Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Few Words on The Last Word

In The Last Word (Oxford, 1997) Thomas Nagel defends the objective principles of reason against the idea that "the first person, singular or plural, is hiding at the bottom of everything we say or think." This question touches upon issues raised by Matt concerning foundationalism. I don’t think it’s possible to say, as he does, that "Modern foundationalism is the same as ancient foundationalism," for the reason that ancient philosophy was grounded in solid realism and modern philosophy has ever since Descartes begun with the idealist premise, namely that the real is what is in our minds. The whole tenor or climate of thought is different, although philosophers may have in both cases wanted to ward off skepticism and relativism.

I am not going to spend time recapitulating Nagel’s argument in any detail, for I am already inclined to a certain kind of rationalist tenet, in the sense in which Chesterton defined the realism of Thomas Aquinas: if we do not affirm that the primary act of recognition of any reality is real, we may as well give up, for there can be nothing more to say. He says, "… the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work; reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting is a sort of marriage. Indeed it is truly a marriage, because it is fruitful… [and] produced practical results, precisely because it is the combination of an adventurous mind and a strange fact."

We all know that this bracing realism did not survive the succeeding centuries intact, to the extent that some four centuries later it came about that Descartes sought to receive assurance of his own being from his thought. Well, we are placed another four centuries distant from Descartes, and what do we have to show for it? In our time it is thought itself that seems to be tottering about in the ruins of cultural relativism, subjectivism, skepticism, and numerous other ills. Thomas Nagel, in summarizing this landscape of philosophical ruins, basically returns us to the lap of Descartes. He says that there is this about fundamental reason: we cannot get outside of it. Thus he returns to the first, primordial, mysterious and irreducible interiority of our thought. That a modern philosopher recognizes interiority as a principle surely is a sign that serious thought has gotten sick of philosophical promiscuity. For thinking is promiscuous if it does not take account of itself, and it cannot take account of itself unless it accepts itself. I count this as a solid gain.

Yet I am of two minds. The first and most important thing to say is that Nagel’s contention is a grand advance, a true progress, a landmark. But the second, and less important thing to say, is that we should have known that this interiority of thought was already the true significance of Descartes. It was not his geometry, his res cogitans and res extensa, his beneficient God, the support of his being, the tool of science, the subject-object division. None of those things was as important as the sheer act of asserting what he did about the act of thinking. But it took us four hundred years, and now Thomas Nagel, just to point this out. So we made a wide circle with many detours and dead ends only to return to the cogito at last. To have suffered so much and to be dragged along by the tail of so many false hopes only to regain what we should have already realized – this seems to me a sad comment about our real state of affairs. One can only call it a persistent stagnation of modern thought. There is something in Nagel’s return to Descartes that hints of resignation rather than of creative renewal.

It was Descartes’ misfortune – and ours – that the assurance he received from the interiority of his thought did not extend in equal measure to the rest of the world. There was this problem of how disembodied thought connected to embodied reality, as one of his more astute critics, the Princess of Bohemia, put it. So we embarked on a long train of subject-object problems such as Pirsig has written of. The latest edition of this problem concerns how a being, such as ourselves, a product of natural history, can possess capacity for objective thought which penetrates to the true nature of the world. Evolution, in other words, does not explain reason, and it is refreshing of Thomas Nagel to admit as much. For obviously, we must employ reason in discussing evolution (or anything else). With a certain timid hesitation Nagel offers the thought that, despite the fact that we seem to be here as the result of a long sequence of physical and biological accidents, nevertheless, "the basic methods of reasoning we employ are not merely human but belong to a more general category of mind." Like a creature emerging from a cave, blinking in the light, Nagel proffers this startling idea - which is actually quite important if not overwhelming! But he soon scurries back into the darkness because this thought, if taken seriously, might lead to the Land of Anathema… the land at whose borders loom Intelligent Design.

So I would say that Thomas Nagel wants reason without taking account of the fundamental faith of man, which is, that our reason is capable of understanding things about the world because intelligence is embedded in the world. This fundamental faith is greeted by the bien-pensants of modernism with something approaching violent horror, as if those who espoused it were afflicted with a leprous contagion. Nagel is at pains to clarify that he is not that sort of person. He is indeed a very nice kind of non-believer. He says, "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that."

I have thought quite a bit about those last two words, "like that," which arouse all sort of associations all the more sinister for not being explicitly tabulated. Descartes’ "beneficient God" has been turned on his ear after all!

Or perhaps not – for Descartes "beneficient God" was an abstract beneficence just as Nagel’s "like that" is vague, an abstractly malignant presence. The result is that the problem with Nagel’s rationalism is the same problem that Descartes had with his rationalism. Both of them want interiority without intimacy. And when I use the term "intimacy" I do not mean merely physical or emotional closeness. I mean by this term a sense of intellectual coherence, of a destiny that wears an outward face in things and an inward dimension in thought, and that our human thinking, when sufficiently developed, can penetrate to this level of … "Quality."

Let me attempt to spell out what I am saying. First of all, "intimacy" in the sense in which I use it means that there can be Quality. For there can be no Quality in a world haphazardly arranged, whose objects and bodies, and thoughts corresponding to these entities, are mere aggregates of bodies at a simpler level of organization. If haphazard aggregation did characterize the essential nature of things, then pragmatic considerations of mere utility or Matt’s "ad hoc" arrangements would be entirely appropriate.

It is for this reason that I do not see Pirsig’s Quality metaphysics as pragmatist in any sense. Or rather, the only pragmatist element I see in the Metaphysics of Quality is Pirsig’s desire and intention to get to real life – to get to "the stuffy, hot-ground floor of life as soon as possible" as Matt poetically puts it. But the actual tool of thought which the concept of Quality provides is miles away from pragmatism. The problem Pirsig had was there was no rationalist framework in which his magisterial tool could make sense and unfold. For, if you say that Quality presupposes an intelligence in the world in which human reason can share and participate, because this intelligence partakes of a deep structure common to both the world and to human minds, where’s the dynamic element in reason itself? It is at this point that Owen Barfield’s insights bring considerable assistance, for Barfield speaks of an evolution of reason, or rather of an evolution of consciousness. This concept is the missing key, for it enables us to attach the concepts of Static and Dynamic Quality to reason itself.

I urge Matt to read Barfield’s Saving the Appearances for further elucidation of this point – and I will be particularly interested in whatever responses to it he cares to make.

Finally, let me note that the Cartesian cogito was a sort of new Genesis for modernity. The last time something like that (to use Nagel’s phrase!) occurred was in the Garden of Eden. Recall, dear Reader, that it was Woman, Eve, who was hidden in Adam’s "within-ness" – and that the making explicit of what was inward and interior began the world we know today . . . for good or for ill – for history. But what is hidden in the within-ness or interiority of reason today?

Thomas Nagel doesn’t want to go there. It’s an odd modern twist on the fear of God – not the fear of God but the fear that there might be a God. Nagel has shown a rare candor in stating it. It’s the deepest place of all rationalism, the foundational point of irreducible intimacy of intellect and world. And at that threshold a man chooses fear… or love.