People are born into the world which is full of knowledge. The curious thing is that one phenomenon can have several, or even numerous, interpretations, and it is up to a person to decide what worldview to choose. In order to be able to choose, people need to know the broadest picture and for this purpose they should try to learn as much as possible. Obviously people cannot be absolutely free in their choices because, being born into a particular family, country, and time period, a person is limited by his/her environment’s beliefs and customs. However, it is possible for a person to step outside of an acquired circle of knowledge and try to get to the core of things on his/her own. In his book Ways of Seeing, John Berger argues that, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe” (8). On the example of the way women used to be portrayed in art Berger reveals the mechanisms that govern people’s perception. For a long time, women had a submissive role in the society and it is reflected in the fact that women in art were usually depicted as objects exhibited in the pleasant poses for men to amuse themselves. The unequal relationship between men and women shaped the way women were and still are represented in the society and art. Without the belief in women’s submissive role they would have been both, treated and depicted differently. Thus, Berger demonstrates how much people’s environment and experience determine their worldview. Although people are born into the world full of preconceived knowledge it is a position of a mature person to constantly question conventions and develop critical thinking despite their personal characteristics, environment, and experience.
The idea that people are limited in their understanding of the world by their environment is not a new one. In 1949, in his book The Mature Mind, Harry Allen Overstreet argued that a position of a mature person is the one when people use the knowledge that they can get to its full extend, for example, when voting. Meanwhile, if someone refuses to cast his/her vote explaining it by a lack of knowledge, it is a position of immaturity because people should use their mental powers to get to the core of things and try to understand what is going on around them. Overstreet gives an example of an individual who is eager to learn something new but under the pressure of the society drops his/her attempts. It is a good illustration of Berger’s arguments regarding ways of seeing. Accepting the society’s dogmas people might grow reluctant to practice critical thinking and simply agree to existing notions. Refusing to constantly exert their mental abilities to learn more than what “insures his animal survival” robs an individual of his/her attributes of a human and a grownup person (Overstreet).
However, the strong influence of the environment should not be underrated. People often have a tendency to get used to a certain manner of things and refuse any changes. Such an atmosphere of rigidity pevents other individuals, who might like to learn something new, from getting new knowledge because dogmas of their environment do not allow them to do that. Harry Nilsson’s fairy tale The Point tells a story of a boy who was very different from other people of his village and eventually he was banned from the village for his difference. In a similar vein with Berger’s argument, the villagers were limited by their perception of the world as pointed. Being used to the idea of pointed as the one that has a pointy head the villagers did not notice that the Pointless Forrest had a point and in fact every person had a point. When the villagers accepted this idea, their pointed heads turned back into the rounded ones (“The Point”).
As a rule, rigidity and subjectivity develop at a lack of knowledge. If an individual is aware that people constantly slip into subjectivity, this thought can help him/her to stay objective, as much as it is possible. In his Preface to The Best American Essays 2007, David Foster Wallace explains how difficult it is to try and stay unbiased. Everything affects the way people perceive information. From their personalities and tastes to their habits and people they interact with, everything shapes the way people think and see the world. Especially now, when people’s personal and public spaces are saturated with information. Wallace says, “To really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help” (8). However, at least this awareness of one’s limitations can contribute to an individual’s critical thinking and influence his/her biases.
The idea that critical thinking is extremely useful in the today’s society is supported by Leon Wieseltier in “The Democratic Thinker” (qtd. in Smythe). Wieseltier says: “So the content of our opinions, and the quality of our opinions, and the quality of the formation of our opinions, basically determines the character of our society” (qtd. in Smythe). Wieseltier’s thought supports Berger’s argument that people’s opinions and beliefs affect the way they see the world and its processes. Therefore, if people’s opinions matter so much, they should spend a lot of time and efforts trying to form the better and most informative opinions possible. Furthermore, “A thoughtless citizen of a democracy is a delinquent citizen of a democracy” (qtd. in Smythe). Upon understanding it and always remembering that they know nothing, people should try and develop their ability to think critically all the time.
To better understand how people’s perception of the world is fragmented and limited there is a famous parable about the Blind Men and the Elephant. Even Greek philosophers noticed the limited abilities of humans and compared people to blind men, which shows how limited their experience is. In the parable, the blind men do not make concessions to their health conditions. They are pretty sure that each holds the best understanding of the animal they have never seen. One compares it to a spear, another to a cow, a third to a carpet, and so on. Their understanding of the elephant was biased by their experience. Each touched only a fragment of the elephant. Thus the beast’s body part they touched determined how they perceived it. The one who groped the tail thought it was a rope, while the man who touched its trunk believed he was holding a snake. The fable is a good illustration of how people’s conditions (health, environment) and experience (touching a certain elephant’s body part) influence their perception.
Even more illustrative for Berger’s idea of experience and environment forming people’s way of seeing is Hal Ashby’s 1978 movie Harold and Maude. A young guy, Harold, who was brought up in the trouble-free childhood by his socialite mother does see much sense in life and amuses himself by playing into death. In contrast, an old lady, Maude, he eventually develops a romantic interest for is hardened by her experience in the concentration camp and other troubles of post-war society so she is full of optimism and a desire to live. Thus, these two view life very differently due to their different experiences and different atmospheres they live in. Maude is also a nihilist but she rejects the meaning of life living life to its fullest. Meanwhile, Harold is seen as a lost youth when he does not know what to do with himself. Maude’s example of joie de vivre teaches him how to live his live. To this effect, the movie is a good example to Berger’s argument of how people’s way of seeing “is affected by what we know or what we believe” (8).
Thus, it can be seen that the way people think is affected by a number of factors such as personal characteristics, environment and experience. Even if environment is similar, personal characteristics can result in different life outcomes. Overstreet gives an example of a small child whose desire to study can be cut short by different reasons. For example, his/her parents do not support it due to their limited life experience or rigid religious dogmas, or friends ridicule and alienate him/her from studies. Individuals with stronger sense of self may withstand obstacles while weaker individuals comply and cannot get out of their circle. Additionally, a lot depends on education. However, people can self-educate themselves through books and conversations with other people. Especially nowadays when information is easily accessible, there are no excuses for people who want to and can learn constantly. If people want to develop their critical thinking, they need to widen their horizons as much as possible by constantly questioning their conclusions. The world is changing and people’s frameworks do, too. Only endlessly correcting one’s perception with information from various sources people can aim at objectivity. However, they need to remember that absolute objectivity is impossible as humans are very subjective beings. However, at least it should be attempted.
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