the view from nowhere and self-identity

If you’ve read any of Thomas Nagel’s work, then you’re probably familiar with his favorite problem: the problem we face as human beings of reconciling an agent-centered, subjective “view from here” with a centerless and objective “view from nowhere”. This latter perspective, a sort of “God’s eye view”, is possible by virtue of our human capacity to detach ourselves from the peculiar coloring of our own point of view. The clash of these two perspectives is manifest in the areas of ethics, metaphysics, epistemology and the philosophy of death. Nagel gives it a thorough treatment in connection with each of these areas in his well-known book The View From Nowhere. But I want to focus very briefly on the appearance of this problem in connection with the philosophy of self identity.

Only from a detached point of view can we support the theory that bodily continuity, or sameness of the physical body from one moment to the next, is the right condition for ascribing selfhood to that body. And the same holds for theories of psychological continuity; it is from this same centerless perspective that we can observe behavioral and functional manifestations of beliefs, desires, memories, etc and are thus able to regard them as belonging to an ostensibly self-same individual. But psychological and physical continuity, while both may serve as conditions for the ascription of selfhood from a third-person or a centerless perspective, could never either of them figure in an explanation of the sense of self as experienced in the first-person, the view from here. For this a criterion for belongingness to a self and for a self seems needed, and without one, a satisfying answer to one who doubts one’s own existence seems impossible.

I suspect that there are more than a few interesting responses to this problem, and that at least one can be found in Wittgenstein. But because of my still impoverished understanding of his later work, I’m at a loss to find it.
Someone please help lead me out of this fly bottle…



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4 responses to “the view from nowhere and self-identity

  1. Pingback: God’s Subjectivity | The Spirit of Pragmatism

  2. Victor

    Hmmm…the inner life of God…provocative idea!

  3. Brian K

    To have an objective observer, to me( I know i beg the question that I exist), seems to say that this view from nowhere is the self. However if that is the case, one cannot ever view the self, because you would need an observer to observe the view from nowhere, leading to an infinite regress of observers. Contrasting these two views is interesting. Both seem to function similarly, how could the eye see the eye without distortion? They seem to be constructed in a similar manner, the view from here is not all that much different from the view from the minds eye. One view births the external world, one the internal. Sort of a Platonic dualism at play. I imagine the infinite observer paradox I spoke of can only be solved once one reaches the eye of God. Ive knocked and am still waiting…

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