Greg's Reviews > Other Minds: Critical Essays 1969-1994: Critical Essays, 1969-94

Other Minds by Thomas Nagel
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Oct 30, 09

bookshelves: philosophy-theory-and-other-their-i
Read in October, 2009

This collection of essays is split into two halves, the first is reactions to what other people have said about the mind, and the second are reactions to what people have said about ethics. Mostly these are book reviews, and they are all very surgical in their dissection of where other philosophers are wrong. This makes for some pretty interesting reading, but I might have enjoyed the book more if I was better versed in the analytical tradition; instead I had very little first hand knowledge of many of the writers discussed, but I see where they have weaknesses in their arguments.

The first half of the book was very enjoyable. I still have no idea exactly what Nagel thinks about the mind/body problem, but I know that he doesn't like reductionist accounts of materialism. I still believe he is mistaken, but I also see where he doesn't believe that naturalists have done their job at proving yet that their solution works. I think that it's possible that part of the mind body problem is one of complexity, but what do I really know, and I'll back off of any real arm-chair theorizing for the moment.

The second half of the book I found less enjoyable. It served to remind me that I don't like ethics; even though I spend way too much time debating ethical/morality with myself and can almost paralyze myself with being unable to decide what to do and feelings of immense guilt at the smallest infraction of my own inner morality--I don't care to read about ethical systems. I've stated my own thoughts on what I think ethics should amount to in a previous review, but I'll restate it because I just thought of a new catchy little phrase for it; it could be summed up as a) the golden rule, but with b) don't be an asshole, and c) leave me the fuck alone and I'll leave you alone. I know that these are not the type of basis for a universal ethical system, and there is no grounding in fancy philosophical terms, or even much precision in the terms, but it's a much more workable system than Rawl's contracturalism -- I hadn't realized until today what this actually was, and it made me almost want to go buy a black mask and throw a flaming garbage can of dogshit through a McDonald's window. Liberalism has to offer something more than what amounts to an ignorant totalitarian lottery system; maybe I should read A Theory of Justice before passing judgment, but by the criticism in this book I felt like someone was seriously putting forward a philosophical justification for the most worthless society one could imagine.

I should learn more about something before I start running my mouth about it though.

The ethics part of the book had some interesting moments, but generally it didn't do too much for me. This book did offer quite a few things to think about, and made me wish I could pull apart peoples arguments with the skill that Nagel does.
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message 1: by karen (new)

karen shhhhhh....there, there.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Theory of Justice is a massive book. I will probably never read it based on reading about it and rejecting it. The "veil of ignorance" thing sounds like a nice idea at first but the whole thing seems to fall apart as incredibly unrealistic in the long run.

There are a lot of good critiques of Nagel's work on consciousness. Dan Dennett and Patricia/Paul Churchland (they're more or less a team) first come to mind.


Greg I think I still own A Theory of Justice, and I'm getting more curious about reading how contractualism would work. The veil of ignorance sounds like a kind of nice idea, but all you need is one interested party to tear down that veil and the system would fall apart since moral actors do have their own self-interests in mind.

I could probably just google this to find the answer, but in the review Nagel never says who Rawls thinks would be the person or persons who would be making the initial moral decisions that the community would then be choosing to support through their limited knowledge. It sounds too much like a modern version of Plato and the philosopher king, which is probably pretty close to what Rawls has in mind, since the idea that the members of the community have entered into a contract with the state almost by default is Socrates argument on why he must accept the decision of the polis, since up until now he had enjoyed the benefits of the society. It's a simplified way of thinking about it, but it's kind of like an argument that since you have gone to a public school, you eat food that is produced with some government money and have used our roads that you have no claim to arguing our legitimacy, I know that this is a vulgar way of putting the issue though.

It also reminds me of the Catholic Church while it was still a crime punishable by death to create vulgate translations of the Bible. Morally you have entered into a contract with the church and defer your judgments to a papal authority because some water has been dripped on your head and you eat a cracker once a week. The details are hidden from the majority since they don't read latin, and all the information one has about the reasons for any moral action are the ones given from authority.

My last problem (rant) about Rawls is the idea that this is supposed to be taking the unfair advantage of wealth and talent out of being a factor. The one example he gives is Wilt Chamberlin (or maybe Nagel does, but it sounds like this was in the book). He is a talented basketball player, say people are willing voluntarily to pay 25 cents to see him play basketball, but a million people see him play a year so he earns $250,000, which is more than most people make, and gives him an unfair advantage to more of society's goods. This is not morally acceptable, since the reason he can play basketball so well is not based on anything but the luck of having talent. This was the real part of the argument that I had a lot of problems with, according to this I could say it's unfair that Stephen Hawking gets to do math and think about physics and stuff all day, I'd like to get to sit around and do this rather than shelve books, but it's not 'fair' since I don't have the natural talent for math that he does (pretending in this example that he was a totally physically able person), so why should he get to benefits of having the kind of position he does while I have to scrape by with my meager talents? Talent isn't 'fair' but I don't see how an ethical theory could seriously condone the leveling of it. I think Mao's Cultural Revolution can be seen as the disaster this kind of premise can lead to, and even less pessimistic outcomes are still going to be more of an ill for a society.

This should probably be all up in the review, but I was too tired last night to write much.


message 4: by Richard (new)

Richard G Wow, I'm daunted and titillated by this review. Ahhhhh probably I should just crawl back in my hole.


message 5: by karen (new)

karen it makes me sleepy.


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