HUMANS IN THE WORLD: INTRODUCTION TO RADICAL PERSPECTIVISM
RP Home Page-List of Chapters
Chicago State University
Copyright © 1992
Posted on Jan. 26, 2001
First Assumptions Defined
First Assumptions Defined(1)
First assumptions are the removable building blocks of the world's possibilities. At the simplest level, "first assumptions" are those original definitions of terms which underlie all human understanding. First assumptions are neither like Plato's immutable constructs that represent "true" reality; nor completely meaningless thoughts, but, as the word "assumptions" implies, ideas which are simply assumed.
The fact that we can imagine different "worlds of understanding" on the basis of our chosen first assumptions is proof that we can re-build the world creatively from scratch without necessarily taking into account what others (society, parents, teachers) may consider the most appropriate assumptions to build our world on. If we logically reverse our process of re-creating the world back to our first assumptions, they are apparently neither the same, nor possible to reduce any further without at the same time replacing them by another set of first assumptions. This is so because if a person decides to change one or more of her first assumptions for some reason, then her reason becomes a more "fundamental" assumption, and therefore her new "first" assumption.
If we replace our first assumptions with another set of first assumptions, but don't know it, we can't simply assume that we have replaced them, or else we must also know why. Yet if we do (=know why), we are implicitly making our new reason, our new first assumption. Thus any way one looks at it, there is no escaping the fact that, firstly, all thought is based on some set of first assumptions; secondly, all first assumptions are no more than "assumed," and therefore just as easy to imagine, change or reject; thirdly, since we can think of a variety of first assumptions, we are also capable of recreating the world in our imagination in a variety of ways on the basis of some such first assumptions; and fourthly, our understanding of the world, or how we re-interpret its meaning for us or for others, depends ultimately on our first assumptions.
Assuming First Assumptions
In perspectivist theory, there is no assumption being made that one should or shouldn't hold on to a certain set of first assumptions (first values, first beliefs, first views). The only assumption, and one which we cannot not hold without at the same time falling into a contradiction, is that whatever else humans may say (verbally through what they actually say, or non-verbally by what they do), they can't escape from the fact that they have at least some assumptions with which to say or do something.
If humans say something but have no assumptions, then they didn't speak as-human. This is so because by definition all thought is based on such assumptions. Since humans are thinking beings, they are necessarily assumptive, or else they wouldn't be "human," but more like any other unthinking world-part. It is only as we know in our hearts or minds why we are saying or doing something, that is, have at least some vague notion of our first assumptions, that we are what we are (thinking beings), and therefore possible to speak about ourselves as human.
Assumptions are changeable, or else they wouldn't be "assumed," but given. But since we know that people can change their assumptions, assumptions are not only changeable, but are "assumed" precisely because they can be changed: people can replace one assumption for another. As they change, or, more correctly, as we decide to change them, so do our belief systems. To put it metaphorically, if our belief systems are the dazzling combinations of color in the kaleidoscope of our understanding, our first assumptions are its most fundamental units of color.
First assumptions are unchanging enough to serve at least a temporary role in organizing our ideas or behavior. However intellectually transparent first assumptions may be, in the sense that one can "see" through them and decide to change them, they are not transparent to such a degree that they mean nothing, or serve no useful role in shaping our beliefs, or, for that matter, in guiding us in the application of a particular theory.
However we may have come to hold our first assumptions, whether as a result of social pressure, psychological circumstances, or logical persuasion, the fact remains that we have them, or else it wouldn't make sense that we do or say anything. Consequently, they are not only the end-point of a long process of socialization, including education or the ability to fulfill personal needs, but also the starting point for everything that we do or say in the future.
Just as there are levels of complexity in thought, so there are levels of "fundamentality" in our first assumptions. It is through a process of trying to discover some such most fundamental assumptions that philosophers through the ages have attempted to discover the most important things in life, or presumably the most fundamental.
First Assumption Categories
We have divided assumptions into six categories that range from atomic to universal. The six categories are atomic, culture bound, present and time bound, reality bound, human bound, and universal. We submit that we can't begin to understand the world unless we learn to reinterpret it as closely to the sixth category, or "universal," as is humanly possible.
