On Tom Bridges' Rhetoric of Objectivity

Andrew Chrucky

"At this point we are again at the beginning of a philosophical road too long to explore. One hint only: Words like "object" and "objective" are evidently shot through with deep ambiguities, and need to be applied with the greatest care." Stephen Toulmin{1}

Dr. Tom Bridges has written many pieces for the newsletter Inquiry, in which he recommends that various ethnic, racial, gender, religious, and political groups be allowed to propagate their views in the classroom.{2} At present this is frowned upon, at least in non-sectarian institutions of learning. The prevalent academic norm is to allow any view to be presented and critically examined, as long as this is done from an objective point of view. Bridges wants to claim that the belief in an objective point of view (modernity Enlightenment) is a myth There are other legitimate perspectives, he tells us, which vie with modernity And postmodernism provides the alleged justification for allowing other perspectives (multiculturalism) to be propagated in the classroom by arguing that objectivity, in some sense or senses, is impossible.

One of his claims is that objective knowledge is impossible This particular claim has brought forth a number of critical articles,{3} including a letter from Dr. Ludwik Kowalski, a physicist, who expressed offense at the following quote from Bridges: " . . . there are still many in our midst who out of misunderstanding, habits and resistance to intellectual change routinely make claims to objective knowledge of history and nature."{4} Kowalski goes on to complain, rightly, that such proclamations undermine the educational endeavor. They also serve badly any ethical political agenda, leading, as Jack Baldwin-LeClair put it, "to intellectual confusion and ultimately to political and educational anarchy."{5} Ironically, Bridges puts it even better "The impact of postmodernism is thus to reduce an already incoherent curriculum to a chaotic babel."{6}

Four Flaws

Regardless of Bridges' good intentions of letting groups advocate their views, his attack on the possibility of objectivity should be assessed. Bridges' attempt to persuade the readers of his claims has four major flaws. The first is that since he does not take stock of his many different uses of the concept of objectivity, he conflates them; and consequently confuses both himself and his readers by making half-baked claims.

The second flaw is that he keeps repeating that postmodern arguments have disposed of the Enlightenment project of foundationalism, i.e., modernity

Since the publication of Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962, a vast arsenal of arguments has been stockpiled -- arguments drawn from Dewey, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gadamer, Foucault, Derrida and Rorty, to name just a few -- arguments entirely sufficient to persuade anyone paying attention that human knowledge is historically conditioned, that there is no privileged standpoint outside of history from which human beings can contemplate things or events as they really are in themselves. Does Norris or any of the defenders of objective truth have any response to these arguments?{7}

Which arguments? These people wrote many things; so, without further specification, it is difficult to know whether Bridges' concept of 'postmodernism' corresponds to anything these writers wrote, or whether Bridges is idiosyncratically misinterpreting and misappropriating. Bridges does not quote, paraphrase, or summarize any of their positions or arguments.

The third flaw is that Bridges does not give explicit arguments of his own, but weak implicit ones

The fourth flaw is that he claims that "the burden of proof now rests with the partisans of the Enlightenment."{8} On the contrary, the burden of proof is with someone who challenges common sense, the received view of science, and the Western intellectual tradition. The burden of proof is with postmodernism.


On close examination, it turns out that there are at least the following six contexts and claims in which the term 'objective' is used by Bridges

(K) Objective knowledge is impossible.
(T) Objective truth is impossible.
(R) Knowledge of objective reality (fact) is impossible.
(S) An objective standpoint is impossible.
(C) Objective criteria are impossible.
(V) The objective fact / subjective value distinction is impossible.

These are clearly distinct claims, which should be defended separately. Unfortunately Bridges does nothing more than conflate them.

To make these distinctions clearer, therefore, I propose that instead of the "objective-subjective" terminology an alternative terminology be used to express these contrasts. By paraphrasing the objective-subjective claims by means of other polar terms, we will at least escape from self-induced linguistic confusions.

I will present these alternative terms and leave it to the ambitious reader to figure out which of these Bridges means to be using in any given context.

