Duck Rabbit

What happens when an individual achieves a new level of perspective taking? Is one perspective displaced by another? Is a new perspective added to existing perspectives?

Firstly, what do I mean by “perspective taking” in this context? In a couple of posts I’ve discussed perspective taking as a theme of developmental psychology — The Hierarchy of Perspective Taking and The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking — but I haven’t tried to rigorously define it. The short version is that perspective taking is putting yourself in the position of the other and seeing the world from the other’s point of view (or perspective, hence perspective taking). This is, as I have previously remarked, one of the most basic thought experiments in moral philosophy.

Kant implicitly appeals to perspective taking in his categorical imperative, in which he asserts that one ought to act as though the principle that guides one’s actions should be made a universal law. In other words, you ask yourself, “What would the consequences be if everyone acted as I am acting?” This, in turn, supposes that one can place oneself into the position of the other and imagine how the principle of your action would be interpreted and put into practice by others.

It could also be argued that Kant’s categorical imperative is implicit in the regime of popular sovereignty, which has its origins in Kant’s time but which only in the twentieth century became the universally acclaimed normative standard for political entities. Everyone knows that their individual vote does not count, because if you subtracted your vote from the total in any election, it would not affect the outcome. Nevertheless, if everyone came to this conclusion and acted upon it, no one would vote and democracy would collapse.

To return to perspective taking, there are much more sophisticated formulations than the off-the-cuff version I have given above. There is an interesting paper that discusses the conception of perspective taking — THE DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIO-MORAL MEANING MAKING: DOMAINS, CATEGORIES, AND PERSPECTIVE-TAKING — the authors of which, Monika Keller and Wolfgang Edelstein, converge on this definition:

“…perspective-taking is taken to represent the formal structure of coordination of the perspectives of self and other as they relate to the different categories of people’s naive theories of action. The differentiation and coordination of the categories of action and the self-reflexive structure of this process are basic to those processes of development and socialization in which children come to reconstruct the meaning of social interaction in terms of both what is the case and what ought to be the case in terms of morally responsible action. In order to achieve the task of establishing consent and mutually acceptable lines of action in situations of conflicting claims and expectations, a person has to take into account the intersubjective aspects of the situation that represent the generalizable features, as well as the subjective aspects that represent the viewpoints of the persons involved in the situation. In its fully developed form, this complex process of regulation and interaction calls for the existence and operation of complex socio-moral knowledge structures and a concept of self as a morally responsible agent. The ability to differentiate and coordinate the perspectives of self and other thus is a necessary condition both in the development of socio-moral meaning making and in the actual process of solving situations of conflicting claims.”

“THE DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIO-MORAL MEANING MAKING: DOMAINS, CATEGORIES, AND PERSPECTIVE-TAKING,” by Monika Keller and Wolfgang Edelstein, in W. M. Kurtines & J. L. Gewirtz (Eds.) (1991). Handbook of moral behavior and development: Vol. 2. Research (pp. 89-114). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

I recommend the entire paper, which discusses, among other matters, the attempts by others to formulate an adequate explication of perspective taking. But I have an ulterior motive for this discussion of perspective taking. The real reason I have engaged in this inquiry about perspective taking is because of my recent posts about the overview effect — The Epistemic Overview Effect and The Overview Effect as Perspective Taking — in which I treat the overview effect as a visceral trigger for perspective taking on a global (and even trans-planetary) scale.

Thinking about the overview effect as perspective taking, I considered the possibility that taking a new global or even trans-planetary perspective might involve either dispensing with a former perspective in order to replace it with a novel perspective (which I will call the displacement model), or adding a new perspective to already existing perspectives (which I will call the augmentation model). (And here I want to cite Siggi Becker and Mark Lambertz, who commented on my earlier overview effect post on Facebook, and spurred me into thinking about what it means for one to achieve a new perspective on the world.)

For cognitive scientists and sociologists, perspective taking is cumulative, especially in the case of moral development. There is an entire literature devoted to Robert L. Selman’s five stages of perspective taking (which is very much influenced by Piaget) and Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development (three stages — pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional — each broken into two divisions).

There are, however, definite limits to this Piagetian cognitive basis for the development of the moral life of the individual. Without some degree of empathy for the other, all of this cognitive approach to moral development falls apart, because one might systematically pursue the development of one’s perspective taking ability only to more successfully exploit and manipulate others through a more effective cunning than that provided by a purely egocentric approach to interaction with others. Thus we arrive at the Schopenhauerian conception such that compassion is the basis of morality.

Max Scheler systematically critiqued this classic Schopenhauerian position in his book The Nature of Sympathy. Scheler concluded that compassion alone is insufficient for morality, thus undermining Schopenhauer’s position, but that compassion alone may not be a sufficient condition for morality, it may yet be a necessary condition. Perhaps it is compassion and perspective taking together that make morality possible. These philosophical issues have also been taken up in the spirit of social science by Carol Gilligan’s work on the ethics of care. I only touch on these issues here in passing, since any serious consideration of these works and their authors would require substantial exposition.

Perspective taking is central to Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, and what Kohlberg calls “disequilibrium” (which serves as a spur to moral development) might also be called “disorientation,” or, more specifically, “moral disorientation.” And it is disorienting when one achieves a new perspective, and especially when one does as suddenly, as in the case of the visceral trigger provided by the overview effect. Plato describes such a disorienting experience beautifully in his famous allegory of the cave — the philosopher is twice disoriented, initially as he ascends from the cave of shadows up into the real world, and again when we descends again into the cave of shadows in order to attempt to enlighten those still chained below. A power experience leaves one feeling disoriented, and much of this disorientation is due to the collapse of a familiar system of thought that gave one a sense of one’s place in the world, and its replacement by a new system of thought that is not yet familiar.

