‘Points of View’


Terms such as ‘point of view’, ‘standpoint’ and ‘perspective’ occur regularly in discussions in the philosophy of mind and in metaphysics more generally. The most famous and systematic deployment of such terms is by Thomas Nagel, particularly in The View from Nowhere. Nagel presents this book as addressing a single problem: “how to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world, the person and his [sic] viewpoint included” (1986, p. 3). Nagel discusses the relation of these different perspectives across a variety of philosophical topics, including free will, value theory, ethics and the meaning of life.

My concern in this paper is not with the precise problems Nagel raises, but with a related issue which he does not, as far as I can see, address directly. This is the issue of what a point of view is, or of what it is to have a point a view.

My thesis as a whole can also be seen as addressing these questions, but the aims of my thesis and of this paper must be distinguished. Ultimately, I would like to be able to outline the essential features of any point of view whatsoever; to address, using this conception of points of view, the problem of the perspectivalness of all experience raised by Wittgenstein;[1] and to address Nagel’s problem of how to reconcile the different perspectives. To carry out these aims would be a contribution to what Nagel refers to as “an objective concept of the mind” (p. 17), a conception of the subject and subjectivity which is not itself tied to any particular form of subjectivity, and so can in principle be understood by any subject.

In this paper, my aim is more modest. I would like to deliver an account of the basic features of an adult human’s point of view (for brevity, I will refer to this as a person’s point of view). Each of us has a grasp of the world as a whole, and each of us is aware of ourselves as located in the world. I want to put forward several conditions for the possibility of this kind of point of view, respectively intentionality, orientation, location, and reflexivity. I will draw primarily on the work of Husserl, and the structure that I will argue is common to all personal points of view is very closely related to the natural attitude that he describes..




In its most literal sense, a point of view is a spatial location from which a person or perceptual device (such as a CCTV camera) can be visually something or other (Biro, 1991, p. 119). The more interesting uses of the term are metaphorical, but common to most of these extended uses are certain basic elements present in the literal use. A point of view must be of or directed at something, some matter or other; it must present the subject matter in one way or another; it must be occupied or capable of being occupied by a cognitive or perceptual or information-processing system;[2] and it must be only one of a number of points of view available (that is, there must be different ‘locations’ available from which the subject-matter in question can be surveyed). My task is to make sense of these features with regard to a particular kind of point of view, namely that possessed by persons.

            Nagel uses a variety of terms when discussing points of view: “perspective”, “view”, “standpoint” (1986, p. 3); “conception” and “appearance” (p. 4); “form of thought” and “form of understanding” (p. 5).[3] Each of these terms, in one way or another, refers to an intentional state or relation.[4] Intentional states are those which are about or of something or other. Intentionality is the property these states share, in virtue of which they are about or of anything. Anything which can be said to be ‘meaningful’, to bear meaning or to make sense of anything, is intentional. The range of intentional states we can enter into include thinking, perceiving, imagining, hallucinating, emotional states and practical ways of coping with situations.[5]

            We can distinguish the actual intentional state itself (say, the actual state of anger one experiences), the object of the state (whatever it is one is feeling angry about), and the intentional content that the state bears. In Husserlian terminology, the last is the noematic content of the state, an ideal structure which directs the state towards the object it is about. The noematic content presents the object as something or other, as falling under a particular mode of presentation, as exemplifying particular properties or standing in certain relations.

            To present the object as something or other entails that, in principle, other ways of presenting the same object are available.[6] This feature of an intentional state is what Husserl refers to as its horizons. Any intentional content will implicitly refer to further possible aspects of the object that can be the object of further possible intentional states. The best example of this is in perception. When one sees, say, a house, one will see it from one side or another, and so only directly perceive that side; but one will aware, in so perceiving, that the house has other sides which one can perceive if one changes one’s location. This awareness is not the result of an intellectual act, of hypothesising that the other sides exist; it is part of what it is to grasp a house as a physical object. As Husserl puts it,


the individual thing in perception has meaning only through an open horizon of ‘possible perceptions’, insofar as what is actually perceived ‘points’ to a systematic multiplicity of all possible perceptual exhibitings belonging to it harmoniously (1973, p. 162).


