Friday, 31 October 2014

Thomas Nagel as Philosopher-Priest & New Mysterian

[Written in 2001.]

There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.

            - Ludwig Wittgenstein, from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (6.52-6.522)


.....there are desires and sentiments prior to reason that it is not appropriate for reason to evaluate...
                 Nagel, The Last Word, 1997, 107)

My reason for taking the following approach to Thomas Nagel’s objectivism and metaphysical realism comes from certain comments he makes in The View from Nowhere (1988, 11-12). In that book he says that his philosophy is driven by his moral feelings. Some may say that there is nothing strange with that in the field of ethics itself; though what if Nagel’s “desires and sentiments” are responsible for his metaphysical and epistemological positions too? 
Take Nagel’s pronouncements and compare them with Michael Ayers comments in his book on Locke. In it he writes that it is “absurd” to think of “a particular moral, political or religious orientation’s motivating a theory of knowledge or being” (1991, 1:8).
So this essay is not an analysis of Nagel’s positions within metaphysics and epistemology. It's an examination of how he may hold such positions. It's not to the point, therefore, to say that I don’t offer a good analysis of, say, Nagel’s positions on necessity, objectivity or “pre-linguistic concepts”. Such analyses are not part of my intention in the paper. I want to explain why he holds such positions; not whether his positions have argumentative power. 
This means the work is also speculative and psychological. Speculative because I haven’t got access to Nagel’s mind; and psychological because his behaviour (that is, his linguistic behaviour) is not the issue.
In Nagel’s case there seems to be a kind of pragmatism in the air. In fact precisely the kind of pragmatism that Nagel argues against when displayed by philosophers like Rorty and Putnam. What I mean by this is that one could take Nagel’s quote (which opened this introduction) to be an acknowledgment that one’s metaphysics and epistemology should simply be the handmaidens of one’s political or moral hopes. (This was what Kant more or less said, in his Critique of Pure Reason, of moral philosophy’s relation to metaphysics and epistemology and Aquinas said, in Summa Theologica, of logic and philosophy’s relation to theology.). That is, if certain moral and political “desires and sentiments”, which are “prior to reason”, should not be “evaluated”, then they should be defended all the way down the line of philosophical speculation and analysis. And, as is clear, Nagel’s comments on logic, mathematics and conceptual givens are simply the groundwork for positions in politics and morality which he would deem much more important. That is, the metaphysical and epistemological positions advanced in The Last Word are simply the substructure, which Nagel feels he needs to support a larger political and moral edifice. (This is vaguely analogous to Marx’s felt need to dispatch Hegel’s metaphysical position in order to have a firm ground underneath the much more important stuff on economics and politics.) 
There is nothing new here. Kant the transcendental idealist professor ended up believing exactly the same things about God, immortality, freedom and morality as Kant the North German Pietist who preceded him.
So just as some could say that Kant’s whole philosophical enterprise was an attempt “to limit reason in order to make room for faith” (and Bishop Berkeley's philosophical system was an attempt to limit the pretensions of advancing materialist and deterministic Newtonian science), so Nagel, through his anti-naturalism (or mysterianism), is limiting philosophical naturalism (which, in his view, includes pragmatism, positivism and the late Wittgenstein) in order to make room for, amongst other things, the ineffable, the necessary and non-linguistic “thought”.
To reiterate. I shall not be directly commenting on Nagel’s stance on ethics because, as I will try to make clear, what interests me are the moral “sentiments and desires” and mystical yearnings which may drive his epistemology, logic and metaphysics.
Nagel on Transcendence and Ineffability
It will become clear that I’m trying to show Nagel as offering some kind of mystical or quasi-religious line on philosophy. Take Nagel’s own words:
"Rationalism has always had a more religious flavour than empiricism." (1997, 130)
And it's clear that Nagel is precisely the kind of rationalist he refers to above.
Take Descartes being at his most dishonest when he smuggles in God to tighten up his system (or take the idealist Berkeley smuggling in God for similar reasons).
For instance, Nagel clearly wants to downgrade the analysis of language (or at least language use). This is, after all, simply an empirical enquiry. He emphasises instead the point that Fregean Thoughts, or his own “concepts”, predate experience in a manner that roughly compares with Kant’s "a priori concepts”. He is also a rationalist in the Cartesian sense too. That is, the human subject can somehow unhook himself from the rest of the empirical world (including his own body). And not even the empirical data needed for such cogitations are of that much importance when compared to the “order of reasons” which we must “submit” to rather than “create” (1997, 143).
