I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Problems, problems

Johnny Lyons


A good philosopher must find his obsession, and it will drive him for the rest of his life.
Thomas Nagel

If asked by someone who is unfamiliar with philosophy what they might read to begin to grasp the subject, I would recommend Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean? If pressed as to why this book rather than others, my response would proceed along the following lines.

Philosophy is a fascinating and wickedly difficult subject. There are many who have tried to convey its interest but without doing justice to its complexity. Conversely, there are those who have sought to capture its intricacy but at the cost of losing sight of its vitality. Only a few have succeeded in giving an account of the subject that is both engaging to the newcomer and yet faithful to its difficulty, recognising that there’s no shallow end in the philosophical pool whilst providing beginners with enough buoyancy to keep their heads above water. Nagel’s concise primer (less than 25,000 words) stands proudly, even pre-eminently, among such select company.

What makes What Does It All Mean? an exemplary work is emblematic of its author’s philosophical thought as a whole. A feature of all Nagel’s writings is that they are the product of original and serious thinking that is expressed, for the most part, in entirely lucid and jargon-free language. Nagel is congenitally incapable of merely writing about philosophy. He must always be doing philosophy. This partly explains what makes his brief guide appealing. It is at once an introduction as well as a contribution to the discipline; its author manages to say something of interest to the professional philosopher while explaining the nature and scope of philosophical thinking to the theoretically uninitiated and in prose that is as clear as a chalk stream. The following passage gives a flavour of Nagel’s succinct style:

Philosophy is different from science and from mathematics. Unlike science it doesn’t rely on experiments or observation, but only on thought. And unlike mathematics it has no formal methods of proof. It is done just by asking questions, arguing, trying out ideas and thinking of possible arguments against them, and wondering how our concepts really work.

Another notable characteristic of Nagel’s primer is its emphasis on questions rather than answers, a feature that is defined by an unwavering interest in the special character and the distinctive difficulty of philosophical problems. Nagel reckons that we learn far more from thinking about how and why philosophical questions and dilemmas elude complete and conclusive treatment than from relentlessly trying to come up with definitive answers to them. After all, what would we expect final answers to look like, to such questions as ‘How do you know the world really exists?’, ‘Do we have free will?’, ‘Is inequality unjust?’, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ All of Nagel’s writings prompt us to put our trust in problems over solutions, not defeatedly or insouciantly, but on the grounds that identifying what makes them recalcitrant points us to the truth of the matter. As he says himself:

It may be that philosophical problems have no solutions. I suspect this is true of the deepest and oldest of them. They show us the limits of our understanding. In that case such insight as we can achieve depends on maintaining a strong grasp of the problem instead of abandoning it, and coming to understand the failure of each new attempt at a solution, and of earlier attempts. (That is why we study the works of philosophers like Plato and Berkeley, whose views are accepted by no one.) Unsolvable problems are not for that reason unreal. (Mortal Questions)

Many professional philosophers have regarded this feature of Nagel’s outlook as verging on heretical since it appears to favour intuition over argument and, as a result, inhibit the serious business of disinterested analysis and philosophical advancement. They argue that the questions of philosophy are significantly more corrigible than he is prepared to admit. Nonetheless, what Nagel compels us to confront is the very real possibility that the most fundamental problems of philosophy are insoluble but, crucially, no less meaningful and important for that. Taking on board Nagel’s view of philosophy can be an unnerving experience since it asks us to doubt some of our most strongly held pre-theoretical as well as theoretical assumptions, not least the common presupposition that every authentic problem must have a definitive solution or, put negatively, that only spurious problems lack genuine solutions.

