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The Quality of Life$

Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen

Print publication date: 1993

Print ISBN-13: 9780198287971

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198287976.001.0001

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Michael Walzer: Objectivity and Social Meaning

Michael Walzer: Objectivity and Social Meaning

(p.178) Michael Walzer: Objectivity and Social Meaning
The Quality of Life

Ruth Anna Putnam

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Rejecting Walzer's project to provide a new foundation for intercultural social criticism via his theory of the social construction of meanings, Putnam modifies Walzer's account of objectivity and claims that a belief is objective relative to a conceptual framework if its truth or falsehood relative to that framework depends on how the world is rather than on what the knower thinks it is. From there, Putnam argues that the modified definition of objectivity is the only account of objectivity necessary and concludes that contrary to being adrift in the world, most human beings share a common understanding of the world and can come to cross‐cultural agreement.

Keywords:   cross‐cultural agreement, objectivity, shared understandings

That social meanings lack objectivity, that we are ‘adrift’ in the world, matters to Michael Walzer because it threatens to deprive us of any foundation from which to criticize injustice in cultures other than our own. So Walzer uses the theory of the social construction of meanings (values) itself to provide a new foundation for intercultural social criticism. I do not think that that attempt is successful; nor do I think it is needed. I shall modify Walzer's initial account of objectivity, I shall argue that the modified notion is the only notion of objectivity we need, and I shall conclude that we are not adrift in the world although we do keep making and remaking it.

Walzer's first sense of ‘objective’ is this: ‘objectivity hangs (somehow) on the accommodation of the object by a knowing, inquiring subject.’ What is involved here is a double accommodation. First, the conceptual scheme itself must accommodate the world: someone using the scheme ‘friends, enemies, reading matter, and edible plants’ is said to ‘get the table wrong (objectivity wrong), or he would miss the table entirely, and deny its reality, and that would be a merely idiosyncratic (subjective) denial’. In contrast, ‘the scientific perception of the world . . . makes the most insistent claim these days to be called an objective perception’. Second, given the framework, we cannot just decide how things are, our beliefs must accommodate the object.

The second point is, of course, correct. Given a conceptual scheme which allows for the distinction, we can distinguish between objective beliefs and all sorts of other things: imaginative constructions, illusions and hallucinations, neurotic fantasies, etc. In so far as these can be communicated at all, they depend on the shared conceptual scheme relative to which they fail to be objectively true.

But what is objectively true relative to one scheme may be objectively false relative to another–relative to the common‐sense scheme this table is solid, relative to some scientific scheme it consists mainly of empty space. We, not individually but as communities, make and modify conceptual schemes; we do so in response to concerns which we have. So we have to specify the concerns relative to which a particular scheme accommodates the world. And we should remember that we never stand outside all conceptual schemes.

Standing within the common‐sense scheme, we see that objective truth relative to it is most likely to be achieved by disinterested inquiry. That does not mean that the scientific schemes with which we replace the common‐sense scheme as a result of these inquiries are more objective sans phrase. We can say only that given certain cognitive concerns, one or another scientific scheme (p.179) is best; but none of these schemes can be called ‘the scientific perception of the world.’

So I shall rephrase Walzer's first account of objectivity as follows: A belief (perception, recognition, understanding) is objective relative to a conceptual framework, if its truth or falsehood relative to that framework depends on how the world is rather than on what the knower thinks it is.

Walzer holds that his first concept of objectivity ‘works, more or less well, for simple objects‐in‐the‐world’ but wonders whether ‘it works at all for objects to which we assign use and value, objects that carry “social meanings’ ”. In contrast, I shall argue that this notion (at least as I have reformulated it) is the only notion of objectivity he needs. I am inclined to reject any dichotomy between objects‐that‐carry‐social‐meaning and simple‐objects‐in‐the‐world, or between objects that entail moral legislation and objects than do not. There is a difference between trees and tables: human beings make tables out of trees, human beings do not, in that sense of ‘make’, make trees; there is no comparable difference between tables and altars. We recognize trees as trees–we have the concept ‘tree’–because they are important to us, important as resources and, sometimes, as obstacles. Trees answer many of our needs, including the needs which we meet by making tables. We make and recognize tables because we need objects with flat surfaces to put things on, to work on, to consecrate as altars. Finally, trees, tables, and altars entail moral legislation: trees are to be protected from various kinds of blight, tables are not to be chopped up for firewood, altars are not to be used as desks, etc.