1. Objective Knowledge

Concerning the objective-subjective knowledge distinction (K), the following polar concepts have been used to characterize both knowledge and belief:

reasonable / unreasonable
rational / irrational
infallible / fallible
certain / uncertain
incorrigible / corrigible
indubitable / dubitable
self-evident / mediately-evident
a priori / a posteriori
innate / learned
invariable / variable
absolute / relative

Evidently Bridges also has his own way of defining "objective" knowledge as "the best most professionally astute assessment of a given subject matter that is available"{9} So he would introduce the following polarity

professional consensus / no professional consensus

2. Objective Truth

Concerning the objective-subjective distinction applied to truth (T), the truths of propositions have been divided as follows

a priori / a posteriori
necessary / contingent
analytic / synthetic

Sometimes Bridges implies that

(Tl ) there is no truth: ". . . it is not sufficient to "have the truth," whatever that might mean."{10}

But at other times he seems to be claiming that

(T2 ) a priori truth is impossible: "Objective truth is truth that can be demonstrated through the application of a method and a criterion whose authority derives from pure human reason alone."{11}

And, he claims that there is no such method or criterion.

3. Objective Reality

Concerning the objective-subjective distinction applied to reality (R), there is a need to distinguish the following theses about experience:

(Rl ) Distinguish between that which is publicly experienced and that which is privately experienced, i.e.,

public / private
intersubjective / subjective

(R2) Distinguish between the objective as that which is independent of experience, and the subjective as the experienceable (whether privately or publicly), i.e.

independent of experience / dependent on experience

(R3) Distinguish between experiences as revealing reality, and experiences as mere appearances, i.e.,

reality / appearance

For example, C.l. Lewis distinguished between an 'objective' and an 'expressive' use of language . Objective language is used for stating objective facts, while expressive language is used to report how things appear.

4. Objective Standpoint

Concerning the objective/subjective standpoint (5), I take it that a "standpoint" is something like a "perspective" or "attitude." Instead of talking about an "objective/subjective" standpoint, the following polarities would probably serve clarity better:

reasoned / arbitrary
unbiased / biased
unprejudiced / prejudiced
impartial / partial

5. Objective Criteria

Concerning the distinction between objective and subjective criteria (C), this distinction could be paraphrased by the following:

invariable / variable
public / private
absolute / relative
global / local
universal / particular

6. Objective Values

As to the objective-fact / subjective value distinction (V), Bridges is assuming that

(V1 ) there are no objective values.

Furthermore, his point is to deny the possibility of the contrast between fact and values. Talk of an objective-subjective distinction here is superfluous. He wants to claim that

(V2) all facts are, in some sense, value-laden.

Granted that some descriptions are indeed value-laden, e.g., "abortion is murder." But in what sense are facts expressed by statements such as "Diamonds are composed of carbon" or "3+4=7" value-laden?

In the above, I have sketched some distinctions which need to be made and further clarified. My point is that anyone who wants to write seriously about objectivity should be sensitive to the above distinctions, which if shirked leads to confusion and misunderstanding -- not only for others but for oneself as well. Bridges has been insensitive to these distinctions and has, therefore, presented confused claims.

Sutton on Bridges

In view of the above comments, I am surprised by the opening statement made by Robert Sutton in his "Postmodernism One More Time A Response to Dr. Bridges" Inquiry (Dec. 1991): "In the latest issue of Inquiry (Nov. '91), Dr. Bridges offered another in a series of articles which eloquently presents and defends postmodernism."{12} Bridges may indeed be "eloquent" in some sense, but he is not clear as Sutton indicates in the very next sentence "this response articulates lingering difficulties and calls for greater clarity concerning this philosophical position." As to "defense," I find no defense to speak of in Bridges' writings, unless dogmatism and an appeal to the unspecified writings of authorities constitute some kind of defense.

Anyway, Sutton goes on to accuse Bridges of unclarity, ambiguity, fallacy, and possibly error. Regarding the use of the term "objective", Sutton writes

Speaking about "objectivity" Dr Bridges states, " . . . if "objective" . . . requires us to say that we somehow possess methodically-certified knowledge of a value neutral, culture-free world that exists independently of every historically and culturally determined human utterance about it, then we are only kidding ourselves."(p 15) In what sense is this sentence to be understood? On the one hand it clearly indicates the following:
1. All knowledge is local, not value free or culturally neutral.
2. Every inquiry and its statement arc gender, race, and culture specific.
But, on the other hand, this quote also seems to contain another proposition
3. There is no extra-linguistic reality to which our inquiry is directed and to which our statements refer and, with greater or lesser accuracy, correspond.
Statement 2 is simply an amplification of 1 and is thus implied. The referent of 1 and 2 would appear to be the knowing subject, not the objects of knowledge and signification."{13}

Sutton is generous in assuming that theses (1) and (2) are intelligible. I do not find them so. Anyway, Sutton has spotted and distinguished two of the several uses of "objective" which are conflated by Bridges. Sutton is distinguishing between "objective" as modifying "knowledge" and"objective" as modifying "reality." And he goes on to accuse Bridges of a fallacy in claiming that (1) and (2) entail (3); where, in fact, according to Sutton, (1) and (2) are independent of (3).

