Daston & Galison—The Image of Objectivity

The Image of Objectivity 

by Lorraine Daston & Peter Galison

[Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. 1992. “The Image of Objectivity.” Representations, no. 40 (October): 81–128.]


The current meaning of “scientific objectivity emerged only in the mid nineteenth century and is conceptually distinct from earlier attempts to be “true to nature” in its methods (mechanical), its morals (restrained), and its metaphysics (individualized).” (83)

Objectivity as a concept has gone through phases (as seen in anatomical atlases):

  • 17th to mid-19th century—two types
    • ideal image – attempts the perfect version of the type
    • characteristic image – reveals the typical attributes within an individual specimen
    • in both types, the atlas maker’s subjective views (perspectives) were involved
  • mid-19th century forward
    • truth to nature – representing specimen exactly as it exists, without subjective input
    • ‘true’ reproductions became a “talismanic”guard against fraud but also a paragon of morality
    • How to ensure this?—mechanical objectivity! (x-ray, photography, etc) Not only does a machine reproduce exactly, without interpretation, but it saves human atlas makers from having to exercise the moral duty of restraint.

Working objects – atlases, type specimens lab processes – “manageable, communal representatives of the sector of nature under investigation” (85)

Annotation Summary for: Daston & Galison – The Image of Objectivity

Page 1, Typewriter (Red): Comment: 1992

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The Talismanic Image”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “”Let nature speak for itself” became the watchword of a new brand of scien- tific objectivity that emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “y. At issue was not only accuracy but morality as well: the all-too-human scientists must, as a matter of duty, restrain themselves from imposing their hopes, expectations, gen-eralizations, aesthetics, even ordinary language on the image of nature.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Where human self-discipline flagged, the machine would take over.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This essay is an account of the moralization of objectivity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as reflected in scientific image making. We will use scientific atlases from diverse fields (anatomy, physiology, botany,paleontology, astronomy, X-rays, cloud-chamber physics) and from a span of several centuries (eighteenth to twentieth) to chart the emergence and nature of new conceptions of objectivity and subjectivity”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “What we will call “noninterventionist” or “mechanical” objectivity is only one of several elements that historical pressures have fused together into our current, conglomerate notion of objectivity.”

Page 2, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “”noninterventionist” “mechanical” objectivity”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Modern objectivity mixes rather than inte- grates disparate components, which are historically and conceptually distinct.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “confused which can be applied to everything from present usage of the term objectivity, empirical reliability to procedural correctness to emotional detachment.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In what follows we address the history of only one component of objectivity, but we believe that this component reveals a common pattern, namely the nega- tive character of all forms of objectivity.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “reveals a common pattern, namely the nega- Objectivity is related to subjectivity as wax to seal, as hollow imprint to the bolder and more solid features of subjectivity.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Each of the several components of objectivity opposes a distinct form of subjec- tivity; each is defined by censuring some (by no means all) aspects of the personal.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The problem for nineteenth-century atlas makers was not a mismatch betweenworld and mind, as it had been for seventeenth-century epistemologists, but rather a struggle with inward temptation. The moral remedies sought were those of self-restraint: images mechanically reproduced and published warts and all; texts so laconic that they threaten to disappear entirely”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Although mechanical objectivity effacessome features of the scientist, it demands other traits; it has a positive as well as a negative sense. In its negative sense, this ideal of objectivity attempts to eliminate the mediating presence of the observer:”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In its positive sense, mechanical objectivity requirespainstaking care and exactitude, infinite patience, unflagging perseverance, pre- ternatural sensory acuity, and an insatiable appetite for work”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” While much is and has been made of those distinctive traits-emotional, intellectual, and moral-that distinguish humans from machines, it was a nineteenth-century commonplace that machines were paragons of certain human virtues. Chief among these virtues were those asso- ciated with work: patient, indefatigable, ever-alert machines would relieve human workers whose attention wandered, whose pace slackened, whose hand trembled. Scientists praised automatic recording devices and instruments in much the same terms. ”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “As the photograph promised to replace the meddling, weary artist, so the self-recording instrument promised to replace the meddling, weary observer.”

Page 3, Note (Orange): Where does Benjamin fit in here?

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In this essay, we argue that this form of scientific objectivity emerged only in the mid nineteenth century and is conceptually distinct from earlier attempts to be “true to nature” in its methods (mechanical), its morals (restrained), and its metaphysics (individualized).”