Atomic First Assumptions
Of all the types of assumptions which humans may use in their interpretations of the world, atomic first assumptions may be characterized as the most limited or "individualistic." Hence the term "atomic," from the Greek word for individual (= µ ). People may come to hold atomic first assumptions uncritically without giving them much thought, or critically after deciding that they are the best ones for them at the time. In either case atomic first assumptions are used to control one's behavior or belief system, or select, reject, or analyze other people's, or the perceived beliefs or actions of other world-parts.
Depending on one's perception of himself, that is, of his sense of personal identity or "ego," he may feel that his particular first assumptions are absolutely necessary for his own existence as a separate self. As a result, he may consider every assumption that is different from his own as a threat to his existence. Such an individual may try to change his first assumptions slightly to accommodate to the first assumptions of other people, or try to change other people's minds to conform to his assumptions. In extreme situations he may try to ignore, conquer, or even destroy other people who may disagree with his first assumptions, or do the same with other animate or inanimate parts of the world (for example, certain animals) which seem to remind him of alien types of first assumptions. For example, during the Middle Ages certain animals stood for certain things which humans despised at the time, such as, the snake for the devil. As a result, humans were likely to target such animals either for extinction, isolation, or control.
As humans come to reinterpret the world on the basis of first assumptions other than their own, they may cease to see other people's first assumptions, or, for that matter, other cultures or animate or inanimate parts of the world as representing a threat to their existence. The type of first assumptions we hold has tremendous significance for the survival of not only non-human world-parts, but also of ourselves in a world that we must preserve to survive.
Culture-Bound First Assumptions
The second kind of first assumptions are "culture bound." Culture bound first assumptions are those which people within a certain culture seem to have more or less in common. Although as a category they may be more "diverse" or representative of the world than the atomic first assumptions held by any one individual, they are less representative of the first assumptions held by people in every culture. A world seen through the eyes of culture-bound first assumptions is perhaps "larger" than the limited world of atomic first assumptions held by individuals, but still very small compared to the world's numerous possibilities, including world perspectives that may be derived from assumptions held in other cultures.
Present and Time-Bound First Assumptions
As a corollary to the idea of assumptions bound by culture, there are first assumptions bound by the present. For example, such are first assumptions that are bound chronologically to what is sometimes referred to as the "modern world." By reinterpreting the world on the basis of only present bound first assumptions, humans myopically eliminate from their interpretations the first assumptions of people that are no longer (=no longer exist), but whose first assumptions could lend our perspective historical depth.
A related type of assumptive category is time-bound. By "time-bound first assumptions" we mean assumptions bound by any one pre-defined understanding of time, for example, by dividing time in human-centered units (such as, minutes, hours, days, and the like). Such units may make it possible for humans to experience the world according to "manageable" units of time, but may be too small, or too large to understand the time that other world-parts "live by." Non-human units of time may be imagined to vary , depending on which world-part we are discussing, from, say, milliseconds to million-year units. For example, to understand the first few moments for the creation of the universe, scientists have divided a single second into minute sub-second units of time. Conversely, to understand the life of the universe as a whole, it may be necessary to discuss time in terms of light years, or the distance traveled by light in a year. When we change our time bound first assumptions to account for the enormous diversity of other imaginable time-perspectives, our time interpretation embraces world-time.
Reality-Bound First Assumptions
The world is full of "unreal" possibilities, in the sense that it has realities which humans are presently incapable of perceiving as "real." To the extent that humans limit their first assumptions to what they perceive as "real," they become "reality-bound" (=fourth type of first assumptions). If we can learn how to transcend perceived reality in search of seemingly unreal first assumptions, we may begin to see realities which so far we didn't consider real, but which collectively are also the world's. For example, such "unrealities" as any number of our 20th century inventions may have seemed unlikely or "unreal" to someone living in the 15th. Humans can easier imagine such "unrealities" if they practice "worlding" their first assumptions with seemingly unreal world possibilities.
Humans may have so defined "reality" as to exclude certain seemingly unreal assumptions from the realm of possibility. Their first assumptions even about reality are reality bound. By excluding unreal first assumptions from their reinterpretations, their view of the world is artificially squeezed inside their limited view of reality at the time. Their of the world is a view of a world too real, literally, to be true.
