are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They
make themselves manifest.
They are what is mystical.
.....there are desires and sentiments prior to reason that it is not appropriate for reason to evaluate...
Nagel, The Last Word, 1997, 107)
"Rationalism has always had a more religious flavour than empiricism." (1997, 130)
"... Plato, abandoning the world of sense because of the narrow limits it sets to the understanding, venture [s] upon the wings of ideas beyond it, into the void space of pure intellect." (Introduction, III)
I need hardly say that I think that Nagel is similarly “abandoning the world” of empirical or experiential reality and language because they're inadequate to the task of providing us with necessity, certainty, objectivity and other such holies. And he too, I think, ends up in the “void space of pure intellect”.
"...the sources of philosophy are preverbal and often precultural, and one of its most difficult tasks is to express unformed but intuitively felt problems in language without losing them." (1988, 11)
Nagel never tells us what these "preverbal and often precultural sources of philosophy" are. He doesn’t’ say what he means by “thoughts” or give us any examples. Certainly not in The Last Word. It doesn't help either that he doesn't expand on enigmatic statements such as "the content of some thoughts transcend every form they can take in the human mind" (1988, 102).
"...reason can somehow dispense with language and arrive at a pure self-authenticating truth or method...philosophy strives to efface its textual or written character..." (Norris, 1982, 19)
Despite the passage above, many philosophers sympathetic to Nagel would say that the claim that Nagel is trying “dispense with language” is simply not on. It's the position of a straw-man Nagel. Nagel, they may say, is simply arguing that there are “concepts” and modes of reasoning which come before, or at least ground, all languages. Though, they go on to say, of course Nagel would equally believe that everything (even realist and objectivist philosophy) would need to be articulated in some language or other. Put in this way: “relativists” or “anti-realists” may have fewer problems with Nagel’s position (though they would still have something to say how the former was expressed). However, Nagel is saying much more than that.
Perhaps if I compare two quotes it will help matters. Compare
"...we have, in our ability to apprehend [the] Forms, an avenue to knowledge of them which is independent of language." (White, 1976, 228)
with Nagel’s assertion that there is a "view from outside of language" (1997, 51).
So let’s get to the source of all these views, the Master himself, Plato:
"…he attains to the purest knowledge of them [the Forms] who goes to each with the mind alone, not introducing or intruding in the act of thought sight or any other sense together with reason, but with the very light of the mind in her own clearness searches into the very truth of each [form]…" (Phaedo, 65A)
"…the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is properly no more than an image?…he will not seriously incline to “write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others?" (Phaedrus, 275B)
".... the eye and the ear and the other senses are full of deception, and persuading her [Philosophy] to retire from them…and be gathered up and collected into herself, bidding her trust in herself and her own pure apprehension of pure existence, and to mistrust whatever comes to her through other channels and is subject to variation…" (Phaedo, 82B)
".... they think [modern philosophers] that there is nothing stable or permanent, but only flux and motion…" (Cratylus, 411A)
The above position is tacit on almost every page of The Last Word.
Nagel also make the mistake of jumping from
1) No particular language is necessary for reasoning and the expression of concepts.
2) No language at all is necessary for reasoning and the expression of concepts. (1997, chapter )
This is analogous to the mistake of believing that if a proposition can be expressed by different sentential formulations, then it must be independent of all sentential formulations.
At an obvious level, how would reasoning and the use of concepts be expressed without some form of contingent language? Would it be like rotating a mental image within the mind? Perhaps Nagel's talking about logical reasoning. Though if logical reasoning isn't itself linguistic, it's often (or always) embedded within a linguistic context and the result of linguistic reasonings. Even modus ponens will be so embedded. Even if we take the variables or letter names as self-referential, we would be doing so from some linguistic point, as it were. Perhaps that point would be proving that not all reasoning is linguistic reasoning. Even if modus ponens has some kind of Fregean or platonic existence non-spatiotemporally, acts of reasoning applying modus ponens occur within linguistic contextualisations.
This isn’t, I don’t think, a commitment to any kind psychologism about logical reasoning. It's psychologistic about only the reasoning itself. Modus ponens may well have existence before minds; though this doesn’t help Nagel’s platonist position. In any case, even if the letter names and variables are taken as non-referring, we still have languages of logic. We can say, platonistically, that the logical scheme, or their parts, refer to abstract objects. Again, the abstract objects may be mind-independent; though the language isn’t.
