Perspective as a Metaphor in Philosophy

A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about’ (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §123).

Gilbert Ryle begins his 1949 book, The Concept of Mind, with a metaphor: “many people can talk sense with concepts,” he writes, “but cannot talk sense about them; they know by practice how to operate with concepts, anyhow inside familiar fields, but they cannot state the logical regulations governing their use. They are like people who know their way about their own parish, but cannot construct or read a map of it, much less a map of the region or continent in which their parish lies” (1x). In a later essay, “Abstractions,” Ryle revives the same metaphor for the bewilderment people often experience in response to philosophical questions:

let us now think instead of the inhabitant of a village who knows well every house, field, stream, road and pathway in the neighborhood and is, for the first time, asked to draw or consult a map of his village — a map which shall join on properly to the maps of adjacent districts and in the end to the map of his country and even of his continent. He is being asked to think about his own familiar terrain in a way that is at the start entirely strange, despite the fact that every item that he is to inscribe or identify in his map is to be something that he is entirely familiar with (454).

The task the villager faces requires translationof the routes he takes into “universal cartographical terms”: in making a map, the villager has to translate his experiential knowledge of how to get around the village into a more objective representation of the world. Ryle says this is how we are when it comes to philosophy too. We all use concepts perfectly well in ordinary life, but when asked to explain what makes an action virtuous, or what counts as knowledge, we get flustered.

This bewilderment is nothing new. The protagonist of Plato’s Meno complains that Socrates has made him numb with all his questioning, like the sting of a torpedo-fish (a relative of the stingray). Bewilderment and confusion is often described as disorientation, or, as Wittgenstein puts it, as not knowing your way about. Metaphors of perspective are common throughout philosophy: we talk about the first-person perspective, the view from nowhere, and Hume’s ‘common point of view,’ just to name a few. What I am interested in here, however, is perspective as a metaphor for not knowing or not understanding something. I will suggest that we perspectival metaphors for ignorance because the phenomena we are aware of often depend on the scope or focus of our attention.

1. Ryle’s University

Ryle (1945) provides another, more famous, example of a metaphor of perspective in his example of a tourist at Oxford:

A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks ‘But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your University’ (6).

The tourist’s mistake is to think a single building or location is the University, whereas the University is really all of it. If we want to get technical, the University encompasses its organizational structure and governing bodies and student bodies as well. A University is a complicated thing. Ryle uses this as an example of a ‘category mistake,’ a mistake about the kind of entity some thing is. But notice that it is a perspectival metaphor as well. One can walk around Oxford to ‘see the University,’ but it’s impossible to take the whole thing in with your eyes, and certainly not in a single glance. It’s spread out around the observer, like fog. Sometimes when you walk into fog, and the fog seems to disappear; but you are still in the fog. The fog can only be observed by standing back, not by diving in.

Ryle’s broader point in The Concept of Mind is that much of our mental lives it like fog or the University. We look into our minds, expecting to find clearly delineated entities that are our beliefs and intentions and perceptions, and we find nothing. Does this mean our mental lives are barren? No. Rather, our beliefs and intentions and perceptions are manifest in various behaviors and mental states that extend over time — in our dispositions.

2. Frege Puzzles

It’s like sitting at the breakfast table and it’s early in the morning and you’re not quite awake. And you’re just sitting there eating cereal and sort of staring at the writing on the box — not reading it exactly, just more or less looking at the words. And suddenly, for some reason, you snap to attention, and you realize that what you’re reading is what you’re eating … but by then it’s much too late (Laurie Anderson, “Beginning French”).

Gottlob Frege, in “On Sense and Reference,” describes a now famous phenomenon of knowing something by one name and not by another. The ‘star’ Hesperus (the morning star) is the same as the star Phosphorus (the evening star), but since we see the morning star in the morning and the evening star in the evening, someone could fail to realize they are both the same ‘star’ — really the planet Venus. Frege says this means that ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ are names associated with different modes of presentation of the object they name.

A mode of presentation is just a way of thinking of an object such that you could fail to know that two different ‘modes’ are ways of thinking of the same thing. Some of Frege’s examples of modes of presentation involve ways that things are presented to us in space, whereas others do not. One of Frege’s more vivid spatial examples is from his Letter to Jourdain. This example involves a mountain known to villagers on one side as Afla and to villagers on the other side as Ateb. Someone on either side could fail to know Afla is Ateb unless they, or someone they trust, traverses the mountain and make the discovery. Frege writes that when someone could fail to know that Hesperus is Phosphorus, the terms ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ have different senses. Frege puzzles hinge on the possibility that someone could fail to realize that x = y.

