Mortal Questions, by Thomas Nagel, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979, 213 pp., $29.95/7.95.
Despite alarming symptoms of massive cardiac hemorrhage in the author—runaway palpitations over Vietnam, a blind spot toward reverse discrimination, terminal equalitarianism—this book is a notable contribution both to philosophy and to literature.
It happened to be at hand when I had to pick a text for a writing course. I chose it for the variety of subject matter and the exemplary writing—nary a hopefully, a different than, or a feminist pronoun. So then, teaching from it, I reread most of it three or four times. It grew on me. I perceived that the author has given the clearest and most persuasive expression I know of to an illuminating and disturbing insight.
The first 13 chapters are self-contained recycled papers ranging from "Death," "The Absurd," "Sexual Perversion" (mistitled: its high point is a hilarious description of the philosopher scoring unpervertedly in a singles bar), and "What It Is Like to Be a Bat." But in the concluding essay, here published for the first time, we suddenly see that this omnium-gatherum really does have a unifying theme: the irreconcilable opposition of subjective and objective views of things. (Subjective here referring to the viewpoint of the conscious subject; Objective, to externality).
The author begins by reviewing five perennial problems of philosophy discussed earlier at greater length:
• The meaning of life. From within, some human pursuits can be justified in terms of others, but the significance of life as a whole cannot be questioned. Nevertheless, when we regard our lives in detachment from our purposes, they seem absurd and pointless.
• Free will. Determinism has always been regarded as a threat to it. But then so is the absence of determinism: random uncaused behavior would be no more free than if compelled or constrained. The trouble is that an action viewed from outside becomes something that happens, whether as effect of cause or as random event; no room is left in the picture for someone's doing it. And with respect to moral responsibility the malefactor, objectively viewed, becomes "just a disastrous part of the whole"; the concept of blame loses its footing. Yet we find ourselves unable to operate without it. (Consider the attitude of liberals toward unpunished "bigotry.")
• Personal identity. Neither bodily continuity nor memory seems an adequate criterion, since the question can always still be asked, "But will that (future) experience be mine?"
• Mind-body. Even for a dualistic theory, the problem remains of what mental states are like for the creatures that have them. How can the world contain, objectively, substances that have subjective properties?
• Consequentialist (good-and-bad-outcomes) versus agent-centered (right-or-wrong-deeds) ethics. To say that you ought to do X seems, objectively, the same as the claim that X ought to happen. But from my point of view, would that be right, in the context of my agency and the lives affected by me, each with its own rights?
Objective and subjective viewpoints, Nagel admits, are poles of a continuum. The subjective being immediate and naive, realization of one's own contingent biases exerts pressure toward taking a more external view, which can only be attained by "using a specially selected part of oneself for the purpose." In doing so we try to get away not only from our particular viewpoint but even from the human or mammalian. "The true view of things can no more be the way they naturally appear to human beings than the way they look from here." Objectivity requires a transcendence of self different from that of getting into the other fellow's shoes. Commendable as it is in physics, problems arise when objectivity encounters subjectively revealed facts or values that it cannot accommodate.
Surveying the stratagems employed by objectivist philosophers to reduce, eliminate, or annex the subjective, Nagel finds them all unsatisfactory. In effect, he throws up his hands: "There is no single way things are in themselves." The objective view of things is essentially only partial. But to subjectivize everything doesn't work either: "Even if not everything is something from no point of view, some things are."
The importance of this essay and thus of the book lies not in this pessimistic neodualism but in the suggestion (which Nagel does not explicitly make) that the aim of philosophy precisely is to make sense of this pair of terms. To see the mind-body problem and libertarian-versus-socialist as aspects of the same underlying perplexity can come as a revelation.
In "Physicalism" (1965), a paper not reprinted in this volume despite its celebrity, Nagel advocated, albeit reluctantly, a classically objective reductionist metaphysic. Thus, he possesses the uncommon ability to change his mind. One may hope, then, that in time he will come to appreciate the implications of his new insight for his social philosophy, whereupon he will cease writing dumb stuff about "the great injustice of the smart and the dumb, who are so differently rewarded for comparable effort" and yearning for a practical way "of divorcing professional status from social esteem and economic reward."
He may come to realize that equalitarianism, whenever it is motivated by anything beyond envy and boozy sentimentality, derives from a one-sided objectivity that can make no sense of the difference between doing and happening—the galactic view that looks on life as nothing but a succession of opportunities for titillations and concludes that justice must maximize and equalize the trips to Hawaii, the orthodontics and the orgasms, with no regard to what it is like to be a bat or a philosopher planning and striving to compass material ends—out in the objective world. Nagel is one of the smartest philosophers around. It will be interesting to chart his progress.
Wallace Matson is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.