Monday, May 16, 2005

The Last Word?

Recently, a professor of mine recommended, in support of an epistemological thesis about the status of ultimate normative principles, a book by Thomas Nagel, 'The Last Word', which is a sustained and fairly vitirolic attack on what Nagel calls, variously, subjectivism and relativism. What Nagel means by subjectivism and relativism is any epistemological view which does not accept the transcendental and universally valid status of Reason. By his own lights, this not only includes post-structuralist thinkers like Derrida and Foucault or deflationary pragmatists like Rorty, but also thinkers who I had previously taken to have a relatively secure status within the Anglo-American philosophical canon: Bernard Williams, whose last book was 'Truth and Truthfulness', a sustained defence of the value of truth against thinkers like Rorty (in fairness to Nagel, this was written after 'The Last Word', even if it is perfectly compatible, in my memory, with Williams's other epistemological statements), Hillary Putnam, Quine and even Wittgenstein and Kant.

The book is interesting, not because it is right - I think the victories, such as they are, that Nagel manages to achieve over his philosophical opponents rest, at least in the case of thinkers like Williams, Putnam, Quine, Wittgenstein and Kant, on fairly basic misunderstandings and misrepresentations of what they were getting at - but because it illustrates a total and utterly gripping fear of giving up the God's-eye view on the part of a substanial portion of Anglo-American philosophers, which blinds them to the ways in which that view is neither tenable nor necessary. Nagel's argument essentially consists of the conflation of the Wittgensteinian view that we cannot get outside our language games to question them with the claim that there are universal truths, the link being that the claims at the base of language games must be taken as universal truths and so are universal truths.

This argument fails, even if I were to grant all its premises - which I wouldn't - because the fact that we have to take some things for granted implies nothing, in the abstract sense Nagel must mean, about their truth. This can be seen in a number of simply bizarre claims that Nagel makes in the course of making it. For example, he claims, talking about the irremovability of reason from our discourses and thought, that

“one cannot get outside it, and nothing outside of it can call it into question”

which is simply a claim of the baldest arrogance, if that is to mean that the deliverances of reason are, without any qualification whatsoever, true. If we can't get outside of it, then how on earth are we to know that its deliverances are, without any qualification whatsoever, true, in the sense of some absolute correspondence to reality? It is, of course, the case that we cannot help but take it to be true, and that in a certain sense, that is totally unproblematic and indeed required - it is only if we attempt to do otherwise, I take Wittgenstein to be pointing out, that we will run into really serious philosophical difficulties - but that is not equivalent to the claim that it is true in the absolute correspondence sense. How could it be, unless we had some guarantee that the deliverances of reason necessarily corresponded to reality, a guarantee which we patently lack?

The same problem emerges in Nagel's treatment of Kant's transcendental idealism. He says that to

the proposal that the order we appear to discover is just a framework we impose on experience, the inevitable, unexciting reply is that that does not seem a particularly likely explanation of the observed facts – that a more plausible account is that, to a considerable extent, the order that we find in our experience is the product of an order that is independent of our minds.

I find this mind-boggling, as a claim in support of the total correspondence of the deliverances of reason to a mind-independent reality. It may well be that the order that we find in our experience is the product of an order that is independent of our of minds, but what reason do we have to suppose that the relation between the two is one that reason could uncover, and then deduce the nature of the underlying order from?

Although I have read other things by Nagel before, and disagreed with him, I've always thought that he's a fairly good philosopher, so I find 'The Last Word' really wierd: how can such a generally thoughtful thinker ignore such a gapping hole in his argument? The only conclusion I can come to is that Nagel believes that any step away from the God's-eye is a step towards the epistemological chaos that is much post-modernist thought, but the epistemological chaos of the post-modernist view only makes sense in light of the God's-eye view: it is only because the false hopes offered by the God's-eye view have been disappointed that the epistemological chaos of the post-modernist view makes sense, and if God's-eye view is shown to have always been chimerical, that disappointment can be disapated. In one sense, Nagel and Derrida have more in common with each other than I do with either of them: they both believe that unless we can redeem our claims absolutely, absolutely anything goes.

This can be put in another way. The proponent of the epistemological thesis in which Nagel was, indirectly, invoked in defence of has agreed that, on the view they defend, they cannot know how it is that they know the ultimate moral principles they claim to know. Nagel is, in effect, because of his unwillingness to give up the idea of an absolute, God's-eye view, committed to the same claim. I find this bizarre: if we cannot know how it is that we know something, if we cannot explain what it is that grounds some knowledge claim, that cannot be knowledge. Neither has any reply to the skeptic, and that cannot be right, yet both views are persisted in.

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