Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 63

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).

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Subjective vs. Objective Standpoints

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561

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...

(The entire section contains 2402 words.)

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