What Does It Mean To Be “As Objective As Possible”?

HoopoeIt’s become commonplace for biblical critics to concede readily that no one is truly objective — “but” (they say) “we must strive to be as objective as we can.” In the shower this morning I was wondering what this means. On one hand, if objectivity is impossible, striving for it amounts to an empty gesture. I may strive for universal acclaim, but I know that haters gonn’ hate, and “being applauded by a great many people” differs in significant ways from “universal acclaim.” How could one more precisely get at what people hope for when they say “we must strive to be as objective as we can”?

One may begin with the obvious: we mean that interpreters should aim at impartiality*, at not allowing commitments more remote to the interpretive question at hand to outweigh considerations more immediate to the question. (I prescind from saying “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” to avoid complicating one problem with another.) When an advocate of penal substitution says “This particular passage clearly draws on Christus Victor motifs,” I’m more inclined to believe her than if she says “This appears to promote a Christus Victor perspective on atonement, but really if you look at it correctly, it too requires a penal-substitution interpretation.” When somebody allows that this or that bit of evidence tells against their own interests, I’m more inclined to trust them than when they insist that all the evidence points their way. So, the discernment of the weight of considerations (“impartiality”) should matter greatly to interpreters. Is that most of what the common usage of “objective” gets at, or should I add further considerations?

[Later:] OK, “humility” should also matter. Interpretations demonstrate humility by acknowledging the good reasons that people have for arriving at divergent conclusions, and by avoiding the presumption that today’s best reading will endure forever as the definitive account of a particular text. I can trust an interpreter more if she has the sense of history and of human limitations that equips her to propose and advocate an interpretation on specified grounds, without explicitly or implicitly advancing the claim that now, the puzzle has been solved and we can hereafter move on to different issues.** Contrariwise, a responsible interpreter ought to be able to address a problem without disrespect to predecessors, without implying a claim on transcendent eternal correctness, without a tacit affirmation that one’s native culture has attained the only intellectual pinnacles worth ascending.


* “Impartiality” seems to share the characteristic of unattainability with “objectivity.” I doubt that I can make a case that there’s a fundamental difference, so I’ll reluctantly move away from using “impartiality.” If I did want to stick with “impartiality,” I might differentiate it from “objectivity” by according impartiality more of a practical significance: I may not be objective about the Baltimore Orioles, but if I were to serve as umpire for a baseball game I could impartially refuse to allow my lifelong support for the O’s (the first-place O’s) to affect my ball-and-strike calls. But some would probably dispute that usage and distinction, so I can opt out of using the terms.

** Except that everything I write about hermeneutics applies across all disciplines, forever, and resolves all problems in the field. I am deeply embarrassed (both intellectually and spiritually) by my failure of humility.

3 thoughts on “What Does It Mean To Be “As Objective As Possible”?

  1. I mark as my own goal that my argument should be persuasive, or at least coherent, to people who don’t share my presuppositions — and the fewer of those readers share with the author while still seeing the argument as reasonable, the better I count the argument.

    1. I deeply appreciate your deconstruction of “objectivity” and “impartiality”. Behind these words that seem to describe unattainable goals, I believe, there lurks a describable virtue that is among the goods of the practice/discipline of interpretation. I would like to borrow a concept from the interpretation of human emotional systems and call this virtue “differentiation.” Differentiation is an emotional process and state, achieved more or less well, more or less poorly, in which the participant in the process of interpretation and interaction cultivates an awareness of his or her personal role in the current progress or regress of understanding. Pursuing differentiation, one assumes that—in the act of interpretation—one is a participant in an emotional system. The ability to think and understand well are influenced by participation in the emotional system and the restricted automatic responses baked into the system (entropy). This has the effect of foreclosing many options of interpretation and thoughtful response. The key is to sustain participation in the system while exercising the ability to imagine oneself thinking outside that participation so that new, creative options might be brought to bear on interpretive problems when the interpretive system experiences deadlock and is in need of adjustment or disruption. Differentiation may be practiced with respect to other participants, traditional conceptual tools, interpretive processes and assumptions, interpretations, or even the self-image.

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