Nagel, meaning, and good

In What Does it All Mean? Thomas Nagel first notices that our question “what is the point of it all?” arises because we want not just each of our individual actions to have a point, but also for them all to have a point within the larger context of our life. Christians in turn want the events of their lives to have a point within the larger context of the provident order of the cosmos, and presumably this order has a point in the context of some still larger plan including the angels, etc. Nagel, however, notes a problem in this context-dependent way of “having a point”:

If one’s life has a point as a part of something larger, it is still possible to ask about that larger thing, what is the point of it? Either there is an answer in terms of something still larger or there isn’t. If there is, we simply repeat the question. If there isn’t, our search for a point has come to an end with something which has no point.

Nagel’s proof is sound, but it proves only that philosophers lost something crucial in the 20th century when they stopped talking about goods and the good and tried to have the same discussions about the meaning of and having a point (or, contrariwise, “being meaningless” or “pointless”)Both goods and meanings are directed and intentional, but the paradigm of meaning is the signification of language, where meaning is only had within a context that does not itself signify or mean anything. The social context of language (ignore its non-contextual reference to an idea) gives meanings to sounds by an arbitrary ad placitum imposition, and in this sense everyone accepts that meaning can arise from what has no meaning. At some point in an etymology you hit a meaningful sound for which there is no other reason than an arbitrary decision.

Goods, however, do not trace back to contexts but to appetites and desires. When we frame the question in this way, Nagel’s observation is re-framed as the fact that human beings want a greater good than just the good that comes from any of the individual actions of their lives. Human beings seem peculiar in wanting this – as far as I can tell, we are the only animals that are cognizant of life having a narrative totality, and therefore able to be a successful or failed narrative. This narrative in turn makes essential reference to a larger narrative, and it’s not easy to see how good or evil can just arise at lower levels of the narrative when they are not present all the way down, a point which Nagel himself makes in his chapter on value in Mind and Cosmos. 

To frame the question of our goals in terms of goods raises the question of what it would take for there to be a good that was entirely commensurate to an appetite that desired it. A purely commensurate good would clearly be “the point of it all” which would need no further justification, being all that could be desired. All other goods that a being desired would stand to it as part to whole, not in the sense that the lower goods constituted the higher one, but in the sense that they were all incomplete foretastes of it. Plato sketches the outlines of such a good in the Diotema speech of the Symposium, arguing that no temporal good can fit the bill since to possess it leaves us with the unsatisfied desire to keep possessing it. Temporal goods are thus parts of trans-temporal goods. St. Thomas clarifies Plato’s underlying reasoning here.


  1. March 26, 2016 at 10:22 am

    I have recently pondered that passage. It seems to me that Nagel uses the word “point” as the equivalent of “purpose or end.” We can thus rewrite the passage you quoted to read:

    If one’s life has a purpose or end as a means to a further purpose or end, it is still possible to ask about that further purpose or end, what is its purpose or end? Either there is an answer in terms of a still further purpose or end or there isn’t. If there is, we simply repeat the question. If there isn’t, our search for a purpose or end has come to a close with something which has no further purpose or end.

    That is, either there is an infinite, if not regress, then progress in final causes or there isn’t. If there isn’t, then there is a purpose or end without a further a purpose or end; perhaps we can identify it as an unfinal-caused final cause, i.e., an ultimate final cause.

    So put, it has something of a familiar ring.

    • March 26, 2016 at 10:54 am

      It’s true that if we recast the question in terms of causality we can argue against it by causal regress. Depending on what argument we give we might be able to escape Nagel’s conclusion, but we’d need more than just a denial of causal infinity to do it since Nagel himself denies the possibility of infinite regress. The difference is that N. sees no terminus to the regress other than sheer facticity. This is why St. Thomas frames the question in terms of how commensurate a certain good is to the will or intelligence of the one desiring since is goodness we have an a priori connection between the purpose and the one for whom it is the purpose. A good just is what a person desires so far as the desire is whole; whereas a thing has a purpose irrespective of whether the desire is whole or not.

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