That is, we perceive objects from one perspective at a time, but we perceive them precisely as having other aspects which we cannot, at that very moment, perceive directly. These aspects are meant – they are aspects of the object grasped in perception – but they are not themselves perceived.




Perspective is primarily a feature of visual perception – one sees something from one angle or another, and correspondingly only a certain aspect of the object is immediately grasped from that angle. But we can intelligibly extend the notion to cover other modes of perception, and even to non-perceptual forms of awareness. What is necessary for this extension is that perspective can be characterised in general terms which do not rely on the specifics of perception, and the preceding account of intentional awareness allows us to do exactly this. Each intentional state presents a particular object, but only a certain aspect of it can ever be immediately presented at any one time; the state always intends beyond this immediately presented aspect, suggesting other features of the object. These other features can in turn be immediately presented, depending on where one turns one’s attention. To have a perspective on an object, in this broad sense, is simply to grasp it in one way rather than another, where another way of grasping the same object is in principle possible.

It is sometimes denied that the notion of perspective can be predicated of thoughts about abstract objects[7]. But even in the case of abstract objects such as geometrical shapes, one can grasp them in one way or another. For example, it is possible to think of a triangle as a closed figure composed of three straight lines, rather than thinking of it as a closed figure whose interior angles add up to 180 degrees. More generally, we can speak of someone’s perspective on a political or moral issue, where this does not directly involve perception.

            This broad notion of perspective in itself tells us little about having a point of view. A rough construal of a point of view is the place from which one has a perspective on something. We have extended the notion of perspective beyond perception, but this extended use is too insubstantial to allow us to simply extend the notion of ‘place’ or ‘location’ in the same manner. We need to find further tools in order to explicate the broad sense of point of view. However, the notions of ‘perspective’ and ‘point of view’ are closely linked. What the extension of the notion of a perspective potentially allows us to do is to think of having a point of view in intentional rather than purely perceptual terms.


Attitudes and orientation


            Any intentional state is such only against a background of further possible states, each of which in turn has its own background of further possible states, and so on. The horizons of each act are framed by higher-level structures of understanding, called attitudes. An attitude is an intentional structure which can be understood as a mode of comportment of the subject (Husserl, 1960, p. 47). To adopt a particular attitude is to open a horizon of possible intentional states (Husserl, 1982, p. 5), which correlates with the horizon of a particular field of objects. One adopts an attitude towards a particular field of objects; in adopting this attitude, one opens the possibility of exploring these objects.[8]

            One example Husserl gives is the arithmetical attitude. In adopting this attitude, one opens up the world of numbers and other mathematical objects, “precisely as the Object-field of arithmetical busiedness” (1982, p. 54). It is only by adopting the arithmetical attitude that the arithmetical world can be said to be there for one, that is, available to be explored by intentional acts directed towards specific arithmetical objects (op. cit.).         

We can distinguish between the attitude and any particular intentional act that one can perform while in this attitude. The attitude itself is not an act, whether of perception, of judgement, or anything else. It is a frame of mind, a way of being aware which allows for the performance of a particular set of intentional acts, and is thus prior to any of the set of acts it allows for.

But this distinction does not mean that we can be in an attitude without acting, that is, without being aware of a specific object. In fact, I think attitudes and the acts within them are structurally linked in the following way: any intentional act requires that the subject be in the appropriate attitude, but for the subject to be in a particular attitude entails that the subject must be aware of a particular object in the object-field the attitude opens up. That is, the object-field serves as a background against which one of its members is foregounded.

This foreground-background structure is, I submit, essential to any intentional awareness. One cannot act without being in a particular attitude, but equally one cannot be in an attitude without being aware of something in particular. An attitude is not a state one can occupy in a purely passive manner: as a mode of comportment, it is always focused on or addressing something in particular.

I shall term this structure a point of orientation. That is, in any attitude, a particular object-field is opened up to the subject from a particular point. Say one is in the arithmetic attitude: one will be thinking of a particular equation, say, and the entire arithmetic world will lie open beyond that particular equation, available for your inspection. Your grasp of that particular equation is your point of orientation, at that moment, relative to the entire object-field. It is from this point that the field lies open to you.




