Bernard Williams reviews Nagel on reason
Who, in these discussions, are “we”? Is every claim to the effect that our understandings are relative to “us” equally threatening? When we reﬂect on what “we” believe, particularly in cultural and ethical matters, we often have in mind (as the relativists do) ourselves as members of modern industrial societies, or of some yet more restricted group, as contrasted with other human beings at other times or places. Such a “we” is, as linguists put it, “contrastive”—it picks out “us” as opposed to others. But “we” can be understood inclusively, to embrace anyone who does, or who might, share in the business of investigating the world. Some philosophers have suggested that in our thought there is always an implied “we” of this inclusive kind; according to them, when cosmologists make claims about what the universe is like “in itself,” they are not abstracting from possible experience altogether, but are implicitly talking about the way things would seem to investigators who were at least enough like us for us to recognize them, in principle, as investigators.
What is really disturbing […] about the relativists and subjectivists is […] their insistence on understanding “us” in such a very local and parochial way. […] They suggest that there are no shared standards on the basis of which we as human beings can understand each other—that there is no inclusive, but only a contrastive, “we.”
Nagel’s basic idea is that whatever kind of claim is said to be only locally valid and to be the product of particular social forces—whether it is morality that is being criticized in this way, or history, or science—the relativist or subjectivist who offers this critique will have to make some other claim, which itself has to be understood as not merely local but objectively valid. Moreover, in all the cases that matter, this further claim will have to be of the same type as those that are being criticized: the relativists’ critique of morality must commit them to claims of objective morality, their attempts to show that science consists of local prejudice must appeal to objective science, and so on.
The basic idea that we see things as we do because of our historical situation has become […] so deeply embedded in our outlook that it is rather Nagel’s universalistic assumption which may look strange, the idea that, self-evidently, moral judgment must take everyone everywhere as equally its object.
We should not forget that the style of philosophy to which Kant self-consciously opposed his critique he called dogmatic philosophy, meaning that it took the supposed deliverances of reason at their face value, without asking how they were grounded in the structure of human thought and experience. […] In the spirit of Kant’s distinction, [Nagel’s approach] is dogmatic, because it is not interested enough in explanations. It draws, as it seems to me, arbitrary limits to the reﬂective questions that philosophy is allowed to ask.