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The View from Nowhere

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Human beings have the unique ability to view the world in a detached way: We can think about the world in terms that transcend our own experience or interest, and consider the world from a vantage point that is, in Nagel's words, "nowhere in particular." At the same time, each of us is a particular person in a particular place, each with his own "personal" view of the world, a view that we can recognize as just one aspect of the whole. How do we reconcile these two standpoints--intellectually, morally, and practically? To what extent are they irreconcilable and to what extent can they be integrated? Thomas Nagel's ambitious and lively book tackles this fundamental issue, arguing that our divided nature is the root of a whole range of philosophical problems, touching, as it does, every aspect of human life. He deals with its manifestations in such fields of philosophy as: the mind-body problem, personal identity, knowledge and skepticism, thought and reality, free will, ethics, the relation between moral and other values, the meaning of life, and death. Excessive objectification has been a malady of recent analytic philosophy, claims Nagel, it has led to implausible forms of reductionism in the philosophy of mind and elsewhere. The solution is not to inhibit the objectifying impulse, but to insist that it learn to live alongside the internal perspectives that cannot be either discarded or objectified. Reconciliation between the two standpoints, in the end, is not always possible.

256 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1986

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About the author

Thomas Nagel

63 books402 followers
Thomas Nagel is an American philosopher, currently University Professor and Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he has taught since 1980. His main areas of philosophical interest are philosophy of mind, political philosophy and ethics. He is well-known for his critique of reductionist accounts of the mind in his essay "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?" (1974), and for his contributions to deontological and liberal moral and political theory in The Possibility of Altruism (1970) and subsequent writings.

Thomas Nagel was born to a Jewish family in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia). He received a BA from Cornell University in 1958, a BPhil from Oxford University in 1960, and a PhD from Harvard University in 1963 under the supervision of John Rawls. Before settling in New York, Nagel taught briefly at the University of California, Berkeley (from 1963 to 1966) and at Princeton University (from 1966 to 1980), where he trained many well-known philosophers including Susan Wolf, Shelly Kagan, and Samuel Scheffler, who is now his colleague at NYU. In 2006, he was made a member of the American Philosophical Society.

Nagel is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2008, he was awarded a Rolf Schock Prize for his work in philosophy, the Balzan prize, and the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Oxford University.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 33 reviews
Profile Image for David M.
442 reviews393 followers
October 11, 2016
This slim volume is a long trek through an often inhospitable landscape. I can't say it was always fun to read, but nonetheless I do find Nagel to be a fascinating thinker. What's most interesting is his partial vindication of rationalism.

His position is often hard to pin down, but in some respects appears similar to Descartes. Nagel has long argued against the possibility of ever reducing mind to matter. This would seem to make him a dualist. So far so good. It's his closeness to another aspect of Descartes, however, that really has the power to scandalize - at least among his naturalistic minded colleagues in academia.

After guaranteeing the existence of the mind through the cogito, Descartes felt the need to go a step further by guaranteeing that the contents of the mind, and the dictates of reason, correspond to something outside itself. This, roughly, was the purpose of the ontological proof. While no one, including Nagel, can really accept the soundness of Descartes's argument for the existence of God, nonetheless it's important to recall why he thought God was necessary for his philosophical system. He did not just throw it in as a sop to the religious authorities of his time. Rather, God was the only bulwark against a radically untenable skepticism.

This, then, is rationalism: the conviction that the dictates of a priori reason must, in a strong sense, link up with the universe as it exist outside our head. Nagel thinks this is true. He contends that if it were not true it would not be possible to hold any belief at all. This would entail a form of skepticism far more extreme than any variety of naturalism. The naturalist positions seems to take for granted that it is itself correct, and that therefore truth is possible at least in some areas. However, Nagel argues, the naturalist really has no right to this conviction; it is undercut by his own account of mind evolving through a random series of accidents.

What then? At times Nagel seems to be preparing for a defense of theistic belief, but he never actually goes there. Indeed he even calls himself an atheist. Granted this is a very peculiar kind of atheism. We're used to the narrative of the believer forced to give up their faith due to the weight of scientific evidence or logical argument. Nagel is something like the opposite. His philosophy might actually have greater plausibility and coherence were he to posit the existence of God. Yet this he steadfastly refuses to do. He says there must be something that guarantees reason but will not say what that something is. He does not call it god and professes to know nothing about it. If others wish to make a full-blooded return to classical rationalism they cans do so; his remains a decidedly more watered down, agnostic version.
Profile Image for Tyler .
323 reviews304 followers
April 21, 2010
Thomas Nagel qualifies his sentences in a way that forces you to hold the subject in mind while waiting for the predicate. But that alone doesn't explain why my eyes glazed over trying to get through this book. I think I kept trying to hack away at it after I was already tired.

What's more, what Nagel has to say is important and creative, and no other philosopher has said it. He talks about objectivity, a mode by which we come to know the world. What's really good is that he covers it from every angle -- ontology, epistemology, ethics and so on.

Objectivity, Nagel finds, is not something learned in school and honed only with hard practice. It is inherent in human consciousness and part of our very being. Thought of that way, the idea of getting people to think objectively doesn't seem like asking them to do something alien to their nature; a person proud of his subjectivity and given to the impulse of the moment seems like an oddity, not the normal model of the human mind.

An interesting point is that the subjective mind is part of the objective world, and has to be accounted for objectively. I've thought about that before myself, but never with the thoroughness Nagel brings to it.

