Perspectivism — A Powerful Cognitive Metaphor

by David J. Gordon

August 10, 2006


Perspectivism, a version of what Solms and Turnbull call "dual-aspect monism," denotes here the ability of individual persons to shuttle between objective and subjective points of view, positions represented by science on the one hand and by religion, morality and the arts on the other. Enthusiasts of science and religion in particular tend to insist on a unified point of view, but one viewpoint alone cannot do justice to the concerns of the other. The joining of partial views or "perspectivism" proves to be a metaphor of complexity and reach: it highlights the tension between opposed commitments and it offers fresh insight into such venerable topics of humanistic dispute as atheism versus theism and free will versus determinism. Psychoanalysis and literature emerge from the analysis as intellectual enterprises better able than most to encourage a shuttling between viewpoints. This essay considers finally what contemporary neuroscience has to say about the importance of feeling and consciousness. At issue is the appreciation of value, often neglected in scientific approaches to culture.



In their illuminating study, The Brain and the Inner World, Mark Solms and Oliver Turnbull adopt a position they call "dual-aspect monism."1 The phrase implies that brain and mind consist of the same stuff—hence monism—but that we necessarily think about this stuff from two different points of view, from the outside (objectively) and from the inside (subjectively). I take the objective viewpoint to be represented preeminently by science and the subjective viewpoint by religion, morality and the arts. By "perspective" (a term derived from art history) we usually mean a view partial to the viewer. I am therefore calling the ability to hold together two opposing points of view "perspectivism," and will attempt to show that this is a cognitive metaphor of considerable complexity and reach. It is complex because it is not easy to maintain the tension of a double viewpoint when enthusiasts on either side insist on the singleness of truth, the unity of knowledge. It has reach because it can throw new light on such venerable topics of humanistic dispute as belief in God and choice versus determinism. In commenting on these topics I will suggest that literature and psychoanalysis are intellectual enterprises better able than most to promote a flexible shuttling between objective and subjective perspectives.

     Stephen Jay Gould has described science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria" in the genial hope of preventing their advocates from competing with one another.2 His less genial ally, Richard Lewontin, observes that a desire to displace the competing rival may arise on either side, warning his side that "it takes a certain moral courage to accept the messages of scientific ignorance and all that it implies."3 Certainly we can find some examples of intellectual imperialism in the work of distinguished scientists. E. O. Wilson’s celebrated book Consilience (pointedly subtitled "The Unity of Knowledge") describes modern science "as religion liberated and writ large—a continuation on better-tested ground of Holy Writ."4 Richard Dawkins is irritated by the fact that statements of belief are made "in the absence of evidence," and cites as an instance a passage in Tennyson’s "In Memoriam"!5 The scientific perspective may of course legitimately address the phenomenon of mind, of consciousness, but because it is committed to seeing the self only as object, it cannot do justice to the self as subject and hence to such concerns as religion, morality and the arts.

I admit to finding the passion for single truth more attractive in science-based than religion-based discourse. I have read with admiration two recent, hard-hitting examples—Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.6 Harris insists on bringing every religious dogma (for example, the Christian doctrines of Resurrection and Virgin Birth) before the bar of Reason, demanding Evidence. Dennett seeks to break the spell of religion in a society that considers religious beliefs sacred and does not want them analyzed. Fortified by their familiarity with modern science, these authors worthily inherit the Enlightenment legacy of Immanuel Kant who wrote: "If the sacredness of religion and the authority of legislation are exempted from critical examination, they becomes the subject of just suspicion."7

     But there is something missing from these books too. Dennett by no means ignores culture; he is in fact "fascinated by how culture works within a biologically constructed organism." But his relentlessly rationalistic speculation on how cultural phenomena may have evolved never stops to consider that art, religion and ethical belief have value for humanists not because they meet a scientific standard of truth but because of their expressive power. Sam Harris regularly uses the word "myth" as a synonym for factual falsehood, for belief lacking in evidence, whereas for students of literature it denotes an imaginative narrative element and thus a potential source of aesthetic value.

