Reason finds a trusty champion

The Last Word
September 26, 1997

As the author of a previous book called What Does it all Mean?, Thomas Nagel is not one of those philosophers afraid to tackle the big issues. He also, rather refreshingly, has what Ludwig Wittgenstein once called "the courage to write a short book". Here, in just under 150 pages, he tackles the question of the nature of rationality, arguing that objective reason is, or ought to be, the "last word" in our attempts to understand ourselves and the world. Taking on the views of subjectivists and relativists of every persuasion, he extends this argument to the fields of language, logic, science and ethics, to each of which he devotes a short, dense and tightly argued chapter. Though the opinions Nagel tackles head on are those of leading analytical philosophers, such as Wittgenstein, William Quine, and Bernard Williams, the background to his defence of reason is provided by what he describes as "a growth in the already extreme intellectual laziness of contemporary culture and the collapse of serious argument throughout the lower reaches of the humanities and the social sciences, together with a refusal to take seriously, as anything other than first-person avowals, the objective arguments of others".

Some years ago, I would have regarded such remarks as indicative of the narrow-mindedness that stifled analytical philosophy, making it the boring, overly technical and justly ignored discipline it seemed hell-bent on becoming. Recently, however, I have had a change of heart, and perhaps it would not be totally irrelevant here if I indulged in a little autobiography, so as to show why, essentially, I regard Nagel as being on the side of the angels, despite not sharing his Platonic conception of the truths of reason. Five years ago, before I became an academic, when I was earning a living as a freelance writer, I wrote a piece for The Independent ridiculing the attitude of the Cambridge philosophers towards the honorary degree awarded to Jacques Derrida by the English faculty. It seemed to me then that academic philosophers at our ancient universities were closing their minds, simply out of blind prejudice, to new and fresh ideas from the continent and from other disciplines. There still seems to me some truth in this, and I look forward to the creation of a "post-analytic" philosophy that will preserve the virtues of analytic philosophy - rigour, precision and intellectual honesty - while extending its range of discussible topics and gleaning whatever it can from the continental traditions it has for so long ignored.

However, since being in academic life I have been appalled at the sheer awfulness of some of the arguments inspired by these "new and fresh ideas" that are routinely presented in supposedly "theoretical" discussions in the humanities and the social sciences. I had no idea that things had got so bad. Time and time again I have been astonished at the facile forms of subjectivism that I have heard expressed with the confident air of platitudes. I have heard one lecturer with a distinguished record of publication announce that we now know, thanks to advances in science and philosophy, that there is, in fact, no difference between truth and fiction (in fact, if you please!). I have also heard an eminent social scientist declare that there is no such thing as a false belief. Among the arguments I have heard repeatedly used are these: 1. Facts can only be expressed in language, language is a social construct, therefore facts are social constructs.

2. A statement cannot be true or false unless it has a meaning, meanings are dependent upon forms of life, therefore whether something is true or false is dependent, not on the way the world is, but only on the form of life in which it is uttered.

When I have said that one only has to state these arguments to realise how bad they are, I have been met with the response: "But I thought you were a Wittgensteinian - these are Wittgenstein's arguments".

Against such a background, I am inclined to applaud any attempt to stem the tide of institutionalised nonsense and intellectual nihilism that has already engulfed large areas of academic life and threatens to drown us all, and to anyone whose temperature has been raised by such irritating encounters, I recommend Nagel's book as the intellectual equivalent of a cold shower. Much of the book consists of a series of variations on the old argument against subjectivism that points out that the claim "Everything is subjective" is vacuous, since, if it were true, it would apply to itself and then it would not itself be making an objective claim and would thus be consistent with any objective claim, including the view that, objectively, it was false. Using this form of argument as his sword, Nagel, like Heracles fighting the Hydra, seeks to cut down the many varieties of subjectivism that grow out of this central fallacy with quick, incisive cuts.

He is most successful, I think, in the area of logic. "Certain forms of thought," Nagel argues, "can't be intelligibly doubted because they force themselves into every attempt to think about anything". To reason at all is to use logic, and therefore, as Nagel puts it: "There just isn't room for scepticism about basic logic". This surely has to be right, and is, on its own, sufficient to put paid to much of the nonsense one comes across daily in academic life. But what follows from it? Does it follow, for example, that we can talk of logical "facts"? If we deny that what makes a principle of logic valid is to be found in psychology or sociology, are we to conclude that it must be found in a Platonic world of eternal forms? Nagel says that, "If we think at all, we must think of ourselves, individually and collectively, as submitting to the order of reasons rather than creating it"; but how are we to think of that "order of reasons"? In partial answer to this question, Nagel quotes with approval a passage from C. S. Peirce in which he talks of "the eternal forms that mathematics and philosophy and the other sciences make us acquainted with", which influence us "because they are ideal and eternal verities". But, at this point, Nagel somewhat loses his nerve, confessing that, though he finds Peirce's view "entirely congenial", he also finds it "alarming", because "it is hard to know what world picture to associate it with, and difficult to avoid the suspicion that the picture will be religious, or quasireligious".

