Perspectives and Perspectives

In writing about perspective, I’m a little concerned that I may be conflating or improperly jamming together two different kinds of perspective. But I think the two kinds have enough in common to justify discussing them at the same time. One kind of perspective is the personal or individual kind. The other is more social or abstract. 

Here’s an example of the first kind. On her first day of kindergarten, this little girl’s parents strapped a movie camera to her chest so she could film everything that happened “from her perspective”.

That’s a kind of perspective each of us has. It’s even fair to say that the camera has a perspective (as in “the teacher was visible from the camera’s perspective, but her desk wasn’t”). Cameras lack consciousness, but they do record data from a particular point of view. Do all inanimate objects have perspectives? There doesn’t seem to be any reason to say that a bottle of water has a perspective, but there are probably some difficult cases. At any rate, every individual perspective begins with a physical location (the here and now) from which the world is perceived or, as in the case of the camera, from which data is recorded.

However, there is more to a perspective than location, because a location from which nothing is being perceived or recorded isn’t really a perspective. We might say, for example, that the ocean is visible from the perspective of that mountaintop, but that would only be another way of saying that an observer on top of that mountain could see the ocean. Mountaintops don’t actually have perspectives. Like any other location, a mountaintop can only play a role in someone or something else’s perspective (and it can be a very helpful role, which is why telescopes are often put on mountaintops).

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s very little difference between a camera’s perspective and a person’s. But I think perspectives occupy a range from the very simple to the very complex. Cameras and bacteria have relatively simple perspectives; you and I have more complex perspectives; redwoods (?) and rabbits fall somewhere in between. (The HAL 2000 computer had a perspective, although I’m not sure where it fit on the continuum.)

How is a person’s perspective (or HAL’s) more complex than a camera’s? If it worked properly, the camera above was able to roughly capture some of what the little girl saw. If it was set to record sound, it also captured sounds similar to the ones she heard. But the camera couldn’t do more than that. It couldn’t even approximate how her new shoes felt or how her lunch tasted. Relatively complex organisms like us have a variety of senses that allow us to gather information about our bodies and the world around us, giving us relatively complex perspectives (some neurologists think we have as many as twenty-one senses; it’s agreed we have more than five).

But other factors besides sense perception affect our perspective. For example, it’s said in this review of The Diary of a Teenage Girl that the movie “aims to tackle a coming-of-age story from a girl’s perspective”. That doesn’t mean the director filmed the movie so that every scene was shot as if we in the audience were looking through the girl’s eyes (some directors do that kind of thing, and it gets annoying fairly quickly). A film being made from a certain character’s perspective means that the events and characters in the film are portrayed as they might have been experienced by that particular character, for example, by a teenage girl who had a certain background and a certain set of memories, beliefs, emotions and needs. The director tells the story as if this particular teenage girl were telling it. 

This is the broad sense of perspective that’s captured by the phrase “this is where I’m coming from”. During a conversation, I might express my opinion on the topic at hand, but simultaneously admit that my opinion is partly determined by who I am and where I’ve been. We all understand, or should understand, that how we experience and evaluate the world depends to a significant extent on our individual perspectives.

So what’s the other kind of perspective I mentioned hundreds of words ago? That’s the social or abstract kind referred to in titles like these: “Spender’s Anthropological Perspective Was An Eye-Opener”; “Forgiveness From a Humanist Perspective”; and “The Russian Perspective”. Anthropological, humanist and Russian perspectives aren’t the same as personal perspectives, but they don’t float around in the ether either. They’re connected to the individual perspectives of, in these three cases, anthropologists, humanists and Russians. I think I’ve got something to say about that kind of perspective, and how the two kinds are related, but, from my perspective, that’s enough for now.