, September 29, 2017

Objectivity and Intersubjective Agreement

Consider this an addendum to yesterday’s:

Let’s start with a passage from my open letter to Charlie Altieri [1]:
I am of the view that the rock-bottom basic requirement for knowledge is intersubjective agreement. Depending how that agreement is reached, it may not be a sufficient condition, but it is always necessary. Let’s bracket the general issue of just what kinds of intersubjective agreement constitute knowledge. I note however that the various practices gathered under the general rubric of science are modes of securing the intersubjective agreement needed to constitute knowledge.

As far as I know there is no one such thing as scientific method – on this I think Feyerabend has proven right. Science has various methods. The practices that most interest me at the moment were essential to Darwin: the description and classification of flora and fauna. Reaching agreement on such matters was not a matter of hypothesis and falsification in Popper’s sense. It was a matter of observing agreement between descriptions and drawings, on the one hand, and specimens (examples of flora and fauna collected for museums, conservatories, and zoos) and of creatures in the wild.
John Wilkins calls that a process of “experienced observation” [2].

Now I want to add Searle on objectivity and subjectivity with respect to ontology and epistemology [3]. Here’s where I’m going: Reaching intersubjective agreement is obviously and epistemological matter. But, and this is where things get tricky, it is possible to reach intersubjective agreement about phenomena that are ontologically subjective and as well ontologically objective. The so-called hard sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy, perhaps biology, and others) are about matters that are ontologically objective in kind. They exist ‘out there’ in the world completely independent of human desires, perceptions, and thoughts. The human sciences, if you will, (most?) often deal with phenomena that are ontologically subjective but about which competent observers can reach substantial intersubjective agreement (aka objective knowledge). Turn it arount: we have intersubjective agreement (aka objective knowledge) about matters that are ontologically subjective.

Consider the case of color. We know that it is NOT a simple function of wavelength – there’s a substantial literature on this, google it [4]. It seems to me, however, once we start arguing whether or not color is subjective or objective, we’re in a different ballgame. Color depends on the perceiving system. In that sense it’s subject. And what of camera’s, whether analog or digital?

But I’m not really interested in color (oh geez! really? except when I’m a photographer, then I am). I’m interested in describing literary texts. And they take the physical form of strings. But those strings exist for human consciousness. They are meant to be read. The meaning of those strings is thus ontologically subjective, always. For the meaning exists (only) in the minds of subjects (human beings). But, depending on various things, it is possible to reach substantial intersubjective agreement on that meaning (see, for example, Attridge and Stratton, The Craft of Poetry, 2015).

My argument about form and description (e.g. in the post I referenced at the beginning of this one) is that if we focus our descriptive efforts on form, it should be possible to reach such a high degree of intersubjective agreement that we are entitled to think of literary form as ontologically objective. Where there is high intersubjective agreement about a phenomenon, we say that it is objectively real. That’s what experienced observation is about.


[1] Literary Studies from a Martian Point of View: An Open Letter to Charlie Altieri, New Savanna, blog post, accessed Sept. 29, 2017,

[2] I discuss this in: Experienced observation (& another brief for description as the way forward in literary studies), New Savanna, blog post, accessed Sept. 29, 2017,

[3] John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, Penguin Books, 1995.

[4] And I’ve got a blog post or two, e.g. Color the Subject, New Savanna, accessed September 29, 2017,

Photographing the Eclipse and the Problematics of Color [#Eclipse2017], New Savanna, accessed September 29, 2017,

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