Sei sulla pagina 1di 20

International Phenomenological Society

Overtones of Solipsism in Thomas Nagel's "What is it Like to be a Bat?" and the View from
Nowhere
Author(s): Kathleen Wider
Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Mar., 1990), pp. 481-499
Published by: International Phenomenological Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2108160 .
Accessed: 13/05/2014 12:03
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .
http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp
.
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.
.
International Phenomenological Society is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.
http://www.jstor.org
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research
Vol. L, No. 3, March I990
Overtones of Solipsism in T homas
Nagel' s " W hat is it Lik e to B e a
B at? " and T he View F rom
Now here
KAT HLEEN W IDER
University of Michigan, Dearborn
T homas Nagel has been arguing f or many years now that a physicalist
account of consciousness can only provide an incomplete analysis of
mind. It cannot, given the very nature of the account, capture the subjec-
tive character of experience, i.e., w hat it is lik e to be a conscious creature,
to have experience. According to Nagel, an objective physical account
cannot exhaustively analyze subjectivity. W hat constantly eludes the
stretch of the physical theory are the phenomenological f eatures of experi-
ence. T he reason f or this is " that every subjective phenomenon is essen-
tially connected w ith a single point of view , and it seems inevitable that an
objective, physical theory w ill abandon that point of view ." ' He has
maintained this thesis, w ith some modif ications, f or tw o decades and con-
tinues to argue in support of it despite constant criticism of both the thesis
-and the positions he has developed in def ense of it. He has been criticized
f or w ork ing w ith too simplistic a notion of consciousness, to w hich he
attaches too much signif icance and about w hich he says too little.' In
T homas Nagel, " W hat is it Lik e to be a B at? " Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press,
I979),
p. i67. Any f uture ref erences to the f ollow ing w ork s by Nagel
w ill be f ollow ed by an abbreviated title and page number in parenthesis in the text:
" W hat is it Lik e to be a B at? " pp. i65-80; T he View F rom Now here (New York :
Oxf ord University Press, I986); " Subjective and Objective," Mortal Questions, pp.
I96-21 3; " Panpsychism," Mortal Questions, pp. i8I
1-95;
and T he Possibility of Altru-
ism (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978).
See Kathleen W ilk es, " Is Consciousness Important? " B ritish Journal f or the Philosophy
of Science 35 (I984): 223-43; Ow en F lanagan, " Consciousness, Naturalism, and
Nagel," T he Journal of Mind and B ehavior 6 (I985): 373-90; and Paul Muscari, " T he
Status of Humans in Nagel' s Phenomenology," T he Philosophical F orum I9 (I987):
23-33 f or examples of this k ind of criticism. Norman Malcolm, Consciousness and
OVERT ONES OF SOLIPSISM IN NAGEL 48I
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
addition commentators have criticized him f or maintaining his subjective
or introspective intuitions in the f ace of scientif ic evidence or theoretical
considerations and arguments that conf lict w ith them.3 T he most w ide-
spread criticism f rom the physicalists has been that there is no good rea-
son to suppose that a physicalist theory cannot provide an exhaustive
analysis of mind either by accounting f or the subjective character of
experience4 or by show ing that no such account is necessary.'
T hese are only some of the criticisms brought against Nagel' s position.
T here are of course other objections that have been raised against his view
and more specif ic criticisms that f all under the broad ones I have men-
tioned. I intend, how ever, to by-pass these more common objections to
Nagel' s view and f ocus instead on a problem w hich is alluded to here and
there in the literature but of w hich there has been no real sustained discus-
sion. T his is the problem of w hat Anthony Kenny calls " an odd solipsistic
strain" 6 in Nagel. I w ant to explore this strain particularly as it manif ests
itself in tw o of Nagel' s w ork s: " W hat is it Lik e to be a B at? " and T he
View F rom Now here.
Nagel' s concern that physicalist accounts of mind w ill f ail to capture
f ully the nature of consciousness is reminiscent of the concerns about con-
sciousness expressed in the early w ritings of both Ludw ig W ittgenstein
and Jean-Paul Sartre. Although both Sartre in B eing and Nothingness
and W ittgenstein in the T ractatus Logico-Philosophicus deny the exis-
tence of a transcendental ego, both agree that even if science could
describe all there is in the w orld, there w ould still be something unac-
counted f or. W hat this something is is consciousness or subjectivity. F or
W ittgenstein in the T ractatus, you can describe the w orld completely, give
all the propositions of natural science, state all the meaningf ul proposi-
tions and still there is something lef t over. W hat is lef t over is the meta-
physical self , lif e as consciousness, the f act that I occupy a point of view .
Lik ew ise f or Sartre in B eing and Nothingness, a completely objective and
physicalist description of the w orld w ill never f ully capture the nature of
Causality w ith D. M. Armstrong (Oxf ord: B asil B alck w ell, I984) mak es a related criti-
cism that Nagel f ails to specif y clearly enough w hat he means by ' the subjective character
of an experience' .
See F lanagan, pp. 377-8I; and Vinit Hak sar, " Nagel on Subjective and Objective,"
Inquiry 24 (I98I): 105-21 (especially p. 113).
4
See F lanagan; and Lilly-Marlene Russow , " It' s Not Lik e T hat to be a B at," B ehaviorism
IO (I982):
55-63.
See Patricia Smith Churchland, Neurophilosophy (Cambridge: MIT Press, I986);
Paul M. Churchland, Matter and Consciousness, rev. ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press,
I988) and W ilk es among others.
6 Anthony Kenny, " T ack ling the B ig Question," New York Review of B ook s, F ebruary
2-3,
I986,
p. 14.
482 KAT HLEEN W IDER
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
the pour-soi, the k ind of being w hich exists f or itself and w hich is a point
of view on the w orld. It w ill never capture consciousness since f or Sartre
consciousness is nothingness. Each philosopher sees that solipsism threat-
ens to f ollow as a consequence f rom his view s and each one attempts to
conf ront and overcome this threat.7 Although there are numerous impor-
tant w ays in w hich Nagel diverges f rom both Sartre and W ittgenstein, his
similar concern w ith consciousness and the inability of science to account
f or its nature in any exhaustive sense brings w ith it the threat of solipsism.
