Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Subjectivity and Objectivity: A Matter of Life and Death?

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Subjectivity and Objectivity: A Matter of Life and Death?

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION: OBJECTIVITY AND SUBJECTIVITY

Modern science is in the first place a matter of asking questions and only in the second place a matter of finding answers, as Kant pointed out in his Critique of Pure Reason more than 200 years ago. With his Copernican revolution, Kant argued that the objectivity of scientific knowledge is not the result of an object in itself in some sense out there in nature and as such dictating appropriate ways of apprehension. Objectivity is on the contrary the result of a very specific questioning activity that gives rise to objects that have a validity only within the range of that activity. Kant stated very clearly that if universality and necessity are to be related to scientific knowledge it is because the questioning subject succeeded in constituting the answering potentiality of nature as a point of invariance, of exactness, of necessity and universality.

Kant felt safe in approaching objective knowledge in these terms because of the contingent fact that classical mechanics was available then, and had been shown to lead to a secure knowledge of mechanical, dead, systems. However, he never lost track of the idea that objective knowledge testified to an intrinsically subjective bearing surface because that was, in his view, the only way in which its possibility could be explained. This is precisely what the Copernican revolution points to: as things don't dictate the way in which they are to be apprehended, what can be revealed about them is always what is allowed within the range of the question, and this is as revealing about the question as it is about the answer. In Kant's critical philosophy, the contingent perspective of the questioner is the possibility of any objectivity: it is from within the contingent perspective that objectivity witnesses of the possibility of a stabilized, non-contingent, necessary relation between questions and answers. (1)

What is it then, and above all, what can it be, to ask the question "What is life?", from within this "space of objectivity"? To Kant, it presented a genuine challenge to the conception of objectivity endorsed in terms of necessity and universality as it initiates a moment of crisis in the traditional space of questions and answers opened up by the science of mechanics, and points to a limit, an exhaustion, an impossible applicability, of classical objectification procedures. And Kant fiercely held on to this resistance, as it is only from within the specific context of the living that anything, including objectivity and subjectivity, ultimately can have a place or a meaning. In his view, it is precisely through their intrinsic resistance to objectification that living systems have the potential to question and to reveal something about the meaning of objectivity in relation to the subjective conditionality in which it is grounded. In other words, the failure to measure up the living to the standards of objectification is revealing for the co-constitutive relation between objectivity and subjectivity. (2)

After Kant, the question "What is life?" continued to have an equally challenging status. Phrased in terms of self-organisation, teleology, elan vital, complexity, "epi"-(genetics), "systems" (biology), ... it pointed each time to a limit or an impossibility of current objectification procedures, and expressed a worry about the meaning and the possibility of a beyond, an "epi". However, almost no attention was paid to the aspect of the critical potential of the question in revealing the meaning of objectivity in its relation to subjectivity. (3) This can perhaps be related to the fact that the sciences were frequently interpreted from within an objectivistic viewpoint. As a matter of fact, to the extent that objectivism considers that science deals with objects that are independent of subjective engagement, and to the extent that subjectivism, intimately accompanying objectivism, considers things outside the scope of science as subjective-relative and contingent, one can wonder how there could be a place for a genuine critique of objectivity in relation to subjective conditionality. …

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