A Picture of Virtue

By Henning, Michelle | New Formations, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

A Picture of Virtue


Henning, Michelle, New Formations


A PICTURE OF VIRTUE Michelle Henning Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity, New York, Zone Books, 2007; 500pp. £25.99 hardback.

Scientific objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison claim, is best conceived as a virtue. Their use of a concept of virtue is persuasive, as is their style of argument. They begin by anticipating sceptical readers who question their every turn: scientists who defend objectivity as a defining and trans-historical aim, as necessary, even if unachievable; cultural theorists who dismiss it as the myth of 'the view from nowhere', outmoded by contemporary understandings of subjectivity; and historians who expect them to identify the historical triggers of this powerful idea or to chronologically chart its development.

Detailed descriptions of the practices of scientists, catching snowflakes before they melt, measuring the impact of liquids on surfaces, or trying to describe the relationships between neurons, are harnessed to discussions of the interdependence of the objective and subjective, and the emergence of the scientific self (and recently, of a hybrid engineering-scientific self). Daston and Galison argue that objectivity needs to be treated as something that develops through actions and practices, an entity that is more than a concept or an idea, a virtue cultivated through techniques, regimes and routines. The value of treating objectivity as a virtue rather than a myth, say, is that it entangles it in practice, and in subjectivity, the very thing it tries to suppress. Virtues are aimed at through 'techniques of the self in Foucault's sense, though this is not a straightforwardly Foucaultian argument. In the case of the 'epistemic virtue' of objectivity, this means the cultivation of skills, and, most importantly, self-restraint. Although modern science is now generally understood to have undone the link between knower and known which characterised science in the seventeenth century, Daston and Galison argue that 'the emergence of scientific objectivity ... goes hand in glove with the emergence of scientific subjectivity' (p197). They point to how scientists repeatedly wrote, in quasi-religious tones, about themselves, and the discipline and sacrifice that being a scientist requires.

Objectivity is not the only epistemic virtue in science. Daston and Galison distinguish between 'mechanical objectivity', which aims to accurately and directly record nature, and 'structural objectivity', which is concerned with the transcendence and translatability of knowledge. They also contend that scientific objectivity is a modern virtue that emerges in the nineteenth century through the practices of doing, recording, picturing and disseminating science. It is distinct from 'truth-to-nature' and 'trained judgment', which exist (respectively) before and after objectivity, but also coexist with it. The qualities and practices that are seen as vices and failings in relation to objectivity are valued in the drive for truth-to-nature: where a truthful representation means a perfected one, one that shows the essential and the typical. Truth-to-nature relies on the scientist's accumulated knowledge to eliminate the accidental, arbitrary and atypical, and on the artist's skill to translate life studies of specific specimens into depictions of an ideal type. It is only in the mid-nineteenth century that the search for essence comes into conflict with a search for objectivity, and that scientists begin to perceive the desire to perfect as a psychological failing.

This conflict is illustrated by the physicist Arthur Worthington's attempts to depict and classify the movements of fluids. Worthington made observational drawings of drops of milk or mercury as they hit surfaces. After 1894 he used a camera. This was not exactly a move from the body to the machine, since he had already been relying on a carefully orchestrated use of flashlight to 'imprint' on his retina the image of the moment of impact. …

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