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Is there a philosophical difference between neutral and objective?
I got a comment (on a paper) that both terms are used interchangeably and thus, my distinction is not valid. However, I have problems to find sources that supports either my distinction or the interchangeable use.
The wikipedia article on supports the synonymous opinion: "This second meaning of objectivity is sometimes used synonymously with neutrality." but without giving a source while another encyclopedia text doesn't make this connection . The [article]3, however, states that neutrality is distinct from objectivity, but again, without any references or further explanations.
To me, it seems the synonymous use of neutral and objective is not as clear as the comment has suggested and thus any links to books/articles or advice on this issue would be great.


PS: My distinction of neutral and objective is as following: Objective statements are perceived as true. Neutral statements, however, do not contain a clear position and are viewed as uncontested.

  • You can read "the irreducible complexity of objectivity", an article from Douglas, if you're interested in a review and classification of the different meanings "objective" can have. – Quentin Ruyant Jul 16 '17 at 9:54
  • Objectivity can be about: phenomena, observations, persons, arguments, processes and methods... It can mean independence from a perspective, from values, neutrality between different values, repeatability, ... This is a complex matter. Generally speaking I would say it conveys the idea of invariance (different persons would reach the same conclusion about something). – Quentin Ruyant Jul 16 '17 at 10:05
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To give a philosophy of science perspective, in ch. 6 of Science, Policy, and the Value-Free Ideal Douglas discusses eight different senses or kinds of objectivity. One of these (123-4) is value-neutrality, which Douglas characterizes as "taking a position that is balanced or neutral with respect to a spectrum of values." She argues that

value-neutrality is not ideal in all contexts. Sometimes a value-neutral position is unacceptable. For example, if racist or sexist values are at one end of the value continuum, value-neutrality would not be a good idea. We have good moral reasons for not accepting racist or sexist values, and thus other values should not be balanced against them.

Value-neutrality might be close to the first part of your definition of neutrality: "do[es] not contain a clear position." The second part, "viewed as uncontested," is closer to two other senses of objectivity. One is concordant objectivity, which Douglas characterizes as "check[ing] to see whether the individual judgments of people in fact do agree" and "if some set of competent observers all concur on the particular observation" (126). The other is interactive objectivity, which "requires discussion among the participants. Instead of immediately assenting to an observation account [that would be concordant objectivity - DH], the participants are required to argue with each other, to ferret out the sources of their disagreements" (127). Interactive objectivity includes Longino's account of objectivity as institutions for community debate, in Science as Social Knowledge.

In light of Douglas' analysis, your definition of objectivity, "objective statements are perceived as true," is vague. You might mean that there's general agreement on objective statements — in which case you're talking about concordant or interactive objectivity. In this case, if your sense of neutrality is also close to concordant or interactive objectivity, then your instructor is right: these two terms seem to be synonymous. However, if neutrality in your sense is closer to value-neutrality in Douglas' sense, then there is an important difference between value-neutrality and interactive objectivity.

Another possibility is that your sense of objectivity is more about the verification of claims. Douglas has two senses of objectivity that are relevant here. One sense is manipulable objectivity: "When we can ... use the world to accomplish other interventions reliably and predictably" (118). The other is convergent objectivity: "Instead of using an initial result for further interventions, we approach the result through multiple avenues, and if the same result continues to appear, we have increasing confidence in the reliability of the result" (119-20). Both of these are distinct from value-neutrality, and from concordant and interactive objectivity. So, in this case, "objectivity" and "neutrality" aren't synonymous.

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Objectivity and neutrality aren't necessarily the same. Objectivity refers to taking a view or position on the available evidence. Neutrality refers to taking a view or position that is even handed. They are effectively synonymous if and only if the subject under question has valid positions both for and against.

As an extreme example, take the Ickian position that the British Royal Family are lizards. Looking at this objectively is not going to be the same as taking a neutral view on it i.e. a neutral position would balance the pros and cons on either side. An objective position would naturally conclude that they are, of course, lizards /s.

