Stands to Reason

Mortal Questions

by Thomas Nagel
Cambridge University Press, 213 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Thomas Nagel’s book of essays might almost have been designed as an answer to the not uncommon complaint that our academic philosophers, frivolously abdicating their responsibilities, busy or amuse themselves with abstruse arguments and technical problems and offer no guidance on the matters which engage and trouble perplexed humanity: war, sex, and death; the claims of equality and the proper use of political power; human life in general and its meaning or lack of meaning. Mortal Questions is addressed to these vital matters, though not to these alone; discussion of them sits, and sits naturally, alongside discussions of professionally more familiar themes: free will and responsibility; the nature of personal identity; the relation of mind and body.

As Nagel remarks in his preface, “Large, relevant questions too easily evoke large, wet answers.” It is one of the great merits of his book that its individual themes are all handled with admirable clarity and sobriety. There is no windy rhetoric or pretentious obscurity here.

The book aspires to another merit: that of unifying its apparently disparate themes by representing them, or many of them, as illustrative of a single ineluctable general tension, or conflict, in human thought. In his last chapter Nagel speaks of this as a tension between the “subjective” and the “objective” points of view. The distinction is not to be understood as a simple dichotomy. Rather it is a matter of degree. We move toward objectivity in proportion as we detach ourselves, first, from the particularities of our personal situation in the world, then from those of our time, class, and society, and finally, and most generally, from those of our biological species. The strong intellectual appeal of such movement lies in the thought that in progressively discarding from our conception of reality what are no more than appearances owing to the particularities of our merely personal, or of the merely human, situation, we approximate ever more closely to the true view. We are drawn, in quasi-Kantian fashion, along this path by the “regulative” and evidently unattainable ideal of grasping how things really are or are in themselves, i.e., from no point of view at all (except possibly, as some might say, from God’s).

Conflict or tension arises, according to Nagel, not because grasping things in themselves is unattainable, but because we find ourselves simultaneously occupying different and incompatible positions on the subjective-objective scale. We are unable simply to reject as illusion or reduce to objective terms all that presents itself, from some subjective viewpoint, as fact or value. Yet, drawn by the thirst for impersonal and detached understanding, we are at the same time able to occupy, and find ourselves occupying, a relatively objective viewpoint from which these obstinate subjective features are seen as lacking all reality: as simply absent. Hence there occurs a conflict, or polarity, peculiarly unacceptable to the philosophical mind which characteristically aspires to a unified world-view. But it is a conflict which, says Nagel, must nevertheless be accepted—“creatively” accepted …

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