I w ill examine the arguments and positions in both " W hat is it Lik e to be a
B at? " and T he View F rom Now here that I think give this solipsistic
f lavor to Nagel' s position. My purpose in this paper is not to show how
such a leaning tow ard solipsism can be avoided (or indeed even to show it
should be avoided); my purpose is simply to show it is present in Nagel' s
w ork as a consequence of the claims he explicitly sets f orth and that it
needs both ack now ledgement and def ense.
Nagel w ould not of course agree that there is a solipsistic strain in his
w ork . He says in " W hat is it Lik e to be a B at? " that " there is a sense in
w hich phenomenological f acts are perf ectly objective: one person can
k now or say of another w hat the quality of the other' s experience is"
(" W hat," p. 172). He think s there are mentalistic ideas that w e apply
w ithout problem to ourselves and other humans (" W hat,
"
p. I 69, n.
5).
In
" Subjective and Objective" he claims that the subjective is in general
intersubjectively available and that the subjective ideas of experience,
actions, and the self are in some sense public (p.
2og).
He talk s at length in
" W hat is it Lik e to be a B at? " and in T he View F rom Now here about our
ability to enter imaginatively into the subjective view point of others. In
f act he argues in T he View F rom Now here that it is precisely the view he
opposes, the one that holds that a physicalist account can give an exhaus-
tive analysis of mind, w hich leads to solipsism (VF N, p. zo). He develops a
notion of mental objectivity w hich, although it too turns out lik e physical
objectivity to give only an incomplete account of mind, does nonetheless
allow us to at least f orm a conception of points of view w hich w e cannot
subjectively imagine. " W e can have a concept of mind general enough to
allow us to escape solipsism" (VF N, p. 2i).
How ever, despite Nagel' s stated rejection of solipsism, he never
directly conf ronts or attempts to overcome w hat I w ill call ' epistemolog-
ical solipsism' , i.e., the view that the only experience I can k now exists is
7 See my f orthcoming paper " A Nothing About W hich Something Can B e Said: Sartre and
W ittgenstein on the Self ," in Sartre Alive, ed. Ronald Aronson and Adrian van den
Hoven (Detroit: W ayne State University Press, I989) f or a comparative analysis of Sar-
tre' s and W ittgenstein' s positions on consciousness and how they each understand and
handle the problem of solipsism.
OVERT ONES OF SOLIPSISM IN NAGEL 483
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
my ow n. Nagel simply assumes that others (including other non-human
animals) have experience. He assumes that bats and roaches and spiders
as w ell as other humans and perhaps extraterrestrial beings have an inner
lif e of consciousness, i.e., there is something it is lik e f or each of these
organisms to be the organism it is and to have the experiences it has. He
of f ers little def ense f or this view . At the beginning of his discussion of his
f amous bat example in " W hat is it Lik e to be a B at? " , he simply says " I
assume w e all believe that bats have experience. Af ter all, they are mam-
mals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice
or pigeons or w hales have experience" (" W hat," p. i68). Although he
maintains that the subjective character of the experience of persons born
blind and deaf w ould be inaccessible to those of us not so born, he sees this
as no barrier to believing that there is a subjective character to their
experience (" W hat," p. 170). W hile discussing, in T he- View F rom
Now here, the subjectively unimaginable mental lives of other species,
Nagel claims that " w e k now there' s something there, something perspec-
tival, even if w e don' t k now w hat it is or even how to think about it" (p.
zi). So although there may be k inds of experience of w hich w e can f orm
little or no conception, it does not f ollow that w e cannot believe such
experience exists and has a subjective character. B ut he of f ers no
justif ication f or such a belief beyond simple intuitions. F or Nagel,
although I cannot conceive of , except in schematic f orm, w hat it is lik e to
be a bat, f or example, and so cannot k now w hat it is lik e to be one
(" W hat," p. 172, n. 8), I can still believe that it is lik e something. Nagel
never directly addresses the question of the grounds upon w hich such a
belief is justif ied. Am I justif ied in believing of others that they are con-
scious and that their experience has a subjective character and, if so, is my
justif ication strong enough to raise my belief to the level of k now ledge?
Nagel concerns himself not w ith this question but rather w ith the question
of how w e f orm the conceptions w e have of the subjective character of
others' experiences. " T he interesting problem of other minds is not the
epistemological problem, how I can k now that other people are not zom-
bies. It is the conceptual problem, how I can understand the attribution of
mental states to others" (VF N, p. iv).
Since Nagel' s concern is not w ith establishing how w e k now that other
creatures are conscious, but rather w ith explaining how w e f orm a con-
ception of their experience, I do not w ish to rest my claim that there is a
solipsistic strain in Nagel on his f ailure to address such epistemological
questions. I w ill look instead at Nagel' s account in " W hat is it Lik e to be a
B at? " and T he View F rom Now here of how w e f orm a conception of the
8
See Hak sar, p.
I
13 f or a similar point.
484 KAT HLEEN W IDER
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
subjective character of another creature' s experience and I w ill argue that
it is precisely this discussion of how w e f orm such conceptions that has
solipsistic overtones.
F or Nagel there are subjective f acts. T hese f acts are " f acts of experience
f acts about w hat it is lik e f or the experiencing organism" (" W hat," p.
172.). T hey are accessible and f ully comprehensible f rom only one point of
view . T hese f acts are " f acts about w hat mental states are lik e f or the crea-
tures having them" (" Subjective," p. zoi). T hey embody a particular
point of view . T hey are phenomenological f acts, f acts w hich are in one
sense objective, i.e., " one person can k now or say of another w hat the
quality of the other' s experience is" (" W hat," p. 172) but are in another
sense subjective f or Nagel, since I can ascribe experience to another only if
the other is similar enough to me f or me to be able to adopt her point of
view , i.e., " to understand the ascription in the f irst person as w ell as in the
third" (" W hat," p. 172). W e grasp subjective f acts about others, f acts
about w hat it is lik e f or them to have the experiences they have, by enter-
ing imaginatively into their point of view and by trying to see how things
appear f rom their view point (" Subjective," p.
2og).
F or Nagel, there are
subjective conceptions as w ell as subjective f acts.9 Indeed only a subjec-
tive conception can f ully capture w hat subjective f acts are about f or
Nagel, if indeed any conception, subjective or objective, can do so com-
pletely. T he reason an objective conception cannot f ully capture subjec-
tive f acts - f acts about the phenomenological f eatures of an experience
- is that phenomenological f eatures are connected to a single point of
view and an objective conception w ill abandon that point of view
(" W hat," p. i67). Subjective concepts are concepts that w e learn in the
f irst person and w e can use them in the third person only if w e can under-
stand their use in the f irst person (" W hat," p. 172).
