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The View From Somewhere Else
Andy Owen travels to see various perspectives from various perspectives.
This last year of lockdowns has led me to reflect on what travel has taught me. My first journey to another continent was a trip to South Africa as a seventeen-year-old, in 1994, the year Nelson Mandela became the first black president of the country. The trip had a deep impact on me. The inequality, the injustice, the dignified response, the vibrancy, the possibility and the determination to be better, became real to me in a way that only direct immersion in the sights, sounds and smells of a place can allow.
Exposure to how others live can challenge how we feel about how we live, and how we should live. Paying attention to the novel and the exotic when we travel – looking at them like an artist must do before she attempts to draw a subject – can help us pay the same sort of attention to the everyday when we return home, and help us better appreciate what we take for granted in our lives. I undertook just this type of critical observation on the way to the airport in Kampala, Uganda, as I witnessed the mass movement of people returning home in the purple hue of dusk as the fast-setting African sun ducked out of view. Within the masses a bare-footed old man carrying a tree’s worth of firewood on his back caught my eye. I assumed he would not be reflecting on the meaning of life as he struggled under the weight of his load and that he would be focused on just living. This exposed one of my biases to me, about how I think about others and make assumptions. I was looking subjectively.
In his book The View From Nowhere (1986), the American philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that one view is more objective than another if it relies less than the other on the specifics of the viewer’s makeup and position in the world or on the character of the particular type of creature they are.
Because we carry with us our biases and beliefs, even travel cannot give us a view from nowhere – to see purely objectively. But it can at least provide a view from somewhere else, which challenges our existing subjective viewpoint. Even sitting in a bland, air-conditioned room in an international chain hotel, whose only concession to its location is a selection of local cuisine on the room service menu, you still notice subtle differences – the plug sockets, the different TV channels, and the multiple translations on the hotel directory. These differences offer a glimpse of possible alternatives. We can ignore these if we want, with adapters or our choice of what TV channel we flick to, or we can embrace them and watch a twenty-four-hour news channel that will report on events back home as foreign affairs. We can look up from our phones as we move from hotel to beach, office or airport, and l ook out of the window.
Indeed, Nagel himself believes that:
“We can add to our knowledge of the world by accumulating information at a given level – by extensive observation from one standpoint. But we can raise our understanding to a new level only if we examine that relation between the world and ourselves which is responsible for our prior understanding, and form a new conception that includes a more detached understanding of ourselves, of the world, and of the interaction between them. Thus objectivity allows us to transcend our particular viewpoint and develop an expanded consciousness that takes in the world more fully.”
(The View from Nowhere)
Image © Amy Baker 2021. Please visit instagram.com/amy_louisebaker
The same increase in objectivity we gain from the view from somewhere else, can give us the opportunity for developing the view from no-one, which is a further step towards objectivity.
In an earlier book, The Possibility of Altruism (1970), Nagel outlined the moral usefulness of the idea of something being good or bad from ‘no-one’s point of view’, by which he means from a point of view not specific to any individual. Nagel is disposed to think for example that “if someone has a reason to get rid of a pain in his foot, this is because it is, simply, a bad thing that there should be such a pain; and if this is so, then everyone else may equally have some reason to end that bad state of affairs. This pattern applies generally, so that all individual action, if rational and morally correct, is directed to embodying what is good or bad from everyone’s – or rather, no one’s – point of view.” So Nagel sees such objectivity as the driving force of ethics as much as it is of science: “it enables us to develop new motives when we occupy a standpoint detached from that of our purely personal desires and interests, just as in the realm of thought it enables us to develop new beliefs.”
This also works if we take the view of everybody: the view of the whole world.
Diogenes the Cynic, a fifth century BC Greek philosopher, is often cited as becoming the first cosmopolitan, since he declared himself the first kosmopolitês or ‘world citizen’. These days, cosmopolitanism is the idea that people have human rights and responsibilities regardless of where they come from. One’s identity transcends national boundaries. This chain of thought took on a new reality on 10 December 1948, when the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 217A (III), also known as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In response to contemporary criticism which equates cosmopolitanism with rootless elitism, modern cosmopolitan philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah defines cosmopolitanism as ‘universality plus difference’. He claims that different cultures should be respected “not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people.” But, for Appiah there are also limits to the respect we should give to cultural differences: we should respect them only in so far as they are not harmful and do not conflict with a universal concern for human life. In his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), Appiah introduces two ideas that are central to his cosmopolitanism. The first is that we have obligations to others that are bigger than just sharing citizenship. The second is that we should never take for granted the value of life, and so we ought to become informed of the practices and beliefs of others. Travel helps us do this.
The View From Winding Paths
Withdrawing to a view from somewhere else, to no-one’s viewpoint, or to everyone’s viewpoint, is not without its problems. Even as we travel, we must eventually return home: we must return from these hypothetical viewpoints to the real world. where we have loyalties to our friends and family, countries, and beliefs. Nagel concedes that his hypothetical viewpoints “creates the new problem of reintegration, the problem of how to incorporate these results into the life and self-knowledge of an ordinary human being.”
The Stoics later developed Diogenes’ ideas. One Stoic philosopher, Hierocles, described a useful model, involving a series of concentric circles. In the innermost circle is the individual; the next ring out contains that individual’s immediate family; the next, the extended family; then the local community; the community of neighbouring towns; followed by your country; and finally, humanity. According to Hierocles, our task is to draw the circles in towards the centre, transferring people towards the inner circles, making all human beings part of our concern. Later philosophers have added further circles, containing animals and the living planet. These circles will always exist and are important to our everyday lives at different levels; but we can aspire to bring the circles closer together. Travel allows us to notice the differences our unique environments create in us, but also allows us to notice the greater number of commonalities we have no matter what corner of our planet we come from.
Some of our oldest stories are tales of quests, from The Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells of Gilgamesh’s journey to discover the secret of eternal life, to The Odyssey, about Odysseus’s quest for home, to King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. The physical journey often acts as a metaphor for our striving towards deep desires, such as purpose and immortality. And whether we complete them or not, our journeys leave behind traces. We leave desire lines in the grass – the eroded shortcuts that emerge where paths take a circuitous route or are non-existent; or worn benches in railways stations; or memorials to those who fell along the way, from Viking runestones to Crusader crosses or flowers tied to the barriers on the side of the road. Today, more important than the marks we leave on the Earth’s surface, is the carbon we leave in the air. Odysseus did not worry about his carbon footprint as he tried to get home to his family.
Pre-pandemic, during and post-pandemic, as we still travel to reconnect with those we love, as well as make new connections, flight maps become maps of human ties. These social and commercial global links may hopefully prevent us from coming into another global conflict, or at least help us de-escalate when we do. The larger problems we face, such as climate crisis and global pandemics, are also beyond any single nation to solve. We will need a coordinated global response to our global issues. Our history of travel may have laid the foundations for future solutions to our global problems. At the very least, in these divided times, the view from somewhere else can remind us that we have more in common than we have in difference.
© Andy Owen 2021
Andy Owen is the author of the novel East of Coker (2016) and the biography All Soldiers Run Away: Alano’s War, the Story of a British Deserter (2017).