top of page

Critical remarks on Thomas Nagel

A confused thinker. In other words, a philosopher.

[From 2009.] I’m reading Thomas Nagel’s famous book The View From Nowhere (1986). Nagel seems more sensible than most contemporary philosophers. For example, “The reductionist program that dominates current work in the philosophy of mind [by which he means functionalism, physicalism, etc.] is completely misguided, because it is based on the groundless assumption that a particular conception of objective reality [namely the ‘physical’ conception] is exhaustive of what there is.” In other words, unlike Daniel Dennett and his gang of fools, he admits that sensations and other ‘inner’ states exist, and that humans aren’t robots.

Nagel’s thoughts remind me of how sensible my ‘solution’ was to the mind-body problem. The point is that a single substance -- neural stuff -- has, in its activity, two different ways of being: ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ (our mental experience). The nervous system itself is physical, composed of physical things you can point to (neurons, etc.). But its electrical and chemical processes can be ‘considered’ in two ways: serially and ‘holistically.’ On the one hand, you can think of neural activity as involving millions of electrical bursts, chemical discharges, etc., all interacting in an instant to give rise to a sensation or a thought. It’s a series of interrelated physical events. On the other hand, you can think of all these events not serially but holistically, from the perspective of the ‘whole’ that emerges from their nearly instantaneous interactions. This emergent whole is the mental experience. It isn’t ‘located’ anywhere -- except maybe vaguely and somewhat metaphorically, like ‘in the hand’ or ‘in the head’ -- it isn’t a physical thing you can point to or that has a precise spatiotemporal location (comparable to that of a neuron, say); because of its emergent nature, it’s just the sort of thing of which you can’t predicate an exact location. So the mental experience isn’t really ‘in’ the brain (as a neuron is), although in a loose, metaphorical sense maybe you can say it is. –That’s the basis of the solution to the mind-body problem. It doesn’t cease to be a problem, because we still have this mysterious phenomenon of emergence that will never be fully understood, but at least now we understand what it is we don’t understand. Before, it was just a big muddle. I’ve reduced the problem to a specific phenomenon of biology.

More broadly, of course, the ‘mind,’ including all its unconscious aspects and cognitive structures and mathematical computations and so forth, is ‘emergent’ from the brain.

Nagel’s common sense has limits. In the context of a discussion of the self he suggests that possibly “I am my brain.” He thinks that’s a reasonable hypothesis. I -- this consciousness -- I am my....brain! This consciousness is the same thing as its....nervous system! Wow. It doesn’t even occur to him that the self might be self-consciousness. (A hypothesis that has to be embellished, yes.)

Later on, though, he shows that, for an academic, he has a deep mind: he shares my fascination with the intuitive distinction between the ‘essential’ me, or I, and the particular person Chris Wright, who is just like all other people, not at all different except for the fact that it is through him that I exist. In thought I can, in a sense, separate myself from Chris, hover above the city and look at all the people walking around, one of whom is Chris -- who, as it happens, is me! From one perspective, I could have been any of those other people, but I’m this guy, this particular body and personality and so on. Sometimes when I’m in the train surrounded by people I actually think about that: I look at everyone else, all their faces, and then look at the reflection in the window and see another face -- and I realize it’s mine! But it looks no different from anyone else’s! It isn’t particularly special, it isn’t glowing -- but it should be, because it has a unique connection to this self. This (seemingly) essential self (essential to itself, that is). This essential self, which is sort of ‘outside’ the world, appears to have an accidental connection to the body and personality of Chris Wright, who is a being in the world no different from all others. Nagel even uses the same terminology I used in my undergraduate senior thesis, but reverses it: whereas I called the particular body and mind I happen to ‘occupy’ the objective self, which is opposed to my ‘true,’ most intimate self, my (sort of) outside-the-world self that inhabits a particular body and mind, he calls this ‘true’ self the objective self (because it can consider the world more objectively, ‘stepping outside’ the particular perspective of Chris Wright or Thomas Nagel). His analysis doesn’t go as far as mine, though.[1] I went on to argue that the ‘true’ self Nagel is talking about is self-consciousness (not the brain), and then I speculated about how self-consciousness (the I, the ‘active’ self, the ‘subjective self’) -- which, in its purity, is a sort of abstract thing, contentless, ‘universal’ -- manages to identify itself with the objective self (as I called it), i.e. the particular body and mind it ‘occupies.’ Of course this language is somewhat metaphorical: I shouldn’t say it, as though self-consciousness is a single entity, but rather ‘the continuously present (albeit implicitly present) thought of “consciousness of consciousness.”’ I also tried to describe the composition of the objective self: for example, self-consciousness ‘immediately’ identifies itself more closely with other thoughts than with the body, so it seems as though all these thoughts I’m having right now (and always) in my consciousness constitute the essential me, the self, whereas in fact the ‘essential’ me is only the abstracted thought ‘consciousness of this consciousness.’ (But that’s also my least particular aspect, the aspect I share with everyone else.[2]) Needless to say, this phenomenological stuff is one of the most difficult areas of philosophy, so my account wasn’t satisfactory.

