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The Multitudes of Whitman

dshanin's picture
The search for objectivity has been at the core of scientific inquiry for many years.  Throughout this course it has been argued however, that an inescapable subjectivity exists within any scientific inquiry.  This “spark” of creative innovation is what divides great research from the mundane.  Though scientific technique is notable for its rigid and formulaic nature the actual questions addressed by research reflect the personal experiences and character of the researcher.  Those who possess particularly innovative or novel lines of inquiry are rewarded with grants and awards while those that fail to remain unfunded, never reaching fruition.  The subjectivity being described here is remarkable for just how carefully the scientific community attempts to control it.  Identifying subjectivity as lying in the spark simultaneously assures the public that all subjectivity has been carefully scrubbed from every other aspect of the process.  This view contrasts sharply with Walt Whitman’s contention that he “contains multitudes”.  The powerfully worded statement suggests that our very being contains a range “identity” and as such everything we perceive is actually evaluated by a large group of our thoughts and feelings.  This idea is very interesting considering its implications with the subjective and objective.  
In some senses Walt Whitman is attempting to show just how objective he is.  By dividing his mind and intellect into many substituent components Whitman has sought to remove the “self” from observations.  Instead of one, inherently biased observer, there are thousands of inherently biased observers.  Yet Whitman suggests that these masses of observers are individually unique and thus cannot share the same biases.  By dividing up his preconceptions into many different parts and then allowing the parts to debate and bounce ideas off of each other Whitman hopes to achieve a higher level of objectivity than can usually be found in the writings of a single observer.  
This approach raises several interesting issues.  The primary one is whether this division of self does anything to increase objectivity.  The idea that it does is based on the logical assumption that the observations of a large group tend to be more accurate than those of a single observer.  This does not always hold up in real life as individuals tend to vary independently in the quality of their observations and the force of their character.  Thus in a group where decisions are made through joint observation followed by debate, as Whitman suggests his are, those with the loudest, most convincing voices may also be those with the worst recollection of what actually occurred.  Taken back to Whitman’s metaphor, these “extra” loud voices that yell without knowing are the biased preconceptions within his intellect.  Though he tries to avoid the subjectivity of a single observer through internal division, all of the components of an inherently subjective system remain; no matter how they are re-arranged.    
The very idea that two differing interpretations of a particular observation can be evaluated against each other for accuracy is a highly foundationalist sentiment and one that Whitman may not have been prepared to support.  In order to decide whose viewpoint is more objective it is necessary to have an extra-corporeal rubric to judge them against.  In this sense Whitman may not be succeeding in his attempt to create truer observations.  Yet if the rubric is removed, and Whitman is simply evaluating his observations against himself then his method may really be onto something.  
Whitman embraces exactly what Science has worked so hard to eradicate: the individual differences of humanity.  A scientific argument is weakened if it cannot be applied to all people.  This certainly isn’t the case with Whitman.  His attempt to divide his “self” makes no promises about the universal accuracy of his statements, but it certainly increases his understanding of self.  When viewed in this sense, Whitman’s multitudes are just a beautifully metaphoric way of coming to terms with the varied and often contradictory feelings inside each of us.  If we view ourselves a single entity, we are also insisting that one central doctrine is needed by which to live a consistent and comprehensible life.  This is the notion that Whitman is rejecting.  Instead of compromising your feelings in order to become an integrated person Whitman intentionally separated his components.  This way, a contradiction of feeling serves as an attention grabber rather than part of a process of homogenization by which both opinions are weakened in pursuit of a happy medium.  By focusing on, rather than avoiding, the aspects of our lives where our personalities are thrown into conflict we can gain a better understanding of ourselves.  Whitman’s point is that the most interesting parts of life and the human condition are the ambiguous ones.  “Multitudes” of perspective don’t serve to decrease the inherent subjectivity of how we see the world but instead increase the objectivity by which we view our own thoughts and opinions.  


Paul Grobstein's picture

Whitman, multitudes, objectivity/subjectivity, self/world

" “Multitudes” of perspective don’t serve to decrease the inherent subjectivity of how we see the world but instead increase the objectivity by which we view our own thoughts and opinions."

But,  "those with the loudest, most convincing voices may also be those with the worst recollection of what actually occurred" is as much a problem for "how we view our own thoughts and opinions" as it is for "how we see the world", no?  So perhaps we need to give up "a highly foundationalist sentiment" in BOTH realms?