DOI: 10.1215/03335372-10938579 ISSN: 0333-5372

What Science Can't Know: On Scientific Objectivity and the Human Subject

Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen
  • Literature and Literary Theory


The humanities are centrally concerned with such human subjectivity—such thinking, feeling, and wondering—as goes into the appreciation of a painting or the absorbed and responsive reading of a novel. It is often argued that the intrinsic subjectivity of these experiences renders them inaccessible to objective science, which seeks to avoid subjectivity. However, this fallacious argument confuses an ontological and an epistemic sense of the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity. The subjectivity of “thinking, feeling, and wondering” describes the mode of existence of these mental states, whereas the objectivity of science describes a mode of investigation, and it is in fact very possible to investigate human mental life by means of objective methods. This article expounds the fallacy and examines its appearances in recent scholarly writings against the use of objective methods in the humanities. The fallacy, as is argued, promotes a widespread misconception that the use of objective methods in the humanities would entail a discounting, or “reduction,” of human subjectivity. By countering this misconception, this article aims to encourage humanists who are drawn to empirical methods.