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The End of Explanation?

The Last Word

by Thomas Nagel
Oxford University Press, 147 pp., $19.95


This discussion will be concerned with an issue that runs through practically every area of inquiry and that has even invaded the general culture—the issue of where understanding and justification come to an end. Do they come to an end with objective principles whose validity is independent of our point of view, or do they come to an end within our point of view—individual or shared—so that ultimately, even the most apparently objective and universal principles derive their validity or authority from the perspective and practice of those who follow them?

This is the question Thomas Nagel raises in The Last Word, and the answer he gives in his subtle, compact, and forceful book is firmly and eloquently of the first kind—a “rationalist” answer, as against answers that he variously calls “subjectivist,” “relativist,” and “naturalist.” We, most of us, have a moral outlook which is (very broadly speaking) liberal: we support universal human rights and are in favor of toleration. Others, elsewhere, do not have that outlook, and neither did most people in the past. We favor the medicine of medical practice over the medicine of medicine men, and think that we have scientific reasons to do so; medicine men have a different view. Nagel wants to vindicate our rationality, and the justifications that we offer for our beliefs, against people who say that these ways of thinking are simply the ones that we are culturally used to and happen to favor.

Some people who say this, Nagel’s relativists, just leave it at that: “This is our way, but who are we to say that those others are wrong?” The subjectivists among us go a little further, and say that those who disagree with us are wrong, but they are very impressed by the thought that there is no objective point from which the disagreement can be resolved. Others, more skeptical still, pretend that we can do without “true,” “wrong,” and so on altogether, except as decoration or rhetoric, and urge us to see these disagreements and arguments as simply one or another sort of politics.

Nagel wants to show, against all these parties, that “understanding and justification come to an end…with objective principles whose validity is independent of our point of view.” By this he means that if the argument between conflicting positions or interpretations were pursued far enough, and if the parties were fully rational, they would have to accept one resolution of the debate or another, or at least agree with each other that for mutually intelligible reasons it could not be resolved. They could not retreat to merely explaining each others’ outlook in psychological, social, or political terms.

In putting forward these ideas, Nagel sees himself as addressing a currently important intellectual and cultural question, and indeed he is. But it should be said at once that The Last Word is a work of philosophical reflection, not a polemic. The book is a significant contribution to the culture wars of our time, particularly to the recurrent and untidy disputes over the extent to which objective understanding and argument can be saved from skeptical suspicion (which claims that a sophisticated thinker should believe virtually nothing), and, equally, from a promiscuous relativism (which allows one to believe just about anything one likes). But there is not much in Nagel’s text to show how it relates to any particular controversy. Almost the only examples that he gives of what is at stake are an obligingly self-refuting quotation from Richard Rorty (which I shall come to) and, in the matter of ethics, some opinions of mine. Readers who hoped to see their enemies or their friends skewered will be disappointed.

Who, in these discussions, are “we”? Is every claim to the effect that our understandings are relative to “us” equally threatening? When we reflect on what “we” believe, particularly in cultural and ethical matters, we often have in mind (as the relativists do) ourselves as members of modern industrial societies, or of some yet more restricted group, as contrasted with other human beings at other times or places. Such a “we” is, as linguists put it, “contrastive”—it picks out “us” as opposed to others. But “we” can be understood inclusively, to embrace anyone who does, or who might, share in the business of investigating the world. Some philosophers have suggested that in our thought there is always an implied “we” of this inclusive kind; according to them, when cosmologists make claims about what the universe is like “in itself,” they are not abstracting from possible experience altogether, but are implicitly talking about the way things would seem to investigators who were at least enough like us for us to recognize them, in principle, as investigators.

Whether those philosophers are right in thinking that all our conceptions are relative to “us” understood in this abstractly inclusive way is certainly an important question in metaphysics. But does it matter to the culture wars and to the disputes about relativism and subjectivism that are Nagel’s real concern? Nagel says that what he is attacking is the idea that we cannot ultimately get beyond a conception of the world as it seems to us. What is really disturbing, however, about the relativists and subjectivists is surely not this idea in itself, but rather their insistence on understanding “us” in such a very local and parochial way. Their suggestions—suggestions made at least by the most extreme among them—that all our ideas, including our theories in cosmology, are simply local cultural formations, and that there is no “truth of the matter” about such things as history, are indeed unnerving, and they have deep cultural implications, because they suggest that there are no shared standards on the basis of which we as human beings can understand each other—that there is no inclusive, but only a contrastive, “we.”

