Essay 42: The View From Nowhere as an Additional Problem in “Thinking About Thinking”

The View From Nowhere is a book by philosopher Thomas Nagel.

Published by Oxford University Press in 1986, it contrasts passive and active points of view in how humanity interacts with the world, relying either on a subjective perspective that reflects a point of view or an objective perspective that takes a more detached perspective. Nagel describes the objective perspective as the “view from nowhere,” one where the only valuable ideas are ones derived independently.

Epistemology (what we can know and why) is puzzling to the max if you ponder it for a moment. Think of a painting in a Boston museum. If you walk up to it, you see only the little piece in front of your nose so you back up and try to get an “optimal grip.” (to use Prof. Merleau-Ponty’s language.) If you walk all the way to China and try to see it from there, you will see nothing of it, no matter what telescope you might use. This is sort of what we mean by “the view from nowhere.” You’re way too far.

This brings us to the problem of the “detached observer” (modern versions of which stem from Descartes, who wants to get a bird’s eye view of all other bird’s eye views.  This is tricky and elusive for the obvious reasons. When Richard Feynman or some other physicist theorizes, is he not achieving a view from nowhere or is he? No one will deny a place to theoretical “standpoints” and “viewpoints.” The theoretician is himself a person who breathes, and sneezes, and yawns, and gets hungry and has to stretch his or her legs after too much sitting. One can’t quite “move into one’s own mind” since all theory is “embodied.”

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.”

The strange human situation is seen from the fact that this “view from nowhere,” this “detached observer” theoretical stance, includes the theorist himself, the detachment and the theory as part of the “bird’s eye view” without any particular concrete bird serving as your ambassador or proxy.

“The unifying theme, as Nagel puts it at the beginning, is the problem of how to combine the perspective of a particular person ‘inside the world’ with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint included.”

(Bernard Williams, 1986 book review, London Review of Books.)

We have already seen the problem of Husserl‘s (died in 1938) “rhomboid” or “matchbox” (i.e., you can’t see the entire matchbox all at once) or Ortega y Gasset‘s “orange” (i.e., you cannot see the back or obverse or reverse of a spherical orange unless you walk around it and lose the first view from the front) and all this “partial viewing” takes place on “Neurath’s boat.” (Where we’re like sailors on a knowledge ship and can’t go back to any origins and can’t discuss Platonism with Plato himself. The Harvard philosopher Quine, among others, mentions this problem.) The ship movies forward and the “matchbox/orange” are viewed in some cabin on the ship (i.e., your field, such as chemistry or history or biology).

Lastly: think of the opening line of Thomas Mann’s (died in 1955) great novel, Joseph and His Brothers: “Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?”

In other words, there is no way for us as “knowledge detectives” to go back to the origins of ourselves or our history since that’s all unrecoverable and lost “in the mist of time.”

A student embarking on a “knowledge quest” (university education) should not dodge these puzzles and mysteries but look at them “unblinkingly.”  A deep education means all the dimensions of the quest are in front of the student and not wished away.  This includes the student’s own danger of being lost as “a leaf in the whirlwind of time.” (Hannah Arendt phrase we have already seen.). Career aside, there are multiple “Rubik’s Cubes” here if the student wants to experience the deep and the wide.

Essay 24: Education and the Limits of Knowledge

A student should be made aware of the constraints on education or the “knowledge acquisition” effort.

All such efforts face two fundamental constraints:

  1. Ortega’s orange
  2. Neurath’s boat

In his masterful Meditations on Quixote, the Spanish thinker Ortega y Gasset (died in 1955):

“Some people demand that we everything as clearly as they see an orange before their eyes. But actually, if seeing is understood as a merely sensorial (of the senses) function, neither they nor anyone else has ever seen an orange in their terms.  The latter is a spherical body, therefore with an obverse and a reverse. Can anybody claim to have the obverse and the reverse of an orange in front of him at the same time? With our eyes we see one part of the orange, but the entire fruit is never presented to us in a perceptible form; the larger portion of the orange is concealed from our eyes.”

Husserl (died in 1938), the German philosopher, uses the same metaphor with a rhomboid (like a matchbox) he would show his students trying to get them to see what they could not see. One can twirl the matchbox and bring different sides and aspects into view and the students can walk around it at various speeds. One can never see the entire matchbox.

Deep education is partly the commitment to simultaneously inspect and “circumspect” the Ortega orange or the Husserl matchbox.

The orange and matchbox problem is made even “stranger” by the deep fact that all of this takes place on something called “Neurath’s boat” named after Otto Neurath, the Austrian thinker who died in 1945.

Neurath’s boat” refers to a powerful image he conjured up in 1921 according to which the entire body of knowledge is compared to a boat that must be repaired at sea: “we are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom…” (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1996, page 259)

Any part of the ship can be replaced, provided there is enough of the rest on which to stand. One cannot go back to the shipbuilder and there is no drydock for repairs. We knowledge “sailors” have to replace planks and do repairs “on the fly.” We can’t go back to Plato and Aristotle and discuss with them our interpretations of their thought and perhaps make adjustments for all the centuries between us.

We can’t start again (although Descartes thought he could with his “method of doubt.”)

William James (died in 1910) says in his writings that we must accept that one human mind can’t “grasp it all” and that all real knowledge is “relational.”

All of these constraints should neither be avoided or dodged but put in front of students from day one, since real and deep understanding, which is what education at its best can offer, must consider the overall truth of the “knowledge acquisition” situation.