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.

When Nagel says that reality is not just objective reality, he means, I think, not just that a wider account could always be given, but that there are some things an objective account can never capture: some things will have been left out within the account. Yet it is not clear what, exactly, he thinks will have been left out. Sometimes the objective account seems to be equated with a scientific account, and then the point is that some aspects of certain events, how they seem to subjects who have experiences, will not appear in such an account at all. Some things, or at least some aspects of some things, will be missing from any scientific description of the world.

But does that mean that no objective account at all could include them – which is surely what is implied by saying that reality is not just objective reality? The objective view was not originally defined as a specifically scientific view, but only as an external and inclusive view. There seems to be no reason why that has to leave out the subjective aspects of experiences. It can perfectly properly refer to ‘the way vinegar smells to Jones’ or ‘the way eggs taste to cockroaches’. Those are, of course, very unspecific descriptions of these features of reality: they might be said, still, to leave something out. But might they not be made more specific? Here Nagel’s point seems sometimes to be that, as in the second case, we have no idea how to make them more specific, though we believe that we are talking about something; sometimes – as in the first case – that we can make them more specific, but that in doing so our understanding essentially depends on taking up, in imagination, the subjective point of view in question. Those are significant points, but I do not think Nagel has made quite clear how they bear on questions about what exists or is included in reality.

As I said earlier, Nagel does not claim to solve all these problems. In fact, he may not think they can be solved; early in the book he says, ‘certain forms of perplexity – for example, about freedom, knowledge, and the meaning of life – seem to me to embody more insight than any of the supposed solutions to those problems,’ and I doubt whether he means only the solutions that have been offered so far. It is all the more important, then, for him to make clear to us the perplexity that is generated by reflection, the tension implicit in our views of the world. He is often very successful in this: he brings out well, for instance, a sense of the puzzling inaccessibility to us of whatever it is that is going on in the cat’s ‘furry little mind’, and he is good at setting out the classical tensions of scepticism, where the sane conviction that the world exists independently of our thoughts can lead rapidly to the idea that we have no reason to suppose that our conceptions of it are true – indeed, can leave us wondering what it is for any thoughts of ours to be conceptions of such a world at all. Nagel attaches himself firmly to the ‘realist’ side of this tension, and rightly resists the idealist tendencies that he identifies in much recent philosophy, which suggest in one way or another that the nature of our thought determines what the world can possibly contain. Some critics will feel that Nagel has taken this line in a heroically strong form, and has left too little space between realistic modesty – ‘the world may be very different from what we take it to be’ – and incurable scepticism: ‘the world may be totally different from anything we could ever take it to be.’ But the opportunity that he has left for such critics comes from the impressively strong style in which he has presented a natural and basic perplexity.

What one finds naturally perplexing, however, is not just a matter of whether one has a philosophically disposed nature. It is also a matter of what sort of philosophy one’s nature is disposed to, and there are some other cases in which a reader, open enough to being perplexed, may wonder whether some problem, which Nagel powerfully feels and has vividly expressed, is quite as deeply intractable as he suggests. There is, for instance, this problem: given various actual people – TN, BW and so on – what is it for one of those people to be me? The fact that I am BW certainly goes beyond the mere fact that there is such a person as BW, but how does it go beyond it? What more is involved? Nagel will, I think, convince anyone disposed to such thoughts that there is a problem here, but I am less sure that he will convince all of them that it is a very deep problem: or rather, that there is a further deep problem over and above the deep problem which he has presented already, that the world contains centres of consciousness. This is one point at which a more sharply technical discussion is needed, to show that the difficulties come from structural problems in understanding ourselves objectively, and do not consist merely in a soluble semantic tangle.

In one section, it is just because Nagel’s own sense of the problem is so powerful that he has not done enough to explain it to readers who may be, variously, constitutionally un-worried by it, immunised to some strains of it by previous philosophy, or else troubled by something other than its traditional form. This is the question about which Nagel said that he thought nothing satisfactory had been said, the question of free will, and his discussion of it provides what seems to me the least satisfactory part of his book. This problem looks like a paradigm of what he is concerned with – the tension between the inner perspective and the other, objective view. Here the tension lies in the relations between the inner view taken by an agent, the engaged perspective of someone forming and carrying out intentions, and, on the other hand, an outside explanatory view of that agent and his intentions. To the outside view he and they seem part (many, Nagel included, are fond of saying ‘merely part’) of a causal network that reaches outside him. This tension has seemed to many to be plain inconsistency: they think that if this causal network exists, there is no such thing as genuinely intentional action. There is, it is true, a tension, but there are good arguments to suggest that it is not an inconsistency. Rather, it comes from the fact that one cannot think in two modes at once, practically as an agent, and as the explanatory observer of those very aspects of one’s own action. These arguments may be inadequate, but Nagel should pay them more attention; this is one point where he seems to be transfixed by his problem at the expense of possible solutions to it.