The Bridges-Kowalski Dialogue

To illustrate what happens when these very ambiguities which Sutton has focused on are not appreciated, I will examine the dispute between Bridges and Kowalski. Kowalski wrote that he was offended by the following quote from Bridges "there are still many in our midst who out of misunderstanding, habits and resistance to intellectual change routinely make claims to objective knowledge of history and nature."{14} Kowalski claimed that physics imparts to students objective knowledge, and that it is deleterious to the educational endeavor to suggest otherwise

In defense, Bridges wrote that "Science, as we know it, does not, as science, make this claim nor does it need to make this claim."{15} But Kowalski obviously thinks that he, as a scientist, does make objective claims, while Bridges thinks that he, as a scientist, shouldn't. Either one of them is wrong, or there is talk at cross purposes here. What, in effect, Bridges seems to want to say to Kowalski is this: "As a scientist you can and should claim knowledge of objective truth; but, on the other hand, you, as a scientist, cannot and should not claim that you have "objective" knowledge of objective truth." And if by 'objective' he means 'infallible', then he is saying: "As a scientist, you cannot and should not claim that you have "infallible" knowledge of objective truth."

To which Kowalski concedes by writing:

The combined efforts of experimentalists and pure thinkers may lead, hundreds of years from now, to reformulations of the laws of mechanics. Some familiar concepts may disappear from our vocabulary and be replaced by better concepts. This, however, does not contradict my strong conviction that the elements of objective truth arc already present in today's models of physical reality.{16}

Paraphrased, Kowalski is saying: "As a scientist, I can and should claim that I have "fallible" -- though psychologically certain -- knowledge of objective truth."

One would think that this formulation would get agreement from Bridges, but I don't think it does, or it shouldn't if Bridges is to be consistent with a passage such as:

. . . a growing consensus emerges among college faculty in important disciplines which denies the existence of any such objective standpoint and asserts that all is text, that there is no Objective Reality to be known?{17}

In this passage, Bridges claims that anyone claiming a fallible belief in an objective reality is wrong, since there is no such thing as "objective reality." But no arguments are given! Furthermore, if there is a growing consensus -- which I doubt -- about postmodernism as Bridges contends, it requires some sociological statistical data to substantiate; not dogmatic pronouncements.

Impossibility of Knowledge

I get the impression that the adjective 'objective' in 'objective knowledge' is actually superfluous for Bridges because he intends to be an epistemological skeptic who denies the possibility of any type of "knowledge." His advice is that we stop searching for knowledge and concentrate on the acquisition of beliefs: "The goal of inquiry is not objective truth, but reasonable belief, pistis -- the state of being persuaded "{18}

This expresses a confusion about the relation of the concepts of 'objective belief to 'objective truth', implying that they are incompatible. On the contrary, it is possible to have a reasonable belief about an objective truth. For example, I have a reasonable belief that I typed the previous sentence on a keyboard of a computer.

Although I have reservations about substituting 'belief' for 'knowledge' in all cases; yet the analysis of the concept of knowledge as justified (reasonable evident) true belief is very plausible. From this perspective, knowledge may be viewed as an ideal of the highest grade of belief. And this is compatible with the view that there is no infallible knowledge of objective reality. Now if this were all that Bridges was claiming, then it would be a plausible thesis