Another Frege puzzle involves the pronoun ‘I.’ In John Perry’s case of the messy shopper, he is wandering around a grocery store pushing a cart and notices some sugar spilled on the floor. He thinks “someone is making a mess.” In fact, the person making the mess is him, but he does not realize it yet. Just as the villagers on one side of the mountain do not realize that Afla is Ateb, Perry does not realize that he is the person making the mess. The sugar is coming from inside the shopping cart.

Some Frege puzzles arise from the discontinuity of attention. Perry, not paying attention to the sugar pouring out of the busted bag in his cart, does not notice that the messy shopper is him; but he could trace the sugar back and realize that it’s him. In the case of the villagers by the mountain or the observers of Hesperus and Phosphorus, it is the lack of continuity of attention that results in their not knowing, e.g., that Afla is Ateb or that Hesperus is Phosphorus. Someone who walks all around the mountain would discover that Afla is Ateb, and someone who made the right observations could discover that Hesperus is Phosphorus — just as we sometimes discover that a location we see on a map is the same as a location we know from experience.

Call what happens in Frege puzzles epistemic occlusion. In epistemic occlusion, it is possible to fail to know that x is y because your way of thinking about x is not obviously also a way of thinking about y. Epistemic occlusion can result from approaching the same object from different spatio-temporal directs (Alfa and Ateb, Hesperus and Phosphorus). It can also result from calling an object by different names. Or it can arise from looking for an object that is spread out in spacetime (like fogs and universities) at a particular location. Believing that the University is at a particular point in space makes it possible to fail to realize that it’s all around you.

3. Zooming In: The Zero Point

Another perspectival metaphor — and source of epistemic occlusion — in philosophy is Edmund Husserl’s ‘zero point,’ or nullpunkt. The zero point is the point from which one observes the world:

The Body then has, for its particular Ego, the unique distinction of bearing in itself the zero point of all these orientations. One of its spatial points, even if not an actually seen one, is always characterized in the mode of the ultimate central here: that is, a here which has no other here outside of itself, in relation to which it would be a ‘there’ (1989, 166).

The “zero point of all these orientations” is unique in that it does not represent itself. If you think about your current visual experience of the world, it represents all sorts of things as out in front of you at various distances and orientations. But it does not represent you, the viewer, except insofar as you can see some of your body parts. The perspective from which seeing occurs is not represented by the seeing itself. Horgan and Nichols (2016) argue that various aspects of experience are ‘zero-pointy’ in that they don’t represent the self as among the objects of the experience.

Ernst Mach’s sketch of a room from his perspective (“Self-Portrait,” 1886)
Ernst Mach’s sketch of a room from his perspective (“Self-Portrait,” 1886)

That we cannot literally observe the origin point of the perspective from which we view the world is shown in Ernst Mach’s Self Portrait (above). The portrait displays his nose and the room from his perspective, but not the origin point, or zero point, itself. The zero point is an example of perspectival occlusion — this occurs when the visuo-spatial perspective you take on an object of perception occludes something (the back of the object, another object, or the origin point of the perspective itself).

Perspectival occlusion results in epistemic occlusion. Because you cannot see the zero point, you might fail to realize certain things. Various philosophers have observed that the self is difficult to get a handle on.

David Hume, famously, looked within himself for a self and could not find one: he found only bundles of ideas and perceptions. Ryle similarly observes that the self evades capture: “like the shadow of one’s own head, it will not wait to be jumped on. And yet it is never very far ahead; indeed, sometimes it seems not to be ahead of the pursuer at all. It evades capture by lodging itself inside the very muscles of the pursuer. It is too near even to be within arm’s reach” (167). Just as some things are too spread out to observe, the self might also be. We are too near to the self, just as we are too near to the fog.

We cannot find the self because it is all around us. As the poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg writes, “things seen up close enlarge, then disappear.”[1]

4. Zooming Out: Meditative Awareness

“If you make yourself very small, you can externalize virtually anything” (Daniel C. Dennett, Freedom Evolves).

Our thoughts and feelings can occupy our zero point in that we often don’t notice them, or notice that we are having them. But we can take them out of the zero point by becoming aware of them.

David Velleman (2008) writes about experiencing thirst:

The perspective one occupies as the subject of thirst is not the same as the perspective one occupies as the subject of reflective thinking about being thirsty. In the former perspective, one’s thirst is out of view, at the unrepresented point of origin, from which it issues in thirsty thoughts and actions directed at possible sources of drink, which dominate the field of view. [2]

Velleman continues to suggest that becoming aware of one’s motives deactivates them, in a way, or makes them less intense: “the reason why becoming reflexively aware of one’s thirst tends to make one less engrossed in thirsty activities is that such awareness draws one away from the perspective in which thirst occupies the governing point of origin rather than the passive field of view.”[3] Of course, becoming aware of one’s thirst need not make one less thirsty at all; but it can.

