Book review: The View from Nowhere

The View from Nowhere
by Thomas Nagel (1986)

Objectivity is a distinguishing feature of intelligent beings, our ability to conceive the world not only from our own point of view, not only through that of others, but from an outside point of view that is no one’s in particular.  Our ability to see the world both subjectively and objectively introduces a duality in the soul.  For example, I realize from the objective perspective that my own personal concerns are of little ultimate concern (to the universe as a whole or even to the human race), and such a realization can be demoralizing.

Nagel has great appreciation for the objective view, crediting it, or at least the striving for greater approximation to it, as an important feature to science and ethics.  Nevertheless, he thinks the objective view, the view from nowhere, is necessarily incomplete and that the subjective view has its own legitimacy in a properly integrated human consciousness.  There can be no supremacy for one view or the other and no complete reconciliation, but philosophy can help manage the unavoidable tension.

Nagel’s humility is an attractive feature of this book.  He deals extensively with mind/body and free will problems, but he is convinced that the true solution has yet to be conceived.  Indeed, the solution is probably centuries off–he acknowledges his own powers to be far inadequate to the task–and will (he suspects) involve a revolution in our understanding of the world.

Nagel often speaks of the “objective self” to mean roughly what other philosophers have called the “transcendental ego”; his empirical ego he refers to as “TN”.  My objective self is the subject of a conception of the world “from nowhere”, with me as only one part of that world.  And yet, I can never entirely escape from my own head.  Objectivity can never be total.  My objective perspective of the world is still my world.  This explains, he notes in the books final section, the unique and uncanny terror of death, that it means not only the end of my empirical self in the world, but the end of my world.  (Nagel is baffled that his fellow atheists’ claim not to be bothered by the prospect of their own annihilation.)

There are paradoxes to the duality of objective and subjective perspectives, which Nagel is keen to draw out.  The ability to see oneself from the outside, to critique and modify one’s own motives, promises an enlargement of our freedom.  Yet it we stray too far from the subjective to the objective pole, the very concept of free will ceases to make sense.  Nagel claims this is true whether one accepts determinism or not, although this is not well explained.  (Perhaps that, from the outside, neither determinism nor uncaused randomness bears any resemblance to our subjective sense of freedom.)  Perhaps, to use my own words rather more reckless than Nagel’s, this is the reason so many continue to believe in objectively nonsensical things like libertarian free will or the passage of time–as an assertion of the legitimacy of the subjective view, from which alone these ideas make sense.

Nagel sees an interesting role for the subjective / objective duality in ethics.  It is a commonplace philosophical idea that ethics involves subordinating one’s personal preference to an impartial standard.  This book affirms this as well, but looking deeper finds that the situation is more complicated.  Nagel distinguishes agent-relative values/reasons for action, which are reasons for a specific person, from agent-neutral values/reasons, which refer to no specific viewpoint.  Agent-relative does not necessarily mean “selfish”.  The agent neutral perspective is identified with consequentialism.  Because I am not considering any of the actions in the various scenarios to be mine, I can just judge which scenario is preferable overall (like a multiple choice test, as Nagel puts it).  However, we have legitimate agent-relative reasons to defer from consequentialist reasoning.  The book lists three, and they do seem to cover it pretty well:  what one might call tolerance, deontology, and obligations.  By the first, it is morally acceptable for me to want things that disinterested outsiders would have no reason to care whether I get them or not.  (Nagel argues that pain and pleasure are agent neutral disvalues/values, so that anyone’s objective perspective should be that my pain is bad, because itself is bad, not just specific peoples’; however, there is no objective reason to want all peoples’ preferences to be satisfied.)  There follows an attempt to rebut the harsher demands of utilitarian morality (that, like the rich man, we should give all we have to the poor) by suggesting that even at the objective level some allowance should be made to the subjective level (although, it is suggested, probably not as much allowance as we actually give ourselves).  Deontology refers to restrictions on what I may do for the greater good because some of the evil actions required for the optimal world are mine, and there are limits I must not cost.  Here we see agent-relative reasoning taking a distinctively moral form.  Finally, obligations refers to the claims that particular persons have on us that affect our moral reasoning in ways a global consequentialist view can’t accommodate.  Nagel notes this category but says nothing about them, which is a shame because they are of particular interest to me.

To sum up what I take to be this book’s most interesting argument, the legitimacy of the subjective, particular perspective must not be completely denied, because it is only from this view from somewhere that I am free, that my duties and choices are important, and that my life has meaning.


5 Responses

  1. A while ago I was trying to explain patriotism to liberal friends in a way they would understand, by appealing to rational self-interest. My example was that back when we did not have GPS SatNav we got easily lost especially in older cities. Which is fun as a tourist but not fun if being late from a business meeting could result in getting fired. So there is an advantage in sticking to what you are very familiar with.

    But then I realized there is another aspect. If you are very familiar with one city, it is a microcosm that reflects the greater macrocosm of human life and you learn a lot of very well generalizable lessons about human nature and society. For example, Tilo Schabert’s book Boston Politics: The Creativity of Power about Kevin White shows how politics in general works. Seeing the ocean in a drop of water and all that. You don’t get this kind if deep knowledge by moving to another city every three years.

    So when and if we decide to not be superficial and “dig deep” at one spot, which is necessary in this age of information overload and hence specialization, our knowledge necessarily becomes a mix of the objective and the subjective. It is easy to have a lot of superficial objective knowledge about a lot of things but once we become deep experts in one very narrow field, that is more subjective, it includes judgements of our own and trusting the judgements of others. Things become more of an art than a science. Or rather, things become more like how science is actually done and not how the popular imagination of science is. As science is only science in that sense in the school textbook, people think about high school science class and think that is science. But that has about as much to do with science as sitting in a French class in high school has to do with living in Paris and talking with the people. Science is more subjective, more art-like in the lab when researching uncharted territory.

  2. It is true that my subjective world is finite in extent and duration, and on Nagel’s atheism, ultimately meaningless. But isn’t this also true of the objective world? Certainly the objective world that I can know is finite and meaningless. There is also the argument that objectivity is ultimately subjective since it is an artificial attitude we adopt because we crave power and control. There are other reasons one might wish to see the universe as it is, bit not on Nagel’s atheism.

  3. > But isn’t this also true of the objective world?

    Certainly. In saying that my life is meaningful from the subjective perspective, this means meaningful for me. From an objective point of view, I am quite insignificant. This is true even for theists, I suppose, since I am only one soul out of billions.

  4. […]  “the legitimacy of the subjective, particular perspective must not be completely denied, because it is only from this view from somewhere that I am free, that my duties and choices are important, and that my life has meaning.”  -thus the Bonald […]

  5. […] and Altar reviews The View From Nowhere, by Thomas Nagel. Its principle argument seems to be that subjectivity is a […]

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