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Thomas Nagel on Cosmic Reconciliation

Analytic philosophy as a historical movement has not done much to provide an alternative to the consolations of religion. This is sometimes made a cause for reproach, and for unfavorable comparisons with the continental tradition of the twentieth century, which did not shirk that task. That is one of the reasons that continental philosophy has been better received by the general public: It at least tries to provide nourishment for the soul, the job by which philosophy is supposed to earn its keep. ¶ Analytic philosophers usually rebuff the complaint by pointing out that their concerns are continuous with the central occupations of Western philosophy from Parmenides onward: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and ethical theory. Those topics have been pursued in a great tradition of works that are often technical and difficult, and that are not intended for a broad audience. The aim of that tradition is understanding, not edification.


This reply is formally correct, but it fails to acknowledge the significant element of yearning for cosmic reconciliation that has been part of the philosophical impulse from the beginning. Its greatest example is Plato, who had what I would call a profoundly religious temperament — displayed not in what he said about religion, but in his philosophy.

I am using the term “religious temperament” in a way that may seem illegitimate to those who are genuinely religious. Yet I think it is the appropriate name for a disposition to seek a view of the world that can play a certain role in the inner life — a role that for some people is occupied by religion.

Whether anything like this was part of the religion of fourth-century Athens I do not know. But Plato was clearly concerned not only with the state of his soul, but also with his relation to the universe at the deepest level. Plato’s metaphysics was not intended to produce merely a detached understanding of reality. His motivation in philosophy was in part to achieve a kind of understanding that would connect him (and therefore every human being) to the whole of reality — intelligibly and, if possible, satisfyingly.


2 thoughts on “Thomas Nagel on Cosmic Reconciliation

  1. I imagine one would be able to say that the New Atheists simply don’t provide these kind of answers. I am impressed by their devotion to their cause, which seems to be the destruction of religion. However, they do not offer a proper alternative other than “do what you want”.

    Why do we find this to be a unsatisfactory answer? I’m not really sure. I profess to be Christian myself, so I obviously am biased, but this group only seems to “tear down temples” but put nothing in their place.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I can’t tell you how many times my interest in metaphysics is met with a rolling of the eyes by those who see no practical application in it.

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