The Dialectic of Perspective Taking

4 April 2012

Wednesday


In yesterday’s The Hierarchy of Perspective Taking I suggested that developmental psychology formulated in terms of perspective taking can be iterated throughout life and indeed on macro-historical scales, since the continual extension of human knowledge results in the formulation of ever more comprehensive concepts, and these more comprehensive concepts suggest in turn more comprehensive perspectives that can be attained.

In a future science of civilizations, it may be possible to formulate the developmental path of civilizations. It should be pretty straight-forward to acknowledge that civilizations develop, but this is actually a politically controversial case to make because if civilizations develop that means that different civilizations will be at different stages of development, and that in turn means that different civilizations have achieved different stages of civilizational maturity. This is a controversial claim to make, because in contemporary thought it is considered the height of ill manners to suggest that any one civilization is “higher” or “more advanced” or “more mature” or “superior” to any other civilization. I previously discussed this in The Very Idea of “Higher” Civilization.

Nevertheless, I will stick my neck out and make the unfashionable claim that civilizations do develop, that there are broad patterns of development (thought not anything necessary or categorical), and that the implied corollary — that some civilizations are in a more advanced stage of development than others — is also true. Moreover, I hold that entire civilizations can develop perspective taking, just as individuals can develop perspective taking. The breadth and scope of perspective that a given civilization can subsume constitutes a quantitative measure of its progress to civilizational maturity.

Given, then, that there is the possibility of a developmental psychology (or even a developmental cognitive science) that might do a reasonably good job of outlining the growth of the individual’s knowledge and ability to coordinate multiple perspectives, and given also that a future science of civilizations might formulate a developmental epistemology that would do a reasonably good job of outlining the social growth of knowledge, we obviously here have an ontogenetic development and a phylogenetic development.

Making this explicit, then, ontogenetic epistemic development is the growth of knowledge of the individual, while phylogenetic epistemic development is the growth of knowledge of social wholes. Each is dependent upon the other in a escalation of knowledge. (As we shall see below, there is nothing necessary or inevitable about the escalation of knowledge.)

The individual who achieves a new level of perspective taking can pass this knowledge along socially so that others can learn it without having to independently make the breakthrough on their own. Societies incorporate perspective taking into socially constituted bodies of knowledge and passes this along to individual members of a society. Thus there is an interplay, a dialectic, between the individual’s development and the development of the society of which the individual is a member. Each can spur the other to attain to a perspective that either in isolation would not achieve.

Since the emergence of settled civilization, epistemic escalation has been the rule, but it has been a rule with many exceptions. Even given the dialectical interplay between individual and society, the intrinsic tension of which implies a creative resolution, there are times when knowledge stagnates and societies experience retrograde development.

Stagnation and retrograde development is almost as controversial as maintaining that civilizations experience development. Also, historians have come to distance themselves from “loaded” evaluative terms like “dark ages,” and rightly point out that things are usually more complex than a distinction between “progress” and “dark ages.” This is much like my observation yesterday that Erik Erikson’s developmental stages are overly simplistic. The critique that I gave of Erikson yesterday could be applied equally to individuals and civilizations.

Progress and stagnation are probably too simplistic, but sometimes they are apt. However, there is another way to conceive the situation that might present novel possibilities of cognizing civilizational development, and this comes from further analogizing between individuals and civilizations (or, if you like, between the microcosm and macrocosm of knowledge). When an individual experiences stagnation or retrograde development, this is usually the result of mental illness. Now, there is still a certain evaluative disapproval that attaches to mental illness, but this is becoming less acute, and most people today see mental illness as less a moral issue and more of a medical issue. (This perspective, of course, has problems of its own, which I discussed in Banishing Despair.)

If we come to understand civilizational decline, then, not as a moral issue, not as a result of decadence, but as a pathology of civilization, as the sickness of civilization, we might formulate an understanding of stagnation and retrograde development that has eluded us in our earlier use of moral concepts to explain decline.

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