Death.--The absurd.--Moral luck.--Sexual perversion.--War and massacre.--Ruthlessness in public life.--The policy of preference.--Equality.--The fragmentation of value.--Ethics without biology.--Brain bisection and the unity of consciousness.--What is it like to be a bat?--Panpsychism.--Subjective and objective.
Human beings have the unique ability to view the world in a detached way: We can think about the world in terms that transcend our own experience or interest, and consider the world from a vantage point that is, in Nagel's words, "nowhere in particular". At the same time, each of us is a particular person in a particular place, each with his own "personal" view of the world, a view that we can recognize as just one aspect of the (...) whole. How do we reconcile these two standpoints--intellectually, morally, and practically? To what extent are they irreconcilable and to what extent can they be integrated? Thomas Nagel's ambitious and lively book tackles this fundamental issue, arguing that our divided nature is the root of a whole range of philosophical problems, touching, as it does, every aspect of human life. He deals with its manifestations in such fields of philosophy as: the mind-body problem, personal identity, knowledge and skepticism, thought and reality, free will, ethics, the relation between moral and other values, the meaning of life, and death. Excessive objectification has been a malady of recent analytic philosophy, claims Nagel, it has led to implausible forms of reductionism in the philosophy of mind and elsewhere. The solution is not to inhibit the objectifying impulse, but to insist that it learn to live alongside the internal perspectives that cannot be either discarded or objectified. Reconciliation between the two standpoints, in the end, is not always possible. (shrink)
We do not live in a just world. This may be the least controversial claim one could make in political theory. But it is much less clear what, if anything, justice on a world scale might mean, or what the hope for justice should lead us to want in the domain of international or global institutions, and in the policies of states that are in a position to affect the world order. By comparison with the perplexing and undeveloped state of (...) this subject, domestic political theory is very well understood, with multiple highly developed theories offering alternative solutions to well-defined problems. By contrast, concepts and theories of global justice are in the early stages of formation, and it is not clear what the main questions are, let alone the main possible answers. I believe that the need for workable ideas about the global or international case presents political theory with its most important current task, and even perhaps with the opportunity to make a practical contribution in the long run, though perhaps only the very long run. (shrink)
Just as there are rational requirements on thought, there are rational requirements on action. This book defends a conception of ethics, and a related conception of human nature, according to which altruism is included among the basic rational requirements on desire and action. Altruism itself depends on the recognition of the reality of other persons, and on the equivalent capacity to regard oneself as merely one individual among many.
This collection of essays, based on the Locke Lectures that Nagel delivered at Oxford University in 1990, addresses the conflict between the claims of the group and those of the individual. Nagel attempts to clarify the nature of the conflict - one of the most fundamental problems in moral and political theory - and concludes that its reconciliation is the essential task of any legitimate political system.
In this important new book Nagel, one of the most distinguished philosophers writing in English today, presents a sustained defence of reason against the attacks of subjectivism. He offers systematic rebuttals of relativistic claims with respect to language, logic, science, and ethics.
Thomas Nagel's Mortal Questions explores some fundamental issues concerning the meaning, nature and value of human life. Questions about our attitudes to death, sexual behaviour, social inequality, war and political power are shown to lead to more obviously philosophical problems about personal identity, consciousness, freedom and value. This original and illuminating book aims at a form of understanding that is both theoretical and personal in its lively engagement with what are literally issues of life and death.
There has been considerable optimism recently, among philosophers and neuroscientists, concerning the prospect for major discoveries about the neurophysiological basis of mind. The support for this optimism has been extremely abstract and general. I wish to present some grounds ..
Everyone knows that something has gone wrong, in the United States, with the conventions of privacy. Along with a vastly increased tolerance for variation in sexual life we have seen a sharp increase in prurient and censorious attention to the sexual lives of public figures and famous persons, past and present. The culture seems to be growing more tolerant and more intolerant at the same time, though perhaps different parts of it are involved in the two movements.
Intuitions based on the first-person perspective can easily mislead us about what is and is not conceivable.1 This point is usually made in support of familiar reductionist positions on the mind-body problem, but I believe it can be detached from that approach. It seems to me that the powerful appearance of contingency in the relation between the functioning of the physical organism and the conscious mind -- an appearance that depends directly or indirectly on the first- person perspective -- must (...) be an illusion. But the denial of this contingency should not take the form of a reductionist account of consciousness of the usual type, whereby the logical gap between the mental and the physical is closed by conceptual analysis -- in effect, by analyzing the mental in terms of the physical. (shrink)
The modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value. This failure to account for something so integral to nature as mind, argues philosopher Thomas Nagel, is a major problem, threatening to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist vision of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And (...) the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history, either. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such.Nagel's skepticism is not based on religious belief or on a belief in any definite alternative. In Mind and Cosmos, he does suggest that if the materialist account is wrong, then principles of a different kind may also be at work in the history of nature, principles of the growth of order that are in their logical form theological rather than mechanic.In spite of the great achievements of the physical sciences, reductive materialism is a world view ripe for displacement. Nagel shows that to recognize its limits is the first step in looking for alternatives, or at least in being open to their possibility. (shrink)
Thomas Nagel is widely recognized as one of the top American philosophers working today. Reflecting the diversity of his many philosophical preoccupations, this volume is a collection of his most recent critical essays and reviews.
