This morning I finished reading Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere which was a book I was set to read as preliminary reading for studying the Ethics paper next term, but one that is a work spanning far more than just that field of philosophical endeavour. Ethics comes to the fore as something the book has a lot to say about, but this is a reflection of the author’s view of the philosophical landscape, not his choice of subject matter for the book.

The book’s goal is to expound upon our intuition that what separates humans from everything else we’ve come across is that we can conceive of the world with ourselves placed in it, taking an objective view from nowhere in particular, in addition to seeing the world more directly through our own (metaphorical) eyes, a subjective view. This isn’t to say that we have just two ways of looking at the world and we can swap between them but that we have a whole spectrum, and the onward march of humanity consists primarily in us pushing outwards in such a way that we develop new conceptions of reality in which our previous conception is a component. The first stage of this is easy to see: when we are able to consider the world with us as a component when we become self-aware, the non-self-aware self is incorporated into that conception. But we can go further as our thought expands; Nagel cites several major scientific theories where we collectively did this. We might say that most of us are not quite there yet with the likes of quantum mechanics, since it seems so alien when one first reads about it. I am wary of over-simplifying Nagel’s notion of objectivity especially considering his thoughts about present-day scientism, but hopefully this gives you an idea of what he’s trying to capture.

For Nagel, this ability to take an objective view, a view from nowhere in particular, must be recognised if we are to get anywhere with a wide range of philosophical investigations. The book begins with the philosophy of mind, moving to epistemology and then into value, ethics, a little political theory and finally Nagel braves the territory of the very meanings of life, birth and death. I got very little out of the philosophy of mind because the book was writing at the level of academic philosophy of mind which I’ve never really studied, but I found the rest of the book to be very accessible and engaging. I’ll write a little about some of the many philosophical and meta-philosophical thoughts I’ve had surrounding my reading.

First of all my mention of bravery above, and bravery that pays off. Academic philosophy is scorned for not tackling “the big questions” and such but that’s because they’re big because they’re very hard, and one cannot even begin to approach such a question without a substantial amount of background material with which to approach it with. I am not suggesting that there is a philosophical elite who are entitled to respond to ultimate questions more than anyone else is, only that someone cannot make a serious response without doing a lot of other work first which he might then seek to apply to the question that has so much importance attached to it by ordinary people — there may be multiple such approaches, but none of them are quick and easy. Philosophers do have one advantage here and that is that they realise how hard things are, so they don’t make attempts that aren’t going to do much more than satisfy hopeless philosophical romantics such as myself. Nagel’s general thesis throughout is that the subjective and objective views are irreconcilable within us where such a reconciliation is one that would remove a deep sense of absurdity, and in the final chapter of the book he explains how this forces us to live in absurdity, and this has implications when we try to think about what the meaning of life might be. But he couldn’t have made this approach without a huge amount of work done to show how what these two viewpoints within us are, and how they come into so much conflict. It is refreshing to see a philosopher doing this because that’s what philosophy undergraduates often want to see, but I do not mean to suggest by this that anyone who doesn’t end up talking about these things is any less worthy of philosophical acclaim. It’s hard, and only certain things lead one up to taking a shot at it.

Another thought that I would like to take the time to write about more fully some time, is that philosophers who are not merely competitive maths-with-words-types who want acclaim for how cleverly they analysed what ‘be’ means, are in fact aiming at these questions all the time. Now, most philosophers would scoff at the suggestion that they are really in it to investigate the meaning of life because that little phrase — ‘the meaning of life’ — is loaded up with so many cultural and psychological connotations that it’s not really in the remit of a subject aiming for rigour, clarity and elegance across thought; a widening of one’s view of the possible and the banishment of bad habits of thought.[1] But these questions are real and wide-ranging, even if it’s hard to phrase them while remaining fairly societally neutral. What do I know; am I free; how shall I live?

The philosopher, then, is one who cannot accept the dogmatic answers to these questions that civil society provides. Religion, the quasi-religion we see in modern scientism (more later), a pursuit of Mathematics as the purest form of mental activity, some concept of humanism that frees us in the name of love — the philosopher is unable to accept these, and falls back on the best thing remaining: analytical thought. There is a pervading scepticism that cannot be dismissed but around this we try to wrap an understanding of why it’s so hard. As I say I shall try to come back this more fully some other time and describe what led me to this sort of thinking, because I am concerned that it is rather dogmatic itself.

