When you are looking with your friend at the same photograph where both of you are captured, your friend is sure to find some drawbacks of lightning that wrongly reflect on his/her face or his/her somehow not ideal smile while you will try your best to see any shortcomings of the photo and still come up with nothing. Contrary, you think your friend looks amazing in the photo. This principle may apply to any situation and any person. What exactly does it show? Is it the matter with your friend or with you that you can’t see anything that your friend sees?
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The point is we “see” and “understand” the world differently, that is we see the same things and perceive them according to our inner world, our knowledge background, and cultural or traditional experience. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” as they say. In other words, the world we see is subjective. In this respect, the question arises: Can the human mind produce objective knowledge of the outer world, objective reality?
According to relativists, a human mind acquires knowledge of the outer world “accepting sensory information coming from objects” and adjusts it with the previous experience and existing knowledge (Sadr and Inati 117). Thus, there is always a doubt about the variety of knowledge that is at our disposal (Sadr and Inati 117) as it is perceived and mirrored by a human mind that is shaped by our beliefs, social factors, education, religion, culture, morality, ethics and so on. And this means that the knowledge is relative: “The eyes see only what the mind is prepared to comprehend” (Joad 42).
Cultural and religious background affect significantly the way a person “understands” the world, shapes his/her preferences, choices, and opinions. Roughly speaking, all people live in different worlds. Let us dwell upon this suggestion on some definite example. It is well-known that any society has its own beliefs, customs, and traditions.
Thus, for a person who preaches Hinduism where cows are regarded as sacred animals then he/she is unlikely to eat beef in any case and worship this animal as sacred. To a Westerner, an image of a cow evokes no religious connotations and he/she simply perceives it as an animal. Another example connected with the religious environment that influences people’s perception of the same world may be the differences in the viewpoint of Christian and Aboriginal adherents.
Thus, for Christians rain means the water that is falling from the clouds, while for Aboriginal people it is not merely water from the sky, it is a sign of God’s blessing for their people, which is a major difference in world perception between followers of these religions.
However, taking into consideration the world of science that deals with exact numbers, statements of universal truth, reliable data, it is necessary to point out that all the results the scientists draw are fostered by the scientific mind’s need to look for the explanation of the world, the need to explore and find answers. To solve some problem or to support or disapprove of any theory, scientists resort to experiments and some specific methods. Moreover, they aim to provide objective findings based on tested data irrespective of any cultural, background, opinion, biased, experience, religion, and so on factors (Rorty 58).
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This is unacceptable for the world of science to dwell on the subjective knowledge of one individual as it is very precarious and “cannot have the highest authority or the quality of being scientific” as based on sense perception and experience and affected by many non-scientific factors (Rorty 126).
Respectively, the acquisition of objective knowledge presupposes that a scientist “is detached from the object of knowledge” (Bayley 87). On the other hand, it is difficult for a human to completely detach from the world he/she is a part of and this leads us to the inevitable conclusion that even scientific statements are partially viewed from the point of view of some individual and can’t be regarded as a universal truth.
There exist miscellaneous examples of various scientific approaches to the same phenomenon, historical events, statements, and so on. Thus, some revolution of the beginning of the 20th century that overthrew the government may be described as an asset to the development of modern society from the perspective of a modern historian or a major disappointment for a historian who is a tsarist government supporter. In other words, the perception of the event is influenced by the views and beliefs of a person and his/her inner world even though they see the same situation.
As far as the exact sciences are concerned, such as physics or mathematics, the results of these sciences-related problems are based on logical and empirical evidence and “therefore free of the interpretational ambiguities that make empirical scientific knowledge essentially uncertain” (Rorty 47). The scientists conceive a problem and then tackle it applying various methods, techniques, principles to derive some results. And only when they get the final result they may claim that the initial problem is true and the results are objective as they underwent several empirical operations.
Does it mean that the objective point of view is impossible? Some philosophers disagree with this statement. For example, Plato claims that the perception of the things that we get cannot be called knowledge. In his opinion,” the form of beauty is beautiful under all conditions, to all observers, at all times. The form of beauty is pure beauty; it alone is both beautiful and not beautiful” (Cornford 32). The knowledge, consequently, exists on its own and what a person treats as knowledge, in Plato’s mind, is only a belief.
Thus, a picture of a woman of the 18th century may appear beautiful to an 18th-century spectator and ugly to a 21st-century viewer depending on beauty concepts, fashion beliefs that define the society’s perception of beauty. But following Plato’s views on this, the painting is beautiful regardless of any factors, it contains beauty and this beauty is understood differently by people’s minds. So why don’t we see the beauty of this painting? The answer is simple. Since we “understand” the world processing it with our mind and reflecting it, our comprehension of the world is adjusting to the principles, moral and esthetical values that we acknowledge. Thus, we may conclude that the world itself shapes our minds.
The first example that comes to my mind is the different approaches to the world of the different philosophers and philosophic schools. In this paper, I handled the viewpoints of relativists and positivists. The objects of their study were knowledge, the way it is perceived by the human mind, the relations between objective and subjective. And despite they dealt with the same world and “saw” the same processes they understood them differently relying on their personal views, theories of a certain philosophic school, background knowledge that they acquired previously. And influenced by all these factors they arrived at absolutely different results that they considered being true. However, their opponents disapproved and criticized them.
This example only proves the subjectivity of knowledge and that the world itself and the beliefs that are contained in it shape the mind of every person that, in its turn, form the world that a person sees. Depending on the social environment, education, religion and other factors people construct their world in their minds different from the world of another person. However, the world itself remains unchanged.
Bayley, James E. Aspects of Relativism: Moral, Cognitive, and Literary. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1992.
Cornford, Francis Macdonald. Plato’s Theory of Knowledge: The Theaetetus and the Sophist of Plato. London: Routledge, 2000.
Joad, C. E. M. Guide to Philosophy. New York, NY: Courier Dover Publications, 1957.
Rorty, Richard. Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. Cambridge, UK : Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Ṣadr, Muḥammad Bāqir, and Inati, Shams Constantine. Our Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1987.