A Passion for the Beyond

Bernard Williams

  • The View from Nowhere by Thomas Nagel
    Oxford, 244 pp, £17.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 19 503668 9

‘It seems to me that nothing approaching the truth has yet been said on this subject,’ Thomas Nagel says in the middle of this complex, wide-ranging and very interesting book; and he says it at the end of a chapter (on the freedom of the will) not, as some other philosophers might, at the beginning. The book argues in a determined way about the largest philosophical questions: the nature of reality, the possibility of knowledge, freedom, morality, the meaning of life. It offers, not answers to those questions, but a distinctive and unified approach to them. In that sense, the book is very ambitious. Yet one of its most notable features is its modesty. Nagel regards the problems he has chosen to discuss as more compelling than his own contribution to them, and he is always willing to say that he does not know the answer to a difficulty. His discussions are informed by a sense that what he is saying may be overthrown or overtaken by other views. It is a great relief from the remorsely demonstrative tone that grips the work of analytical philosophers, including some of us who in principle know better.

The unifying theme, as Nagel puts it at the beginning, is the problem of ‘how to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint included. It is a problem that faces every creature with the impulse and the capacity to transcend its particular point of view and to conceive of the world as a whole.’ The problem comes in many different forms. One, very basic version concerns the place of experience in the world. We have perceptions, pains, feelings, and we naturally say that these are events. In our own case, we have an understanding of these events from the inside. In the case of other creatures we believe that analogous events take place, though we do not understand in the same way what they are like. In a famous article, Nagel earlier considered what it was like to be a bat: in the present book, he touches on the daunting question of how scrambled eggs taste to a cockroach. But whether we can imaginatively represent the content of the experience to ourselves, as most of us can with the smell (to humans) of vinegar, or, as in the case of the cockroach, we cannot, the problem remains of how to regard the experiences as events, standing in relation to other events, such as physical changes in the organism.

That is one of the difficulties of combining the subjective and the objective, the inside with the outside view. Nagel thinks that an objective view cannot include everything, and will always be incomplete. He also makes a claim about what is real, when he says ‘reality is not just objective reality.’ It is not clear, however, how this represents his thought. For him, objectivity does not apply, at least in any direct way, to things: it is not a way in which some (but not all) things exist. It is, rather, a style of understanding, one that tries to describe any kind of experience or thought from the outside, to include it in a wider account of things in which that experience or thought occupies no privileged position. The experience or thought is had from a certain point of view: the objective account is an account of that point of view which is not itself given from that point of view.

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