     I say aesthetic value because I don’t think we can expect from theologians, from students of religion, a proper rebuttal here. Most would surely be offended by such a phrase as Christian or Jewish myth. Literary critics use such phrasing readily because, unlike many theologians and some scientists, they read myth as metaphor and are sensitive to the metaphorical nature of all language.

     Now, religion as a rule arouses stronger emotions than science and so the imperial impulse is often found among its adherents, as is evidenced by the furious and foolish defense of Intelligent Design by some Christian fundamentalists. Their intent is not to gain equal time for a valid rival theory, as they would have us believe, but to replace scientific theory with a favored theology. Even so cosmopolitan a man as the Czech writer and statesman Vaclav Havel can become hysterical in defending God against science: "Modern science," he declares with far more heat than light, "abolishes as mere fiction the innermost foundations of our natural world: it kills God and takes his place on the vacant throne—as sole legitimate guardian and legitimate arbiter of all relevant truth."8 Let me make clear that I cite these examples of overexcited religious adherence not simply to expose error but also to indicate a difficulty that all of us face to some degree, namely a resistance to moving over against a point of view in which we have invested emotion. There is, in other words, tension inherent in the very effort to keep these perspectives open, and the usefulness of doing so is proportional to that difficulty.

     If we seek subtler examples of belief—belief able to combine skepticism and commitment—we would do well to turn to the poets. Wallace Stevens shied away from religious belief as such but understood that commitment of a religious kind was necessary to write his poems and thus he developed the idea of "believing in" a fiction known to be a fiction. Robert Frost similarly affirmed, "poems are believed into existence, beginning in something more felt than known."9 Both poets, be it noted, speak positively of belief, but, unlike religious or scientific literalists, they never lose sight of language’s metaphorical nature.

     Among the sciences psychoanalysis is less vulnerable to this danger because perspectivism is inherent in its procedures. Psychoanalysis is a science of subjectivity not only because it studies consciousness. In its therapeutic procedure the patient also reports consciousness from the inside, and the analyst must listen empathetically as well as with detachment. When the analyst offers an interpretation, both move to an outside view, and shuttle back and forth between perspectives as the dialogue shifts gear.

     The stress I am putting on flexibility in regard to belief prompts me to reconsider three stubborn "isms"—atheism, agnosticism, theism—that crop up whenever the subject of believing in God is debated. Scientists as scientists cannot affirm that God either does or does not exist because no claim about the supernatural is subject to proof. Nor should they imply by "agnosticism" that they do not know yet. To say that science is compatible with a positive belief in God’s nonexistence is to confuse perspectives, for atheism like theism expresses subjective conviction. These discriminations, however, illustrate only a semantic problem. For each of us is able to move from one kind of thinking to another and does so frequently. Indeed, Gillian Beer, in Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter, argues that knowledge and experience are so intertwined that we could not survive without making frequent crossings between fields, between different epistemological realms.10 Beliefs, I would add, are likely to become rigid only when emotions are strongly aroused. Or, if one prefers to think of the constraints on belief in terms of linguistic practice rather than emotions, one could say with Wittgenstein that the word God is not responsive to the language of science but cannot be removed from ordinary language.

     Let us now see what the perspectivist metaphor can do for us in clarifying the related question of choice (often called "free will"). In this scientific age, most educated people accept the idea that all events, mental as well as physical, have causes and are in that sense determined. It is not a new challenge, but it has become increasingly acute for humanists since the middle of the nineteenth century because the authority of science, and specifically the hypothesis of universal cause, has made it ever more difficult to defend the idea of human autonomy.