As an aside, something that Nagel does not discuss is the matter of the comparability of philosophy and literature. And yet, there are at least two aspects of such a comparison that seem particularly germane. The first is that, like philosophy, one of the main reasons we tend to read literature is to gain understanding rather than obtain knowledge. Our fund of knowledge is not significantly raised as a consequence of reading a notable novel or philosophical treatise. But exposure to such texts will most likely have enhanced or even changed our understanding of the natural or human world. The second is that just as we believe there are better and worse treatments of philosophical questions so we believe there are better and worse works of literature – we don’t judge that a philosophical problem has to be solvable to be meaningful just as we don’t think that a novel or poem, even a great one, has to be the be-all-and-end-all to be enjoyed and taken seriously. Both of these similarities combine to suggest that the expectation that there will or ought to be a last word in philosophy when all its problems are solved once and for all is as unwarranted as the prospect of a final, unimprovable work of literature that will render future literary works superfluous. One of the main reasons why both philosophy and literature have a much closer and significant relationship with their heritage than subjects like physics and mathematics is because their canonical texts – for example Plato’s Republic, Descartes’s Discourse on Method, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Homer’s Iliad, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Tolstoy’s War and Peace ‑ are not rendered philosophically or imaginatively superfluous as a consequence of the mere passage of time. None of this is meant to affirm that there are no important differences between philosophy and literature.

The suggestion that philosophy’s most enduring questions are unsusceptible to uniquely right answers can fuel the complaint that the subject itself is an elaborate waste of time. And there is rarely a shortage of people of various motivations only too ready to voice this grievance. This can leave philosophy looking vulnerable to those who are ideologically opposed to critical reflection as well as postmodernists who advocate that it’s time we moved to a post-philosophical age. But only a perverse reading of Nagel could regard his work as adding grist to the mill of those who regard philosophy as footling. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a thinker who provides a more persuasive refutation of the bogus thinking that informs most kinds of anti-philosophical prejudices. His defence of the inexhaustibility of philosophy’s deepest problems also offers a powerful antidote to the late Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy as a self-dissolving activity. Nagel is at one with Wittgenstein’s well-known remark that ‘Philosophical problems have the form: I don’t know my way about’, but he does not share Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy’s core purpose as therapeutic, that is, to cure us of our philosophical anxieties.

A more pointed variation of the above complaint is that philosophy is a subject locked in interminable debate. There is a sense in which this criticism may be valid and a sense in which it may not. It is undeniable that philosophy’s seemingly perennial questions such as, ‘What is knowledge?’, ‘Is there such a thing as the truth?’, ‘Are moral values objective?’, ‘What is justice?’, those which got the subject going in the first place, remain unanswered. That leaves most onlookers feeling not just confused but suspicious that there is something rotten at the heart of the enterprise; how could a discipline which claims to be a rational form of enquiry have failed to solve any of its central problems? Is it the case that philosophy has survived beyond its sell-by date? It is at least conceivable that at some point in the future these inklings will gain ground. But if that development were to happen then we must hope that the reasons given for philosophy’s death would be philosophically clinching. In the meantime, philosophy has proved successful in outliving its obituarists.

One plausible explanation for the persistence of philosophical dissent, which has been touched upon already, relates to the fact that not all meaningful questions appear to possess or permit uniquely right answers. Nagel deepens and vindicates this point by inviting us to register the difference between a puzzle and a problem, where the former has a solution and an agreed method for discovering it and the latter does not have an obvious (or even unobvious) solution nor an authoritative and settled procedure for reaching one. More concretely, one might think of the difference between the question ‘What is the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem?’ and ‘What is a number?’ Even though Fermat’s formula remained unproven for more than 350 years, once Andrew Wiles came up with a solution (on the second attempt in 1995), it was quickly and unanimously agreed among relevant experts that one of the great mathematical problems had finally been put to bed. No definitive answer has been produced in relation to the general nature of numbers and yet this question strikes us as both real and not insignificant.