Specifically, it's the “spiritually degenerate” position of the late Wittgenstein that particularly irks Nagel (the one which would deny 2 above).
Firstly, he puts forward what he sees as the major late-Wittgensteinian claim:
".. it makes sense to say that someone is or is not using a concept correctly only against the background of the possibility of agreement and identifiable disagreement in judgments employing the concept..." (1988, 105-6)
What’s wrong with that? How would the correctness of concept-use be judged? By the philosopher himself and the philosopher alone? Would he therefore be creating a philosophical private language? Perhaps they need to match up with platonic-like Forms of concepts. If they mirror such Forms, the concept is the correct one or it's being used correctly.
Clearly these Nagelian concepts share a lot with propositions that are simply clothed with sentences. Though, again, none gain their identity from them. We express the proposition and we express the concept. We're required to tell the truth about the concept. Indeed Nagel seems to be taking the position of conceptualism, in which universals are concepts or concepts are universals. The picture he paints of concepts seems to suggest that they're non-spatiotemporal universals or Forms. More than that: he's a conceptual realist. Nagelian concepts are mind-independent; though common to many minds. It's hard to be clear, however, about all this because Nagel rarely goes into the minutiae of his positions on concepts and the rest.
Nagel clearly thinks that language shouldn't be boss. Perhaps more than that - in style of Plato - he thinks language is a hindrance to pure thought. He wants to see the world with an “unclouded eye”. Nagel wants concepts and even reasonings to be utterly free - per impossible - from language. In other words, philosophers would be giving up “the ambition of transcendence” if they weren't sceptical about language. They would be held in chains by something as contingent as language.
As I’ve said, Nagel’s distaste for language strikes me as having parallels with Plato’s distaste for the senses. Plato transcended into the world of Forms (see passages above). Nagel would like to get free from language and inhabit the view from Nowhere. It's made clear again and again that Nagel sees those philosophers who don’t share his Platonic dreams as spiritually degenerate and, what’s more, as making philosophy “shallow” (1988, 11-12). Basically, it’s the old not-really-philosophy accusation again (traditionally aimed at many great philosophers, from Descartes to Derrida). Wittgenstein, Rorty, Sellars et al are “sick of the subject and glad to be rid of its problems”.
More peculiarly, Nagel thinks that they're going “against the philosophical impulse itself”. So just as Chomsky argues that there is a “language faculty” in the brain, so Nagel argues that there is a philosophy faculty there too. More than that: a faculty (a philosophy machine) with a fixed stock of ahistorical and acultural questions and concepts (its data) which make up the a priori of all philosophical thought from the Philosophy Department of New York University to the Polynesian Isles. Such things are what “spring eternal from the human heart”.
In fact it's worth noting that it's the late Wittgenstein rather than, say, Derrida who “endangers” philosophy. This makes a lot of sense when bearing in mind that many analytic philosophers have claimed Wittgenstein as one of them. Therefore he's more directly responsible for the fact that the cancer of “linguistic idealism” has spread to the analytic philosophy department than anyone else. Let’s not forget here that, after all, Wittgenstein offers arguments; though Derrida doesn’t (so they say). Again, it's philosophical transcendence that is at threat from Wittgenstein because his position “depends on a position so radical that it...undermines the weaker transcendent pretensions of even the least philosophical of thoughts” (1986, 106-107).
There's no question about it. The “obsession” with language has “contributed to the devaluation of reason” (1997, 37). Nagel doesn't mince his words here. He says that this has resulted in a “decadence”. But why? Well, it’s that old bogeyman again: psychologism. If we stress the importance of language (which is contingent), we're in effect stressing the contingencies of psychology too. It's this approach that “leads to relativism” (1997, 37). What we should want, instead, are things that are objective, absolute, eternal, necessary and certain. What Nagel is after is in a sense something distinctly non-human - or at least non-social. Something that doesn’t smell of sweat. More prosaically, something that is non-naturalistic. For Nagel this includes his “mind-independent concepts” (1997, 37). Just as for Husserl it was the “essences” which remained after the nonformal had been bracketed. For Brentano it was mentality itself. For Tractarian Wittgenstein it was his “logical objects”. For Kant it was his a priori concepts and categories. For Plato it was his Forms. And for Dummett it is meaning and the invariants of language. (Perhaps this is why Dummett also thinks that if we fully took on board the positions advanced in the Philosophical Investigations we would be denied a systematic theory of meaning. See Dummett, 1978)
For Nagel, language is a mere contingent phenomenon. What we require is the “logic of thought” instead (1997, 37). That is,
"...the system of concepts that makes thought possible and to which any language...must conform." (1997, 37-38)
Clearly, this squares well with Frege’s notion of a “common stock of thoughts” (Frege, 1956, pp.289-311).
