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Category: Religion and Philosophy

Fragment on Perspective I: Phenomenology

Oftentimes, you hear the idiom "thinking outside the box" in a conversation. The circumstances may vary; heck, it may not even be in a conversation where you've encountered it, but a meme or a text (or this very text, perhaps?).

You understand what the phrase means, you might say to yourself. It's obvious, after all: it means getting out of how you usually understand a thing or a situation and trying to understand it in a new way, in order to get out of a situation (if it's a bad one) or to fully grasp a thing (if it's something that is, or seems to be, new to you). Of course that's what it means, right? Are you trying to say otherwise, writer?

To you, hypothetical reader, I must decline to answer that question for now. However, we must be clear that this definition is the doxastic appropriation of a philosophical problem, a problem that has plagued Western philosophy since its dissemination from Classical Greece onward, tying concepts together in a codependent knot. I am not here to untangle this knot, nor to finally put an end to this problem (as much as it can be said to even be a problem in the first place).

Here is but a question: what is perspective?

Perspective is one of the many presuppositions of life that we rarely notice we hold. Simply put, perspective is the fact that we experience life, and ourselves, from a certain vantage point. Putting it in negative terms, this means that we do not possess the means to see the totality of our life, and all of life, in a (what one might call) "bird's eye view". Or, if we may be permitted to speak presumptuously, "in the eye of God".

This definition highlights one of the concepts in the entanglement earlier mentioned: vision. Perspective is primarily understood in sense of a "seeing" (literally, a sense organ is used to visualize a concept, and the way of understanding said concept). But why seeing? Why not hearing, tasting, feeling? Why not any other of the five organs, or the other senses discovered by science like proprioception?

One can boil this preference down to either prejudice or convenience, agreeing with that which common sense says is true or the intuitive truth that this analogy points toward. We can accede to this prejudice its partial truth, but we must not go further than this.

In order to not dwell any more in proving or disproving the veracity of said analogy, that perspective = vision, and to avoid intruding into the thorny territory of truth (a discussion I'd very much like avoid, tyvm), let's instead assess the analogy itself, and to extend it further by way of a phenomenological investigation.

What do we do when we use our eyes? We look around, of course. Up, down; to the object over there, far from us, we sharpen our focus, and to coffee cup next to us, we look down on it. Unconsciously, we blink our eyes. Instinctively, we close our eyes when something bright is directly shined on us. Consciously, we close our eyes, whether it be in a fit of anger or in a contemplative mood. We may even do other things with our eyes, like winking. And there's also other parts adjacent to our eyes, like our eyebrows and eyelashes.

There are also tools we use to help our eyes. Glasses, for one, greatly help those with impaired vision. Telescopes, used to see things very far from our eyes, in its nautical and astronomical applications. Microscopes, used to peer into the minuscule world of cells, bacteria, and viruses. There's also the medicine we might sometimes take in order to maintain our eyes, like drops.

And let's also mention the lack of vision. It can be that we are sleeping or temporarily incapacitated. It can also be that your vision is consciously obstructed by something or someone (whether you're kidnapped or led into a surprise cake). Or that you are blind (there is a non-zero chance that this text is being read by a text-to-speech generator).

This is but a quick survey of the many operations we engage in with our eyes. Now we will generalize from these to gather some insights that might help us elucidate further the question of perspective.

(1) Unlike our other sense organs, we have a degree of control with our eyes. By this, I mean that we can do certain things with our eyes that we cannot with other sense organs. Take for instance our ears. We hear the sounds of our environment, and what we talk about with others, using it. But when we hear something we don't want to hear, what do we do? We use our hands to cover it, or we divert our hearing to something else entirely, perhaps with the use of headphones if it's available. The same thing with our skin or our tongue: we cannot consciously stop feeling sensations or tasting whatever we put in our mouths. To put it simply: if you possess vision, you can choose not to see.

The closest organ that can approximate what we can do with our eyes is our nose. When there's something we don't want to smell, we can block off our sense of scent. We cannot do this for very long though, for we need our nose to breathe constantly in order to live.

In other words, the element of choice is most overt in the usage of our eyes. Or, in words that echo the philosopher of non-philosophy François Laruelle, we make a decision every time we open our eyes.1

(2) We possess the ability to extend the reach of our sense organs. This might seen trivial and banal to us, but if we mind our place in history, we realize that we have been bequeathed with conveniences that were not available in earlier times. We didn't always have technology like telescopes and microscopes, medicine and corrective surgeries. This highlights the elements of surprise and blindspots in our understanding of the world, and the gratefulness we have to the discoveries of the sciences.

(3) To take the second insight even further, technology not only extends our vision, and other senses, spatially but also temporally. By this, I mean the technology of writing, one of the most decisive inventions in the history of humanity. With writing, we inscribe the contents of our experiences—of what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell—into words that can be understood by anybody able to read, and to inscribe it into a material that can stand the test of time.

It might be that the meaning of the words themselves will be lost to time, or that the material itself will deteriorate and be beyond legibility, but what matters here is the possibility opened up by writing. For within writing resides the insight that someone can see what someone else sees, that one can generalize and abstract in order to be understood, and the utilization of the faculty of imagination to "see" beyond what one can see. These three insights (or realizations, perhaps?) opened up by the invention of writing makes possible the transmission of knowledge to future generations.