F or Nagel there are some subjective f acts w hich are inconceivable to
humans; they lie beyond the reach of our concepts, subjective and objec-
tive. An example of such f acts w ould be those that involve the specif ic sub-
jective character of a bat' s experience (" W hat," p. 17i). How ever, the
problem of solipsism w ould not arise f or Nagel simply f rom his belief in
the existence of subjective f acts that lie beyond the reach of human con-
cepts. B ut a solipsistic strain w ould be present in his w ork if , as a conse-
9
See Colin McGinn' s review of Nagel' s T he View F rom Now here, Mind 96 (1987):
264-65,
f or his criticism of Nagel' s f ailure to disambiguate clearly the use of ' objective'
and ' subjective' w ith regard to f acts f rom its use w ith regard to concepts. T his same ambi-
guity is present in " W hat is it Lik e to be a B at? " Peter Smith, " Subjectivity and Colour
Vision," in T he Aristotelian Society, supplementary vol. 6i (I987): 245-64; and A. W .
Moore in his review of T he View F rom Now here, Philosophical Quarterly 37 (I987):
3Z3-27, question the very existence of subjective f acts.
OVERT ONES OF SOLIPSISM IN NAGEL 485
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
quence of his stated view s, it f ollow s that the f ull comprehension of cer-
tain subjective f acts about other humans and the meaning of concepts
w hich describe such f acts is accessible only to the ow ner of the experience
the f acts are about.
Nagel mak es it clear in " W hat is it Lik e to be a B at? " that w hen he
describes subjective f acts as f acts that embody a particular point of view ,
he is not ref erring to a point of view accessible to only a single individual
but rather to a type of view point. So he claims I can tak e up a point of view
other than my ow n and so I can comprehend subjective f acts about experi-
ence other than my ow n (p. 171). W hen he discusses subjective concepts,
he claims that " even our most subjective phenomenological concepts are
public in a sense" (" Subjective," p. 207). He agrees w ith W ittgenstein
about the publicity of rules and so of concepts, even subjective concepts.
How ever, subjective concepts are public in a dif f erent w ay than objective
concepts (concepts used to describe the physical w orld). W hat underlies
the publicity of objective concepts is dif f erent f rom w hat underlies the
publicity of subjective concepts. F or Nagel the publicity of objective con-
cepts is connected w ith our ability to coordinate the points of view of dif -
f erent individuals tow ard objects in the w orld. T his is not the case w ith
our use of subjective concepts since they are not about objects (they do not
apply to objects). Sensations, Nagel holds in line w ith W ittgenstein, are
not objects. A sensation is not the appearance of an object but is simply an
appearance and as such it must be an appearance to someone; it is that
w hich mak es it subjective. T his does not, how ever, mak e it private. I do
not claim to f ully understand w hat Nagel is af ter here; his remark s are
tantalizingly brief on this point. B ut w hat seems to f ollow is that w hat
underlies the public nature of our use of subjective concepts is not the
coordination of the points of view of several individuals tow ard the same
object but tow ard similar appearances. Nagel says that sensations are
" publicly comparable and not private" (" Subjective," p. 207). W hat this
means f or Nagel, I think , is that I can adopt another' s point of view (if it is
enough lik e my ow n) and so I can imagine having an experience similar to
theirs. T his is the basis f or my comprehension and use of subjective con-
cepts as they apply to others.
I maintain that despite these remark s there remains on Nagel' s view
f acts about the subjective character of another human' s experience, even
another human very much lik e me, that are inaccessible to me. I w ill argue
that given Nagel' s use of the imagination in grounding our conception of
how an experience is f or another and given his view of the relationship
betw een the mental and the physical, it f ollow s that the true nature of an
experience is f ully comprehensible only to the experiencer herself . I think
486 KAT HLEEN W IDER
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
this comes out w hen w e look at w hy w e cannot conceive of the subjective
character of a bat' s experience except in a very schematic f ashion. Nagel
argues that w hat is required f or me to be able to comprehend the phenom-
enological f eatures of another creature' s experience is that I be able to
tak e up or enter imaginatively into the point of view of the other. In the
case of a bat, I am unable to meet this requirement because the perceptual
apparatus of a bat is so dif f erent f rom my ow n. W hen I try to imagine hav-
ing a bat' s experience, I f ind f ailure. If I try to imagine having w ebbing on
my arms, hanging upside dow n by day, and so on, I end up imagining (and
not very successf ully at that) only myself behaving as a bat behaves rather
than imagining w hat it is lik e f or a bat to be a bat. If I try instead to imag-
ine having " the internal neuro-physiological constitution of a bat"
(" W hat," p. i69), I f ail as w ell since I cannot really attach any meaning to
my possessing such a constitution. Even if I could be gradually
" transf ormed into a bat nothing in my present constitution enables me to
imagine w hat the experiences of such a f uture stage of myself thus meta-
morphosed w ould be lik e" (" W hat," p. i69). At best w e can only f orm a
schematic conception of w hat it is lik e f or a bat to be a bat because w e nei-
ther share the type of view point a bat has nor can w e imagine adopting
that point of view . T he reason f or this f ailure seems to be, f or Nagel, that a
bat' s neuro-physiological structure and hence w ay of perceiving the w orld
is just too distant f rom our ow n. Any attempt to imagine having such a
constitution w ill turn out to be impossible or simply incoherent.
B ut is this the case w hen it comes to my attempting to adopt the point of
view of another creature of my ow n species? Nagel of ten implies that
types of view point are species-specif ic, (f or example, " W hat," pp. i69
and 175). Although Nagel is not sure about w hether our imagination can
tak e us beyond our species' view point, surely it can allow us to adopt the
view point of other humans. B ut not other humans born blind and deaf .
