Perspective Is Everything

Shutterstock / welcomia
Shutterstock / welcomia

Thanks to the madness of San Francisco, I’m looking for a new house to rent. I’m using Craigslist, of course, looking at pictures of my possible new homes. And then I go to these houses and, well, the experience is different. It’s not that the pictures were wrong. It’s that the pictures are different. They enjoy a different perspective on the scene. How could it be otherwise? A camera, not to mention a landlord, sees a house differently than I see it.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty — I do enjoy saying his name — says that a house is not a house seen from nowhere but a house seen from every possible perspective. This is to say, there is no absolute house, no house outside of it being presented to the world as something to be seen. This is not to say, however, that the house only comes into being by being seen but that the house only exists as something that can is seen, that is experienced (by humans or not).

There’s a house there. See it? I see it, too. But I see it from here and you see it from there. We are standing in different positions. We are different heights. Our views of the house are therefore necessarily different. And this doesn’t even get into how we see, the amalgamation of experiences, ideas, concepts, memories that make sense of this house as well as houses in general.

And yet we’re both looking at that house. Which? That one there. Our views of the house are not subjective; they don’t only exist in our respective minds and bodies. No, there is a house which we both see. But we see it from different perspectives, literally.

To say there is no house per se is not to say there is no such thing as objectivity. It is only to say there is no such thing as a total or absolute perspective, at least not for any living thing (including humans).  There is still objectivity in that we see that object right there.

The being of a thing is always and already run through with perspectives both actual and virtual, existant and possible. There never was, is, or will be a single, unified thing that is that house. The house is lived in, lived through, by bodies, ideas, bugs, wind, sun, ground. The house is multiple — food to termites, water to ants, a certain resistance to wind, home to you and me (and two different homes at that).

Each thing — human and non-human — experiences the house, sees the house, from its perspective. We all see the house, all experience the house. But it’s not one thing we experience. Or, rather, it may be one thing but it is one thing that is many things, that is an assemblage (of materials, ideas, experiences, histories, perspectives).

Of course, my perspective is not limited to my precise physical perspective. Part of my ability to experience and see the world is to see from different perspectives. I have seen pictures of houses from all kinds of angles — including blueprints, which really offer a strange perspective. Blueprints are like ghosts of a house, its virtuality, its possibility, the house stripped of nearly all adornment including heat, speed, memory, smell, touch. And yet they are a perspective that I see, in a sense, when I see the house standing right in front of it.

And part of what makes me something that enjoys perspectives is that I can imagine other perspectives, including yours. After all, I know that we are all stuff of this world, stuff going with stuff, stuff seeing stuff. (We can say that the house sees you as you see it only it sees in a very different way — it creaks, wears, bears weight and activity.) So when I’m standing in front of the house and can’t see the back or the roof, I can be pretty sure that there is a back and a roof — not because I know there’s a house there but because I know that other things, including me at another time and place, could see the house from there and hence confirm that there’s a back and roof.

My perspective is not my subjectivity. I may have a subjective experience to seeing that house. It may remind me of a feeling I had in a camp cabin when I was seven; it may smell to me like my grandmother’s closet. But the house I’m seeing is not strictly speaking subjective. No, that house is an object (although it has its perspective and subjectivity) that I see, you see, the wind blows against, the termites eat.

We can say, then, that there is no absolute objectivity just as there is no absolute subjectivity. I am a thing in the world who has private experiences, sure, but I am still a thing that exists with other things. Those things and I go together, forging different kinds of events that more often than not aparallel (I may be overwhelmed by the sight of that ocean but the ocean is barely nudged by my gaze.)

For Henri Bergson, it’s silly to ask whether there is a true house or if it only exists in my mind. This is a subject-object dichotomy that is abstract, existing only as an idea for philosophers who ask silly questions. (He doesn’t use the word silly; he says “false.”) It’s absurd to ask, Is that house there? Of course that house is there. Look at the damn thing! And it’s equally absurd to then ask: Is the house there absolutely? Who would ask such a question? Who would answer such a question? Only philosophers asking false questions, thinking outside of time. (Many philosophers would echo this sentiment — Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin, and Nietzsche, among others.)

And so Bergson says everything is an image. Or we could say everything is matter — to Bergson, the two are interchangeable because matter is always presented to us, to the world, as something to be perceived. It’s goofy to ask whether there is matter absolutely or if we experience the world hermetically, locked in our subjective senses. I see the house; you see the house. We see the same house but we see it differently. This doesn’t efface the being of the house per. Or, rather, it does efface the being of the house by putting that being in motion, by transforming it into a becoming.

All things — including human beings and houses — are of this world, things going with things. We are neither absolute nor removed. We are of the world — multiple, dispersed, temporal. We are perspectives that are always morphing, lava lamp like. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Daniel is an independent writer, reader, teacher, and philosopher. Follow him on Twitter here.

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