Art, Politics, and Development

How Linear Perspective Shaped Policies in the Western World

Philipp Lepenies
Book Cover

HC: $31.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-1084-9
Publication: Oct 13

Ebook: $61.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-1086-3

214 pages
6 x 9
4 figures, 18 halftones

A brilliant meditation on how the invention of linear perspective in art helped shape our perspectives on the developing world


In his groundbreaking study, Art, Politics, and Development, Philipp Lepenies contributes to the ongoing controversy about why the track record of development aid is so dismal. He asserts that development aid policies are grounded in a specific way of literally looking at the world. This “worldview” is the result of a mental conditioning that began with the invention of linear perspective in Renaissance art. It not only triggered the emergence of modern science and brought forth our Western notion of progress, but ultimately, development as well.

Art, Politics, and Development examines this process by pulling from a range of disciplines, including art history, philosophy, literature, and social science. Lepenies not only explains the shortcomings of modern aid in a novel fashion, he also proposes how aid could be done differently.


"This is a brilliant, provocative book. Lepenies makes a novel link between two disparate subjects, art and economics, and he relates them in an absolutely new, unprecedented way. The breadth of his scholarship is simply astounding. Art, Politics, and Development opens with an impressively researched study of Renaissance art history and the inception of linear perspective in Florence, Italy, during the early fifteenth-century. He goes on to show how the perspective rule for improving pictures came to be accepted as replicating ultimate visual ‘truth’. This book could become a cultural classic."
Samuel Edgerton, Amos Lawrence Professor of Art, Emeritus, at Williams College, and author of The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective

"In Art, Politics, and Development , Philipp Lepenies argues in persuasive detail that the ‘development mindset’ arose from the superior position that the viewer of a perspectival painting is invited to take up. His is an invitation to humanomics, bringing the humanities to the study of ordinary life, and to its improvement. This book is a masterpiece, ranging from economics to art history, and showing their vanishing point."
Deirdre N. McCloskey teaches economics, history, English, and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is the author of Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World

"While none of (the book's) components (are) original, the combination of them may be. The best section, on the invention of perspective.... cites art historian Erwin Panofsky's Perspective as Symbolic Form . Lepenies isn't writing history; he's building an intellectual construct. Its end point is the assertion that contemporary thinking on development supports a linear concept of progress and that we possess a privileged viewpoint on it."
Library Journal

Table of Contents



1. Perspective: A Window to the World and to the Future

Medieval Art, Optics, and Perspectives • The Invention of Perspective: The Mirror • From the “Intercisione” to the Vanishing Point • The Window • The Role of Mathematics • Rediscovery or Invention

Anticipation of a New Weltanschauung: Transgressing Medieval Boundaries
The Iconic Gaze • The Window Revisited • Iconic Space, Subjective Objectivity, and the Invention of Infinity • Friction with Religion • The Artist as Creator • The Horizon • The World and the Future • A Case in Point: The Città Ideale of Berlin

2. From Art to Worldview

The Disenchantment of the Physical World
The Universe Open to Our Gaze • The Order to Conquer Nature • Everything Has a Mathematical Counterpart • The Predictable Universe • Control through Calculation

Toward a New Horizon: The Discovery of Linear Time and the Idea of Progress
The Threat of Doomsday Comes to an End • Circularity and Linearity • Progress as the Advancement of Knowledge • Turgot and the Progress of the Human Mind

Condorcet: From the Linear Perspective Worldview to the Development Mind-set
A Life of Science, Action, and Tragedy • Social Mathematics • The Esquisse: The Philosophy of Future Progress • The Future and the Others • Mathematics, the Future, and Action

The Notion of the “Other” prior to the Esquisse
Alternative Views of Otherness • Slavery and the Société des Amis des Noirs

The Development Mind-set Further Concretized: The Idea of Civilizing and Civilization
The Meaning of Civilization • The Destiny of All Nations • The Need for Education and Educators • Civilizing by Teaching Perspective

Linear Perspective and the Development Mind-set: A Summary of Key Concepts

3. Modern Development

The Contemporary Development Mind-set
Us and Them • Endless and Dynamic Progress • The Aim of All Aid

Educating the “Others”
Development as Knowledge Transfer • Knowledge Transfer in Historical Perspective

The “Rage de Vouloir Conclure
Knowledge Transfer as a Hindrance to Development and Change • The Visiting Economist Syndrome 115 • Anthropological Views • The Earth Is Not Flat • Planners • Unhelpful Helpers • Summary

4. Counterperspectives

Resistance to the Perspective Worldview

Antiperspective Movements in Art History
Arab Views • The Perspective Wars of Paris • Through the Eye of a Cow: Rationalist versus Empiricist Perspective • Summary

Proposals for Development Alternatives
Reversals • Searchers • Midwives • Possibilism

A Nonlinear Approach
Nonlinearity • Challenges • The Way Forward: Self-Critical Historical Awareness and Knowledge Coalitions


About the Author(s)

Philipp H. Lepenies is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, Germany.


In the Series

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    The Politics, History, and Social Change series, edited by John C. Torpey, disseminates serious works that analyze the social changes that have transformed our world during the twentieth century and beyond. The main topics addressed include international migration; human rights; the political uses of history; the past and future of the nation-state; decolonization and the legacy of imperialism; and global inequality. The series will also translate into English outstanding works by scholars writing in other languages.