Monday, April 28, 2008

Perspectives on "Perspective" – Part II

This post continues my fragmentary list of disciplines in which the phenomenon of “perspective” plays a crucial role. So far, I’ve discussed the importance of perspective from a developmental/ ontogenetic point of view, an evolutionary/ comparative point of view and, more generally, from a cognitive point of view.

In this post I’ll write a bit about some aspects of perspective from a philosophical point of view as well as from the perspective of cognitive linguistics.

4. Perspective from a philosophical point of view

Perspective also plays an important role in all conscious processes, as

“consciousnesses can be defined as being conscious of perspectivally selected aspects of some phenomenon.” (Allwood 2006).
This perspectival nature of consciousness can largely be attributed to our embodiment, as discussed in the previous post.

On the other hand, we have to be careful in equating all the interesting properties of consciousness with embodiment. There are quite radical theories out there that pose that consciousness is only a function of our embodied and situated interaction with the world. Consciousness in this way is not only an essential part of, but is in fact constituted by the interaction of mind, body, and world.

The “cognition is for action”-hypothesis seems to be more plausible in this respect. It poses that consciousness is a precondition for being in and navigating our everyday world. (Prinz in press). A central function of consciousness is that it is part of a system that “decouples” representations from their direct linkage to action chains, processes and analyzes these representations, generalizes them to schemas, and makes these newly formed multifaceted representations available to various action systems.

A conscious intentional system able to pre-select among various options by analyzing decoupled representations thereby extends the response breadth of an organism. (Sterelny 2003). Consciousness is thus fundamentally linked to our bodies and the world, but not necessarily constituted by it (Prinz in press).

What this tells us is that is useful to look at the phenomenon of perspective from a functional point of view, i.e. what it means for cognition and mental processes to be perspectival, body based and action-oriented. One application of this form of inquiry would be to ask what we actually need information for:

“Viewpoint-specific information is needed to determine how your goal can best be realized: it’s information that provides a means to the end.” (Prinz in press).

We should of course also consider that all information we acquire is perspectivally mediated, either through our embodiment, or through the perspectival nature of the medium itself. This holds for the many potential perspectives intrinsic to language (Köller 2004) as well as for “the media” in a broader sense, which make accessible to us information that we otherwise never would’ve known about.

The structure and organization of our knowledge is thus always deeply rooted in and influenced by the perspectival nature of the information transmitters. Metaphorically we could almost go as far as saying that we form an integrated circuitry, an interface with our environment, including electronic devices (Jean Baudrillard 1988). Tools and artifacts, including information transmission devices such as book, the internet, TV, etc. can in general be seen as “the extensions of man” (McLuhan 1964), with which we interface with basically from birth, thus creating some kind of feedback loop

“where we shape our tools and therefore our tools shape us” (McLuhan 1964)
making us “natural-born cyborgs” (Clark 2003). This creates

“the problem of understanding how human thought and reason is born out of looping interactions between material brains, material bodies, and complex cultural and technological environments. We create these supportive environments, but they create us too. We exist, as the thinking things we are, only thanks to a baffling dance of brains, bodies, and cultural and technological scaffolding. Understanding this evolutionarily novel arrangement is crucial for our science, our morals, and our self-image both as persons and as a species.” (Clark 2003)

Although this all may sound a bit esoteric and we should definitely remember Jesse Prinz’s caveat, what seems clear is that perspective is a phenomenon born out of

1.the development of perspectival mental representations during childhood which arose from the interaction with others and through the integration of perspectival concepts and perspectives mediated by language (Tomasello 1999, Clark 1997)

2. The perspectival sense of selfhood that came out of shared attention and intentions, cooperative interactions, and the unification and evaluation of conflicting perspectives on self and others, enabling the child to integrate various perspectives and life episodes into a single, unified concept of self (Moll 2007)

3. The fact that not only our own view of the world is linked to a certain point of view, but that the same holds true for the information we get from all kinds of sources, which thus creates a kind of dialogue between our own perspective and the various perspectives embodied in the information coming from the outside world.

5. Perspective from a linguistic perspective

There are a lot of linguists, especially cognitive linguists who treat the phenomenon of perspective as central to language. On this view, language can be seen as inherently embodying the manifold perspectives of all language users of the past who used it to allocate attention, and ‘perspectivize’ certain salient and relevant features of a situation or event (for such a view, see e.g. Köller 2004, Tomasello 1999).

