Essay 100: “The View From Nowhere” Problem

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 physicistRichard 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.

The human “style” of “being-in-the-world” comes into the equations and to the very idea of equating.

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.

Excessive objectification has been a malady of recent analytic philosophy, claims Nagel, it has led to implausible forms of reductionism in the philosophy of mind and elsewhere.

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:

I. Introduction
II. Mind
III. Mind and Body
IV. The Objective Self
V. Knowledge
VI. Thought and Reality
VII. Freedom
VIII. Value
IX. Ethics
X. Living Right and Living Well
XI. Birth, Death, and the Meaning of Life

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.