Nagel claims that the subjective character of their experience is inaccessi-
ble to those not so born. His reason f or holding this w ould seem to be,
given his discussion of bat experience, that those humans' neuro-physio-
logical constitution and hence perceptual experience w ould be dif f erent
enough f rom sighted and hearing humans that individuals in neither
group could imagine w hat it w ould be lik e to be a person in the opposite
group. W hy not? Presumably because if I try to imagine w hat it is lik e to
have been born both blind and deaf , I w ill only end up imagining myself (a
person not so born) relying on my sense of touch more than I do now ,
" hearing" silence, " seeing" dark ness, and so on. B ut I w ill f ail to imagine
w hat it is lik e f or the person w ho is born blind and deaf to be the person
she is and have the experiences she has. As Sue M. Halpern remark s in her
OVERT ONES OF SOLIPSISM IN NAGEL 487
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
review of Under the Eye of the Clock , a novel by Christopher Nolan, a
severely disabled person, " empathy f or the disabled is unavailable to most
able-bodied persons ... f or every attempt to project oneself into that con-
dition, to f eel w hat it is lik e not to be ambulatory, f or instance, is mediated
by the ability to w alk ." ' 0 T his same situation appears to hold betw een
hearing and non-hearing people. In a very moving review of the i98 8 stu-
dent uprising at Gallaudet College, a college f or the deaf , Oliver Sack s
claims that the dif f erences betw een the community and culture of the
hearing and that of the deaf consist not just in dif f erent modes of commu-
nication but in dif f erent modes of sensibility and being. He notes that neu-
roscientists have begun to study neurological dif f erences betw een the deaf
and the hearing and they have f ound that the brain of a person w ho is deaf
f rom birth and exposed early on to American Sign Language actually
alters to adapt itself to a supervisual rather than a visual/auditory
w orld."
B ut w hy can' t w e imagine having a dif f erent neuro-physiological con-
stitution and so having dif f erent k inds of experiences? T o get clearer on
w hat Nagel is af ter in both the bat case and the case of persons born blind
and deaf , I w ould lik e to review B ernard W illiams' discussion of imagin-
ing in " Imagination and the Self ." W illiams points out tw o w ays of con-
struing the f ormula " imagining myself being Napoleon." One can con-
strue it to mean something lik e playing the role of Napoleon or pretending
to be Napoleon in the w ay Charles B oyer might play the role of Napoleon
in a f ilm. T his construal of the f ormula mak es sense. I have " images of , f or
instance, the desolation at Austerlitz as view ed by me vaguely aw are of my
short stature and my cock aded hat, my hand in my tunic." ' T his k ind of
imagining, although it is about myself , involves the elimination of my
actual characteristics. It is, W illiams says, w hat I do w hen I imagine being
someone else.' 3 T here is, how ever, another w ay of construing the mean-
ing of the f ormula " imagining myself being Napoleon" and this second
w ay involves one in self -contradiction. Here I try to imagine myself just as
I am being Napoleon. I try to imagine actually being or having been Napo-
leon. B ut my being or having been Napoleon is logically impossible (or at
least the notion is incoherent) and so I cannot imagine it.
"
Sue M. Halpern, " Portrait of the Artist," New York Review of B ook s, June 30, 1988,
P. 3.
"
Oliver Sack s, " T he Revolution of the Deaf ," New York Review of B ook s, June 2, i988,
P. 23.
B ernard W illiams, " Imagination and the Self ," Problems of the Self (New York : Cam-
bridge University Press, 1973), p. 43.
' 3 Ibid., p. 40.
488 KAT HLEEN W IDER
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
T hese tw o senses of imagining myself being another seem to be at play
in Nagel' s bat example. If I construe the f ormula the f irst w ay, then I try to
imagine playing the role of a bat: having w ebbed arms, hanging upside
dow n, etc. B ut since a bat is so unlik e me, I do not have much luck w ith
this imaginative task and I f ail to imagine w hat it it lik e f or a bat to be a
bat. So I construe the f ormula in the second w ay and try to imagine myself
actually being a bat; I try to imagine my sw itiching species. T his imagina-
tive task is impossible. Nagel concludes that since I cannot imagine being
a bat on either reading of the f ormula " imagine being someone else," I
cannot comprehend the subjective character of a bat' s experience.
W hat about w hen I try to imagine being another human w ith similar
sensory modalities rather than trying to imagine being a member of
another species? I should certainly have more luck here imagining myself
being another (human) person. Although I w ould not have much luck pre-
tending to be a bat or imagining myself playing the role of a bat in a f ilm, I
certainly could imagine being Eleanor Roosevelt f or instance or playing
the role of ER in a f ilm. B ut although I can get much f urther in imagining
being ER than in imagining being a bat, w ill that be enough to allow me to
comprehend w hat it w as lik e f or ER to be ER? I think not. T he same prob-
lem that arose in the bat case w ill arise here although less pronounced.
Does imagining being ER or playing the role of Napoleon allow me to
comprehend how it f elt f or ER to be, f or example, a w oman in America in
the 1930S and 1940S w ith pow er but alw ays pow er subsidiary to the
pow er of the men around her? No matter how much I k now about Napo-
leon, w ill my f antasies, my pretending to be Napoleon, ever allow me
access to a f ull understanding of how it w as f or Napoleon to f lee Corsica
or lose at W aterloo? Even though w e can go much f urther imaginatively in
cases of beings more lik e ourselves (as a w oman I can more easily imagine
being ER than Napoleon and as a human I can lik ew ise more easily imag-
ine being Napoleon than a bat), still I think it w ill alw ays turn out that I
am imagining myself being the other just as in the bat case I succeed only
in imagining myself behaving as a bat. Certainly I eliminate, as W illiams
notes, my actual characteristics in these imaginings but I cannot eliminate
myself altogether as he also notes or I w ould no longer be imagining being
Napoleon.' 4 F or Nagel w hat is required to f ully comprehend the subjec-
tive character of another creature' s experience, w hat it is lik e f or that crea-
ture to be the creature it is, is that I be able to imagine being the other, that
I be able to enter imaginatively into their view point. On either construal
of the meaning of the f ormula " imagine being someone else," w e seem
unable to ever satisf y this requirement. F ulf illing the f ormula given its f irst
14
Ibid., p. 43.