Objective Beliefs

Nonetheless, even if we restrict ourselves to belief, we could in the spirit of objectivity insist on objective beliefs, in the sense of 'reasonable beliefs'. Reasonable beliefs would be those based on criteria, reasons, or evidence, as contrasted with beliefs which are not so based. And then, I think, we can distinguish between beliefs which have some reasonable justification, others which have more, and still others that arc very well justified, even overwhelmingly justified. Does Bridges accept this gradation of beliefs on the basis of justification? Is Bridges' position meant to be a basic challenge to a demand that responsible writing be argumentative? But wait a minute, he told us that the arguments of postmodernists had refuted the Enlightenment project. So he does appeal to arguments! But logic and argumentation are identified with an Enlightenment project of finding epistemic foundations, while postmodernism, "certainly requires us to abandon all appeals to conceptions of reason and knowledge based upon the Enlightenment projects quest for certainty and pursuit of "objective truth"."{19}

Notice that he is certain that the quest for certainty is futile. Is this a self-defeating pronouncement? What is he certain about? Perhaps he is certain that postmodernism and modernism are contradictory theses. And perhaps he is certain that if one of two contradictory theses is false, then the other one is true. So, by his assertion of certainty, perhaps he is expressing at least an implicit commitment to the principle of contradiction and to the validity of the disjunctive syllogism.

Rhetoric and Logic

Bridges should heed his own advice and not claim certainty about the existence of a distinction between modernism and postmodernism (as he understands them), because there is no such clear distinction. According to Bridges, modernism is characterized by the use of the Scientific Method, which is a mode of deductive, inductive, and abductive argumentation augmented by use of instruments and observation. Postmodernism, by contrast, is characterized by persuasion, which is identified with rhetoric:

Thus rhetoric makes explicit the audience directedness of all speech (and therefore, all thinking). The three central means of persuasion were defined by Aristotle as logos, pathos and ethos, i.e., the speakers arguments or reasoning, the speaker's character as displayed in the discourse and the speakers appeal to the emotions and interests of the audience.{20}

The contrast between the Scientific Method and rhetoric (in relevant respects, as understood by Bridges) is a difference without a distinction. Mind you, Bridges is not introducing some new conception of rhetoric but appealing to Aristotle's concept of rhetoric.

Aristotle, however, does not recognize any fundamental difference between logic (dialectics) and rhetoric. The opening sentence of Aristotle's Rhetoric is, "Rhetoric is the counterpart of Dialectic." Rhetoric, as Aristotle conceives it, is a subordinate part of logic. The essential factor in rhetoric is logos, or argument. The types of arguments to be used in rhetoric, Aristotle tells us, are the same as he has discussed in the works on scientific or demonstrative arguments, except that rhetorical arguments are truncated versions of scientific arguments. Scientific arguments are meant to be addressed to scientists (philosophers); so they can be as long and as intricate as needed. By contrast, rhetorical arguments are meant to be addressed to ordinary people, so they should be terse. A terse deductive argument is an enthymeme, i e., a deductive argument which has a missing premise or premises; while a terse inductive argument is an illustration or example. Since it is meant to be addressed to ordinary people, rhetoric cannot rely solely on the intrinsic worth of an argument. A rhetorician must win an audience's interest and trust -- simply to have the audience pay attention. But the persuasive force should come from the argument, not some other aspect. About this Aristotle is emphatic "These writers, however, say nothing about Enthymemes,which are the substance of rhetorical persuasion, but deal mainly with non-essentials."{21}

We could distinguish an ordinary rhetoric and scientific rhetoric, and say that the former endeavors to catch the audience's interest and trust while the latter assumes it.

Furthermore, there is nothing intrinsically sophistic about the use of rhetoric. As Aristotle says: "Persuasion is clearly a sort of demonstration, since we are most fully persuaded when we consider a thing to have been demonstrated."{22} But rhetoric as well as logic can be used sophistically. People can be persuaded by all sons of linguistic tricks and fallacies, including those embedded in postmodern rhetoric.

Fact and Value

Bridges' most important muddled thinking is this

But a liberal democratic state must treat all its citizens as equals. It must base its laws and governing decisions on objective fact and not on subjective values. . . . The Scientific Method, when applied correctly simply delivers over to us the Facts. The state can then use these Facts in political decision making, in deciding who gets what and when. Of course, some citizens get stepped on, but it's OK, it's not really an injustice because decisions are made from an objective, neutral, value-free standpoint.{23}

Bridges is describing an impossibility. He is committed to claiming that it is possible to perform actions without intentions or goals. This is so because intentions imply values, and if actions can be performed without values, as he contends, then they can be performed without intentions.