Nagel is searching for the necessary, the absolute, and those aspects of the human mind which we all share and those aspects of experience that are common to all experiences. Such a search is essentially Kantian in form, if not in content. It's a search for universals (which some would argue has been definitive of Western metaphysics, otherwise what has been the point).
But what is it, precisely, that is “mystical” or “quasi-religious” about all the above?
As I’ve just said, Nagel downgrades experience, language and contingency. He is essentially stressing those facets of reason and mind that we come into the world with. The things that are built into us as human subjects in a manner which, as I said, Kant would recognise. (However, Kant is far too idealist for Nagel.) And if these facets were there before language-use and all other interactions with society, and indeed with any other human beings, then they are closer to God and the Other World than they are to the world of departmental seminars, raging hormones, book deals, voting and tax forms in which Nagel, presumably, lives and breathes. By tapping into these givens, or simply by using or understanding them through realist analytic philosophy, we are acknowledging God’s rather than society’s gifts to us.
Even if Nagel is not - rather immodestly - placing himself and selected other philosophers closer to God, he is in effect celebrating the things God has placed within all of us. This effectively means that by distancing himself from “time and chance” he becomes closer and closer to the Eternal and the Necessary, which are God’s good works. Contingency is, of course, the Devil’s work. This is the platonist strain in Nagel.
So, yes, bringing “God” and the Other World into the picture is entirely speculative on my part, as I said in the introduction. Though considering the fact that we have lived in a God-obsessed and Christian culture for two thousand years, and, on top of that Nagel himself must have been placed in a theist culture of some kind, then my speculation may not be, as Kant (later) puts it, entering “the void space of pure intellect”. Indeed some analytic philosophers will probably regard this paper as one big ad hominem, with Nagel as the victim. There is an element of the ad hominem in the essay; though I don’t think that is the whole of the story.
There are some things about Nagel’s position that are clearly more “mystical” than “religious”.
Take his frequently reiterated position on the “view from Nowhere”. Applied to his view of the world and its relation to scientific claims, things don’t appear particularly mystical. However, when Nagel says that he wants to “get outside” of himself in order to “reach a descriptive standpoint from which the first person has vanished” (1997, 114, 117). Of course we need to ask if we're meant to take Nagel literally or metaphorically. I think I've good reason to take him literally. And, in any case, how would the metaphorical reading be cashed out? Perhaps Nagel couldn’t even tell us. So if I take him literally, I see shades of, amongst others, Plotinus (Irwin, 1989). Though whereas Plotinus wanted to achieve harmony with what he called “the One”, Nagel would like to achieve harmony with the perspective-free internal and external world - the world we discover when we cleanse ourselves of the “first person”. The world “as it is in itself” is God to Nagel. Similarly, whereas Plotinus rages against “plurality”, Nagel’s devil is contingency. (Wasn’t “plurality” a consequence of contingency to Plotinus, and, before him, Parmenides?)
To finish off on this note, I would like to quote a poetic passage (for Kant) from the Critique of Pure Reason:
"... 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”.
Now there's large problem for my position above: Nagel calls himself an “atheist”. Though even if I don’t doubt his honesty (as Nagel himself doubts the honesty of MacIntyre and the “ritualist relativists and subjectivists”), this isn’t really a big problem. The religious impulse can survive quite happily without the God of monotheistic religions. All sorts of psychologists, psychoanalysts and sociologists have written thousands of words on this very phenomenon. They have shown us (if we needed to be shown) how hard it is to throw off the baggage placed upon us by our parents and society at large when we were young. My favourite example of this is the case of Marxists. Haven’t many many Marxists, for example, treated Marx as a god, Marxism as a religion and Das Kapital as a Bible? And the same may be true of Nagel. He has finessed mystical/religious positions and made them more sophisticated. That is, he has expressed them in the language-game of late 20th century Anglo-American analytic philosophy. It’s a case of old wine in new bottles; or, as Jacques Derrida would have put is, a good example of “sign substitution” with content invariance.
Wittgenstein, that is, the early Wittgenstein, for once (i.e., unlike the late Wittgenstein) provides Nagel with ammunition to fight for the ineffability and transcendence cause. He sums up Tractarian Wittgenstein as claiming that “what couldn’t...be said was much more important than what could be” (1997, 127). For Wittgenstein these ineffables were, amongst other things, “logical objects”, logical relations, and the relations between empirical propositions and the possibilities they represented. However, these were simply the logical ineffables which, as it were, grounded further much more important ineffables, such as the subjects who are outside the world and who are themselves the foundations for moral and aesthetic value judgements - judgements which we simply intuit or feel (i.e., subjects not unlike Kant’s noumenal selves).