Page 4, Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “we shall largely restrict our attention to atlases (and related volumes) for two reasons: first, the strong association between the visual and the factual made atlases prime bearers of the new objectivity; and second, the conflict between the mission of all atlases to characterize (not simply inventory) phenomena on the one hand, and the ban on interpretation on the other, shows how high a price scientists were prepared to pay for that objectivity.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Truth to Nature”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “From the sixteenth century on, practitioners of the sciences of the eye have prepared editions of their designated phenomena in the form of atlases, pro- fusely illustrated volumes of carefully chosen observables-bodily organs, con- stellations, flowering plants, instrument readings-depicted from a carefullychosen point of view.3 The purpose of these atlases was and is to standardize the observing subjects and observed objects of the discipline by eliminating idiosyn- ”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “crasies-not only those of individual observers but also those of individual phe- nomena.”

Page 5, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “”working objects,””

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Working objects can be atlas images, type specimens, or laboratory processes- any manageable, communal representatives of the sector of nature under investigation.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “. No science can do without such standardized working objects, for unre- fined natural objects are too quirkily particular to cooperate in generalizationsand comparisons. Atlases supply working objects to the sciences of the eye”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” in order to decide whether an atlas picture is an accurate rendering of nature, the atlas maker must first decide what nature is. All atlas makers must solve the problem of choice: Which objects should be presented as the standard phenomena of the discipline, and from which viewpoint”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” A schematictypology of earlier atlases will show that truth to nature was both a possible and variegated ideal long before the advent of mechanical objectivit”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “anatomical atlases of the seventeenth through mid nineteenth centuries, Two important variants, which we shall call the “ideal” and the “charac- teristic,” also stamp atlas illustrations of this earlier period. Briefly put, the “ideal” image purports to render not merely the typical but the perfect, while the “char- acteristic” image locates the typical in an individual.”

Page 8, Highlight (Yellow): Content: ” “ideal” image ”

Page 8, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “”char- acteristic” image”

Page 9, Underline (Red): Content: “Bern- hard Albinus,”

Page 12, Underline (Red): Content: “William Hunter,”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Even the naturalism of the camera obscura did not obviate the need for selec- tive judgment and extended commentary on the part of the atlas maker.”

Page 14, Underline (Red): Content: “William Cheselden,”

Page 15, Underline (Red): Content: “B. A. Morel’s”

Page 15, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The characteristic atlases of the mid nineteenth century mark a transition”

Page 16, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “between the earlier atlases that had sought truth to nature in the unabashed depiction of the typical-be it Typus, ideal, characteristic exemplar, or average- and the later atlases that sought truth to nature through mechanical objectivity.”

Page 16, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Like the latter, the characteristic atlases presented figures of actual individuals, not of types or ideals that had not and/or could not be observed in a single instance. But like the former, these individuals still embodied types of whose reality the atlas maker was firmly convinced. The typical must now be instantiated in the individual, but the typical nonetheless exists,”

Page 17, Underline (Red): Content: “Joseph Dalton Hooker,”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “1 This is the climate in which images of individuals came to be pre- ferred to those of types, and in which techniques of mechanical reproductionseemed to promise scientists salvation from their own worst selves. ”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Objectivity and Mechanical Reproduction”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “On first reflection, it might be thought that the shift from ideal types to individual depiction came about because of the introduction of photography. But as we have noted, resistance against the representation of an abstracted Typus or ideal began long before photographic evidence proliferated in the pages of medical atlases after the 1870s.”

Page 19, Underline (Red): Content: “Godfried Bidloo,”

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Drawing closer to the present”

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” redefining art from the fine arts of the past into any form of schematic illustration, diagram, photograph, or model. In this new sense, the artistic aids could “serve as a new language that speaks with strength and clearness where written or spoken words would convey their meaning slowly and imperfectly.””

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This new, science-directed art, of which photography was but a part, would scrutinize its subject “with the eye of the understanding,” and by so doing might “provide us with a more useful presentation of anatomical or path- ological facts than we could hope to gain from the pencil of Botticelli.”35″

Page 20, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Jules Champfleury, an ally of Gustave Courbet and spokesman for the realist movement in France,insisted that “the reproduction of nature by man will never be a reproduction and imitation, but always an interpretation … since man is not a machine and is inca- pable of rendering objects mechanically.”3”

Page 21, Underline (Red): Content: “Johannes Sabotta,”

Page 22, Underline (Red): Content: “Francis Galton”

Page 25, Underline (Red): Content: “Rudolf Grashey,”

Page 26, Underline (Red): Content: “Rudolf Grashey,”

Page 29, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Neither electroencephalographer nor particle physicist could simply point to a picture and instruct the reader to find identical occurrences in the pictorial output of their own instruments. Earlier generations of atlas makers chose “truthto nature” as their slogan: their pictures would depict the designated phenomena as they were, as they ought to be, or as they existed beneath the variation of mere appearances. Byt the late nineteenth century, however, the atlas makers no longer could make such unproblematic claims for the general applicability of their images, and by the early twentieth century, they had shifted responsibility to the reader.”

