Analytic Philosophy and Human Life: Rome, 21.11.2008 – Forum (anglais)


Thomas Nagel

Prix Balzan 2008 pour la philosophie morale

Pour ses contributions fondamentales et novatrices à la théorie éthique contemporaine, tant dans le cadre des choix personnels et individuels que dans celui des choix collectifs et sociaux. Pour la profondeur et la cohérence de son originale perspective philosophique, centrée sur la tension essentielle entre un point de vue objectif et impersonnel et un point de vue subjectif et personnel. Pour l’originalité et la richesse de son approche philosophique de quelques-uns des plus importants problèmes de vie quotidienne.

Philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century, the period during which I entered the field, has seen complex activity and growth in a number of areas. What is most conspicuous in the analytic tradition in which I was formed is the focus on language, both as a subject of great philosophical importance in itself, and as a path into the philosophical understanding of other topics, from metaphysics to ethics. I myself have never worked in the philosophy of language, but the background of an education in this type of philosophy has had an effect on the way I think and write.

I was exposed to analytic philosophy in its three leading branches, through the accident of the three institutions at which I studied. I was an undergraduate at Cornell University, at a time when the philosophy department there was dominated by the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein, through the presence of his student and follower Norman Malcolm. We studied with great intensity Wittgenstein’s later writings, published and unpublished, and assimilated the method of uncovering misunderstandings about the way language functioned as the root of many philosophical problems. I then went to Oxford as a graduate student, at a time when J. L. Austin, Paul Grice and others were pursuing a close attention to the precise details of how ordinary, natural language functioned, insisting on the subtleties it contained, in contrast with the oversimplification of general theories expressed in artificial and often obscure philosophical vocabulary. After two years at Oxford I went to Harvard to complete my graduate studies, and there encountered the more systematic, logically based approach to language represented by W. V. Quine, which descended from the work of logical empiricists such as Carnap and Russell.

I am not really a follower of any of these traditions, but they provided the intellectual environment in which I have worked, very different from the environment of continental philosophy of the same date, with its strong elements of Marxism, existentialism, and phenomenology. Temperamentally, in a subterranean way, I have been drawn to aspects of these continental movements – to the egalitarian utopianism of Marx, the sense of the absurd of the existentialists, and the inescapability of the subjective point of view of phenomenology. But I have pursued these interests in an analytic framework.

The attention to language brought with it standards of conceptual clarity and an insistence on careful testing of philosophical hypotheses by argument and counterargument. But against this background, there are three broad developments of analytic philosophy that mark its relatively recent history, and that have been important to me in a more substantive way. One is the close connection between philosophy and science. Another is the great revival of moral, political, and legal philosophy. And the third is the return to at least partial respectability of Lebensphilosophie – philosophical reflection on basic questions of life and death.

The close connection of analytic philosophy with the natural sciences and mathematics is characteristic of the last of the three branches of the tradition I mentioned – the logical empiricist branch. Indeed it also gave rise to mathematical logic, which is now a branch of mathematics more or less independent of philosophy. There is a tendency in this dominant strain of analytic philosophy to aspire to a role for philosophy as the most abstract and general form of the scientific understanding of the world. The good side of this tendency is that it requires those interested in philosophy to know something about the natural sciences; as a result, the scientific and mathematical literacy of analytic philosophers is relatively high – usually much greater than their historical or artistic literacy. But the bad side is that analytic philosophers are often susceptible to scientism – i.e. the view that the natural sciences, mathematics, and logic both define the questions that it makes sense to ask and provide the only methods of true understanding, whatever the subject matter. This I believe is an obstacle to full understanding of ourselves, in particular, and it limits the capacity to explore seriously questions of value of all kinds.