Cognitive linguists assume that language reflects “at least partially, the nature and organisation of the conceptual system” (Evans & Wood 2006: 170), thus giving us important insights into how the mind works. If linguistic organization is partially illustrative of the way we conceptualize things, it follows that if perspective is an important aspect of linguistic structure, it is also a fundamental property of cognition:

“The perspectival nature of linguistic meaning implies that the world is not objectively reflected in the language: the categorization function of the language imposes a structure on the world rather than just mirroring objective reality (Geeraerts and Cuyckens 2007: 5).”

To make this clearer, consider the following examples (taken from Evans & Wood 2006: 41ff.):

a. The boy kicks over the vase.

b. The vase is kicked over.

c. The vase smashes into bits.

d. The vase is in bits.

In each of this sentences another aspect of the scene is made salient.

(a) can be seen as the unmarked case in which the event as a whole is represented, and is thus the main focus of the description.

In (b) the main focus lies on the action itself and its PATIENT (i.e. the receiving end of the action), whereas the AGENT, is only weakly represented, i.e. in the background.

In (c) the action chain of the object, its internal change and the resulting state (b = in bits) are ‘profiled’, i.e. made the center of attention.

(d), on the other hand focuses on the end state of the object.

We can thus say that each sentence embodies a different perspective on the state of events.

This observation is a major hallmark of cognitive linguistics and the notion of “perspective” or something related to it can thus be found in the terminology of many cognitive linguists. This holds, for example, for the domain of metaphor, where “a recurrent characteristic determining the nature of metaphor has been that it presents its target from a particular point of view.” (Dirven et al. 2007: 1226). Max Black (1993) explicitly calls this phenomenon “perspective”, whereas Lakoff & Johnson (1980) call it ”highlighting and hiding” (see Dirven et al. 2007: 1226).

Ronald Langacker (e.g. 2007) also describes perspective, i.e. “the linguistic manifestations of the position from which a situation is viewed” (see Verhagen 2007: 53) as a central dimension of the construal operations that we employ when using and comprehending language. This phenomenon is also deeply intertwined with the phenomenon of “profiling”, where one aspect of a scene appears salient and constitutes the figure which is positioned against a background. In Rubin’s famous face/vase-figure, for example, you can see either the face as figure and the vase as ground, or vice versa:

Leonard Talmy (2000) also proposes that the “Perspectival System” is one of the four schematic systems that structure scenes expressed by language. In his view this system:

“includes schematic categories that relate to the spatial or temporal perspective point from which a scene is viewed, the distance of the perspective point from the entity viewed, the change of perspective point over time and so on” (Evans & Wood 2006: 194).

Consider the following two examples where the main difference between the sentences is the ‘perspective point’:

(Talmy 2000: 69, see also Evans & Wood 2006: 197):

The door slowly opened and two men walked in. (Interior perspective point)

Exterior perspective point (Two men slowly opened the door and walked in.)

A perspective point seems to be exactly the same as what Karl Bühler (1934) called an origo point located on a ‘coordinate system of subjective orientation’, and I prefer Bühler’s terminology over that of Talmy. Still Talmy’s work seems to very insightful and fundamental and I will try to write a bit more about it in a subsequent post.

Similary, and as I described in an earlier post, Brian MacWhinney argues that perspective taking is a fundamental cognitive process that enables language to bind together the five imagery subsystems of direct experience, space/time deixis, plans, social roles, and mental acts (MacWhinney 2005). MacWhinney also makes the observation that the expression and recognition of the deictic center of an utterance and/or a mental representation is an important linguistic and cognitive operation, and, just as Talmy, doesn’t refer to Bühler. Following Duchan et al. (1995) MacWhinney differentiates between three deictic frameworks: egocentric, allocentric and geocentric.:

Egocentric deixis directly encodes the perspective of the speaker. The spatial position of the speaker becomes the deictic center or “here.”” (MacWhinney 2005: 203). This would be what following Bühler is called the Here-Now-I-Origo.

The allocentric frame projects

“the deictic center onto an external object”, and makes us assume “the perspective of another object and then [judge] locations from the viewpoint of that object”(MacWhinney 2005: 203).
One example would be “the pool in front of the house,” where the pool’s position is defined relative to the location of the house. Other, more mundane examples of the allocentric frame are “under the table”, “behind the desk”, “next to the zombie” etc.