Even more concretely, let’s consider the difference between the questions ‘Why did people vote for Trump in 2016?’ and ‘Is democracy the best form of government?’ The first question is by no means a straightforward one and it might plausibly be argued that we are still awaiting a satisfactory answer to it. But we have a good sense of what would be involved in producing an empirically informed and objective account of why people voted for Trump. And although no answer to this question would be as clean and conclusive as Andrew Wiles’s solution to Fermat’s seemingly unsolvable riddle, it is entirely reasonable to expect that a sufficiently cogent explanation could be given for Trump’s 2016 election win that would command the assent of experts in the field.

However, we have less reason to expect the same kind of agreement concerning the superiority of democracy as a form of political rule. Part of the reason for this has to do with the fact that democracy is a notoriously contested form of government which resists a shared and agreed understanding. ‘Rule by the people’ works fine as a basic dictionary definition yet is cripplingly uninformative for more than the most cursory of purposes. ‘What type of popular rule is being referred to?’ ‘Direct or representative?’ ‘What, if any, are the limits of political authority and power in a democracy?’ ‘Who belongs to the demos?’ ‘What are the criteria of political membership and who should decide these criteria?’ ‑ and so on.

A deeper reason for dispute has its roots in the fact that democracy is a value-laden term. Anyone who affirms or denies that democracy is the best or ‘least worst’ form of government is (implicitly or explicitly) making a value judgement and no amount of facts and figures or conceptual clarification will establish by themselves the normative superiority or justifiability of a democratic model of government. To try to show that one value judgement is better than another, that, for example, democracy is better than oligarchy, one has no choice but to engage in a serious and sustained normative discussion about values: ‘Is democracy to be valued for its intrinsic worth or more instrumentally for what it delivers?’ ‘Should democracy be limited by a constitution or not?’ ‘If the demands and commitments of democracy clash with those of other political values such as individual liberty or state security what takes priority?’

These are the kinds of questions that most social and political scientists shy away from for a variety of reasons, some more legitimate than others. The more defensible arguments are liable to revolve around the belief that there is a division of scholarly labour and specialism with regard to how society is understood and that social and political scientists should be free to restrict their investigations to the more empirical side of their field of study if they so choose. The less legitimate reasons tend to converge on some version of the fact/value dichotomy and involve a two-step assertion: firstly, facts are said to be objective and sacred while values are subjective and arbitrary and, secondly, the only respectable form of social and political science is, it’s argued, one that is empirically pure and value-free.

One of the merits of Nagel’s brief introduction to philosophy is that it helps dispel the still pervasive illusion that the proper study of humankind is or ought to be an ethics-free zone. At least half of What Does It All Mean? addresses matters that fall squarely into the realm of normative human concern. These include the topics of free will, right and wrong, the character of a just society and the meaning of life and death. Whether or not one happens to agree with Nagel’s particular views on each of these themes is largely beside the point. What’s pertinent is that his handling of them exemplifies his general conception of what philosophical thinking is and entails. He doesn’t give a formal definition or empirical description of free will, right and wrong, justice etc. Rather he proceeds ‘just by asking questions, arguing, trying out ideas and thinking of possible arguments against them, and wondering how our concepts really work’. Moreover, he doesn’t try to pretend that it’s possible to have a worthwhile discussion about how to understand morality and a moral life without engaging in fully fledged, self-conscious evaluative judgements. Here’s a typical passage from the beginning of his chapter on the meaning of life:

If you ask yourself the question, “But what’s the point of being alive at all?” – leading the particular life of a student or bartender or whatever you happen to be – you’ll answer “There’s no point. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t exist at all, or if I didn’t care about anything. But I do. That’s all there is to it.”
Some people find this attitude perfectly satisfying. Others find it depressing, though unavoidable. Part of the problem is that some of us have an incurable tendency to take ourselves seriously. We want to matter to ourselves, “from the outside.” If our lives as a whole seem pointless, then a part of us is dissatisfied – the part that is always looking over our shoulders at what we are doing. Many human efforts, particularly those in the service of serious ambitions rather than just comfort and survival, get some of their energy from a sense of importance, a sense that what you are doing is not just important to you, but important in some larger sense: important, period. If we have to give this up, it may threaten to take the wind out of our sails. If life is not real, life is not earnest, and the grave is its goal, perhaps it’s ridiculous to take ourselves so seriously. On the other hand, if we can’t help taking ourselves so seriously, then perhaps we just have to put up with being ridiculous. Life may not only be meaningless but absurd.

