A View on Perspectivism

A View on Perspectivism

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A View on Perspectivism

Perspectivism is the doctrine that most or all large philosophical questions have many proposed answers, and many views on how to judge between those proposed answers, and that intelligent people of good will are likely to continue to have differing perspectives on these large questions of philosophy indefinitely. There are both historical and theoretical reasons for embracing this view. Historically, it is manifest that though philosophers have often attained views which are highly satisfying to themselves personally, few perspectives have won a con sensus even in their own times, and none have won a consensus over time. (I refer here to a consensus on some positive view; a consensus on the falsity of views, usually older ones, may be commonly found. But even long rejected views are liable to unexpected resurrections.) In any case, even agreement of near miraculous extent would not prove any thing anyway and would amount to just a widely accepted view with widely accepted counters to arguments against it.

We may note certain alternatives to and variations on the perspectivist's thesis. There is first of all what we might call the standard position, namely, that there may be many perspectives on a given question, but all but one of them are wrong and can in principle be shown to be so. There is classical skepticism holding that there is a true view but we can't get it and wouldn't know it if we did. There are also the relatively more recent views that large philosophical questions are meaningless (as in positivism) or illusory (as in analytic philosophy). There is what we might call the existential view that there are many views and we may appropriate one according to our own free decision or freely selected standard of evaluation. There is the pragmatic view, that there are many views and many of them are of personal interest and many may indeed be considered true in varying ways and degrees and for varying purposes and persons. Then there is the view that the perspective we appropriate tends to become true in varying ways and degrees, at least for the subject, so that we create our world in varying ways and degrees. Finally, there is the view that we do not so much search for a view, find a view, choose a view, but rather that our views arise in us more as a consequence of our culture, temperament, or character than of our reasoning powers.

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I have some sympathy for all of the views above except for the standard view and the views that dismiss
philosophical perspectives as meaningless or illusory.

Now of course perspectivism is itself just another view. Most people in fact reject it, supposing that there is only one correct view, that false views can in principle be decisively refuted, and indeed more often than not that they themselves are close to having that one true view. Accordingly, the perspectivist acknowledges that others deny his view and see things in other ways. But of course he sees their views as just other competing viewpoints on the nature of philosophy.

I do not mean to suggest that perspectivism applies only to issues in cosmology or metaphysics. I mean it also to apply to questions in epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and so forth. Differing theories about the classical questions of epistemology certainly count as perspectives on those problems, including those who say there are really no problems there and including those who think they have found some solution for all time.

For the perspectivist, the world is a vast Rorschach test. We divine our truths from the arrangement of entrails. Or, to speak more technically, the world has a wax nose. It is even possible that the world is this way by design, so that our challenge is not to find its determinate nature, but rather to make an interpretation of the world under the controlling guide of our aesthetic or moral values, or perhaps to do other things altogether, say love our neighbor, which will yield a view of the world as a side-effect. Our responsibility thus could be to make the bed we lie in.

Whether the world is a Rorschach test by design, it is one in fact, since it is seen in so many different ways. And it is like a Rorschach test in a second critical way. Our interpretations of the world tell us much about ourselves. I have no real doubt, for instance, that Ayn Rand and Nietzsche's views of the world reveal much more about themselves than about the external world. I would say the same for Plato and James, to take examples of another flavor.

Not only do people have differing perspectives on the world, they have differing perspectives on people in the world, understood both collectively and individually. There are many proposed answers to the question "What is man?" Both man and his world are wonderfully subject to varying interpretations. In the case of mankind, these range
from, "the botched and the bungled," "the missing link between the animals and the rational man," to "a little lower than the angels". Some see people as predatory animals, or as sex machines. Some see people as fascinating symphonies of complexity, beauty, and interest.

Again, each individual is subject to different understandings, both by himself and by others. William James observes that Jack may see his Jill as a wonder of creation, whereas for others Jill is a dull, grey creature.

Every Jack sees in his own particular Jill charms and perfections
to the enchantments of which we stolid onlookers are stone-cold.
And which has the superior view of the absolute truth, he or we?
Which has the more vital insight into the nature of Jill's exis
tence, as a fact? . . . surely to Jack are the profounder truths
revealed; surely poor Jill's palpitating little life-throbs are among
the wonders of creation . . . ; and it is to our shame that the rest of
us cannot feel like Jack.

When we consider that different people may see a given person in very different ways, we must ask, "Is there really only one truth about that person?" Or is that person essentially a very different person to all viewers, including himself? A complex, evocative, symbol-laden poem is rightly considered to be open to the interpretation of each reader. The poem indeed is there to evoke an interpretation. People are more com
plex than poems, and more fraught with ambiguity. They are different to different people at different times, in different contexts, for different purposes. I doubt myself that people are determinate beings, and to a lesser degree I doubt that the non-human world is fully determinate either.

