Philosophical Review 107 (4):653 (1998)

Simon Blackburn
Cambridge University
Thomas Nagel
New York University
Like all of 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". 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."
Keywords Analytic Philosophy  Contemporary Philosophy  General Interest
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ISBN(s) 0031-8108
DOI 10.2307/2998393
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