Nagel, like the early Wittgenstein, doesn’t like too much talk. Too much talk (or “chatter”, as Hugh Mellor puts it) ruins or destroys the talked about. So let's try not to talk about, say, neurons and synapses when we talk about the self. Let the self, unlike every other thing in this gigantic universe, spring free of all casual mechanisms. Though let it do so without too much talk. We intuitively know it to be true. And talk could undo such truth. Only positivists and "scientistic philosophers", after all, want to talk about everything. Such people, Nagel may think, don’t recognise the soul, or the soul’s calling, quite simply because they don’t have souls. They are, instead, walking and talking organic algorithm-machines.
This interest in the ineffable often goes alongside a belief in philosophical depth. The belief that philosophical problems are intrinsically deep. Nagel himself notes that an old teacher of his, J.L. Austin, distrusted depth; though “depth was what I thirsted for” (1995) . This seems to mean that it was depth in itself, of depth for itself, that interested Nagel; not the fact that depth was often simply an accidental by-product, as it were, of philosophical problems.
What is “philosophical depth”? It can’t be a synonym for “philosophical complexity”. Is it more, well, spatial than that? Is it the reality under the appearance? The noumenal self under the empirical self? The logical form under the grammatical form? The essence under the accidents? The truth under the "simulacra"? 
Depth is something the priest gives us. Something beyond the trivialities and superficialities. When we reach the depths we find “the meaning of life” and “what it’s all about”. We find, also, essence, necessity, the objective truth: all seen from the non-perspectival and incredible View From Nowhere
Of course the early Wittgenstein similarly “thirsted for depth” and ineffability; though he came to believe that philosophers had in a sense been mislead by this spatial metaphor (amongst others). Or, as Terence Parsons puts it (about a slightly different subject) “[as] half the rest of the [analytic] philosophical world have been telling us, you can’t trust the ‘surface’” (37) I would put it more prosaically. Perhaps there are no similarities whatsoever between the analysis of, say, meaning or truth and the analysis of, say, an atom or a cat. The only depth there may be is concrete spatiotemporal depth. The rest is a lot of hot air.
Transcendence, Ineffability and Philosophy
It would be fair to say that philosophy for Nagel is for all intents and purposes an instinct. That would be a rather innocuous and uncontroversial position if it weren't for the fact that Nagel also has a very precise idea of what – real? - philosophy actually is. He thinks that there are certain givens of philosophical thought that aren't culturally or historically variable.
Take another mysterian, Brian Magee, expressing something similar; though more concrete than Nagel. This ties in with his idea that thought can in fact transcend language. So it's understandable that if Nagelian "concepts" can float free from the empirical world (or at least are not dependent on it, whatever that could possibly mean), it could easily follow that philosophical contemplation does too:
"...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).
What he appears to be saying (in the above) is that we must make a distinction between the necessary and the contingent. Clearly the words and languages we use to express "the sources of philosophy" are contingent. However, these very sources appear to be necessary in a quasi-Kantian sense. That is, the claim seems to be that all human beings, as human beings, necessarily have a stock of "intuitively felt problems". I must also deduce that Nagel believes that these problems are in no way caused by our conceptual/linguistic heritage. Language, therefore, is simply the bodysuit that clothes a stock of thoughts that remains unchanged.
Nagel, therefore, wants to stop the conversation. These “concepts” - these “sources of philosophy” etc. - are what are objective. And if they can be tapped into, expressed or seen (in the language-free platonic sense), then objective truth (for these things are objects of some kind) is possible. Tat’s what the realist analytic philosopher wants. Not mere “warranted assertibility”, or instrumental or pragmatic truth. He wants Truth which outruns all kinds of justification and consensus. The truth of 1+1=2 and “the cat is on the mat” which is also applicable to “There is a way the world is, and we can capture the way the world is”, and “Killing unborn babies is wrong”. The difference between the latter and the former is simply one of degree, not of kind
This is clearly another platonic or Cartesian attempt to escape from the contingent and the empirical. Or, less rhetorically, it's also an attempt to emphasise necessity and essentiality - a necessity and essentiality that's been given a hard time as a result on the works of the logical positivists (e.g., Carnap), late Wittgenstein, Quine and, of course, Nagel's “continental usual suspects”.