i The 2005 decision by Judge John E. Jones in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District was celebrated by all red-blooded American liberals as a victory over the forces of darkness. The result was probably inevitable, in view of the reckless expression by some members of the Dover School Board of their desire to put religion into the classroom, and the clumsiness of their prescribed statement in trying to dissimulate that aim.1 But the conﬂicts aired in this trial—over the status (...) of evolutionary theory, the arguments for intelligent design, and the nature of science—reveal an intellectually unhealthy situation. The political urge to defend science education against the threats of religious orthodoxy, understandable though it is, has resulted in a counterorthodoxy, supported by bad arguments, and a tendency to overstate the legitimate scientiﬁc claims of evolutionary theory. Skeptics about the theory are seen as so dangerous, and so disreputably motivated, that they must be denied any shred of.. (shrink)
From the apathetic reaction to atrocities committed in Vietnam by the United States and its allies, one may conclude that moral restrictions on the conduct of war command almost as little sympathy among the general public as they do among those charged with the formation of U.S. military policy. Even when restrictions on the conduct of warfare are defended, it is usually on legal grounds alone: their moral basis is often poorly understood. I wish to argue that certain restrictions are (...) neither arbitrary nor merely conventional, and that their validity does not depend simply on their usefulness. There is, in other words, a moral basis for the rules of war, even though the conventions now officially in force are far from giving it perfect expression. (shrink)
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Over the past twenty-five years, Thomas Nagel has played a major role in the philosophico-biological debate on subjectivity and consciousness. This extensive collection of published essays and reviews offers Nagel's opinionated views on the philosophy of mind, epistemology, and political philosophy, as well as on fellow philosophers like Freud, Wittgenstein, Rawls, Dennet, Chomsky, Searle, Nozick, Dworkin, and MacIntyre.
One of the most difficult and widely discussed questions in recent moral theory is that of the status of human rights—the rights of individuals not to be violated, sacrificed, or used in certain ways, even in the service of valuable ends, either by other individuals or by governments and intermediate institutions. The reason for claiming such things as rights—apart from the natural tendency for rhetoric to escalate—is that they have some claim to be given priority over other values, a claim (...) to be taken care of first, for everyone, even if this cannot be justified by balancing their utility against other components of the general good or general welfare. There is probably no harm in attaching the term “right” to the minima that ought thus to be guaranteed to everyone—provided it does not produce confusion with negative rights, which are likewise equally to be accorded to everyone, and provided it does not beg any questions about the relative priorities between positive and negative rights, should they conflict. (shrink)
Should the hard questions of philosophy matter to ordinary people? In this down-to-earth, nonhistorical guide, Thomas Nagel, the distinguished author of Mortal Questions and The View From Nowhere, brings philosophical problems to life, revealing in vivid, accessible prose why they have continued to fascinate and baffle thinkers across the centuries. Arguing that the best way to learn about philosophy is to tackle its problems head-on, Nagel turns to some of the most important questions we can ask about ourselves. Do we (...) really have free will? Why should we be moral? What is the relation between our minds and our brains? Is there life after death? How should we feel about death? In a universe so vast, billions of light years across, can anything we do with our lives really matter? And does it matter if it doesn't matter? These are perennial questions we ask about the human condition, and Nagel probes them, and others like them, thoughtfully, clearly, and with humor. He states his own opinions freely but with refreshing modesty, always leaving it open to readers to entertain other solutions, encouraging them to think for themselves. Nagel is eminently qualified to introduce the uninitiated to the world of philosophical inquiry. Singled out by the Chicago Literary Review as "one of the sharpest analytic philosophers in America today," he has been praised in the New York Times Book Review for writing "sensitively and elegantly" and in the Times Literary Supplement for his ability, rare among philosophers, to combine "profundity with clarity and simplicity of expression." Never rarefied, What Does It All Mean? opens our eyes to a side of the world we rarely consider, demonstrating that philosophy is no empty study but an indispensable key to understanding our lives. It challenges us to think hard and clearly, to ask questions, to try out ideas and raise possible objections to them--in short, to become philosophers ourselves. (shrink)