The world is too large to fit conveniently inside human-made reality: it spills out from under such reality into the "unreality" of other realities that collectively make the world. For example, as humans discover new forces in the universe, as did, for example, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, they redesign their view of reality to such a degree that a previously thought reality becomes unreal, as did, say, astrology to the scientists of the 18th century; while previously thought unreality, as were the newly discovered "black holes" in the universe, becomes suddenly perceived as "real."
The world surrounds human reality in so many unpredictable dimensions that by comparison human reality seems "unreal." For example, no matter how seemingly scientific humans may become, their view of reality remains science-bound, and therefore "blind" to all of the "unscientific possibilities" in the world (=events that science can't explain). It is only as humans imagine, or creatively re-build a personal dictionary of definitions of things as they never have been or might be, as in fiction or myth, and subsequently reinterpret the world on that basis, that they begin to feel what it's like to imagine the world-unknown. By thinking "unreal," humans begin to understand the world's unreality.
However unreal some imaginable world-parts might seem, such as, a Pegasus (=horse with wings), or during the 19th century the computer microchip, they are not necessarily unrealizable. This is shown from our long history of many at first seemingly utopian, but eventually "successful" revolutions in our language, culture, engineering, or just about all areas of human-centered existence. Imagining unreal possibilities may allow humans not only the freedom to reinvent themselves or their world in their imagination, but also practice using their imagination to represent non-human but imaginable perspectives.
By having to consider hypothetically the implications of a variety of often conflicting assumptions, for example, regarding the meaning of the terms "teaching" and "profession" in an examination of whether teaching is a profession (2); or of the ways such "conflict" may lead to new insights about how the world could or might be (but possibly is not now), we come closer to unleashing our creativity in the solution of seemingly unsolvable problems. This generative process might be compared to the Hegelian dialectic of creating new syntheses, except it is unabashedly a lot more imaginative than Hegel's idealistic bias.
Human-Bound First Assumptions
Humans have always imagined what other animals, or even plants or parts of nature (mountains, the sun) might have said or done were they capable of speaking to us. Witness, for example, the colorful stories in eastern mythologies, Aristophanes' Frogs, or children's literature today. When doing so, we make an effort to represent us or the world as other world parts (animals, plants, nature) might have seen us, presumably on the basis of their own first assumptions about us or the world. To the extent that first assumptions are bound by human views, biases, or self-centered beliefs, they are human-bound (=fifth type of first assumptions).
Non-human-bound interpretations of the world have a point of view which as humans we rarely use in our everyday lives. For example, an elephant who is in danger of extinction because of the settlement of forests by humans may have a very different view of the world, than do the humans that are settling in the forest. A horse which is tamed in order to "work" for humans may have a different view of its work or its master, than its master have of the horse, its work, or himself. However culture or time inclusive our first assumptions may become, they remain human-bound if they exclude other animate or inanimate parts of the world, and therefore too limited to allow us to see the world as a whole. If we exclude from our interpretations those of the non-human world, we may be excluding precisely the world which we have set out to understand. We can include the world in our reinterpretations through role-play, imagination, or make-believe. It is in this sense that people who write children's or animal stories, or have visualized in myth or religion how the world might be from non-human perspectives, may have as many keys to understanding it, as scientists who analyze it "objectively."
Universal First Assumptions
Finally, there are first assumptions about the world that are unfettered by human-made definitions of time, reality, or space. We refer to them as "universal first assumptions" (=sixth type of first assumptions). Universal first assumptions include both human and non-human bound first assumptions. Universal first assumptions include those which may be held by some people in this or other cultures in the present, were held by others in the past, or are potentially "assumable" in the future. It is only as humans learn how to interpret the world on the basis of universal first assumptions that they can understand it. By understanding the world, they come back full circle to understanding themselves.
Everyone is capable of interpreting the world on the basis of a universal set of first assumptions. Witness the capacity of actors to role-play characters or world-parts or events on the basis of widely diverse human and non-human first assumptions. Our understanding of the world, or how we re-interpret its meaning for us or for others in our imagination, depends ultimately on which set of first assumptions we use as a basis for our interpretation. Consequently, the more universal our assumptions become, in the sense that they are the collectively all the possible first assumptions about the world, including those which humans can imagine other world parts may have, the closer we come to understanding the world.