Another interesting point is that we all have both an objective self and a subjective identity. So when I say, "I am Tyler," this is not a trivial statement. The "I" has more than one sense to it. The ramifications of this are immense for Nagel, who shows us that the wonder of how I got to be this particular person out of the billions who live has greater philosophical importance than one might have imagined.

The subject is quite interesting and Nagel's thinking is well structured. The book is accessible to anyone with a basic knowledge of philosophy. The harder stuff he goes over carefully, without escaping into the jargon of philosophy to get the point across. This book is referenced frequently by other authors, and it's a book I can recommend, too.
October 8, 2016
Probably one of the most brilliant ways to think about philosophy, Nagel has introduced me to observing philosophical disputes - ancient and contemporary - in terms of the objective/subjective distinction. We go on a journey through the philosophy of mind seeing that objective reductionism fails to capture the subjective qualia of a person, then move to how we gain knowledge, then to free will, to value and finally ethics and the disjunction between a life lived well and a life lived 'right'. In general, our capacity to engage in the objective standpoint tends to induce misunderstandings about the nature of consciousness, make free will appear impossible, impersonalise ethics excessively and make life feel just a bit meaningless. This is why we should not ever regard the subjective standpoint as useless as it contributes first-person accurate ontologies, softens the blow of deterministic ideas and is the subject of the ethical theories it proposes. Rather than view these two standpoints as two sides of a coin, we should see them as two simultaneously functioning together despite the tension between them. We can never abandon our own point of view of reality, we may only alter it, says Nagel.

It is important to note that this book is quite difficult and somewhat unappealing at the start, but the conceptual power that Nagel harnesses makes it a worthwhile read for philosophers wanting a substantially reactionary book.
32 reviews6 followers
September 12, 2014
The search for knowledge could be, and often is, described as the attempt to surpass the personal, subjective viewpoint by striving to encompass the largest number of conditions before arriving at a conclusion. It's the search for generalities after careful experimentation. It's the analytic style, the scientific method. Nagel, while totally respecting that this is at least the path toward truth, points out that starting point- the personal, subjective viewpoint. For him, while the subjective ego has a powerful drive to push beyond the boundaries of its own viewpoint, the objective stance can never look down and analyze the subjective away. The neuropsychologist who perfectly describes the functioning of every brain part and claims science has discredited any other description of the world has overlooked that it is not a viewpoint that he scalpeled through. For Nagel, the truly objective viewpoint must realize that the desire for ever widening inclusiveness must contain those subjectivities that initiated the move in the first place.

Nagel does a fine job of defending against those scientists and philosophers who claim the scientific method provides the only description of our world. However, this is not what I found most interesting about 'The View from Nowhere'. The move from subjective to objective is a process that is necessitated in varying degrees in any human life. A conversation between two people means the realization of another subjectivity across the way and a viewpoint that takes that other into inconsideration. A drive toward all encompassing impartiality looks down on a world that realizes the huge number of viewpoints in it-and what about all those we educate ourselves to consider who lived in the past and those possibilities of the future? The view from the very abstract can make our own lives and ambitions, and those of every individual around us, seem petty indeed. Once taken, the step toward the view from nowhere dogs the path back to the personal, bringing differing degrees of alienation to everyday concerns.

Nagel lists some of the paths out of the struggle between objective detachment and very human commitments. They are all temporary, partial or just dehumanizing for Nagel, since for him the conflict is an irresolvable aspect of being human, an almost noble aspect of our condition. The most stringent path is that of the hermit mystic: total withdrawal from personal and social concerns in order to concentrate on the universal. This eliminates the conflict by eliminating the subjective, thus becoming the dehumanizing extreme. Somewhat less so is the path of the saint, who minimizes the personal by putting all their efforts into providing for the basic needs of as many people as their efforts could possibly reach. There's the more livable method of putting it all behind you with the thought that we are human beings first and foremost and that the objective viewpoint is there simply to serve our interests. While we all use this most of the time, the point is that it does not alway work. Alienation from our own ambitions simply does creep back in and the argument from nowhere is not really refutable. A momentary respite from the conflict can be found in the aesthetic attitude: the non egocentric respect for the particular that can so absorb one that distinctions between points of view disappear. Think of encountering an item of great beauty. I also think of those who tried to make of this more than a momentary attitude, artists like Baudelaire. Since Nagel allows that all these efforts are partial at best, his favored response seems to lie with the acknowledgement that we should try to live our lives not totally out of line with our (small) objective value; in other words, we commit to our lives but with great humility. Nagel is the first to concede that many of our small pleasures are not 'necessarily canceled by the fact that they lack external justification". If so, perhaps we can take all the more joy from them while resting from the view from nowhere.
Profile Image for VII.
233 reviews27 followers
February 11, 2018
In What is it like to be a bat? Nagel argues that conscious animals possess a subjective point of view of things that is irreducible to physical properties. In a way it is just a continuation of the mind-body problem but it was made at a time when physicalism was almost universally accepted. The issue is still very relevant and I 'd say that it reformed as what we label now as the hard problem of consciousness.

In this book Nagel argues that humans have developed another point of view besides the subjective one. He says that we have an ability to see the world from a bird's eye view where our subjective point of view, our self, simply is a point of view among many. For Nagel, the human mind -and only the human mind-, somehow developed the ability to view the world objectively. Most of the book investigates familiar subjects like reality, freedom, value, ethics or even "the meaning of life" through this dichotomy.

