Perspectivism-A Powerful Cognitive Metaphor

Article excerpt

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.

keywords: Perspectivism, objectivity, subjectivity, neuroscience, religion, literature


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. …