Understanding Perspectivism: Scientific Challenges and Methodological Prospects, edited by Michaela Massimi, et al.

I’ve been building up to writing a book about perspective and perspectivism for about ten years now. I’ve read articles and books and written thousands of words in emails (mostly to myself) and other places. (It doesn’t pay to rush these things.) 

This isn’t about perspective in the artistic sense — how painters make a two-dimensional surface look three-dimensional — although that’s a related idea or practice. This is about perspective in the sense of a point of view or frame of reference or standpoint. It’s what we mean when we say “that’s your perspective” or “this is where I’m coming from”. Similarly, it’s what we mean by statements like “she’s speaking from a scientific perspective” or “it’s a bad decision from an ethical perspective”.

Perspectivism is a philosophical view about the importance of perspective when it comes to subjects like science or ethics, but also the way perspective functions in everyday life. This view is associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, but other philosophers have had similar ideas, including some academic philosophers working today. There is even a website devoted to “perspectival realism” funded by a European Union research program.

Understanding Perspectivism features essays by twelve academics. It’s not going to make the New York Times bestseller list. Putting aside the subject matter and the fairly technical language, that’s guaranteed by the price of a hardcover copy: $140. Rather oddly, however, anyone interested can download it free (which is how, no surprise, I got mine).

If you want to know more, there’s a positive account of the book at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. I’ll quote a bit that gives a feel for the collection’s subject matter and style:

Another standout [chapter] is David Danks’ “Safe-and-Substantive Perspectivism” which presents a view refreshingly unique from all other chapters. . . . Danks does what philosophers do best and takes a step back, thinking about perspectivism from a broader perspective. He works to dig in to just where and how perspectives enter into science and draws a useful distinction between two extremes: ‘unsafe’ hyperlocal perspectivism and ‘insubstantial’ high-level perspectivism. The former refers to the notion that perspectives set the basis for science at the level of individual scientists, which may be “dependent on local, contingent properties of specific people”. The latter refers to an opposite notion that scientific perspectives are highly abstract and general human activities — a notion that Danks deems uninformative regarding the nature of scientific perspectives.

To that end, Danks offers an alternative that construes science as necessarily and unproblematically perspectival. Here the big picture is that perspectives aren’t unique to science, and consequently aren’t any more of a problem for science than they are for any other domain where there are multiple, often incompatible perspectives, such as general human perception:

“More precisely, these sources of perspectivism are not unique to scientific theories, knowledge, and beliefs but rather apply to their everyday counterparts. That is, there is nothing special (with respect to these arguments) about science, and so the resulting perspectivism about science does not threaten a collapse into complete relativism (or at least, poses no more threat than we face about all of our beliefs and knowledge).”

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.

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. 

In the Meantime

Our official cord cutting is only two days away. Good-bye, Comcast (the “triple play” people)! Hello, Verizon (the fiber optic people) and Ooma (the telephone people)! 

Assuming we can still communicate with the outside world at that point, I might finally be ready to post what I’ve been intermittently working on for the past two weeks: a more detailed account of what it means to have a perspective.

Or maybe I’ll treat our rupture with Comcast as a deadline. Deadlines provide motivation and there are so few of them when you’re retired (of course, there’s always the Final Deadline all flesh is heir to). I don’t want my most recent thoughts on perspective to be lost to the world just because Verizon isn’t able to safely transmit my packets of data hither, thither and yon! Comcast has been able to do that most of the time (I give them that).

In the meantime, here’s some musical entertainment from Neil Young. His voice rubs some people the wrong way, but he’s made some wonderful music, especially when he plays loud, like he usually does with the three guys in Crazy Horse. “Like a Hurricane” is one of his best songs. This is the studio version from 1977 and an energetic live version from 1986. They’re both eight minutes long, so this should hold you until Wednesday.


Good and Bad Behavior From a Perspectivist Perspective

And God said: “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering.”

A few days later: “They came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an alter there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the alter upon the wood…And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.”

But God presented Abraham with a ram to sacrifice instead!

