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The Last Word

01/21/2010 4 comments

Here are a few lengthy quotes by my favorite thinker, Thomas Nagel. All of these quotes are taken from his book The Last Word. In the book he tackles a view that he calls subjectivism, which is his word for global relativism, or the view that there is nothing that can help ground our objective claims about the world. According to the subjectivist, every truth-claim that we make about the world is relative to one context or another: relative to a particular person, community, nation, culture, species, and so on. On this view, there are no universals, only particulars. For instance, my claim that X is true can only be analyzed in terms of the relativistic categories just mentioned. X can only be true relative to myself, to the culture I live in, to the human species, etc. Thus, X can never just be true, or more precisely, it can never be universally true. This is one of the oldest and most fundamental problems in Western philosophy and Nagel aligns himself strongly with the rationalist tradition (Plato, Descartes). Like his predecessors, he argues that reason has the last word in this debate and that it has it necessarily. In other words, there are some things that are universal—certain logical or mathematical principles for instance—that are needed to even make thought possible. Reason itself is thus not subject to context. As usual, Nagel’s language is grounded in his divide between the objective and subjective (or outer and inner) conceptions that we have of the world and ourselves.

Reason as mysteriously universal

Reason, if there is such a thing, can serve as a court of appeal not only against the received opinions and habits of our community but also against the peculiarities of our personal perspective. It is something each individual can find within himself, but at the same time it has universal authority. Reason provides, mysteriously, a way of distancing oneself from common opinion and received practices that is not a mere elevation of individuality–not a determination to express one’s idiosyncratic self rather than go along with everyone else. Whoever appeals to reason purports to discover a source of authority within himself that is not merely personal or societal, but universal–and that should also persuade others who are willing to listen to it…

What seems permanently puzzling about the phenomenon of reason, and what makes it so difficult to arrive at a satisfactory attitude toward it, is the relation it establishes between the particular and the universal. If there is such a thing as reason, it is a local activity of finite creatures that somehow enables them to make contact with universal truths, often of infinite range.

What Descartes really showed us about reason

I would explain the point of Descartes’ cogito this way. It reveals a limit to the kind of self-criticism that begins when one looks at oneself from the outside and considers the ways in which one’s convictions might have been produced by causes which fail to justify or validate them. What is revealed in this process of progressively destructive criticism is the unavoidability of reliance on a faculty that generates and understands all the skeptical possibilities. Epistemological skepticism, like selective relativism, is not possible without implicit reliance on the capacity for rational thought: It proceeds by the rational identification of logical possibilities compatible with the evidence, between which reason does not permit us to choose. Thus the skeptic gradually reaches a conception of himself as located in a world whose relation to him he cannot penetrate. But skepticism that is the product of an argument cannot be total. In the cogito the reliance on reason is made explicit, revealing a limit to this type of doubt. The true philosophical point consists not in Descartes’ conclusion that he exists (a result much more limited than he subsequently relies on), not even in the discovery of something absolutely certain. Rather, the point is that Descartes reveals that there are some thoughts which we cannot get outside of…

There are some types of thoughts that we cannot avoid simply having—that it is strictly impossible to consider merely from the outside, because they enter inevitably and directly into any process of considering ourselves from the outside, allowing us to construct the conception of a world in which, as a matter of objective fact, we and our subjective impressions are contained.

Understanding our limits

Thought always leads us back to the employment of unconditional reason if we try to challenge it globally, because one can’t criticize something with nothing; and one can’t criticize the more fundamental with the less fundamental. Logic cannot be displaced by anthropology. Arithmetic cannot be displaced by sociology, or by biology. Neither can ethics, in my view. I believe that once the category of thoughts that we cannot get outside of is recognized, the range of examples turns out to be quite wide…

Thought itself has priority over its description, because its description necessarily involves thought. The use of language has priority over its analysis, because the analysis of language necessarily involves its use. And in general, every external view of ourselves, every understanding of the contingency of our makeup and our responses as creatures in the world, has to be rooted in immediate first-order thought about the world. However successfully we may get outside of ourselves in certain respects, thereby subjecting ourselves to doubt, criticism, and revision, all of it must be done by some part of us that we haven’t got outside of, which simply has the thoughts, draws the inferences, forms the beliefs, makes the statements.

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