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Objectivity, to me, means looking at something from an external perspective. If the thing you're looking at is a simple physical object, objectivity is easy, because you really are external to it; but if the thing is an abstract object that you're part of, a system, or situation, or set of events, then objectivity is not so easy, and therefore much more interesting.

Normally, you look at a situation from your own subjective point of view (red).

To be objective, you have to spin your point of view out and around, and imagine how the situation would appear to a third party.

So, that's the basic idea, or theme; now let's look at some variations.

I made the pictures in order to illustrate the words, so imagine my surprise when I noticed that they point right to a possibility the words don't suggest, that of putting yourself in another's shoes.

When I looked up the phrase in Familiar Quotations, I got another surprise—the only reference goes right back to the visual metaphor I've been using.

Put yourself in his shoes—so as to see things through his eyes.

(By the way, there wasn't anything about walking a mile in another's shoes.)

Another interesting thing is to try and figure out how the names “subjective” and “objective” relate to the grammatical subject and object. Here's my best attempt so far. If you're looking at a situation objectively, then you're part of the thing being looked at, i.e., the object; if you're looking at a situation subjectively, you're right in there doing things, as the subject of whatever verbs are involved. Of course, in the first case, you're also the one doing the looking, i.e., the subject, and in the second case, you might be being done unto, which would make you the object rather than the subject. Still, you get the idea.

Objectivity isn't just interesting, it's also practical. The following, from That's Not What I Meant!, is supposed to be about handling different conversational styles, but it could be about anything, really.

The key to solving this problem was the ability to step back and observe interaction rather than accepting emotional reactions as inevitable and unavoidable. This observer stance is what makes it possible to find one's own solutions and regain a sense of control over one's life and relationships.


The observer stance is particularly useful if you find yourself in a situation you don't like. You can save the occasion by becoming an observer—trying to figure out what it is about the situation that you are reacting to, possibly thinking of ways you could prevent it from happening in the future. A motto might be: If you can't fight it, study it.

There are two points here that I'd like to draw your attention to.

First, objectivity is often associated with lack of emotion. I don't think of that as part of the definition, but it is certainly a likely consequence. In fact, it was a bit tricky to define objectivity, because so many of the words that came to mind implied a lack of emotion. To be objective, you have to step back, or become distant, or detached, or perhaps an observer … an impartial one, of course.

Although lack of emotion is a likely consequence of objectivity, it's not guaranteed, and I don't think the two should be lumped together. Suppose you're angry at some bureaucrat for giving you the run-around. Even if you look at the situation objectively, you might still be angry at ver for not understanding the situation. Or, better, you might become angry at the bureaucracy as a whole, or, best of all, at the stupid dynamics of bureaucracies. There is plenty of room for emotion even in abstract thinking.

The second point has to do with the words “observe” and “study”: objectivity is also often associated with science. This association doesn't bother me as much as the previous one; I'd even say that objectivity is an important part of the standard scientific worldview that I mentioned briefly in Religion and Nihilism.

Now, if you combine objectivity, lack of emotion, and science, and maybe add a bit of logic and rationality, what do you get? An archetype! I don't know a name for the type, but I do know the perfect example: Mr. Spock. The thing that's especially interesting to me is that I can't trace the archetype very far back; in fact, the only other good example I have is Sherlock Holmes. Is it possible that the type is a relatively recent invention?

I was going to start the essay with a dictionary definition of objectivity, but, as it happened, I didn't like what my dictionary had to say. It mentions both of the secondary meanings I've been talking about, but completely misses what I thought was the primary meaning, the external perspective.

  1. Of or having to do with a material object as distinguished from a mental concept.
  2. Having actual existence or reality.
  3. a. Uninfluenced by emotion, surmise, or personal prejudice.

    b. Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: an objective appraisal.

I hope I'm not misusing the word.

That's the end of one train of thought about objectivity. Before I start the other, here are a couple of random goodies.

  • If, in the pictures above, there were a whole bunch of people instead of just two, spinning your point of view off to the side wouldn't work as well—your view would be obstructed, and you'd still be closer to some people than to others. So, you might want to look at the situation from above, as if you were floating (detachedly) in a balloon, or looking at a map. But what if the people weren't all at ground level? Well, obviously, by analogy, what you'd want to do is spin your point of view off into the fourth dimension. Then, as long as you're doing that, you might as well step back one dimension more and regard the whole of space-time as a static four-dimensional object. That's about as objective as it gets. (Of course here I'm taking the idea of point of view far too literally … but it's so fun!)
  • Talking about observation and science always reminds me of quantum mechanics, and of how it's not possible to observe a system without disturbing it. So, I thought I'd mention that that has nothing to do with objectivity. Objectivity isn't about gathering new information, it's about looking at information you already have in a different way.