In a loose sense a point of orientation is a point of view; and in this loose sense, any thematic intentional awareness (that is, any intentional awareness which grasps a particular object) must be from a point of view. But the term ‘point of view’ as employed in recent philosophy has more to it than that.

A person has a point of view from within the world. I will refer to this aspect of having a point of view as its ‘locatedness’ or ‘location’. Nagel refers to a point of view which is located in this way as the internal or subjective standpoint, and contrasts it with the external or objective standpoint (1986, p. 4). As mentioned earlier, Nagel’s focus is on how these different standpoints can be reconciled. That is, his focus is epistemic: the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity is primarily an epistemic one (op. cit.), a matter of to what extent beliefs and other forms of understanding rely on “the specifics of the individual’s makeup and position in the world” (p. 5). Nagel addresses himself to comparing more or less subjective forms of understanding across a variety of philosophical topics.

A problem with Nagel’s account is that, in focusing on these epistemic questions, it does not address an ontological issue, of what it is for a standpoint to be connected to and rely on the specifics of a person’s makeup and location (or, correlatively, for a standpoint to be disconnected from and not reliant upon those specifics). This focus on epistemic issues may account for the perplexity some commentators have felt when addressing his position.[9] Until we can get a handle on what exactly it is for a point of view to be located – on what the relevance is of a person’s having their point of view from inside the world – then the distinction between subjective and objective conceptions will be hard to grasp precisely.[10]

One suggestion Nagel offers is to distinguish the subjective and objective perspectives by reference to the different conceptions of the world they are correlated with. The objective standpoint yields a conception of the world as centreless, as “seen from no particular perspective, no privileged point of view” (p. 56). In contrast, in the conception one gets from the particular perspective, “the subjective features of our own minds are at the centre of our world” (ibid., p.18). That is, from the subjective standpoint, one point of view is privileged, namely that of the subject who has formed this conception.

However, Nagel does not state in what precise way this standpoint is privileged in the subjective conception. What we need here is a way of articulating the connection between the point of view’s being from within the world, and its yielding a centred conception of the world. This would allow us to state precisely what it is for one’s point of view to be located in the world.

An account of what it is to have a personal point of view must account for its location. But it is clear that a point of orientation alone will not suffice. As the example of arithmetic shows, orientation is a purely formal feature of intentional awareness, in no way serving to locate the subject in the world. In no sense is the subject who takes up the arithmetic attitude present anywhere in the field of arithmetic objects. Nor, for that matter, can they be said to be in any location relative to it (near to it, far from it, above it, below it).

Even in the case of the real world, having a point of orientation does not in itself allow one to locate oneself. Say you can think about the entire world and anything in it. Any particular thought you entertain, being an intentional state with a place in a specific attitude, will have a point of orientation. However, thoughts are relatively independent of their context, in that one can think of things far removed from the immediate situation in which the act of thinking occurs.[11] This very context-independence means that thought alone can never serve to locate you as a subject.

Of course, in this situation, you can think of yourself, and be aware of yourself as standing in relations with other entities in space and in time. But thought allows you to place yourself in any number of such possible locations. It cannot, in and of itself, pick out which of these is your actual location. No matter what you think of, no matter how it’s presented to you, no matter in what spatial relations you can place it, you cannot know where it actually is relative to you, unless you can already locate yourself by other means.[12]

            In order to understand this notion of locatedness which seems central to having a personal point of view, let us consider Husserl’s description of the natural attitude, the mode of comportment in which we live our daily lives. In living in this attitude, each of us is the “subject of a surrounding world” (1989, p.195).


“The surrounding world is the world that is perceived by the person in his [sic] acts, is remembered, grasped in thought, surmised or revealed as such and such; it is the world of which the personal Ego is conscious, the world which is there for it” (op. cit., italics in original).


            The surrounding world is not the physical environment of the person. It “is not the world ‘in itself’ but is rather a world ‘for me’, precisely the surrounding world of its Ego-subject” (ibid., p. 196, italics in original). It is the world in itself, as it appears to me. As such, it is not composed merely of spatiotemporal objects, but includes things which bear various normative features, that are valuable, dangerous, friendly, and so on.