Walzer points out that some social constructions (e.g. food) are reiterated in culture after culture and encourages us to think of the list of reiterated constructions ‘as a universal and objective morality’, not, to be sure, objective absolutely but ‘relative to social construction where construction repetitively takes the same form’. Such universal constructions can be, he thinks, explained naturalistically; they respond to deep and pervasive human needs and give rise to a (to be sure, rebuttable) presumption that they best meet these needs. Conversely, objects/meanings which exist in only one, or a few, cultures may not be necessary for human life. So universal values, although socially constructed, appear to Walzer to be more like simple objects‐in‐the‐world, for they accommodate the world that includes our needs, while the social constructions that are peculiar to a single culture are ‘free’. And so universality of construction appears to him as a new sort of objectivity.

From my perspective, no new sense of objectivity is required. To say that interculturally shared values–food, for example–are objective while those peculiar to one culture–altar‐to‐the‐Virgin or freedom‐of‐the‐press–are not is to say that most reports about something being food are objectively true or false relative to the intersection of most communities' conceptual schemes while reports about altars‐to‐the‐Virgin or freedom‐of‐the‐press are not simply because these concepts are not found in that intersection. But then objectivity is still the same old thing; why should the extent of agreement, or the extent (p.180) of the possibility of agreement, change the ontological or epistemological status of a thing?

Interculturality is a form of intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity is a familiar criterion of objectivity. A perception or judgement can be more or less widely shared; the more widely it is shared, the more objective it is said to be. We suspect perceptions and judgements that are tainted by interests, fears, and other subjective influences, we distrust what is seen from one point of view only. Beliefs so formed, we think, accommodate the knower more than the object. But in opting for intersubjectivity we are the losers. Intersubjectivity is not achieved by superposition of subjective views: that results in cubist paintings but is not a way in which we can manage to see the world, so why should it be an objective picture? Intersubjectivity can also be achieved by eliminating whatever fails to agree with all the subjective perceptions; that results in a thin and transparent rather than a thick and dense moral world; it results in the cold, clean world of science rather than the warm, messy world of everyday life. Does that really accommodate the object (the world and us, us‐in‐the‐world) best?

The thickness and complexity of our moral world are given us by constructions that are peculiar to a given culture. Walzer's paper is essentially a search for an objectivity suitable to these. The question he asks is, I think, this: take a set of concepts that are peculiar to a given culture–a particular notion of the divine, of altars holy to a divine being, of worship required by that divinity, of behaviour that consecrates tables into altars, and of behaviour that would reverse that transformation. When we now say that a certain table is objectively an altar, are we ‘accommodating the object’? Since there is nothing about tables that requires some of them to become altars, how could ‘altar’ accommodate or fail to accommodate a particular table? I would like to suggest that that is the wrong question; ‘altar’ accommodates the object table‐which‐has‐undergone‐the‐prescribed‐consecration‐rites. That is why for both the members of the culture in question, and the anthropologist who studies them, the thing is objectively an altar. For the members of the culture, the complex I have described is part of their common‐sense world; for the anthropologist that same complex is part of the culture under investigation.

Still, there are such things as religious strife. Because of that possibility, Walzer says that ‘Social constructions must reflect a . . . consensus if there is ever to be an unqualified objectivity in our reports about them’. Why so? Dissension in the culture is no obstacle to objectivity in the reports of ‘outsiders’, of anthropologists; they can describe divided opinions as easily, as objectively, as unanimity. Dissension casts a shadow over the reports of ‘insiders’ only. Recognizing a particular table as an altar, treating it as altars in that culture are to be treated, will be a matter of course only if there exists some kind of religious consensus in that culture, a consensus which may range from everyone worshipping the same deity or deities in the same way to everyone respecting each other's different worship of different deities. But what happens when (p.181) conflicting faith communities exist within one society in which there is no mutual respect? The members of each faith community will say of their altars that they are objectively altars, and of those of other communities perhaps that they are mere tables, perhaps (therein lie the roots of religious strife) that they are abominations. The members of each group maintain that their perspective somehow accommodates the world while that of their opponents does not. Walzer maintains, in effect, that the claims of both groups are subjective. I want to take issue with that claim.