A number of things can be said about or inferred from this excerpt. The first is that it reveals Nagel’s gift for making philosophy look a great deal easier than it actually is. When most of us are confronted with a question like ‘What is the meaning of life?’ we find ourselves almost instantly stumped, experiencing what Ludwig Wittgenstein described as ‘mental cramp’. Not only do we not have a definitive answer, we don’t even know where to go to find one. The opportunity for nonsense strikes us as virtually limitless. Or as Nagel says, slightly more politely, in the introduction to Mortal Questions: ‘Large, relevant questions too easily evoke large, wet answers.’

A second is that Nagel has had the intellectual deftness and courage to take on the big questions of human life throughout his career, even when this was an unfashionable thing to do within Anglophone philosophical circles. His way of doing philosophy, especially moral and political philosophy, undermined the prevailing consensus that the proper job of a professional philosopher is not to participate in ethical discussion (a first-order intellectual activity described as normative ethics) but to limit oneself to engaging in the value-free study of ethical discourse (a second-order form of enquiry known as meta-ethics). His example helped to burst the illusion that worthwhile moral and political philosophy could be done in a morally neutral way. Of course once this illusion has been punctured it means that philosophy must forsake its pretensions to occupying a privileged epistemological standpoint above the messy reality of human affairs and instead seek to carve out a space for itself in the marketplace of ideas. Nagel has dedicated his career to doing just that; he has brought philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the agora, demonstrating the subject’s interest and urgency in his intellectually uncompromising yet accessible monographs as well as in the pages of the New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books and several other non-academic periodicals.

A third and intimately related point is that there are objectively better and worse kinds of evaluative discussion about human affairs, just as there are objectively better and worse evaluative views and judgements. Being in the company of Nagel’s work helps us to recognise that it is neither theoretically compulsory to dismiss values as emotional ejaculations – mere ‘hooray’ or ‘boo’ talk, according to the logical positivist Freddie Ayer – nor philosophically suicidal to regard substantive moral discussion as a rational pursuit. That so much contemporary social and political science fails to acknowledge, let alone act upon, the truth that values form a large and constitutive component of human understanding is as absurd as it is regrettable.

But the myth of a fact/value dichotomy runs deep and wide in our everyday culture. Moreover, its acceptance is evident even in the work of justly renowned and sophisticated social theorists like Max Weber; whilst Weber didn’t shy away from discussing the place of values in social and political science he remained faithful to the originally Humean thesis that it is impossible to derive an ought from an is, that normative discourse is unsusceptible to rational proof. How often have we experienced the retort ‘But that’s a value judgment!’, as if a normative utterance is a purely emotional matter bereft of reason? More often than not this view of values is based – consciously or not – on a scientistic notion of reason which assumes that only factual statements can be rationally argued and that evaluative judgements lie beyond the reach of reason. Typically, what these non-cognitive viewpoints about values fail to recognise is twofold: that the scientific notion of rationality does not enjoy a monopoly of reason and, secondly, that it’s virtually impossible to make sense of or meaningfully participate in social life without recognising that the entanglement of facts and values is so much part of our self-understanding and human interactions. One has only to consider virtues and vices like courage, compassion, love, cruelty or hypocrisy etc and less ethically pregnant concepts like truth, knowledge and reason to grasp that there exists no coherent and credible value-free account of any of them. Nagel’s defence of moral objectivity puts reason at the centre of his theory of value by claiming that

propositions about what gives us reasons for action can be true or false independently of how things appear to us, and that we can hope to discover the truth by transcending the appearances and subjecting them to critical assessment. (The View from Nowhere)

