objective

The word objective has several senses, and what you mean by it depends on where you are and what you want. It’s all a matter of perspective.

The usage that comes perhaps most readily to mind these days is to signify ‘purely factual, unbiased, without any subjective element’. We use it to mean that what we are talking about is absolutely reliably true and indisputable and has no element of personal position or choice to it. Like 2 + 2 = 4.

Approximately 100% of the time any of us use objective in this sense, we are doing so to foreclose further discussion or inspection of the matter. In so doing, we are leaving out or misrepresenting relevant details. In other words, nearly every time anyone says something is “objective,” they’re lying to you, themselves, or both. They want you to take their personal position as unquestionable.

I’ll get back to this.

That sense is not the original sense; indeed, it’s not really all that old – only about two centuries. The more classical sense that is the source of it is ‘external to the self’ – the converse of subjective. Things that are internal to you are subjective: your emotions, your tastes, your thoughts; you are the subject of everything, and everything that starts in your head is subjective. You are the subject of your world, after all, the conjugated noun of every sentence in your own narrative. Whatever is not you is an object of your perception and action, and the world of things external to you is the objective world. (The word object comes from Latin for ‘thrown against’ – perhaps like a wall or an enemy. Subject is from ‘thrown under’; no bus is specified.) 

Now, as Immanuel Kant spelled out for everyone (though not everyone agrees anymore), the real world is out there, away from you: we are in a world of objects, literally every thing you encounter and move in. That is reality. If you bump your foot into a metal bucket, your senses convey to you the impact, and so you know it. Light bounces off it and enters your eyes, and so you see it; sound comes from its vibrations from the impact and enters your ears; you know all these not-you, non-subject things, from what your senses tell you, and all of those inputs originate outside of you. The existence of that hard, bucket-looking, bucket-sounding thing is objective.

In line with this sense we also get the grammatical sense: objective is the noun case that is also called accusative (it is sometimes extended to the form called dative, which has to do with giving, not with calendars). This word accusative makes it sound like you’re placing the blame on the object of a sentence (in “I blame him,” him is in the accusative – it’s the object), and that’s what the Latin means, but the Latin was a mistranslation of the Greek original, αἰτιᾱτική, which really just meant ‘expressing an effect’ – that is, what is in the accusative case is affected. It’s the object of our affecting.

Which adds a new perspective: the object isn’t the thing giving input to us; it’s the thing we act on. And that’s also a reasonable view of the objective in the real world. We know the bucket is there because of our act. We receive sound and light because we put ourselves in the way of the waves and receive just the ones that are coming to our position. And we interpret them, both consciously and automatically. Anyone who skis knows what it’s like coming inside after a few hours outside, taking off the goggles, and seeing everything with an unusual colour cast for a while until our eyes adjust. Anyone who has ever gone outside on a dark night – or lived through a nighttime power failure – knows that the eyes take a bit of time to adjust to the darkness, so eventually you see things that at first were invisible (or looked like monsters). And if you’re walking around your dark house at night, with its various normal sounds (fridge, HVAC, etc.), you know that an almost inaudible floorboard creak or breathing sound can be extremely prominent. You don’t choose what you hear, but you choose what you listen to.

Taking the sense of ‘acted on’ further, we have the noun sense of objective meaning ‘goal’ – as in thing to be achieved (learning objectives) or possessed or even destroyed (military objectives). Yet again, we have a thing external to us that is viewed in terms of our actions and our desires. We know that it is an object because we are the subject, and we subject it to our actions (unless, or even if, it objects). In all of this, the objective exists as objective precisely because we are subjective. Your objective world is the other end of the sentence with you as the subject. And there is also a whole world of other possible objects out there that you have nothing to do with, either by choice or by ignorance.

But there is one more sense of objective that really puts this all in perspective. To me, this usage always felt ill-fitting, but to native speakers of many other languages it’s absolutely natural. When in Italian they say obiettivo, in French objectif, in German Objektiv, in English we usually say lens, as in what is on the front of your camera. What allows the subject of your camera (the film or sensor) to record the external, objective world. The reason it is called the objective is that originally the term refers, in telescopes and microscopes, to the lens that is on the end towards the object of observation, as opposed to the ocular lens, which is on the end towards your eye. But in photography, the entire multi-element lens is also called the objective – the ocular would be the eyepiece you look through on the top of your camera body.

