Review: The View from Nowhere by Thomas Nagel
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere is neither an easy nor particularly exciting read, and Nagel raises far more questions than he answers. He also presupposes a high level of familiarity with Western philosophy on the part of the reader, regularly launching into critiques and commentary on Kant, Wittgenstein, and others with hardly a cursory outline of their various theories and ideas. All this aside, Nagel presents a method of thinking about philosophical issues that seems both incredibly useful and relatively non-partisan – quite the accomplishment. In the most concise terms possible, Nagel explores how we reconcile our subjective perspectives with our capacity to think beyond those perspectives – that is, our capacity to think objectively; to think “from Nowhere.”
THE ODD COUPLE
Like other sentient beings, each human has his or her own particular, subjective view of the world strongly conditioned by an unchosen environment – accidents of birth, geography, and time determine much. Our inclinations and preferences are strongly correlated with whatever seems best or useful or most appropriate for us from OUR point of view. Anyone who has raised children is intimately familiar with the subjective perspective; my three-year-old son is all but pure subjectivity. He wants his milk in the blue cup, not the green cup, and he is determined to prolong his meltdown until someone gives him the milk in the proper hue. This isn’t to imply that subjectivity is all bad, however. The same subjectivity, which makes my son irate over his cup’s color, is also that which makes him capable of completely unadulterated loyalty. He desperately loves his parents, his big sister, his baby brother, and his blanket. The sincerity of his daily categorical proclamations of affection would bring a tear to even the most cynical and shrewd eye.
Here’s the funny thing though: in rare moments of lucidity, even my three-year-old son can think beyond his own perspective and find his objectivity. When I ask him, “How would you like it if your sister did that to you?” I can almost see the wheels turning in his head as he tries to imagine a world where he is not the absolute center.
This is a capacity peculiar to human beings – and an odd capacity at that. We are so used to employing it that we take its highly unusual nature for granted. Not only do you know what it’s like to be you, but you can also imagine what it’s like to be me, or what it’s like to be your dentist, or even – as the author suggests – what it’s like to be a bat (bats ostensibly don’t imagine what it’s like to be human). What is even more incredible, though, is that when we are trying to be as impartial and fair as possible, we can even try to imagine what it’s like to be no one at all! We mentally invoke a godlike perspective in which we attempt to subsume the subjective preferences of any and all particular individuals under some higher, universalistic standard. How well we do this is an entirely different can-of-worms to be discussed shortly. Still, the point for now is to take a moment and acknowledge how incredibly singular this human capacity for objective thought is.
So this is the mental disposition of every waking person: we are our own odd couple of subjective and objective perspectives housed within the same mind. While each of the two views has its pros and cons, Nagel is much more concerned with the claims, capacity, and culpability of the objective outlook than with the subjective. Namely, is it an unequivocal good? Does it always lead to a better understanding? Is it achievable? The dazzling successes of the natural sciences in the post-Enlightenment Western world (which have been primarily predicated on claims of objectivity and reason) seem to answer these questions in the affirmative. However, Nagel isn’t so sure and wants to understand just what exactly is happening when finite, contingent beings like us put on our objective thinking caps and attempt to leave our subjectivity behind. How can such a process even be possible? And if it is possible, mustn’t it be highly problematic? Upon closer inspection (and unsurprisingly), it absolutely is.
RECONCILIATION AND REDUCTION
In many ways, the history of philosophy, ethics, law, and several other topics could be told through the lens of man’s endless attempts to reconcile his partial, subjective viewpoint with his longing for an objective certainty that remains elusive. Students of philosophy will be intimately familiar with the forms of battle this attempted reconciliation has taken over the years: the good life versus the moral life, appearance versus reality, descriptive versus normative, etc. Nagel explores three common ways man has attempted to bridge the subjective-objective gap: skeptical means, heroic means, and reductive means.
Skeptical reconciliation isn’t a reconciliation at all, but rather an incredibly powerful and seemingly irrefutable proclamation that the gap is forever and always unbridgeable. Finite creatures like us are simply condemned to never really having certain knowledge in the manner we desire. Typically characterized by Hume’s writings (though skeptical seeds were certainly sown by much earlier thinkers), skepticism is an incredibly unsatisfying and maddening philosophical position – unsatisfying because it denies our natural impulse for assurance and a firm foundation; maddening because it seems both incontrovertible yet also strangely self-defeating.
The irksome nature of skepticism has tended to make Nagel’s “heroic” forms of reconciliation much more popular responses to the subjective-objective problem: forms of Platonism in which the subjective is conceived as a derivative and direct extension of the objective; Rationalism, in which the subjective is deemed capable of reaching the objective through correct mental processes and reasoning; Existentialism, where the subjective and objective are made concomitant through a leap of faith or self-affirmation. What’s great about all these outlooks is that they seem to offer us various forms of access to the certainty and objectivity we all desire. What’s bad about all these outlooks is that they are still entirely vulnerable to the attacks of skepticism. Indeed, this is why Nagel calls them “heroic” – despite their vulnerability, they charge headlong into the philosophical fray, trying to save humanity from endless epistemological conundrums.
However, what concerns Nagel is a new form of reconciliation that has gained increasing momentum in the last few centuries, which he terms “reductionism.” Like the “heroic” means discussed above, reductive modes of reconciliation come in many forms. They all share a similar trait, according to Nagel – the inappropriate appropriation of objectivity. Specifically, they seek to reduce objectivity to some lower, discreet plane, which is measurable, quantifiable, or deemed otherwise knowable in a pseudo-calculable sense. Everything can be explained in terms of language (linguistics) or environmental conditioning (behaviorism) or certain intractable historical trends (historicism) or physical processes (naturalism). This latter form of reductive reconciliation is particularly potent and, in truth, might be the father of all the others. Nagel gives it the most attention. If everything can be explained in terms of physical processes and physical processes are currently or theoretically knowable, then subjective-objective reconciliation has been (or will be) achieved.