The problem of free will has two parts. One part is the question just mentioned, whether there can be genuine, intentional, chosen action if the agent’s doings are located in a causal network that reaches beyond him. The second part concerns the relations of all that to certain moral notions – in particular, responsibility and blame. Do these notions make sense in the light of our understanding of people and their actions? It is important that the answer to the first question may be, reassuringly, ‘yes’, even though the second question deserves a much more sceptical answer. Our conceptions of blame may never have made much sense; they have stood up poorly to reflection based on quite ordinary unsuperstitious human observation, and do not need elaborate causal theories to make them look fairly seedy. Nagel, perhaps because he is so impressed by the analogy of these questions to his central theme, does not go far into this aspect, and this is rather odd, because in earlier writings he has himself implacably taken apart some of the assumptions implicit in common notions of moral reponsibility.

In the case of free will, Nagel’s application of his central theme does not provide a very interesting pattern for his discussion, but when in the later part of the book he gets to general questions of moral philosophy, it once again does. Here the tension takes the form of a contrast between the engaged perspective of the agent, living a life and expressing his projects in action, and an impartial moral view of his life which the agent, as much as others, may take. In an earlier book, The Possibility of Altruism, Nagel was disposed to think that if someone has a reason to get rid of a pain in his foot, this is because it is, simply, a bad thing that there should be such a pain; and if this is so, then everyone else may equally have some reason to end that bad state of affairs. This pattern applies generally, so that all individual action, if rational and morally correct, is directed to embodying what is good or bad from everyone’s – or rather, no one’s – point of view. He has modified that view, and there are very interesting and detailed discussions here of the complex relations, as Nagel sees them, between particular personal interests, impersonal value, and individual action.

Nagel now fully admits a distinction between those aims of an agent that make some moral claim on others’ co-operation and those that do not. If someone is in severe pain, then that does make some claim on the concern and time of other appropriately placed people (however ambitiously or defensively ‘appropriately placed’ may be construed), but they are under no obligation at all to assist his passionate ambition to build a monument to his own god. What explains this difference? Nagel says: ‘the more a desire has as its object the quality of the subject’s experience, and the more immediate and independent of his other values it is, the more it will tend to generate impersonal ... reasons’ – that is to say, reasons for other people to do things. This seems to imply that a passionate and selfish hedonist, concentrated specially on the improvement of his pleasures, would have a special claim on our assistance, and I doubt whether this is what we want to conclude. More generally, I doubt whether the distinction can be fastened, as Nagel tries to fasten it, simply to differences in the structural or experiential nature of various projects that agents may have. It is likely to depend, more than he allows, on social conceptions of what counts as a basic need as opposed to a mere want or taste.

Debussy said of Maeterlinck that he had a ‘passion for the beyond’, and while Nagel’s work has no religious or manifestly mystical tinge, such a passion does touch his relations to the view from nowhere. The modesty I mentioned is not merely a personal matter: repeatedly in this book, he reminds human beings that they have a very limited grasp of the physical universe, and of the truth about values which he believes objectively to exist. This is not, like Montaigne’s, a humility grounded in permanent scepticism: he looks to unimaginable degrees of progress, notably in our moral existence. Nor is it a Platonic contempt for the human and the contingent in the face of the universal and impersonal. But a sense of the universal, an implied view of all activities from outside, does shape the argument. Nagel does not think that we can coherently achieve such a view, still less that we should stay with it, but as a limiting idea, it conditions his view of everything. That is why he can ask, for instance, whether we are all equally important or all equally unimportant. For many of us the question is not whether the truth lies with one of those options (or, as Nagel rather strangely puts it, ‘somewhere in between’), but whether those options mean anything at all, if we are not talking about our importance to each other.

The passion for the beyond, and its synoptic ambitions, make this in some ways an untypical work of contemporary philosophy. Although it is deeply and expertly involved in contemporary discussions, it aspires, in some part, to an earlier style of high philosophical reflection. But, in the spirit of its own thesis, at the same time it knows where it is. The ongoing tension between the universal and the local is also a tension within the book between abstract metaphysical argument and the vividly immediate, which occasionally displays itself: in the unforgettable story, for instance, of a spider who lived in a urinal at Princeton.