Nagel also stresses the permanencies of certain philosophical problems and the ahistorical nature of basic concepts and reasonings.
Why, then, does he say that “philosophy of this kind [analytic philosophy] is usually a local phenomenon” (1995, 7)? I could happily accept that this quote doesn't contradict his belief in ahistorical concepts, etc; though how does it square with his strong belief in ahistorical and “intuitively felt” philosophical problems? That is, problems aren't necessary consequents of ahistorical concepts; though they may be the consequents thereof.
Forgetting Fregean Thoughts and Nagelian “concepts” for a minute, Nagel also has a high opinion of philosophy itself. Or, perhaps I should say, a high opinion of “post-positivist” Anglo-American analytic philosophy. Perhaps I should qualify even more and say that he has a high opinion of a particular kind of analytic philosophy (other than being “post-positivist”): metaphysically realist and objectivist Anglo-American analytic philosophy. (Perhaps there are only a few philosophy departments who practice such things.) That is, the kind of philosophy Nagel practices.
Such philosophy too aims at transcendence because it “is after eternal and nonlocal truth” (1988, 10). His kind of philosophy is opposed to “the weaker regions of our culture” and the “ambient climate of irrationalism” (1997, 4). Though it's not just the Derridas, Foucaults and Rortys who don’t match up to his high standards, as I’ve hinted at; but “deflationary metaphilosophical theories like positivism and pragmatism” (1988, 11) too. This would presumably include the late Wittgenstein, Quine, Putnam, Nelson Goodman, Sellars, Churchland…the list is long! Nothing but a strict Platonic/Cartesian ambition will do.
Nagel could never explicitly say that realist and objectivist analytic philosophy should be both the judge and foundation of all other areas of our culture; though I think that this is precisely what he believes. And he does so because he thinks that others aren’t up to the job. Other areas of culture are “weak”, “decadent” and simply don’t have what it takes intellectually. Nagel says this is because of the “extreme intellectual laziness of contemporary culture” (1997, 6) in which there is a “collapse of serious argument” (1997, 6).
One has to say here that Quine etc. were indeed “deflationary” philosophers in certain senses; though they lack “serious argument”? Derrida, if one ignores his style for a moment, offered arguments (if not all the time). And the place where I personally have come across a lack of argumentation is when analytic philosophers are talking about Continental philosophers. Then the gloves are well and truly off. Indeed Nagel’s The Last Word is hardly the most argumentatively rigouress book on the market. He also likes the odd burst of “rhetorical flourish” too; though less so when he's talking about Quine and more so when he’s talking about, say, Foucault.(I'm also of the opinion, not based on very hard fact but nevertheless derived from my experience of other analytic types and especially analytic post-grads, that he hasn’t read a single word of Derrida in the flesh; though he's probably read a few of analytic philosophy’s “translations”.)
Transcendence, Ineffability and Language
Nagel rather revealingly (to me at least) often uses the word “transcendence” in both The View from Nowhere and The Last Word. It's Nagel’s notion of “transcendence” which makes clear to me what drives him: the desire to escape from human finitude (especially as it's represented in language). Christopher Norris neatly sums up the belief and desire that

"...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)

"At present we are only agreed about the name, but of the thing to which we both apply the name possibly you have one notion and I another; whereas we ought always to come to an understanding about the thing itself…and not merely about the name…" (Sophist, 218A)

"…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)
A “view from outside language” isn't something I've personally experienced. However, having said that, it's hard to even imagine what it would be like. The apprehension of “Forms” that would be “independent of language” would be strange indeed, primarily because the Forms (the platonic Forms at least) were the invention of language – that is, Plato’s language. This isn't to say , a la John Searle’s critique of Derrida, that Forms are “nothing but text”; only that someone who'd never read Plato (or his surrogates) would never have any idea what Forms are. It's language that brings us to the Forms, even if they're not literal fictions themselves. Even Plato himself would have been brought to the Forms by language, whatever form his mystical relation with them actually took. Even if there were some kind non-linguistic and non-causal mystical or intuitive confrontation with the Forms, it would have been language that took Plato to them. (This is similar to the New York Zen Buddhist who attempts to annihilate thought or “discursive reasoning”; though only after a decision which was the result of much thought and discursive reasoning.)

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.

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