As an analytical philosopher, Nagel is really good at making his point. Assuming you accept his premises, his arguments are usually on point. He is ready to admit when he is not sure about something he writes and you can see that he is ready to write whatever he thinks is true despite how it will seem. There are a few paragraphs even on panpsychism for example. It's also good that he is concerned with the bigger picture instead of staying on some tiny irrelevant subject like many philosophers do.

While I am sensitive to the irreducibility of consciousness, I just can't see how the objective self that Nagel describes is as objective as he thinks. It seems to me that it is simply a representation that is entirely dependent on the subjective one. Also, I know that my next statement is unfair but I can't help to think that Nagel's ultimate motive is to maintain the anthropocentric delusion that is typical of humans. This is much more apparent in his latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False but even in this one his world has an objective meaning he -in a very modest way- questions the plausibility of the evolution of consciousness and he even believes in moral realism.

All in all though, it's a pretty interesting book. I 'd argue that for someone who is smart and analytical but lacking in knowledge of the terminology and the history of philosophy, this is a decent introductory philosophy book, maybe a little on the hard side. He explains every idea he expresses while showing how you can talk about issues while staying in a very specific framework. This is much harder than it sounds.
Profile Image for Mr Siegal.
113 reviews10 followers
April 8, 2019
Objectively and Subjectively Intriguing

Though at times superficial, this is an extraordinary book overall. Nagel is interested in the subjective and objective worldviews, the objective being the view from nowhere, and how these two viewpoints have different consequences for different areas of philosophy.

The book is roughly split into four parts, the first dealing with philosophy of mind, the second dealing with metaphysics and the limits of thought (the most interesting for me), the third with ethics/morals (the part I did not like), and the fourth with the meaning of it all. I must note that the book itself is not split as I say; it is just the impression I got from the relative chapters.

Nagel is one of these philosophers that modern academia needs more of: wide-ranging, humble, and exceptionally insightful, and this is an extremely bold book (sadly) for today’s measures (I enjoy bold books). Nagel takes the objective/subjective viewpoint and applies it on a wide array of philosophical issues. Though the philosophy of mind and metaphysics parts of the book lend themselves as fertile ground for such a dichotomy to be discussed, the latter parts are somewhat lacking, chiefly because there is not enough analysis for why there is such a dichotomy: what gives rise to it etc. etc. etc. I get the feeling that Nagel takes this dichotomy as a given (as do many people I believe), though I would have liked, and was indeed hoping, to see a bit more depth in regards to the metaphysical underpinnings of the dichotomy itself. I think if more emphasis were given to the why of the dichotomy, a much deeper work would have emerged.

All in all, this in an exceptional book, and I believe has become somewhat of a modern classic. I can see why, and this book has for me cemented Nagel as an exceptional thinker (I had not read his work previously – I was blind but now I see).
Profile Image for Jack.
44 reviews3 followers
May 21, 2020
Nagel writes so simply, but by no means is the book always easy to follow (but mostly I’d say it was). He covers a lot of ground. Some of his views sound convincing and reasonable, but you feel they sometimes lack more solid arguments. However the book is a wonderful exploration of the role of the objective and subjective points of view, the limits of the use of either perspective and how the importance placed on either one informs thinking in many areas. No doubt I’ve not followed many parts carefully enough, I’ve forgotten positives and negatives, and parts have gone over my head. But no regrets in reading.
Profile Image for James Klagge.
Author 15 books79 followers
December 3, 2021
Nagel takes the tension between the subjective view (from now-here) and the objective view (from no-where) and uses it to diagnose most all philosophical problems. Diagnose...but not solve. He sees them as virtually insoluble. That can seem depressing, or as proper humility. Anyway, an analytic philosopher who tries to tackle the "big" questions in philosophy.
I've used this book several times over the decades as a text in an advanced class on Metaphysics, and always found it to be provocative for good discussion.
Profile Image for Ryan.
128 reviews26 followers
October 27, 2016
Nagel wrote this book to address the tension between our subjective, personal view of the world, and the larger, objective view of the world that our thought opens out into. The subjective view is the 1st-person experience, fundamentally in reference to our selves, while the objective is (or approaches) the impersonal, global understanding of the world which only contains ourselves incidentally, as a part.

Nagel takes as his goal a sort of reconciliation between these viewpoints, aiming for a description of the world that doesn't ignore either one but instead incorporates aspects of both to create a comprehensive theory of knowledge. This is the key point: he argues that any description of all that exists will fail to be complete if it does not include our subjective experiences. Thus a purely physical description of the content and behavior of the universe is an incomplete account. "I want to think of mind, like matter, as a general feature of the world," he writes (pg 19).

If you can get beyond the dense prose and technical language, Nagel's writing is actually fairly straightforward. He works through his subject in a natural, intuitive way, and then considers its implications and the arguments for and against the conclusions he arrives at. There's very little fretting over definitions or the logical, axiomatic construction of arguments that you might expect from a work of analytic philosophy.

The book basically takes a tour through several questions of personal philosophy, from ideas of freedom, skepticism, values and ethics all the way to the meanings of life and death, all considered through this lens of the objective / subjective synthesis. I very very much enjoyed the first chapters on the mind-body problem. I've read (and written about) several other books on this subject and because it tends to deal with thoroughly ineffable concepts I always feel that everyone is just talking past each other; in this case though, I feel at least Nagel has articulated the position that I personally agree with. Chapters 2 and 3 are perhaps the best survey of this issue that I have read. Nagel has thoughts on the major approaches to reconciling the mind-body problem.