OVERT ONES OF SOLIPSISM IN NAGEL 489
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
meaning is inadequate as a means of my comprehending, f ully at least,
w hat it is lik e f or another to be the person she is and have the experiences
she has. T he second construal of the meaning of the f ormula is incoherent
and so I cannot f ulf ill it.' 5
Nagel w ould respond I think by pointing out that the reason w e f ail in
the imaginative task in the case of bats and those born blind and deaf is
that w e do not share their neuro-physiological constitution and so w e do
not share their type of view point but w ith most other humans this is not
so. He says in " W hat is it Lik e to be a B at? " that the more similar another
is to me, the more easily I can adopt the other' s point of view and so under-
stand ascriptions of experience to the other (p. 17z). Since w e are neuro-
logically and physiologically lik e most other humans, w e can imagine tak -
ing up their view point. B ut even if I am w rong in my claim that tak ing up
their view point by imagining myself being them or having their experi-
ences w ill never allow me to f ully comprehend w hat it is really lik e f or
another person to be the person she is, I think there are other problems
w ith Nagel' s position here. Do most humans share a similar neuro-phys-
iological constitution in the sense needed to claim similarity of phenome-
nological f eatures of experience? At least one new and still controversial
theory of the brain, Neural Darw inism, advanced by Gerald Edelman,
director of the Neurosciences Institute at Rock ef eller University, claims
that the structure of the brain is not predetermined by an individual' s
genetic code; rather a person' s experiences continually shape and alter the
person' s brain. According to this theory, the w ay in w hich an organism
interacts w ith its environment af f ects and indeed creates the f unctional
anatomy of the brain and hence af f ects the w ay the organism orders the
w orld." 6 In addition, there is still controversy among physiologists over
the ef f ect of male and f emale hormones on brain development and other
neuro-physiological f eatures of an individual that may af f ect how the per-
son experiences the w orld.
Even given the abundant evidence that most humans have similar neu-
ro-physiological processes occurring w ithin them w hen, f or instance, they
see, it w ould not f ollow given Nagel' s view of the relation betw een the
physical and the mental that similar k inds of phenomenological f eatures
attach to everyone' s seeing. Nagel has alw ays argued against psychophys-
ical reductionism, although he does maintain that there are connections
betw een the mental and the physical. F or Nagel mental and physical prop-
erties or processes are properties or processes of the same organism.
Is I am gratef ul to comments made by participants at an NEH summer seminar at Cornell in
I985 w ith regard to my ideas on Nagel' s use of the imagination.
i6
Gerald M. Edelman, Neural Darw inism (New York : B asic B ook s, i987).
490 KAT HLEEN W IDER
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
Indeed in his discussion of the dual aspect theory in T he View F rom
Now here, he leans tow ard the view that one' s mental lif e depends on the
states and activities of the brain, i.e., the brain may w ell be " both the
bearer of mental states and the cause of their continuity w hen there is con-
tinuity" (VF N, p. 40). T he brain may provide the objective completion of
the concept of self . How ever, Nagel treats this possibility as an empirical
hypothesis f or w hich there is at present insuf f icient evidence to establish
its truth. He does, how ever, think this thesis is plausible. Yet he does not
see psychophysical reductionism f ollow ing f rom the truth of such a thesis.
Rather if it turns out that mental states are dependent on brain states and
if some f orm of the dual aspect theory is correct, then Nagel w ould argue
that there must be brain states that are non-physical.' 7
Nagel also admits, in T he View F rom Now here, the possibility of nec-
essary connections holding betw een the mental and the physical and yet
that alone he argues is insuf f icient to allow an inf erence f rom the presence
of certain physical processes to the presence of certain mental processes.
T he f ailure of such inf erences is due to the f act that the mental and the
physical may both be aspects of something more f undamental and so both
the mental and the physical might be entailed by this more f undamental
something and yet not entail each other. Even if it turns out that there is a
necessary identity betw een mental and physical processes, as it w ould just
in case the f undamental something w hich is the basis of the mental also
has certain physical properties, still this possibility of necessary connec-
tion does not allow us now , given our present k now ledge, to draw any
inf erences f rom the presence of certain physical processes to the presence
of certain mental processes (VF N, p. 48). W ithout a k now ledge that there
exists something more f undamental than either the mental or the physical
and w ithout a clear understanding of the nature of this f undamental
something if it does exist, there is no w ay f or us to k now its connection
w ith the mental or the physical and hence no w ay to k now the connection,
if any, betw een the mental and the physical themselves. Consequently w e
cannot, at present at least, inf er f rom the presence of a physiologically
described brain state the presence of phenemenological pain (VF N, p.
48).
" No description or analysis of the objective nervous system, how ever
complete, w ill ever by itself imply anything w hich is not objective, i.e.,
w hich can be understood only f rom one k ind of view point.. . . One can-
not derive a pour soi f rom an en soi" (" Panpsychism," p. i88).18 T hat is,
17
Nagel, VF N, p. 41. See McGinn, pp. 265-67 f or problems w ith Nagel' s discussion of a
dual aspect theory and his denial of psychophysical reductionism.
I8 At certain points Nagel does seem to appeal to the behavior of other animals as evidence
that they have a conscious inner lif e (VF N, p. 23). In his very vivid and rather moving
description in T he View F rom Now here of the spider caught in a urinal, his evidence (or
OVERT ONES OF SOLIPSISM IN NAGEL 491
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
even if w hat it is lik e f or a human to see is objectively similar f or all of us, it
w ould not necessarily be the case that seeing w ould be similar f or all of us
subjectively: that w hat it is lik e f or me to see is similar to w hat it is lik e f or
another. [I am not claiming it is not similar but that Nagel has no grounds
f or the belief that it is given his other view s.]
So although I can attempt to imagine seeing as another sees, there is no
guarantee that the imagining succeeds in properly grounding my concep-
tion of w hat it is lik e f or another as a subject to see unless I k now that simi-
larity of neuro-physiological constitution or activity insures similarity of
phenomenological f eatures of experience." Nagel claims in " W hat is it
Lik e to be a B at? " that " at present w e are completely unequipped to think
about the subjective character of experience w ithout relying on the imagi-
nation" (p. 178) and yet it seems that the reliability of this method is
undermined by Nagel' s position on the relation betw een the physical and
the mental.
