January 06, 2005

Reading Log: Thomas Nagel

This NYU philosopher is renowned for summing up complex, life–affecting issues in a readable way, with lucid logic backed up by personal involvement. (One of his memorable presentations of the importance of perspective in matters of life and death is an anecdote about his encounter with a spider in a university urinal.) Reading one of his books, like MORTAL QUESTIONS or THE VIEW FROM NOWHERE, is like taking a course from a teacher whose lessons will come back to you at moments of crisis long after you graduate. Old and ailing questions such as “Who am I?” and “Which is preferable, the good life or the moral life?” revive under his care.

In THE VIEW FROM NOWHERE, which I’m currently reading, he examines the gap between our subjective view of ourselves as supremely important and our presumably more objective (and yet how do we know that?) view of our cosmic insignificance. Rather than reconciling these opposites, he concludes that the disjunction is an insoluble mystery which adds to the richness of our lives. Understanding the dangers of egotism, but resisting the temptation to dismiss individual selfhood as an illusion, he recommends a “nonegocentric engagement with the particular” that sounds very much like a sane practice of meditation. As for the withering away of the ego, he is skeptical about the impulse and the results:

“I cannot speak from experience, but this seems to me a high price to pay for spiritual harmony. The amputation of so much of oneself to secure the unequivocal affirmation of the rest seems a waste of consciousness. I would rather lead an absurd life engaged in the particular than a seamless transcendental life immersed in the universal. Perhaps those who have tried both would laugh inscrutably at this preference. It reflects the belief that the absurdity of human life is not such a bad thing. There are limits to what we should be prepared to do to escape it—apart from the point of view that some of these cures may be more absurd than the disease.”

I read Nagel in order to remember what reason sounds like, and what a life of reason looks like.