Some of the problems he encounters here I do not agree are problems. The main problem that opens Chapter 4, for instance, never appears to me as a problem: how can I be a *particular* person; that is, given the objective view of a world and its contents and the experiences of the people in that world, where do I fit in? In this view, there are billions of people and nothing exceptional about the person that is Ryan. The description seems complete while leaving out the fact that I am Ryan. I am untroubled by this because I think that to account for subjective experience, our description of the world must include the experiences of being any of the persons contained in the world, and each person feels as though they are a particular person, while the world yet remains centerless. In my view, unique feelings of selfhood arise anywhere there are causally-separated regions of the universe that are conscious.

Other problems, like the question of free will, I find especially pointless. Never mind the fact that Nagel dismisses compatibilism in a few paragraphs as incoherent, or something like that. I don't think the question of free will is important to ask about or even particularly meaningful, because I don't see an experiential distinction between truly having a free will or only thinking I have a free will.

While the early chapters about the mind I thought were great and the most stimulating reading so far this year, the latter chapters about ethics and values were not what I was concerned with. They're important in the general elaboration of philosophy and sometimes I do want to read about these topics; others may particularly enjoy this part of the book but it wasn't what I was looking for. It's just as thoughtful and well-written as the rest of the book, but my concern was with Nagel's philosophy of the mind.

It's funny that I still haven't found a writer of philosophy who would give a generous (or at least accurate) description of the epiphenomenalist account of the mind-body problem. In the books that I have read, both Nagel and Searle (arguably Nagel's intellectual and professional rival), give flip and dismissive treatments of this philosophy in just a few sentences. Maybe I'm way off, but I didn't get the impression that either really grasp the epiphenomenalist's claims! I don't quite consider myself belonging to this school of thought, but it does interest me.

Overall I think this is a good read that will get you asking all sorts of important questions. I appreciated Nagel's treatment of physics in the early chapters.
Profile Image for Ben Guterson.
Author 6 books355 followers
February 2, 2018
Fascinating and challenging work in which Nagel, whose brief paper "What is it Like to Be a Bat?" ("the most widely cited and influential thought experiment about consciousness," according to Daniel Dennett), I'd seen referenced so frequently I finally read it and then this book, explores the difficulties in aligning our limited subjective capabilities with possible objective viewpoints. He definitely doesn't aim low; chapter headings include "Mind and Body," "Thought and Reality," "Freedom," "Living Right and Living Well," and "Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life." Free of most technical or philosophical jargon, and refreshingly devoid of hubris about our current knowledge of ourselves and our world, Nagel's book is so streamlined and dense, it can occasionally bog down under the weight of so much exposition. Still, I'm looking forward to making another running start at this book and others by Nagel; it's difficult for me not to be won over by a thinker who authors the following: "Eventually, I believe, current attempts to understand the mind by analogy with man-made computers that can perform superbly some of the same external tasks as conscious beings will be recognized as a gigantic waste of time," (p. 16) and "Evolutionary (explanation) is an example of the tendency to take a theory which has been successful in one domain and apply it to anything else you can't understand--not even to apply it, but vaguely to imagine such an application." (p. 78)
2 reviews
May 22, 2017
Although a bit technical and difficult to follow at times, this book still comes across as one of the most personal and honest pieces of philosophy I have ever read. Nagel pulls no punches in his describing the human condition as basically flawed: caught between a subjective and an objective point of view that are mostly irreconcilable. It makes for a gripping and sobering read.
Profile Image for Marek Pawlowski.
344 reviews6 followers
November 18, 2015
Zdecydowanie jest to jedna z tych książek filozoficznych, które trzeba przeczytać więcej niż raz, aby zrozumieć zagadnienia, które są w niej poruszane. Niemniej jednak, jakikolwiek czas spędzony na analizie filozofii Nagela nie jest w mojej opinii czasem straconym. Pomaga w tych studiach także naprawdę dobre tłumaczenie na język polski dokonane przez Cezarego Cieślińskiego. Nagel porusza w „Widoku znikąd” niezwykle trudne problemy związane z naszą perspektywą pierwszo- i trzecioosobową a wraz z tym kwestie dotyczące obiektywności naszego poznania, tego, czy wartości są obiektywne oraz czy jest możliwy tytułowy widok znikąd, czyli pełny obraz opisu świata, nie przyjmując przy tym żadnej perspektywy i zawierając zarazem w nim wszystkie. Według mnie jest to jedna z ciekawszych pozycji z dziedziny filozofii i na pewno znajduje się ona w pierwszej setce najważniejszych książek filozoficznych, jakie zostały napisane.

