How refreshing and intellectually stimulating it is to read a philosopher—and one as smart as Thomas Nagel—say a favorable word on behalf of Descartes. In a time when “Cartesian” has almost become a pejorative term, Nagel invites us to have second thoughts.
He does so in order to raise doubts about a form of subjectivism that has, in his view, given rise to the “extreme intellectual laziness of contemporary culture” and “a refusal to take seriously, as anything other than first–person avowals, the objective arguments of others.” He himself, by contrast, holds the view that “the last word in philosophical disputes about the objectivity of any form of thought must lie in some unqualified thoughts about how things are.” To some extent Nagel here returns to ground he has already covered in The View from Nowhere, but, as he recognizes, the questions that concern him are ones that we never simply settle once and for all.
Subjectivism of the sort criticized by Nagel teaches that we cannot possibly have or form beliefs about any order independent of the ordering our minds themselves impose. Our beliefs are only our point of view—grounded in habits, in shared linguistic practices, even in personal choice. Nagel does not, of course, wish to deny that this is the right way to characterize some of our beliefs, but he thinks it mistaken—and sometimes self–contradictory—to offer a subjectivist account of everything we believe. “The issue, in a nutshell, is whether the first person, singular or plural, is hiding at the bottom of everything we say or think.” In an age when “individual choice” reigns supreme in ethics and “social construction” in other realms of thought, this is a bracing, provocative, and very helpful book.
If not the first person singular or plural, what might hide “at the bottom” of our thinking and speaking? Reason, answers Nagel. My reasoning is “an attempt to turn myself into a local representative of the truth, and in action of the right.” That is, when we reason, we generalize. We look—sometimes at least—for arguments that are not limited by our particular location, by the place we happen to occupy. In reasoning, therefore, we are led “inexorably to certain thoughts in which ‘I’ plays no part.” Or, we might say, that in the very act of my own reasoning, I somehow get out of my skin. I am not simply trying to work out what I myself think, the implications of my own point of view. On the contrary, I am seeking what is true for all of us.
If Nagel is correct, then in reason we find a way out of the self into something that transcends us. In our very capacity to reason we discover the mystery of human self–transcendence. What Nagel is ultimately explicating, therefore, is a certain conception of what it means to be human. “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.” We both are and are not located. We are finite and free.
Nagel works out this conception first in chapters that treat language, logic, and science. His fundamental move at the level of logic is a very old one, which he continues to regard as a hurdle the subjectivist cannot overcome. “The familiar point that relativism is self–refuting remains valid, in spite of its familiarity.” If, for example, I argue that all of our beliefs about the world reflect perspectives that are local, I appear to be making a claim about how things really are while at the same time denying that human beings are capable of such general (non–local) claims.
Nagel distinguishes his view from a standard reading of Des cartes by granting that reason does not carry with it any absolute certainty; it is not foundationalist in that sense, nor does it give us some set of unrevisable beliefs. Instead, he emphasizes reason’s “aspiration to universality.” What Descartes was really getting at is that we cannot “get outside of” all our thoughts. We cannot, that is, treat ourselves as just another object for study—as we treat cabbages, meteors, and nation–states. We can and do treat ourselves as objects of study for certain purposes, of course. We do consider whether some of our beliefs may be the result of psychological forces or cultural influence. But when we engage in such reflection we must engage in reasoning—with all that such engagement implies.
In language, logic, and science Nagel finds that subjectivism leads us regularly to try to explain higher phenomena in terms of lower. Consider the logical rule of inference called modus ponens: Given two statements, “if p then q,” and “p,” we may infer “q.” To try to explain the logical necessity of such a rule in terms of the linguistic practices of any community is, Nagel argues, “the attempt to explain the more fundamental in terms of the less fundamental.”
Logic is probably the strongest example for Nagel’s case. What of other kinds of reasoning—for example, practical reason? When we talk about what we—and others—ought or ought not to do, are we, at least sometimes, making objective claims that are not grounded in a local perspective (ours or our community’s)? Nagel grants readily that the subjectivist position is more believable with respect to practical than theoretical reason. We are often tempted, for example, to replace normative judgments with psychological ones—tempted, that is, to try to show that all our moral judgments are actually sophisticated forms of rationalization. If I articulate a moral judgment about, say, abortion, am I—in the last analysis—only reporting some facts about myself? How I happen to feel about it? What my values are? What sort of person I wish to be?
It may be harder in such matters than it is in logic to argue that the subjectivist is simply self–contradictory. But we may note—even with some comfort—how often those theoretically inclined to subjectivism may argue practical questions in ways which suggest that more is at stake here than bringing the values of their own perspective into harmony with each other. Thus, in moral reasoning also, Nagel suggests that “I find within myself the universal standards that enable me to get outside of myself.”
If in reason we thus find, however mysteriously, a way out of ourselves, we may wish to ponder that mystery itself just a bit: “We seem to be left with a question that has no imaginable answer: How is it possible for finite beings like us to think infinite thoughts?” The subjectivist seems to suggest that our problem is the following: If we finite, localized beings are the reasoners, how can reason possibly be valid? But our true problem, Nagel argues, is a different one: Given the universal validity of reason, how is it that we finite localized beings can engage in it? There are, he says, “not many candidates for an answer to this question.” The most common nonsubjectivist answer in our time has been evolutionary naturalism, which, Nagel writes, “has always seemed to me laughably inadequate.” He means that it seems incredible that the appearance of reason should be a kind of natural accident, as if through some evolutionary mechanism a mindless universe should be able to generate mind—as if what is higher should be explicable entirely in terms of what is lower. Such an account of reason cannot possibly be the last word.
If not this answer to our question, then what? The reader suddenly realizes that the other possible answer is “the religious one” and that Nagel takes it quite seriously, even if he also says that he has never been entirely able to understand it. He is, he says, “made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well–informed people I know are religious believers.” Why, if we find his arguments up to this point generally persuasive, would we not turn to a religious answer? Perhaps surprisingly, Nagel offers a kind of psychological explanation, but it is an explanation that has about it the ring of truth.
In the standard terms of the history of philosophy, he has been arguing the side of “rationalism” against “empiricism,” and that side, he notes, “has always had a more religious flavor.” Even if we do not bring God into the picture, “the [rationalist’s] idea of a natural sympathy between the deepest truths of nature and the deepest layers of the human mind . . . makes us more at home in the universe than is secularly comfortable.” In short, we fear religion. “I speak from experience,” he writes. “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
There is much throughout Nagel’s argument that might remind a reader of the first five chapters of C. S. Lewis’ Miracles. And here, when Nagel turns to contemplating the religious explanation of the fact of reason, a reader might be led ineluctably to recall Lewis’ description of his own conversion, “feeling . . . the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Nagel, of course, has not taken such a step, but in understanding the issue as one not only of intellect but of will, he sees something very important indeed. Moreover, the fear of religion, which he thinks is widely shared, “has large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life.” Relativism and subjectivism are not, then, simply philosophical problems. They are also—and perhaps even primarily—moral problems. We do not want to bend the knee.
A striking argument indeed. And not one for religious folk simply to seize upon with glee. For we ourselves ought to be able to understand quite well Nagel’s point here. If there really is a “last word” about the truth of things, a “logos” that binds the cosmos together in a system that is both knowable and mysterious, then Nagel’s understanding of reason as an “aspiration to universality” is a kind of natural piety. Perhaps no more than that is possible unless and until that last word becomes personal, becomes for us the last (or, also, first) speaker who addresses us—as Barth put it, “the final word of the original chairman.”
Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.