By the way, it isn’t just because I’m an intellectual and preoccupied with thoughts that I say the self identifies itself more closely with thoughts than with the body. This is true of everyone, as shown by the fact that people intuitively understand the mind/body distinction and that they often see their bodies as ‘rebellious,’ somewhat foreign things they have to control, take care of, etc.

Despite all this, however, it remains true ‘on another level’ that the mind-body dualism is specious. We are physical beings; consciousness is not a different substance but an emergent expression of neural activity.


Throughout his book, Nagel keeps referring to the ‘objective self,’ that which can separate itself from the perspective of the body and mind to which it is ‘attached,’ can step outside particular perspectives, can advance in knowledge by reflecting on itself and its conditions of existence, can doubt the significance of life by considering the smallness of each individual, etc. But Nagel can’t account for it; it’s a mystery to him. It doesn’t even occur to him that the so-called objective self is, more or less, as Sartre and other phenomenologists have argued, just self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is what’s responsible for the continuous tension that Nagel is obsessed with between the subjective and the objective -- being occupied in one’s own perspective and looking at oneself externally, from the perspective of an other. Yes, this tension is essential to what it means to be human -- which is to say that self-consciousness is essential to humanity. Not a terribly original insight. But Nagel doesn’t even rise to this insight, because the ‘objective self’ is a mystery to him.

On another subject, however, he reveals his common sense: he thinks that skepticism about the physical world is irrefutable. “The possibility of skepticism is built into our ordinary thoughts, in virtue of the realism that they automatically assume and their pretensions to go beyond experience.” He’s also right to think that the problem of free will is a hopeless muddle, for more than one reason. For example, the idea of freedom or autonomy is itself unintelligible. One reason, which he doesn’t discuss, is that the self is largely an illusion. We don’t even exist, at least not in the way we incoherently think we do. How can it be the case that I determine all my actions if I am nothing but self-consciousness (roughly speaking)? Consciousness of consciousness can’t will anything; all it can do is be aware of itself (aware of everything going on in consciousness).[3] But let’s ignore this reason and talk about ourselves as we ordinarily do. Years ago I wrote that, although we have reasons for doing any given act, at some point the reasons break off and we just make a ‘leap’ -- we just do the act. We could consider reasons for or against it forever, but sooner or later we have to give up the weighing of reasons and act. This fact seemed significant to me, but I didn’t really know why. Nagel has helped me see one reason for its importance: it shows that intentional explanations (which presuppose the idea of freedom, as opposed to causal explanations, which are deterministic) can only go so far. You can ask somebody why he acted the way he did, and he’ll list the reasons. But then you ask why he found those reasons more compelling than all the reasons against the act, and all he can say is, “I don’t know, I just did.” From his intentional perspective, there’s no explanation for why those reasons motivated him.[4] But obviously there has to be some explanation, because they did, after all, motivate him. Clearly, then, the answer will take us “outside the domain of subjective normative reasons and into the domain of formative causes of my character or personality” -- or, on another level, neural processes. Only causes, not reasons, can explain why I’m motivated by some set of reasons. In other words, my values are explained not by reasons I have for holding them but by causes of my holding them. (Admittedly, I can be led to value some particular thing on the basis of reasons, but my valuing those reasons is not itself explainable by further reasons. In fact, the valorization of logic itself is not explainable by reasons (which would be question-begging); it’s only causally explainable.) Thus, no act can be explained solely on the assumption of autonomy or freedom.[5]

