Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel
Thomas Nagel
April 2008
Born July 4, 1937 (1937-07-04) (age 74)
Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia)
Nationality American
Education BA (1958), BPhil (1960), PhD (1963)
Alma mater Cornell University (1954–1958)
Corpus Christi College, Oxford (1958–1960)
Harvard University (1960–1963)
Occupation Professor of law, professor of philosophy
Employer Department of Philosophy, New York University
Known for Political philosophy, ethics, philosophy of mind, epistemology
Notable works The Possibility of Altruism (1970), "What is it like to be a bat?" (1974), Mortal Questions (1979), The View from Nowhere (1986), Equality and Partiality (1991), The Last Word (1997)
Faculty webpage

Thomas Nagel (born July 4, 1937 in Belgrade, in present-day Serbia) is an American philosopher, currently University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he has taught since 1980. His main areas of philosophical interest are philosophy of mind, political philosophy and ethics. He is well known for his critique of reductionist accounts of the mind in his essay "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" (1974), and for his contributions to deontological and liberal moral and political theory in The Possibility of Altruism (1970) and subsequent writings.



Nagel was born July 4, 1937, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia) to a Jewish family. He received a BA from Cornell University in 1958, a BPhil from the University of Oxford in 1960, and a PhD from Harvard University in 1963 under the supervision of John Rawls. Before settling in New York, Nagel taught briefly at the University of California, Berkeley (from 1963 to 1966) and at Princeton University (from 1966 to 1980), where he trained many well-known philosophers including Susan Wolf, Shelly Kagan, and Samuel Scheffler, who is now his colleague at NYU. In 2006, he was made a member of the American Philosophical Society.[1]

Nagel is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.[2] In 2008, he was awarded a Rolf Schock Prize for his work in philosophy,[3] the Balzan prize,[4] and the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Oxford.[5]


Nagel began to publish philosophy at the age of twenty two; his career now spans fifty years of publication. It can, however, all be understood as structured around a central distinction between subjective and objective points of view of a subject matter. Nagel thinks that each person, owing to his or her capacity to reason, instinctively seeks a unified world view. However, if this aspiration leads him or her to believe that there is only one way to understand our intellectual commitments, whether about the external world, knowledge, or what our practical and moral reasons ought to be, this leads him or her into error. For contingent, limited and finite creatures, no such unified world view is possible. That is because ways of understanding are not always better when they are more objective.

Like the British philosopher Bernard Williams, Nagel believes that the rise of modern science has permanently changed how people think of the world and our place in it. A modern scientific understanding is one way of thinking about the world and our place in it that is more objective than the common sense view it replaces. It is more objective because it is less dependent on our peculiarities as the kinds of thinkers that people are. Our modern scientific understanding involves the mathematicized understanding of the world represented by modern physics. Understanding this bleached out view of the world draws on our capacities as purely rational thinkers and does not involve the specific nature of our perceptual sensibility. The way in which modern science and philosophy has drawn a distinction between the mathematically and structurally describable "primary qualities" of objects such as shape and solidity and those properties dependent on our sensory apparatus, "secondary qualities" such as taste and color, is a prime example that Nagel returns to repeatedly in his work.

Contrary to this seeming skepticism about the objective claims of science Nagel thinks that it is importantly true that science describes the world that exists independently of us. But this central case should not lead people to believe that understanding a subject matter is better simply if it is more objective. Importantly, the objective viewpoint is fundamentally unable to help people fully understand ourselves. Taking the proper methods of an objective scientific understanding and applying it to the mind leaves out something essential. It cannot describe what it is to be a thinker who conceives of the world from a particular perspective.

Some phenomena are not best grasped from a more objective perspective. The standpoint of the thinker does not present itself to him: he is that standpoint. One learns and uses mental concepts by being directly acquainted with one's own mind. But any attempt to think more objectively about mentality would abstract away from this fact. It would, of its nature, leave out what it is to be a thinker. And that, Nagel believes, would be a falsely objectifying view. Being a thinker is to have a subjective perspective on the world; if one abstracts away from this perspective one leaves out what he sought to explain.

