Perspectivalism 101

John M. Frame has brilliantly formulated what I believe is an extraordinary biblical epistemology in his book, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (henceforth DKG). In this work Frame develops what he calls triperspectivalism, or multiperspectivalism (the truth is that if you can pronounce either of these terms properly, you’re halfway to mastery!). Now, what I’d like to do it walk my read through an explanation of what Frame is doing here, and why is helpful to the thought-life of a Christian.

In any and every act of knowing something we are in constant contact with three things, or as Frame calls them, three perspectives. These three perspectives are 1) the person doing the knowing (what we call the “knowing subject”), 2) the thing being known (i.e. the object of knowledge), and 3) the standard or criteria by which knowledge is attained. In knowing each of these we actually know the other two. Each are interrelated to the others in such a fashion that each could be seen as a perspective on the whole knowing process.

Here’s an example of how these perspectives are connected (though I realize that it probably raises further questions). Let’s take the example of me getting to know my nephew’s dog, Rusty. Perhaps I’ve come to the conclusion that Rusty is a short-haired dog. How does this talk of “perspectives” relate to this act of knowing? Well, first there’s the subject of knowledge, that’s me. Second, there’s the object of knowledge, that’s Rusty and his coat of fur. Third, there’s the standard that I use to evaluate whether Rusty’s hair is long or short. Of course, there’s also in play my knowledge of what does and doesn’t count as fur, etc.

Now let’s get to this all a bit further. (What follows is a revision and expansion of the original article I wrote on this subject for the Frame’s Mutiperspectivialism entry on wikipedia.)

The Normative Perspective (i.e. law or standards that govern thought and action). In all of our actions there is some standard that serves as a guides us, for example, in telling us what is proper to question, what actions should we pursue and avoid, what the universe is really like, and how we should seek out knowledge. The marketplace of ideas is full of systems that compete for our acceptance, longing to set themselves up as god over our hearts and minds. For some people final allegiance is due to sense experience (“Seeing is believing”), their emotions (“If it doesn’t move me, it isn’t real.”), or political allegiances (“I couldn’t believe in a system that is so hostile to individual free speech”), for others it is their particular religious tradition (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Ba’hai, etc) or secular philosophy (empiricism, rationalism, Marxism, etc.). Whatever serves as our final authority functions as our normative perspective.

Christians believe that God has verbally revealed Himself to mankind in Scripture, providing all the words from God that we need for life and godliness (cf. 2 Peter 1:3) God’s inspired word serves as the standard by which all truth claims are to be checked. God’s word dictates to us who He is, the true nature of the world around us, and who we as creatures are in relation to both Him and the world. As John Calvin has said, Scripture serves as the lenses through which we see everything. But even in knowing Scripture we know both the world, and ourselves and in knowing them both we come to know Scripture better.

The Situational Perspective (i.e. the object of knowledge). This perspective daws our attention to the facts of reality, i.e. the things our persons we are trying to know. With this perspective in mind, we should pay close attention to the details of history, science, and evidences for various beliefs. Yet science, history and the evidences are never to be interpreted in a fashion that ignores or sets aside the authoritative nature of the normative perspective. Remember, they’re all tied together.

Without an understanding of our world, we cannot understand or apply Scripture to our lives. An ethical example should help. The standard argument against abortion on demand is this:

1) Murder is a sin
2) Abortion on demand is murder
3) Therefore, Abortion on demand is a sin.

Point 1 provides us with the command of Scripture; it serves to provide us with a objective moral principal. But in order to arrive at point 3 we need to know whether or not abortion on demand is taking the life of an innocent unborn person. Coming to grips with the facts of abortion (the situational perspective) helps us to apply the command of God (the normative perspective). Our attention is drawn to the medical information on the nature of the unborn, the law of biogenesis, and the abortion procedure. Without this crucial information we could never know whether or not we where faithfully understanding God’s word as it applies to our lives.

The Existential Perspective (i.e. the knowing subject). This perspective draws our attention back to the person doing the knowing. As individuals, we bring our personal dispositions, temperaments, biases, presuppositions, and life experiences to every act of knowing. We ignore this crucial aspect of knowledge at the risk of constructing an unnatural, wooden, approach to knowing that is in conflict with the body-soul unity taught in Scripture. One of the nagging problems to epistemology is that when we’re trying to formulate a true-to-life approach to knowledge we are examining an action (“knowing”) that we perform almost every moment of our lives. While tacitly we perform these actions, putting then into carefully formulated propositions is quite tricky.

The approach that largely characterizes modernism is an epistemology that viewed the knowing enterprise as something hampered by human subjectivity in search of a sterile ”objective” mode of knowing. Frame notes that the search for a purely objective knowledge is not only impossible, but also idolatrous. He says,

Sometimes we dream fondly of a “purely objective” knowledge of God–a knowledge of God of freed from the limitations of our senses, minds, experiences, preparation, and so forth. But nothing of this sort is possible, and God does not demand that of us. Rather, He condescends to dwell in and with us, as in a temple. He identifies himself in and through our thoughts, ideas, and experiences. And that identification is clear; it is adequate for Christian certainty. A “purely objective” knowledge is precisely what we don’t want! Such knowledge would presuppose a denial of our creaturehood and thus a denial of God and of all truth. (DKG, 65)

The Integration of the perspectives. In order to appreciate the richness of the human knowing process we must see that every instance of knowing involves three perspectives. Esther Meek, following Frame closely, calls these perspectives ”the rules, the self, and the world.” (See her extremely helpful and fun book, Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People) Emphasizing the existential perspective Meek states, ”Knowing is the responsible human struggle to rely on clues to focus on a coherent pattern and submit to its reality.” Viewed from the this perspective, knowing is the process of integration, where we focus on a pattern by and through the means of various clues, which she calls subsidiaries, in the world (i.e. the situational), our body-sense (the existential), and in our norms for thinking (the normative).

Much of the pattern-making process is hard to articulate, yet this more-than-words aspect of knowing cannot be ignored, for it is crucial in our common, everyday process of getting to know things and people. Through the integration process the clues now take on greater significance. No longer are they viewed as seemingly disconnected occurrences, but rather meaningful portions that make up a greater reality (Meek uses as a example a “magic eye” puzzle). Yet, in a very real sense the pattern or integration, once achieved, retroactively throws light on the subsidiaries that made it up. The particulars retain their meaningfulness, but one that is enhanced and transformed.

These patterns now shape us, because, ideally, they connect us with a reality independent of ourselves. We come to see the fullness of the pattern when it’s truth is lived in, habited, thus extending ourselves out into the world by means of it.

Hopefully in the near future I hope to expand on this a bit, pointing out what I think are the theological, and philosophical benefits to Frame’s approach.

Posted on September 17, 2007, in John Frame Stuff, Philosophical Apologetics, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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