"
at least a reason) f or his belief that the spider has desires and f ears, indeed a w hole range
of conscious experience, appears to be behavioral. He also ref ers those w ho are sk eptical
about the existence of conscious experience in creatures quite distant f rom us in structure
and behavior to an early tw entieth century w ork by H. S. Jennings entitled T he B ehav-
ior of the Low er Organisms (New York : Columbia University Press, I906). F or Jen-
nings subjective states are directly accessible only to their ow ners and so the only w ay to
inf er the existence of such states in others (including other humans) is by analogy w ith
one' s ow n case. Since the low er organisms he studies behave in some w ays analogous to
the w ays humans behave and since in my case such behavior is accompanied by states of
consciousness, I may inf er that such behavior in other animals is also accompanied by
such states. B ut such inf erences are ultimately undermined f or Jennings as they are f or
Nagel because nothing in the objective evidence bars the possibility that such behavior
could occur unaccompanied by states of consciousness. See especially pp. 3 28-37 f or Jen-
nings' discussion of consciousness in low er organisms and VF N, p. 23, f or Nagel' s ref er-
ence to Jennings.
' 9 See Muscari f or a good discussion of Nagel' s predicament " caught precariously betw een
his phenomenological and naturalistic ambitions. He is loathe to separate organic pro-
cess f rom the organism' s f eeling of it in f ear of endangering the subject by separating con-
sciousness f rom body; yet at the same time he w ants an explanation of w hat it is lik e to be
an incarnate being w ithout seeing things in terms of neurophysiology or behavior" (p.
z8). Muscari traces the consequences of this predicament f or Nagel' s moral theory. I am
interested in its consequences f or his theory of mind.
Nagel distinguishes perceptual f rom sympathetic imagination in " W hat is it Lik e to be a
B at? " pp. 175-76, n. ii and argues that-it is sympathetic imagination that is needed in
f orming a conception of the subjective f eatures of another' s experience. T o imagine
something sympathetically w e are to put ourselves into a conscious state resembling the
thing itself . Nagel tells us w e can use this k ind of imagination only to imagine mental
states and events
-
our ow n or another' s. So to sympathetically imagine the occurrence
of a mental state, w e put ourselves into a state that resembles it. B ut does this notion of
sympathetic imagination clarif y how w e f orm a conception of the subjective f eatures of
experience? T ak e f or an example an occurrence of pain
-
my ow n or another' s. Let me
492 KAT HLEEN W IDER
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
In T he View f rom Now here, how ever, he of f ers a dif f erent w ay to
escape solipsism by introducing a notion of mental objectivity
-
a notion
he only mentioned at the end of " W hat is it Lik e to be a B at? " Mental
objectivity of f ers us, given Nagel' s account of it, a w ay of conceiving of
points of view that is not dependent on the imagination. It is a w ay of con-
ceiving of our ow n and others' view points f rom the outside, but in mental
not physical terms. Mental objectivity requires that w e f ind w ays to con-
ceive of types of experience that do not depend on our being able to have
those k inds of experience or imagine them subjectively (VF N, p.
25).
Nagel of f ers us a w ay to f orm a conception of the experience of others,
even members of other species, that does not rely on the imagination and
so appears to avoid the problems I raised against his use of the imagina-
tion in the grounding of such conceptions in " W hat is it Lik e to be a B at? "
In the end, how ever, his use of mental objectivity f ails as a w ay to avoid
solipsism. Despite his earlier characterization of mental objectivity, imag-
ination does come into play at least in the f irst stages of objectif ying the
mental. T o develop an objective concept of the mind, w e must f irst grasp
the idea of all human perspectives and to do this requires us to use " a gen-
eral idea of subjective points of view , of w hich w e imagine a particular
instance and a particular f orm" (VF N, pp. zo-zi). How ever, Nagel
claims w e can go beyond the use of imagination in developing objective
concepts that apply to the mental lif e of creatures very dif f erent f rom our-
selves. B ut in the end imagination is still required to understand all the
qualities of the experience of another. According to Nagel, no objective
conception of the mind w ill ever be complete because its completion
requires that w e be able to imagine subjectively all points of view and that
is impossible. " T he exact character of each of the experiential and inten-
tional perspectives w ith w hich it [an objective conception of the mind]
deals can be understood only f rom w ithin and by subjective imagination"
(VF N, p. z6). It is his insistence on maintaining this reliance on the imagi-
nation together w ith his position on the relationship betw een the mental
and the physical that accounts f or the solipsistic strain in Nagel' s w ork .
Perhaps W illiams' w arning " that at least w ith regard to the self , the imagi-
imagine w hat the pain w ould be lik e if the k nif e w hich just now cut my f inger had embed-
ded itself in my bone instead. T o do this, I must put myself into a mental state of pain that
resembles the actual mental state of pain I w ould be in if the k nif e had cut more deeply.
B ut w hat is this notion of one mental state resembling another? If I have never had the
actual mental state created by a k nif e digging into my bone, how do I k now that the one I
have now put myself into resembles it? T o sympathetically imagine another' s pain, I do
the same as in my ow n case, but here there are even more problems w ith k now ing
w hether the mental state I have put myself into resembles the mental state of the other.
T hese problems are accentuated by Nagel' s position on the relationship betw een the
mental and the physical.
OVERT ONES OF SOLIPSISM IN NAGEL 493
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
nation is too trick y a thing to provide a reliable road to the comprehension
of w hat is logically possible" " could equally w ell apply to Nagel' s use of
it in grounding a conception of the subjective character of another' s
experience.
T here remains, given Nagel' s analysis of how w e f orm a conception of
the subjective qualities of another' s experience, a comprehension of one' s
ow n experience that is accessible to oneself alone. T here remains a f orm of
self -k now ledge or self -understanding at least w hich is private. And this
privacy is in the strong sense, the sense used by W ittgenstein in his argu-
ment against the possibility of a private language f or sensations
-
private
in the sense that the f ull comprehension of certain subjective f acts and the
meaning of concepts w hich describe them is accessible only to the ow ner
of the experience the f acts are about or to w hich the concepts apply." 3
Nagel suggests this consequence of his view s w hen he remark s that " even
f or other persons the understanding of w hat it is lik e to be them is only
partial" (" W hat," p. 172, n. 8). Nagel misses the radical nature of W itt-
genstein' s point in the private language argument that ascriptions of men-
tal states to oneself , i.e., f irst person ascriptions, mak e sense only if they
can mak e sense in the third person. It is only if others can understand my
ascriptions of a sensation to myself that I can understand it as w ell. T he
use of concepts that apply to states of consciousness in the f irst person are
dependent on the possibility that they could have a use in the third person.
