Analysis of Selections from Nagel, What Does It All Mean?
Thomas Nagel’s 1987 book, What’s It All Mean?, offers an introduction to philosophical thought. He directs this book toward a person who has never studied philosophy before. He bases his introduction not in the writings of the great philosophers or great thinkers, but instead he offers nine categories of questions for his reader to think about. As he puts it, “The main concern of philosophy is to question and understand very common ideas that all of us use every day without thinking about them” (Nagel 5). By laying out these problems and his ideas about them, Nagel encourages his reader to both consider his ideas and also what the reader himself thinks about the various questions. Three of those categories of problems will be examined in this essay.
One of Nagel’s questions is, “How do we know anything?” This is the logical starting point for approaching the study of philosophy. When a person begins to think about the nature of how he can know things, he has to ask what that knowing is based on. Nagel points out that people base their understanding of things on their experiences; if one questions the reality of those experiences, the logical conclusion that there is no reality beyond one’s own mind, or solipsism (Nagel 11). A more moderate position, skepticism, would allow for the existence of a world and experiences beyond one’s own mind, but there would be no way to know if others share one’s own viewpoint (Nagel 12). In arguing through the skeptic’s logic, Nagel points out recurring problems that result from the circular reasoning that solipsism and extreme skepticism would require. He concludes, “Our acceptance of the external world is instinctive and powerful: we cannot just get rid of it by philosophical arguments” (Nagel 14). These questions may seem so abstract as to be of little practical concern, however, the idea of what really exists is one that continues to raise questions for people, perhaps even more in today’s growing electronically linked virtual environment. Whether and how man can know anything has been addressed in several memorable ways in the arts.
Unlike the history plays which preceded its writing in 1599, William Shakespeare’s As You Like It does not retell historical events, nor is it a realistic drama or love story. While are elements of both history and romance in the play, they are much more akin to fairy tales than to real life. Instead of the usual themes of his other comedies, As You Like It is much more focused on identity and reality and knowing oneself, and unlike those purely entertaining comedies, this play gives its audience something to think about after the curtain falls. Perhaps the question, “What is real, and how can one know?” is clearest in the famous speech made by Jacques, which opens with, “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players. . . “ (II.vii.147-148). If this metaphor is true, the entire concept of whether a person has an independent identity is called into question—if the world really is a stage, the implication is that something in the role of playwright is in charge, not the individual’s self. Interestingly, Shakespeare gives the pronouncement of this speech to Jacques, who himself is much less of a character or participant in the flow of the activities in the play's plot, but instead serves primarily as an observer and commentator on the action. A similar theme is picked up in a much more recent form in the film The Truman Show.
Peter Weir’s highly acclaimed 1998 film The Truman Show follows the life of insurance salesman Truman Burbank (Jim Carey), whose life is being constantly observed by television cameras and broadcast to a worldwide audience of billions of viewers. Truman’s hometown is not “real” place, but rather a hidden set; his friends and family are simply playing those roles (an enactment of Jacques’ commentary). Truman doesn’t realize this constructed “reality” that is his life until, when he is 30, he begins to see clues that all may not be as it seems. As he becomes increasingly convinced that there is more going on than he has understood before, Truman questions everything and confronts what he has always believed to be the truth; he even has to confront and overcome his greatest fear (being around bodies of water, because he had been falsely told as a child that his father had drowned). These struggles and Truman’s search for the truth make for compelling television, but as he gets closer to the literal “exit” from his false existence, the broadcasting is suspended. Ironically, his fans come to root for their favorite to escape into real life, and when he finally does so, they simply turn their attention to finding the next big thing to watch. The audience’s own interests, so closely tied over the years to this man’s fake “reality,” seeks another fake “reality” of their own with which to become involved, rather than looking for their own real lives. Even so, the film leaves one final question about the true nature of reality as the ending credits roll, when the ironically-named Truman says, "I knew this show was fake from the start, it was my incredible acting that fooled everyone" (Truman).
