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The Last Word Paperback – November 1, 2001

ISBN-13: 978-0195149838 ISBN-10: 0195149831

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In The Last Word, Thomas Nagel argues against what he calls subjectivism, "a general tendency to reduce the objective pretensions of reason." On his enemies list are the architects of postmodernism, social scientists with delusions of grandeur, and philosophers ranging from Hume and Kant to W.V. Quine and Richard Rorty. Regarding reason as based on contingent features of our nurture, culture, or nature, such subjectivists contend that reason is not generally valid, but valid only from our point of view. Challenges to reason in general are bound not to convince: they subvert themselves if based on reason, but are not worth taking seriously otherwise. Challenges to reason in particular domains, such as logic or ethics, are expressed by "ritualistic metacomments declaring one's allegiance to subjectivism" about logic or ethics. But, Nagel argues, the subjectivist claims are unintelligible unless understood as claims of logic or ethics, and therefore can be adjudicated on logical or ethical grounds. The drastically schematic nature of Nagel's refutation of subjectivism is troublesome, inviting the question of whether anyone truly accepts the position that he attacks. It also inspires doubt that his refutation is developed enough to be, as advertised, the panacea for subjectivism. Nevertheless, The Last Word is highly recommended to philosophers and anyone else interested in thinking about reason. Elegantly written and incisively argued, it is sure to provoke discussion--and thus ensure that it will be anything but the last word. --Glenn Branch --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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"...[a] subtle, compact, and forceful book....The Last Word is a work of philosophical reflection...a significant contribution to the culture wars of our time."--New York Review of Books


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (November 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195149831
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195149838
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #411,260 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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63 of 64 people found the following review helpful By John S. Ryan on May 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
In this volume, Thomas Nagel mounts his case for rationalism against the onslaught of several varieties of subjectivism and relativism.
The kernel of his case is his more-or-less-Kantian claim that there is a "category of thoughts that we cannot get outside of," which in some way provide a basic structure that we have ultimately no choice but to regard as objective. Once we recognize this category of thoughts, he maintains, "the range of examples turns out to be quite wide."
He proceeds to demonstrate his point in the areas of language, logic, science, and ethics (to each of which he devotes a chapter). His arguments are intended to show, essentially, that meaning, logical necessity, the demand for order in objective reality, and normativity are not reducible to matters of pure subjectivity, and for the most part they are fairly successful.
His closing chapter -- "Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion" -- is remarkable for several reasons, not least of which is its stunning candor. Nagel is an atheist who nevertheless recognizes that his somewhat Platonic commitment to reason, and in particular to a Peircian belief in an objective "order of . . . logical relations among propositions," raises the question "what world picture to associate it with." He cannot avoid the "suspicion that the picture will be religious, or quasi-religious," and notes that rationalism "has always had a more religious flavor than empiricism.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Flounder on September 10, 2002
Format: Paperback
This is classic Nagel. He is one of the most important philosophers in America today. And his philosophical prose style clearly demonstrates why that is the case: it is clear, direct, and straightforward. This text (along with Mortal Questions and A View From Nowhere) would be a great Intro. to Philosophy text; it is a superb example of how analytic philosophy should be written. There are actually arguments here. Imagine that.
Yes, the text bashes various forms of relativism and subjectivism (in favor of "objective facts" and "objective values"). But possibly the most important chapter is titled, "Logic." Read this chapter. I won't ruin the sunset ending for you.
I highly recommend this text. As well as: Searle, Mind, Language, Society; and Nozick, Invariances.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By D. S. Heersink on July 16, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Ostensibly, Nagel's work is an assault on extreme relativism/subjectivism. On another level, it complements Nozick's "Nature of Rationality" (while rightly attacking Nozick's misuse of evolutionary principles). If extreme relativism/subjectivism were the sole objective, Nagel could have defeated it with a single statement: "All truth/logic/science/ethics is relative/subjective," is self-refuting (which Nagel cites).

But the rationalist Nagel really has a stronger objective. He rightly wants to insist that constructivist/subjectivist/relativist (he uses "perceptivist") claims against reason, logic, science, and ethics are embedded in the very criteria they want to deny, and worse, their efforts to use external criteria "to get outside" to challenge these claims is (1) impossible (because they use the very tools they criticize), or (2) untenable, because they use irreducible principles in one category to assault irreducible principles in another, or Ryle's "category mistake (misuse)," (3) implausible, because they substitute less plausible hypotheses to assault rationally and empirically more plausible hypotheses, or (4) two or more of the preceding three. Except for ethics, his observations are valid.

The chapter on ethics is more elusive and certainly inconclusive. He begins with ethics as a species of practical reason, itself a feature of decision-theory, which is distinctly non-instrumental (a controversial claim, he concedes), that requires "reasons" (i.e., justifications). Except for the "non-instrumental" claim, there is nothing controversial thus far. Everything that follows, however, seems lost.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 29, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Nagel's claim is that those who argue against reason must use reason and thus automatically invalidate their claims. But the threat posed by subjective deflationsists is more comprehensive and robust than that. For the most popular "argument" for subjectivism is not very rational at all. It is more like an ad hominem. It suggests something like, "reason is just an unfashionable and unjustifiable manifestation of the will-to-power."
The Enlightenment made Reason fashionable. Deflationists don't necessarily want to defeat reason its own terms. They simply want to make Reason and its Pretensions upopular. Then we will all have to end all statements with "of course, that's just what I think personally."
I think that Nagel in right in saying that those who are resolutely rational cannot get outside of the heavier claims of reason, or even the lighter ones. The danger is that people may simply cease to reason at all. Assuming that that is a danger and not a liberation.
Unfortunately, it would probably take entire squadrons of Fighting Nagels to stem the subjectivist tide. Which means that the Last Word may be a scream instead of a rational argument. But "The Last Word" is certainly an honest try by an honest guy. Buy it before it becomes illegal.
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