To be sure, there is nothing in the nature of a table that necessitates its becoming an altar; but there is something in our nature that gives rise to a sense of awe and that in turn frequently gives rise to the construction of altars. So one can ask whether altars (of religions in general, or of a particular religion) and the ways of life in which they are embedded accommodate the sense of awe and the need to give it expression. More radically, one can ask whether the sense of awe and all it brings in its train is a good thing in human lives or whether our children would be better off were we to raise them so as to be immune to it. Of course, those living within and affirming a religious tradition will not ask these questions; but my point here is simply that just as some conceptual schemes are worse than others because they frustrate our cognitive needs–they misclassify tables or deny their existence–so some sets of social meanings are worse than others because they frustrate other human needs–they misclassify not only objects but human beings, their needs, their emotions, etc., or they deny the existence or legitimacy of these. Social meanings are deeply embedded in our conceptual schemes–even scientific schemes involve the notions of relevance, warrant, truth, etc.–and value judgements are not neatly separable from descriptions. One has to know facts to know whether something is an altar, whether a certain type of behaviour is nepotism; but saying that something is an altar or nepotism is at the same time to evaluate and to prescribe. Walzer is exactly right when he says that these objects carry social meaning; he is wrong when he fears that that deprives them of a sort of objectivity that other things have.

Let me then return briefly to the contending groups, Protestants and Catholics, or, more dramatically, Christians and Aztecs. How could the Christians say (how can we say) that it was wrong for the Aztecs to practise human sacrifice unless they (we) recognize their practice as sacrifice? For if they say, simply, that the Aztecs committed murder, they have obviously failed to understand the Aztec practice. (Notice that even a pacifist does not say, simply, that soldiers are murderers, though he holds that taking a human life while fighting as a soldier is just as heinous, just as sinful, as ordinary murder, perhaps even more so.) But if they recognize the practice as sacrifice, on what basis may they criticize it? This raises the issue of the possibility of social criticism.

There is no puzzle concerning the possibility of social criticism from within, though I am puzzled by Walzer's claim that it depends on objective values but is not itself objective. I shall let that pass. There is a puzzle concerning (p.182) criticism from without. Since there is no Archimedean point from which to raise such a critique, we can only offer it from within our own culture. But we are wary of cultural imperialism, of attempting to impose our way of life on others who are doing very well by their own lights; and, in some cases and in some sense, even by ours–I am thinking of the Amish that Hilary Putnam mentioned. There is also the sheer fact that often we do not understand one another; William James talks about that in his wonderful little essay ‘On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings’ (James, 1983). There is, finally, the fact that some things done in another culture strike us as so wrong that we would be doing wrong were we not to criticize it, where criticism is the least we can do and a precondition of doing anything more.

It is this last that prompts Walzer to develop his arguments against the practices of the patriarchal society, the society which passes women from one male jurisdiction to another and does not recognize women as agents. There are two possibilities: either the women accept the construction or they do not. If they do not, then the resources for internal criticism are at hand; but in both cases Walzer is prepared to offer critical arguments from ‘outside’, from his, and that means our, perspective. I want to look at these arguments.

In the case where the women do not accept their construction as objects, Walzer says, ‘The theory of social construction implies (some sort of) human agency and requires the recognition of women and men as agents (of some sort) . . . the construction of social‐construction‐with‐human‐agents has certain moral entailments. Among these is . . . the right of the agents to refuse any given object status.’ I find this argument puzzling. Of course, if one construes morality as a social construction, then one construes human beings as agents, although I do not see how it follows that one construes all human beings as agents; but I shall put that concern aside. Instead I wish to inquire after the point of the argument. How is this argument supposed to enable us to take sides interculturally with the women in their intracultural struggle? How is it supposed to enable us to rebut charges of cultural imperialism and to claim a transcultural objectivity for our view?