My work in the philosophy of mind grows out of this background. I believe that philosophy in this case enables us to see why the mind cannot be adequately understood in terms of the types of theory that have been so successful in explaining the physical world since the scientific revolution – simply because those theories were developed to account for a very different type of phenomenon. The problem of the relation between subjective experience and objective reality has been a central issue of philosophy from its beginnings, but in our time it has been affected by the growing authority of the physical sciences, extended into an understanding of living beings through evolutionary theory and molecular biology. The idea that mind can somehow be explained as part of the physical world, through a combination of behavioristic functional analysis and neurophysiological identification, has seemed to many theorists to be the next step on the forward march of physical science to provide a theory of everything.

While I believe the pursuit of a more and more objective conception of reality, less and less attached to the particular forms of human sensory experience, is a great manifestation of the capacity of human reason and its aim of transcendence, I believe that this pursuit of objective reality inevitably leaves something very important behind. That was the point of an early article of mine, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” – whose title really contains its entire argument. The subjective character of human experience – or the experience of any particular type of creature with an individual perspective on the world, cannot be understood only in terms of behavior or the physical functioning of the central nervous system, even though these three elements are inextricably connected.

The real problem is to try to understand this connection in a way that does not eliminate the irreducibly subjective aspect of mental reality, and also to ask what conception of the natural order might do justice to the fact that the most objective description of the physical world cannot be a complete description of what there is. This is a problem for the future, and I do not think much progress can be expected on it during the lifetime of anyone here. The search for a physicalistic understanding of the mental is due to a natural human weakness: the desire for closure – to reach a solution using the tools available before one departs from the scene – and a refusal to recognize that we are at an early stage in the progress of human understanding. Progress on the mind-body problem will take many intellectual generations.

Moving to the subject of ethics, I was very fortunate to be involved in a reawakening of this field that has transformed philosophy. When I began my studies the dominance of linguistic analysis meant that analytic philosophers were mostly interested only in metaethics – the analysis of moral language and the logic of moral concepts — rather than in first-order moral questions. It was widely thought that there was no way to think rationally about substantive questions of right and wrong, good and bad, justice and injustice. However, one of my teachers at Cornell was John Rawls. He was then in his early thirties and had published only two articles, but he was engaged in a project of substantive moral theory – the defense of definite principles of justice for a modern liberal democracy – that would by its example do more than any other work of the twentieth century to bring moral thought back into the center of philosophy. The focus of his work on institutional questions, including social, economic and legal issues, made philosophers think again in systematic ways about the political problems of their time.

Beginning in the 1950’s there was a gradual development of philosophical interest in substantive moral theory and substantive questions of policy. Elizabeth Anscombe wrote about the morality of warfare and the distinction between combatants and noncombatants – a crucial issue in the cold war nuclear age of Mutually Assured Destruction. H. L. A. Hart wrote about the enforcement of morals, and debated with Patrick Devlin the legitimacy of laws against homosexuality, pornography, and prostitution. But it was not only intellectual changes that caused the awakening of moral and political philosophy. In the 1960’s the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and conflicts about abortion and homosexuality became large elements in public debate in the United States, and a number of moral, political, and legal philosophers began to write and teach about these questions, partly in response to the interests of our students, and partly because some degree of engagement seemed mandatory in a politically disturbing time.

My first teaching position was at Berkeley, just at the time when the student movement exploded there. Subsequently I moved to Princeton, where I was involved in the creation and editing of a journal called Philosophy & Public Affairs, whose title is emblematic of these developments, and which played a significant role in connecting philosophy with issues of contemporary public concern. Such issues have been among the things I have written about since that time: war, taxes, privacy, affirmative action, global inequality, sexual freedom, religion and the state, and so forth. At New York University my joint appointment in the philosophy department and the Law School reflects those interests.