            Husserl emphasises that this is the world perceived by the person because he holds that the concepts of person and surrounding world are essentially interrelated. A person is precisely that which relates to a surrounding world (ibid., p. 195.). A person can be distinguished from a mere causal mechanism precisely in virtue of their having a surrounding world in which they live, in the sense of experiencing it and articulating their goals and projects in.

I want to focus on one particular aspect of this relation. While the surrounding world is not the world of “physical reality pure and simple” (ibid., p. 195), it is essentially spatiotemporal. In the natural attitude, one is aware of a world in space and time, containing physical objects (1982, p. 51). These make up the field of objects which are available to one when one is in the natural attitude. However, these objects are not all available in the same manner. The surrounding world is “in its core, a world appearing to the senses and characterized as ‘on hand’” (1989, p. 196, italics in original). To be on hand in this way does not mean to be actually perceived: “[a]long with the ones now perceived, other actual objects are there for me as determinate, as more or less well known, without themselves being perceived” (1982, p. 51). These objects are co-present with those which are actually perceived; they form the horizon within which the perceived objects rest, and across which my attention can move (ibid., p. 52). And beyond these co-present and determinate objects lies a further horizon of “indeterminate actuality” (op. cit.), which includes everything in the world that I could perceive. I can explore these further horizons, but this would require my moving from my current position.

The conception here is of a world which, in the way it appears, is essentially centred on the subject. The core of the surrounding world is that which is either perceived or available to be perceived from that position; the rest of the world lies beyond this, available in a relatively indeterminate fashion, and can be explored if the subject were to change its position. Thus, the entire surrounding world is available for one to explore, but not all parts of it are equally available. To have a personal point of view is to have the world available to one in this fashion, structured across a core and a periphery. The location of the subject in the natural attitude is a function of the point of orientation the subject has when they are in that attitude. The point of orientation here is what is in one’s field of perception, and this forms the very core of one’s surrounding world, allowing one to refer to oneself as at the centre point

relative to this core.

This core-periphery structure is not simply a question of what is nearby or far away in physical space. What forms the core of the surrounding world is what is perceived or perceivable from a particular position. Very often, what is perceivable is nearby, but not always. If stars and planets are visible, they will form part of the core of one’s surrounding world. Correlatively, some features of the world which are spatiotemporally adjacent to us may be imperceptible (for instance, they may be too small to see, touch or otherwise perceive directly).

This notion of a surrounding world, structured along the distinction between core and periphery, allows us to describe in greater detail what Nagel is getting at when he contrasts the centred and centreless conceptions of the world. A conception of the world is centred if it is of the surrounding world, a world which is structured with reference to what we perceive and can perceive, and in this sense centred on us. On the other hand, a conception of the world from an objective viewpoint may include references to the various points of view in the world, but it will not itself be structured along the core-periphery distinction. This distinction makes no sense in the conception of the world ‘as from nowhere’. Put another way, the world as conceived of from nowhere is not a surrounding world, but the world understood from within is always surrounding and centred on the subject who understands it.


Reflexivity and the sense of the World as a whole


The last feature of the personal point of view I want to discuss is what can be termed its reflexivity. Each of us not only has a point of view located in the world, but we are aware of being so located in a greater world. That is, we can understand that there is more to the world than meets the eye. This reflexivity may not be necessary for all points of view, but it is certainly part of what it is to have personal point of view.

The way I want to explicate this feature of having a point of view is implicit in the preceding section, in the discussion of the core-periphery structure. The surrounding world is centred around me, but correlated with this centredness is the sense the world has for me of reaching beyond its core, beyond what I am perceiving and can perceive at any one moment. The core is always nestled in the periphery, the horizon which includes “the universe of things for possible perceptions” (Husserl, 1973, p. 162).

What we have here is the co-ordination of two aspects or levels of the sense of the world: the way the world is immediately available to one, and the sense of the world itself as extending beyond what’s immediately available. The latter sense gives us a sense of the real as extending beyond what any of us have actually perceived or thought about. It is the sense of the world as inexhaustible, as always outrunning our actual grasp of it. It is this sense of reality as inexhaustible which allows us to see our particular grasp on it as just that, a point of view on a greater whole.[13] Without this sense, our point of view – our sense of the world as it appears to us – would appear to coincide with reality, in that it would be unthinkable that there could be anything which outruns our point of view. The sense of the world is necessary in order for us to conceive of reality as extending beyond what we can actually grasp.

