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As I understand it, “disinterestedness” refers to objectivity and value-free pursuit of knowledge. When we are disinterested, we detach ourselves from biases and become more neutral and open-minded which helps attaining more reliable knowledge. “Pursuit of knowledge” in this claim means knowledge acquisition and production. Knowledge itself can be best described in the words of Plato as justified true belief, which could be both theoretical and practical. Practical knowledge is acquired by day-to-day hands-on experiences such as riding a bike, while theoretical is the knowledge of why something is true and requires explanations.
“Disinterestedness” is connected to every aspect of a justified true belief. Impartiality in truth means being purely interested in the truth itself and restraining from jumping to conclusions on any basis. Dependable knowledge can be acquired in establishing beliefs by objectively accepting a statement as true when going beyond the empirical data. Looking at neutrality in justification, the right standing of a person’s beliefs with respect to knowledge should be determined in such a manner, that he/she is not influenced by outside factors.
However, disinterestedness implies not only detachment from political and social influences but also the lack of emotions, such as curiosity, passion and enthusiasm. Being completely disinterested can hinder a person’s ability to ask questions, observe and actively engage in research when pursuing knowledge. This makes it extremely difficult to stay neutral and ignore the underlying assumptions and implications.
To examine the mentioned claim, we must pose the question of whether and in what ways value-neutrality is desirable and attainable. I will explore the link between epistemic and contextual values to the acquisition and creation of knowledge in natural science and art.
We are creatures who encounter events from a perspective. An individual’s perspective is always affected by his/her personal situation, language, culture and the physical conditions in which the knowledge claim is made. In my opinion abstention from biased behaviour would ideally deliver knowledge in its most accurate form, however this is unachievable. Complete detachment would mean certain desirable values such as perseverance and simplicity to be avoided. Hence the degree of value-neutrality must have a reasonable limit.
Value-neutrality in science refers to not influencing the claims, methods and results by particular perspectives, value commitments, community bias or personal interests. Knowledge acquisition should be purely reliant on logical reasoning and empirical data, as logical empiricism states. Epistemic values are those which attach to cognitive successes such as justified beliefs and understanding. They include predictive accuracy, scope, unification, explanatory power, simplicity and coherence with other accepted theories. Contextual values on the other hand are moral, personal, social, political and cultural values. Objectivity, achieved by detachment from both, characterizes science as an AOK; we can go so far as to say that it faithfully describes facts in the absence of normative commitments and personal biases. Science aims to employ value-neutrality strongly enough to produce valuable knowledge and yet weakly enough for it to be attainable.
To pursue knowledge, scientists must explore events detached from personal perspective and arrive at a claim which remains constant. This concept of describing world phenomena independently of perspectives through engagement of epistemic values is desirable as it provides a simpler and more unified representation of the world, aids in settlement of disagreements and allows for the proposal of valuable predictions. Scientists can explain the world and our image of it by means of theories. The universal law of gravitation, first proposed by Sir Isaac Newton, is a perfect example, as it is based on numerous observations which logically explain the pulling force exerted on any two objects. The theory is formulated with epistemic values as it is simplistic, coherent and supported by reliable evidence which have led to the formula F = G × [(m1m2)/(r)^2]. It demonstrates the relationship between the exerted force and the mass and distance between the two bodies directly, making predictions possible and accurate. The theory is consistent and has scope as it is in accordance with other relevant currently accepted theories and its consequences extend beyond the data it is required to explain. Nevertheless, our ability to showcase facts despite being highly desirable, depends on whether the claims we make can be unambiguously established empirically. The use of scientific methods like making observations, measurements and experiments to collect data and obtain sufficient evidence to support declared scientific claims are essential to acquire knowledge and they rely on epistemic values. This leads us to the assertion that epistemic values are desirable to obtain true justified beliefs.