In ethical theory I have been concerned, as in metaphysics and epistemology, with the relation between the point of view of the individual and the transcendent, objective point of view represented by moral impartiality. This was already a theme in my first book, The Possibility of Altruism, derived from my doctoral dissertation, but it has reappeared in many guises in subsequent writings. The tension between the very fruitful transcendent impulse of human reason and the subjective perspective that it leaves behind and that must coexist with it is a source of philosophical problems in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political theory, and the understanding of human action. I have discussed the parallels most fully in The View from Nowhere, but the topic is also treated in Mortal Questions, Equality and Partiality, and The Last Word. In ethics and political theory the contrast of standpoints underlies traditional questions of the relation between individual self-interest and the collective good, and what form and degree of impartiality is the appropriate basis of ethics and political justice. I have written about this issue with reference to Hobbesian, utilitarian, and Kantian theories of the foundations of morality, and have been especially concerned with how the drive to reduce social and economic inequality can be reconciled with the natural partiality we all feel toward ourselves and those we particularly care about.

The positive moral outlook I have tried to develop depends on the crucial human capacity to see oneself from outside, as merely one person among others. If one wishes to affirm one’s own value from this objective point of view, and the importance of one’s life, happiness, and flourishing, then one must in consistency accord equal objective value to the lives of all other persons, since from the objective standpoint everyone else is as much an “I” as I am. The only alternative is to abandon all value when one moves to the objective standpoint, and this I believe is impossible. We cannot regard our own lives as objectively valueless, so that others have no reasons except subjective ones to care whether we live or die. This point was embodied in the claim that morality includes “agent-neutral” reasons, such as the reason that any person has to relieve person A’s pain – and not just “agent-relative” reasons, such as the special reason A has to relieve A’s pain, or to care for A’s children.

However, even though the objective standpoint provides a powerful source of moral reasons, it cannot replace the subjective standpoint completely, but must be integrated with it. However much we recognize the equal value of all persons, our own life is always the life of a particular individual, with particular aims, projects, needs, and personal attachments. The question of whether to subordinate this point of view to the claims of moral impartiality, or rather how and to what extent to do so, seems to me to be the central issue of moral theory. The utilitarian tradition has defended the requirement of a fairly radical subordination of agent-relative reasons to agent-neutral ones – though it admits agent-neutral justifications for allowing people to pursue individualistic aims, as with the special responsibilities among members of a family, which can be justified in utilitarian terms by their contribution to the general welfare. I have been more drawn to the Kantian tradition that gives to impartiality a regulative role over our motives, while leaving the independent rational authority of the subjective point of view over our lives in place within the framework of a harmonizing system of universal standards. This is the intent of the categorical imperative, and more vividly of Kant’s conception of the kingdom of ends.

In political theory these issues extend to the evaluation of legal, economic, and social institutions. On what terms can we live with our fellow citizens, that take into account both the equal value of all of us from an objective point of view and the special concerns each of us naturally has about our own life and attachments? The relation of collective public power to individual freedom and various kinds of equality must, I believe be evaluated in these terms, and I think they make it possible to defend a form of egalitarian liberalism in which there is a moral division of labor between the state and the individual. In other words, public institutions should have a greater role in recognizing the equal importance of everyone than personal morality, which should leave people substantially free to follow their own path in life against this background, so long as they do not harm others.

The third topic that has always interested me is matters of life and death: the absurdity or meaning of life, the right attitude toward death, the relation of human life to the larger cosmos. These are questions that have a natural place in philosophy, but that are very hard to think about with the clarity that the analytic tradition prizes. However, in recent years these issues have ceased to be regarded as the exclusive province of the continental tradition, and I have written about them from time to time. I have never been dislodged from my conviction that death is the end of our existence, and that it is a very bad thing, even though it happens to everybody. More recently, I have become interested in the relation between science and religion, and in secular expressions of the religious temperament. It remains unclear whether it is legitimate to seek a satisfying account of the cosmos and our place in it, one which will make us feel at home in the universe. Like the other questions of philosophy, we can expect this one to be around for a long time. I believe that progress in philosophy consists not in answering questions definitively, but in deepening our understanding of the problems that inevitably arise in the attempt to find our place in the world, once we become afflicted with the pervasive self-consciousness that makes us human.

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