The geocentric frame

"enforces a perspective based on fixed external landmarks, such as the position of a mountain range, the sun, the North Star, the North Pole, or a river.” (MacWhinney 2005: 203).
According to MacWhinney there are languages that make excessive use of this kind of perspective taking:

In Guugu Yimithirr, an Australian Aboriginal language, for example, “rather than asking someone to “move back from the table,” one might say, “move a bit to the mountain.” (MacWhinney 2005: 203)

MacWhinney argues that linguistic perspective taking is based on the construction of a “full-blown Cartesian coordinate system” and that it involves the construction of “a temporary Cartesian grid” based on the conceptual construal of a given linguistic event and the dominant integrated propositional objects therein (MacWhinney 2005: 203f.)

This proposal seems perfectly congruent with Karl Bühler’s description and of mental representations involving a “coordinate system of subjective orientation”. It also squares well with my own clumsy extrapolation of this system following Wilhlem Köller’s (2004) notion of a ‘systemic space’/’coordinate system’ into which propositional objects and concepts can be transferred, imported, which then can be blended and manipulated.

I really find it exciting that MacWhinney’s approach is so similar to that taken by Karl Bühler, and more generally, that a lot of approaches to perspective and cognition converge on the metaphor of a coordinate system. This metaphor may prove to have great integrative power in the cognitive sciences and I’m looking forward what will come of it.

That’s it for now. In the future I will try to address some of the proposals outlined here in more detail. For the time being, I hope to have shown that studying the various forms of perspective can be a rewarding and cool enterprise.

Somewhere in the distant future, the phenomenon of perspective may prove an important aspect of many inquiries into all cognitive phenomena, and studying the perspectivity intrinsic to cognitive systems and their various emanations and expressions may be a useful overarching paradigm able to combine and integrate various areas of research.


Allwood, Jens (2006): 'Consciousness, Thought and Language' In K. Brown (ed.) Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edition. Oxford: Elsevier, 44-53.

Bühler, Karl. 1934. Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena: Gustav Fischer.

Clark, Andy (2003): Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and. the Future of Human Intelligence, Oxford: Oxoford University Press-

Clark, Eve V. (1997): Conceptual Perspective and Lexical Choice in Acquisition. In: Cognition 64:1–37.

Dirven, René, Frank Polzenhagen, and Hans-Georg Wolf Cognitive Linguistics, Ideology, and Critical Discourse Analysis. In: Dirk Geeraerts and Herbert Cuyckens (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Duchan, J. F., Bruder, G. A., & Hewitt, L. E. (1995). Deixis in Narrative: A Cognitive Science Perspective. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Evans, Vyvyan and Rachel Wood (2006): Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Geeraerts, Dirk and Herbert Cuyckens (2007): Introducing Cognitive Linguistics. In: Dirk Geeraerts and Herbert Cuyckens (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. (2007): Cognitive Grammar. In: Dirk Geeraerts and Herbert Cuyckens (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson (1980): Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kannetzky, Frank (2007): Weder Bewußtseinsimmanenz noch Schnittpunktexistenz. Überlegungen zum Begriff der Person. In: F. Kannetzky/H. Tegtmeyer (Hrsg.): Personalität. Leipzig: Universitätsverlag

Köller, Wilhelm (2004): Perspektivität und Sprache. Zur Struktur von Objektivierungsformen in Bildern, im Denken und in der Sprache. Berlin/ New York: de Gruyter.

MacWhinney, Brian (2005): The Emergence of Grammar from Perspective. In: Diane Pecher und Rolf A. Zwaan (Eds.), The Grounding of Cognition: The Role of Perception and Action in Memory, Language, and Thinking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 199-223.

McLuhan, Herbert Marshall (1964): Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Moll, Henrike (2007). Person und Perspektivität – Kooperation und soziale Kognition beim Menschen. In F. Kannetzky & H. Tegtmeyer (Eds.), Leipziger Schriften zur Philosophie. Personalität – Studien zu einem Schlüsselbegriff der Philosophie, 37-56. Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag.

Sterelny, Kim (2003): Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition. Malden: Blackwell.

Talmy, Leonard (2000) Toward a Cognitive Semantics (2 vols). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tomasello, Michael (1999): The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press

Verhagen, Arie (2007): Construal and Perspectivization. In: Dirk Geeraerts and Herbert Cuyckens (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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