The View from Nowhere

by Thomas Nagel

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The View from Nowhere systematically develops a series of ideas that were first advanced in Thomas Nagel’s earlier works—for example, the essays collected in Mortal Questions (1979), especially essays 5, 9, and 11-14. Three chapters of The View from Nowhere are descended from a series of lectures entitled “The Limits of Objectivity,” which were earlier published in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values (volume 1, 1980).

Subjective vs. Objective Standpoints

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Nagel’s primary aim in this book is to explore the various philosophical puzzles that arise from the tension between the subjective standpoint and the objective standpoint. The subjective standpoint is the personal perspective of an individual person; it is her view of the world “from the inside,” the world as she sees it; it is her own private window on the world, so to speak. The objective standpoint is the impersonal perspective a person adopts when she conceives of the world “from the outside,” not as it appears to her but as it really is. From the subjective standpoint, a person is at the center of her world; from the objective standpoint, she is simply one of many people who all see the world as she does. Thus, Nagel also characterizes the objective standpoint as “centerless”; someone who looks at the world objectively strives to take in “the view from nowhere.”

Nagel is convinced that the tension between the subjective and the objective standpoints surfaces in many of the enduring questions of philosophy. In this book, he focuses on questions about the nature of the self and the human mind, questions about the nature of reality and about our ability to have knowledge of reality, and questions about value and human freedom. In each of these areas, Nagel shows how the philosophical terrain appears quite different depending on which of the two divergent standpoints we occupy, and he then argues that each standpoint has a vital role to play. Some may react to this tension between subjectivity and objectivity by claiming that the subjective standpoint is of little significance, for why should we pay any heed to how the world appears to us? Others may react by asserting that the objective standpoint is unattainable; for whatever reason, we are inevitably confined to a merely subjective perspective. Nagel argues against each of these general reactions. He thinks that the conflict between these two perspectives is an essential part of our conception of ourselves and our world. In essence, Nagel finds the perplexity that arises from this tension more honest and illuminating than any tidy resolution of it.

As Nagel sees it, objectivity is a mode of understanding rather than a feature of the world. Thus, it is more appropriate to speak of an objective way of apprehending a truth rather than of a truth that is in itself objective; the latter is objective only in a derivative sense. Furthermore, objectivity comes in degrees: The more a person abstracts from the particularity of her own perspective, the more objective her point of view becomes (or, in Nagel’s terms, the more she takes on “the objective self”). To move from her own perspective to the perspective of human beings in general and then to the perspective of conscious beings in general is to move, stepwise, toward greater objectivity. One of Nagel’s aims is to acknowledge that there are two kinds of limits to this sort of objective understanding. First, an objective perspective can never completely subsume the subjective perspective; reality has an essentially subjective aspect: namely, consciousness itself. Second, given our limited perceptual and intellectual capacities, there is reason to think that our best objective portrait of the world will...

(This entire section contains 561 words.)

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remain rough and incomplete, for there very well may be aspects of reality that are simply beyond our capacity to grasp.

The Human Mind

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Nagel’s first topic is the nature of the human mind. Here the tension between the two standpoints is very clear. From the outside, I appear to be simply another of the physical constituents of the universe, composed of the same basic parts as is everything else. Perhaps physics, that seemingly most objective of sciences, can give a complete account of everything, including me. However, from the inside, I simply cannot view myself in this way. >From the inside, my connection to this hunk of matter that is my body (and brain) seems rather accidental. For some, such thoughts may inspire a Cartesian dualism of mind and body. However, Nagel argues that my concept of myself need not include all that is essential to me; while my concept of myself may be silent about my relationship to my brain, it may nonetheless turn out that I am essentially identical to my brain. Nagel is inclined to endorse this identity of self and brain; unlike René Descartes, he does not believe that the human mind is an immaterial entity that animates the body.

However, Nagel does not subscribe to any physicalist wholesale reduction of the mental to the physical. Instead, he subscribes to a “dual aspect” theory of the mind-brain, according to which a physical object, the brain, has mental features in addition to its physical features. Reality indeed has a mental aspect, but this aspect consists in a set of nonphysical features of physical objects rather than in a set of nonphysical objects. We can try to place these mental features within a more objective conception of the world, but such a conception will not be objective in a narrowly physicalist sense. For Nagel, the notion of objectivity is not exhausted by the objectivity of physics. It is an enduring theme in Nagel’s work that even a fictionally completed physics cannot give a complete account of conscious experience—that is, what it is like, what it feels like from the inside, to be a subject of conscious experiences. However, we can try to think about consciousness from a more objective vantage point by thinking about what it is to be a conscious subject in general rather than about the contents of our own private consciousnesses; the result will be a kind of “mental objectivity.”

Realist Metaphysics

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Nagel’s metaphysics is emphatically realist. The world exists independent of our thinking about it; in our quest for objective understanding, we are striving to grasp what is really “out there,” rather than—as some idealists would have it—merely investigating the form and limits of human thought and language. This leaves Nagel the epistemologist facing a swarm of skeptical problems. How can we know what the world is really like when we cannot ever fully rid ourselves of our own perspective? Might I not be dreaming? Might I be a brain swimming in some scientist’s jar? Nagel is refreshingly honest about our inability to rule out such possibilities. From within—that is, from the subjective standpoint—we cannot seriously entertain such skeptical doubts, but to advance toward objectivity is to make ourselves vulnerable to those doubts.