In a way, this seems quite apt. Photography, after all, has always been the “objective” art form, not involving the interpretation of brush strokes and paint choice and framing and composition and so on. You just point the camera, click, and what you get is objective reality.

And, in fact, it is objective, but not in the currently most popular sense. In all the other senses. In a sense that reveals the truth of the objective.

Let’s say you’re on the street and something happens: one person rushes forward and pushes another person. You have a camera in your hand and you click the shutter. Hey presto, objective reality, a record of the objective fact of the occurrence at that instant.

A record of one specific moment (maybe 1/500 of a second – and if it’s a focal plane shutter, not the same 1/500 of a second all the way across the frame, but I’ll leave that aside or you’ll glaze over) cut out of all the moments before and after. Facial expressions frozen in time, in a way we never see them or interpret them in real life. One moment in a chain of physical actions, not showing how it started or how it ended (did the person shoving trip? run from a distance? interact before the shove? did the person shoved fall down? stumble in front of a car? fight back? just keep going?). A frame that includes everything in it seen from a certain angle but nothing outside its bounds (were there other people watching? shouting things? also running to shove? was there a car heading towards the person? were they being shoved into its way or out of its way?). A frame that shows only what light came to an exact specific position, from which the majority of everything that shed light could not be seen (the other sides of the people, what was behind them, how even things visible from the one angle appeared different from another angle). A frame taken with a specific angle of view (what kind of lens – wide, normal, long? how close to the action?). Captured with a certain exposure and a certain colour balance (was it really that dark or bright? was that dress bright red or really a more subdued orange?) – or perhaps even in black and white, which by choice removes all the colour information. 

Black-and-white photos are a particularly good example of the objective. We often talk and think of “black and white” as pure objective fact, but it’s objective in that it’s been acted on. The world of light, after all, is not monochrome. The choice of what shade of grey each colour comes out as is up to the film manufacturer, or the software that converts the image, or the person controlling the software. When someone presents a black-and-white photo as objective, they are expecting you to accept something with important available details removed; they are expecting you to take it as absolutely true, as though less information were more truth.

And, whenever we say something is “objective,” that is, almost without exception, what we are doing. We can say that 2 + 2 = 4 is objective fact – but so very often we’re really dealing with a 2 that is rounded down from 2.4, and another 2 that is rounded down from 2.3, and if we had added the originals together we would have gotten 4.7, which would round up to 5. Even when we teach “objective facts” in schools, we are choosing which facts to teach and which not to teach, and how much emphasis to give each, and how to present them and their implications. And so very, very often, we are taking personal judgments as unalterable facts (any statement of the aesthetic quality of some work of art is strongly affected by cultural background along with personal preferences, and yet we love to talk about “good” and “bad” art as though it were intrinsically and constantly good or bad).

It does not follow from this that “there is no truth” or “you can say whatever you want” or any such thing. Statements presented as objective may be verifiably true within their constraints – any person in the same position will encounter the same inputs. But they’re inevitably incomplete, and things that are left out may be important to understanding the matter. 

Even when scientists conduct experiments, they’re choosing what to study and not to study (they choose things that are interesting to them, that will probably get results, and that there is funding available to study), and how to measure it and interpret the findings; the facts they set down are objective in that they are (or are supposed to be) reproducible results, but they are also objective in that they are the result of subjective desires and actions, and they approach the matter from a specific angle – they answer the questions they were set up to ask.

And, likewise, a reporter covering a news story may get all the quotes right, but there are countless uninspected choices: what to include and what not to include, what to describe and how, when and where to tell it, what counts as newsworthy and why… And the only way you can have a useful, reliable understanding of that is to know the position of the reporter and the publication. Everyone has a position; everyone is a subject, making choices of object. When they say they’re objective, they are implying that they made no choices and that their position is the default from which all others are deviations. But you can’t see why the people in the picture were there doing that, you can’t see that person just out of the frame pointing a gun, and you can’t – ever, by definition – see one thing everyone else there saw and reacted to: the person with the camera taking the picture.

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