Walzer would reply, I think, that the claim that meanings are socially constructed is objectively true, that is, part of the scientific world view. If it follows from this that human beings are agents, then that claim too is objectively true in this strong sense of objective. And if it follows from this that they are not to be construed as mere objects, then that too will be objective, as objective as anything can be. But if, as I have argued, the scientific perspective does not carry with it a particularly robust objectivity–and here we deal not even with the hard sciences but with quite speculative explanations of very complex social phenomena–then Walzer's argument is simply one more liberal argument against patriarchy and the charge of cultural imperialism remains undefeated if the argument is to be exported to other cultures. But, of course, better a little cultural imperialism than a lot of oppression.

When Walzer considers a society in which women accept themselves as (p.183) objects of exchange, his argument becomes more complicated and I become more puzzled. In this situation the woman is said to be constituted by a contradiction: on the one hand, she is (objectively) an object of exchange, on the other hand, the construction succeeds only if she is (objectively) a moral agent capable of consenting (or not) to the construction. But there is no contradiction here: she is an object of exchange relative to the world view of her society, which she shares. She is a moral agent relative to Michael Walzer's world view, which she does not share. There is no more contradiction here than in saying that this table is solid (in the common‐sense view) and that it is mostly empty space (from the viewpoint of quantum physics).

Perhaps I am obtuse. Perhaps the ‘objective contradiction’ in this woman's being, which exists as long as she affirms her object status, consists in this: the woman cannot simultaneously think of herself as an object and as someone who agrees to/disagrees with anything. But if she cannot do that, neither can Walzer. And if he cannot do it, how can he say: ‘I see no morally acceptable way of denying the‐woman‐who‐is‐an‐object‐of‐exchange her own reasons and her own place in a valued way of life’? How can he say that ‘the choice is (truly) hers’? I am genuinely puzzled. This seems a far too complicated way of saying that before we preach a new way of life to the natives ‘we would do best, morally and politically, to try to work out what they find valuable or satisfying in their old way of life’. If we regard human beings as free and equal moral agents, then for us it follows that we are to respect them, that we are not to impose our morality on them but rather to reason with them. In every society some human beings are regarded as more than mere objects; that seems to me to be a basis from which one might begin to argue ‘from inside’ against patriarchy and other forms of oppression and enslavement. This is the sense in which intercultural meanings are important: they enable us to engage in intercultural criticism, to structure it as internal criticism. Or so it would be if ways of life were always based on consensus. When they are not, when there is oppression, when the dictator, or the oppressing group, is not amenable to reason, we face a different problem: the problem of how to deal with evil. Nothing is gained by calling it ‘objective evil’, and there is no single answer.

Recognizing that there is only one kind of objectivity, that all criticism is internal but that the resources for such criticism are greater than they would be if there were a dichotomy of simple‐objects‐in‐the‐world and objects‐which‐carry‐social‐meanings, should alleviate the feeling of being ‘adrift in a world we can only make and remake and never finish making or make correctly’. We are not adrift, we are anchored by the world, by our needs, by how we have understood and made the world until now.

I want to conclude by saying briefly how all this connects with the concerns of this volume, that is, with the quality of life. Certain needs are universal, and one can establish ‘scientifically’ what will satisfy these needs — for example, the quantity and kind of food that will keep a person not just alive but healthy. (p.184) As soon as we go beyond this, disagreements arise. What is seen as a necessity in one society—universal education up to a fairly advanced level, for example—is regarded as a luxury in another; what is valued highly here is perceived as a threat to a valued way of life there—pluralism, for instance. Measures that seem absolutely essential if the quality of life is to improve, such as limiting family size, may run counter to fundamental values. I take it that Michael Walzer and I agree that these are matters about which we should reason together; but because I believe that one cannot separate facts and values, cognitive and other concerns, because I believe that our descriptions and our evaluations of features of the world are inextricably intertwined, I am more optimistic than he concerning the possibilities of cross‐cultural agreement. We live in one world not only because of the extensive interdependence of our economies, not only because all of us together may become victims of ecological or nuclear disasters; we live in one world because to a large extent we share our understanding of that world, and on the basis of that shared understanding we can come to further agreements.


Bibliography references:

James, William (1983). Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.