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The Affective Formation of Objectivity

Interdisziplinärer Workshop


Organization: Jan Slaby, Jörg Volbers

The concept of ‘objectivity' is often seen as a synonym for impartiality and neutrality, evoking the sobering ideal of modern science obtaining its knowledge due to a complete renunciation of emotionality. In contrast, contemporary debates in the history of science, philosophy and sociology focus on the idea that every normative practice requires a corresponding habitual and affective formation of the participants.

The workshop has the goal to explore this assumption by discussing the book Objectivity (2007) by historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison. This book presents a history of the inextricable interconnection of affective formation and the associated ideal of an ‘objective' image of nature, thereby undermining the clear-cut identification of objectivity with affective neutrality. The idea is to explore the topic of an ‘affective formation of objectivity’ in discussion with Lorraine Daston, sociologist Andreas Reckwitz and philosopher Joseph Rouse.

Outline of the workshop

In their groundbreaking study Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison analyze historically situated conceptions of what it means to produce an ‘objective' image of natural phenomena. They claim that the history of conceptions of objectivity is related to corresponding practices and exercises of the ‘scientific self'. In order to produce and understand objective representations, the scientists have to train their capacity to perceive and judge, partly in very strenuous ways. Thus, the observing scientist of the 18th century had to present an aesthetic idealization of the phenomenon in question, while the later positivist principle of 'mechanic objectivity' depicted the ideal observer as a passive machine of perception actively combating all subjective impulses, idealizations and judgments.

Against this background, a philosophical thesis emerges which has not attracted much attention yet. Daston and Galison attach great importance to the claim that these practices of the scientific self have to be seen as a substantive contribution to the production of scientific knowledge. Accordingly, the practical realization of epistemic values like objectivity, realism or impartial observation is intrinsically tied to an affective stance of the researchers. Scientists learn to 'see' by learning how to 'feel' – including the ability to feel 'correctly' in relation to the studied object (up to the point of insensibility) and to acquire the reflexive capacity to regulate themselves in the light of ideals like 'sobriety', 'will power', 'contemplation' or 'harmony'. Adapting the praxeological conception of 'cultures of subjectivity' established by the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz, it could be said that Daston and Galison identify specific scientific 'affective cultures of objectivity'.


The workshop focuses on the general thesis of an irreducible affective aspect of knowledge. We suggest to discuss the following topics and issues related to them:

  • What is the driving force behind the development and the expansion of local (historical or geographical) “cultures of the scientific self”? Is the history of “scientific selves” a narrative with radical breaks and discontinuities, or do new epistemic virtues develop as a rational response to the dangers and problems 3 of the older ones? If (partly) so, what is the role of affects and emotions within this transforming rationality?
  • Secondly, the blend of emotions and objectivity presented by Daston and Galison allows for a further investigation of the topic of normativity, central to the contemporary philosophical debate. Joseph Rouse, for example, suggests that the normativity of practice – the fact that a practice is ordered – cannot be understood without taking into account the normative engagement of the practitioners. Such an engagement has to be understood as an affective involvement, manifesting itself in the idea that there is “something at stake” (Rouse) in those practices.
  • Thirdly, the topic of an affective formation of objectivity demands further reflection of its sociological implications. What links can be traced between the affective ideal of objectivity in the narrow sense and the socially dominant culture of subjectivity? Can the history of the “cultures of scientific subjectivity” be restricted to the internal development of science? What differences govern the relation between the ideal “scientific self” and other dominant social norms of subjectivity and emotions?


Lorraine Daston (Berlin), "Objectivity and Impartiality"; followed by a commentary by Max Stadler (Zürich); discussion

Andreas Reckwitz (Frankfurt/Oder), “Affective Spaces: A Praxeological Outlook”; followed by a commentary by Jörg Volbers (Berlin); discussion

Joseph Rouse (Middletown, CT), “Objectivity and Scientific Signiicance”; followed by a commentary by Jan Slaby (Berlin)

Round table discussion