Perspective as a Metaphor in Philosophy

A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about’

(Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §123). 

Gilbert Ryle begins his 1949 book, The Concept of Mind with a metaphor: “many people can talk sense with concepts,” he writes, “but cannot talk sense about them; they know by practice how to operate with concepts, anyhow inside familiar fields, but they cannot state the logical regulations governing their use. They are like people who know their way about their own parish, but cannot construct or read a map of it, much less a map of the region or continent in which their parish lies” (1x). In a later essay, “Abstractions,” he revives the same metaphor for the bewilderment people often experience in response to philosophical questions:

let us now think instead of the inhabitant of a village who knows well every house, field, stream, road and pathway in the neighborhood and is, for the first time, asked to draw or consult a map of his village—a map which shall join on properly to the maps of adjacent districts and in the end to the map of his country and even of his continent. He is being asked to think about his own familiar terrain in a way that is at the start entirely strange, despite the fact that every item that he is to inscribe or identify in his map is to be something that he is entirely familiar with (454). 

The task the villager faces requires translation of the routes he takes into “universal cartographical terms”: in making a map, the villager has to translate his experiential knowledge of how to get around the village into a more objective representation of the world. Ryle says this is how we are when it comes to philosophy too. We all use concepts perfectly well in ordinary life, but when asked to explain what makes an action virtuous, or what counts as knowledge, we get flustered.

This bewilderment is nothing new. The protagonist of Plato’s Meno complains that Socrates has made him numb with all his questioning, like the sting of a torpedo-fish (a relative of the stingray). Bewilderment and confusion is often described as disorientation, or, as Wittgenstein puts it, as not knowing your way about. Metaphors of perspective are common throughout philosophy: we talk about the first-person perspective, the view from nowhere, and Hume’s ‘common point of view,’ just to name a few. What I am interested in here, however, is perspective as a metaphor for not knowing or not understanding something. I will suggest that we perspectival metaphors for ignorance because the phenomena we are aware of often depend on the scope or focus of our attention. 

1. Ryle’s University 

Ryle (1945) provides another, more famous, example of a metaphor of perspective in his example of a tourist at Oxford:

A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks ‘But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your University’ (6). 

The tourist’s mistake is to think a single building or location is the University, whereas the University is really all of it. If we want to get technical, the University encompasses its organizational structure and governing bodies and student bodies as well. A University is a complicated thing. Ryle uses this as an example of a ‘category mistake,’ a mistake about the kind of entity some thing is. But notice that it is a perspectival metaphor as well. One can walk around Oxford to ‘see the University,’ but it’s impossible to take the whole thing in with your eyes, and certainly not in a single glance. It is all spread out around the observer, like fog. Sometimes when you walk into fog, and the fog seems to disappear; but you are still in the fog. The fog can only be observed by standing back, not from diving in. 

Ryle’s broader point in The Concept of Mind is that much of our mental lives it like fog or the University. We look into our minds, expecting to find clearly delineated entities that are our beliefs and intentions and perceptions, and we find nothing. Does this mean our mental lives are barren? No; rather, our beliefs and intentions and perceptions are manifest in various behaviors and mental states that extend over time—in our dispositions. 

2. Frege Puzzles

“It’s like sitting at the breakfast table and it’s early in the morning and you’re not quite awake. And you’re just sitting there eating cereal and sort of staring at the writing on the box–not reading it exactly, just more or less looking at the words. And suddenly, for some reason, you snap to attention, and you realize that what you’re reading is what you’re eating … but by then it’s much too late”

(Laurie Anderson, “Beginning French”)

Gottlob Frege, in “On Sense and Reference,” describes a now famous phenomenon of knowing something by one name and not by another. The ‘star’ Hesperus (the morning star) is the same as the star Phosphorus (the evening star), but since we see the morning star in the morning and the evening star in the evening, someone could fail to realize they are one in the same. Some of Frege’s examples, like Hesperus and Phosphorus, involve our spatial perspectives on objects whereas others do not (different ways of denoting the sides and angles of a triangle). One of his more vivid examples, from his Letter to Jourdain, is that of a mountain known to villagers on one side as Afla and to villagers on the other side as Ateb. Someone on either side could fail to know Afla is Ateb unless they, or someone they trust, traverses the mountain and make the discovery. Frege writes that when someone could fail to know that Hesperus is Phosphorus, the terms ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ have different senses. Frege Puzzles hinge on the possibility that someone could fail to realize that x = y. 

