Thomas Nagel Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Nagel explores the tension between the subjective and the objective standpoints in metaphysics, epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and ethics, arguing that, although these divergent points of view cannot always be comfortably fitted into a unified conception of the world, the solution is to find a way of living with the tension among them.

Early Life

Thomas Nagel began his academic career in 1954 as an undergraduate at Cornell University. His initial plan was to major in physics, but he soon discovered that his true interest lay in philosophy. At Cornell, he studied under Norman Malcolm, Rogers Albritton, and John Rawls, all of whom had a lasting effect on his conception of the practice of philosophy. In 1958, he went to Oxford University on a Fulbright scholarship. There he encountered philosophers such as J. L. Austin, Paul Grice, Peter Strawson, H. L. A. Hart, G. E. M. Anscombe, G. E. L. Owen, Philippa Foot, and James Thomson.

In 1960, Nagel began doing doctoral work at Harvard University. He met and worked with the renowned Harvard philosophers W. V. O. Quine and Noam Chomsky, but he wrote his dissertation—which was later to be published (after revisions) as The Possibility of Altruism—with John Rawls, who had moved from Cornell to Harvard. Rawls was then in the process of writing A Theory of Justice (1971); Nagel was fortunate enough to read and discuss various drafts of this seminal work. Thus, Rawls was probably the greatest formative influence on Nagel the philosopher. While at Harvard, Nagel also became friends with Gilbert Harman and Saul Kripke, the former a fellow graduate student and the latter an undergraduate.

Nagel taught at Berkeley for a few years (1963-1966) before moving on to a longer stretch at Princeton University and eventually, in 1980, to New York University, where he held a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Law.

Life’s Work

In the late 1960’s, together with Marshall Cohen and T. M. Scanlon, Nagel founded the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs, which has played a key role in applying work in moral philosophy to practical and political issues. Nagel himself contributed articles to the first two volumes in 1971 and 1972. Around the same time, he and Robert Nozick began the Society for Ethical and Legal Philosophy (SELF), a long-standing monthly discussion group that was also to include Ronald Dworkin, Judith Jarvis Thomson, Charles Fried, Michael Walzer, and other notable philosophers, many of whom later expressed their gratitude and their sense of indebtedness to SELF. Thus, Nagel was very much a part of the task of revitalizing substantive moral and political philosophy during the latter part of the twentieth century.

Given his involvement in such projects, it is no surprise that Nagel has always been philosophically engaged with current moral issues. In 1972, he published “War and Massacre,” which concerned the morality of various military strategies that were then being played out in Vietnam. Nagel rejects the “modern” view of war, in which the only relevant military moral principle is that the ends justify the means. He argues that in war, as in ordinary life, there are principles that govern how people may treat one another, and that these principles rule out the attack of civilians as well as the use of torture and certain horrific weapons. In 1973, he published “The Policy of Preference,” which addressed the practice of giving preference to minority groups in decisions about who is to be given employment and education. In 1978, a few years after President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation, he published “Ruthlessness in Public Life,” a piece about power and public morality. These three articles, along with several other of Nagel’s articles in ethics and the philosophy of mind, were gathered together in the important collection Mortal Questions. However, Nagel’s interest in current events did not wane; for example, in 1998, amid the questions surrounding President Bill Clinton’s sexual improprieties, he published “Concealment and Exposure,” which took up the question of the limits of privacy in public (and private) life.

Nagel’s first major publication was The Possibility of Altruism. His major argumentative strategy in this book is to show that the same basic considerations that justify a prudential concern for the interests of one’s future self can be employed in a parallel fashion to justify a moral concern for the interests of other people. The rationality of altruism is defended not by showing how altruistic concern really serves some other purpose—for example, that it is in one’s interest or satisfies one’s desires—but rather by showing how altruistic considerations can themselves be basic rational requirements. This argument marks the beginning of Nagel’s lifelong preoccupation with the relationship between the personal and the impersonal points of view.

Nagel’s best-known and most influential piece of work is probably the article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974; also reprinted in Mortal Questions). Nagel’s argument is that even if we were to learn everything that science is...

(The entire section is 2171 words.)