Now, some people think God would never have let Isaac be sacrificed. God does not or cannot do bad things. Other people think God could have let the sacrifice proceed. In that case, depending on who you ask, Abraham should have killed Isaac, because that was God’s will, or he shouldn’t have, because it would have been immoral (and maybe God was hoping Abraham would spare Isaac anyway, just like the tricky aliens in Star Trek often test the humans). Then there are people like me who think these verses from Genesis are nothing but a provocative story.

What makes the story provocative, of course, is that it sets up a supposed conflict between God’s commands and morality. On one hand, disobeying a direct order from God might be a very big mistake, not just because of the lighting bolt thing, but because the Supreme Being presumably knows what’s best for all of us. On the other hand, morality is often thought to be the ultimate perspective from which to evaluate behavior, whether human or divine. The ethical thing to do is always the right thing to do. 

So what should Abraham have done? It’s relatively easy for the non-religious or anti-supernatural among us, comfortably moralizing in 2015, to say Abraham should have refused to sacrifice Isaac. But from a religious perspective, one can easily conclude the opposite. From that perspective, our fundamental responsibility is to obey God’s commandments, whether they’re truly ethical or not. The theologians who argue that God can’t do anything immoral seem to be trying to glorify God, rationalizing like those of us who do bad things but want to believe our actions are ethically justified. If the religious perspective is different from the ethical perspective, perhaps the ethical perspective isn’t supreme after all. Not for everyone anyway.

If you don’t think a religious perspective could ever trump the ethical one, consider a perspective we might call the “relational”. In 1793, William Godwin asked his readers to consider which of two people they would rescue from a fire: a great humanitarian who would serve mankind for years to come or a lowly chambermaid who would never rise above her station. Godwin thought it was obvious from an ethical perspective that the humanitarian should be saved first, risking the life of the chambermaid, since that would have the best consequences for the most people. You might agree, but what if the chambermaid was your mother? 

It could be argued that saving your mother would be the ethical choice because of your special relationship. What kind of unfeeling, disloyal child would let his or her mother burn to death instead of some stranger, even a world-famous humanitarian? But giving special consideration to the members of one’s family is questionable from an ethical perspective. We can try to explain how favoritism can be ethical but that’s simply more rationalization.

Kant, for example, took morality so seriously that he once claimed we should never tell a lie, not even to “a murderer who asks us whether a friend of ours whom he is pursuing has taken refuge in our house”. If there is an absolute ethical prohibition against telling a lie, and the ethical perspective is the supreme guide to life, so much the worse for your relatives hiding in the basement when the Nazis show up. Or consider the ethical argument for donating much of your income to help refugees in Africa or the Middle East. Is it ethical to pay for music lessons for your children when you could use that money to make a Somali child’s life more bearable? Perhaps favoritism should trump morality sometimes (where the “should” isn’t meant in the ethical sense). We know it often does.

Of course, I’m not saying that the ethical perspective is unimportant. Society could hardly exist without it. But I think there are other perspectives that are also important. They come into play whenever we make a decision or evaluate behavior. In fact, the only way to justify ethical behavior as a whole is by appealing to non-ethical perspectives (just as you cannot justify being practical from a practical perspective or viewing the world scientifically from a scientific perspective). 

Why should we concern ourselves with morality at all? Historically, it’s often been justified from a religious perspective (God commands us to behave ethically) or from a practical perspective (society couldn’t function without it; you’ll get into trouble if you’re unethical) or from a personal perspective (I want to act like a virtuous person). Another justification that’s been popular among philosophers is from a rational or logical perspective (we should treat all people equally since there are no relevant differences between us).

I think it’s important to understand the various perspectives from which we view the world and try to live in it, as well as the relationships between those perspectives. Admitting that we don’t always behave as if the ethical perspective is paramount is a good first step. We might then do a better job figuring out how to balance our many perspectives, such as the ethical, religious, “relational”, practical and scientific; as well as my perspective, your perspective and the perspectives of other living things. After all, even when it comes to morality, the fundamental rule we first learned is to evaluate behavior from other people’s perspectives as well as our own.