Now, with these findings, let's extend the definition of perspective. Indeed, perspective is the fact that we experience our day-to-day life from a certain vantage point, that we are constrained to see only a part of the totality we call "life". But constrained how? We are constrained by the amount of choice that is bodily available to us as embodied beings (or as beings whose being is to be embodied), and by the degree of technology available to us as prosthetic beings (or as beings whose being is to be extended beyond the constraints of the body). In other words, perspective is the oscillation between one's limitations and extensions.

Let's take this a step further, shall we? One can say, then, that perspective is a horizon (in its original Greek sense, as both range and boundary) of what is perceptible, intelligible (or knowable), and transmissible as a human being. This oscillatory nature of perspective has enabled the invention of science and philosophy as endeavors that seek to understand the totality of the world we live in.

To return to the question my hypothetical reader posed earlier, and reformulated to reveal its true intent: what am I doing with this analysis of perspective? To answer that, I have had recourse to undertake first the analytic of perspective itself in order to have a common ground between myself and this reader. And my answer is another question: what happens when one thinks outside the idiom "thinking outside the box"?

To put it in clearer (but not necessarily less confusing) terms: what is the perspective of perspective?

In order to think through this question, certain concepts must be elucidated further, such as horizon and language deployed earlier, alongside the insight of abstraction, for the earlier analytic is such an example of said abstraction, of doing away at the concrete matter of any and all experiences in order to get at the form of experience itself.

To start with, let's return to the concept of choice mentioned earlier. We must realize, as human beings, that our being as a being of choices and decisions is founded on a non-choice, a non-decision. By this, I mean that our birth, our entrance into the world, was not with our consent. To echo Martin Heidegger, we were thrown into the world.2

Further, let's pursue further language — or, rather, the conditions of possibility of language. One of those conditions is the realization that everyone possess the same sense organs, and thus can potentially see in the same way the same things that the other sees.3

There are other conditions of possibility to consider too, such as the possibility of sense itself. I do not just mean the sense in the phrase "sense organs" but sense in the question "What do you mean by this?" This question, and the condition mentioned earlier, reveals an insight: two different people might see the same thing, but they will see it differently. Whether by virtue of the sharpness of their senses, or their positionality relative to space and/or time, or the value said object holds for each of them, they will see it differently. This is a fact, and one that we must realize as soon as we can.

If this is so, how can there emerge a commonality between these two observers? How can one understand that the other refers to the same thing? In other words, how can language emerge between two horizons whose utter dissimilarity and possible heterogeneity might not lead to what Gadamer calls "fusion of horizons"?4

One could reply that the act of generalization and abstraction can overcome these obstacles. But this presents a new problem: can one avoid the possibility of generalizing and abstracting so much that the common object of their perceptions become lost in the process?

This presents us with an aporia, one that has occupied Derrida ever since his first published work on Husserl.5 This is the confounding co-existence of language's possibility and impossibility. Perhaps this problem (aporia, antinomy), is caused by contradictory premises, or wrong turns of thought, since this doesn't in any way prevent us from understanding each other.

But let us return to the question. "What is the perspective of perspective?" There are two senses within this formulation. The first one is that one approaches the concept of perspective from a perspective, reinforcing the fact of perspective itself in the field of investigation itself. The second one is that the concept of perspective itself is not a general-abstract concept, but a particular one, a concept colored by the peculiarities of the way the investigators themselves (i.e. us) are embodied.

This opens up an insight, and one that will close this analysis: our sense organs do not reveal the world as it is, but reveals it to us as sensing beings. The world is the world-as-sensed. Because this is the only world available to us, we take it that this world is all that it is. But it's not. Earlier, it is said that there's an element of surprise in our understanding of the world. This is true not just for our particular experiences, but our concepts and technologies for grasping the world as well.

Well, this gives one license to wonder at what the world might still be withholding from us.

1. Alexander R. Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), p. 147: "The true decision, the decision already made implicitly by philosophy, is to see and hear in the first place. We decide each time we open our eyes."
2. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by Joan Stambaugh (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), p. 172: "The facticity of Dasein is such that Dasein, as long as it is what it is, remains tossed about and sucked into the turbulence . . . Thrownness, in which facticity can be seen phenomenally, belongs to Dasein, which is concerned in its being about that being. Dasein exists factically."
3. This is related to what Kant investigated in his third Critique, the concept of "subjective universality". See Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgement, translated by Paul Guyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 161-7.
4. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, translated by Donald G. Marshall and Joel Weinsheimer (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), p. 317: "[T]he horizon of the present is continually in the process of being formed because we are continually having to test all our prejudices. An important part of this testing occurs in encountering the past and in understanding the tradition from which we come. Hence the horizon of the present cannot be formed without the past. There is no more an isolated horizon of the present in itself than there are historical horizons which have to be acquired. Rather, understanding is always the fusion of these horizons supposedly existing by themselves."
5. Jacques Derrida, Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An Introduction, translated by John P. Leavey, Jr. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962).

5 Kudos


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Bill Liam East

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This is a well informed, very good post. I may have to use the short version of your argument in mine. Wish I could give more than two kudos.

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Thanks! This argument laid here is only the first half of an overall whole, with the second part enlisting Nietzsche and Lenin for the political effects of the concept of perspective. But I am yet to complete that part, so I posted this first half here instead.

by Red Monaca; ; Report

You are quoted. Don't let me down.

by Bill Liam East; ; Report

I'll try to meet your expectations, even though my argumentation can be clunky and obscure at times (as is to be expected in philosophy, after all).

by Red Monaca; ; Report


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hypothetical reader leaves hypothetical comment

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