The issue, says Nagel, is that the proclamation of everything being explicable via physical processes (or any of the other reductive modes mentioned above) is, upon closer inspection, really just an assertion – and a dangerous assertion at that. When we reduce non-physical entities to the physical realm, we necessarily rob them of something essential and mysterious. The methods of natural science were designed to explain why apples fall from trees and why wooden boxes float in water – not why King Lear’s daughters betrayed him or why the death of an innocent person is tragic. Some (perhaps many) things cannot be explained as some sort of inevitable and necessary interaction between protons, electrons, quarks, or whatever else we may claim that all reality is derived from.
The temptation to reductionism remains strong, though. After two-thousand years of hankering within Western philosophy, the old battles between skeptics and anti-skeptics have remained insoluble. Recent forms of reductive reconciliation seem to offer the only way out. Descartes, Locke, Kant, Berkeley, and countless others bled their quills dry, trying to discover how man might unite his subjective self with his objective obtainments. Yet an unequivocally satisfying answer has not been promulgated. Now modern man has turned to a new hope: objectivity will finally be found at the end of the scientist’s high-powered microscope and within the confines of his graduated beaker. It will be split, splayed, dissected, analyzed, categorized, and anesthetized. As Cormac McCarthy’s most harrowing literary character once remarked, “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.” Science has become the new handmaiden of philosophical salvation.
STRANGER THAN FICTION
These are heady issues. After all, if science has been so right in predicting falling apples and floating boxes, why can’t it also be right about other things – like, ALL other things? There is no easy answer here that is not also dogmatic; each man must decide for himself as best he can. For the sake of argument (and brevity), let us side with Nagel and agree that some entities and concepts are of an irreducibly complex and mysterious nature of which none of man’s current modes of understanding (including natural science) are capable of fully expositing. What then? Do we go back to the unending battles with skepticism? What says Nagel?
First, he says that objectivity should breed humility, not hubris. When we, as merely mortal and fallible creatures, enter our philosophical spaceship of objectivity and go whizzing up and over the world as we know it, the first thing we should realize is that we are viewing the world as WE know it. Our subjectivity cannot be completely shed any more than our skin. Whatever objective aspirations we have are forever and always hemmed in by our subjective limitations, and our objective self must acknowledge our subjective self’s meagerness. Yet the word “science” is increasingly invoked as a subtle but powerful linguistic device that connotes a sense of pure objectivity while simultaneously masking the completely unremarkable fact that “science” really just means the activities of scientists – who, last time I checked, are still just persons stuck in the same subjective-objective reconciliation conundrum that I am.
Once we realize the subjectively bounded nature of man’s objective capacity, we should be highly suspicious of any methodology that claims to have reached an objective perspective without also acknowledging and incorporating the undeniable subjectivity that reality is populated with. Truth be told, no unequivocally satisfying answer to this problem may be attainable, and the mating of the subjective and objective selves has been more apt to breed absurdity than certainty. After all, how do you construct either subjectivity or objectivity out of “two hundred pounds of subatomic particles?” – which is what natural science says a human being ultimately amounts to.
Contradiction and paradox may be irremediable aspects of our existence. However, to stop there would essentially be to adopt the position of Existentialism, but Nagel wants to take us farther. As he patiently suggests, the correct modes of understanding and reconciling the subjective and objective perspectives probably just haven’t been discovered yet – just like the electromagnetic spectrum and Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis hadn’t been discovered a thousand years ago. What might we know about the subjective-objective problem a thousand years hence? Well, says Nagel, not much if we allow our current inebriation with natural science to convince us that the problem has been solved and we need not waste time thinking about it anymore. The call to action is clear: though it may be a Sisyphean task, we need to continue to bleed the ink quills dry until an answer for the subjective-objective problem is found that doesn’t require the dogmatic reduction of huge swaths of reality.
COMMENTS AND CRITIQUES
1. In some ways, readers may find themselves more confused at the end of this book than when they started it. After all (and as mentioned at the beginning of this review), Nagel asks more questions than he answers. The few answers he does provide are submitted tentatively and with genuine humility. Though perhaps unsatisfying, I believe Nagel is correct in this approach. The only thing worse than not solving a problem is solving a problem the wrong way, and one of Nagel’s main projects is to help us better frame the complexity of this problem we so desperately want to resolve. A millennium from now our heirs may look upon our reductive solutions to the subjective-objective riddle with the same patronizing mirth we assume when reading Heraclitus’ proposal that the essential elements of nature are earth, fire, and water.
2. Nagel’s critiques of reductive modes of thinking are sometimes guilty of the same bald assertions that he attacks the reductionists for. When Nagel claims that non-physical properties simply can’t be reduced to physical phenomena, he is really attempting to countermand the proclamation of naturalists that the distinction between physical and non-physical entities is an illusion in which the latter can, in actuality, be safely subsumed by the former. The problem is that Nagel doesn’t offer a specific, well-developed refutation to this illusion theory. His position seems to be that the assertion “non-physical properties cannot be reduced to physical phenomenon” is some sort of airtight, self-evident, logical syllogism – and perhaps it is. The problem is that it entirely misses the point.
The whole argument of the naturalists isn’t that the non-physical realm can be reduced to the physical; it’s that the non-physical realm which Nagel refers to simply doesn’t exist! This is the crux of the issue, and I wish a mind as discerning and sincere as Nagel’s would have drilled down on this particular aspect of the debate a little more.
Tyler Tidwell is a retired Marine who lives in the Oklahoma City area with his wife and three children.