Anatomy of a perspective

Perspectivism begins with the idea that seeing involves both a seeing subject and a seen object. Nothing is seen apart from the seer – you – and that you, the seer, always necessarily see from a position relative to what is seen.

The position one takes relative to what is seen affects the line of sight of what is seen (the angle of approach), what is seen as immediate and what is seen as remote (the relevance of what is seen), and also what is not seen (the horizon of the perspective).

A note on angle of approach: this is the structured openness of the perspective, or the way particulars organize themselves within the whole. Angle of approach manifests most obviously in the formulation of explicit questions, but more often it manifests as implicit expectations one brings to a new understanding.

This leads to one other very important point. We all know the mind is wonderfully equipped to recognize what it expects when encountering the unexpected. That recognition can be perfectly innocent, unconscious and stupid… or it can be willfully imposed… or brittle and irritable… or semi-fictional… or it can become violent toward whatever threatens the apparent absolute fixity of a perspective, especially a perspective held for a long time – for so long that it has forgotten that it is not reality itself.


The Buddhists teach that gods are mortal but they live for so long they forget their mortality, and die horrible, violent deaths.

“It takes a long time / but god dies, too / but not before he’ll stick it to you.”

(Please don’t be offended by the notion of God dying. We know God only by way of a god who can die, and as far as we humble humans are concerned they are one and the same.)


The fundamental task of socialization is convincing a child, born into the center of the world, seeing the entire world arrayed around his centrality, and never for a moment seeing it otherwise, that he is not the center of the world. There is nothing more counter-intuitive. No wonder this lesson is learned more often unsoundly than it is soundly.

Not the center of the universe… how? Does this mean I ought to take myself for one of these other things I see around me, like a tree or a computer or a person or a stone? Am I actually an object who sees objects? Is my consciousness is a quality added to or emerging from my objecthood? Some are only able to reconcile their world-centeredness and the array of objects that constitute their world in this way, and all that remains is to accept this perspective or reject it.

From this perspective there are two fundamental attitudes one can take: accept the primacy of the subject who sees objects (what the Chinese called “the ten-thousand things”) or accept the primacy of the objects, one of which mysteriously possesses the quality of subjectivity, the capacity to see as well as being seen. From within the perspective of subject-object, this constitutes the limit of perspectives, but this itself is a product of perspective itself: the horizon of the perspective.

Now, ask yourself honestly: do I actually know any alternative to these two attitudes toward the world? If not, what attitude do you take toward the possibility that there are possibilities of which you cannot conceive? And rather than answer that question, now pay attention to how you feel. Do you feel irritation, impatience, a very strong desire to think about something else? Do you suddenly remember you have other things you need to do right now? When’s the last time you checked your email? Maybe you should return to this later. This is how perspectives protect themselves: infinite postponement by choreographed justifications and distractions. (“Oh, Martha…”)


To engage in hermeneutics is to look for all those devices that help us close understanding prematurely and to mistake perspectives which stand beyond ours as standing within ours. Hermeneutics knows understanding not as facts, but navigation by facts (using facts as a navigator uses stars) to the vantage of a fellow seer, from which/whom the facts fall into order. To be able to explain the seeing of an other corresponds to empathy. Hermeneutics prior to Gadamer (at least according to Gadamer) was strictly empathetic in form. Starting with Gadamer hermeneutics became the practice of finding and seeing with.

Leave a Reply