Nagel' s position in " W hat is it Lik e to be a B at? " is the reverse. T heir use
in the third person is dependent on their use in the f irst. T he " objective
ascription of experience is possible only f or someone suf f iciently similar
to the object of ascription to be able to adopt his point of view
-
to under-
stand the ascription in the f irst person as w ell as in the third" (" W hat," p.
17z). It is precisely this Cartesian view that the third person ascription of
experience is dependent on the f irst person use that W ittgenstein thought
led to solipsism and that he argued against in T he Philosophical Investi-
gations.14
"
W illiams, p. 45-
"
See Russow , p. 6o f or an argument against Nagel' s assumption that imaginability is a
reliable indication of understanding.
23
Nagel' s position is reminiscent of John W isdom' s view in Other Minds (Oxf ord, Eng-
land: B asil B lack w ell, I965)
that
although
I can k now another' s mental states,
I can never
k now them in the w ay I k now my ow n and that ascriptions of mental states to myself w ill
alw ays mean more to me than to others. B oth are draw n to a W ittgensteinian position but
both ultimately tak e positions that are inconsistent w ith W ittgenstein' s view about the
meaning of mentalistic concepts.
24
W ilk es, p. 24o raises the point that Nagel' s position stands in opposition to W ittgen-
stein' s private language argument and that Nagel of f ers no arguments against W ittgen-
stein' s argument. My claim is that he does not even see that his position runs counter to
494 KAT HLEEN W IDER
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
It is true that in Nagel' s discussion of solipsism in T he Possibility
of
Altruism, he tak es a very W ittgensteinian stand in holding that f irst and
third person statements share a common meaning. He claims that the sys-
tem of objective reasons upon w hich altruism depends requires that one
be able to conceive of oneself as a particular person among other persons
and that this requires that one have a particular conception of persons.
T his conception must mak e it " possible to say of other persons anything
w hich one can say of oneself , and in the same sense" (p. ioi). He main-
tains that f irst and third person ascriptions of mental states share a com-
mon element, and although there may be dif f erences betw een f irst and
third person statements in terms of their implications or the expectations
they arouse, these dif f erences can all be accounted f or in a public w ay, i.e.,
f rom the impersonal standpoint. Nothing about the meaning of the attri-
butions of states of consciousness, w hether made in the f irst or third per-
son, is private in any strong sense. T he only personal element that cannot
be grasped by the impersonal standpoint is the personal premise " w hich
locates me in the w orld that has been impersonally described" (p. 103).
B ut although this premise mak es a dif f erence in how the w orld is con-
ceived, it mak es no dif f erence in the content of w hat is conceived. Solip-
sism is thus avoided f or Nagel in non-practical areas since " everything
w hich can be stated, asserted, expected, believed, judged f rom a personal
standpoint can be similarly view ed f rom the impersonal standpoint" (p.
114).
T here are indications, how ever, in both the 1978 postscript to T he
Possibility of Altruism and in T he View F rom Now here that Nagel has
abandoned his strong claim that all the content of a f irst person judgment
can and must be captured in a third person judgment. Although he talk s in
terms of practical judgments in the postscript, he does imply that in gen-
eral the personal does not need to be completely subsumed under the
impersonal. " T he personal standpoint may retain its pow er af ter the
claims of the impersonal have been ack now ledged" (p. viii) and thus
Nagel says some degree of dissociation (Nagel' s terms f or selective solip-
sism) may remain. T he personal premise " I am T N" w hich Nagel claimed
in T he Possibility of Altruism af f ected only how the w orld w as conceived
but lef t untouched w hat w as conceived, plays a much more signif icant
role in T he View F rom Now here. He rejects the semantic diagnosis of " I
am T N" w hich claims it states no f urther truth about the w orld. Nagel
argues that the personal premise does state a f act and that even w hen an
objective conception has provided all the public inf ormation about T N,
W ittgenstein' s. See Law rence Nemirow ' s " Review of T homas Nagel' s Mortal Ques-
tions," T he Philosophical Review 89 (I980): 473-77 (p. 476 especially) and Moore, pp.
3z5-z6.
OVERT ONES OF SOLIPSISM IN NAGEL 495
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
" the additional thought that T N is me seems clearly to have f urther con-
tent" (VF N, p. 6o).
Although Nagel ack now ledges W ittgenstein' s point about the objec-
tive nature of subjectivity in T he View F rom Now here (pp. 32 and
35,
f or example), he misses the anti-Cartesianism of W ittgenstein' s position
by relying ultimately on the imagination in grounding objectivity. Nagel
says that if one could understand how subjective experience can have an
objective nature, one w ould understand the existence of subjects other
than oneself . B ut W ittgenstein goes f urther. T he objective nature of sub-
jectivity grounds not just one' s understanding of the existence of other
subjects but it grounds one' s ability to talk about oneself as a subject of
experience as w ell. In T he View F rom Now here Nagel does point out
that the concept ' someone' is not a generalization of the concept ' I' and
that neither can exist w ithout the other (p. 3
5)
and he does appear to agree
w ith the W ittgensteinian position that f irst and third person ascriptions of
mental states share the same meaning. In addition he develops a notion of
mental objectivity w hich allow s us to view mental lif e, one' s ow n or
another' s, f rom outside and so allow s f or a conception of mind that can be
grasped by more than oneself and by more than members of one' s species.
T hat is w hy Nagel sees mental objectivity as a w ay to overcome solipsism
and anthropomorphism. He rejects as w ell the argument f rom analogy as
inadequate to explain our k now ledge of other minds and as unable to
avoid solipsism because it implies that the attributions of mental states in
the f irst and third person do not have the same sense (VF N, p. zo). How -
ever, because he sees mental objectivity as incomplete, because he argues
an objective conception of subjectivity can only go so f ar and because his
development of a subjective conception of mind relies ultimately on the
use of the imagination, a solipsistic strain remains in Nagel' s w ork . F or
Nagel the extent of one' s understanding or conception of w hat it is lik e to
be another is dependent on the extent to w hich one can tak e up the other' s
point of view . " If one can tak e it up roughly, or partially, then one' s con-
ception w ill also be rough or partial" (" W hat," p. 172, n. 8). Given
Nagel' s general position w ith regard to the relationship betw een the men-
tal and the physical and given his reliance on imagination in f orming a f ull
conception of w hat it is lik e f or another creature to be the creature it is and
have the experiences it has, it f ollow s that our understanding or concep-
tion of w hat it is lik e to be another human w ill alw ays be partial. Despite
his apparent acceptance of W ittgenstein' s position w ith regard to the
objective nature of subjectivity, there remains, given Nagel' s account, a
k ind of private k now ledge or access to private subjective f acts, an access
available only to the ow ner of the experience to w hom the f acts apply.
