Shared Perspectives

Quoting myself from almost two months ago:

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. 

An individual’s perspective is the place from which an individual perceives the world, where “position” includes not only the individual’s location in space and time, but also anything else that affects how the individual perceives or understands things. For example, my perspective is affected by my perceptual abilities, my history, memories, beliefs and desires, and also by external factors like whether the sun is shining or how much noise there is from passing traffic.

Usually, something like the noise from passing traffic won’t affect my perspective on an issue like global warming, and having seen An Inconvenient Truth won’t affect my perspective on whether you said “yeah” or “nah” just now, but the factors that affect my perspective can be mysterious. Since so many factors can come into play, my perspective is “where I’m coming from” in a very broad sense. Regardless of what affects my current perspective, whenever I offer an opinion or reach a conclusion about anything at all, I do so from my particular perspective or point of view.  

The other kind of perspective is, at first glance, divorced from individual perspectives. The other kind of perspective is shared. It’s a general way of thinking or perceiving. Pope Francis, for example, has his individual perspective on global warming, but he also views the issue from a Catholic perspective. Many other members of his church do so as well. When thinking about global warming, they take into account the Church’s teachings regarding the creation of the world and our relationship with nature, as well as the church’s position on science.

Yet there are many Catholics who don’t agree with the Pope about global warming. Some of them are ignorant about the science or the church’s teachings. Some of them don’t look at the issue from a Catholic perspective at all. Others think the Pope has the Catholic perspective wrong or is misapplying it in this case (even though the Pope has the authority to speak on global warming from the church’s perspective, if anyone does). 

One problem is that it’s often difficult to say what constitutes a particular perspective. What is, for example, the Catholic, scientific, French or Tea Party’s perspective on any given subject? When trying to put a shared perspective into words, the best we can do is summarize the relatively common features of the individual perspectives of the individuals in the group being considered (for example, scientists or the French).

But not all of the common features are relevant. It’s only the features that pertain specifically to the group of people we’re interested in. The French, for example, are all Europeans, so they have a European perspective. But to identify the specifically French perspective, we would have to identify the perspective shared by French people qua French people (by virtue of their being French and not, for example, Danish).

We might try to identify the French perspective or the scientific perspective on a given question by conducting a very good opinion poll. We could try to find out how the majority of French people or scientists would answer the question, but also what factors affected the answer they gave. We would want to know what considerations they thought were important, but also what unconscious assumptions or tendencies came into play when they gave their answers.

In some cases, however, we wouldn’t be interested in what the majority of our target population thought. Perhaps the majority of our population allowed unrelated factors to affect their thinking. For example, the truly scientific perspective on a difficult or controversial topic might differ from what the majority of scientists are currently thinking. From a scientific perspective, we now understand that human activity is raising the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans. But if most scientists were employed by oil or coal companies, they might weigh the evidence differently. They would be more likely to share their employers’ perspective while supposedly viewing the evidence scientifically.

Finally, we should keep in mind that any conclusions anyone reaches about a general, shared perspective will be made from that individual’s own perspective. Every claim that a certain fact is true, or a particular course of action is correct, from a common perspective, not merely from the speaker’s perspective, is made from the speaker’s perspective, and should be evaluated on that basis. In other words, if I claim to view the issue of global warming from a scientific perspective, I may be mistaken about what the scientific perspective really is. I may even be trying to borrow the prestige of the scientific perspective for my own point of view. All judgments are made from an individual’s perspective, including judgments about shared perspectives.

Both kinds of perspective, the individual and the shared, are ways of thinking and perceiving that are affected by certain features of the world. The difference between them is that one is a mixture or summary of the other.