"...suggesting that every generation is 'subjectively' conditioned by its own cultural and psychological peculiarities, leads us to wonder whether it might not be best to avoid all moral judgement, all ascription of responsibility, might not be safest to confine ourselves to impersonal terms, and leave whatever cannot be said in such terms altogether unsaid," Isaiah Berlin writes in "Historical Inevitability."
We are undergoing commitment issues as an age. This reluctance to commit has a precedent (as approaches usually are) in Pyrrhonian skepticism which I read about on languagehat, which cited the Dictionary of Classical Antiquities' definition of that school's adherents who "disputed the possibility of attaining truth by sensory apprehension, reason, or the two combined, and thence inferred the need for total suspension of judgment (epoché) on things" (more on ἐποχή at LH).
According to wikipedia, "Pyrrhonian skeptics withhold assent with regard to non-evident propositions and remain in a state of perpetual inquiry." Reading about how students of that ancient school sought to achieve happiness through indifference, one wonders why Buddhism in this respect has gained more popularity in the West than a revival of Pyrrhonianism, Epicureanism, or Stoicism.
We are undergoing problems of subject, and by extension subjectivity. Problems of participation that reveal the fallibility of the subject. Abstinence from participation conversely keeps the image of the subject untarnished, but only as image and not as the subject of action.
Berlin in the excerpt above intimates that claiming subjectivity brings with it the burden of responsibility, which includes, we might add, the responsibility of being wrong. There is a saying in some languages that observes: they do not err that do not work.
But this distrust of involvement raises interesting questions when put in connection with fieldwork and the humanities. It also raises the question of how subjective we might want to be in spite of the odds in our academic work. I was given the really valuable academic advice recently to say what I intend to say; write from the heart. As I 'edit' it I have actually been doing the opposite and reaching for reasoned support for the points I made - and in doing so came across one book (Barre Toelken's The Anguish of Snails) that I now take to stand as an example of how to use subjectivity constructively.
It begins: "...spare me the automatic sermon on objective empiricism ... until we have had a chance to discuss more thoroughly the extent to which scholarly objectivity and emotional distance have really benefited our attempts to understand the people we so comfortably scrutinize in our writings." Toelken argues that cultural involvement "has more substance than has cultural distance," and that connections may be made between nature's data and the sensitive observer, which is a point to return to. ...As is the criticism he underwent for "romantically" imagining himself to be part of the culture into which he was sharing insights.
The title of his work is a metaphor. He borrows a phrase from T.S. Eliot to justify: the objective correlative, "an external object or metaphor providing the touchstone for complex systems of abstract meaning within us and our cultures". And to those who may find pathetic fallacy in the metaphor chosen (attributing emotions to snails): "We do not have to think like an oyster (or dance with snails) to read their artistic output; neither do we have to limit our understanding of them by noting only their genus and species."
The exit from perpetual inquiry lies in the responsibility of participation, which - it is argued - may provide richer insights. Still, I think Toelken is brave.
But the point to come back to, the idea of a sensitive observer, is an interesting prerequisite because it implies that even with less experience a more sensitive person may draw ample connections from limited data. It is also an idea that comes up in Herder - in terms of his "sympathetic insight" that is an "imaginative act" that operates through empathy (Einfühlen) and in Vico - viz. his understanding of "fantasia" that is essentially the skill of walking in someone else's shoes. Vico argued that an imaginative act cannot be achieved solely by inductive methods.
"How unspeakably difficult it is to convey the particular quality of an individual human being ... How much depth there is in the character of a single people, which ... escapes the word that attempts to capture it ... Words, pale shadow-play! An entire living picture of ways of life ... must be added ... one must start by feeling sympathy," Herder writes in Yet Another Philosophy of History, qtd. in Berlin's "Herder and the Enlightenment." (Emphasis added.)
In New Science, Vico writes: "we must seek aid from our imagination to explain them [the theological poets] and, like painters, form human images of them".
Is there a place for this imagination and empathy in our research?