496 KAT HLEEN W IDER
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
T his f lies in the f ace of W ittgenstein' s private language argument and the
anti-Cartesianism it embodies.
T here is another notion Nagel relies on extensively in T he View F rom
Now here
-
that of the objective self
-
w hich appears to be a possible
source of the solipsistic strain in his w ork . Indeed Anthony Kenny in his
review of the book think s this is the source of such a strain in Nagel. He
reads Nagel as positing a self separate f rom his ordinary, empirical self
and one that cannot be k now n or encountered by others." 5 Nagel himself
recognizes that to insist on the existence of tw o separate, non-identical
selves is to hover on the edge of solipsism. B ut the real problem w ith
Nagel' s reliance on this notion of an objective self is not so much that it
can lead to solipsism
-
he sees that danger although he is not alw ays as
caref ul as he ought to be in avoiding it- the real problem is that a belief in
such a self results in an isolation not betw een oneself and another but in an
isolation f rom a part of one' s ow n self . Nagel' s reliance on this notion of
an objective self leads him to the acceptance of a quasi-Kantian noumenal
self , ultimately unk now able not just to others but to oneself as w ell.
Nagel discusses the objective self at length in chapter f our of T he View
F rom Now here.26 T he objective self is " the perspectiveless subject that
constructs a centerless conception of the w orld by casting all perspectives
into the content of that w orld" (VF N, p. 6z). It is the true self or the higher
self w hich has no point of view but w hich includes the point of view of the
ordinary, empirical self (T N in Nagel' s case) w ithin its conception of the
w orld. It is the ' I' that steps back f rom an individual and even human
view point. It is the existence of this objective self w hich gives rise to the
tw o questions Nagel f ocuses on in this chapter: ' How can T N be me? ' and
' How can I be T N? ' Each person can ask these same questions of herself .
T he amazing f act w hich the thought ' T N is me' expresses f or Nagel seems
to be that a person in the w orld (T N) can have an objective view of the
w orld. It is the f act that T N is capable of draw ing back f rom his particular
perspective as an ordinary, empirical self and f orming a perspectiveless
conception of the w orld. It is the same human capacity f or objectivity and
distance w hich struck Heidegger and Sartre, among others, as amazing.
How can something in the w orld have a point of view on the w orld?
Nagel' s amazement goes f urther than this though because he is struck not
just by the f act that an empirical self (one situated in space and time, in his-
tory) can tak e an objective view on the w orld but also by the f act
2
Kenny, p. 14.
z6
He repeats, f or the most part, material f rom " T he Objective Self ," in Know ledge and
Mind: Philosophical Essays, ed. Carl Ginet and Sydney Shoemak er (New York : Oxf ord
University Press, I983), pp. z][11-3z.
OVERT ONES OF SOLIPSISM IN NAGEL 497
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
expressed in the thought ' I am T N' that the subject of such an objective
view can be a person in the w orld." 7 Nagel does speak at times in this
chapter as w ell as in the chapters that f ollow , especially in the f inal one, as
though the objective self is a separate self f rom the ordinary, empirical
self . " T he objective self f unctions independently enough to have a lif e of
its ow n. It engages in various f orms of detachment f rom and opposition to
the rest of us, and is capable of autonomous development" (VF N, p. 65).
B ut he w arns us at the end of chapter f our that although he w ill sometimes
speak of the objective self as a distinct part of the mind that such talk
should not be given a metaphysical interpretation. Although Nagel gives
no real justif ication f or talk ing of tw o selves rather than of the capacity of
the ordinary self to see the w orld f rom tw o perspectives, objective and
subjective, and although he f requently and irresponsibly f alls into talk ing
of the tw o selves as though they w ere distinct, he does recognize that an
adherence to a belief in tw o distinct selves can lead to solipsism (VF N, pp.
zIz-13). Although he ack now ledges the similarities betw een his idea of
an objective self on the one hand and Husserl' s transcendental ego and
W ittgenstein' s metaphysical self on the other (VF N, p. 6z, n. 3), he contin-
ues to reject the solipsism that belief in such selves can drag in its w ak e and
he rejects it by af f irming, at least some of the time, that the objective self is
simply an aspect or f aculty of an ordinary person, a part of that person' s
point of view on the w orld. So although Nagel comes dangerously close to
the solipsistic tendency he repudiates, he is cognizant of this danger.
W hat Nagel does not avoid and indeed ack now ledges and embraces is
an epistemic isolation f rom oneself that the objective self brings w ith it.
Just as human k now ledge of the w orld and reality w ill alw ays be limited
and incomplete on Nagel' s view , so too w ill our k now ledge of the objec-
tive self . " Some k now er must remain behind the lens if anything is to be
k now n" (VF N, p. I 27). Although one' s objective conception of the w orld
can continually be enlarged, it w ill never include the subject w hose con-
ception it is. W hile one can ack now ledge the existence of such a subject,
k now ledge of that subject remains, in principle f or non-omniscient
beings, an impossibility. T here remains in Nagel, despite his rejection of
Kantianism, a belief in a modif ied version of Kant' s noumenal self . W e
cannot, in Nagel' s w ords, traverse the path of self -k now ledge in its
entirety (VF N, p.
i
z8). A part of one' s self remains ultimately inaccessible
not just to others but to oneself as w ell.
27
T here are those w ho f ail to f eel the intuitive amazement Nagel does over these ' f acts.' See
McGinn, pp. 267-68 and Moore, pp. 324-25.
498 KAT HLEEN W IDER
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
It turns out that Nagel ack now ledges the most obvious source of the
solipsistic tendency in his w ork
-
his use of the notion of an objective self .
How ever, the real source of the solipsistic strain in Nagel lies in a more
hidden place, one he f ails to ack now ledge. It lies in his ultimate reliance on
the imagination to ground one' s conception of the subjective f eatures of
another' s experience conjoined w ith his rejection of psychophysical
reductionism.
OVERT ONES OF SOLIPSISM IN NAGEL 499
This content downloaded from 193.40.239.25 on Tue, 13 May 2014 12:03:34 PM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions