Review of Thomas Nagel, The Last Word


Like all Nagel’s work, this is a book with a message: an apparently clear, simple message, forcefully presented and repeated. The message is that there is a limit to the extent to which we can “get outside” fundamental forms of thought, including logical, mathematical, scientific and ethical thought. “Getting outside” means taking up a biological or psychological, or sociological or economic or political view of ourselves as thinkers. It also inclines many people to talk of the contingency or subjectivity or arbitrariness or ‘relativity’ of our thoughts. Nagel believes that the standpoint is impossible, and the relativism it is apt to engender is self-refuting: “we cannot criticize some of our own claims of reason without employing reason at some point to formulate and support those criticisms” (p. 15). The general message is that first-order thoughts, the elementary certainties of mathematics, logic, science, and ethics, “dominate” any attempt to displace them. The book ends with the peroration: “Even if we distance ourselves from some of our thoughts and impulses, and regard them from outside, the process of trying to place ourselves in the world leads eventually to thoughts that we cannot think of as merely “ours”. If we think at all, we must think of ourselves, individually and collectively, as submitting to the order of reasons rather than creating it.”

Like Peter Strawson, Thomas Nagel is a doughty champion of what we might call the everyday metaphysics of everyday life. His disdain for facile attempts to debunk that is surely admirable. Nevertheless, the actual argumentation is puzzling. Nagel tells us in the Preface that he has absorbed a lesson from Professor Ronald Dworkin, that skeptical positions about morality must be understood as entering moral claims, so that the answer to them must come from within morality. And if this is the playing field, it will seem right that first-order logical or mathematical or scientific or ethical claims “dominate” skeptical or relativistic counter-claims. Thus if I claim that it is not the case that p and not p, and am met by someone saying that perhaps it sometimes is the case, I have available the good, Moorean, response that my certainty is better warranted than his suspicion. Or if I say that a double-blind protocol for testing new drugs is more reliable than tests done without the precaution, and somebody tries to say “that is just us” (just Western science, or the patriarchy, or whatever), I win. It is not just us: there is no better protocol to use. If I say fervently the Holocaust was a terrible thing, and a relativist like Rorty tells me in view of the contingent and situated nature of all ethical opinion a light, ironic, aesthetic detachment is just the ticket, we are in moral opposition, and I am right and he is wrong.

            This is all perfectly correct, if indeed this is the playing-field. But Nagel, perhaps more self-consciously than Dworkin, only half believes that it is. This playing-field is thoroughly minimalist. On it, there are only first-order claims, and philosophers purporting to enter second-order claims are in fact putting forward their own first-order claims, which are typically less plausible than those with which they compete. There is no genuine metatheory, there are only “ritualistic metacomments” (p. 142). But a good part of Nagel’s book flirts with a different, second-order response to relativism and skepticism. This response is that which talks of our “submitting to the order of reasons rather than creating it”, and it takes itself to be defending a “Platonic harmony” between our minds and the various normative structures that, somehow, are built into the world. Nagel says, disarmingly, that he finds this Platonic vision both congenial and alarming. A true minimalist would find it neither, for he would say that here too we have only ritualistic metacomments, denying that there is any space for the vision to occupy.

            We can see why this is so if we put it in terms of what we can call Ramsey’s ladder. This takes us from p to it is true that p, to it is really true that p, to it is really a fact that it is true that p, and if we like to it is really a fact about the independent order of things ordained by objective Platonic normative structures with which we resonate in harmony that it is true that p. For the metatheoretical minimalist, Ramsey’s ladder is horizontal. The view from the top is just the same as the view from the bottom, and the view is p.

            What then of the relativist? Suppose we say p, and the relativist echoes it, but adds “that is just us”: the last words that Nagel so strenuously opposes. The minimalist can only hear this as a first-order claim: that is just us as opposed to something better ethically, or mathematically or scientifically for example. And then the issue is whether there is anything better, and at least where we are dealing with unambitious bedrock certainties, we will be sure that there is not. If we are not minimalist, we might hear the relativist as essaying something second-order: just us as opposed to opinions alarmingly or congenially, but in any case absolutely, in harmony with the cosmic order. The relativist and the realist share the view that there is an issue over this absolute cosmic stamp of approval. The minimalist denies that there is.

            Clearly, it is discouraging for philosophers to accept minimalism. We talk ourselves out of a job if there remains no philosophy of mathematics, or of logic, or of science, or of ethics. So we might not be unsympathetic with Nagel’s vacillation over whether the right response to the relativist is the minimal, first-order reminder that revisionist speculations are subordinate to basic certainties, or whether the right response is to struggle to make sense of some kind of absolutism. What is a little more perturbing is that Nagel gives the impression that winning the battle against a relativist at the minimal level is thereby, or also, winning it at the second-order level. This is, as I like to put it, taking advantage of the horizontal nature of Ramsey’s ladder to climb it, and then announce a better view from the top.

I believe Nagel is encouraged to this by his conviction that ordinary first-order thoughts have an “objective content” that is sufficient to resist skeptical or relativistic “interpretation” (p. 85). It is, on this view, as if absolutism or Platonism is of right the default position. Our thoughts already bear its stamp. Nothing else is true to their content. If Ramsey’s ladder is horizontal it is because p all unaided took us to the dizzy philosophical heights. Here, I can only report that I am sufficiently minimalist to doubt that there is sense to be made of this. “2 + 2 = 4” and “rape is bad” seem to me to be about numbers and rape, not about the meaningfulness and truth of Platonism.

            There is one presumption, perhaps allied with this, that permeates the book, and that I found resistible. I could not see why attempts to understand our thinking as a natural phenomenon must inevitably clash with the activity of thinking or with its authority. Nagel finds it easy to think that they do, having no sympathy for a variety of approaches that find no clash (p. 9). Now, a social or evolutionary explanation of one of our propensities might, I suppose be debunking, at least for some people some of the time. But I cannot see why it has to be. Hume, for instance, thought that the work of the anatomist assisted that of the painter: he intended his explanations of moral psychology to be thoroughly bunking. And it seems to me that they are. Similarly, few philosophies of mathematics or logic are debunking, even in intent. Surely philosophers who hope to explain things do not always intend to explain them away, nor do they always rub the bloom off the things they touch.


Simon Blackburn

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


1343 words.