My fourth observation is more critical and can be expressed in a series of sceptical questions. What’s the ultimate purpose of Nagel’s mode of philosophising? Aren’t its questions posed at too high a level of abstraction to be profitably pursued? Does an exemplary disciple of Nagel spend her days pondering the age-old philosophical questions with the aim of becoming more profound by reflecting on how profound they are? Surely this is indistinguishable from an elevated form of navel-gazing to all but the converted Nagel-gazing? Does Nagel’s work allow for the possibility of progress in philosophy? And what would that progress look like and how would we know we had achieved it? Or does his acontextual brand of conceptual thinking amount to little more than agonistic talk about talk? Is his view of the intractability of philosophical problems guilty of excessive intellectual abstinence or indicative of the limits of human thought? All these posers are easily stated but not so easily answered or disarmed. Unsurprisingly, Nagel writings do not provide a quick and neat response to any of them. It’s likely that he would treat a number of them as too blunt to handle. Or he might turn the tables on his interlocutor and say ‘You tell me.’ What can be said with a greater degree of certainty is that at the heart of Nagel’s outlook is the notion that philosophy is better off not defining its raison d’être in terms of producing a set of cumulative, irrefutable doctrines or, more ambitiously, a quest for an all-encompassing, harmonious and infallible vision. More positively, as we have intimated, his conception of philosophy is concerned with achieving understanding rather than acquiring knowledge, and in a way that conforms to a worldly, secular standard of truth and reason.

Briefly, a final and often neglected fact which Nagel touches on in the passage on life’s meaning is that temperament is more central to philosophy than most philosophers are liable to admit. There may well be a philosopher inside all of us ‑ a voice that asks at least some of the questions discussed in What Does it All Mean? some of the time ‑ but it’s one which many seem to repress or ignore. Philosophy certainly isn’t for everyone. And that might be regarded as a good thing too.

Relatedly, an awkward question that Nagel highlighted was one raised by his fellow philosopher and friend Bernard Williams. Williams asked what’s the point of doing philosophy unless you are extraordinarily good at it? The implication of Williams’s poser is clear: philosophy done by ordinary minds is virtually guaranteed to be wrong or unoriginal or both. Nagel’s response to Williams’s challenge is quite telling if far from decisive:

If there is an answer to this question, it would have to depend on the idea that we are engaged in a collective enterprise whose results can’t always be easily traced. Some kind of marketplace of arguments and ideas may generate developments of value that wouldn’t have been produced just by the greatest thinkers working individually and responding to each other. Original contributions are thus disseminated and interpreted and an environment is produced in which others can occasionally and unpredictably develop. I am not sure whether this is true, but it does seem to me possible that the widely extended cooperative activities of philosophical research and teaching, in which this subject has its life, contribute something to the development of intellectual tools that over the long run advance our common capacity to think about language, science, knowledge, politics, morality, and what human beings are. (Other Minds)