Nagel thinks that philosophers over-impressed by the paradigm of the kind of objective understanding represented by modern science tend to produce theories of the mind that are falsely objectifying in precisely this kind of way. They are right to be impressed - modern science really is objective - but are wrong to take modern science to be the only paradigm of objectivity. The kind of understanding that science represents does not transfer to everything that people would like to understand. Mapping out, for different areas of inquiry, whether they are better understood in a more or less objective way is the central aim of Nagel's philosophy.

As a philosophical rationalist, Nagel believes that a proper understanding of the place of mental properties in nature will involve a revolution in our understanding of both the physical and the mental, and that this is a reasonable prospect that people can anticipate in the near future. A plausible science of the mind will give an account of the stuff that underpins mental and physical properties in such a way that people will simply be able to see that it necessitates both of these aspects. At present, it seems to people that the mental and the physical are irreducibly distinct but that is not a metaphysical insight, or an acknowledgment of an irreducible explanatory gap, but simply where people are at their present stage of understanding.

Nagel's rationalism and tendency to present our human nature as a composite, structured around our capacity to reason, explains why he thinks therapeutic or deflationary accounts of philosophy are simply complacent and radical skepticism is, strictly speaking, irrefutable. The therapeutic or deflationary philosopher, influenced by the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, reconciles people to the dependence of our worldview on our "form of life". Nagel accuses Wittgenstein and American philosopher of mind and language Donald Davidson of philosophical idealism.[6] In both cases they ask people to take up an interpretative perspective to making sense of other speakers in the context of a shared, objective world. This, for Nagel, elevates contingent conditions of our make-up into criteria for that which is real. The result 'cuts the world down to size' and makes what there is dependent on what there can be interpreted to be. Nagel claims this is no better than more orthodox forms of idealism in which reality is claimed to be made up of mental items or claimed to be constitutively dependent on a form supplied by the mind.

Philosophy of mind

Nagel is probably most widely known within the field of philosophy of mind as an advocate of the idea that consciousness and subjective experience cannot, at least with the contemporary understanding of physicalism, be satisfactorily explained using the current concepts of physics. This position was primarily discussed by Nagel in one of his most famous articles: "What is it Like to Be a Bat?" (1974). The article's title question, though often attributed to Nagel, was originally posed by Timothy L.S. Sprigge. The article was originally published in 1974 in The Philosophical Review. However, the essay has been reprinted in several books that are concerned with consciousness and the mind, such as The Mind's I (edited by Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter), Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology (edited by Ned Block), Nagel's Mortal Questions (1979), The Nature of Mind (edited by David M. Rosenthal), and Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings (edited by David J. Chalmers).

In "What is it Like to Be a Bat?", Nagel argues that consciousness has essential to it a subjective character, a what it is like aspect. He states that "an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism."[7] His critics have objected strongly to what they see as a misguided attempt to argue from a perfectly true fact about how one represents the world (trivially, one can only do so from his own point of view) to a false claim about the world, that it somehow has first personal perspectives built into it. On that understanding, Nagel is a conventional dualist about the physical and the mental. This is, however, a misunderstanding: Nagel's point is that there is a constraint on what it is to possess the concept of a mental state, namely, that one be directly acquainted with it. Concepts of mental states are only made available to a thinker who can be acquainted with his/her own states; clearly, the possession and use of physical concepts has no corresponding constraint.

Part of the puzzlement here is because of the limitations of imagination: influenced by his Princeton colleague, Saul Kripke, Nagel believes that any type identity statement that identified a physical state type with a mental state type would be, if true, necessarily true. But Kripke argued that one can easily imagine a situation where, for example, one's C-fibres are stimulated but one is not in pain and so refute any such psychophysical identity from the armchair. (A parallel argument does not hold for genuine theoretical identities.) This argument that there will always be an explanatory gap between an identification of a state in mental and physical terms is compounded, Nagel argues, by the fact that imagination operates in two distinct ways. When asked to imagine sensorily, one imagines C-fibres being stimulated; if asked to imagine sympathetically, one puts oneself in a conscious state resembling pain. These two ways of imagining the two terms of the identity statement are so different it will always seem that there is an explanatory gap whether there is or not. (Some philosophers of mind have taken these arguments as helpful for physicalism on the grounds that it exposes a limitation that makes the existence of an explanatory gap seem compelling, while others have argued that this makes the case for physicalism even more impossible as it cannot be defended even in principle.)