Page 31, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In part the ability of X- rays to penetrate where ordinary vision could not bestowed on the medium an aura of superhuman power. But in addition, by its very nature, X-ray technology was parasitic on the widespread assumption that the photograph does not lie.”

Page 31, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “By 1900, the photograph did wield a powerful ideo- logical force as the very symbol of neutral, exquisitely detailed truth.”

Page 32, Typewriter (Red):

Page 32, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “2 Precisely because of their conclusion that photographs did not carry a transparent meaning, the American Surgical Asso- ciation unanimously counseled its members to use their medical knowledge and learn to read what might otherwise be misleading”

Page 32, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “For these doctors, danger lurked in the imposition of individual interpreta- tion; the photograph promised freedom from the single will, but in and of itself was insufficiently powerful to wrest control from an individual photographer, doctor, or lawyer”

Page 32, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The clinicians’ fear of evidence “visible alone to the eye” reminds us both of the commonalities and differences between the position of researchers and doc- tors.”

Page 33, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “By the late 1920s, polemics against the danger of individual judgment had reached a crescendo.”

Page 33, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Erwin Christeller, a research scientist, counseled handing the task to technicians who could produce pictures without passing through the stage of using a model; the procedure could be made “fully mechan-ical and as far as possible, forcibly guided by this direct reproduction procedure of the art department.””

Page 33, Underline (Red): Content: “Erwin Christeller”

Page 34, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “So riveted was Christeller by the ideology of mechanization that he was deter- mined to leave imperfections in the photograph as a literal mark of objectivity:”

Page 34, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Such a rejection of subjective temptation permeated atlases of the time.”

Page 34, Underline (Red): Content: “Alexander Bruce’s”

Page 35, Underline (Red): Content: “E.J. Marey,”

Page 35, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The moral narrative surrounding this mechanical construction of pictorial objectivity took many forms. As we have argued, pictures (properly constructed)served as talismanic guards against frauds and system builders, aesthetes and idealizers. But picture-producing instruments carried a positive as well as nega- tive moral weight; they could do things that humans could not, and avoid what humans could not help but do. Joined with the virtues of machines in general, writers like the French physiologist Marey saw in the imaging instrument (see fig. 13) the possibility of realizing both an ideal of scientific work and a more general ideal of a universal pictorial language.”

Page 36, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “As oracles speaking nature’s own language, the inscription instruments acquired a second, even more far-reaching function. They could actually becomethe ideal observers science had always sought: “Patient and exact observers, blessed with senses more numerous and more perfect than our own, they work by themselves for the edification of science; they accumulate documents of an unimpeachable fidelity, which the mind easily grasps, making comparisons easy and memory enduring.”

Page 36, Underline (Red): Content: “Gaston Tissandier”

Page 36, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the rhetoric of ever- increasing precision is used to celebrate the technical progression from camera”

Page 37, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “lucida to photographic reproduction. But as many atlas writers indicated, pho-tochemical, mechanical reproduction was not always or even usually the means to make an image that readers would automatically find most similar to a bird, a dissected corpse, or a cell.7”

Page 37, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “4 Burdened with detail not found in the reader’s own specimens, produced in black and white, often blurred to boot, there were manycases where the photograph was unable to provide the audience with a guide equal to that offered by an illustrator”

Page 37, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Objectivity Moralized”

Page 37, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Although mechanical objectivity was nominally in the service of truth to nature, its primary allegiance was to a morality of self-restrain”

Page 37, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “t. When forcedto choose between accuracy and moral probity, the atlas makers often chose the latter, as we have seen: better to have bad color, ragged tissue edges, and blurred boundaries than even a suspicion of subjectivity”

Page 37, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Nonetheless, no atlas maker could dodge the responsibility of presenting fig-ures that would teach the reader how to recognize the typical, the ideal, the char- acteristic, the average, or the normal”

Page 37, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “To do so would have betrayed the mission of the atlas itself. A mere collection of unsorted individual specimens, portrayed in all their intricate peculiarity, would have been positively subversive.”

