Perspectivalism Without Relativism

This post originally appeared on Public Seminar. Republished with their kind permission. 

Pieter Breugel the Elder, “Via Crucis”. (Credit: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)

Earlier this month, Susan Henking, President of Shimer College (my alma mater), wrote for Public Seminar what she called “my educated hope for Shimer and for liberal education,” a hope “rooted in a criticism of the ways we have been commodified, [forced to] meet our budgets… empowered and disempowered as institutions and individuals by government and economics.” Specifically, Susan finds hope in the way “our” kind of education (at Shimer and other liberal arts colleges, such as Bard College Berlin) cultivates a culture of “engagement with text, with others in the classroom and beyond, and [a] willingness to question everything,” which she believes can be the basis for a liberal education in the next century and beyond that is not merely yet another mechanism of neoliberalism. I hope today to respond to her vision. My goal is to investigate to what extent the three features Susan stresses—(1) engagement with text; (2) engagement with others in the classroom and beyond; and (3) a willingness to question everything—constitute something truly different from “business as usual” in the new global information economy. This “something else” is what I call perspectivalism without relativism.

“Persepectivalism without relativism” hopes to challenge from within, and clearly with great sympathy, the piety shared by many who defend liberal arts education today, which holds something like: “liberal education is to be defended because, put negatively, it is ‘the form of education that is not specific training for a career,’ or, put positively, it is instrumental ‘in producing democratic citizens who can do more than merely react to sound-bites.’” In saying this, I am roughly paraphrasing Martha Nussbaum’s already classic defense of liberal education in both Cultivating Humanity (1997) and more recently Not For Profit (2010). I read Susan as similarly dissatisfied with this defense of liberal education, which I think we agree must be at least partially insufficient if we are to provide a better, sounder, more comprehensive justification of a liberal education that is not a mechanism of neoliberal political economy.

As it happens, Susan’s three “touchstones” of a liberal education happen to map one-to-one with three presentations that three colleagues and one student at Bard College Berlin happened to present at a Symposium on “Why and how shall we read core texts today?” Susan’s “engagement with text” is substantially the subject of Geoff Lehman’s talk on the role of Bruegel’s Via Crucis as a text for seminar discussion; her “engagement with others in the classroom and beyond” is more or less what Ewa Atanassow and (fellow Public Seminar contributor) David Kretz had to say about the tension between liberal arts education and democratic citizenship, with reference to Aristophanes’s Clouds; and finally, Susan’s “willingness to question everything” was the object—perhaps the target?—of David Hayes’s presentation on “critical thinking” and liberal education. Thanks to this remarkable, almost serendipitous, coincidence, I will reply to Susan’s three points by means of my response to Geoff, Ewa and David, and David.

First, engagement with the text. Why is this an absolute sine qua non for the “how” of a liberal arts education, and in what way might this help justify the “why” of such an education? For those, like me, who do not believe in the “greatest and brightest” type of justification—which holds that we read the core texts because they are simply the best that our civilization (or perhaps all of human history) has to offer—we need something other than that defense. My answer would be to point precisely to  Geoff’s discussion of Bruegel’s work as a paradigmatic exemplar of a good seminar text, namely: “The best interpretations are those that emerge from close attention to the full experience the painting offers to a viewer.” This does not mean, however, that such an experience is limited to “the way things look to me” alone, for painting precisely dramatizes the fact that there is no one vantage point from which all the elements of the composition can be seen. As Geoff insists, Bruegel means for the experience of the picture to have an organic unity despite the incompleteness of any particular gaze upon it. This is exactly what I want to call “perspectivalism without relativism,” and it applies to the “reading” of literature, theory, practical science (like “reading” a measurement in an experiment, or “reading” a result off a table in which such measurements are recorded). Such a conviction of how—and why—we read core texts, of all kinds, neither insists that we are doing what we are doing because “our stuff” is the best ever made; nor does it yield a relativist conclusion: like Bruegel in composing a landscape based on an infinite projection of pure space, but without one clear vanishing point or focus, “our” brand of liberal arts education will insist that each of us comes to the seminar with a single experience of a world that, being centerless and infinitely divisible and infinite in extension, is necessarily shot through with inherent plurality and hence difference. It is for this reason that (for Geoff and for me) Bruegel’s painting also, but not only, provides “the best support for the interpretive and responsive activity that constitutes the shared encounter with a work of art in the context of a discussion seminar.” This simultaneously multiple and unified nature of both the epistemological and metaphysical dimensions of the text represent “in directly visual terms” an interpretive openness in seminar participants that differs radically from the “critical” attitude taken so often to be the basis of a defense of liberal arts education.

Such a hermeneutic space—where epistemological and axiological plurality is both a given but also not accepted as an endpoint—is also at the heart of Susan’s second touchstone (engagement with others in the classroom and beyond), and the presentation given by Ewa and David. For, as they show, the need for such a sensitivity to multiple points of view, coupled with an insistence upon acting on the basis of taking up just one, is at the very heart of the problem that fuels the interactions and ultimately crashes and burns Socrates’s fictional “Thinkery” in The Clouds. Here we find the impossibly named Pheidippides torn between the core values of his two parents, who are split rural/urban, plebian/patrician, archaic/modern, and where Strepsiades’s decision to enroll in Socrates’s Thinkery “epitomizes” what David and Ewa call “a characteristically democratic approach to education — as means for advancement and a solution, indeed the solution, to all social problems and ills.” But the “crisis in education” that has dogged liberal arts education ever since it began is immediately and urgently clear, for since “the Thinkery seems to represent liberal arts education at its best – a robustly interdisciplinary course of study aiming at enhancing the individual student’s faculties and self-awareness through the pursuit of learning for its own sake,” it is “diametrically opposed” to “what Strepsiades desires: a strictly vocational training; rather than soul-turning, all he wants is tongue-twisting (glottostrophein, 791) that would save his finances.”