A curious sub-case of this is found in the fact that not only are individuals subject to interpretation, but their interpretations of the world are so as well. The works of the major philosophers have typi cally been subjected to close study yielding sometimes dramatically different interpretations of the man's philosophy. So not only is a
person seen in different ways, but his perspective on the world is seen in different ways. I wrote my dissertation on Peirce and discovered that Peirce was much in the eye of the beholder. A Peirce scholar said, "Evidently each of us is going to have his own Peirce." I certainly like my Peirce far better than some other people's, and find many more riches therein. So now we see we have many perspectives on a perspec tive, different views of different views. I suppose that there are in history a number of cases even of commentaries on commentaries, yielding differing results.

Further, it seems that our own lives are much guided and con trolled by how we see ourselves, our self-image. People are sometimes dramatically changed when they undergo a radical change in the way they see themselves. We will leave open at this critical point the ques tions that perspectivism must attempt to answer in general, namely, "how can I change my vision of myself or my world," and "to what ought I change it"? Those questions we pass for now.

Why would anyone deny that different positions on the large questions are inevitable? One of the main motives is the compelling and probably true position that we do not have that latitude regarding the small questions. When it comes to most questions of practical daily life, wrong positions may be decisively refuted, for example, by gravity. Gravity does not tolerate too wide a range of interpretation of how to cross a chasm. Gravity is more like a hammer than a Rorschach test. Mathematical problems also do not lend themselves to differing view points. Science too has somewhat demanding constraints on our interpretative freedom. But even in science competing theories wrestle amongst themselves, and defeated theories are often seen more to fade away than suffer decisive refutation. Someone has said, "Science progresses death by death." At the most general level of scientific speculation, we note almost as much freedom of interpretation as exists in philosophy and religion.

We must address the widespread and innocent faith that argu ments can settle philosophical questions. If arguments could settle important issues in philosophy they would have done so long ago. We would all be disciples of Aquinas or Spinoza, masters of argument. But while Spinoza's vision has endured as of some interest, his formal arguments are by now merely quaint. Deductive arguments, of course, are never of real use, as always begging the question. And if any kind of argument yields a conclusion which seems implausible, there are several options. We may question the premises, and do so indefinitely until we come to a suspect or wholly unsupported one. Or we may simply declare the offending argument sophistical. There is, for exam ple, a proof that by examining many pretty colored butterflies, one gains increasing confirmation that all crows are black. The proof of this is so compelling that a number of intelligent people accept it; but most as sume that there is something wrong somewhere, and they can hardly be faulted even if they cannot point out the exact error. So far are we from being compelled by argument that in real life we are at least as likely to judge an argument by its conclusion as to judge the conclusion by its argument. We are likely to reject any argument that leads to a conclu sion we do not find credible, no matter how compelling the argument. Finally, the issues between competing perspectives cannot be settled by argument because in fact at the higher levels of generality all forms of argument are themselves parts of some perspective on things. That perspective then is just another competitor. As Henry W. Johnstone, Jr. has noted in his book on this subject:

When two men disagree over fundamental philosophical issues,
however, neither is quite entitled to be able to imagine what it
would be like for his opponent's statement to be true, even
though one or the other may be under the illusion that he can.
For each, in stating his own systematic position, is in effect
claiming that this position includes all the relevant evidence and
therefore no statement adducing evidence against it is possible.
And again:

But just as the philosopher is undisturbed by criticism based upon
facts, so will he be largely unmoved by the discovery of purely
logical flaws in the statements he has made in the course of a
dispute. It is characteristic of a genuine philosophical outlook in
which logical flaws have been found to experience no difficulty
in reformulating itself to avoid the flaws.

There are many other things to be said with regard to arguments across perspectives. Think: incommensurability, realms of discourse, language games, etc.

Consider that it does not count against Berkeley to kick a rock, nor would it count against Zeno to shoot him dead with an arrow, nor against Hume to win a bet with him on the sun coming up tomorrow. I know that some think that these are just exactly the very things that do count decisively against these philosophers. And so they do from the perspective of the objectors. But it is clear that these philosophers were not imbeciles, and these objections would not at all count in the context in which the philosophical claims are being made.

I wonder if any view has ever fallen into disrepute because of formal arguments directed against it. Perspectives sometimes collapse from the dizziness imposed by the excess of epicycles they have accu mulated. Or they fade due to a slow growing sense of the implausibility of the whole enterprise. Or they are finally neglected in the search for the novel, victims of fashion fatigue. Again, new perspectives may arise and dominate for a time fueled by the intensity and charisma of newly emerging geniuses. Finally, can it ever be that a perspective actually fades because it is replaced by a better one? I can only say to that, "So it will always seem to the advocates of the new position."

The only kind of argument that really matters is abductive argu ment. This is the adducing of considerations which, when successful, yield a new and more satisfying view of the problematic situation. Abductive reasoning is the inducing of a new insight in an observer. In other words, an abductive argument provokes the dawning of a new perspective. That is the only way an old perspective is really terminated.

One final suggestion as to why people believe that disputes between perspectives can be resolved. Often, but not always, two competing perspectives share a set of common suppositions against which a debate can actually be set. Scientific debates often have this advantage. Baptists and Methodists can debate because they share countless common convictions. Even so, their debates are mostly futile. But Baptists and Catholics have a thinner set of common suppositions and speak across a fairly wide gap. Baptists and Zen Buddhists have an even smaller common background. Republicans and Communists
experienced a wide gap which for many years they threatened to bridge only with munitions. When it comes, however, to the large questions and to schools of philosophy, the background assumptions between views are sometimes so few that the perspectives hang in nearly com plete independence of each other. Imagine a conversation between Heidegger and Russell. Argument in such cases is literally comical.