Definitely this is one of these philosophical books that you have to read minimum twice to understand all of the described problems. Nevertheless any time spent on analysing Nagel’s philosophy is not wasted in my opinion. Especially when there is a helpful and very well done Polish translation by Cezary Cieśliński. Nagel is broaching in “The View from Nowhere” some very complicated problems of our first and third person perspective along with the issues of our objective knowledge, a problem whether there is the objective understanding of values and if it is possible to view the world from nowhere – that is the kind of seeing the world that has no private view having all of the views included at the same time. In my opinion this is one of the most fascinating philosophical books I have ever read and I am placing it on my private list of 100 most important philosophical books that has been ever written.
Profile Image for Tyler Tidwell.
101 reviews8 followers
July 29, 2020
This is neither an easy nor particularly exciting read, and Nagel raises far more questions than he answers. He also presupposes a high level of familiarity with Western philosophy on the part of the reader, regularly launching into critiques and commentary on Kant, Wittgenstein, and others with hardly a cursory outline of their various theories and ideas. All this aside, Nagel presents a method of thinking about philosophical issues that seems both incredibly useful and incredibly non-partisan – quite the accomplishment. In the most concise terms possible, Nagel explores how we reconcile our subjective perspectives with our capacity to think beyond those perspectives – that is, our capacity to think objectively; to think “from Nowhere.”


Like other sentient beings, each human has his or her own particular, subjective view of the world that is strongly conditioned by an unchosen environment – accidents of birth, geography, and time determine much. Our inclinations and preferences are strongly correlated with whatever seems best or useful or most appropriate for us from OUR point of view. Anyone who has raised children is intimately familiar with the subjective perspective; my three year old son is all but pure subjectivity. He wants his milk in the blue cup, not the green cup, and he is determined to prolong his meltdown until the milk is conveyed to him in the proper hue. This isn’t to imply that subjectivity is all bad however. The same subjectivity which makes my son irate over the color of his cup is that which also makes him capable of completely unadulterated loyalty. He desperately loves his parents, his big sister, his baby brother, and his blanket. The sincerity of his daily categorical proclamations of affection would bring a tear to even the most cynical and shrewd eye.

Here’s the funny thing though: in rare moments of lucidity, even my three year old son is capable of thinking beyond his own perspective – of thinking objectively. When I ask him, “How would you like it if your sister did that to you?” I can almost see the wheels turning in his head as he tries to imagine a world in which he is not the absolute center.

This is a capacity peculiar to human beings – and an odd capacity at that. We are so used to employing it that we take its highly unusual nature for granted. Not only do you know what it’s like to be you, but you can also imagine what it’s like to be me, or what it’s like to be your dentist, or even – as the author suggests – what it’s like to be a bat (bats ostensibly don’t imagine what it’s like to be human). What is even more incredible though is that when we are trying to be as impartial and fair as possible, we can even try to imagine what it’s like to be no one at all! We mentally invoke a godlike perspective in which we attempt to subsume the subjective preferences of any and all particular individuals under some sort of higher, universalistic standard. How well we actually do this is an entirely different can-of-worms to be discussed shortly, but the point for now is to simply take a moment and acknowledge how incredibly singular this human capacity for objective thought is.

So this is the mental disposition of every waking person: we are our own odd couple of subjective and objective perspectives housed within the same mind. While each of the two perspectives has its pros and cons, Nagel is much more concerned with the claims, capacity, and culpability of the objective outlook than with the subjective. Namely, is it an unequivocal good? Does it always lead to better understanding? Is it actually achievable? The dazzling successes of the natural sciences in the post-Enlightenment Western world (which have been largely predicated on claims of objectivity and reason) seem to answer these questions in the affirmative. Nagel isn’t so sure however, and he wants to understand just what exactly is happening when finite, contingent beings like us put on our objective thinking caps and attempt to leave our subjectivity behind. How can such a process even be possible? And if it is possible, mustn’t it be highly problematic? Upon closer inspection (and unsurprisingly), it absolutely is.


In many ways, the history of philosophy, ethics, law, and several other topics could be told through the lens of man’s endless attempts to reconcile his partial, subjective viewpoint with his longing for an objective certainty which remains elusive. Students of philosophy will be intimately familiar with the forms of battle this attempted reconciliation has taken over the years: the good life versus the moral life; appearance versus reality; descriptive versus normative, etc. Nagel explores three common ways man has attempted to bridge the subjective-objective gap: skeptical means, heroic means, and reductive means.

Skeptical reconciliation isn’t really a reconciliation at all, but rather an incredibly powerful and seemingly irrefutable proclamation that the gap is forever and always unbridgeable. Finite creatures like us are simply condemned to never really having certain knowledge in the manner we desire. Typically characterized by the writings of Hume (though skeptical seeds were certainly sown by much earlier thinkers), skepticism is an incredibly unsatisfying and maddening philosophical position – unsatisfying because it denies our natural impulse for assurance and a firm foundation; maddening because it seems both incontrovertible yet also strangely self-defeating.

The irksome nature of skepticism has tended to make Nagel’s “heroic” forms of reconciliation much more popular responses to the subjective-objective problem: forms of Platonism in which the subjective is conceived as a derivative and direct extension of the objective; Rationalism, in which the subjective is deemed capable of reaching the objective through correct mental processes and reasoning; Existentialism, where the subjective and objective are made concomitant through a leap of faith or self-affirmation. What’s great about all these outlooks is that they seem to offer us various forms of access to the certainty and objectivity which we all desire. What’s bad about all these outlooks is that they are still completely vulnerable to the attacks of skepticism. Indeed, this is exactly why Nagel calls them “heroic” – despite their vulnerability they charge headlong into the philosophical fray, trying to save mankind from his endless epistemological conundrum.

