September 1st, 2012Remembering Memoryby Dena Hunt

I’ve just been reading “On the Mystery and Meaning of Remembering,” in which Msgr. Charles Pope attempts to look at memory from a combination of scientific and theological viewpoints. Following his thoughts about memory evokes a memory….

Decades of teaching literature inculcated in me certain habits, like the graphic illustrations I used in order to explain abstractions. If this example sounds too simplistic, I apologize, and ask the reader to understand that my students were unwilling learners, taking a course to meet the humanities requirement for a degree program in some field quite other than literature.

The example: What do we mean by “objective” versus “subjective”? I am standing here on this floor. I can’t see the spot where I’m standing, can I? Why not? Because I’m standing on it. My judgments are based on where I’m standing. But now also consider: If I can’t see the windows to my left, the door to my right, or the chalkboard behind me because of where I’m standing, and you can see them, does that mean that your knowledge is “objective”? No. You see only subjectively from where you are. So you see no more objectively than I do. (step sideways) Now I step aside and I can see that spot, so I can be objective about it now, can’t I? But not until I move away from it—which means that my so-called objectivity about it is only a product of a new subjective position. All knowledge is subjective because all knowledge is relative to the position of the knower.

Student: So there’s no such thing as objectivity. But you DO know there are windows to your left, a door to your right, and a chalkboard behind you. How do you account for that knowledge?

Memory of past perception based on previous positions. We also have imagination and intuition, but we commonly call this knowledge “subjective” anyway. What we really mean when we say “objective” is verifiable, but that’s not objective at all—because no matter what kind of tests we use to verify, they’re all based on subjective knowledge. And the accumulation of this data changes only the quantity of it, not the quality of it. It can’t be made objective no matter how much of it we collect. Literally no one, regardless of who or where they are, regardless of any claim they make to the contrary, no one is objective—about anything, least of all about their own knowing. So—does “objectivity” even exist?

First student: Yes.

Second student: How do you know that?

First student: I don’t know.

Third student in the back of the room: And that is objectivity.

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