Thursday, June 16, 2011

The View From Nowhere

Our recent discussion about the value of philosophy and its relationship to other forms of inquiry made me think of this passage from the introduction of Nagel's The View From Nowhere:

It is natural to feel victimized by philosophy, but this particular defensive reaction goes too far. It is like the hatred of childhood and results in a vain effort to grow up too early, before one has gone through the essential formative confusions and exaggerated hopes that have to be experienced on the way to understanding anything. Philosophy is the childhood of the intellect, and a culture that tries to skip it will never grow up.

There is a persistent temptation to turn philosophy into something less difficult and more shallow than it is. It is an extremely difficult subject, and no exception to the general rule that creative efforts are rarely successful.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, these sorts of reflections on the nature of the discipline are becoming far and few between. 11:43'S apparent sarcastic boredom being the far more common attitude.

Anonymous said...

When your discipline's relation to any subdiscipline x is defined as meta-x, if x is hard, then can meta-x be easy? Of course then we need a meta-meta-x (Timothy Williamson anyone?) to determine that.

My head hurts.

wv: tayse--as in this post taysed my brain

Duck said...

I'm always happy to see posts about the nature of philosophy here – that's one thing a smoker is for. I have great respect for Thomas Nagel, who is one of the most eloquent and distinguished advocates for a philosophical perspective which, as it happens, I'm not at all happy with.

I certainly agree that philosophy is a very difficult subject. You can't tell from this quotation, but in other writings it turns out that what Nagel means by "turn[ing] philosophy into something less difficult and more shallow that it is" is a disinclination to answer certain Hard Questions. Nagel identifies these questions with the very urge to philosophize, but others see them, especially in his overtly Cartesian formulation, as manifesting deep philosophical confusion. In this context, it is entirely tendentious to assume, as Nagel does, that it is his critics, not he himself, who are succumbing to "a persistent temptation" to underestimate the difficulty of philosophy.

Sorry, that came out testier than I intended. But it's annoying when one's opponents sidestep discussion by simply identifying their own views with philosophy itself, and then turn around and accuse *you* of oversimplifying. Hmph.

So, Mr. Z., how do you see the matter?

(BTW I'm not sure 11:43 was being sarcastic – maybe he/she really liked the quote.)

Anonymous said...

Wow, my reaction is exactly the opposite of 12:04's. You've plucked pretentious rubbish out of Nagel's most pretentious phase. Hm, well, one of his most pretentious phases. Ugh. It's that kind of junk that makes me embarrassed to say I'm a philosopher.

Anonymous said...

I know it's not the most seminal of Nagel works, but I teach his What Does It All Mean? every semester as part of my 101s (for the last 20+ years). He's not at all shy in his reasoning, as my students vigorously assert. Yes, he sometimes averts his prose from specific answers, but his tone and direction in that book is clear enough. He is no dualist nor physicalist. He believes in some sort of free will, and justice, but not immortality. He thinks we have no large-scale meaning to our lives, but only at best a small scale meaningfulness that in the large-scale sense leaves us "absurd". Most of my students hate his book. Some who write me decades later testify to its genius.

Not that I agree with some of Nagel's writings--especially some of his latest.

Anonymous said...

That's some really pointed and scathing criticism you've engaged in. I really liked this Nagel quote, but after I read your comment, my perspective on philosophy has been completely been altered.

Anonymous said...

7:06, exactly, because if a blog comment doesn't engage in a pointed and scathing critique, and convince you that the original posting was false, then it's crap.

Anonymous said...

Random, mostly unrelated aside: I make my Intro students read sections of this book, because, well, someone has to make them read something hard. You should see how much their writing improves when they are forced to read it. The befores-and-afters are really stunning. But, of course, they totally hate my guts for making them do it. Oh well!

Anonymous said...


When you say that you "make them read" the book, do you mean something more than that you assign them to read the book? If so, what's your strategy?

Anonymous said...

7:10. 6:15 here. I assume you mean how do I "make" them do the assigned reading. Here's how:

1. Call randomly on students to answer questions on the reading and humiliate those students who haven't done the reading. This is a skill that takes a lot of practice, since one has to negotiate between what's genuinely embarrassing and what will get one in trouble with various admins at the school.

2. Rather than a term paper of the more traditional sort, I require them to write a 2-3 page precis of whatever chapters I've assigned which is worth 1/3 of their grade, and tell them their grade is based on how accurately they represent Nagel's position.

So, basically, anyone who doesn't do the work both fails the course and is humiliated in front of his peers. At first, they really hate my guts, but I get emails -- sometimes months after the fact, usually once the students have moved forward to more advanced academic work -- about how my course taught them more about reading and writing than any of their other college courses.

Anonymous said...

>> It is an extremely difficult subject..

Yeah, sure... I suppose that makes electrical engineering "an impossibly difficult subject"...