     I want to suggest, first, that this problem is needlessly complicated by the ambiguous meaning of "determinism". This word only came into use (in French and English) in the 1840s. Before that time the idea was expressed by "Necessity" or "Fatalism," but these words came with baggage, connoting as they do compulsion either of a metaphysical or psychological kind. And it remains difficult even today for people hearing the word determinism to divest it of those connotations and to understand it neither in a psychological nor in a metaphysical sense but only statistically. As Dawkins explains, it denotes probability in the relation between cause and effect.11 Strong probability can of course amount to certainty for practical purposes, but the word usefully reminds us (in a post-Darwinian world) of the absence of intelligent will or agency in this relation.

     Having said that, I am going to pick on E. O. Wilson again because he states the scientific view of so-called free will with the kind of overconfidence that exposes the weakness of his argument and helps me make the argument for perspectivism. Wilson asserts that free will must be an "illusion," albeit a useful one, because it is the product of a material process and in principle entirely explicable.12 He won’t look at choice from the chooser’s point of view. The pejorative word "illusion" makes sense from one perspective, but not from the other. We do not experience our choosing as illusory, no matter what causes for choice are discovered. Noam Chomsky describes "free will" as a "mystery," meaning simply a problem that cannot be scientifically solved. Dennett predictably objects to this but the weight of opinion may be against him. The problem seems unsolvable because no explanation of how choice occurs, however precise, can include the experience of choosing, which creates the value we attach to that mental act.13

     Is there any way of merging these perspectives? I don’t think so. This difficulty has long been recognized by philosophers and by writers gifted with ironic wit. Kant understood this problem when he wrote of the "antinomy of freedom" and so did Nietzsche, who wrote: "we live from freedom, but when we try to analyze it, it cannot be grasped."14 For ironic wit applied to this subject we might turn to Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, whose nimble, eponymous hero, as one critic put it, "acts on the assumption of freedom but theorizes on the assumption of necessity [i.e. determinism]."15 To cite a modern example of such wit, there is the quip attributed to Isaac Bashevis Singer: "Of course I have free will. Do I have a choice?"

     I have recently come across an observation about a peculiarly intimate relation (though not a merging) between determinism and choice, and it is of particular interest to an audience interested in psychoanalysis. Marcia Cavell in her new book, Becoming a Subject: Reflections in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, singles out Freud (and in a way Spinoza as well) as a thorough determinist, convinced that all mental effects have causes, who nonetheless believed that greater understanding of causes led directly to greater freedom of choice. That is, a patient enjoys more autonomy as hidden causes become knowable motives.16

     One more literary example of the double perspective regarding choice and determinism will repay analysis.

     The narrator of War and Peace (whom we may call Tolstoy) meditates throughout the novel and particularly in the Epilogue on the influence exerted by writers of history on our understanding of historical action. These writers, he says, often subscribe without knowing it to the dangerous "law of retrospectiveness," a law that makes all past action "appear a preparation for events that occur subsequently." In retrospect, then, events appear to be the inevitable result of certain causes. Tolstoi tells us that real historical causation is far less traceable because it involves people en masse and the obscure forces that animate them in relation to one another. But the novel shows us a good deal more than this. It brilliantly represents persons who in present time make morally weighted choices. They choose in the knowledge that they might choose otherwise, although their creator knows that their acts will look inevitable as their story takes shape and as their acts are viewed in retrospect. But we do not feel them to be puppets—with the possible and revealing exception of Napoleon, revealing because that character bears the brunt of the author’s thesis whereas Kutuzov, the shrewd Russian general who outwits him, is allowed to possess a complex humanity. In short, Tolstoi as novelist, apart from his own theory of history, shuttles repeatedly between representing persons who experience their consciousness and seeing persons from the outside as components of a completed story.

     This normal practice of the successful novel reminds me again of psychoanalytic procedure. Both therapist and patient in psychoanalytic therapy devote attention to what happened in the past and also to what is happening between them in the present. The past remembered from the inside and understood from the outside must interact if the therapeutic goal of increased autonomy is to be achieved.

