Small thought

A thought has occurred to me (possibly not for the first time) about perspectivism and relativism.

The traditional idea of ‘knowing’ or ‘understanding’ an object ‘truly’ can be rephrased as viewing the object from the best perspective. The traditional quest of epistemology has been locating this superior perspective.

Nietzsche tells us that the death of God, the unavailability of a single privileged perspective, means that we must instead try to view things from MANY perspectives.

A first thought might be that this would mean that perspective-sets could be compared for size: which of two envisionings is most ‘complete’, in the sense of containing the most perspectives?

This, however, does not work: because ‘perspectives’ are not discrete and countable. We’re talking not about a ‘collection’, but about a ‘mass’. And the apparent relative sizes of two masses itself depends upon perspective (metaphorically, imagine seeing two objects at different angles; more literally, because the significance of distinctions is perspective-dependent, one viewer may see two viewpoints as significantly distinct perspectives, while another would see the same viewpoints as only negligably, divergent, or not even “realise” that there was more than one viewpoint under discussion).

However, going back to an earlier ramble about sticks: although it may not be possible to judge which of two sticks is longest, it IS possible to compare one stick against a shortened or lengthened version of itself. Likewise, although two independent perspective-sets may not be objectively comparable, it should be possible to hypothetically alter one set (adding or substracting perspectives) and compare that hypothetical to the original.

Less confusingly: if you have a set of perspectives, A, and I have a set of perspectives, B, it may not be possible to determine objectively which set is larger than the other. But if I compare A with A+1, or A-1 (the same set plus or minus an additional perspective), I can tell unproblematically that A+1>A>A-1. [You might say that this is what is meant by “+” and “-“; and so this relies on a scalar concept of gaining or losing a perspective, which I think is available]

What does this mean? That, giving a starting point, it is perspectivally possible to talk of improving or disimproving one’s knowledge of a thing. This may sound trivial, but it is a clear distinction with relativism. In a pure relativism, we must say “X is true relative to Y” and “Z is true relative to W”, and do no more to compare them; but in perspectivism, I think that we can say “X is more true than Z” -provided that “X” is not a single belief but an entire understanding, and provided that X is a development of Z, or Z a development of X.* (If we really want to talk about the truth of belief, we can do that by defining the ‘truth’ of a belief in terms of the truth of belief-sets it is a member of).

Objectivists may still object that seeing a thing from MORE perspectives is not good per se – some of the perspectives may be entirely deceptive! (Ie beliefs from those viewpoints are simply false). But this can be avoided by replying that this is not a hypothetical matter, viewing a thing from two perspectives: tha attempt is itself a test: CAN I try to understand it from this insane and confused perspective? This is just heading in the direction of coherence. If a person holds beliefs that he is able to find coherent, but that I find incoherent, I don’t see how I can correct him: either he is as sane as I am (in which case how can my views override his? On what basis?), or he is insane. Insane people can believe all sorts of things. Yes, my views prevent me from condemning the insane as being wrong – but why bother condemning them, they’ve got enough to worry about. More important is the fact that their beliefs are not feasible for me to hold, as my “sanity” is too central a part of me to give up. Those of you who come from a more objectivist direction may appreciate a rephrasing: the insane are not “wrong”, because to say the things they say and believe them, they must mean something so different, even incomprehensible sometimes, in cases of great madness, that it is futile for us to try to pick out which bits are ‘right’ and which are ‘wrong’. They are so incommensurable with us that direct comparison is impossible – we would not know what we were comparing.

Of course, it seems extreme to say that anyone seriously differing from my views is either insane or beyond reproach. There is a third option: they do NOT really believe what they think they believe. This seems patronising: who am I to say that they don’t even believe what they think they do? But the point is: it’s not a binary thing. When we reach out to embrace a new perspective, we do not only either fail or succeed: often, we maintain a tenouous grasp upon it. In this process, we say we “hold” certain prominent beliefs that come with that perspective. But if that perspective CANNOT be reconciled with those we already have access to, we cannot fully grasp it – we struggle with it, we shift our grip – which is to say that we may end up abandoning it, or we may end up with a slightly different perspective instead, one that’s more coherent with what we already have. This may require us to give up the beliefs we thought we held. Less imagistically: we half-hold a belief, but then we work out its consequences (the other beliefs it is connected to in that perspective), and if we cannot digest the bones it is attached to, nor rip the bones away, we may be forced to let the meat slip from our mouths and find a more tender morsel. [Did I say LESS imagistically? Sorry.] This “working out” is an active process, a part of incorporating the perspective, and may take quite some time, during which time we half-hold the belief, on probation, as it were. Not having yet worked out the consequences is why seemingly otherwise-rational people can hold beliefs that appear incoherent: they do not firmly hold and master them, but only entertain them.

[Question/Objection: can we ever cease this ‘working out’? I don’t know. I think we can, though. It appears as though we haven’t, because every time we try to eat a new perspective and find the sharp bits stabbing us in the gut, our attention is drawn to some previously unproblematic weak point that the sharpness is hurting – and it’s possible for us then to have to adjust our previous beliefs. In any case, I think it’s true that most of us are walking around with a lot of half-digested points of view in our head; the result, of course, is a sort of existential indigestion]


Gods, I need to be clearer. Not today, don’t worry. But sometime. And in doing so, regretfully I may need more clearly-formulated jargon. Every idea starts out naked and innocent, believing it can do without technicalities and be clothed only in sunbeams and imagery; but then the winter comes, and the sunbeams are woven into prose and terminology.


*But this is useless! Well, no, but… we so often want to say “yes I KNOW it would be better to see this from another point of view: but WHICH?” This scalar judgement can’t help. But it can, indirectly. Because we can go beyond “can I accept this perspective” to “if I accept this perspective, can I THEN go on to accept others?”. X and Z may both be improvements on U, but if Z allows us to later accept A, then B, then C… and X is just X and that’s that, then X is a dead-end, and Z is prefarable to X.



Yeah, I bet you all found that just FASCINATING.


One thought on “Small thought

  1. Hans says:

    In fact, this is fascinating. I’d like to know where these thoughts lead you to.

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