Somewhat more controversially, an objective reading of man-made climate change would not conclude the same as a neutral view given the preponderance of evidence.

  • The sarcasm is entertaining, but it muddies your explanation. If you are going to give one ironic example and one controversial example, maybe include something like Holocaust denial as a straight example. – user9166 Jul 14 '17 at 17:17
  • This doesn't make sense. Or, is too apoptotic, and therefore highly misleading. The words surely aren't universally used that way. And they have many other meanings. These aren't even the most common ones. – user26700 Jul 15 '17 at 18:04
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As you present the distinction, it sounds like an objective statement that p, is an assertion that p (in other jargon, an utterance of p with assertoric force) which would commit the person who made the statement (the utterer) to the truth of p.

A neutral statement that p would be a statement of p that does not assert p. How to classify it further will depend on your taxonomy of speech acts and whether you're considering the neutral statement to really convey the same proposition. For example, take the statement:

(1) Earth has one moon.

If I assert (1), I am committing myself to the truth of (1). That would be an objective statement of (1), in your terminology (though I find the "objective" terminology here somewhat confusing since it has many different uses in philosophy).

If I make a neutral statement of (1), then I'm either uttering (1) non-assertorically, or I could be indirectly asserting a related proposition, e.g., I could be giving a belief report:

(2) (Some people say that) Earth has one moon.

In asserting (2), with the parenthetical bit being something understood from context, I would not be committing myself to the truth of (1).

See the SEP articles on Assertion and Speech Acts.

As I mentioned above, "objective" is used in a whole manner of different ways in philosophy. Off the top of my head:

  1. Truth-Aptness/Factivity: an objective statement is one capable of being true or false. Contrasts with, arguably, statements concerning matters of taste ("Pizza tastes good.")
  2. Reality of Objects Involved: an objective statement is one that is committed to the existence of the objects it refers to/quantifies over. Contrasts with, arguably, fictive statements or statements involving pretense ("Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street." or "Suppose there is a round square.")

Given its ubiquity, I would avoid use of the term "objective" without explicitly defining it, unless the intended meaning is incredibly clear from context. If I didn't have to use the term, I'd probably try to find a better one that wasn't so widely and disparately used. In general, though, good practice dictates you define any (most) distinctions you make.

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"Objective statements are perceived as true. Neutral statements, however, do not contain a clear position and are viewed as uncontested."

I would try entries on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website for specific references.


Objectivity often refers to a reference to something related to space and time in the strong sense of measurability. A fact, that Crete is an island, is neutral insofar as it finds general if not universal agreement, among people of ordinary mental capacity. When one is addressed ad hominem (in the tradtional sens eof the word, not the wiki-sense), to one's opinion or inner view, one holds Crete is an island. There's no dispute among most people about that. The agreement allows for a so-called common ground, in which a discussion can happen, because everyone grants they, they themselves, ad hominem or from an orign within, grant the fact: that it appears before them like that. But, viewed relative to space time, scientifically, the agreement that Crete is an island isn't in question. The question is if a competent person, who knows how to survey and measure the coast, can come back with reliable quantified data about the thing one calls Crete, one could call it as coherently "x". Can we make repeated measurement of 'x' reliably? That is objectivity de facto.

Another similar subtle nuance is the distinction between "neutral" in your sense, and impartiality. Someone who doesn't have anything particular at stake in a disagreement is not objective, they have opinions which may bias them, but they are impartial insofar as they aren't deliberately for one party or the other. These days the problem of judge impartiality has broken down around this distinction. Biases are read into, confused with, intentions about politics.

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They are not synonyms of each other, but both are used as synonyms of the word "unbiased." Each word has a very broad meaning and the meanings only intersect when describing an unbiased opinion or view.

If you are using the word to describe a lack of bias, then you are in that vesica pisces where the two intersect, and you could almost call them synonyms. In this case the two are indeed often interchangeable.

Aside from that one case, they are entirely different words with different meanings.

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