A more fundamental challenge that Williams’s late work raises for Nagel focuses on the thorny question of philosophy’s relationship with history. The reason why this matter poses a particular threat to Nagel has to do with the fact that his mode of philosophy suggests that history is not especially indispensable to the philosophical project. Indeed, one of the unmistakable impressions one derives from reading Nagel’s various works is that the putatively central questions of philosophy are not just universal but ahistorical. But is this true? What if it’s the case that these so-called perennial questions with which we are preoccupied are in fact historically and culturally peculiar to us? At least three implications might be said to follow if our current set of philosophical concerns are more historically situated than Nagel assumes. One is that the effort to work out how we came to believe that the philosophical questions we are concerned with today are the central questions of philosophy becomes somewhat crucial. Another is that unless we are prepared to adopt a preposterously optimistic (not to mention, hubristic) view of how and why we got to where we are today, it is as close to certain that we will in the future realise that today’s defining philosophical problems are neither inevitable nor eternal nor universal. This suggests that philosophical enquiry should be more diachronic than Nagel’s approach suggests. And a third is the sobering and potentially liberating recognition that an understanding of the past and with it a certain historical self-consciousness is not simply desirable but integral to the philosophical project itself. Sobering for the reason that knowing more about the history of philosophy and of human life as a whole is likely to raise doubts about the presumed centrality of our current philosophical preoccupations. Liberating because a closer acquaintance with the past allows us to learn more about the road that got us here as well as some of the paths that got cut off or overlooked along the way. It might even result in reclaiming what the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner has called ‘the neglected riches of our intellectual heritage’, which in turn might prompt us to become both less blind-sighted by the potency of our current fixations and more open to untapped ways of thinking submerged in long-forgotten styles of imaginative architecture.

While Nagel’s assessment of Williams’s late works reveals a growing appreciation on his part of the more profound connections between history and philosophy, he recoils from the historicist lessons that Williams – and, in a different way, Richard Rorty – believe follow from an honest recognition of our radical happenstance. He resists such historicism on the grounds that it threatens the very meaning and power of reason. Nagel is a child of Kant, not of Hegel, more than willing to accept that ‘out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made’, but opposed to the extreme historicist doctrine that our basic concepts of truth, knowledge, morality etc are hermetically sealed in their own time and space. He holds firm to a rationalist and universalist conception of reason that rejects the Hegelian doctrine of philosophy being defined as ‘its own age comprehended in thought’. For Nagel, wholesale historicism is ultimately a species of self-defeating subjectivism; it wants to claim that everything, including reason, is historically contingent all the way down but with the exception of that non-historicist assertion:

However much one may try to construe one’s concepts and thoughts naturalistically, as an expression of contingent forms of life, the logic of the effort will always generate thoughts too fundamental for this, thoughts which one cannot get outside of in this way and which one must employ in trying to view from the outside anything else that one does. These thoughts cannot in any way be given first person interpretation or qualification: they bob to the surface again in their unqualified form whenever we try to subordinate them to psychology, sociology, or natural history. I don’t mean they all have irreversible finality. But they form an outer boundary whose interest is nonrelative. (The Last Word)

It is relatively straightforward to describe the central ideas of a merely clever philosopher but it is immeasurably more difficult to achieve the same for one who is also deep. Wisdom is not an attribute that can be easily encapsulated or even alluded to. This is because it tends to be a virtue of the soul as well as of the intellect, a protean quality that resists pithy and unambivalent synopsis. Thinkers like Nagel are more inclined to reveal their underlying vision through their peculiar mode of thinking than in their explicit philosophical doctrines. Furthermore, they are liable to be motivated not by an overriding desire to be absolutely right but by a concern to capture something vital about our human situation, aware that the best they can hope to accomplish will be necessarily partial and provisional.

Why necessarily partial, one may ask? Again, there are few better ways of responding to that question than reading Nagel. A recurring theme of his various works is that philosophical progress often occurs at the moment we acknowledge the precariousness and boundaries of our thought. Indeed, the exploration of this paradox, namely, that philosophy is disposed to reach many of its greatest discoveries when it recognises the limits and antinomies of human understanding, has been a hallmark of Nagel’s philosophical outlook:

It remains unclear whether it is legitimate to seek a satisfying account of the cosmos and our place in it, one which will make us feel at home in the universe. Like the other questions of philosophy, we can expect this one to be around for a long time. I believe that progress in philosophy consists not in answering questions definitively, but in deepening our understanding of the problems that inevitably arise in the attempt to find our place in the world, once we become afflicted with the pervasive self-consciousness that makes us human.