Another Frege puzzle involves the pronoun ‘I.’ In John Perry’s case of the messy shopper, he is wandering around a grocery store pushing a cart and notices some sugar spilled on the floor. He thinks “someone is making a mess.” In fact, the person making the mess is him, but he does not realize it yet. Just as the villagers on one side of the mountain do not realize that Afla is Ateb, Perry does not realize that he is the person making the mess. 

Some Frege Puzzles arise from the discontinuity of attention. Perry, not paying attention to the sugar pouring out of the busted bag in his cart, does not notice that the messy shopper is him; but he could trace the sugar back and realize that it’s him. In the case of the villagers by the mountain or the observers of Hesperus and Phosphorus, it is the lack of continuity of attention that results in their not knowing, e.g., that Afla is Ateb or that Hesperus is Phosphorus. Someone who walks all around the mountain would discover that Afla is Ateb, and someone who made the right observations could discover that Hesperus is Phosphorus—just as we sometimes discover that a location we see on a map is the same as a location we know from experience. 

We might see Ryle’s University as a special cases of a Frege Puzzle. The traveler does not realize he is surrounded by the University because he does not know what kinds of things universities are, so he sees the University but does not realize that’s what he sees—just as Perry does not realize he is the messy shopper. Sometimes our focus in a certain situation means that it’s possible for us to fail to realize we’re looking at the very thing we’re looking for. Just as you can’t see fog under the microscope, you can’t see a University like Oxford in a single place. Similarly, the villager’s visuo-spatial experience of his village in day to day life is very different from the way his village would be represented on a map.

3. Interlude: Seeing Aspects

In the examples of the fog and the University, a person’s perspective on a phenomenon changes according to how near or far they are from it. The same cannot be said of ambiguous figures like Joseph Jastrow’s duck-rabbit, made famous in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The duck-rabbit shifts back and forth between looking like a duck and looking like a rabbit. Yet nothing about the picture itself changes. Nor does the viewer’s orientation with respect to it have to change in order for it to switch: you don’t need to move around. You couldn’t fail to know the duck is the rabbit, or that they’re both the same figure. Your attention is continuous, and your focus is not dramatically different: nothing is obscured. 

Imagine someone who looked at the duck-rabbit for years, trying and failing to see it as a rabbit. One day she finally makes the rabbity discovery. Has she discovered that the duck is a rabbit? Not exactly. It isn’t as though she were previously acquainted with two entities, the duck and the rabbit (like Hesperus and Phosphorus) and just didn’t realize they’re the same. Rather, she realizes that the duck-rabbit looks like a rabbit too. She makes a discovery about the properties of the duck-rabbit, rather than about its identity. We often describe discoveries like this as ‘coming to see something in a new way’ or finding ‘a new perspective’ on something; yet cases like the duck-rabbit are significantly less perspectival than Frege Puzzles or the Ryle’s University. Perhaps they’re better understood as cases of seeing a certain pattern or organization in what is already perspicuously before your eyes. Something registers as an exemplar of a concept with which you are familiar. 

4. The Zero Point

I want to give one last example of perspective as a metaphor for ignorance in philosophy. This is Edmund Husserl’s ‘zero point,’ or nullpunkt. The zero point is the point from which one observes the world: 

The “zero point of all these orientations” is unique in that it does not represent itself. If you think about your current visual experience of the world, it represents all sorts of things as out in front of you at various distances and orientations. But it does not represent you, the viewer, except insofar as you can see some of your body parts. The perspective from which seeing occurs is not represented by the seeing itself. Horgan and Nichols (2016) argue that various aspects of experience are ‘zero-pointy’ in that they don’t represent the self. 

David Velleman (2008) argues that our motives often occupy a kind of zero-point for us:

He continues to suggest that becoming aware of one’s motives deactivates them, in a way, or makes them less intense: “the reason why becoming reflexively aware of one’s thirst tends to make one less engrossed in thirsty activities is that such awareness draws one away from the perspective in which thirst occupies the governing point of origin rather than the passive field of view.” Of course, becoming aware of one’s thirst need not make one less thirsty at all; but it can. Something like this might be what occurs in meditation practice: observing a thought or feeling can rob it of some of its power, since one’s focus is no longer on being in that thought or feeling, but on noticing that you have it.