These problems about the reach of human understanding, like many others in modern philosophy, go back to Kant. Kant was rightly impressed by the thought that if we ask whether we have a correct conception of the world, we cannot step entirely outside our actual conceptions and theories so as to compare them with a world that is not conceptualized at all, a bare “whatever there is.” He concluded that we cannot get beyond thinking of the world as it might appear to creatures who resemble us at least to the extent of being intelligent observers, and so belong in the ultimately inclusive “us.” With moral thought, however, Kant supposed that the situation was different. Kant did not take morality to be a matter of knowledge. It was concerned, rather, with practical principles which bind any rational person in dealing with other rational persons, and this leads to the result, at first sight surprising, that for Kant morality is less relativized to the ways in which the world affects us than science is. Kant’s morality applies to us just because we are rational creatures. The “we” of morality is potentially broader than the group that could share science.

Nagel is sympathetic to Kant’s unregenerately rationalist view of ethics, but he thinks that Kant’s revolution in the understanding of science and of our everyday knowledge of the world was the beginning of the rot.1 Kant, as much as anybody, is the “modern” in “postmodern,” and there is a long story (though Nagel does not tell it here) of how, after Kant, critical reflection on our relations to the world went on to sweep away Kant’s own assurances about what we can know and what we ought to do. Moral claims, the humane disciplines of history and criticism, and natural science itself have come to seem to some critics not to command the reasonable assent of all human beings. They are seen rather as the products of groups within humanity, expressing the perspectives of those groups. Some see the authority of supposedly rational discourse as itself barely authority, but rather a construct of social forces.

In a further turn, reflection on this situation itself can lead to a relativism which steps back from all perspectives and sees them all at the same distance—all true, none true, each of them true for its own partisans. Eventually we reach the kind of incantation produced by someone quoted by Alan Sokal at a meeting in New York about his hoax, to the effect that there is no fact of the matter as to whether Native Americans originally arrived on the continent across the Bering Strait, or by ascent from the center of the earth; both accounts are true (for someone: or something like that).

This is the kind of jetsam to be found on the further shores of what Nagel is against, but he is equally against everything on the way to those shores: anything, that is to say, that represents beliefs or statements which should be understood to be straightforwardly about the way things are as statements that depend on “us”—whether “us” means humans and anyone humans could understand, as in Kant’s case; or humans; or us here and now; or maybe some of us here and now, as in various postmodern constructions. Nagel is not very interested in the differences between wider and narrower understandings of “we,” just as he is not interested in identifying particular theorists of the relativist and subjectivist tendency. He wants to get rid of the idea that seemingly objective truths depend in any sense on “us.” He believes that he has an entirely general, abstract set of considerations which will do this, and which will persuade us that reason and objectivity should have the “Last Word” that appears in his title.


Nagel’s basic idea is that whatever kind of claim is said to be only locally valid and to be the product of particular social forces—whether it is morality that is being criticized in this way, or history, or science—the relativist or subjectivist who offers this critique will have to make some other claim, which itself has to be understood as not merely local but objectively valid. Moreover, in all the cases that matter, this further claim will have to be of the same type as those that are being criticized: the relativists’ critique of morality must commit them to claims of objective morality, their attempts to show that science consists of local prejudice must appeal to objective science, and so on.

We shall come back to some details of Nagel’s basic idea, and to how it works out in practice. First, however, there are some questions about his approach, and the very general style of argument that he uses. If he is right in this approach, he can stop the subjectivist and relativist attack before it gets very close to any particular target. This has the same advantage as the proposed Star Wars defense system, that if it works, the explosions occur in the stratosphere and nothing one cares about gets damaged. It has the same disadvantage, that if it does not work and there is no guaranteed interception, you have no way of telling how much of what you care about may survive.

  1. 1

    Nagel has a section (p. 92ff) on Kant’s “transcendental idealism,” claiming that it cannot escape being an (unbelievable) empirical theory. This is certainly contrary to Kant’s intentions. Kant can be more sympathetically understood as not denying the thought that the world is, as he himself says, “empirically real,” but rather inquiring what the content of that thought itself must be, and how we are able to think it.

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