Unfortunately we can’t escape our sense of freedom and self-initiative, so....there you go. We’re at a dead end. Complete freedom doesn’t make sense, but we can’t help believing that we’re totally free, so we just have to accept the dilemma and move on with our lives. Or maybe it’s better to say that total freedom makes some sense but not really: “We feel that in acting we ought to be able to determine not only our choices but the inner conditions of those choices [such as our basic values, or our preferences in a given moment], provided we step far enough outside ourselves. ....Yet the logical goal of these ambitions is incoherent, for to be really free we would have to act from a standpoint completely outside ourselves, choosing everything about ourselves, including all our principles of choice -- creating ourselves from nothing, so to speak.” This is exactly what I said in my senior thesis that my professors didn’t understand, that complete freedom is incoherent for these very reasons.[6]

By the way, it’s also a total mystery how my ‘will’ could cause a given act or thought or bodily movement. How does my arm move when I will it to? It’s like magic. We don’t know how these things happen, but postulating a magical ‘will’ doesn’t seem particularly fruitful. The explanation will be biological, i.e. deterministic.


Am I justified in condemning William Calley for the massacre at My Lai? Leaving aside questions about free will and responsibility and all that, it’s true that he doesn’t exemplify certain values we hold -- in his murders he was quite the opposite of them -- which means that from the standpoint of those values he is bad. That’s a fact: he is not or was not good at living according to those values. But is (was) he morally bad? Well, insofar as we call those values ‘moral’ ones, yes, he was morally bad -- or at least, what he did was morally wrong. And in the moment of doing it, or at that time of his life, he was morally bad. He was not a good person from the perspective of values that we call ‘morality’ -- or, rather, if those values define what it is to be a good person, than he was a bad person. By definition.[7] None of this can be contested. What can be contested are more ambitious claims than that he simply didn’t exemplify certain values, etc. Our inclination is to condemn him in a more ‘absolute’ way than all this; we want to get rid of the relativistic clause ‘according to the values of such and such’ and instead say that he was just bad. A bad person, period. Absolutely bad, bad in his ‘essence,’ so to speak, such that in describing him you could say, “He weighed 200 pounds, he was a lieutenant, six feet tall, and bad. Contemptible, repulsive.” Stalin and Hitler are even better examples, since they expose our intuition with perfect clarity. But as I’ve argued sufficiently in the past, this absolutist value-judgment is not meaningful. Nevertheless, we want to condemn him in a stronger way than I outlined a moment ago. Such a condemnation would be based on the presupposition that he was free in his actions, that alternatives were available to him and he chose not to take them. He callously disregarded human life -- he freely and knowingly killed innocent old men, women and children -- which says a lot about his character. The ‘mild’ kind of condemnation above is somewhat ‘external’ in its nature, as when you judge that your cat is a bad pet. You’re not condemning your cat’s character; you’re only saying that, as a matter of fact, probably for reasons out of its control, it isn’t a good pet. But Calley is a human being and so presumably has free will. He is therefore immoral in a stronger sense: he’s responsible for acting contrary to certain values, the most important values in life. The intensity of our condemnation is thus justified by two factors: the presumption that he’s responsible, and the fact that the norms he flouted were more important than any others. A third factor is probably also relevant: we assume he knew, on some level, that what he was doing was the worst thing a person could do. Or maybe this presumption of his moral knowledge is included in, or is an extension of, the presumption that he’s responsible for his actions, since full responsibility means he was perfectly aware of what he was doing.

