The End of Explanation?

The Last Word

by Thomas Nagel
Oxford University Press, 147 pp., $19.95
Thomas Nagel
Thomas Nagel; drawing by David Levine


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,…

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