I thoroughly enjoyed Science as Social Knowledge by the US philosopher Helen Longino. It was recommended to me by Judith Simon, a very smart researcher I met at the ISKO conference in Montreal last summer. She researches trust and social software and suggested that Longino’s analysis of objectivity would be helpful to me. It took me a while to get settled with the book, but I recognised an essentially Wittgensteinian take on the notion of shared meaning. Longino works this into a set of principles for establishing degrees of objectivity in scientific enquiry. If I have grasped it all correctly, she basically says that although there is no such thing as “ideal” objectivity – a one true perspective up in the sky – we do not have to collapse into an “anything goes” relativism. We can accept that background assumptions can be challenged and change, and embed the notion of challenge and criticism into the heart of scientific enquiry itself. That establishes a self-regulating system that is more or less objective, depending on how open it is to criticism and how responsive it is to legitimate challenges. Objectivity arises out of the process of consensus-building in an open, reflective, and self-challenging community.
Applying this to taxonomy work appears to mean that the process of taxonomy building can be more or less objective, depending on how open the process is to the community and to adapting to legitimate challenges or complaints. This seems to be very much like the practical advice offered by taxonomists expressed in terms of “get user buy-in”, “consult all stakeholders”, “ensure that you consider all relevant viewpoints”, or “ensure that you have regular reviews and updates”, so it’s reassuring to know we are basically epistemologically valid in our methods!