Problems, problems

A good philosopher must find his obsession, and it will drive him for the rest of his life: Thomas Nagel

Johnny Lyons

If asked by someone who is unfamiliar with philosophy what they might read to begin to grasp the subject, I would recommend Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean? If pressed as to why this book rather than others, my response would proceed along the following lines.

Philosophy is a fascinating and wickedly difficult subject. There are many who have tried to convey its interest but without doing justice to its complexity. Conversely, there are those who have sought to capture its intricacy but at the cost of losing sight of its vitality. Only a few have succeeded in giving an account of the subject that is both engaging to the newcomer and yet faithful to its difficulty, recognising that there’s no shallow end in the philosophical pool whilst providing beginners with enough buoyancy to keep their heads above water. Nagel’s concise primer (less than 25,000 words) stands proudly, even pre-eminently, among such select company.

What makes What Does It All Mean? an exemplary work is emblematic of its author’s philosophical thought as a whole. A feature of all Nagel’s writings is that they are the product of original and serious thinking that is expressed, for the most part, in entirely lucid and jargon-free language. Nagel is congenitally incapable of merely writing about philosophy. He must always be doing philosophy. This partly explains what makes his brief guide appealing. It is at once an introduction as well as a contribution to the discipline; its author manages to say something of interest to the professional philosopher while explaining the nature and scope of philosophical thinking to the theoretically uninitiated and in prose that is as clear as a chalk stream. The following passage gives a flavour of Nagel’s succinct style:

Philosophy is different from science and from mathematics. Unlike science it doesn’t rely on experiments or observation, but only on thought. And unlike mathematics it has no formal methods of proof. It is done just by asking questions, arguing, trying out ideas and thinking of possible arguments against them, and wondering how our concepts really work.

Another notable characteristic of Nagel’s primer is its emphasis on questions rather than answers, a feature that is defined by an unwavering interest in the special character and the distinctive difficulty of philosophical problems. Nagel reckons that we learn far more from thinking about how and why philosophical questions and dilemmas elude complete and conclusive treatment than from relentlessly trying to come up with definitive answers to them….