Nagel is not a physicalist because he does not believe that an internal understanding of mental concepts shows them to have the kind of hidden essence that underpins a scientific identity in, say, chemistry. But his skepticism is about current physics: he envisages in his most recent work that people may be close to a scientific breakthrough in identifying an underlying essence that is neither physical (as people currently think of the physical), nor functional, nor mental, but such that it necessitates all three of these ways in which the mind "appears" to us. The difference between the kind of explanation he rejects and those that he accepts depends on his understanding of transparency: from his earliest paper to the most recent Nagel has always insisted that a prior context is required to make identity statements plausible, intelligible and transparent.


Nagel has been highly influential in the related fields of moral and political philosophy. Supervised by John Rawls, Nagel has been a long-standing proponent of a Kantian and rationalist approach to moral philosophy. His distinctive ideas were first presented in the short monograph The Possibility of Altruism, published in 1970. That book seeks by reflection on the nature of practical reasoning to uncover the formal principles that underlie reason in practice and the related general beliefs about the self that are necessary for those principles to be truly applicable to us. Nagel defends motivated desire theory about the motivation of moral action. According to motivated desire theory, when a person is motivated to moral action it is indeed true that such actions are motivated -- like all intentional actions -- by a belief and a desire. But it is important to get the justificatory relations right: when a person accepts a moral judgment he or she is necessarily motivated to act. But it is the reason that does the justificatory work of justifying both the action and the desire. Nagel contrasts this view with a rival view which believes that a moral agent can only accept that he or she has a reason to act if the desire to carry out the action has an independent justification (an account based on presupposing sympathy would be of this kind).

The most striking claim of the book is that there is a very close parallel between prudential reasoning in one's own interests and moral reasons to act to further the interests of another person. When one reasons prudentially, for example about the future reasons that one will have, one allows the reason in the future to justify one's current action without reference to the strength of one's current desires. If a hurricane were to destroy someone's car next year at that point he will want his insurance company to pay him to replace it: that future reason gives him a reason, now, to take out insurance. The strength of the reason ought not to be hostage to the strength of one's current desires. The denial of this view of prudence, Nagel argues, means that one does not really believe that one is one and the same person through time. One is dissolving oneself into distinct person stages.

This is the basis of his analogy between prudential actions and moral actions: in cases of altruistic action for another person's good that person's reasons quite literally become reasons for one if they are timeless and intrinsic reasons. Genuine reasons are reasons for anyone. Comparable to the views of the nineteenth century moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick, Nagel believes that one needs to conceive of one's good as an impersonal good and one's reasons as objective reasons. That means, practically, that a timeless and intrinsic value generates reasons for anyone. A person who denies the truth of this claim is committed, as in the case of a similar mistake about prudence, to a false view of him or her self. In this case the false view is that one's reasons are irreducibly his, in a way that does not allow them to be reasons for anyone: Nagel argues this commits such a person to the view that he or she cannot make the same judgments about her own reasons third-personally that she can make first-personally. Nagel calls this "dissociation" and considers it a practical analogue of solipsism (the false belief that one's is the only mind that exists). Once again, a false view of what is involved in reasoning properly is refuted by showing that it leads to a false view of the nature of people.

In his later work on ethics, Nagel no longer places as much weight on the distinction between a person's personal or "subjective" reasons and his or her "objective" reasons. In The Possibility of Altruism, if one's reasons really are about intrinsic and timeless values then, qua subjective reason, one can only take them to be the guise of the reasons that there really are -- the objective ones. In his later discussions, Nagel treats this view as an incomplete grasp of the fact that there are distinct classes of reasons and values. In the case of agent-relative reasons (the successor to subjective reasons) specifying the content of the reason makes essential reference back to the agent for whom it is a reason. (An example might be: "Anyone has a reason to honor his or her parents.") In the case of agent-neutral reasons (the successor to objective reasons) specifying the content of the reason does not make any essential reference back to the person for whom it is a reason. (An example might be: "Anyone has a reason to promote the good of parenthood.")