But how meaningful is this stronger sort of condemnation? Insofar as it tends toward the ‘absolute’ condemnation I mentioned above, not very. But what other kind of condemnation is there, aside from the weak kind I discussed initially? There is, of course, the subjective aversion and disgust embodied in the judgment, but these feelings are not what I’m talking about. I’m searching for a judgment that has cognitive content. But there isn’t one. The only strong (i.e., adequate-to-our-disgust) meaning of our condemnation is that in some sense we banish Calley from the human community for his apparently complete lack of respect for our most important values, as shown by his willful violation of them.

But how willful is it? How much responsibility does (did) he have? Maybe he lacked a moral sense. Maybe his time in Vietnam had desensitized him to violence and horror, or had destroyed his respect for human life. He had had it drilled into him by his superiors and others to think of Vietnamese peasants not as people but as the enemy -- a thing. Maybe he had also already encountered so many massacres that he had lost his moral bearings, had lost his sense of who he was, etc. For many men, Vietnam meant absolute existential disorientation. To an extent, all this would, perhaps, erode Calley’s responsibility for his actions. Moreover, as we saw above, he couldn’t really have had control over his not valuing human life, because he didn’t choose not to value it. His attitudes were caused, not chosen. And his actions were at least strongly conditioned by his attitudes. If we keep going on in this way, he becomes less and less responsible for his acts, which means that our condemnation of him loses more and more of its justification, or its force. We can still deplore what he did, but we start to see him in a somewhat less condemnatory way.[8]

Or even in the case of somebody like Jeffrey Dahmer.... ‘He is what he is.’ Maybe he could have chosen not to kill and eat those men, but why would he have, given his values and desires? People act on the basis of their values, which in general are not subject to their control. Even if they were, why would somebody choose to change his values? He would have to do so on the basis of some other value, which in turn would not be something he had chosen.

And yet we can’t help thinking, despite all this (and more -- for instance, the determinism of the brain), that people are basically free, responsible for everything they do. Calley chose to act as he did, he had alternatives, he didn’t have to throw a baby into a ditch and shoot it. And that’s true, in fact....but it’s not the whole story....


There are a lot of similarities between Nagel’s arguments and my old thoughts from college. Like his argument that prejudiced, narrow-minded and irrational people are less free than people without those traits, and that we can increase our freedom by cultivating reason, etc. Not terribly original ideas, though.

According to Nagel,

Berkeley claimed that [the truth of the idea that to exist is to be perceived] became evident if we tried to form the idea of an unperceived object. It turns out to be impossible, he said, because as soon as we try to think, for example, of an unperceived tree, we find that all we can do is to call up a perceptual image of a tree, and that is not unperceived.
It would be generally recognized now that this argument involves the mistake of confusing perceptual imagination as the vehicle of thought with a perceptual experience as part of the object of thought. Even if I employ a visual image to think about the tree, that does not mean I am thinking about a visual impression of the tree, any more than if I draw a tree, I am drawing a drawing of a tree.
A similar mistake would be to argue that we cannot form the thought of something that no one is actually thinking about or the conception of something that no one is conceiving of. Clearly we can think and talk about the possible state of affairs in which no one is thinking or talking about Bishop Berkeley. The fact that we must talk about Berkeley to talk about the situation in which he is not being talked about doesn’t make that situation either inexpressible or impossible.

