The phrase “view from nowhere” comes from the title of a 1986 classic philosophy book by Professor Thomas Nagel. It tries to wrestle with the paradox that the human ability to take a “detached view” (abstract theory, say) is potentially misleading since the person behind the detachment is a real person embodied and somewhere.
A theoretician like Richard Feynman (the great physicist) has a nervous system, a brain, a body and uses his hand to write equations on the blackboard. One is trained to focus on the equations since that’s the physics. The person, the physicist is a detail, a distraction, an irrelevance. However this can’t be true since the physicist—Richard Feynman in this example—represents a human way of looking at things, at a time and place, no matter how heterodox or offbeat the view.
Human beings have the unique ability to view the world in a detached way: We can think about the world in terms that transcend our own experience or interest, and consider the world from a vantage point that is, in Nagel’s words, “nowhere in particular.” At the same time, each of us is a particular person in a particular place, each with his own “personal” view of the world, a view that we can recognize as just one aspect of the whole. How do we reconcile these two standpoints—intellectually, morally, and practically?
To what extent are they irreconcilable and to what extent can they be integrated? Thomas Nagel’s ambitious and lively book tackles this fundamental issue, arguing that our divided nature is the root of a whole range of philosophical problems, touching, as it does, every aspect of human life. He deals with its manifestations in such fields of philosophy as: the mind-body problem, personal identity, knowledge and skepticism, thought and reality, free will, ethics, the relation between moral and other values, the meaning of life, and death.
The solution is not to inhibit the objectifying impulse, but to insist that it learn to live alongside the internal perspectives that cannot be either discarded or objectified. Reconciliation between the two standpoints, in the end, is not always possible.
Table of Contents for The View from Nowhere book:
III. Mind and Body
IV. The Objective Self
VI. Thought and Reality
X. Living Right and Living Well
XI. Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life