Many are convinced, of course, that we can judge between perspectives. But how shall we do so? Using what proposed method or standard? Clearly, there are differing views on this fundamental ques tion. So now we have differing views on the question of how to judge between differing views. I confess that this quickly becomes too much
for me. I admire the fortitude and Randian certitude of those who are undaunted by these questions, but I worry about them in other respects, and I wait patiently for my betters to show me a clear and convincing way out of these predicaments.

As a perspectivist I am naturally suspicious of those who may suppose that philosophy can be done independent of or outside of some presupposed overall perspective. I believe that this cannot be done and that in pretending to be operating outside of a world of presuppositions they are being disingenuous, or worse, contemptuously pretending that other viewpoints are beneath notice. Time will wound all such heels. So far am I from believing this to be possible, that I side with those at the other end of the spectrum who hold that even perception is theory- laden. This position is all but demonstrable with convincing experi ments in perception, as it seems to me.

One nihilist wrote, "The world is a dream being dreamed by a dream." I would change that to, "The world is an interpretation being interpreted by an interpretation." This, of course, will not quite suffice, since it omits the Cartesian insight that there must perforce be an inter preter. But granting that, this interpreter can not be further defined or characterized except as that thing which can characterize itself. In saying these things, I take myself to be in the tradition and spirit of Sartre and the Bible. Man is essentially a free creator, a kind of god, a self-definer.

Finally it is worth asking whether philosophers even want to communicate with each other. We have all felt the desire to sit down with some of the famous philosophers of the past and ask them a few hard, straight questions about some of the things they said. As most of you know Paul Arthur Schilpp had the idea of presenting the most eminent living philosophers of his day with searching essays by their most prominent critics and commentators. Schilpp made this a life's work and published at least 18 volumes in his "Library of Living Philoso phers" series.

The outcome of this project for Schilpp was disillusioning. He complained that with one exception the philosophers were not able or willing to admit mistakes. He complained further they showed little sign of wishing to understand their critics or of communicating with them. According to Steven J. Bartlett, who reports all of this from an informal lecture Schilpp gave in 1980, we may conclude that most philosophers are narcissists, windowless monads, conducting soliloquies between the deaf. Bartlett quotes Husserl:

To be sure, we still have philosophical congresses. The philoso
phers meet, but, unfortunately, not the philosophies. The philoso
phies lack the unity of a mental space in which they might exist
for and act on one another.

Bartlett's article is a longer and more detailed elaboration of many of the themes I am expressing here, with citations of even larger and more detailed expositions, especially including Henry W. Johnstone's Philosophy and Argument.

I must add one final observation from Bartlett:

Unresolvable tensions between equally convinced but opposing
philosophical protagonists usually take the form--as is witnessed
at any philosophical convention--of finessing the opponent into
silence, by recourse to a quicker wit, traps to embarrass, displays
of scholarship aimed to intimidate, or comparatively subtle verbal
crucifixion. These are some of the displays of plumage in these
territorial struggles. Like war, they are signs that the conditions
of communication have not been fulfilled.

Finally, those who accept some version of perspectivism are prone to one of two reactions. Some lapse into an unhappy skepticism, but others celebrate the diversity of opinion among people. The latter position may indeed hope that there may be important elements of truth all around, that the study of the alternatives is intellectually and aestheti cally pleasing, that among the views canvassed there may be one that
will resonate strongly with the investigator and which will seem to one especially likely or edifying or satisfying. One may then embrace this perspective as one's own, without undue prejudice to the views of others. Having an opinion is not incompatible with respecting the opinion of others and with recognizing that one has made a very per sonal commitment

The wise person attempts to understand diverse positions, as time and judgment of likely payoff permit. This is called the search for truth. In the end, of course, we settle for the vision which is most satisfying to us, all things considered. But we must be careful about what we take satisfaction in. Our character is thus crucial as is the molding of our character. This molding can only rightly be done under the guidance of the moral imperative. Many philosophers are willing to agree that moral considerations trump all others, but it remains, I think, to be more clearly recognized how this trumping consideration relates to our belief sys tems. I must be content in this discussion with the hints I have just given as to how all this falls out in my own view.


1. William James, "What Makes a Life Significant?", p. 270, in Pragmatism
and Other Essays, (New York: Washington Square Press, 1963).
2. James Fiebleman, An Introduction to Peirce's Philosophy (New York:
Harper and Brothers, 1946), p. 484.
3. Henry W. Johnstone, Jr., Philosophy and Argument (The Pennsylvania
State University Press, 1959, p. 1.
4. Ibid., p. 135.
5. Steven J. Bartlett, "Philosophy as Ideology", Metaphilosophy, Vol. 17,
No.1, Jan. 1986, p. 2.
6. Bartlett, op. cit., p. 8.
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