Berkeley may indeed have made the mistake Nagel accuses him of, but the argument in the first paragraph above can be interpreted in another way: it can mean that when we try to think of a world independently of how it appears to us -- how it is ‘in itself’ -- all we can call to our minds is the world as it appears to us. We can’t imagine what it ‘looks like’ independently of what it looks like to us. Obviously. I made the point years ago: when we try to think of the world as it is in itself even on the most ‘basic’ level (beneath ordinary appearances), we find ourselves picturing cells or molecules or things like that, things that have appeared to us in photographs or artists’ renditions or whatever. We can’t escape the perspective of a subject viewing an object, even when we try to imagine an object as it is in itself without a subject looking at it. Where I disagree with Berkeley is in thinking that this fact doesn’t mean there is no external world. Our inability to imagine an external world ‘in its contours’ or ‘in its details’ -- i.e., as it appears! -- without adopting the perspective of ‘being-appeared-to’ doesn’t entail that there are no things external to minds. It entails only itself, i.e. that we can’t imagine (visualize) them (as they are ‘when we’re not looking at them’).

Meanwhile, Nagel’s argument that objective values exist, values “independent of our beliefs and inclinations,” is silly and confused. At one point he says that “to dispense with [objective values] is too radical a denial of appearances.” He goes on: “If I have a severe headache, the headache seems to me to be not merely unpleasant, but a bad thing. Not only do I dislike it, but I think I have a reason to try to get rid of it. [Um, yes you do, namely that you dislike it!] It is barely conceivable that this might be an illusion, but if the idea of a bad thing makes sense at all, it need not be an illusion, and the true explanation of my impression may be the simplest one, namely that headaches are bad, and not just unwelcome to the people who have them.” What the hell? Headaches are bad, yes, insofar as they’re painful: i.e., they’re bad to the person experiencing them, because we value not being in pain. Their badness is relative to our desire not to experience pain. What would it even mean to say that headaches are ‘objectively bad’?

Regarding moral values, the most that can be said is that they aren’t mere subjective preferences with no independent basis at all; instead, there is a foundation for our common values in human biology. It is likely in our biology to (have a tendency to) think that the kinds of things Stalin and Hitler did were bad or wrong; and other things being equal -- i.e., if social relations haven’t warped a person’s mind so much that he has lost touch with humans’ natural morality -- we will so condemn Stalin and Hitler. Their acts were literally unnatural. So in a sense, yes, there is an objective foundation of morality, viz. nature, in that nature predisposes us to act and value in certain ways.

Nagel is right, furthermore, that one can say that there are degrees of objectivity in value-judgments. One’s morality can perhaps be called more ‘objective’ to the extent that one takes into consideration other people’s viewpoints and values. But this doesn’t mean that certain values are objective(ly justified), because there is no ‘view from nowhere’ in the ethical realm (or any other). There are only perspectives, desires -- desires and perspectives that determine what is seen as valuable. It’s incredible that Nagel thinks there is a view from nowhere, a perspectiveless perspective, and that it is reached simply by stepping outside one’s own ‘subjective,’ ‘personal’ viewpoint and considering things more ‘objectively,’ as an ‘objective self.’

The more I read of the book, the more I see it’s riddled with confusions.

But Nagel is right to reject Aristotle’s and Plato’s positions on morality. He distinguishes between the moral life and the good life: loosely speaking, in the first, one partially sacrifices one’s own ‘selfish’ interests to those of others, while in the second, one’s own interests take priority. (But it isn’t ruled out that morality can be a component of the good life.) Aristotle more or less defined morality in terms of the good life -- which doesn’t mean, however, that the two ideas are equivalent. “The test of moral principles is their contribution, either instrumental or constitutive, to the good life as a whole; but since we are social beings, this may entail some of the familiar moral virtues.” Nagel rejects this because morality has its source in the claims of other people, which can’t “be strictly limited by their capacity to be accommodated within a good individual life.” For instance, it would be more moral for me to donate $100 to some charity that would use it to save children from starvation than to spend $100 on a meal in an expensive restaurant, even though fine dining might be considered a component of the good life. In a sense, living well (living the good life, which can be defined in various ways) is immoral when you know that other people are miserable, starving, etc. So Aristotle is wrong. Morality can’t be substantially reduced to the good life.