Having set out the Aristophanic challenge, David and Ewa try to tease out some lessons learned that might yield an ultimately positive answer to the question: “Can a liberal education today be supportive of democracy, or at least compatible with it?” In this way, they place us squarely in front of the challenge to the “piety” of liberal education and democracy with which we began. Proposing to follow Aristophanes’ lead in choosing one case study, they then turn to our nearest analogue to the Thinkery: Bard College Berlin. In reflecting on ourselves in this way, we run headlong into the dilemma we saw just above concerning a pluralism that does not run aground in relativism. As David and Ewa put it: “The answer to relativism can’t be dogmatism, just as the answer to dogmatism can’t be relativism either. The democratic middle would rather be a well-balanced and healthy value pluralism.” Can there be a “healthy” pluralism that is not relativistic?  Ewa and David propose that BCB’s six-course core curriculum, balancing “strong choices” about what is worth reading with the “agonistic” juxtaposition of texts that offer radically different views, provides precisely the kind of context–a democratic and egalitarian mode of learning–in which a non-relativistic pluralism could emerge. In this way, they conclude, “the core defeats all attempts at dogmatic closure.”

And here we find ourselves once again having arrived at a plea for what I am calling “perspectivalism without relativism.” In Ewa and David’s formulation it is expressed as the fear that “without the right kind of education, a shallow sense of utility might prevail, truncating in turn all attempts at thinking through different notions and kinds of value.” Put positively, we can see their response to their own Aristophanic challenge as a call for the provision of the civic, intellectual, and financial resources necessary for an education that has the capacity to embrace multiplicity and yet provide for an organic unity, which in turn (alone?) might be able to “enlighten superficial notions of utility.” This sounds to me a lot like the “liberal education that is not a mechanism of neoliberalism” for which Susan is hoping.

But let me also point to the greatest disagreement between the BCB panelists and Susan’s three touchstones, namely in her call for a willingness to question everything. On this score, Susan seems to endorse the widespread notion that what a liberal education is good for has a lot to do with critical thinking, and the cultivation of a critical attitude that makes one a more engaged and informed citizen—this is also integral to Nussbaum’s defense, with which we started.  David Hayes describes the challenge that advocates of this attitude offer to the “core text approach” which David himself clearly favors: “To its detractors, the Great Books form of liberal education smacks of nothing other than religion—with the books or their authors in the position of gods, or at least Saints, to related to by us with piety.” What is needed, say such critics, is that students “take a critical distance” from the texts in question, and from the beliefs they hope to inculcate. To the extent that a liberal arts education helps students do this, for these commentators, it can be defended as conducive toward citizenship in contemporary pluralist liberal democracies.

But David finds such a defense unsatisfying for both internal and external reasons. Externally, this is the sort of definition of liberal education by what it is not that won’t pass muster given the cost of higher education and the pressures it is under. Internally, and more importantly, it is simply wrong pedagogically. For: “[w]hen these objects are studied in discussion with other people, some of these other people should become meaningful objects in their own right when rich friendships are formed. The result should be a virtuous circle that is transitional for the individual towards forming an overall belief about the world and her place in it.” But, when read in the service of “taking a critical distance,” what happens instead is that “liberal education and even the Great Books form of it will be useless for this purpose.”

And this is where David comes to articulate a position similar to Geoff’s despite the distance between their starting points and objects of attention. Like for Geoff, the key feature of the “core text” version of a liberal arts education is about the adoption of a point of view (a perspective) that recognizes itself as one of many vantage points but does not for that reason alientate itself from its own actual position. In David’s version: “In my view, what ought to happen in a classroom is that students try to inhabit the author’s or artist’s point of view, try out how certain thoughts feel, develop their capacities for sympathetic intelligence and attachment, and to voice opinions that might but do not yet have the status for them of beliefs.” This requires, David continues “the concerted application of the principle of charity,” but “critical thinking also teaches uncharity” because it “begins from the point of view that belief is easy, and challenging belief is hard. But I suppose that these acts of interpretive charity, which we are engaging in whenever we listen or read with any care, take real work.” Here I hear Susan’s “willingness to question everything” as the sort of mindset that David is worrying about as undermining, rather than being an integral part of, a liberal education. In a future contribution to Public seminar, I will return to the supposed conflict between the “principle of charity” and the “willingness to question everything”: are they really in necessary, essential tension?) Can one be committed to both the principle of charity and the willingness to question everything?

For the moment let me conclude that the core shared intuition of the accounts offered by David, Ewa and David, and Geoff is that they point to a possibility—in my view best provided by a “core texts approach to liberal arts education,” in the expansive sense where experiments and artworks and public events are very much part of the “core text” tradition—to embrace one’s subject position both within and with respect to something genuinely “great” (magnificent, enduring, influential) as one (among many) points of view, without yielding to the temptation of finding safe comfort in “taking critical distance” because of the mere fact of that plurality. They are making, I believe, a shared plea for “perspectivalism without relativism,” and this is what I want to offer in response to, and a means of instantiating, Susan’s “educated hope” for a liberal arts education.

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