What concerns Nagel however is a new form of reconciliation that has gained increasing momentum in the last few centuries, which he terms “reductionism.” Like the “heroic” means discussed above, reductive modes of reconciliation come in many forms. They all share a similar trait according to Nagel however – the inappropriate appropriation of objectivity. Specifically, they seek to reduce objectivity to some lower, discreet plane which is measurable, quantifiable, or deemed otherwise knowable in a pseudo-calculable sense. Everything can be explained in terms of language (linguistics) or environmental conditioning (behaviorism) or certain intractable historical trends (historicism) or physical processes (naturalism). This latter form of reductive reconciliation is particularly potent and, in truth, might be the father of all the others; Nagel gives it the most attention. If everything can be explained in terms of physical processes and physical processes are currently or theoretically knowable, then subjective-objective reconciliation has been (or will be) achieved.

The issue, says Nagel, is that the proclamation of everything being explicable via physical processes (or any of the other reductive modes mentioned above) is, upon closer inspection, really just an assertion – and a dangerous assertion at that. When we reduce non-physical entities to the physical realm we necessarily rob them of something essential and mysterious in their nature. The methods of natural science were designed to explain why apples fall from trees and why wooden boxes float in water – not why King Lear’s daughters betrayed him or why the death of an innocent person is tragic. Some (perhaps many) things simply cannot be explained as some sort of inevitable and necessary interaction between protons, electrons, quarks, or whatever else we may claim that all reality is derived from.

The temptation to reductionism remains strong though. After two-thousand plus years of hankering within Western philosophy the old battles between skeptics and anti-skeptics have remained insoluble, and recent forms of reductive reconciliation seem to offer the only way out. Descartes, Locke, Kant, Berkeley, and countless others bled their quills dry trying to discover how man might unite his subjective self with his objective obtainments. Yet an unequivocally satisfying answer has not been promulgated. Now modern man has turned to a new hope: objectivity will finally be found at the end of the scientist’s high-powered microscope and within the confines of his graduated beaker. It will be split, splayed, dissected, analyzed, categorized, and anesthetized. As Cormac McCarthy’s most harrowing literary character once remarked, “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.” Science has become the new handmaiden of philosophical salvation.


These are heady issues. After all, if science has been so right in predicting falling apples and floating boxes, why can’t it also be right about other things – like, ALL other things? There is no easy answer here that is not also dogmatic; each man must decide for himself as best he can. For the sake of argument (and brevity) though, let us side with Nagel and agree that some entities and concepts are of an irreducibly complex and mysterious nature of which none of man’s currents modes of understanding (including natural science) are capable of fully expositing. What then? Do we simply go back to the unending battles with skepticism? What says Nagel?

First, he says that objectivity should breed humility, not hubris. When we, as merely mortal and fallible creatures, enter our philosophical spaceship of objectivity and go whizzing up and over the world as we know it, the first thing we should realize is that we are viewing the world as WE know it. Our subjectivity cannot be completely shed anymore than our skin. Whatever objective aspirations we have are forever and always hemmed in by our subjective limitations, and our objective self must acknowledge our subjective self’s meagerness. Yet the word “science” is increasingly invoked as a subtle but powerful linguistic device that connotes a sense of pure objectivity while simultaneously masking the completely unremarkable fact that “science” really just means the activities of scientists – who, last time I checked, are still just persons stuck in the same subjective-objective reconciliation conundrum that I am.

Once we realize the subjectively bounded nature of man’s objective capacity, we should be highly suspicious of any methodology that claims to have reached an objective perspective without also acknowledging and incorporating the undeniable subjectivity that reality is populated with. Truth be told, no unequivocally satisfying answer to this problem may be attainable, and the mating of the subjective and objective selves has been more apt to breed absurdity than certainty. After all, how do you construct either subjectivity or objectivity out of “two hundred pounds of subatomic particles?” – which is what natural science says a human being ultimately amounts to.

Contradiction and paradox may simply be irremediable aspects of our existence. However, to stop there would essentially be to adopt the position of Existentialism, but Nagel wants to take us farther. As he patiently suggest, the correct modes of understanding and reconciling the subjective and objective perspectives probably just haven’t been discovered yet – just like the electromagnetic spectrum and Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis hadn’t been discovered a thousand years ago. What might we know about the subjective-objective problem a thousand years hence? Well, says Nagel, not much if we allow our current inebriation with natural science to convince us that the problem has been solved and we need not waste time thinking about it anymore. The call to action is clear: though it may be a Sisyphean task, we need to continue to bleed the ink quills dry until an answer for the subjective-objective problem is found that doesn’t require the dogmatic reduction of huge swaths of reality.


-In some ways, readers may find themselves more confused at the end of this book than when they started it. After all (and as mentioned at the beginning of this review), Nagel asks more questions more than he answers, and the few answers he does provide are submitted tentatively and with genuine humility. Though perhaps unsatisfying, I believe Nagel is correct in this approach. The only thing worse than not solving a problem is solving a problem the wrong way, and one of Nagel’s main projects is to help us better frame the complexity of this problem we so desperately want to resolve. A millennium from now our heirs may look upon our reductive solutions to the subjective-objective riddle with the same patronizing mirth we assume when reading Heraclitus’ proposal that the essential elements of nature are earth, fire, and water.