Nagel’s most notable substantive philosophical contribution, articulated most comprehensively in The View from Nowhere, is his account of the deep-seated connections and frictions between our impersonal and personal viewpoints. It is one thing to declare that philosophical questions cannot be answered through the scientific methods of deduction and induction but it is quite another to offer an explanation of the source and structure of some of these questions. Nagel shows with great ingenuity and force that the problem of ‘how to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of the same world’ underlies and informs many of the most difficult questions concerning our scientific understanding of reality and its relation to the irreducibly subjective character of human experience. What makes the rivalry between the first-person and third-person viewpoints so fascinating and troubling is not that we must choose between them but that we must inhabit both of them. The goal of getting outside of our own skin and of seeing the world and ourselves objectively is both natural and admirable but its pursuit brings us into irreconcilable clash with a competing yet equally natural and legitimate goal which demands that we perceive and value things subjectively in the here and now.

This perspective provides a particularly instructive way of making sense of – though not necessarily resolving – the age-old free will problem. The problem of free will (or a core element of it) is neatly expressed in a remark by the Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer: ‘Of course I believe in free will, I’ve no choice.’ Singer captures the dilemma of free will by articulating how our sense of ultimate freedom can appear, on the one hand, to deny the causal facts of the physical world of which we are a part and, on the other, an entirely natural and necessary feature of our sense of self and our relations with others. This dilemma suggests that our belief in free will may be an inescapable illusion. He offers a convincing framework for understanding the free will problem differently, by seeing it not so much as bound up in an illusion but as a symptom of a deeper and ineliminable conflict between our personal and impersonal standpoints.

Nagel’s philosophical perspective also sheds invaluable light on the complexity and tensions that pervade our ordinary and not so ordinary lives. For example, it enables us to make more sense of the moral qualms we experience when we confront the divergent and competing pressures to put the good of our ourselves or our loved ones above the good of society, or of the predicament public servants face when they must choose between the pull of their own conscience and the seemingly overriding demands of the greater public interest. The common assumption that that there exists a magic bullet capable of resolving our ethical dilemmas is one that is denied by Nagel. On the contrary, moral conflict is, he argues, an ineliminable and pervasive feature of our fragmented human condition and one that grown-ups are left to grapple with as truthfully and capaciously as possible.

The achievement of The View from Nowhere lies in how its author applies the distinction between the objective and subjective points of view to a wide range of questions not only about free will but about our understanding of reality, knowledge, ethics and death, among other topics. Its significance resides in showing us that an appreciation of our capacities for occupying both an objective and subjective point of view doesn’t just change how we view the subject of philosophy but, more broadly, how we view ourselves and our relation to the world. The book’s overall effect has been to transform what had become a predominantly flat, desiccated philosophical landscape into something rich, disturbing and unignorable.

Philosophy is a highly general, fluid, self-subversive activity that can only be done when we engage in it ourselves and pay it the seriousness it demands. Few contemporary philosophers have exemplified this commitment as insightfully and urbanely as Thomas Nagel.

Note: Thomas Nagel was born in 1937, in Belgrade, to German Jewish refugees. He emigrated to the US in 1939 and was raised in New York. After completing his undergraduate education at Cornell, he pursued postgraduate studies in philosophy at Oxford and Harvard. He taught philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley (1963-66), at Princeton University (1966-80), and, finally, at New York University (1981-2016). He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, as well as a recipient of the Rolf Schock Prize and the Balzan Prize. His books include The Possibility of Altruism (1970), Mortal Questions (1979); The View from Nowhere (1986); What Does it All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy (1987); Equality and Partiality (1991); Other Minds: Critical Essays, 1969-1994 (1995); The Last Word (1997); Concealment and Exposure and other Essays (2002); with Liam Murphy, The Myth of Ownership: Justice and Taxes (2002); Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002-2008 (2010); and Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (2012).


Johnny Lyons’s most recent book is Isaiah Berlin and his Philosophical Contemporaries (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). His personal website can be found at https://johnnylyons.org/




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