Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Parsing perspectivalism

Since John Frame's triperspectivalism is controversial, I'd like to briefly expound and analyze his position. Let's begin with a bare-bones statement of his position:

First, the normative perspective considers the norms for human intellectual activity: the standards, laws, principles, and criteria that apply to our truth-gathering and truth-utilizing. Second, the situational perspective considers the situation or circumstances in which the human knower is placed. In particular, it concerns the external objects or matters of fact toward which human thoughts are directed. Finally, as a necessary complement to these two outward-oriented perspectives, the existential perspective considers the subjective, internal, personal aspects of human knowledge.  
First, there is the classical distinction between the subject of knowledge (that which knows), the object of knowledge (that which is known), and the relation of knowledge (that by which the knower knows the known). These can be seen to correspond directly to the existential, situational, and normative perspectives. Second, triperspectivalism is reflected in the distinctions between the three basic sources and objects of human knowledge: knowledge from and about God (the Creator), knowledge from and about nature (the created external world), and knowledge from and about self (the created internal world). 
His three perspectives arise in various places in ethics— for example, in the distinction between the standard (normative), the goal (situational), and the motive (existential) for human actions, each of which must be taken into account when determining whether or not a particular action is “moral” or “good.” 

What role, then, does the Bible play in our knowledge of God and of his world? As we have seen, the Bible is the covenant constitution of the people of God, the highest authority, which we may not question. As such it is natural to consider it part of the normative perspective. But it is also part of our situation (the fact that illumines all other facts) and of our experience (the experience that illumines all others). So the Bible should not be identified with the normative perspective or vice versa. Each perspective includes everything, as we have seen. But the Bible is a particular fact that governs all perspectives and determines how we should use them. 
Our understanding of the Bible is multiperspectival. To understand the Bible, we must understand it in its historical environment (situational) and we must understand its relevance to us today (situational and existential). But once we come to a prayerful, thoughtful, settled understanding of Scripture’s teaching, that teaching must take precedence over knowledge from any other source. 
Remember: the normative, situational, and existential perspectives are mutually dependent, and so relative to one another. So some critics of perspectivalism sometimes think that this approach makes the Bible relative to other forms of knowledge. But that is an error. The Bible is not the normative perspective (or the situational or the existential). It is a particular object within all three perspectives given to us by God to serve as the ultimate standard of human thought and life. 

A good starting point is to ask what motivated Frame to develop triperspectivalism. Frame noticed that in the history of ethics and epistemology, different schools of thought amount to half-truths. Each major alternative captures an element of truth. And that's why these are perennially debate. They never go away because there's enough truth to each major alternative to make it defensible and indispensable. 

But because each school of thought is one-sided, it loses important truths as well as capturing important truths. Triperspectivalism is, in part, an attempt to combine what's best in each major alternative. 


Virtue ethics

This value theory stress the cultivation of a moral character. What motivates ethical action. Acquiring virtuous attitudes and emotions while avoiding, resisting, or rooting out bad character traits. 

Teleological ethics

This value-theory is goal-oriented. Right or wrong is determined by the probable beneficial consequences overall. The cost/benefit analysis is the sole consideration. Securing the common good is the objective, and that ends justifies the requisite means. The double-effect principle also fits into this framework. 

Deontological ethics

This value theory stresses objective duties. Ethical action is measured by doing your duty. Following the rules. 

This includes moral absolutes. Some actions are intrinsically obligatory without regard to their deleterious consequences, or impermissible without regard to their beneficial consequences. 

However, this can allow for a distinction between actual and prima facie duties. Not all obligations are equally obligatory. In case of conflict, higher duties suspend or supersede lower duties. For instance, there's a general duty to keep your promise, but that may sometimes conflict with a higher duty.

Deontology is not indifferent to consequences. But they aren't the sole consideration. They don't override inherent duties. The ends, however, beneficial, can never justify certain means. 

i) From a Biblical standpoint, all three positions have some merit. Biblical ethics includes obedience to divine commands and prohibitions. Some actions are intrinsically right or wrong. That roughly corresponds to deontological ethics. And the normative perspective.

ii) But there's more to Biblical ethics than externals. Scripture is concerned with what motivates behavior. Outward conformity is morally insufficient. External compliance needs to be complemented by circumcision of the heart. Sanctification. A desire to honor God.  That roughly corresponds to virtue ethics. And the existential perspective.

iii) Finally, Biblical ethics is goal-oriented. Even in this life, prudent men and women prepare for the future. Have contingency plans for a rainy day. By contrast, the fool is shortsighted. Lives for the moment. Is heedless of long-term consequences. 

