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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Sunday, May 01, 2005

Blake's bird continued

There is one myth about perspectivism that must be dispelled before one can make any sense of it.

It is of the essence of perspectivism that, among all possible perspectives, there is no single one that can encompass all the information found in every perspective. In other words, perspectivism claims that there is no God’s eye perspective. The myth takes that to mean something like: there are no universals. The two claims aren’t equivalent. It may well be that there are invariants across perspectives. But this does not mean that you can make, out of those invariants, a sort of uber-perspective. There are no back doors to the God position.

Furthermore, these invariants aren’t necessarily “truths”. I suspect that there are invariants that are fictions. Now, it is at this moment that someone inevitably pops up, a smirk on his face, and says, aha, how can you talk about truths and fictions if everything is just a perspective? This objection comes down to saying that truth is an extra-perspectival process. To which the reply, properly, is: so what? If it is true (that the truth is extra-perspectival), it amounts to saying that there is an invariant across perspectives. And if it is false (I believe it is false), this means, merely, that truth claims are judged on their relation to perspectivally specified frames of reference. In both cases, truth is not grounded in reality, but in procedure. What is at stake here is not really the truth, but something that is more like the reputation of the truth. The reputation of the truth is that it is a good. The reputation of the truth takes the truth to be more than it is – a selection procedure for statements. One of the hallmarks of modernity is the divorce between truth and its reputation. That divorce has been taken hard by foundationalists.

Another myth about perspectivism makes it equivalent to that extension of the liberal ethics of tolerance in which it is claimed that cultures are equal. This is, in some ways, a throwback to the Leibnizian notion of monads – those windowless things. It is as if cultures grew up in perfect autonomy and independence one from the other. Nietzschian perspectivism is quite different. In N. perspectivism, perspectives – and for the moment we will treat cultures as different perspectives – are constituted by the assimilation and rejection of other perspectives – a constant will to power. The liberal ethos of tolerance, according to N., could only arise after the liberal culture had sufficiently disenfranchised rival cultures to the extent that it could patronize them. This is a agitated point in Nietzsche’s writing – it is, on the one hand, a point at which a culture has come to the summit of its power, and, on the other hand, it is a point at which a culture manufactures the kind of nihilism – the kind of misunderstanding of its own historical dynamic – which undermines it. Nietzsche was inclined to describe this moment in medical terms. Indeed, Nietzsche is famous for using the metaphors provided by medical terminology – of sickness, health, strength, weakness – to diagnose (another medical metaphor) Western culture. Nietzsche went to the extent of identifying certain of his texts with convalescence itself – they were convalescent acts. Metaphor, here, is supported by metaphor.

Finally, one other brief note about perspectives. Perspectives are very difficult to quantify over. Since the tribe of analytic philosophers have a superstitious belief that knowledge begins with quantifying over its object, they have a hard time with perspectives. Thus, they tend to get impatient with Nietzsche. However, this is a superstition. You cannot, in classic analytic fashion, quantify over electrodynamic fields, as Maxwell described them. Physicists are rightly not worried about that.

The great point to keep in mind is: perspectivism is neither incoherent, nor nihilistic, nor philosophically untenable. And it makes a damn good alternative to foundationalism, which is not, in LI’s opinion, compatible with a scientific picture of the System of the World. I’ll trade the old stuffed Owl of Minerva for Blake’s songbird any day.

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