The Power of
Problems of Perspective
Giancarlo Livraghi October 2007
anche in italiano también en español
We know that the Earth is round. But our daily perceptions tell us that its flat. We know that the horizon is limited, we need to climb higher to see farther away. But, too often, we forget to do so in the perspectives of thought and curiosity. We remain confined, without even realizing it, in the restricted sphere of our point of view and our little circle of habits.
Perception studies indicate that we see things differently not only from the top of a nountain or the bottom of a valley, but also sitting or standing up or moving a few steps in one direction or another. And the same object, the same picture, drawing or graph, can be undertsood quite differently depending on how we look at it.
Witness experiments show that, even a few minutes after having seen the same thing, each person reports it differently not because he or she is intentionally lying, but because of differences in perception.
We know that undestanding means putting ourselves in someone elses shoes looking at things from another persons point of view. That seems obvious. But its difficult, because we arent in the habit of changing perspective.
I have been learning a lot from readers because they all read differently. Every time someone reads a book, a new book is born, that isnt what the author wrote, but what takes shape in the mind of the reader. It also happens that one readers comments or doubts help me to understand anothers. Two angles of view are better than one, three or more offer additional insight.
The large and growing variety of information and communication is a wonderful resource, but the abundance can be confusing and its sterile when narrow perspectives make dialogue dull and learning superficial.
It helps to perceive geography and look at maps. We can live happily without always remembering exactly the capital of Maybeland or the population of Whatistan. But we can have a much better idea of what is happening, and how people think and behave, if we understand where they are and how they live. (There are some examples of perspective differences in Views of the World.)
This isnt just a matter of changing perspective when its necessary, to free ourselves of shallow conventional perceptions or to understand someone elses point ov view. It is always useful, whatever the subject, to look at it from different angles. It can be intruguing, sometimes suprising, often interesting, to deliberately change perspective. It is also mind-opening to change language. Our perception can be different when we use another word for the same thing.
Knowing more that one language isnt only a need for communicating with people who dont understand our mother tongue. Language isnt just lexicon. Its also what philosophers call Weltanschauung view of the world.
Johann Goethe used to say: «Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.»
This isnt just a matter of how English can be different from Chinese (as a way of thinking as well as a language) or of the many confusing jargons, such as politicese, legalese, bureaucratese, techniquese, businessese, financese, economicese, abstruse, literariese, fashionese, etcetera, that seem to be (and often are) deliberately meant to confuse whoever doesnt belong to a particular clique. The problem is also that people who share the same language can misunderstand each other when their ways of thinking are different.
Translations can be misleading. The same (or similar) words can have different meanings not only in different languages, but also in varying cultural contexts or situations. This can be frustrating, when we are not sure that what we read or hear makes sense. But it can be quite interesting when, by changing perspective, we can get a much better idea of what is really meaningful.
Of course there are differences not only in spoken or written language, but also in noverbal communication. Understanding pictures, behaviors, body language, tone an manner, can be confusing if we dont appreciate diversity. Its intriguing and interesting when we change our point of view.
It takes a fair amount of mental exercise to change perspective on everything, perceive whatever we are looking at, or thinking about, from different angles. This isnt only a methodic discipline, that can be vitally necessary in serious and importany matters. Its also a more general state of mind, an openness of perception that, with practice, can become a pleasant habit, an interesting way of life.
Its instinctive, and to some extent unavoidable, to have an egocentric point of view. It is scientifically correct to set the center of the visible universe wherever the observer happens to be.
It would be long and complicated to get into what we are learning from cosmology and particle physics and I hope scientists will forgive me for this oversimplification. But its a fact that what we call universe is what our instruments can see. And, while Heisenbergs uncertainty principle applies specifically to quantum physics, it is more widely true that we change things by observing them. Thats why it takes more than one point of view to have a better idea of what we are trying to perceive.
Its obvious that our perceptions are placed at a tiny and ever-changing point of contact between an outside and an inside world. But we need to understand that its only one of infinite possible perspectives. If we dont learn to expand our horizon, it shrinks into a dull mental cubicle of nearsighted boredom.
Fifty years ago a bright Italian writer, Vitaliano Brancati, explained why stupidity is dull. «Fools are bored because they lack a subtle quality, discerning. An intelligent person discovers a thousand nuances in the same object, perceives the deep difference between two apparetly similar facts. A fool doesnt distinguish, doesnt discern. The power of which he is proud is to think that different things are the same.»
Life can be very boring with the constant repetition of the same circumstances, the same conversations, the same exasperating clichés. Looking from another point of view as often as possible isnt the only way of getting out of the doldrums, but its one of the most effective.
This isnt only a matter of breaking habits, or of nurtruring insitiable curiosity (two basic tools in learning and reducing stupidity). Improving perspective, thinking less conventionally, finding points of view that arent the usual or the obivous, doesnt only make us more intelligent or, at least, less stupid. Its also a lively, exciting experience, aesthetically pleasant even before its useful.
Changing perspective can be quite amusing. And its often enlightening.