-Nagel’s critiques of reductive modes of thinking are sometimes guilty of the same bald assertions that he attacks the reductionists for. When Nagel claims that non-physical properties simply can’t be reduced to physical phenomena, he is really attempting to countermand the proclamation of naturalists that the distinction between physical and non-physical entities is an illusion in which the latter can, in actuality, be safely subsumed by the former. The problem is that Nagel doesn’t offer a specific, well-developed refutation to this illusion theory. His position seems to be that the assertion “non-physical properties cannot be reduced to physical phenomenon” is some sort of airtight, self-evident, logical syllogism – and perhaps it is. The problem is that it entirely misses the point. The whole argument of the naturalists isn’t that the non-physical realm can be reduced to the physical; it’s that the non-physical realm which Nagel refers to simply doesn’t exist! This is the crux of the issue, and I wish a mind as discerning and sincere as Nagel’s would have drilled down on this particular aspect of the debate a little more.
Profile Image for Micah.
15 reviews2 followers
May 14, 2022
Being very interested in the subjective/objective distinction, I had been wanting to read this for a while, so I was eager to finally get around to it. But overall I found this book less than satisfying. The repetitive patterns in which Nagel comes up empty in his quest led me to just skim or even skip some parts when I could tell they wouldn't come to anything.

Trying to find a "view from nowhere" (and perhaps knowing in advance that this effort will be unsuccessful but wanting to try anyway), Nagel tries to canvas everything that can be said from subjective and objective points of view in various broad philosophical areas, but is never able to put them together in any kind of systematic way. Many times what he tries to say from what might amount to a "view from nowhere" does not seem to come to much at all. Repeatedly I felt left in the dark as to what exactly he might have in mind, and I got the sense that Nagel might not be very clear on the matter himself. Sometimes this takes the form of merely insisting that it is important to recognize that there are things on general philosophical issues that no one will ever be able to know:
"We can speak of ‘all the things we can’t describe’, ‘all the things we can’t imagine’, ‘all the things humans can’t conceive of, and finally, ‘all the things humans are constitutionally incapable of ever conceiving.'"
It's hard to take this as a substantive point, and perplexing that he also faults Kant for positing the noumenal as "just a placeholder for something beyond our comprehension" when that seems to be essentially just what Nagel himself keeps doing.

That said, along the way there are many interesting points made that I found worth highlighting, especially in the sections on the mind and self-identification (although he stops short of drawing some further inferences I would make), and also in giving a perspective on the subject-matter of ethics. These were enough to get me from 2 to 3 stars. But I came away from the book convinced that there can be no such thing as a "view from nowhere" – how could there be, when by definition no one could ever occupy it? Nagel's dogged insistence on realism also left me convinced that realism is at best a source of pervasive confusion and at worst (as Davidson, whose corner I find myself almost always in, says) unintelligible. For example, take the possibility that "the world is completely different from how it appears to us, and there is no way to detect this." (Nagel) On the face of it, it's the perfectly straightforward skeptical challenge that we all know and love. But what could it mean for the world to be the same as how it appears to us? The sky really is blue, even in the absence of any observers? Milk is in fact white, and not really black, unbeknownst to us? Naive realism such as this just can't off the ground philosophically. I incline to what I would term irrealism, which some such as Nagel might consider a form of "idealism," but that term in the mouth of realists (and of some idealists besides) is so apt to confuse that I would prefer not to have to touch it.

Although the book says less than all of the words in it, I was glad to have read it, if for no reason that it helped in my thinking in ways orthogonal to the author's intentions.
Profile Image for Sergio Alonso De Leon.
99 reviews4 followers
April 13, 2019
The paradox of lloking at the world from our perspective and then trying to do so from an objective perspective is unbeareabe, but Thomas Nagel gets to explain it with a hint of hope. The book is dense but has a wondeful conclusion in its last chapter, a true lesson of life and death.

"There can be no ethics without politics. A theory of how individuals should act requires a theory—an ethical theory, not just an empirical one—of the institutions under which they should live:"

"The pursuit of objectivity with respect to value runs the risk of leaving value behind altogether."

"We may reach a standpoint so removed from the perspective of human life that all we can do is to observe: nothing seems to have value of the kind it appears to have from inside, and all we can see is human desires, human striving—human valuing, as an activity or condition."

"The uneasy relation between inner and outer perspectives, neither of which we can escape, makes it hard to maintain a coherent attitude toward the fact that we exist at all, toward our deaths, and toward the meaning or point of our lives, because a detached view of our own existence, once achieved, is not easily made part of the standpoint from which life is lived."

"From far enough outside my birth seems accidental, my life pointless, and my death insignificant, but from inside my never having been born seems nearly unimaginable, my life monstrously important, and my death catastrophic. "

"Most of us have felt suddenly giddy at the thought of the extreme unlikelihood of our own birth or the thought of the world sailing on after we are dead. Some of us feel a constant undertow of absurdity in the projects and ambitions that give our lives their forward drive."

"These jarring displacements of the external view are inseparable from the full development of consciousness."

"Almost every possible person has not been born and never will be, and it is sheer accident that I am one of the few who actually made it."

"There may be some reason for my continued existence now that I am here, but there is absolutely no reason why I should have come into existence in the first place: if I hadn’t, the world would have been none the worse; "

"In seeing ourselves from outside we find it difficult to take our lives seriously. "

"Life can be wonderful, but even if it isn’t, death is usually much worse. If it cuts off the possibility of more future goods than future evils for the victim, it is a loss no matter how long he has lived when it happens."
Profile Image for Kramer Thompson.
281 reviews25 followers
January 20, 2018
I found large sections of this book very challenging to read, not because the content was particularly difficult, but because something about Nagel's writing here just did not gel with me. This made the first half or so of the book (the parts dealing largely with philosophy of mind and epistemology) fairly unenjoyable. I also do not have extensive knowledge of philosophy of mind or epistemology, which made engaging with Nagel's arguments on those topics additionally troublesome.

