Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Power of Perspective

In the Second Century A.D., there lived a writer called Sextus Empiricus. He is best known for his book The Outlines of Pyrrhonism. This book has historically been important and influential. It played a role in the impetus that led to the scientific revolution. Indeed, there is evidence, from the examples that appear in both, that Descartes was influenced by Sextus in the development of his famous Meditations. Despite these facts, Sextus is not that widely read a philosopher, these days. This is a shame as his book is important, and at times, very funny indeed.

One thing that is interesting about this work is the perspective that Sextus takes on the world. It is remarkably different from the kind of views that are common places today. The interesting point though, in the current context, is how we can succeed in understanding this different perspective, with a little disciplined, careful reflection. Consider the following passage, that comes from Chapter XIV of The Outlines, (from the R. G. Bury, translation, published by LOEB):

" to origin, some animals are produced without sexual union, others by coition. And of those produced without coition, some come from fire, like the animalcules which appear in furnaces, others from putrid water, like gnats; others from wine when it turns sour, like ants; others from earth, like grasshoppers; others from marsh, like frogs; others from mud, like worms; others from asses, like beetles; others from greens, like caterpillars; others from fruits, like the gall-insects in wild figs; others from rotting animals, as bees from bulls and wasps from horses. Of the animals generated by coition, some -- in fact the majority -- come from homogeneous parents, others from heterogeneous parents, as do mules. Again, of animals in general, some are born alive, like men; others are born as eggs, like birds; and yet others as lumps of flesh, like bears."

Now on the face of it, there is something touchingly naive about this passage. Although it is quite understandable how someone may believe that worms come from mud, or that caterpillars come from green, we now know this view is wrong. [The joke about 'what is worth than finding a worm in your apple?' -- 'Finding half a worm! seems vaguely relevant here]. Notice though that, although we now claim to 'know' about the errors of these claims, there is still something very intuitive about Sextus' kind of view. There is still part of the passage that appears a little odd though. Why would anyone believe that bears are born as lumps of flesh? On the face of it, this seems at the very least, odd, if not downright crazy. Thus, this claims will take a little more effort to understand. This is where the careful consideration of perspective come into play.

Let us begin by considering what we know about bears. As a general rule, bears are pretty dangerous animals, that a person would be rather unwise to get too close to, even under the best of circumstances. Given that bears who have just given birth are likely to be in a less good 'mood' than usual, it is reasonable to assume that bears in such a condition would be exceptionally dangerous. These facts alone, make it reasonable to conclude that a person wishing to view a newly born bear would have to do so from quite a distance. When this conclusion is added to that fact that bears often give birth in a lair, like a cave, actually getting a good view of a new born bear is likely to be especially difficult.

There are also some other facts that are salient. Consider the fact that eye glasses would have been unknown at the time Sextus was writing. In addition, it is also now known that when bears are born they do not have fully developed fur. Instead, they are covered by a light fuzz of fur, through which their pink skin can be seen. When all these considerations are taken together, it is perhaps not surprising that an intrepid explorer, who is not suicidally inclined might easily conclude that bears are born as lumps of flesh. After all, there would have been few zoos where they could have learned anything different. Thus, the claim about bears being born as lumps of flesh makes a lot more sense, when considered in a careful and reflective manner.

The moral that should be drawn here is that taking the time to consider the perspective of another individual making claims that are, on the face of it, rather nonsensical, can yield surprising and enlightening results. Indeed, this kind of methodology is an important one, when working in the history of philosophy and ideas. In fact, this process of carefully considering perspective, is important in wider contexts too. This is the reason why the ideologically engaged ranting of some bloggers are ultimately so anti-academic, unscholarly and pernicious to the development of true knowledge. If the conclusion of an enquiry is determined before the enquiry has begun, then little is to be gained.

So, I advocate the careful consideration of perspective in all cases in which it may be relevant. Indeed, it should be considered even in cases in which it does not immediately appear relevant (you can ask 'why is perspective not relevant here?'). This, I believe will prevent some avoidable errors.

The CP


Blogger ToastedSuzy said...

For if the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion...(and so on).

Conception is a blessing.

Really, I usually think of human babies as cute little lumps of flesh.

Come to think of it--there are a number of fully grown humans I know who are little more than lumps of flesh.

Sometimes we call them "President."

Love to you, CP,


8:02 AM  

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