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Perspectivism and Relativism

Posted on October 22, 2021 — 6 Minutes Read

After all, let us, in our character of knowers, not be ungrateful towards such determined reversals of the ordinary perspectives and values, with which the mind had for too long raged against itself with an apparently futile sacrilege! In the same way the very seeing of another vista, the very wishing to see another vista, is no little training and preparation of the intellect for its eternal ‘Objectivity’—objectivity being understood not as ‘contemplation without interest’ (for that is inconceivable and non-sensical), but as the ability to have the pros and cons in one’s power and to switch them on and off, so as to get to know how to utilise, for the advancement of knowledge, the difference in the perspective and in the emotional interpretations. But let us, forsooth, my philosophic colleagues, henceforward guard ourselves more carefully against this mythology of dangerous ancient ideas, which has set up a ‘pure, will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge’; let us guard ourselves from the tentacles of such contradictory ideas as ‘pure reason,’ ‘absolute spirituality,’ ‘knowledge-in-itself’:—in these theories an eye that cannot be thought of is required to think, an eye which ex hypothesi has no direction at all, an eye in which the active and interpreting functions are cramped, are absent; those functions, I say, by means of which ‘abstract’ seeing first became seeing something; in these theories consequently the absurd and the non-sensical is always demanded of the eye. There is only a seeing from a perspective, only a ‘knowing’ from a perspective, and the more emotions we express over a thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we train on the same thing, the more complete will be our ‘idea’ of that thing, our ‘objectivity.’ But the elimination of the will altogether, the switching off of the emotions all and sundry, granted that we could do so, what! would not that be called intellectual castration?

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic, translated by Horace B. Samuel, MA., page 152-153

Among the lingering legacies of the 19th-century German philosopher and cultural critic, Friedrich Nietzsche, besides the charge against the received account of religion and morality at his time and a moustache that is as handsome as it is fearsome that is the envy of most, one must count perspectivism. Advancing the thought and writing in the Monadology, by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the 18th-century German logician, mathematician and philosopher, Nietzsche suggested a notion of knowledge that was against the received wisdom of the time. Attempting to break free from the false dichotomy between subject and object, with the former being the realm where value, perspective and interpretation reside, and the latter being an independent domain that is immutable to change, where notions such as the forms of Plato, the substances of mind and matter concurred by God of the rationalism of Rene Descartes, and the das Ding an sich (thing-in-itself) of the transcendental idealism of Immanual Kant, dwell; Nietzsche reasoned that the two were not as independent and as separable as thinkers and philosophers of the past held, and that ‘contemplation without interest’ for ‘objective’ knowledge or knowledge without an ascribed value, perspective or interpretation is nonsensical despite how much one is inclined to believe. A complete dismissal of the false divide between subject and object and between fact and value, would not come until the meticulous inquiry by Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, in his magnum opus, Being and Time, by nonetheless conceiving a notion of knowledge in which the objective reality is never rid of a subjective perspective, Nietzsche had paved the way for its dismissal.

At times one might confuse perspectivism with relativism, which is yet another product of the age-old divide between subject and object, in which one rejects the existence of an objective realm and holds the subjective domain to be the ultimate authority and reality. By rejecting one and embracing the other, such perception of knowledge is evidently still within the false dichotomy, and falls short of the attempt to break free of the divide by reconceiving a notion of knowledge, that is always inbuilt with a perspective. Perspectivism also presupposes a concept of objectivity, albeit not the received notion at the time that is free of perspective and is attainable by ‘contemplation without interest’ through the means and methods of philosophy, which relativism wholeheartedly rejects. It is instead a notion that describes the ability to inquire through multiple and various perspectives, ’the more eyes, different eyes’ as Nietzsche explained, and is a potentiality to be perfected.

By rejecting the existence of an objective realm where the independent and the immutable resides, relativism holds also that the value, perspective and interpretation of each in the subjective domain as the ultimate authority and reality. Given subjective perceptions are by nature and by definition beyond compare, either the validity of each has to be rejected, or that each has to be accepted to be of equal merit. For the former is not an option, as by rejecting all, relativism would be reduced to a form of scepticism and would be rendered groundless for further philosophication, the latter is embraced despite the subsequent problems that arise, when reasoning about truth and knowledge in moral philosophy, for it would seem to suggest that systems of thought that support mass destruction and extermination is as valid and is of as much value as those that aim to advance the flourishing and the betterment of mankind. Perspectivism on the other hand, with a renewed conception of objectivity as the ability to inquire through multiple and various lens, places values in the multiplicity of perspectives and encourages their acquisition and practices. Each perspective in itself, may or may not be of equal validity or merit, which is nonetheless not the locus of the discussion, the more of each when it comes to inquiring is desired, for it provides the inquirer a more ‘complete’ knowledge of that which is being inquired.

Ever since the dismantle of the false dichotomy between subject and object and between fact and value by the thoughts and writings of Heidegger in the 20th century, that was without doubt built upon the advances of Leibniz and Nietzsche, most have come to reject these static divides and embrace instead a dialectical understanding that views and inquires in part and as a whole. Still as Nietzsche holds, for a more complete understanding, it is better to keep these refuted conceptions in mind as another ’eye’ through which one may see.