The Hierarchy of Perspective Taking

3 April 2012


Jean Piaget

One of the important ideas from Piaget’s influential conception of cognitive development is that of perspective taking. The ability to coordinate the perspectives of multiple observers of one and the same state of affairs is a cognitive skill that develops with time and practice, and the mastery of perspective taking coincides with cognitive maturity.

From a philosophical standpoint, the problem of perspective taking is closely related to the problem of appearance and reality, since one and the same state of affairs not only appears from different perspectives for different observers, it also appears from different perspectives for one and the same observer at different times. In other words, appearance changes — and presumably reality does not. It is interesting to note that developmental psychologists following Paiget’s lead have in fact conducted tests with children in order to understand at what stage of development they can consistently distinguish between appearance and reality.

Just as perspective taking is a cognitive accomplishment — requiring time, training, and natural development — and not something that happens suddenly and all at once, the cognitive maturity of which perspective taking is an accomplishment does not occur all at once. Both maturity and perspective taking continue to develop as the individual develops — and I take it that this development continues beyond childhood proper.

While I find Piaget’s work quite congenial, the developmental psychology of Erik Erikson strikes me as greatly oversimplified, with its predictable crises at each stage of life, and the implicit assumption built in that if you aren’t undergoing some particular crisis that strikes most people at a given period of life, then there is something wrong with you; you ought to be experiencing the right crisis at the right time. That being said, what I find of great value in Erikson’s work is his insistence that development continues throughout the human lifespan, and does not come to a halt after a particular accomplishment of cognitive maturity is achieved.

Piagetian cognitive development in terms of perspective taking can easily be extended throughout the human lifespan (and beyond) by the observation that there are always new perspectives to take. As civilization develops and grows, becoming ever more comprehensive as it does so, the human beings who constitute this civilization are forced to formulate ever more comprehensive conceptions in order to take the measure of the world being progressively revealed to us. Each new idea that takes the measure of the world at a greater order of magnitude presents the possibility of a new perspective on the world, and therefore the possibility of a new achievement in terms of perspective taking.

The perspectives we attain constitute a hierarchy that begins with the first accomplishment of the self-aware mind, which is egocentric thought. Many developmental psychologists have described the egocentric thought patterns of young children, though the word “egocentric” is now widely avoided because of its moralizing connotations. I, however, will retain the term “egocentric,” because it helps to place this stage within a hierarchy of perspective taking.

The egocentric point of departure for human cognition does not necessarily disappear even when it is theoretically surpassed, because we know egocentric thinking so well from the nearly universal phenomenon of human selfishness, which is where the moralizing connotation of “egocentric” no doubt has its origin. An individual may become capable of coordinating multiple perspectives and still value the world exclusively from the perspective of self-interest.

In any case, the purely egocentric thought of early childhood confines the egocentric thinker to a tightly constrained circle defined by one’s personal perspective. While this is a personal perspective, it is also an impersonal perspective in so far as all individuals share this perspective. It is what Francis Bacon called the “idols of the cave,” since every human being, “has a cave or den of his own, which refracts and discolours the light of nature.” This has been well described in a passage from F. H. Bradley made famous by T. S. Eliot, because the latter quoted it in a footnote to The Waste Land:

“My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it… In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.”

F. H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality, p. 346, quoted by T. S. Eliot in footnote 48 to The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said”

I quote this passage here because, like my retention of the term “egocentric,” it can help us to see perspectives in perspective, and it helps us to do so because we can think of expanding and progressively more comprehensive perspectives as concentric circles. The egocentric perspective is located precisely at the center, and the circle described by F. H. Bradley is the circle within which the egocentric perspective prevails.

The next most comprehensive perspective taking beyond the transcendence of the egocentric perspective is the transcendence of the ethnocentric perspective. The ethnocentric perspective corresponds to what Bacon called the “idols of the marketplace,” such that this perspective is, “formed by the intercourse and association of men with each other.” The ethnocentric perspective can also be identified with the sociosphere, which I recently discussed in Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro- as an essentially geocentric conception which, in a Copernican context, should be overcome.

Beyond ethnocentrism and its corresponding sociosphere there is ideocentrism, which Bacon called the “idols of the theater,” and which we can identify with the noösphere. The ideocentric perspective, which Bacon well described in terms of philosophical systems, such that, “all the received systems are but so many stage-plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion.” Trans-ethnic communities of ideology and belief, like world’s major religions and political ideologies, represent the ideocentric perspective.

The transcendence of the ideocentric perspective by way of more comprehensive perspective taking brings us to the anthropocentric perspective, which can be identified with the anthroposphere (still a geocentric and pre-Copernican conception, as with the other -spheres mentioned above). The anthropocentric perspective corresponds to Bacon’s “idols of the tribe,” which Bacon described thus:

“The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolours the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.”

Bacon was limited by the cosmology of his time so that he could not readily identify further idols beyond the anthropocentric idols of the (human) tribe, just as we are limited by the cosmology of our time. Yet we do today have a more comprehensive perspective than Bacon, we can can identify a few more stages of more comprehensive perspective taking. Beyond the anthropocentric perspective there is the geocentric perspective, the heliocentric perspective, and even what we could call the galacticentric perspective — as when early twentieth century cosmologists argued over whether the Milky Way was the only galaxy and constituted an “island universe.” Now we know that there are other galaxies, and we can be said to have transcended the galacticentric perspective.

As I wrote above, as human knowledge has expanded and become more comprehensive, ever more comprehensive perspective taking has come about in order to grasp the concepts employed in expanding human knowledge. There is every reason to believe that this process will be iterated indefinitely into the future, which means that perspective taking also will be indefinitely iterated into the future. (I attempted to make a similar and related point in Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics.) Therefore, further levels of cognitive maturity wait for us in the distant future as accomplishments that we cannot yet attain at this time.

This last observation allows me to cite one more relevant developmental psychologist, namely Lev Vygotsky, whose cognitive mediation theory of human development makes use of the concept of a Zone of proximal development (ZPD). Human development, according to Vygotsky, takes place within a proximal zone, and not at any discrete point or stage. Within the ZPD, certain accomplishments of cognitive maturity are possible. In the lower ZPD there is the actual zone of development, while in the upper ZPD there lies the potential zone of development, which can be attained through cognitive mediation by the proper prompting of an already accomplished mentor. Beyond the upper ZPD, even if there are tasks yet to be accomplished, they cannot be accomplished within this particular ZPD.

With the development of the whole of human knowledge, we’re on our own. There is no cognitive mediator to help us over the hard parts and assist us in the more comprehensive perspective taking that will mark a new stage of cognitive maturity and possible also a new zone of proximal development in which new accomplishments will be possible. But this has always been true in the past, and yet we have managed to make these breakthroughs to more comprehensive perspectives of cognitive maturity.

I hope that the reader sees that this is both hopeful and sad. Hopeful because this way of looking at human knowledge suggests indefinite progress. Sad because we will not be around to see the the accomplishments of cognitive maturity that lie beyond our present zone of proximal development.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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