Nagel is explicit about his anti-naturalistic position. A position that follows from the quote above:
"We cannot account for reason by means of a naturalistic description of the practices of language...reasoning [does not] admit of naturalistic or psychological or sociological analysis." (1997, 38)
In other words, reason is indeed ahistorical. It's the matrix within which every rational human being must work, whether it's the mother who's cleaning toilets at Oxford University or the Cambridge University analytic philosopher at a wine-tasting party next door. If the cleaner is fundamentally at odds with the analytic philosopher, it's because she has misused her “ahistorical matrix” – her reason. In this sense, Nagel is a thoroughbred Kantian despite his realist criticisms of Kant’s “transcendental idealism” (1997, chapter 5).
It's not just “concepts” or Fregean Thoughts that are non-natural; reason is too.
Nagel quotes C.S. Peirce who says that reason has nothing to do with “how we think”. Nagel elaborates by saying that if “we can reason, it is because our thoughts can obey the order of the logical relations among propositions” (1997, 129). Of course this doesn’t take into account where the propositions (some think that these can be “mind-independent” too) come from in the first place. Even if the entailments, inferences and other relations between propositions are indeed necessary and timeless, most of what we actually think about has empirical content. As Wittgenstein himself said, it is what is left after we’ve got the logic out of the way that's important. Despite his constant citations of “concepts” and the givens of reason, this is precisely what Nagel thinks too.
Transcendence, Ineffability and Mind
"...the total world-view of modern man [has] let itself be determined by the positive sciences...[which has resulted in] an indifferent turning-away from the questions which are decisive for a genuine humanity." (Husserl, 1936)
I shan’t be discussing the pros and cons of a Nagelian or anti-Nagelian position on mind because I shall try to keep to my remit and make clear what it is about Nagel’s position on mind - beyond the technical debates - which shows him to be taking an ancient and quasi-religious or mysterian stance on the human subject. That stance being a never-ceasing desire to keep man securely away from any attempts to naturalise him.
This desire, of course, has a long and venerable tradition dating back to the ancient Greeks. A whole host of characteristics of the human subject have been put forward as truly distinguishing us from not only all the other animals; but also the rest of the universe.
Originally, man was “the only rational animal” (laughter was also offered up by Aristotle). Then we had, in no particular order, the mind, the soul, the love of God, language, free will, “complex social structures” and so on. More recently, the distinguishing features of man have been meaning (a derivation of the language theme) and intentionality. However, these characteristics were what were meant to distinguish man from everything else in the universe. The problem with that enterprise is that although there may well be features of man that distinguish us from everything else in the universe, everything else in the universe probably has distinctive features that differentiate themselves from us. (For example, having a hundred legs or being able to survive a mile under water.) This craving for distinctiveness is probably no different in kind from that of one nation differentiating itself from another. Though there is another manoeuvre, of more recent origin. That is, the stressing of aspects of man that can’t be naturalistically reduced to straightforwardly physical/empirical features. Here we have intentionality again, semantics, “raw feels”, the “the intrinsic nature of the first-person perspective”, and, perhaps most recently, qualia.
The main threat against Nagelian mysticism or mysterianism is posed by “Darwinist imperialism” (1997, 133). What Darwinism does, according to Nagel, is “eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world” (1997, 131). My immediate reaction to that is that the vast majority of Darwininians probably don’t have anything at all to say about “meaning”. So Nagel must be talking here about Darwinist philosophers of mind like, say, Dennett.
Does "naturalistically reducing" automatically mean elimination? The old religious account of “purpose” may well be eliminated; though what of meaning? (There are very few semantic eliminativists, and even extensionalists would keep certain semantic terms for convenience’s sake.)
As for “design”, it depends on what Nagel means. And, in any case, even many Christians have finessed their views on the world’s “design” by taking into account Darwinism. Perhaps I'm misinterpreting Nagel’s reference to the world’s “design”: after all, he does claim to be an atheist.
