An Old Thing Reintroduced

July 4th, 2007

On objectivity and subjectivity in discourse:

Copi & Cohen, Introduction to Logic, 8th Edition, p.88

If our aim is to communicate information, and if we wish to avoid being misunderstood, we should use language with the least possible emotive impact. In science, for example, where an earlier tradition used such terms as ‘noble’ and ‘base’ to characterize metals like gold and iron, we have learned that progress is supported by the cultivation of a set of emotively neutral terms, and this has been done systematically in the physical sciences. (p.88)

This is naive as to language and as to science. Their naiveté is illustrated by the citation they have previous to the quoted section from William James, also on p.88:

William James, in his essay “The Dilemma of Determinism,” defended his “wish to get rid of the word ‘freedom’ on the grounds that “its eulogistic associations have…overshadowed all the rest of its meaning.” He rightly preferred to discuss the issue using the words “determinism” and “indeterminism” because, he said, “their cold and mathematical sound has no sentimental associations that can bribe our partiality either way in advance.” We should do well to follow James’ example.

This is naive simply in a textual way. They fail to notice that ‘cold’, ‘mathematical’, ‘sentimental’ and ‘bribe’ are all words with a specific emotional charge. At the very time that James is explaining why he did not do something, he is doing that thing. In my own context, “cold and mathematical” have the connotation of clinical; it is an appeal, then, to the image of the man of science, the man of logic and reason who has cross-checked his data and lined up his control group. This is a very effective appeal in a day where scientists are regarded with the sort of superstitious awe once reserved for priests and medicine men.

Then again, it is naive psychologically. No doubt coining a new word, or varying an old one may leave it temporarily with less intense emotional data; no doubt use in quotidian contexts will make a word very limited in the emotional response it may generate. But even the lack of emotional content is an emotional content; words will have their emotional impact, even if it be a deadening of emotional sensations.

It is also naive philosophically: freedom is a eulogistic word, no doubt; but then freedom is a glorious thing. It is not speaking or thinking more accurately to speak without glory, without light and color and thunder, without words that beat drums and blow trumpets and sing spells. Again, to be sure, words can be glozing; but the problem is not the words, the problem is the speaker.

On p.89 they quote a paragraph from Allan Bloom’s, “Liberty, Equality, Sexuality”, and then render his rhetorical style into a journalistic style.


We are presented with the amusing spectacle of pornography, clad in armor borrowed from the heroic struggles for freedom of speech, and using Miltonic rhetoric, doing battle with feminism, newly draped in the robes of community morality, using arguments associated with conservatives who defend traditional sex roles…. In the background stand the liberals, wringing their hands in confusion because they wish to favor both sides and cannot.

Copi and Cohen’s translation, or to use an emotively non-neutral word, castration:

The right to publish sexually explicit books and films has been supported by those using the traditional arguments in defense of free speech, while it has been attacked by feminists who have, for this purpose, adopted a more conservative position associated with traditional morality. Many liberals are troubled by their inability to decide which side in this conflict they will join.

There is a problem here, in that less information is presented: the author’s standpoint is less clear. And certainly the whole scene is very much less vivid in the castrated version. Still, no doubt that is part of what they hoped for: but they fail to accomplish neutrality, and indeed all such attempts must fail: “traditional morality” is a loaded phrase, “free speech” is a loaded phrase, “liberal” and “conservative” are loaded words. Now of course some words are more loaded than others. Some words have an immediate emotional connotation, one that is on the surface of the word, as it were; other words require to be focused on in order for our minds to begin to echo the emotional timbre that they have. Therefore, if one is writing something that is to be read quickly, and is aiming for precision, using something along the lines of what they characterize as emotionally neutral language is not a bad idea; but it is more accurate to think of it in terms of emotional mildness than in terms of emotional neutrality. It is more honest of the author if he does not invoke the myth of objectivity in order to prejudice the discussion in his favor, if he does not use language that gives an appearance of neutrality and thus leads the gullible to accord him more authority. In this connection the remarks of Roland Barthes in The Rustle of Language seems appropriate:

Every speech-act supposes its own subject, whether this subject expresses himself in an apparently direct fashion, by saying I, or indirect, by designating himself as he, or in no fashion at all, by resorting to impersonal terms of speech; what is in question here are purely grammatical stratagems, simply varying how the subjects constitutes himself in discourse, i.e., gives himself, theatrically or fantasmatically, to others; hence they all designate forms of the image-repertoire. Of these forms, the most specious is the privative form, precisely the one usually employed in scientific discourse, from which the scholar excludes himself in a concern for objectivity; yet what is excluded is never anything but the “person” (psychological, emotional, biographical), not the subject: moreover, this subject is filled, so to speak, with the very exclusion it so particularly imposes upon its person, so that objectivity, on the level of discourse—an inevitable level, we must not forget—is an image-repertoire like any other. In truth, only an integral formalization of scientific discourse (that of the human sciences, of course, for in the case of the other sciences this has already been largely achieved) could spare science the risks of the image-repertoire—unless, of course, it consents to employ this image-repertoire with full knowledge, a knowledge which can be achieved only in writing: only writing has occasion to dispel the bad faith attached to every language unaware of its own existence.

Here once again Christianity has the solution to the problem. God’s revelation addresses these issues, and points us to the solution: two related and specifically Christian virtues.

It is not objectivity but humility that we desire in discourse. Fairness, or rather justice, is not to be had along the lines of a pretended and impossible neutrality; justice to any worthy subject is impossible as well to indifference, which may sound like neutrality. It is not by such futile shifts, such glozing pretenses, such naive self-trust or such unconcern for things discussed that we will refrain from misleading readers. Honesty in the form of the narrative; justice in discourse; are to be had only in the way of Christianity, that is, the way of charity and honesty.

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