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The View From Nowhere

The following quotes are from a book I have currently undertook by philosopher Thomas Nagel. As with some blog posts, this is as much for myself as it is for others. It allows me to readily have access to as well as contemplate and re-contemplate certain quotes that I find important or intriguing in some way. The book concerns one of Nagels primary focus points in his philosophical life: the nature of objectivity. Hence, the title of the book, “The View From Nowhere.” Anything in brackets are my own comments.

A bit about objectivity:

The limit of objectivity with which I shall be most concerned is one that follows directly from the process of gradual detachment by which objectivity is achieved. An objective standpoint is created by leaving a more subjective, individual, or even just human perspective behind; but there are things about the world and life and ourselves that cannot be adequately understood from a maximally objective standpoint, however much it may extend our understanding beyond the point from which we started. A great deal is essentially connected to a particular point of view, or type of point of view, and the attempt to give a complete account of the world in objective terms detached from these perspectives inevitably leads to false reductions or to outright denial that certain patently real phenomena exist at all.
This form of objective blindness is most conspicuous in the philosophy of mind, where one or another external theory of the mental, from physicalism to functionalism, is widely held. What motivates these views is the assumption that what there really is must be understandable in a certain way–that reality is in a narrow sense objective reality. For many philosophers the exemplary case of reality is the world described by physics, the science in which we have achieved our greatest detachment from a specifically human perspective on the world. But for precisely that reason physics is bound to leave undescribed the irreducibly subjective character of conscious mental processes, whatever may be their intimate relation to the physical operation of the brain. The subjectivity of consciousness is an irreducible feature of reality–without which we couldn’t do physics or anything else–and it must occupy as fundamental a place in any credible world view as matter, energy, space, time, and numbers. [Affirming, as do most contemporary philosophers, that reductive materialism is dead. Could there actually be consensus among the philosophical community in certain areas? I wonder if there are any reductive materialists left.]

On the nature of philosophy and philosophers:

It is necessary to combine the recognition of our contingency, our finitude, and our containment in the world with an ambition of transcendence, however limited may be our success in achieving it. The right attitude in philosophy is to accept aims that we can achieve only fractionally and imperfectly, and cannot be sure of achieving even to that extent [Awesome. I really don’t think philosophy would be possible in the contemporary age without such an attitude. If one is going to do philosophy at all, he or she might as well admit this at the outset. Let’s not be hindered by delusions of grandeur]

If the theories of historical captivity or grammatical delusion [Wittgenstein] are not true, why have some philosophers felt themselves cured of their metaphysical problems by these forms of therapy? My counterdiagnosis is that a lot of philosophers are sick of the subject and glad to be rid of its problems. Most of us find it hopeless some of the time, but some react to its intractability by welcoming the suggestion that the enterprise is misconceived and the problems unreal. This makes them receptive not only to scientism but to deflationary metaphilosophical theories like positivism and pragmatism, which offer to raise us above the old battles.
This is more than the usual wish to transcend one’s predecessors, for it includes a rebellion against the philosophical impulse itself, which is felt as humiliating and unrealistic. It is natural to feel victimized by philosophy, but this particular defensive reaction goes too far. It is like the hatred of childhood and results in a vain effort to grow up too early, before one has gone through the essential formative confusions and exaggerated hopes that have to be experienced on the way to understanding anything. Philosophy is the childhood of the intellect, and a culture that tries to skip it will never grow up.
There is a persistent temptation to turn philosophy into something less difficult and more shallow than it is. It is an extremely difficult subject, and no exception to the general rule that creative efforts are rarely successful. I do not feel equal to the problems treated in this book. They seem to me to require an order of intelligence wholly different from mine. [All too true. Philosophy, I would argue, is probably the most difficult subject matter than one can undertake…this is no exaltation on my part for I still know very little about philosophy and I suspect, like Nagel, that it may simply be too much for this intellect.]

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  1. 12/20/2008 at 10:08 am

    The subjectivity of objectivity 😀 I particularly like this sentence: "Philosophy is the childhood of the intellect, and a culture that tries to skip it will never grow up."

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