The final meta-philosophical point[2] that I have been thinking about is a bit more plain. An attack on the pursuit of philosophy is that there is no progress, and you get two sorts of responses from undergraduates about this. From others one gets told that there is progress, that we know more about language now than we did before and we’re a lot better at writing our philosophy. We’ve learned, they say, from science’s success and incorporate some of that way of thinking and that worldview into our philosophical thought too. My response is generally that philosophy is for understanding rather than answering questions; trying to understand why it’s so hard to decide what we know or rather what we should give our ascent to; why it’s so difficult to decide how we should lead our lives. Scepticism about this doesn’t make that much sense, aside from an important acceptance of the fact that you may be thoroughly mistaken or underdeveloped, because if you’re thinking about what we know or can be sure about then you’re begging the question. In order to gain this so-called understanding you’re going to need to propose direct solutions and build systems as philosophers do, and that’s entirely consistent with this view so long as there’s no real expectation that one is going to be successful, in a simple and direct sense of the word ‘successful’.

But I end up slipping into making the pursuit of philosophy little more than self-development, an activity centred around the self’s improvement based on an assumption that the philosophical life is the best life for a human being to flourish. I’m now starting to think that I don’t need to say all this because philosophical progress is a far more open question, because of the simple and obvious fact that we haven’t actually been doing it very long. In The View from Nowhere Nagel challenges the conceited nature of humanity over and over, and I am thinking that this may apply to my own conception of the subject in a very strong way. But now I get led back in a direction of philosophy actually achieving something akin to truth as opposed to instead improving those who undertake it, and this is definitely not the way to go. I don’t seem to be able to shake loose of my pre-philosophical societal bonds of progress, success and achievement.

I’d like to mention two further aspects of the book that I’ve been considering lately, which are in fact interrelated. The first is a rejection of the simple relativism which permeates our thoughts concerning morality and more generally our thoughts about value. This is the general attempt to reduce all these things down to biological processes and preferences; pleasure and pain. It doesn’t work. As a citizen of the 21st century I am drawn to these just as much as the next man, but the more I read the less plausible the accounts seem. They seem to gain much of their persuasiveness from the hegemony of Science but they break down over certain issues and so I am trying hard now not to reject theories many throw out as outdated. I’m talking things like Virtue Theory and Kant’s deontological system, to give a few classic examples. I am not in a position to present any of these arguments, and am just trying to express a new reluctance to ride along with Hume as one is so often tempted to do.

Another resource to draw upon from The View from Nowhere is Nagel’s attack on prevailing scientism concentrated in reductive physicalism. The pursuit of Science is able to flesh out our current level of objectivity but aside from quasi-philosophical advances made by the very greatest thinkers — maybe Einstein and Schrödinger should be reclaimed by the Academy’s historians — it can’t advance it further, and yet the modern scientist or ‘rational intellectual’ treats science as a be-all-and-end-all far, far too often. Not only can Science not take us up onto new levels of objectivity, it is also thoroughly incapable of giving an account of the subjective view, because it only looks at the objective world. Talking about science providing explanations of how the brain works and such like will not help because again that’s only the objective world. Stimulating my brain in a computer so I live a sensory life exactly equivalent to Barack Obama’s will not allow me to access his subjective world view, it’ll only expand my objective one a little bit. His subjective view remains inaccessible to me via Science.

But the subjective view is real, is a part of reality, and Science can’t capture it, so we must refrain from talking about Science in such a way as to suggest that it is our key to unlocking reality or anything of that nature, because it isn’t capable of that. That is not to suggest that it should not be pursued or disregarded, only that it should not be idolised in the way many do today, consciously and openly or otherwise. This is perhaps the main thesis of the first half of the book, and I cringe at how poorly I’ve expressed it here.

It is interesting how I feel a distaste referring to the book, as I did above, as a resource to draw upon for specific arguments to support a view I already hold, yet I know that I would not suggest there was anything wrong with a defender of the status quo drawing upon a work for methods of argumentation to support the other side, in a similar manner. The power of the received opinion. I should read On Liberty again.

I’ve put a few nice quotations from the book on my books page, but I note that these are only from the first half or so.

[1] Paraphrased with D. Dennett in his Elbow Room

[2] You might say that philosophy is the one subject where meta-philosophy is a branch of the subject, rather than a superset of it.