This sense of the world is precisely the sense each of us has of the world as it is itself, regardless of how it appears to any specific subjects. I stress specific because the danger here is to think that I am talking about the world ‘as it is itself, independently of any subject’. I am in fact concerned with the sense of the world, something which cannot be separated from any subject, but which can be separated from any specific subject.

Conversely, it is important to emphasise that my point of view is a point of view precisely on the world itself, not merely on ‘the world as it appears to me’. Rather, the surrounding world is the world itself, as it appears to me. There are passages in Nagel where he seems to be suggesting that the subjective standpoint, the perspective from inside the world, is somehow an indirect or improper grasp of reality.[14] But a centreless conception of the world, to the extent that we can achieve it, gives us a conception of exactly that world we find ourselves in. It is a better grasp of that world, in some respects; but it is the same world which is grasped in each case.

The co-ordination of these two levels of the sense of the world makes possible some familiar features of our points of view. It is the condition for the possibility of thinking of the same world as appearing in different ways to persons with different points of view. The differences between the points of view need not be merely spatial. Cultural, social and historical factors, and our biological makeup, will all be relevant to exactly how the world appears to each of us. It is quite possible that the way the world appears to you or I is very different to the way it appears to a member of an ancient civilisation, let alone a member of another species. But the world that each of us is aware of, from our particular standpoint, is the same world. The world inhabited by an ancient Mayan, for example, finds a place within the horizon of “things for possible perceptions” that you and I dwell in. If we could travel back to the time of the Mayan civilisation, we could perceive the things they perceive and think about the things they think about. The precise way in which the Mayan is aware of those things might remain a mystery to us, as the Mayan civilisation might support attitudes which we could not enter. But the Mayan would at least share the natural attitude with us, and to share the natural attitude is to share the same world.[15]

It is this co-ordination of levels which also makes possible how we can understand ourselves as making mistakes, and as correcting our mistakes. As Husserl notes, there is always the possibility that something we thought was a real part of the world must “be struck out of it and given such titles as ‘illusion’ and ‘hallucination’, and the like” (1982, p. 57). To ‘strike something out’ of the world in this way presupposes a sense of the world which extends beyond the illusory aspect. All illusion and error concerning the world makes sense only given the sense of the world as a whole.

Similarly, I can make sense of deepening or extending my point of view only with regard to this sense. This brings us to Nagel’s main theme, for the objective point of view is simply a particular way of extending one’s personal perspective. It involves forming a new conception of whatever subject-matter is in question, including both the subject-matter and the way it previously appeared to one (Nagel, p. 4). Again, this operation presupposes a sense of the world beyond how it immediately appears to one. The objective perspective is a way of thinking in more detail about the periphery of the surrounding world. As such, it allows one to range far beyond the immediate deliveries of ones perceptions, but precisely as an extension of one’s personal point of view, it can never be fully independent of one’s location in a surrounding world.

































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Eilan, N., ‘The First Person Perspective’, in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society’ New Series Vol. 95 1995, pp. 51-66.


Husserl, E. 1960. Cartesian Meditations: an Introduction to Phenomenology. (trans. Cairns, D.) Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer.


Husserl, E. 1973.  The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. (trans. Carr, D.) Evanston: Northwestern University Press.


Husserl, E. 1982. Ideas pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy – First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. (trans. Kersten, F.) Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer.


Husserl, E. 1989. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy – Second Book: Studies in the Phenomenology of Constitution. (trans. Rojcewicz, R. & Schuwer, A.) Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer.


Jacob, P., ‘What is the Phenomenology of Thought?’ in Philosophy & Phenomenological Research Vol. 58, No. 2 (June 1998), pp. 443-448.


McCulloch, G., ‘What it is Like’, in Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 38, No. 150 (Jan. 1988), pp. 1-19.


McDowell, J. 1996. Mind and World (second edition). Cambridge MA/London: Harvard University Press.