This leads Nagel to a fascinating, if somewhat bewildering discussion of the "fear of religion", which, he implies, prevents us from embracing a Platonic view of logical forms. Not that he believes in God; indeed, he says: "I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that". And he attributes this "cosmic authority problem" also to people who look to Darwinian biology to ground the principles of reason; they believe in a far-fetched naturalism, he claims, because of their fear that a view like Peirce's will land them with a religious outlook. Nagel's preferred solution is to overcome the "fear of religion" in order to adopt a quasi-religious, "Spinozistic" view that "the capacity of the universe to generate organisms with minds capable of understanding the universe is itself somehow a fundamental feature of the universe". Sympathetic though I am to Nagel's fundamental thought that there is more to reasoning validly than following social conventions, expressing personal prejudices, or conforming to the dictates of biological evolution, I cannot help feeling that he has taken a wrong turning in these metaphysical speculations. Must we choose between some form of Platonism and some form of naturalism? Can we not formulate some notion of objectivity that does not imply either the existence of "abstract objects" or the reduction to natural phenomena?

Nagel appears to think not. He appears to think that if we say something is "objective" it must have some kind of being. For example, in his discussion of arithmetic, he says that: "The infinity of the natural numbers is something we come to grasp through our recognition that in a sense we cannot grasp all of it". And, having grasped the notion of infinity, we cannot make sense of our knowledge of the finite set of numbers with which we have direct acquaintance "except by putting them, and ourselves, in the context of something larger, something whose existence is independent of our fragmentary experience of it". But why do we have to attribute existence to the infinite whole? Why can we not say that what it means to say that the set of natural numbers is infinite is simply that there is no largest number? And this does not imply the existence of the infinite host, nor the quasi-religious conception of the universe one needs to make sense of such a notion.

In his chapter on science, Nagel takes issue with the view that it is a mistake to interpret our beliefs about the world as beliefs about a mind-independent (or a "form of life"-independent) natural order Here, I think, he is entirely convincing. "We can't get outside of our thoughts about what is the case and think of them merely as the expression of a point of view," he writes. The force of the word "can't" here is Cartesian, analogous to the thought that we cannot consistently doubt our own existence. To make any claim at all is to make a claim about the way the world is, thus: 'The proposal that scientific reasoning tells us nothing about reality is itself a hypothesis about the world."

I am not at all sure I understand Nagel's chapter on ethics. He concedes straight away that: "There is no moral analogue of the external world - a universe of moral facts that impinge on us causally", which I take to mean that he does not believe that moral truths are among the "eternal verities". He nevertheless insists that moral judgements should be regarded as objective "beliefs about what is right", which I find rather hard to reconcile with the generally Platonist tenor of his thought. What does he think moral beliefs, if true, are true about? His argument seems to be that if we can reason about moral issues (which surely we can), and, if the argument of the rest of the book that reasoning is inherently objective is valid, then there must be an objective element to moral judgements "however much pluralism or even relativism may appear as part of their (objective) content". Earlier on, Nagel had said that aesthetics "is not a form of reason because it does not follow general principles", but it is not clear to me that ethics and aesthetics are so very different in this respect. For surely it is possible to reason about one's aesthetic judgements?

In the end, I find myself persuaded by Nagel that all attempts to subjectivise or relativise logic must enmesh themselves in contradictions, but unpersuaded by the metaphysics he feels compelled to adopt to make sense of the fact. Indeed, it seems to me that, in one important respect, Nagel shares the outlook of the facile subjectivists he attacks. That is to say, like them, he accepts the dichotomy that either metaphysical realism is true or it is impossible to reason objectively. It is this dichotomy that I feel ought to be attacked. I am inclined to say that reason is the "last word" in argument just because it is the only word. An argument that does not appeal to reason does not count as an argument - except of course in the "lower reaches of the humanities and the social sciences".

Ray Monk is reader in philosophy and director of the Centre for Post-AnalyticPhilosophy, University of Southampton.

The Last Word

Author - Thomas Nagel
ISBN - 0 19 510834 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £16.99
Pages - 147

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