Susanne Langer

LANGER: On Objectivity

Adopting Bacon’s label “idols” for those major categories of errors of thought which undermine scientific work, [note 1].
Langer attacks the Idols of the Laboratory [note 2].
In her own words:

Another source of idolatry is the cultivation of a prescriptive methodology, which lays down in advance the general lines of procedure — and therewith the lines of thought — to be followed. According to its canons, all laboratory procedures must be isolated, controllable, repeatable, and above all “objective”. The first three requirements only restrict experimentation to simple responses, more significant in animal psychology than in human contexts; but the fourth is a demon. The Idol of Objectivity requires its servitors to distort the data of human psychology into an animal image in order to handle them by the methods that fit speechless mentality. It requires the omission of all activities of central origin, which are felt as such, and are normally accessible to research in human psychology through the powerful instrument of language. The result is a laboratory exhibit of “behavior” that is much more artificial than any instrumentally deformed object, because its deformation is not calculated and discounted as an effect of the instrument.

Here indeed is a critical spot where haste to become scientific destroys the most valuable material for investigation. It completely masks the radical phylogenetic change induced by the language function, which makes one animal species so different from others that most — if not all — of its actions are only partially commensurable with those of even the nearest related creatures, the higher primates. For the revelation of subjectively felt activities through speech is not a simple exhibit from which the observer infers the action of external stimuli on the observed organism; in a protocol statement, the dividing line between the observer and his object is displaced, and part of the observation is delegated to the experimental subject….

The relativity of the subject-object division, which lets that division come now at the eye, now at the lens of the microscope, or — in psychological observation — now between the experimentor and the experimental subject, now between the latter’s report and its matter of reference, is one of the serious instrumental problems for scientific psychology. But it is more than that; it is one of the most interesting phenomena characterizing human material itself…. To exclude such relationships for the sake of sure and safe laboratory methods is to stifle human psychology in embryo.

I have tried to follow the path of the problem regardless of how the center of activity meandered across the boundaries of individual action in the studies of this work. My use of mechanical recording was twofold, as defense against ingrained biases and to permit accounting for my deformations of Miriam’s behavior. If my work is not objective, so be it.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email