Page 38, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Not only did mechanical objectivity prune the ambitions of the atlas; it also transformed the ideal character of the atlas maker. At the very least, the atlasmaker of yore had been a person qualified by wide experience and sober judg- ment to select and present an edition of interpreted phenomena for the guidance of other anatomists, botanists, entomologists, and so on. ”

Page 38, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Failure to discriminate between essential and accidental detail; failure to amend a flawed or atypical specimen; failure to explain or comment upon the significance of an image-all of these would have been taken as signs of incom- petence, not virtuous restraint, by the earlier atlas makers. ”

Page 38, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “However, already in the early decades of the nineteenth century more often discipline came from within, confronting the “inner enemies” on their own territory. It is this internal conflict that imparted to mechanical objectivity its high moral tone. Imagination and judgment were sus- pect not primarily because they were personal traits, but rather because they were “unruly” and required discipline. Moreover, lack of sufficient discipline pointed to character flaws-self-indulgence, impatience, partiality for one’s own prettiestideas, sloth, even dishonesty-which were best corrected at their source, by assuming the persona of one’s own sharpest critic, even in the heat of discovery”

Page 38, Underline (Red): Content: “Michael Faraday”

Page 39, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “For the scientific atlas makers of the later nineteenth century, the machine aided where the will failed. At once a powerful and polyvalent symbol, the machine was fundamental to the very idea of mechanical objectivity.”

Page 39, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “First, the capacity of a machine to turn out thousands of identical objects linked it with the standardizing mission of the atlas, which aimed, after all, both to standardize and to reproduce phenomena.”

Page 39, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The machine also provided a new model for the scale and perfection to which standardization might strive.”

Page 39, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Second, the machine, in the form of new scientific instruments, embodied a positive ideal of the observer: patient, indefatigible, ever alert, probing beyond the limits of the human senses.”

Page 39, Underline (Red): Content: “Charles Babbage,”

Page 40, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Third, and most significant for our purposes, the machine, now in the formof techniques of mechanical reproduction, held out the promise of images uncon- taminated by interpretation. This promise was never actually made good-nei- ther camera obscura nor smoked-glass tracings nor photograph could rid the atlases of judgment altogether. Nonetheless, the scientists’ continuing claim to such judgment-free representation is testimony to the intensity of their longing for the perfect, “pure” image.”

Page 40, Underline (Red): Content: “images uncon- taminated by interpretation.”

Page 40, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In this context the machine stood for authenticity: it was at once an observer and an artist,”

Page 40, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “One type of mechanical image, the photograph, became the emblem for all aspects of noninterventionist objectivity: This was not because the photograph was necessarily truer to nature than hand- made images-many paintings bore a closer resemblance to their subject matterthan early photographs, if only because they used color”

Page 40, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Nonintervention, not verisimili- tude, lay at the heart of mechanical objectivity, and this is why mechanically pro- duced images captured its message best.”

Page 40, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “mechanical objectivity, with its strong ascetic overtone, also tapped roots deeper and older than the machine age.”

Page 40, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Self-discipline came hard, and the”

Page 41, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “struggle against the inner enemies took on, explicitly, an aura of stoic nobility.”

Page 41, Underline (Red): Content: “Ernest Renan,”

Page 41, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Like the priests whose celibacy, fasting, and vigils purified them for direct contact with the godhead and made them fit”

Page 42, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “vessels for divine truth and worldly power, the self-restraint of the scientists puri- fied them for direct contact with nature and made them fit vessels for natural truth and worldly power.”

Page 42, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Morality is the salient word here, and with it comes an apparent paradox. Humility and self- restraint, the one imposed from without and the the pride-breaking morality of the scientists. How could it be that the very objectivity that seemed to insulate science from the moral-the creed that takes the fact/value distinction as its motto-simulta- neously lay claim to moral dignity of the highest order?”

Page 42, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “Morality”

Page 42, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Otherwise put, objectivity is a morality of prohibi- tions rather than exhortations, but no less a morality for that.”

Page 43, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “it is tempting to collapse all of objectivity into the view from nowhere.96”

Page 43, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “6 This temptation to simplify by conflation should be resisted, for the highest expressions of objectivity in one mode may seem worthless when judged by the standards of another mode.”

Page 43, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” We can fully understand why photographs wear the halo of objectivity only when we recognize that the kind of objectivity that beatifiesthem is mechanical objectivity, and not its metaphysical or aperspectival kin”

Page 43, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “. The moral of our story is that objectivity is a multifarious, mutable thing, capable of new meanings and new symbols: in both a literal and figurative sense, scientistsof the late-nineteenth-century created a new image of objectivity.”

Page 44, Underline (Red): Content: “Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, The Leviathan and the Air Pump:Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, N.J., 1985). ”

Page 48, Underline (Red): Content: “Simon Schaffer, “A Manufactury of Ohms: The Integrity of Victorian Values” (Unpublished MS).”

Page 48, Underline (Red): Content: ” Charles Babbage, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (4th ed., London,”

Page 48, Underline (Red): Content: “Max Weber, “‘Objektivitat’ sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpoli- tischer Erkenntnis” (1904), in Johannes Winckelmann, ed., Gesammelte Aufsdtze fur (3rd ed., Tiibingen, 1968), 146-214. Wissenschaftslehre”


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