     At the present time, when we are all impressed and excited by advances in neuroscience, it is especially important for us not to forget—indeed it is important to emphasize—the role of feeling, will, consciousness. At stake is the appreciation of value, so often neglected in scientific approaches to culture. As Solms and Turnbull make clear, the basic function of consciousness is to enable us to know what we feel, for it is feeling that imparts value, and makes things matter. The capacity for evaluation, they write, "is what consciousness, feeling, is for."17 Our awareness of what is happening around us—what Antonio Damasio called "the feeling of what happens"—is thus "grounded in a medium of self-awareness."18

     I conclude with a quotation from Carlo Ginzburg that both provided my title today and influenced my line of thought: "Both fundamentalists and neo-skeptics reject or ignore—what has made perspective into such a powerful cognitive metaphor: the tension between subjective point of view and objective verifiable truth—.If this tension can only be kept open, the notion of perspective will cease to be a stumbling block between scientists and social scientists and become instead a space—where we can converse, discuss and disagree."19



End Notes

1 Mark Solms and Oliver Turnbull, The Brain and The Inner World: An introduction to the neuroscience of subjective experience (New York: Other Press, 2002), 56.

2 Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999).

3 Richard Lewontin, It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome (New York: New York Review Books, 2000), 137.

4 E.O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Vintage, 1998), 7.

5 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, New Edition (New York: Oxford UP, 1989), 198, 233.

6 Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terrorism and the Future of Reason (New York: Norton, 2004). Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006).

7 Kant, 1781 Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason.

8 Quoted by Jim Holt in The New York Times Sunday Magazine (12.11.05), 25-28.

9 allace Stevens develops the idea of believing a fiction most fully in connection with his poem "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." See Robert Frost, "Education by Poetry: A Meditative Monologue." In Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrance Thompson, eds. Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984), 332-33, 338-39.

10 Gillian Beer, Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 1, 200 and passim.

11 Dawkins, Selfish Gene, 267-68

12 Wilson, Consilience, 275.

13 Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and The Meanings of Life (New York and London: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 381f.

14 Kant discusses the "antinomy of freedom" in The Critique of Pure Reason. Nietzsche is quoted in Rüdiger Safranski, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, trans. Shelley Frisch (New York: Norton, 2002), 176.

15  Aram Vartanian is quoted in Otis Fellows, Diderot, rev. ed. (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1989), 126. I am suggesting that what he means by "necessity" is "determinism."

16 Marcia Cavell, Becoming a Subject: Reflections in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), 110.

17 Solms and Turnbull, 91.

18 Ibid., 93. Solms and Turnbull cite Damasio’s influential book, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.

19 Carlo Ginzburg, Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance, trans. Martin Ryle and Katie Soper (New York: Columbia UP, 2001), 156.



Beer, Gillian. Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Cavell, Marcia. Becoming a Subject: Reflections in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking Press, 2006.

—. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and The Meaning of Life. New York and London: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Frost, Robert. Quoted in Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrance Thompson eds., Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984.

Ginzburg, Carlo. Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance. Translated by Martin Ryle and Katie Soper. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999.

Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2005.

Havel, Vaclav. Quoted in Jim Holt, New York Times Sunday Magazine. Dec. 11, 2005.

Lewontin, Richard. It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome. New York: New York Review Books, 2000.

Safrasnki, Rüdiger. Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. Translated by Shelley Frisch. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002.

Wilson, E. O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Vintage, 1998.

Solms, Mark, and Oliver Turnbull. The Brain and The Inner World: An introduction the neuroscience of subjective experience. New York: Other Press, 2002.

Vartanian, Aram. Quoted in Otis Fellows, Diderot, rev. ed. (Boston: G.K. Hall), 1989.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: David J. Gordon "Perspectivism — A Powerful Cognitive Metaphor". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available August 10, 2006 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: July 15, 2006, Published: August 10, 2006. Copyright © 2006 David J. Gordon