Thomas Kuhn, a well-known philosopher of science, claims that epistemic values define the standards for theory assessment, which characterize the scientific approach as a whole and prove their benefit in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Value-neutral acquisition of knowledge relying entirely on gathering evidence, assessing and accepting scientific theories can however be underdetermined by evidence. This means that the evidence available is insufficient to identify which belief a person should hold about that evidence. It usually leads to the formation of two or more competing theories. It is up to scientists to decide the degree of evidential justification needed to accept a theory as true. This decision making is subjective and highly dependent on individual morals, which demonstrates the use of contextual values in scientific theory acceptance. To understand this, we can look at the example of biologist Nikolai Vavilov in the Soviet Union, who was sentenced to death because of his theories on genetic inheritance, which did not comply with the Marxist-Leninist ideology. It was a time when scientific research and principles were controlled by political interests, which lead to tragic epistemic effects during the 20th century. This counters the prescribed claim as it presents knowledge pursuit as always dependable on other factors. Referring to another area of knowledge, namely art, we acquire knowledge in various forms from dance, literature, music and visual representations to name a few. The ways through which we pursue knowledge in art is heavily reliant on emotions and intuition and is interpreted differently by individuals. Works of art bring people closer to their understanding of themselves and although the art may be the same, the way it is perceived by people depends on their perspective, which is a contextual value that cannot be dismissed. Knowledge gained from and produced in art is subjective as artistic creations are a form of self-expression. Judging whether they are “good” or “bad” is a matter of personal preference. However, contextual values are at work here. An example of bias in art is socialist realism, a genre of idealized, realistic art that was developed in the Soviet Union and was imposed as the official style, which includes biased ideas and communist ideals. The purpose of this art was to serve politics and influence the public to glorify the ruling party through propaganda. An art movement like this, imposed on such a large scale supports the claim that knowledge produced in art is biased and disinterestedness is unattainable. Unlike in science, there are no procedures in the arts, such as peer review, to enhance objectivity. There is no reliable way to ascertain and verify the expressed opinion about a work of art objectively to form a unified consensus. We cannot rely on measurements and instruments to determine a painting’s or film’s “faithfulness to facts”. The methods of science are not applicable to achieve an objective standpoint. This evidence shows the vulnerability of art to contextual values.
Countering this claim, we may say that art can be appreciated objectively to a certain degree by considering technical precision in its production. The acquisition of knowledge in respect to the brush strokes in a painting or the intonation of an actor’s voice are simple examples of how an observer can to a certain degree distance themselves from the underlying contextual values. By an objective and mathematical reality of color theory, ratio, proportion, and to a lesser extent, composition and other elements that make up art, it can be assessed impartially. These physical characteristics can be observed and categorized as either appropriate to a certain style or not. Based on this data, we can judge how “good” a work is. While being aware of the conventions of different art styles and their effects, majority of the public, including myself, are not concerned to a great extent with their precision but rather rely on the emotions the observed works arise in us. Art critics on the other hand are more appreciative of this value-neutral assessment, however opinions among critics vary greatly, showcasing that subjectivity lies in the essence of attaining knowledge in art.
Regarding the arts, consensus can be formed by media or majority opinion, which generally coincides with “truth” but it should not be mistaken for the truth itself. Our understanding of art is definitely altered by consensus, however believing in the truth about a certain work can be a personal endeavor. Finding truth and extracting knowledge in art is a unique process for every individual. In this essay, I argued that although ideally science is an objective area of knowledge, it too relies on epistemic values which are desirable in knowledge acquisition. Contextual values on the other hand are to be avoided. However, scientific research relies on individual decisions which implies that value-neutrality is not achievable. Considering the arts and their subjective nature I discussed the unattainable “disinterestedness” and stressed the importance of subjectivity through personal emotions and intuition to understand an artistic creation. To conclude, by carefully examining the different aspects to the claim of disinterestedness, it is unattainable but desirable, to a certain degree, in the pursuit of knowledge.
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