In today’s post, I begin our systematic engagement with Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy,* the first step in the Introduction to Philosophy Initiative introduced in “Announcing the After Aristotle Introduction to Philosophy Initiative.”
Let me start the post by noting that in the first chapter of What Does It All Mean?, the “Introduction,” Nagel offers us three ways of determining what philosophy is. One is that of contrasting the method of philosophy with those of science and mathematics. A second is that of setting forth a set of problems that fall within the scope of philosophy and that (p. 4) “come up again and again.” The third is that of identifying what he calls (p. 5) the “main concern of philosophy.”
The present post begins the taking up of the first of the three ways, the comparison and contrast Nagel presents of the method of philosophy with those of science and mathematics. He puts it as follows (p. 4):
Philosophy is different from science and from mathematics. Unlike science it doesn’t rely on experiments or observations, but only on thought. And unlike mathematics, it has no formal methods of proof. It is done just by asking questions, arguing, trying out ideas and thinking of possible arguments against them, and wondering how our concepts really work.
Comparing and contrasting philosophy with science and mathematics is a perfectly appropriate first step to take, for, like science and mathematics, philosophy is a theoretical discipline: it is a discipline within which one seeks to know something; we’ll look more closely at just what it is that one engaged in philosophy seeks to know later in the initiative’s series of posts.
That noted, let us turn then to the main topic of the present post, that which Nagel says about the method of philosophy in contrast with that of science, i.e., the set of disciplines that includes, on the one hand, the natural or physical sciences of physics, chemistry, and biology, etc., and, on the other, the social sciences of the psychology and sociology, etc. We’ll take up what he says about the method of philosophy in contrast with that of mathematics in the next post.
We have read Nagel telling us that, “Unlike science it [philosophy] doesn’t rely on experiments or observations, but only on thought.” This, however, is a complex proposition. One thing it is saying is that:
Unlike science philosophy doesn’t rely on experiments or observations.
A second thing being said is that:
Unlike science philosophy relies only on thought.
But even the first thing being said is complex. One thing it is saying is that:
Science relies on experiments or observations.
Another is that:
Philosophy does not rely on experiments or observations.
This proposition brings us to the heart of the present post’s matter. It is, of course, a perfectly respectable philosophical thesis. Indeed, many philosophers for whom one should have the utmost respect agree with it; Nagel is just one of them. But yet one can ask whether it is true, for it is not the only logically possible position that one could hold. One could also hold that:
Philosophy does rely on experiments or observations.
And indeed many philosophers for whom one should have the utmost respect agree with this latter thesis. There are major traditions in the history of philosophy that uphold the thesis that all human knowledge begins in observation, that is, in sensory experience: as it was classically put, “nihil [est] in intellectu nisi prius fuerit in sensu,” i.e., “there is nothing in the intellect unless it will have first been in the senses.” This thesis, if true, entails the more specific thesis that “there is nothing in the intellect of the philosopher engaged in philosophy unless it will have first been in his or her senses.”
There is also an emerging philosophical school of thought, known as “experimental philosophy,” that holds to the thesis that philosophy relies on, well, experiments. We have to grant Nagel, however, that this school of thought, at least as so named, had not emerged at the time of his writing the book here under review.
There are then two logically possible positions that one can take in answer to the question of whether philosophy relies on experiments or observations, the affirmative one that philosophy relies on experiments or observations and the negative one, contradicting the affirmative answer and accepted by Nagel, that philosophy does not rely on them.
At least one of the two theses has to be true, while they cannot both be true.
And thus a critique, my first, of Nagel’s introduction to philosophy. That is, he sets before us the thesis that “philosophy does not rely on experiments or observations” as true, without telling us why we should accept it, rather than its opposite, as true. That is, again, he presents us with no argument, no setting forth of any reason why it should be accepted as true. He does so even as one who holds that philosophy “is done just by asking questions, arguing, trying out ideas and thinking of possible arguments against them….” Surely, however, if philosophers should be engaged in “arguing” and “thinking of possible arguments against” certain “ideas,” he himself should have devoted some effort to “arguing” and of “thinking of possible arguments against” the thesis that philosophy relies on experiments or observations and in favor of his thesis that it does not. He simply asserts that philosophy does not rely on experiments or observations; he does not show it.
Now, that Nagel holds that “philosophy does not rely on experiments or observations” should have significant implications. Just to begin drawing one of them out: his thesis that philosophy does not rely on experiments or observations should imply that philosophy, in his conception, is not capable of attaining any knowledge of those things which can only be known immediately through experiments or observations or mediately, through inference or argument based on knowledge gained immediately through experiments or observations or gained mediately.** But, it seems, the things that exist in physical reality are things which can only be known, immediately or mediately, through experiments or observations.
I offer, therefore, the following hypothesis: philosophy, in Nagel’s conception, will not be able to attain any knowledge of the things that exist in physical reality. As we work our way through What Does It All Mean?, we will see whether or not that hypothesis is confirmed.
The next to the last thing I have to say: I should perhaps suggest that this may well be the time for those who have opted to join in on the systematic engagement with What Does It All Mean? to read its “Introduction” for the first time, if they have not read it already. Yes, I have to recommend that the student of philosophy, whether beginning or advanced, read any philosophical text that is worth the reading more than once, several times at least; I have read the first page, for example, of the second chapter of What Does It All Mean?, I’m guessing now, a dozen or so times.
Understanding that the plan is to read the “Introduction” three or four time times will relieve you of any thought that you need to master it on a first, and only, reading. Whatever is not understood on that first reading may well be understood on the second or third. And, there is at least the hope that what I have to say in the present series of posts will help to tame some of the more difficult passages; that at least is my aim.
Consider then the first reading as aiming at three goals. The first goal is that of just getting an overview of how long it is (in the case at hand, not very) and what it contains. Its second goal is that of noticing where it is in the chapter that Nagel presents the three ways, mentioned at the beginning of this post, of determining what philosophy is. The third is that of taking note both of the things you find most interesting and of those you find most puzzling.
The last thing I have to say is that in the next post I will take up Nagel’s comparison and contrast of philosophy and mathematics.
Until next time.
P. S. The present post is part of a series of posts, that of the “After Aristotle Introduction to Philosophy Initiative,” devoted for the time being to What Does It All Mean? There is a “Table of Contents” listing the titles of and links to the posts published in the series, at:
The “Table of Contents” for the “After Aristotle Introduction to Philosophy Initiative”
*Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). The book is available through, of course, Amazon.com, as well as elsewhere.**
**This distinction between the immediately and the mediately known physical things will be spelled out in a later post. This one is more than long enough already.