The self might itself be a zero point. David Hume, famously, looked within himself for a self and could not find one: he found only bundles of ideas and perceptions. Ryle similarly observes that the self evades capture: “like the shadow of one’s own head, it will not wait to be jumped on. And yet it is never very far ahead; indeed, sometimes it seems not to be ahead of the pursuer at all. It evades capture by lodging itself inside the very muscles of the pursuer. It is too near even to be within arm’s reach” (167). Just as some things are too spread out to observe, the self might also be. We are too near to it, just as we are too near to the fog. As the poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg writes, “things seen up close enlarge, then disappear.”

5. Conclusion

The thinker ‘in a fog’ and the walker in a fog are both laboriously getting nowhere

(Ryle, “Thinking and Language,” Collected Papers 271).

What are we to make of all these metaphors for perspective in philosophy? I propose that this set of metaphors at least are reasons for failures to know. Like Frege’s different ways of thinking of Hesperus and Phosphorus, Ryle’s University, the fog, and the zero point are reasons someone might fail to know something. What all these reasons have in common, in addition to explaining failures to know, is that they are analogous to reasons that we might fail to know something because of our orientation with respect to it in space. 

Space plays a significant role in the human conceptual imagination. Kant held that we cannot imagine possible experience taking place other than in space (as well as time). P.F. Strawson, in his chapter “Sounds,” imagines a creature living in a purely auditory, non-spatial world, and concludes that we could not re-identify enduring entities in a world without space. Our orientation in space also sometimes explains our ignorance. If I cannot see an elephant because it is behind me, then I might not know it is there. It is a fact of our existence as perceivers that we cannot perceive, as an object of perception, the point from which we perceive things—the zero point that Husserl describes. We can, of course, look in the mirror and see our faces, thus getting a sense of where our visual perception originates from. Yet we never perceive the zero point as the point from which we perceive things; it can be something we’re looking at, or it can be the origin of our looking. It cannot be both. 

It might be the case that various features of the perspective we occupy are, if not unperceivable, then difficult to notice for the reason that they are part of the perspective we occupy. This set of difficult to notice features might include our habitual or unreflective actions, unreflective beliefs, desires and feelings we are unaware of, and so on. They are too close to perceive perspicuously, “too near even to be within arm’s reach.” Similarly, if I do not know that something I am looking for is not the kind of thing to occupy a single location, like a University, then I may not find it. Entities that surround us, which are everywhere, are difficult to find. Observing the same object from two different points in space and time might make it difficult to realize the ‘two’ objects are really one, as with Hesperus and Phosphorus, Afla and Ateb. 

Perspective in time is also relevant to philosophical predicaments. Hesperus is the star on the horizon in the morning and Phosphorus is the star on the horizon in the evening. Ryle in The Concept of Mind suggests that a second reason we mis-describe mental phenomena is that much of our mental lives is spread out in time in the form of processes and dispositions. There is no one experience that constitutes thinking; rather, it can be pretty much anything. Like the University, which is spread out in space, thinking—and many other mental phenomena besides—are spread out in time. We will not find them if we stand still and only observe a single spot. If our mental lives are spread out in this way, ‘maps’ are what we need if we want to understand them. We will not find thinking at any one location, in any one experiential manifestation of it. 

That our mental lives are spread out in time is a corroborative reason we find ourselves so hard to know. Not only are we too close to the phenomena, but the phenomena themselves are like fogs or universities. Many of what we take to be unitary mental states like beliefs, desires, and even emotions, are revealed to us in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors over time. I may not realize I wanted ice cream until it is too late: then I am disappointed. Philosophy, at least in the branches concerned with knowledge and mind, is largely about self-understanding—understanding the concepts by which we understand the world. 

Insofar as we are focused on these concepts we are also asking about the roles they play for us, which may be many and varied. In asking what belief, or knowledge, or desire is, we may find ourselves disoriented much like the visitor to Oxford or the villager unsure how to map his village. Philosophy is about re-orientating ourselves with respect to our concepts, which like fogs and universities are bigger and broader than any one episode of experience, and which belong to us so intimately we might not notice them busy behind the scenes. Space and time invade our metaphors for philosophical bewilderment not because all philosophy is about them, but because we—and thereby our concepts—denote phenomena that unfold within them. 

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