Living

The value of seeing other points of view

Being open-minded can help you to gain a better understanding of people, the world - and yourself

One of the character traits I most admire is open-mindedness: the willingness to consider things from other people's points of view.

The French essayist and philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was renowned for this.

He was so interested in seeing life from different points of view that he even tried to imagine how life must be for his animals.

He tried to envisage how the world must seem to his dog with its heightened sense of smell, and he tried to understand how his relationship with his cat might appear from the cat's perspective.

He wrote: "When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?"


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

But what most interested Montaigne was trying to understand how the world seemed to other people, especially those from very different backgrounds and cultures.

He was once invited to meet some Brazilian cannibals who were visiting France at the invitation of King Charles IX. He jumped at the opportunity. Like everyone else, he wanted to learn first-hand about the culture and practices of these "barbaric" people who ate the flesh of their defeated enemies.

But, unlike everyone else, he was equally keen to find out what the cannibals thought of the French.

When he questioned them, through an interpreter, one of the things they told him was that they were shocked to discover that there was inequality in France.

There were people who gorged themselves with every kind of choice food, while outside their doors, there were people who perished from hunger.

The cannibals were no less shocked at the inequalities of French society than the French were at the cannibals' practice of eating human flesh.

Reflecting upon this, Montaigne wrote: "Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed, it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in."

His willingness to listen helped him to gain a balanced view of the visitors' society and customs.

So although he criticised some aspects of their culture, he also found much about it to admire.

Just as importantly, his willingness to see things from their perspective helped him to gain an insight into some of the faults of his own society.

THE FROG IN THE WELL

The Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou was, like Montaigne, passionately interested in exploring different viewpoints.

In his writings, he often used stories and fables to illustrate the fact that our opinions are strongly influenced by our education, assumptions, situations, preferences, desires and prejudices.

"You cannot tell a frog at the bottom of a well about the sea," he wrote, "because he is stuck in his little space. You cannot tell a summer insect about ice because it is confined by its season."

In the same way, you can never teach anything new to someone who steadfastly refuses to shift his perspective.

Only by learning to consider things from alternative points of view can we gain a deeper understanding of the world.

Taking the time to see things from another person's perspective not only helps you to understand him better, but it also helps you to understand yourself better.

Recently, I was thinking about people who I dislike when the startling thought occurred to me that they dislike me every bit as much as I dislike them.

Rather than dismissing the thought, I decided to take a leaf out of Montaigne's book and try to see things from their perspective; to understand what it is about me that irritates and offends them.

It was an interesting exercise.

I would like to be able to say that it completely changed my attitude, but that would be a lie.

I still dislike them.

But it did shift my attitude a little in the way of tolerance and understanding, though - which is surely not a bad thing.

  • Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2015, with the headline 'The value of seeing other points of view Living'. Print Edition | Subscribe