Once Nagel turned to discussing values and ethics, I was able to follow his arguments much more easily. These sections were very enjoyable to read, and I found much of Nagel's argumentation very persuasive (although perhaps not decisive). That said, although I enjoyed these sections, the first half of the book was a bit of a slog, so I feel obligated to rate it quite low. But I'm sure much of what Nagel has argued here will be relevant to my future education in philosophy (especially epistemology, philosophy of mind, and ethics).
Profile Image for Jacob Williams.
411 reviews7 followers
May 6, 2020
Too much time is wasted because of the assumption that methods already in existence will solve problems for which they were not designed; too many hypotheses and systems of thought in philosophy and elsewhere are based on the bizarre view that we, at this point in history, are in possession of the basic forms of understanding needed to comprehend absolutely anything.

Objectivity of whatever kind is not the test of reality. It is just one way of understanding reality.

Nagel contemplates our capacity to try to step outside ourselves and form an objective conception of the world, presenting this ability and its inescapable limitations as the source of some of our most difficult philosophical problems related to knowledge, personal identity, free will, and ethics. His discussion reveals analogies between those areas that hadn’t occurred to me before.
Profile Image for Leonardo.
1,975 reviews58 followers
Shelved as 'to-keep-reference'
November 4, 2019
Nagel considera posible que alguna vez comprendamos cómo hace el cerebro para generar la conciencia, pero para ello será menester una revolución total en nuestro modo de pensar la realidad y nuestra concepción de la explicación científica.

La mente Pág.186-187
Profile Image for Lewis Whelan.
21 reviews
January 1, 2021
Nagel's philosophy is novel, but much that is good in this book is marred by the awkwardness of the writing and the half-formed nature of Nagel's ideas. I can only ever glimpse the book's central idea. And that's the problem: there's something profound, lurking within, but it's just so difficult to get at. To extract what's good, one would need an awful lot of time and a heroic amount of patience. Best of luck.
Profile Image for Morgan.
161 reviews8 followers
Shelved as 'abandoned-books'
July 20, 2020
Had to abandon before finishing.... maybe I’ll come back to it later? I thought this would be philosophy for general audiences but man this stuff is dense! (Guess I should’ve known, given my philosophy prof recommended this) ah oh well. Bye for now.
11 reviews
February 16, 2022
This is a very hard book for read if not formally trained in academic philosophy. While I don't agree with Nagel on several points - Nagel is one of the great thinkers of our time. I suggestion reading some of his smaller works to start as this book is a project to get through.
Profile Image for Megan.
75 reviews
April 4, 2015
Even though his ideas are not always easily acceptable, or that well argued for (he seems to base his idea that pain can be an agent-neutral reason for ethical action on his instinctive assumption that it is so), I couldn't help reading this book with a huge sense of admiration for Nagel. I could not hold back my astonishment that a philosopher could have thought that combining the objective and subjective viewpoints in the world could lead us in the right direction. It makes a lot of sense! The objective obviously leaves something out; where is the reference to the obviously colourful subjective lives which we all experience on a daily basis?! But, the subjective too; how can we justify any search for truth, or knowledge, when all we have is our subjective view? By stepping out of the subjective, and back in - merging the two - Nagel has become a great philosopher, and opened up a whole realm of thought for my little philosophical mind.

It's safe to say I'd recommend this book. I'd recommend Nagel. I'd recommend knowledge of his ideas.
Profile Image for Karl Georg.
55 reviews4 followers
April 30, 2012
Covers the problem of developing an objective view of the world, and then integrating that view with the subjective view, without neither drifitng into idealism nor adopting some form of reductionism (which Nagel both considers to be serious philosphical mistakes). Mind and body, knowledge, ethics, the meaning of life, birth and death: the full range of problems is being discussed with respect to how to cope with objectivity. Since some of the questions implied are quite hard, Nagel does not find answers to all of them - and admits to it. Which is good.
Profile Image for Paul Gibson.
Author 5 books15 followers
August 14, 2015
A very interesting and challenging book founded in realism; a mind walk, if you like that sort of thing. I kept running across paragraphs I'd like to share, but everybody ought to read the introduction and pages 185-188; about moral progress. I know this is an older book (1986) but it's great to hear what great thinkers are discussing nowadays; thinking as opposed to believing and worshiping. This book seems to be a touch upon many of Mr. Nagel's major major ideas.
Profile Image for Steve.
922 reviews39 followers
Shelved as 'abandoned'
November 30, 2014
It's weird, I like his writing, and I'm very interested in the subject matter, and he doesn't use complex language... but I just don't understand what he's talking about frequently. I don't mind skimming over some stuff if I don't get it, but after about 50 pages I realized I was 'skimming' over entire chapters.
Profile Image for James Henderson.
1,981 reviews166 followers
December 8, 2021
Nagel is difficult to interpret as he manages to hold inconsistent views at times. Nonetheless his arguments are challenging, resulting in interesting thinking on the part of the reader. The title is indicative of his approach suggesting the possibility of the impossible.
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