When we look at the world from the external (objective) standpoint, the actions of human beings appear as simply another sort of worldly event. Determinism—the view that human actions are causally determined just as much as are the movements of billiard balls—looms large. However, from the subjective standpoint, it seems to me that I have a freedom that a billiard ball lacks. The supposition that I lack such freedom of the will threatens to undermine my very agency. That is what Nagel calls the problem of autonomy. How do we reconcile these opposing viewpoints? Here, Nagel is at his most modest; he says that the problem is not that it is unclear which of several promising solutions to choose, but rather that there seem to be no promising solutions at all. In particular, he rejects any “compatibilist” solution in which human freedom is somehow shown to be compatible with the truth of determinism. Thus, Nagel offers a diagnosis of the problem rather than a solution to it: It is our very capacity for objectivity that is the source of the difficulty. Here, just as in the quest for knowledge of reality, the pursuit of objectivity threatens to undermine itself.


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The conflict between the subjective and the objective is also found in ethics, in the guise of the personal and the impersonal practical points of view. Nagel argues that there are impersonal values, the most obvious cases being pleasure and pain. My pain is not just a bad thing for me; it is a bad thing objectively. Consequentialism is perhaps the clearest example of a purely impersonal moral theory: Always strive to bring about the best consequences, all things considered. Nagel finds the considerations that support consequentialism, which arise from the objective standpoint, compelling. However, he does not think consequentialism tells the whole story about ethics—for if we adopt the subjective standpoint, we just cannot regard ourselves, together with our projects, our commitments, and our relationships, as simply part of a universal ethical calculus. In fact, personal concerns may often seem to come into conflict with the demands of an impersonal morality, as when I can promote some great good or avert some great evil by doing something that I very much do not want to do. The consequentialist’s typical response to this conflict is to characterize such personal concerns as biased and selfish; the nonconsequentialist’s typical response is to argue that such a morality is unrealistic and excessively demanding and may even undermine the unity and integrity of moral agency.

Moral Considerations

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Nagel spends most of his time articulating and defending a nonconsequentialist moral perspective, which involves showing that there are values that are personal (agent-relative) rather than impersonal (agent-neutral). One of his main theses in this regard is that in addition to consequentialist moral considerations—for example, preventing pain because it is objectively bad—we must also be concerned with deontological moral considerations—for example, refraining from intentionally bringing pain to others simply because it is wrong to do so. In Nagel’s view, the wrongness of my assaulting you is not merely a matter of something bad (your pain) happening; it is also a matter of my doing something (assaulting you) that I should not do to you. The difference between these two sorts of negative value is brought out strongly in cases where we can prevent much bad from happening by doing something wrong. (Imagine that by torturing a prisoner we can find out information that will yield a swift end to the war.) Nagel thinks that such cases are genuine value conflicts; thus, both these (and other) kinds of value are real and have a place in moral theory. Does this mean that consequentialism is false? Not exactly. It rather seems to mean that in ethics, as elsewhere, the tension between the objective and the subjective standpoints simply cannot be resolved.

The Meaning of Life

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The View from Nowhere closes with a discussion of the meaning of life. My life, which appears so serious and important from a personal point of view, may suddenly appear small and insignificant when I take on the objective standpoint. From the outside, what do I matter? We can try to harmonize these impulses toward self-transcendence and self-absorption, in part by recognizing that there are many others in the very same situation, but ultimately Nagel thinks we cannot avoid the absurdity of our predicament.

The View from Nowhere, and Nagel’s work more generally, have probably been most influential in ethics and in the philosophy of mind. In ethics, he is one of the founding fathers of the contemporary deontological movement. In the philosophy of mind, he is one of the standard-bearers in the fight against those who believe that the mind can be completely characterized in purely physicalist terms. In each of these areas, it is his struggle with the tension between the subjective and the objective, between the personal and the impersonal, that is distinctive of his philosophy.


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Additional Reading

Churchland, Paul M. Matter and Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984. A short introductory text on the philosophy of mind. Unlike Nagel, Churchland believes that the physical sciences are capable of capturing every significant fact about the mind.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991. Another of Nagel’s major critics. Nagel presents a review of this book in Other Minds.

Hofstadter, Douglas C., and Daniel C. Dennett, eds. The Mind’s I. New York: Basic Books, 1981. A popular collection of materials on the philosophy of mind. Includes Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” and several pages of critical remarks by the editors.

Jackson, Frank. “What Mary Didn’t Know,” Journal of Philosophy 83 (May, 1986): 291-295. Jackson employs a strategy similar to Nagel’s in “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” His argument turns on the case of Mary, a scientist who knows everything about the mechanics of vision but who has been confined to a black and white world since birth. This example, like Nagel’s bat example, is supposed to show that physicalism cannot tell us the whole story about the world.

Kim, Jaegwon. Philosophy of Mind. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. A good intermediate introduction to the philosophy of mind, with a useful bibliography. Nagel’s views are discussed in chapter 7.

Korsgaard, Christine. “The Reasons We Can Share: An Attack on the Distinction Between Agent-Relative and Agent-Neutral Values.” In Creating the Kingdom of Ends. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. This piece was inspired by Nagel’s treatment of the two standpoints—subjective and objective—in ethics.

Korsgaard, Christine. The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Contains a very influential account of the normative status of ethical claims, including a discussion of Nagel’s moral realism. Also contains comments by Nagel, Bernard Williams, and others, together with Korsgaard’s replies.

McGinn, Colin. The Character of Mind. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. A general introduction to the philosophy of mind, uncluttered by references to the secondary literature.

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1984. Parfit covers some of the same ground as Nagel in this very influential work, notably concerning personal identity and its relation to the nature and source of moral reasons.

Scheffler, Samuel, ed. Consequentialism and Its Critics. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988. A much-used anthology of articles about the ethical debate between consequentialism and deontology (which is a more specific instance of Nagel’s general tension between objectivity and subjectivity). Contains two pieces by Nagel and a helpful bibliography.