Mind the gap

G.A. Cohen

  • Equality and Partiality by Thomas Nagel
    Oxford, 186 pp, £13.95, November 1991, ISBN 0 19 506967 6

Sidney Morgenbesser says that ‘All Philo is Philo l.’ He means, I think, that nothing is established in philosophy. At any time everything can be turned around, and the front line is pretty close to base camp.

A book by Thomas Nagel proves Morgenbesser’s point. There is no better philosophical primer than Nagel’s What does it all mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy (1987). It works with its intended, adolescent audience, but (this is what supports Morgenbesser) it is also an education for old hands.

If Nagel’s Introduction takes the beginner to the frontier, his less pedagogical writings bring the subject back to basics: his whole oeuvre shows, par excellence, that what Morgenbesser says is true. To explain the nature of Nagel’s achievement, I have to say something controversial (but not eccentric) about the foundational role of intuition in philosophy.

Philosophers ask general questions such as What is knowledge? What is justice? Are we free? And they construct their answers to those questions under the constraint of intuitive belief – belief, that is, for which no (or only a very short) argument is given, because the opposite of the belief is considered to be something which, like a contradiction, cannot coherently be thought, or because the belief just seems right, even though its negation could readily be entertained. Intuitions bearing on the questions paraded above are, or might be, that I can know only what is true; that it is unfair for one person to have less than another through sheer bad luck; that, if I could not have done otherwise, then I did what I did unfreely. Intuitions can be mistaken. You can even wrongly think that something is not coherently thinkable, because, for example, you haven’t exercised enough imagination. But, fallible though they are, and although they vary in strength, and sometimes contradict one another, intuitions shape the search for answers in philosophy. And while harmony between intuition and the desired answer is a matter of complex negotiation, in which some intuitions may have to be disregarded, it remains true that a satisfying conclusion is at peace with intuition, or, anyway, with the stronger or less deniable part of it.

Nagel has been at the centre of Anglophone philosophical endeavour for twenty-five years because he goes to, and operates with mastery at, the intuitive heart of every issue he addresses. He does not fit his arguments up with elaborate qualifications that are there to block all the objections professionals could push. Nor does he devise fancy counter-examples that shimmy through the holes in the arguments of others. He stays close to intuition, and, being both exceedingly sensitive to what it says and remarkably creative about what to do about what it says, he has had a transforming influence on many parts of philosophy.

One example of the efficacy of Nagel’s operations with intuition is his essay ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, which was part of a campaign against ‘reductionist euphoria’ in the philosophy of mind. There is something it is like to be a bat. Since sonar perception looms large in bat consciousness, we do not know what that something is, and we know, intuitively, that perfect knowledge of bat neurophysiology would not relieve our ignorance. An essential truth about the mental, that there is something it is like to have a mind, escapes the notice of reductive materialism.

Another example of Nagel’s intuitive penetration is his suggestion about our confidence that we enjoy freedom of choice: namely, that what threatens it is not, as we usually suppose, causal determinism, but something more general, which Nagel calls ‘the objective point of view’. From that point of view, what happens in the world is, precisely, a sequence of happenings, one event after another, and the agent’s awareness of a domain of choice that lies before her goes unrepresented, whether or not the train of events is deterministically conceived. ‘The real problem of free will stems from a clash between the view of action from inside and any view of it from outside. Any external view of an act seems to omit the doing of it.’

The examples indicate that Nagel is not just rare at identifying intuitive paths and shortfalls, but that he also proposes a theory of intuition, one that explains why we are burdened with the conflicting intuitions that keep philosophy going. We cannot forsake the objective point of view, yet we cannot pretend that there is not something it is like to be conscious, or that it is not up to us what we do next. We have philosophical problems because we find it hard to put together what the different points of view – subjective and objective – that we cannot choose not to occupy disclose to us.

In an earlier diagnosis of the intellectual conflicts that engage philosophy, whose great exponent was Gilbert Ryle, the Dilemmas (1954) have an illusory character: they come because we misconstrue ‘non-competing stories about the same subject-matter’ as ‘rival answers to the same questions’. We get into a jam about free will because we let the ordinary discourse of personal responsibility run up against the extraordinary discourse of psychological theory. They should be kept apart, and the philosopher’s job is to put up ‘ “No Trespassing” notices’. In Nagel’s less sanguine alternative conception the ‘stories’ told from the discordant standpoints really do strain against one another (whether or not they concern the same subject-matter). For Ryle, you just have to be clear about what you’re trying to do. There’s this vocabulary, and then there’s that one: use one at a time and you can’t go wrong. For Nagel, there is an irrepressible drive to unify what the different standpoints disclose, a drive that it may not always be possible to satisfy.

The subjective/objective polarity governs not only metaphysics but also ethics, and Nagel argues, in the book under review, that the task of political philosophy is to reconcile the opposed deliverances of two standpoints. In the personal point of view, everything gets its value from my distinctive interests, relationships and commitments. But I can also look at things impersonally, and then I realise that the interests and projects of others are just as important as mine are, that my life is no more important than anyone else’s is.

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[*] Persons to Nagel’s right will wonder about other certainties he displays: that a social democratic solution which ensures a high basic minimum but also allows large inequalities is an inadequate ‘response to the impartial attitude which is the first manifestation of the impersonal standpoint’, and that swingeing inheritance and gift taxes do not violate its second ‘manifestation’, which respects the individual’s desire to benefit his family.