More broadly, what the Darwinian picture offers us is a denial of Nagel’s assertion that “mind is an irreducible and nonaccidental part” of the “cosmic order” (1997, 133). I suspect that not all Darwinists (certainly not all physicalists) believe that the mind is in fact reducible (see Donald Davidson, 1980); though all most certainly do believe that mind is an “accidental” result of biological evolution and all the cosmic physical processes that preceded it.
Again, bearing in mind that Nagel claims to be an atheist, what can he mean by saying that the mind is a “nonaccidental part [of the] cosmic order”? And it depends on what he means by “reduction” or the mind being “reducible”. Perhaps the mind can’t be reduced in the way a table can’t be reduced (to atoms and molecules) without losing its essential tablehood, as it were. (Physicists wouldn’t be the ones that explain to us that tables are for eating on or for playing tennis on.) Perhaps Nagel should have said that the mind is not eliminable rather “irreducible”.
Nagel offers us another criticism of the Darwinian story of mind. He lets Mark Johnston articulate it:
"Why is the natural order such as to make the appearance of rational beings likely?" (1997, 138)
According to Nagel, the only acceptable answer to the above question must be a “teleological” one (1997, 138). And I can’t help thinking that whenever teleological explanations are brought to bear on the appearance of mind (or Soul), then that telos is invariably God. (Keep in mind. Nagel’s earlier reference to “design”.) Perhaps Nagel simply realises that any mention of “design”, “teleology”, the “nonaccidental appearance of mind” and its “irreducibility” within a theistic/ Christian framework, would make other analytic philosophers take him less seriously. Swinburne, Plantinga etc. are of course explicit about their theistic/Christian beliefs; though they tend not to impose such views on all areas of their research and work. (For example, Swinburne’s paper on personal identity is an explicit commitment, if not a reworking, of the Christian position on the self/soul and Plantinga does slip God or “God” into many of his papers.)
Again, it is in Nagel’s attitude to reason that the philosopher’s quasi-mysticism or mysterianism can be seen. For example, why does he feel the need to say that the “basic methods of reasoning we employ are not merely human” (1997, 140)? What could that possibly mean other than a religious/mystical meaning? To put it starkly, I think, and have good reason to think, that Nagel believes that reason and mind are not “human”. He believes that reason is a faculty of a Platonic/Judeo-Christian non-extended, non-corporeal soul.
Another mantra of Nagel's is that human subjects are not objects. This position is clearly seen in certain debates in the philosophy of mind. More precisely, Nagel vehemently rejects all attempts to what may be called scientise the mind. This can be seen in the on-running third/first person debate. As a self-confessed Cartesian, there is something about the first-person perspective that could never, even in principle, be caught by the third-person language of science. Nagel thinks that no scientist could ever tell us “what it is like to be a bat” or what it is like to be Thomas Nagel. (1979).
Most of Nagel’s anti-naturalistic fire has been aimed at those who have attempted to naturalise (or reduce or eliminate) intentionality and qualia:
"Intentionality cannot be naturalistically analysed...nor can it be given naturalistically sufficient conditions. It is not to be captured by either physical or phenomenological description." (1997, 42)
That is, whatever we say about the evolutionary heritage of intentionality (if there even is such a thing), or the physics and neurobiology which underpins it, we could never, as it were, indulge in a priori reasoning to satisfactorily arrive at the effect (i.e., intentionality) exclusively from the causes (i.e., natural conditions). And even if we work backwards with purely a posteriori reasoning from the phenomenon of intentionality itself, natural conditions may be necessary; though they would never be sufficient for a satisfactory explanation of intentionality. In fact, intentionality is something (or has something) that the rest of the universe simply doesn’t have. It sticks out like a sore thumb both in nature and in the minds of non-naturalist and mysterian philosophers (even the odd physicist and even odder biologists). As Brentano argued over 100 years ago, “aboutness” is irreducible.
Despite this, Nagel thinks that he can place intentionality outside the causal nexus and still claim that
"it is possible to accept a worldview that does not explain everything in terms of quantum field theory without necessarily believing in God". (1997, 131)
However, there is a but of some kind. And here it is:
"...it seems hardly credible that its [the mind’s] appearance should be a natural accident, like the fact that there are mammals." (1997, 132)
The above is a good a telos for an essay as any.