As humans come to reinterpret the world from the world's perspectives, or "universal first assumptions," they come to see themselves as the world's. Humans can be the medium through which the world speaks with a human voice. Humans have always loved make-believe: no matter how other-directed their first assumptions may be, they can't help but "imagine," and therefore also imagine even of themselves as the "other."
Without some first assumptions with which to think we couldn't even begin to understand what others are saying, since we couldn't assume anything, let alone assume that we know what they mean. All languages are made up of words, each one of which is inextricably linked to an assumption regarding what it means. Consequently, without at least some such assumptions we couldn't communicate. It is in this sense that all communication is based on first assumptions.
It is not the words as such that gives them (=words) meaning, since the same word may mean different things to different people, or perhaps mean nothing at all (as is often true with words from a foreign language that we don't know). Instead, what gives words meaning are our original definitions of such words, or, more correctly, our first assumptions regarding not only what they mean, but what rules of thought we employed to arrive at such meaning, or, for that matter, what underlying first-assumptions we made regarding our choice of rules.
Understanding the World
At their most fundamental level, first assumptions are the building blocks for radically different perspectives. Such assumptions lead us to a variety of possible worlds of understanding. Each such "world" represents a different perspective, and therefore another way of comprehending the universe. We call the whole set of possible first assumptions "the world's universal first assumptions." As humans expand their interpretations to include other humans, or other world-parts, they come closer to knowing the "truth" about world-with-humans. It is in this sense that according to some eastern philosophies humans come closer to knowing the truth about the world by transcending them-selves, that is, their strictly ego-dependent first assumptions.
Although everyone has first assumptions, no one has them all, nor could anyone possibly anticipate in advance every such assumption that others may imagine in the future. Moreover, although most of us could find out more about other people's first assumptions, now or in the past, we don't automatically expand our own repertoire of first assumptions as a result of finding out about others'. Instead, we are likely to reject those with which we don't agree. For example, in public opinion research studies it has been shown by Daniel Katz in his study of political attitudes that people are likely to watch only those political programs on TV with whose views they agree with, but turn the knob or change program if they don't. As a result, we miss the opportunity to understand the world from perspectives other than our own, and therefore, simply, to understand it.
To understand the world, we must dance as partners with its interpretability. By this, the author means that we must learn how to receive the world open-mindedly, instead of close-mindedly drawing the curtain on the world each time it doesn't conform to our self-centered beliefs. To do so, we can't limit our interpretations of the world to those assumptions which we consider the most appropriate for us, but must expand our assumptive repertoire to include as diverse, or "universal," a set of assumptions, as the world itself. And since the world includes non-human world-parts, we must include them in our thinking. As we explain in the chapters on Method and Education, we include the world by trying to imagine what assumptions about it other people in our own or other cultures may hold, or the imaginable perspectives of other animate or inanimate parts of the universe.
The individual with a radically perspectivist view of the world is intellectually led to acknowledge the existence of alternative interpretations. This is so because in our interpretations we don't play in our minds the "practical consequences" only of those theories, solutions, or ideas with which we may be familiar, but actively seek to expand our search for first assumptions way beyond our own culture, epoch, or sense of tangible reality.
1. The author began writing about "first assumptions," and more broadly about radical perspectivism, as a result of trying to rewrite the introduction to a paper on the professional status of teaching. In the introduction, he attempted to explain his methodology, specifically, his analysis of the two terms, teaching and profession. In the end, instead of rewriting the introduction to that paper, he just kept writing until he had completed a much longer "book" on radical perspectivism. See "Teaching as an Autonomous Profession: Teacher Training in a New Key," published in ERIC Clearinghouse on Teacher Education, ERIC Document No. ED 337 415. Paper presented at the Illinois Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (IACTE), Springfield, Illinois, April 28, 1989.
2. For example, we can begin to compare these two terms, teaching and profession, to each other through the use of Venn diagrams, such as, two circles representing the terms "teaching" and "profession." Based on our definition of these terms, we can determine whether the two circles overlap, match completely, or are completely separate.
|Return to the Top|| Since March 6,2006
page has been visited ...
Academic Home Page