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Is objective knowledge possible at all if the questions one asks and one’s interest in are subjective knowledge?

The process of human perception occurs in such a way that people do not act purely instinctively, they put forward hypotheses about the part of the world that interests them. He tries to put the feedback he gives into an explanatory form and, if necessary, adjusts his behavior accordingly. The accompanying mental processes, including hypothesis formation, do not have to take place at the highest level of consciousness. At least in everyday life, it can also occur largely unconsciously.

This raises the question of whether objective knowledge is at all possible when the questions one asks and interest in knowledge is subjective. This problem essentially determines any scientific knowledge. But it is particularly urgent when questions of human coexistence and the organization of society are at stake. Emotions are usually bigger there, and causal relationships are often difficult to identify and adequately describe. In the field of scientific knowledge, this is often easier and less emotional. What matters to us and what questions we ask about reality depends on many factors: our prior knowledge, our mental activity, our hopes and desires, the spirit of the times, our social background and many other things.

It depends on us personally to determine what questions of reality we address and what meaning we give our own interests. The choice of possible questions is unlimited. We can examine the same fact from very different points of view regarding its meaning, its effects and the causal relationships associated with it. So it’s not surprising that, especially in the social and cultural sciences, you get very different answers to seemingly similar questions. Does this mean that objective knowledge is not possible, at least in the cultural and social sciences?

In the so-called value judgment dispute between German economists, sociologists, and historians, this was discussed extensively before the First World War. One of the comrades-in-arms, sociologist Max Weber, spoke of the “poetic line that separates science from faith.” (1)

However, value-laden subjective questioning does not in principle stand in the way of the objectivity of the knowledge gained on its basis. On the contrary: without a clearly directed question, the facts to be clarified lack the reference points against which to measure the objectivity of knowledge. In the words of Max Weber:

“The Goal The validity of all empirical knowledge depends on the fact that the given reality is arranged according to classifications, in a certain sense, PersonalWhich precondition Represents our knowledge, the presupposition of the value Related to this fact that only empirical knowledge can give us. To whom this truth is of no value – and belief in the value of scientific truth is a product of certain cultures and not something given by nature – we have nothing to offer with the means of our science. (…) ‘of social scientific knowledge (…) is based on the fact that what is given empirically always refers to those valuable ideas which alone are knowledgethe value It grants, aligns with, and understands it in terms of its meaning, but has not laid a basis for empirically demonstrating its impossibility. (2)

The twisted paths of the human heart

This means that the validity of values ​​of any kind cannot be “proved” from reality; Its character as a subjective rule stands in the way. However, what is given empirically can change our assessment of the importance and appropriateness of certain values ​​and standards. To put it in Jonathan Haidt’s picture: The Elephant, our emotional world, is changing direction, and now the rider can think of all the reasons why he’s going down a new and different path. Weber speaks of “the beliefs inherent in all of us in one way or another in the supra-empirical validity of ultimate and highest-value ideas, upon which we base the meaning of our existence.” This closes for him “The constant change of concrete views according to which empirical reality acquires meaning, not because, but because: life in its irrational reality and its content of potential meanings are inexhaustible, and therefore the concrete formation of the value relationship remains fluid, subject to change into a dark future of human nature.” (3)

Weber does not attribute any term to concrete human values. It is historically variable and will also change in the future. He ended his remarks on the possibility of objective knowledge with a quote from Goethe grip:

Awakens the new drive
I hasten to drink their eternal light,
In front of me is the day, behind me is the night,
The sky above me, the waves below me.

One could also put it this way: the complex pathways of the human heart, and emotions In David Hume’s connotation, he always leads us in new directions. This does not invalidate the established facts of objective knowledge. But they can gather dust and may no longer mean anything to us because we ourselves or future generations live in completely different relationships.

Weber proves to be a convinced empirical. He considers it the task of science to find as correct and objective answers as possible among clearly formulated questions formed by self-interest in knowledge, and considers this to be possible mainly from a methodological point of view. It is liberal regarding a variety of methods for finding questions and formulating hypotheses. It gets strict when it comes to claiming basic empirical verification capability. This is the quoted poetic line that separates science from belief. Of course, the basic possibility of objective knowledge says nothing of the question of whether there is really reliable knowledge.

This is an excerpt from the book Mind and Its Enemies. Errors and Delusions of Ideological Thinking” by Thilo Sarrazin, 2022, Langen Müller Verlag: Munich. It can be ordered here.

More notes

(1) Max Weber: “The Objectivity of ‘Social Science and Socio-Political Knowledge’”, first published 1904, in: Max Weber: Collected Articles on Science StudiesTübingen 1968, pp. 146-214, p. 212.

(2) Previous, p. 213

(3) Previous, p. 213

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