What I want to consider next is the idea, strange at first sight, that objectivity is a major component of consciousness. Think about what was going on when Deep Blue was playing against Kasparov. The computer was right in there, in the moment, examining various possibilities and choosing among them. Its methods were somewhat different than the ones I use, but I don't think it's absurd to say that it might have shared some of the subjective experience of playing chess. What it lacked was the ability to step back from the situation; to think, perhaps, “wow, I'm playing Kasparov!”.

The novel Diaspora opens with the poignant tale of how a new citizen, an orphan, grows up and becomes conscious. Note the literal stepping back that occurs.

Then the golden-furred citizen pointed at the orphan, and said: “Ve is—?”

The input navigator spun the orphan's angle of view, trying to see what the citizen was pointing at. When it found nothing behind the orphan, it moved its point of view backward, closer to the golden-furred citizen—momentarily breaking step with the output navigator.

Suddenly, the orphan saw the icon it was projecting itself—a crude amalgam of the three citizens' icons, all black fur and yellow metal—not just as the usual faint mental image from the cross-connected channels, but as a vivid scape-object beside the other three.


A new symbol was already forming, a representation of the strange fourth citizen—the only one whose icon seemed bound by a mutual attraction to the orphan's viewpoint in the scape, and the only one whose actions the orphan could anticipate and control with such ease.

Consciousness, here, is self-awareness in the most literal sense: being aware of yourself, your self, as an object.

Hofstadter discusses the same idea in Strange Loops, Or Tangled Hierarchies. Here's a short sentence to that effect, plus a nearby paragraph about objectivity.

The self comes into being at the moment it has the power to reflect itself.


There is a famous breach between two languages of discourse: the subjective language and the objective language. For instance, the “subjective” sensation of redness, and the “objective” wavelength of red light. To many people, these seem to be forever irreconcilable. I don't think so. No more than the two views of Escher's Drawing Hands are irreconcilable—from “in the system”, where the hands draw each other, and from outside, where Escher draws it all. The subjective feeling of redness comes from the vortex of self-perception in the brain; the objective wavelength is how you see things when you step back, outside of the system. Though no one of us will ever be able to step back far enough to see the “big picture”, we shouldn't forget that it exists. We should remember that physical law is what makes it all happen—way, way down in neural nooks and crannies which are too remote for us to reach with our high-level introspective probes.

Note that stepping back comes into play yet again!

As with almost anything, objectivity, taken to extremes, can be unhealthy; in particular, it can lead to alienation and detachment. (Detachment is about a completely different kind of detachment, but is still related.) Lem sometimes heads off in that direction, most notably in those few of his robot stories in which the strong and noble robots encounter the dreaded mucilid, or paleface. Here's an example, from Prince Ferrix and the Princess Crystal; see also The Eleventh Voyage and How Erg the Self-inducting Slew a Paleface.

The princess was amazed, for truly, he spoke in paleface fashion, and she said:

“Tell me, you who call yourself Myamlak the paleface, what do your brothers do during the day?”

“O Princess,” said Ferrix, “in the morning they wet themselves in clear water, pouring it upon their limbs as well as into their interiors, for this affords them pleasure. Afterwards, they walk to and fro in a fluid and undulating way, and they slush, and they slurp, and when anything grieves them, they palpitate, and salty water streams from their eyes, and when anything cheers them, they palpitate and hiccup, but their eyes remain relatively dry. And we call the wet palpitating weeping, and the dry—laughter.”


“But tell me, Myamlak,” asked the princess, “how do you furnish yourself with the energy to walk to and fro, to squish and to slurp, to shake and to sway?”

“Princess,” replied Ferrix, “there, where I dwell, are other palefaces besides the hairless variety, palefaces that travel predominantly on all fours. These we perforate until they expire, and we steam and bake their remains, and chop and slice, after which we incorporate their corporeality into our own. … ”

Speaking of Lem, and of being alienated, you might take a look at what I said near the end of On Walking.

Another thing that occasionally gets me is trees. It's very difficult to look at them objectively, because they're so familiar, but if you can, they're really quite queer and disturbing. I can't explain the feeling properly right now, but I'll be sure to write about it next time it comes around. For now, all I can say is, it's a good start to imagine you've just landed on an alien planet.


  See Also

  Another View (Free Time)
  Day in the Life, A
  In Other Contexts
  Personality Types
  Winter Wonderland

o March (2001)
@ October (2003)