In Chapter 6 of his book, Nagel takes up the concept of free will. The question of how and why people make choices—based in the understanding that people can, in fact, make choices—really examines what determines what choices are made. As Nagel puts it, “Nothing up to the point at which you choose determines irrevocably what your choice will be” (49). Nagel discounts the explanations of absolute determinism, which say that the choices anyone makes are preordained and that there is no choice. He also denies the idea of causal determinism, which says that every action is determined by a combination of circumstance and psychology. In essence, Nagel does not clearly rule out causal determinism, but he posits the role of free will in making decisions: one determines in the moment what choice will be made, and the notion of choice—free will, rather than some inevitable determinant—is what leads to the final outcome. This concept of free will is a persistent one that permeates virtually every human situation, and it underlies the actions of characters in most fiction: without some kind of conflict, a plot cannot advance, and in most situations, that conflict raises questions of how characters exercise free will in the decisions they make and in the actions they take. Some of the most enduring questions about free will are found in Shakespeare’s plays.
In virtually all of the Shakespeare plays, one can argue that the story lines are driven by the choices made by the main characters. (Some exceptions might be found among the histories, which simply displaces the question of freewill away from a fictional character onto a real-life figure). One can make the case that the various plays involving mistaken identities of characters—Twelfth Night, A Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, and even The Merchant of Venice—are brought on by the characters themselves and their own choices involving misrepresentation. Particularly in the comedies, and even in the lighter subplots within the tragedies, the cost of these mistakes is relatively small. However, the audience clearly anticipate the much higher costs of poor decisions in many of Shakespeare’s plays. Almost without fail, those decisions are the result of the characters exercising free will.
The tragic outcomes within Hamlet arise from the conscious decisions made by various characters. Queen Gertrude is not compelled to marry her murdered husband’s brother Claudius, nor is Claudius required to commit that murder. Hamlet’s decision to avenge his father’s death might seem to be preordained, but he does have the option to submit Claudius to legal proceedings, rather than to kill him. Before eventually killing his uncle, though, Hamlet struggles with his conscience, berating himself both for considering the deed and for being so slow to commit it.
Similarly, the history play Julius Caesar makes clear Shakespeare’s belief in free will. The Roman emperor was assassinated by conspirators, punishment for his fault of ambition, which they asserted would lead Caesar to turn the republic into a monarchy. There was no condition compelling Caesar to be ambitious; it was his choice. Whether or not he truly was ambitious or had such plans for the republic simply displaces the question of free will: he had the choice to conduct himself as he might choose, and the way he chose caused others to interpret his actions as they did. As Shakespeare has Cassius say, “Men at some time are masters of their fates. / The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (I.ii.139-141).
A final word needs to be said about Romeo and Juliet, the play that is often pointed out as Shakespeare’s masterpiece about “destiny.” Only a romantic, cursory reading of the play supports this interpretation. Indeed, a logical examine quickly reveals that it is the exercise of free will by the young lovers that leads to the tragedy of their story. It is true that the Capulet and Montague families are at odds, and the young man and woman fall in love against this backdrop of animosity. However, rather than waiting, making repeated attempts to reconcile the families, proving the worth of the beloved other to his/her family, or seeking other solutions to the situation, the immature lovers exercise their free will and undertake a scheme that directly contradicts their elders’ wishes; when it looks as though all is lost at the play’s end, instead of taking time to investigate all possibilities, again, rash action ends in the death of Romeo and Juliet, and further misery for their families. All of the actions of Romeo and Juliet—and of their parents, leading to the original feud, for that matter—are borne of free will, exercised at a high price.
The final portion of Nagel’s book to be considered deals with the overarching concern of philosophy, the meaning of life. For Nagel, this comes down to the question of whether anything really matters, whether in the short term or in a longer view. This is a critical question, because even if one believes that what he does will be remembered or will matter in a thousand years, even that world of a thousand years from now is insignificant in terms of eternity. Religion seeks to short-circuit this issue by setting the religious belief (e.g., heaven) as the standard of what matters, apart from broader implications of uncertainty. Nagel expresses his dissatisfaction with the notion of religion as a framing mechanism, because positing religion in this encompassing role leads the philosopher to then shift his questions toward trying to reach an understanding of how and why religion should fill that role. In concluding his comments on this topic, Nagel acknowledges that many people seem able to find meaning only by placing their lives and actions within a larger context of importance and earnestness. If this larger context is uncertain or non-existent, one must then decide how to approach that: if the current moment is all there is, one can either accept it and find meaning from living in the moment, or he can choose to accept it and experience despair. Nagel offers no conclusive answer, except perhaps a bit of encouragement that his reader not take the matter so seriously. As he puts it, “If life as a whole is meaningless, perhaps that's nothing to worry about” (100).
