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The Last Word by Thomas Nagel

Antony Flew cheers an attack on relativism by Thomas Nagel.

The substance of works by Thomas Nagel is always matter which matters. This latest book is a sustained polemic against subjectivist relativism: a disastrous doctrine nowadays so widely accepted that “Claims that something is, without relativistic qualification, true or false, right or wrong, good or bad, risk being derided as expressions of a parochial perspective or form of life …” It is derided “not as a preliminary to showing that they are mistaken whereas something else is right, but as a way of showing that nothing is right, and that instead we are all expressing our personal or cultural points of view.”

This is a doctrine which is extremely attractive to all those who feel a need to discredit intellectually formidable criticism but who are unable or unwilling to meet and defeat that criticism in a fair intellectual fight. “The actual result” of the pervasive spread of this doctrine has been “a growth in the already extreme laziness of contemporary culture and the collapse of serious argument throughout the lower reaches of the humanities and social sciences…”

So what is to be done? The answer, like so much else in philosophy, is simple and obvious – simple and obvious, that is, once but only once someone has clearly and forcefully pointed the way to that answer. For obviousness truly is, what so much else is falsely said to be, essentially relative. What is quite obvious to me now, to you now may be totally obscure; while to me too at an earlier time the same thing could have been equally obscure. A first salutary step is to insist that from ‘this is a such and such’ we cannot validly infer ‘This is merely a such and such’. From ‘These are expressions of “a parochial perspective or form of life” ’ we cannot validly infer that ‘These are merely expressions of “a parochial perspective or form of life” ’; and hence that they are not also expressions of propositions which are both true and known to be true.

The second and crucial move is to insist that subjectivistic relativism could be known to be true only by someone whose supposed discovery of its truth would in fact have demonstrated its falsity. The putative finding of the truth of subjectivistic relativism is therefore an example of what the late David Stove christened (by a slight licence) the ‘Ishmael effect’1. (The ‘slight licence’ was to take it that the Ishmael of Moby Dick had reported that all concerned, himself included, had died in the disaster.)

A leading British psychoanalyst once claimed that psychoanalysts need to “know positively that all human emotional reactions, all human judgements and even reason itself, are but the tools of the unconscious; that such seemingly acute convictions which an intelligent person like this possesses are but the inevitable effect of causes which lie buried in the unconscious levels of his psyche”. Whereas this claim constitutes only, at worst, a self-refutation of all psychoanalytic findings, subjectivistic relativism self-refutes all claims to knowledge in every field to which it is applied.

Nagel makes the fundamental and decisive point, as it needs to be made, in many different ways. He maintains, for instance, that “Claims to the effect that a type of judgement expresses a local point of view are inherently objective in intent: They suggest a picture of the true sources of those judgements which places them in an unconditional context. The judgement of relativity or conditionality cannot be applied to the judgement of relativity itself.”

Noting that “Objections of this kind are as old as the hills” Rorty quotes with approval Hilary Putnam’s remark about “the appeal which all incoherent ideas seem to have.” (It is an appeal which Putnam himself seems to have felt in this particular case on more than one occasion).

The explanation of the title chosen for this book is that “Everything depends on the outcome of a contest over ‘the last word’. The subjectivist wants to give it to the recognition that justifications come to an end within our language and our practices. I want to give it to the justifications themselves, including some that are involved or implicated in that recognition … A certain extra step that some people try to take offers only the illusion of a thought, a path leading nowhere. When one adds, ‘This is what I would do’ or ‘This is my form of life’ … to what is in itself not a first person statement, one adds nothing – not even something that can be ‘shown’ but not said.”

The Last Word is a book full of good things. Thus Nagel quotes Rorty as saying that “What Kuhn, Derrida and I believe is that it is pointless to ask whether there really are mountains or whether it is merely convenient to us to talk about mountains.” Nagel assures us: “I am not making this up.”

Later he deals with a somewhat more sophisticated identification of such alternatives by arguing “That there is no way of determining that a belief is rationally acceptable except by thinking about whether it is true – thinking about the evidence and the arguments and being open to consideration of whatever anyone brings up as relevant. To say that its truth is its rational acceptability deprives both the notion of truth and the notion of acceptability of all content.”

Again, at one point Nagel speaks of the subjectivism of “the Kantian project, which tries to explain the mindindependent features of reason and the world in an ultimately mind-dependent form.” Later he concludes that “Kant’s claim that empirical reasoning tells us only about the phenomenal world is empirically incredible, given the evidence – and what is empirically incredible is incredible, period.”

I must not and do not wish to withhold one author’s highest praise for another author’s book. I wish I had written it myself.

© Antony Flew 1998

Antony Flew is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading.

1. In his mischievous masterpiece The Plato Cult and other Philosophical Follies (Blackwell, 1991), Ch. 4.

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