Likewise, the Mosaic law punishes those who fail to take elementary safety precautions. Who expose others to unnecessary risk. Leaving a well uncovered. Not fencing your roof. Having a roving ox with a vicious reputation.

Most of all, believers are heavenly-minded. They set their sights on eternal life. By the same token, we are motivated to avoid hellbound behavior. All that roughly corresponds to teleological ethics. And the situational perspective.


Theories of knowledge include:

Criteria. The rules of argument. Facts (true premises) and logic (valid inferences). Factual correspondence and logical coherence. That matches the normative perspective, although facts include the situational perspective. 

Empiricism claims knowledge is a posteriori and dependent upon sensory experience. Observation, testimony. Sense-knowledge. Knowledge by description. That corresponds to the situational perspective. 
Rationalism claims that some or all of our concepts are gained (or innate) independent of sensory experience. Intuition. Introspection. Logical inference. That corresponds to the existential perspective. 
In addition, there's a debate over the nature of epistemic justification or warrant. What counts as knowledge? What converts belief into knowledge? There are two competing positions:

Process reliabilism is the most common type of reliabilism. The simplest form of process reliabilism regarding knowledge of some proposition p implies that agent S knows that p if and only if S believes that p,  p is true, and S’s belief that p is formed by a reliable process. A truth-conducive or reliable process is sometimes described as a belief-forming process that produces either mostly true beliefs or a high ratio of true to false beliefs. Process reliabilism regarding justification, rather than knowledge, says that S’s belief that p is justified if and only if S’s belief that p is formed by a reliable process.   
That corresponds to the situational perspective. And objective process. Something that happens to us.
The alternative makes knowledge by acquaintance the key:

This first form of internalism holds that a person either does or can have a form of access to the basis for knowledge or justified belief. The key idea is that the person either is or can be aware of this basis. Externalists, by contrast, deny that one always can have this sort of access to the basis for one's knowledge and justified belief. A second form of internalism, connected just to justified belief but probably extendable to knowledge as well, concerns not access but rather what the basis for a justified belief really is. Mentalism is the thesis that what ultimately justifies any belief is some mental state of the epistemic agent holding that belief. Externalism on this dimension, then, would be the view that something other than mental states operate as justifiers. A third form of internalism concerns the very concept of justification, rather than access to or the nature of justifiers. This third form of internalism is the deontological concept of justification, whose main idea is that the concept of epistemic justification is to be analyzed in terms of fulfilling one's intellectual duties or responsibilities. 
i) One version corresponds to the existential perspective. Subjective discernment. 
ii) Another version corresponds to the normative perspective. Discharging your epistemic duties. 
i) The interpreter should be a truth-seeker. Be motivated to ascertain what the author meant. Make a good-faith effort to understand the message. So there's an ethical dimension to hermeneutics. That has an existential aspect as well as a morally normative aspect. 
ii) There are rules of interpretation. For instance, many interpreters view authorial intent as a guide to correct interpretation. That reflects the normative perspective.
iii) Finally, a text, unless it's fictitious, is referential. About the real world. That's the author's intent. To make claims about what the world is like. 
This can include the audience. The message may be occasioned by the situation of the audience. And the author writes with the intention of being understood. So what the audience is capable of understanding, will figure in the meaning of the text. That reflects the situational perspective. 
i) Some apologists stress truths of reason, viz. Anselm, Augustine. That has a normative aspect as well as an existential aspect–with its appeal to intuition or introspection. 
ii) Some apologists stress truths of fact, viz. Eusebius, John Warwick Montgomery. That has a situational emphasis.
iii) Some apologists stress personal or subjective experience, viz. Calvin, Os Guinness. That's existential. 
Theistic proofs:
i) Some theistic proofs are based on truths of reason, viz. ontological argument, Leibnizian cosmological argument, kalam cosmological argument. A priori theistic proofs have normative as well as existential dimensions, with their intuitive appeal to abstract metaphysics. 
ii) Some are based on truths of fact, viz. the teleological argument. That's situational. 
iii) Some are based on subjective or personal experience: the argument from consciousness, the argument from religious experience. That's existential. 
iv) A posteriori theistic proofs can be situational, existential, or both. Some theistic proofs may combine elements. The moral argument relies on abstract norms as well as concrete human nature. 


  1. While the Offices of Christ are not obviously perspicuous in the scriptures, it has been a persistent doctrine among conservative theologians. That said, this seems to be a great example of how theology positively influences philosophy.

  2. As I read through Frame's Doctrine of the Christian Life, I have to come back and remember the echoes of this post. Thank you Steve.