It’s a Matter of Perspective

One afternoon, about four years ago, I was walking along in our neighborhood when it occurred to me that every perception or thought we have, every emotion we feel, every conclusion we reach, every command we issue or question we ask is from our particular, individual perspective.

Well, of course. That’s a truism, a statement so obviously true it’s hardly worth stating. We each have our own perspective. So what?

I don’t know, but ever since then I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a perspective or be from a perspective, and how different perspectives relate to each other. Not every waking moment, of course. But you might be surprised how often you’ll see the word “perspective” or a similar expression like “point of view” or “frame of reference” once you start paying attention.

For instance, there’s the way paintings or drawings give the impression that a two-dimensional surface has three dimensions. Turner used perspective when he painted Oxford’s High Street: 

high_turner

Underlying the artistic technique is the fact that we each have a physical perspective from which we observe the world. Each observer has what physicists call a “reference frame”, a “coordinate system attached to [the] individual observer’s perspective”, from which measurements are made. It’s one of the key concepts in Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Frame_of_reference

In addition to our physical perspective, we each have what our own “personal” perspective. It includes our particular desires, needs and interests. Personally speaking, It seems like a good idea — from my perspective — to be writing this (I have my reasons). From your personal perspective, it might be better to take a walk or go to bed.

Another type of perspective depends on what conceptual schemes or ways of thinking. We usually deal with the world from what we think is a practical or prudential perspective, but sometimes opt for a perspective that’s ethical or religious. We complain about politicians who function from a purely political perspective and celebrate those who champion a scientific or global perspective. There are so many perspectives that library shelves sag under books with inviting (?) subtitles like “Ecological and Experimental Perspectives”, “A Probabilistic Perspective”, “Perspectives from Philosophy, Psychology and Theology”, “Multicultural Perspectives” and “A Supply-Chain Perspective”.

In future posts, I’d like to occasionally discuss perspective from various perspectives. For example, why choose one perspective instead of another? Are multiple perspectives always better? How can a perspective be justified? Can it only be done from another perspective? Is there or should there be a hierarchy of perspectives? Is it really possible to adopt someone else’s perspective? Does morality depend on being able to do so? How does the philosophical position called “perspectivism”, associated with Nieztsche, differ from relativism? And is perspectivism preferable to the better-known view? 

For now, here’s a passage from Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer:

In the view of William James, as of Leonard Woolf and Montaigne, we do not live immured in our separate perspectives, like Descartes in his room.We live porously and sociably. We can glide out of our own minds, if only for a few moments, in order to occupy another being’s point of view. This ability is the real meaning of “Be convivial”, this chapter’s answer to the question of how to live, and the best hope for civilization.

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