This emphasis on different classes of reasons and values, however, remains committed to the Sidgwickian model of thinking objectively about one's moral commitments such that one's reasons and values are only incomplete parts of an impersonal whole. The structure of Nagel's later ethical view is that all reasons must be brought into relation to this objective view of oneself. Those reasons and values that withstand detached critical scrutiny are objective; but other reasons and values that are more subjective can be objectively tolerated. However, the most striking part of the earlier argument and of Sidgwick's view is preserved: agent neutral reasons are literally reasons for anyone so all objectifiable reasons become individually possessed no matter whose they are. When one thinks reflectively about ethics, one comes to see that every other agent's standpoint on value has to be taken as seriously as his, since his perspective is just his take on an inter-subjective whole. So that which one took to be his personal set of reasons is swamped by the objective reasons of all others.

This is similar to "World Agent" consequentialist views in which one takes up the standpoint of a collective subject whose reasons are those of everyone. But Nagel remains an individualist who believes in the separateness of persons so his task is to explain why this objective viewpoint does not swallow up the individual standpoint of each of us. He provides an extended rationale for the importance to people of their personal point of view. The result is a hybrid ethical theory of the kind defended by Nagel's Princeton PhD student Samuel Scheffler in The Rejection of Consequentialism. The objective standpoint and its demands have to be balanced with the subjective personal point of view of each person and its demands. One can always be maximally objective but one does not have to be. One can legitimately "cap" the demands placed on him by the objective reasons of others. In addition, in his later work, Nagel finds a rationale for so-called deontic constraints in a way Scheffler could not. Following Warren Quinn and Frances Kamm, Nagel grounds them on the inviolability of persons.

The extent to which one can lead a good life as an individual while respecting the demands of others leads inevitably to political philosophy. In the Locke lectures published as the book Equality and Partiality, Nagel exposes John Rawls's theory of justice to detailed scrutiny. Once again Nagel places such weight on the objective point of view and its requirements that he finds Rawls's view of liberal equality not demanding enough. Rawls's aim to redress, not remove, the inequalities that arise from class and talent seems to Nagel to lead to a view that does not sufficiently respect the needs of others. He recommends a gradual move to much more demanding conceptions of equality, motivated by the special nature of political responsibility. Normally people draw a distinction between that which people do and that which people fail to bring about. But this thesis, true of individuals, does not apply to the state, which is a collective agent. A Rawlsian state permits intolerable inequalities and people need to develop a more ambitious view of equality to do justice to the demands of the objective recognition of the reasons of others. For Nagel, honoring the objective point of view demands nothing less.

Intelligent Design

Nagel does not accept the rejection of Intelligent Design as non-scientific or merely religious. He wrote in 2008 that "ID is very different from creation science...Whatever the merits, however, [it] is clearly a scientific disagreement, not a disagreement between science and something else."[8] In 2009, Nagel recommended Stephen Meyer's book Signature in the Cell as one of his "Best Books of the Year" in The Times Literary Supplement.[9] While Nagel did not accept Meyer's conclusions he endorsed his approach to "this fiendishly difficult problem" of the origin of life.[10] Many scientists and philosophers criticised Nagel's views on this matter.[11][12][13][14][15][16] Specifically, Stephen Fletcher, chemist at Loughborough University, wrote in The Times Literary Supplement, Nagel is "promot[ing] the book to the rest of us using statements that are factually incorrect."[17] Fletcher explained "Natural selection is in fact a chemical process as well as a biological process, and it was operating for about half a billion years before the earliest cellular life forms appear in the fossil record."[17]

Selected publications


  • The Possibility of Altruism (1970), Oxford University Press. (Reprinted in 1978, Princeton University Press.)
  • Mortal Questions (1979), Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978 0 521 40676 5
  • The View from Nowhere (1986), Oxford University Press.
  • What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy (1987), Oxford University Press.
  • Equality and Partiality (1991), Oxford University Press.
  • Other Minds: Critical Essays, 1969-1994 (1995), Oxford University Press.
  • The Last Word (1997), Oxford University Press.
  • The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (2002), (with Liam Murphy) Oxford University Press.
  • Concealment and Exposure and Other Essays (2002), Oxford University Press.
  • Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002-2008 (2009), Oxford University Press.


