- Paperback: 160 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (November 1, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0195149831
- ISBN-13: 978-0195149838
- Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 0.4 x 5.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.4 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 18 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #665,805 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Last Word 1st 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
From the Back Cover
If there is such a thing as reason, it has to be universal. Reason must reflect objective principles whose validity is independent of our point of view - principles that anyone with enough intelligence ought to be able to recognize as correct. But this universality of reason is what relativists and subjectivists deny in ever-increasing numbers. And such subjectivism is not just an inconsequential intellectual flourish or badge of theoretical chic. It is exploited to deflect argument and to belittle the pretensions of the arguments of others. The continuing spread of this relativistic way of thinking threatens to make public discourse increasingly difficult and unproductive. In The Last Word, Thomas Nagel, one of the most influential philosophers writing in English, presents a sustained defense of reason against the attacks of subjectivism, delivering systematic rebuttals of relativistic claims with respect to language, logic, science, and ethics. He shows that the last word in disputes about the objective validity of any form of thought must lie in some unqualified thoughts about how things are - thoughts that we cannot regard from outside as mere psychological dispositions. His work sets a new standard in the debate on this crucially important question and should generate intense interest both within and outside the philosophical community.
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Basically, he argues that we cannot get beyond reason if we seek to challenge it. We must face it on its own terms and within its own boundaries. Hence, anyone seeking to argue against the primacy or viability of reason cannot get ‘outside’ of it to launch his or her claims. Reason’s boundaries (and logic’s, and mathematics’) are inescapable and the insistence of its presence constitutes the objectivity against which the subjectivist seeks to war.
Nagel makes the case in 7 chapters in a relatively brief book. He addresses questions of language, logic, science, ethics and evolutionary naturalism. He repeats the core argument on multiple occasions and some might find the chapters repetitive. Since he writes at a relatively high level of abstraction with very few concrete examples, I found the repetition helpful.
This is an important book on an important subject.
Nagel who is also a rationalist takes the side of realism and argues on the relevant topics such as science, language, ethics and logic. In fact the chapter on logic was my favorite, he devotes a good amount of time towards Rene'Descartes with criticisms and aspects that he is in agreement with. In the end Thomas Nagel actually holds to the 'cogito' and rightly so. Of course you'll see the names of other prominent philosophers from the past and present pop up such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Saul Kripke, Immanuel Kant and Hilary Putnam.
One of his finest quotes in the book shows why cases of objectivism in certain circumstances are basically inescapable.
"The general aim for such reasoning is the to make sense of the world in which we find ourselves and of how it appears to us and others. We proceed by generating, comparing, and ranking possible versions, and it is these comparisons that are the substance of the process. But we begin from the idea that there is some way the world is, and this, I believe, is an idea to which there is no intellible alternative and which cannot be subordinated to or derived from anything else. My aim is to argue that even a subjectivist cannot escape from or rise above this idea".
Indeed it appears that objectivism seems to have 'The Last word" on matters.
This book is more towards an intermediate reader of philosophy, though I can see a beginner grasping the 'gist' of this book as well.
I highly recommend this
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. He begins denying Hume's "pleasure/pain" motivation of ethics, raises the empathy factor (Hume, Smith), admits emotions (typically non-rational) are often involved (Hume, Smith), as are other "background" information (Mill, Bentham), that "impartiality" is one of its features (all but virtue theory), as is the "universifiability" of the action (deontological, consequentialist), then gives a concrete consequentialist example, followed by a concrete deontological example, of "reason," then concedes he isn't sure where all this leads. I assume this exercise was meant to instantiate that agents act for "reason(s)," but the "reasons" are intended to satisfy individual integrity for having acted.
The final chapter is a series of ruminations, something about naturalism not becoming a religion, Nozick's (mis)use of Darwinism as an escape hatch, and a reminder that the natural world and our use of it also necessarily includes us in it (a dominant theme throughout).
Nagel reinforces Nozick's point about rationality being inherently circular, but according to Nagel that is simply necessary and unavoidable (not an objection). The principal idea is the individual's inability to escape his embeddedness, much less his ability to approach his perspectives "outside" them is both impossible and undesirable, and why these facts repudiate extreme subjectivism/relativism. Most philosophy students already know this. Most in postmodernism and the humanities don't, and they will most benefit from this book.
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