Of the three themes discussed in this essay, the question of the meaning of life is probably the one that is most consistently addressed in popular entertainment—which is likely the case precisely because the question is so broad, and is of such constant interest to human beings at large, whether or not they can articulate or even recognize that interest. Whether the question is overtly stated or not, it underlies virtually every fictional story presented on television or in film, from the silliest sitcom episode to the biggest crime drama or the latest superhero incarnation. However, several films offer particularly interesting direct explorations of this issue.
David Fincher’s 1999 Fight Club has become a cult classic for its portrayal of an ethos of rejection of consumer culture at the end of the twentieth century. However, sometimes overlooked is the existential basis of this rejection, voiced by the protagonist Tyler Durden, “We are the middle children of history. We have no unifying cause. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives” (Fight Club). This sense of being ungrounded is the basis for the anarchism within the film’s story.
Another film contains an important idea about the meaning of life, in this case from the philosopher and writer Iris Murdoch. While the plot line of the 2001 film Iris is a somewhat fictionalized biography, it offers the following: “"Every human soul has seen, perhaps before their birth pure forms such as justice, temperance, beauty and all the great moral qualities which we hold in honor. We are moved towards what is good by the faint memory of these forms simple and calm and blessed which we saw once in a pure, clear light being pure ourselves" (Iris).
Finally, while the most overtly “philosophical” thing about the film may be its title, Patrick Shen’s 2009 documentary Philosopher Kings may be one of the truest records of the real meaning of “philosophy” (“love of wisdom”). Its conversations with a number of custodial staff members at well-known universities reveal a variety of answers to the question, “What does it all mean?” Perhaps the most useful is the statement, "If you're miserable every day, you're doing something wrong" (Philosopher Kings).
In his book What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, Thomas Nagel offers exactly that. His chapters on the topics of how one can know anything, the existence of free will, and the meaning of life, all offer easy-to-understand frameworks for those beginning to consider these questions. In addition, these are topics that have been the basis of many creative works over the years, from the plays of Shakespeare through many contemporary movies. The examples here are just a few instances of the importance of these philosophical questions in people’s everyday consciousness. As indicated by my choice of examples related to each of these three topics, I believe that one’s understanding is grounded in the realm of experience (even while recognizing that we have no absolute “proof” that those experiences truly and independently and empirically exist), that free will most assuredly does exist, and that the meaning of life must be based in the here and now, as opposed in some hoped-for eternal meaning. All of these beliefs and understandings guide my everyday actions, whether I explicitly consider or question them, or not.
As You Like It. Retrieved from University of Victoria Internet Shakespeare Editions.
http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/life/lifesubj+1.html 19 May 2014.
Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt, Edward Norton. Fox 2000 Pictures, 1999.
Iris. Dir. Richard Eyre. Perf. Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent. 2001.
Julius Caesar. Retrieved from University of Victoria Internet Shakespeare Editions.
http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/Texts/JC/M/scene/1.2#tln-239 19 May 2014.
Nagel, Thomas. “Chapter 2: How Do We Know Anything?” What Does It All Mean?: A Very
Short Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. 8-18.
Nagel, Thomas. “Chapter 6: Free Will.” What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to
Philosophy. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. 47-58.
Nagel, Thomas. “Chapter 10: The Meaning of Life.” What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short
Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. 95-101.
Philosopher Kings. Dir. Patrick Shen. Transcendental Media, 2009.
The Truman Show. Dir. Peter Weir. Perf. Jim Carey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney. Paramount