Plato, on the other hand, defined the good life in terms of the moral life. That is, by far the most important thing in the former is the latter. But Nagel argues that “there is much more to us, and therefore much more to what is good and bad for us, than what is directly involved in morality.” We have many different capacities and desires, and sacrificing most of them to the imperative to improve others’ lives leads to the impoverishment of our own life. Thus, unlike Plato and Aristotle, Nagel thinks that the good life and the moral life (or at least the most moral life) can conflict. This is surely right.

Nietzsche thought that the good life overrides the moral life. I don’t agree with Nagel that this position is simply wrong in the way that Plato’s and Aristotle’s are;[9] all you can say is that it’s morally reprehensible. If you’re happy living a life that has no concern for morality, then fine, that’s your choice. Actually, if you accept that morality plays some role in the good life because it is in human nature to care for others -- and so to ‘fulfill’ yourself as a human, to live a good human life, you have to have some concern for others -- then a pure Nietzschean position that totally rejects morality in favor of the ‘good life’ isn’t possible, since morality plays at least some part in the good (human) life. The opposite position is that the moral life overrides the good life. I think this, too, is neither right nor wrong; whether you accept it is a matter of choice, the values that you hold. My own position is that neither the moral life nor the good life should ‘override’ the other; we simply have to balance them as best we can. Try to be a full human being, which involves living morally but not obsessively morally (because then you’ll neglect other sides of your personality, which will atrophy). But if you care far more about living ‘right’ than living ‘well’ and are willing to sacrifice your own interests to those of others, then do so; I’ll respect you very much.

Interestingly, though, morality isn’t only an other-oriented thing. In a broader sense, concepts like integrity, honesty and autonomy are relevant to it. This is more like a self-oriented morality; it implies that you can act immorally, at least in some loose way, with respect to yourself. And that makes sense, since you’re a human being like all others. It seems as though this kind of morality has an even closer connection to the good life than other-oriented morality does (insofar as the two can be distinguished).

Anyway, while I don't know why Nagel's book is so famous, I won't deny it has some value. Parts of it are mildly thought-provoking.

[1] (After reading more, I see that his ideas and mine are quite different.)

[2] Enter: mysticism, John Donne’s 17th Meditation, etc.

[3] This self-awareness is in fact what explains our perception of free will, as I’ve said before. In being of itself, self-consciousness cannot escape the impression that it is self-causing, that it is responsible for all of ‘its’ (or ‘my’) acts and thoughts -- the acts and thoughts that are registered in consciousness.

[4] [Well, he could give more basic reasons for why those reasons motivated him, but then you'd ask why those reasons motivated him. At some point, he'd have no more reasons to give.]

[5] [More accurately, in a narrow sense, yes, acts can be explained on that assumption. But in order to explain why particular reasons had motivational force, you have to go beyond that assumption, to a deeper, causal level.]

[6] This is an example of the snobbery of most academics. They take something more seriously if it's said by a respected colleague than by a student, in which case they might well dismiss it or ridicule it. On the other hand, maybe I shouldn't pick on academics; nearly every professional in an elite institution is like this. People are assholes.

[7] Again, free will isn’t necessarily presupposed by any of this, just as it isn’t presupposed when you say that your pet cat is a bad pet for whatever reasons.

[8] But that doesn’t have to stop us -- after reading in detail about what he did -- from being horrified at him, perhaps thinking of him as a cautionary tale about what can happen to people in war. And even if in some sense he wasn’t completely ‘free’ in his choice to do what he did, we can still think of him as something dangerous that has to be locked up.

[9] Of course, you can define morality and the good life however you want, and different people will have different understandings. I just mean that if you judge by common intuitions, Plato’s and Aristotle’s definitions are inadequate.

Recent Posts

See All

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page