  • 1959, "Hobbes's Concept of Obligation", Philosophical Review, pp. 68-83.
  • 1959, "Dreaming", Analysis, pp. 112-6.
  • 1965, "Physicalism", Philosophical Review, pp. 339-56.
  • 1969, "Sexual Perversion", Journal of Philosophy, pp. 5-17.
  • 1969, "The Boundaries of Inner Space", Journal of Philosophy, pp. 452-8.
  • 1970, "Death", Nous, pp. 73-80.
  • 1970, "Armstrong on the Mind", Philosophical Review, pp. 394-403 (a discussion review f A Materialist Theory of the Mind by D. M. Armstrong).
  • 1971, "Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness", Synthese, pp. 396-413.
  • 1971, "The Absurd", Journal of Philosophy, pp. 716-27.
  • 1972, "War and Massacre", Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 1, pp. 123-44.
  • 1973, "Rawls on Justice", Philosophical Review, pp. 220-34 (a discussion review of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls).
  • 1973, "Equal Treatment and Compensatory Discrimination", Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 2, pp. 348-62.
  • 1974, "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?", Philosophical Review, pp. 435-50. Online text
  • 1976, "Moral Luck", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary vol. 50, pp. 137-55.
  • 1979, "The Meaning of Equality", Washington University Law Quarterly, pp. 25-31.
  • 1981, "Tactical Nuclear Weapons and the Ethics of Conflict", Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College, pp. 327-8.
  • 1983, "The Objective Self", in Carl Ginet and Sydney Shoemaker (eds.), Knowledge and Mind, Oxford University Press, pp. 211-232.
  • 1987, "Moral Conflict and Political Legitimacy", Philosophy & Public Affairs, pp. 215-240.
  • 1994, "Consciousness and Objective Reality", in R. Warner and T. Szubka (eds.), The Mind-Body Problem, Blackwell.
  • 1995, "Personal Rights and Public Space", Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 83-107.
  • 1997, "Assisted Suicide: The Philosophers' Brief" (with R. Dworkin, R. Nozick, J. Rawls, T. Scanlon, and J. J. Thomson), New York Review of Books, March 27, 1997.
  • 1998, "Reductionism and Antireductionism", in The Limits of Reductionism in Biology, Novartis Symposium 213, John Wiley & Sons, pp. 3-10.
  • 1998, "Concealment and Exposure", Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 3-30. Online text
  • 1998, "Conceiving the Impossible and the Mind-Body Problem", Philosophy, vol. 73, no. 285, pp. 337-352. Online PDF
  • 2000, "The Psychophysical Nexus", in Paul Boghossian and Christopher Peacocke (eds.) New Essays on the A Priori, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 432-471. Online PDF
  • 2003, "Rawls and Liberalism", in Samuel Freeman (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, Cambridge University Press, pp. 62-85.
  • 2003, "John Rawls and Affirmative Action", The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 39, pp. 82-4.
  • 2009, "The I in Me", a review article of Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics by Galen Strawson, Oxford, 448 pp, ISBN 0 19 825006 1,

See also

  • American philosophy
  • List of American philosophers


  1. ^ Biographical information from Nagel's CV at NYU (PDF).
  2. ^ From Nagel's faculty page at New York University.
  3. ^ "The Rolf Schock Prizes 2008". 2008-05-12. Retrieved 2008-09-20. [dead link]
  4. ^ "Balzan Prize 2008 (1 Million Swiss Francs) Awarded for Moral Philosophy". Retrieved 2008-09-30. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Nagel, Thomas. 1986, The View From Nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Chapter VI.
  7. ^ Nagel, "What is it Like to Be a Bat?" (1974), p. 436.
  8. ^ Nagel, T. (2008). Public education and intelligent design, Philosopy & Public Affairs, 36(2), 187-205. pg.196-7
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Thomas Nagel Jumps the Shark, Part II, Brian Leiter, Leiter Reports, 2 December 2009
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ a b Fletcher, Stephen (December 2, 2009). "TLS Letters 02/12/09". The Times Literary Supplement. Retrieved 2010-03-28. 

Further reading

  • Thomas, Alan (2005), Thomas Nagel, Chesham: Acumen, ISBN 1844650340 .

External links

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