December Pick | Selected by Professor John Divers
You would think that at this stage in the game, I’d have a nice pat answer to a question that I’ve been asked about once a month for the last 40 years. What is Philosophy? But I don’t.
However for the last 20 years or so, those undeterred by my inept, hit-or-miss, responses have been directed to read Thomas Nagel’s, “Mortal Questions”. I’ve often bought a small batch of copies to give away and I’ve never heard from anyone that they couldn’t understand it.
The topics covered in Nagel’s collection of essays are compelling. They include: death; sex; equality; war; freedom and consciousness.
The reader is prompted to begin to do philosophy by considering the question that forms the title of the famous essay, “What is it Like to be a Bat?”. The science tells us that bats have a way of sensing, or being conscious of, the world that we don’t have: echolocation. What we can’t do, even though we have that information, is to experience the world in the way that the bat does. Imagination fails us. We can imagine that there is some way that it is for the bat, but not what the way is. (Exercise: Consider a human who has been blind from birth being asked, “What is it like to have vision?”). This is the kind of subtle distinction in which Nagel specializes. He uses ordinary language to draw our attention to something which is subtle, profound and – if we are honest with ourselves – deeply puzzling.
Elizabeth Anscombe said that good philosophy is both deep and plain. Nagel demonstrates the point beautifully.