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Objectivity, Subjectivity, Worldview, and Art

June 25, 2010

Imagine a large, circular room with several tiers of chairs along its inner walls.  In the centre of the room is a large globe on a pedestal.  In each chair sits a person looking at the globe and attempting to understand what he sees as accurately as possible.  But there is a problem: every person in the room is nearsighted, so each one’s view of the globe is distorted.

Each person has some tools and materials at hand, however, so most attempts to fashion some kind of glasses to help them see better, although a few have given up and merely make use of random fragments cast away by others on those occasions when they wish clearer vision.  Surveying the room, one sees some people wearing glasses tinted red, others wearing glasses with one lens covered, and still others wearing scratched glasses that magnify everything and distort its shape.  One  also observes that many of those in the room are engaged in conversations or arguments about the true appearance and overall nature of the globe in the room’s centre.  But some people, tiring of argument, draw pictures in an attempt to convey their idea of what the globe looked like.  Of course, no matter whether it is by argument or drawing, those wearing radically different types of glasses are rarely able to convince each other of anything, but every so often someone is persuaded to modify his glasses or seek new ones.

As you might suspect by this point, this description is an imaginative model for worldviews.  The term “worldview” has been used both poorly and badly by numerous scholarly and not-so-scholarly sources.  I am not concerned with its philosophical history; I use it because I find it a useful descriptive term for understanding some basic aspects of how people understand the world and each other.  As I use it, worldview means simply the individual perspective from which a person engages with reality, and his basic beliefs about its nature.

To begin with, a worldview is always subjective.  Just as each person in the room sees the globe–and only part of it–from a particular perspective, so people understand the world from a particular perspective.  Only God can have an objective viewpoint, because only God can see from all points of view simultaneously.  Further, mankind’s rebellion against God affected his whole person, including the understanding.  Any conception of worldview that does not take the Fall into account is inadequate.  Since only God can heal someone from the consequences of the Fall, all the glasses that people manufacture will be imperfect, and will introduce their own distortions even if they correct some aspects of vision.  Even someone who has received proper corrective lenses (that is, redeemed understanding) is limited in his ability to make lenses that will correct someone else’s vision, because his subjective viewpoint can never be identical with the other person’s, and his ability to diagnose particular vision problems will never match God’s ability.  It is for this reason that a Christian worldview, with its removal of false tints and distortions, can only be developed fully by the aid of the Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, conversation and debate among both Christians and non-Christians can be worthwhile, not only for attempting to correct someone who is unconvinced of Christianity’s truth, but for learning from the differently subjective viewpoints of others.  Such learning requires careful sorting, since it often comes through a distorted lens, but its descriptions of a side of the world that cannot be seen from one’s own viewpoint are valuable.

But describing what one piece of the globe looks like will never reveal it fully, because not all the information in it can be reduced to propositions.  It is here that art comes into play.  This is the picture-drawing of the imaginary room described at the start.  Due to their ability to convey knowledge and ideas through sight, sound, story, or related means, one function of works of art is to give non-propositional knowledge of the particular part of the world the artist sees most clearly.  If the artist’s Marxism gives his art a red tint, or his imperfectly-formed Christianity leaves things a bit blurry, the essential value of his contribution remains beneath the distortion and can bring new insights to even the wisest and most intellectually developed Christian.

While it is important to use the resources of Christian philosophy and theology to reveal the basic assumptions–worldviews–behind particular works of art, it is also important that Christians be open to additions to their understanding of the world from these same works, because human beings by their nature cannot receive the fullness of God’s objective understanding of reality; they can, however, approach it through correlating the differing insights God has graciously revealed to various people.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2010 1:07 pm

    Thanks for clearly explaining the concept of worldview Ben and how we might “view” an author or artist as falling strictly within or blurring the lines of any one particular ideological approach. I have two questions:

    1. can we see perfectly clearly here and now ever? How do we assess if we have 20-20 vision?
    2. how do you think your model differs from the elephant and all of us being blind?

    • Ben permalink
      June 26, 2010 10:52 am

      I don’t think we’ll see perfectly clearly on this earth, as that would require “entire sanctification,” to use the Wesleyan term, and I don’t hold to that doctrine. Even if it were possible, there are inherent limits to what one can perceive alone because of everyone’s subjectivity. Assessing our vision requires comparison to God’s standard, as understood through the Bible, prayer, guidance from other Christians, etc.
      I see a couple of significant differences between my model and the blind men and the elephant model. First, my model takes account of the fact that people try to make sense of a world that is not initially clear to them by constructing “glasses” based on various ideas, rather than simply being blind and leaving it at that. The elephant model does a good job of emphasizing that none of us has knowledge of the whole, which I accomplish in my model by seating everyone in a different chair viewing a different part of the globe, but it does not account for the varying degrees of accurate knowledge of his one particular part a person may have.
      Second, I have never seen the arts incorporated into the elephant model. After having parts of this model floating around in my head for awhile, it was understanding that the arts can have a role in receiving insights from others that simply hearing their statements cannot accomplish that completed this idea in my own mind.

  2. Travis permalink
    June 28, 2010 11:34 pm

    Both the elephant and the globe models assume everyone is handling or viewing reality or the really real, but I wonder if that’s wishful thinking. In other words, the models allow for error in drawing wrong or inaccurate conclusions from subjective views of the one reality (i.e., the elephant being handled or the globe in the center of the room)–errors of interpretation only. But what about errors more fundamental than these, ones resulting from ignorance or deception (say, which in a spiritual context that allows for evil and lying angelic beings, for example, bears reckoning) as to the nature of reality itself, where one (because she is blind) has stumbled away from reach of the elephant to the side of its pen, and actually handling a garden hose thinks she is in touch with the elephant’s tail, and makes inferences on the nature of the whole elephant from the texture and shape of the hose! Or, in the example above, while an enlightened (born again?) few see what is actually present in the center of the room, the globe (albeit imperfectly and subjectively–1 Cor. 13:9-12), others whose vision is ‘veiled’ cannot see it at all, and an altogether different and separate object is offered by them (or given by another intelligence and received by them) for interpretation, and from which they mistakenly draw inferences about the globe which they are currently prevented ‘blinded’ from seeing. In the case of the ‘perishing’ whose sight is ‘veiled’, Paul reasoned, ‘the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God’ (2 Cor. 4:4).

    • Ben permalink
      June 29, 2010 10:34 am

      I think you make a good point. I did mention the possibility of someone blocking out a lens while constructing a worldview, but I did not consider substituting a wholly false image–perhaps the analogy could be extended by bringing in the idea of virtual reality glasses.
      I do think, however, that most people are seeing the real world, just seeing it badly. Otherwise, I have no way to explain the numerous instances of true insight coming from those who have not had their “vision” corrected.

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