If we focus too much on cumulative and continuous aspects of perspective taking, on the assumption that each level of development must build upon the immediately previous level, we may lose sight of the disruptive nature of perspective taking — and moral development is not a primrose path. As individuals confront moral dilemmas they are forced to consider difficult question and sometimes to give hard answers to difficult questions. This is central to the moral growth of the person, and it is often quite uncomfortable and attended by anxiety and inner conflict. One often feels that one fights one’s way through a problem, only to surmount it. This is very much like Wittgenstein’s description of throwing away the ladder once one has climbed up.

If the overview effect constitutes a new level of perspective taking, and if perspective taking is central to moral development, then the perspective taking of the overview effect constitutes a stage in human moral development — and it constitutes that stage of moral development that coincides with civilization’s expansion beyond terrestrial boundaries.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In my previous post on The Epistemic Overview Effect I now realize that I failed to make an obvious connection with some earlier threads of my thought. Specifically, I failed to see or to develop the connection between the overview effect and what some developmental psychologists call “perspective taking.”

In The Hierarchy of Perspective Taking I discussed the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Lev Vygotsky. In this post I attempted to show how perspective taking transcends the life of the individual and applies as well to entire civilizations — which distinction might be called that between ontogenetic perspective taking and phylogenetic perspective taking. In this post I wrote:

“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 always 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.”

Re-reading this passage in light of the overview effect — the view of the earth entire experienced by astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as the change in perspective that a few of these observers have had as a result of seeing the earth whole with their own eyes — I would now add to my exposition of a hierarchy of perspective taking that the expansion and extension of civilization not only produces new ideas and conceptions, but also new experiences. Technology makes it possible to experience aspects of the world directly that were impossible to experience prior to the advent of industrial-technological civilization.

The overview effect is a paradigmatic case of technologically-facilitated experience. While I could say that those who have, so far, been fortunate enough to experience the overview effect, are “forced” as a result of their experience to formulate new conceptions of the world as a consequence of their experience (as I used this idiom of being “forced” previously), it would be better to say as I put it more recently in The Epistemic Overview Effect that the experience is a trigger that inspires an effort to formulate a conception of the world adequate to the experience.

While the overview effect itself is likely a powerful experience, merely the idea that others are experiencing an overview can itself be a powerful experience. This involves the most fundamental of all ethical thought experiments: the attempt to place ourselves in the position of the other, and so to experience the otherness of the other and the otherness of ourselves. When we believe that we have understood the other’s point of view, it is not unusual to say, “I can see your perspective.”

Perspective taking in the form of taking the perspective of the other is a key achievement in the development of an ethical perspective of the individual life. Some never achieve this level of insight, and some come to an adequate appreciation of the perspective of the other only late in life.

In the Swedish film My Life as a Dog there is an beautiful evocation of such ethical perspective taking in the life of a young boy, by way of the theme of the Russian space dog Laika, which recurs as a motif to which the young protagonist returns time and again as an example of perspective. Here are some of the voiceovers from the protagonist’s narration:

“And what about Laika, the space dog? They put her in the Sputnik and sent her into space. They attached wires to her heart and brain to see how she felt. I don’t think she felt too good. She spun around up there for five months until her doggy bag was empty. She starved to death. It’s important to have something like that to compare things to.”


“It’s strange how I can’t stop thinking about Laika. People shouldn’t think so much. ‘Time heals all wounds,’ Mrs. Arvidsson says. Mrs. Arvidsson says some wise things. You have to try to forget.”


“…I’ve been kinda lucky. I mean, compared to others. You have to compare, so you can get a little distance from things. Like Laika. She really must have seen things in perspective.”

Laika did indeed see things in perspective, and may well have experienced the overview effect before any human being. The young boy in My Life as a Dog understands this, intuiting the Laika’s perspective, and is able to better judge his own station in life by comparing his situation to that of Laika.

As long as our industrial-technological civilization continues in its development (i.e., as long as it does not succumb to the existential risks of flawed realization or permanent stagnation), we individuals contextualized within this civilization can continue our development, and this development will be facilitated by the technologies produced by this civilization that will give us new experiences, and these new experiences will afford us with new perspectives on the world.

Recently there have been many new stories about Voyager-1 being the first human artifact to leave the solar system (cf. Voyager probe ‘leaves Solar System’ by Jonathan Amos, Science correspondent, BBC News). Meditations upon the achievement of Voyager-1 have taken the form of a perspective taking on our solar system entire. We are inspired to contemplate our perspective on the world by imaginatively taking the point of view of Voyager-1. Some day, a human being will travel as far or farther than Voyager-1, and will look back and see our sun at a distance, as we once looked back and saw the earth for the first time at a distance.

Our technologically-facilitated perspective taking will not end there. There are grander views yet to contemplate, and grander conceptions of nature that will follow from a direct, visceral experience of these grander views. As wonderful as the Earth must appear from space, and as transformative as seeing this must be, further in the future there will be the possibility of flying far enough beyond the Milky Way that we will be able to turn around and look back at our home galaxy. Knowing it to be our home (and by that time having come to a kind of astronautical familiarity with the Earth, our solar system, and the Orion Spur of the Milky Way), we will be moved by the sight of our entire galaxy seen whole, in one glance of the eye, hanging suspended and seemingly motionless against the blackness of space unrelieved by stars — for the only companions to our galaxy from this extra-galactic point of view will be other galaxies, and this astonishing perspective may well spur us toward a yet more comprehensive, therefore more adequate, conception of the universe.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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