Mohanty, J. N. 1985. The Possibility of Transcendental Philosophy. Martinus Nijhoff: Dordrecht/Boston/Lancaster.


Moore, A. W. 1997. Points of View. Oxford University Press: Oxford/New York.


Nagel, T. 1986. The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press: Oxford/New York.


Peacocke, C., ‘No Resting Place: A Critical Notice of The View from Nowhere, by Thomas Nagel’, in The Philosophical Review Vol. 98, No. 1 (Jan. 1989), pp. 65-82.


Putnam, H., ‘Sense, Nonsense and the Senses: An Inquiry into the Powers of the Human Mind’, in The Journal of Philosophy Vol. 91, No. 9 (Sep. 1994), pp. 445-517.


[1] See, for example, Eilan, ‘The First-Person Perspective’, pp. 54-5.

[2] By this I simply mean that kind of thing which is capable of occupying a point of view. This will vary depending on the exact use of the term.

[3] I am not suggesting that he uses all these terms interchangeably, or that he sees them all as synonyms. But together they form a cluster of terms directed at the one issues, a subject’s perspectival relation to the world.

[4] Various commentators have presented Nagel’s position as concerned with intentional relations. For example, see Peacocke, 1989, pp. 69-71, and McCulloch, 1988, pp. 12-15.  My account of intentionality and perspectivalness in this section and the next is quite similar to McCulloch’s – it is a Husserlian counterpart to his Fregean approach.

[5] Strictly speaking, when I speak of ‘intentionality’ I am referring only to what is sometimes called object-intentionality, the awareness of transcendent objects. This can be contrasted with the minimal self-awareness one has of the experiences one is living through. I will simply leave this non-objectifying type of intentionality to one side for this paper, although it will become very important in a more complete account of what it is to have a point of view.

[6] Strictly speaking, this is only the case if the intentional awareness in question is inadequate, in Husserl’s technical sense of that word. For an argument that all object-intentionality is inadequate, see Levin, D.M, 1970, Reason & Evidence in Husserl’s Phenomenology (Evanston: Northwestern University Press).

[7] For example, Jacob contrasts a visual experience of a particular dog, which is perspectival, with the exercise of the concept of dog, which he denies can be said to have a perspective (1998, p. 447).

[8] It should be clear that by ‘attitude’ I don’t mean anything like the propositional attitudes found in much philosophy of mind. Furthermore, as will become clear, ‘attitudes’ in my technical sense bear only a limited similarity to the common meaning of the word.

[9] See, for example, Malcolm, N., ‘Subjectivity’, in Philosophy Vol. 63, 1988 (pp. 147-160).

[10] Simply pointing out that the perspective is located because the subject is literally in some place or other in the physical universe, and therefore the point of view must be from that place, is unhelpful. What is needed is a way of showing why this bare physical location matters to the way the subject understands the world, to their point of view in the extended sense we are trying to explicate.

[11] Whether they are completely independent is a moot point, one which externalism, for example, would probably deny. But my point rests only on a contrast between the relative independence of thoughts and the context-dependence of perceptions, and I doubt even an externalist would deny this.

[12] Thought is, in this respect at least, like a map or any other isomorphic representation. If you are in London with a map of the city, then no matter how detailed the map, it alone won’t tell you exactly where you are. You will have to use perception, to pick out features of the surrounding area and correlate them with features represented on the map. The mere isomorphism between the map and the features cannot by itself tell you anything. In the case of thought, your access to the objects is direct rather than mediated by a representation, but in neither case is locating content, so to speak, present.

[13] This is similar to a point made by McDowell: in order for our experiences to be considered as “glimpses, or at least seeming glimpses, of the world”, they must take in part of “a reality that goes beyond what is manifest in the experiences themselves” (1996, pp. 31-2).

[14] “[T]he external perspective gives access to an objective reality that one’s subjective impressions are impressions of” (p. 77; see also p. 68).

[15] Speaking of the one world here does not commit me to the traditional form of realism whereby the world is a fixed totality of objects (see Putnam, pp. 448-9, 466). As Mohanty puts it, what we have here is a horizon common to every cultural framework, not a content common to them all (1985, p. xxvii-xxviii).