Something like this might occur in meditation practice: noticing that you are having a thought or feeling can rob it of some of its power. This is because since your focus is no longer on the object of that thought or feeling, but on the fact that you are having it. This is not a case of epistemic occlusion, but of its opposite: you become aware of what was once hidden and acquire some power over it.

5. Conclusion

The thinker ‘in a fog’ and the walker in a fog are both laboriously getting nowhere (Ryle, “Thinking and Language,” Collected Papers 271).

I have argued that this set of metaphors for perspective in philosophy are reasons for failures to know that x is y. Like Frege’s different ways of thinking of Hesperus and Phosphorus, Ryle’s University, the fog, and the zero point are cases in which someone might fail to know that something seen from one literal or metaphorical perspective is the same as something seen from another literal or metaphorical perspective: what they have in common is epistemic occlusion. And in all these cases of epistemic occlusion comes about because of your orientation with respect to something in space and time.

Space plays a significant role in the human conceptual imagination. Kant held that we cannot imagine possible experience taking place other than in space (as well as time). Our orientation in space sometimes explains our ignorance. If I cannot see an elephant because it is behind me, then I might not know it is there. It is a fact of our existence as perceivers that we cannot perceive, as an object of perception, the point from which we perceive things — the zero point that Husserl describes. We can, of course, look in the mirror and see our faces, yet we never perceive the zero point as the point from which we perceive things; a point in space can be either something we’re looking at, or it can be the origin of our looking. It cannot be both.

Perspective in time is also relevant to philosophical predicaments. Hesperus is the star on the horizon in the morning and Phosphorus is the star on the horizon in the evening. Ryle in The Concept of Mind suggests that a second reason we mis-describe mental phenomena is that much of our mental lives is spread out in time in the form of processes and dispositions. There is no one experience that constitutes thinking, for example; rather, it can be pretty much anything. Like the University, which is spread out in space, thinking — and many other mental phenomena besides — are spread out in time. We will not find them if we stand still and only observe a single spot. If our mental lives are spread out in this way, ‘maps’ are what we need if we want to understand them. We will not find thinking at any one location, in any one experiential manifestation of it.

That our mental lives are spread out in time is another reason we find ourselves so hard to know. Not only are we too close to the phenomena, but the phenomena themselves are like fogs or universities. Many of what we take to be unitary mental states like beliefs, desires, and even emotions, are revealed to us in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors over time. I may not realize I wanted ice cream until it is too late: then I am disappointed. Philosophy, at least in the branches concerned with knowledge and mind, is largely about self-understanding — understanding the concepts by which we understand the world. Insofar as we are focused on concepts , we are also asking about the roles they play for us, which may be many and varied.

In asking what belief, or knowledge, or desire is, we may find ourselves disoriented much like the visitor to Oxford or the villager unsure how to map his village. Philosophy is about re-orienting ourselves with respect to our concepts, which like fogs and universities are bigger and broader than any one episode of experience, and which belong to us so intimately we might not notice them busy behind the scenes. Space and time invade our metaphors for philosophical bewilderment not because all philosophy is about them, but because we — and what our concepts denote — unfold within them.


Dennett, Daniel C. 2004. Freedom Evolves. New York: Penguin Books.

Frege, Gottlob. 1960. “On Sense and Reference.” In P. Geach & M. Black (Eds.), Translations from the writings of Gottlob Frege(pp. 56–78). Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.

Horgan, Terry and Shaun Nichols. 2016. “The Zero-Point and I.” In Pre-Reflective Consciousness: Sartre and Contemporary Philosophy of Mind, edited by Sofia Miguens, Gerhard Preyer, and Clara Bravo Morando, 1430175. New York, NY: Routledge.

Husserl, Edmund. 1989. Collected Works, Volume III: Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Second Book, translated by Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers

Kant, Immanuel. 2001. Prologomena To Any Future Metaphysics. 2nd Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Perry, John. 1979. “The Problem of the Essential Indexical.” Noûs13(1): 3–21.

Ryle, Gilbert. 1949.The Concept of Mind. 60th Anniversary Edition. Abington, UK: Routledge.

Ryle, Gilbert. 2009. Collected Papers, Volume 2: Collected Essays 1929–1968. Oxford, UK: Routledge.

Schnackenberg, Gjertrud. 2007. “Snow Melting.”

Velleman, David. 2016. “The Way of the Wanton.”

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1958. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.


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