How does one use facts without intentions and values to decide who gets what? Suppose it is the fact that group A has all the goodies G and group B none. How does this fact help decide anything? Suppose that you even have the further facts that group B wants goodies G and will take them by force if need be. How do these facts enable a decision? They do not. Decisions concerning actions require some values to be realized. Only if we introduce some value such as that goodies G should be equally distributed among groups A and B do we have a ground for action.

Bridges is assuming that there arc no objective values; only subjective ones. To me this indicates another confusion about the objective subjective distinction. To get out of the confusion we must first distinguish between valuing as a psychological or mental state, on the one hand, and that which is valued, on the other. Second, the things which are valued may be of value to only one person or a group of people, or be of value to everyone. Valuing, as a psychological state, is a subjective state as contrasted to a purely physical or objective state; while local values can be called 'subjective' by contrast to global values which can be called 'objective'. To make sense of the above quote from Bridges, by a subjective value he must mean something which is a value for a person or a group to the exclusion of other groups. So the dictates of the state -- he thinks -- must be the expression, at best, of a personal or a group value. And he laments that some groups are thus excluded.

The answer to this is obvious. There arc such things as objective values -- values which include everyone. One such universal value is equal justice for all. Others are universal freedom of speech and universal freedom of mobility. Another is universal welfare. Another is universal education. Another is public "this" and public "that" -- like public libraries, public beaches and parks, public roads, public postal service, public transportation, etc.

In conclusion, it is clear that Bridges is trying to advance social justice. This is his good intention. But he thinks that social justice is possible only by undermining a culture based on recognizing the existence of objective facts. In response, I contend that the value of social justice is best promoted by example, education, and practice and it is best implemented by knowing both subjective and objective facts.{24)


1. Stephen Toulmin, Knowing and Acting: An Introduction to Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1976), p. 233. [Back]

2. Tom Bridges, "Multiculturalism as a Postmodernist Project," Inquiry 7 (May 1991), p. 6. [Back]

3. Lenore Langsdorf, "In Defense of Pure Cogitation: A Reinterpretative Endeavor," Inquiry 8 (Feb. 1991 ).

Donald Hatcher, "Can Critical Thinking Survive the Postmodern Challenge?" Inquiry (Feb. 1991).
David Johnson, "A Pragmatic Realist Foundation for Critical Thinking," Inquiry 8 (April 1991).
Jack Baldwin-LeClair, "Bonfire of the Humanities: Some Observations on the Contribution of Postmodernism to Modern Education," Inquiry (Sept 1991).
Robert C. Sutton, "Postmodernism One More Time: A Response to Dr. Bridges," Inquiry 8 (Dec. 1991). [Back]

4. Ludwik Kowalski, "An Open Letter to Tom Bridges," Inquiry (Oct. 1991), p. 14.[Back]

5. Baldwin-LeClair, p. 5.[Back]

6. Tom Bridges, "Objectivity, Nihilism and Civic Rationality," Inquiry (Nov. 1991), p. 16.[Back]

7. Tom Bridges, "Modern Political Theory and the Multivocity of Postmodern Critical Discourse," Inquiry 8 (Sept. 1991), p. 7.[Back]

8. Ibid., p. 3.[Back]

9. Bridges, "Objectivity," p. 15.[Back]

10. "Critical Thinking, Rhetoric, Ideology: Excerpts from an Interview with Tom Bridges," Inquiry 5 (April 1990), p. 7.[Back]

11. Bridges, "Objectivity," p. 14.[Back]

12. Sutton, p. 3.[Back]

13. Ibid., p. 4.[Back]

14. Bridges, "Modern Political Theory," p. 3. [Back]

15. Bridges, "Objectivity," p. 15.[Back]

16. Kowalski, p. 14.[Back]

17. Tom Bridges, "Critical Thinking and the Political Crisis of the University," Inquiry 6 (Nov. 1990), p. 7. [Back]

18. Bridges, "Multiculturalism," p. 7.[Back]

19. Ibid., p. 7.[Back]

20. "Critical Thinking, Rhetoric," p. 7.[Back]

21. Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1354a5.[Back]

22. Ibid., 1355a5.[Back]

23. Bridges, "Political Crisis," p. 6.[Back]

24. I wish to thank my wife Kathy and Prof. Ronald Terranella for their comments on drafts of this paper. Any errors found in this paper are, of course, their responsibility. [Back]