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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2171

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.

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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 capable of telling us about bat physiology, one fact about bats would inevitably escape the grasp of a scientific account: the fact of what it is like to be a bat. No amount of objective, third-person knowledge of bats can ever tell us what it is like to be a bat “from the inside.” This point could be made about any conscious creature, but a bat is an inspired choice because of its alien mode of perception. Nagel uses this example with dramatic effect to argue that there are facts about the world that are forever beyond the reach of science. These are facts about “what it is like” to be something, that is, facts about conscious experience. Critics such as Daniel C. Dennett, Paul M. Churchland, and Patricia Smith Churchland vehemently disagreed, arguing either that such “facts” are not genuine facts at all or that science can, in principle, discover them, and so a lengthy debate ensued in the literature on the philosophy of mind.

Nagel carried his work forward and presented it more systematically in a trio of very important books: The View from Nowhere, Equality and Partiality, and The Last Word. Running throughout these works are two main themes: First, Nagel believes that it is instructive to regard most of the central problems of philosophy as arising because of the conflict between the subjective and the objective points of view. Nagel explores such conflicts in ethics, the philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and epistemology in The View from Nowhere; he extends this discussion to political philosophy in Equality and Partiality. Second, Nagel is a realist, both about ethics and about metaphysics, and he is a rationalist, too: He thinks that it is reason’s task to understand the basic principles of this physical, mental, and moral reality. Nagel is no friend of the various forms of idealism that are found in certain philosophical circles, whether it be of a Kantian or a positivist bent, but he is especially critical of the relativism that pervades much of popular culture.

Over the years, Nagel also worked on an account of the meaning and value of life and death. These are, of course, issues of great practical and philosophical importance, yet many philosophers have tended to avoid talking about such large and difficult questions. Many centuries ago, Epicurus and his followers argued that death cannot be bad because it involves no painful experiences. They believed this because they were committed to hedonism: Something can be good for me only if it brings me pleasure and bad for me only if it brings me pain. In “Death” (1970; reprinted in Mortal Questions), Nagel argues that this view is mistaken, for something can be bad for me even if it involves no painful experiences. If I am deceived or betrayed, for example, I am harmed even if I do not find out about it. Thus, hedonism is a flawed theory of value. Life is valuable because it contains a variety of good things, including but not limited to pleasure; death is bad primarily because it forever robs me of those goods. From the inside, then, my life is seen to have meaning because of the goods present in it: my projects and relationships, my health, simple pleasures, and so on. However, when I examine my life from the outside, such goods suddenly seem altogether insignificant. The thought that my little life has true meaning now appears absurd. Nagel is convinced that there is no way to reconcile the view of my life from the inside and the view from the outside. The result is absurd: My life is both meaningful and meaningless.

In addition to writing his own essays and books, Nagel has proven to be an astute critic of the philosophical writing of others. A number of his critical essays are gathered together in Other Minds. This volume also contains an illuminating account of Nagel’s view of the contemporary philosophical culture and of his own relationship with that culture. Nagel’s versatility is also witnessed in that he is one of the only well-respected academic philosophers to try his hand at a genuinely introductory-level book. As Nagel himself announces in the introduction to What Does It All Mean?, he really is writing for people who know nothing at all about philosophy. The book is clear and concise, and it acquaints readers with most of the major topics in philosophy. It is an excellent introduction to philosophy in general and to Nagel’s thought in particular.


Nagel is one of the few philosophers working in the latter part of the twentieth century addressing nearly every area of philosophy, including ethics, political philosophy, the history of philosophy, the philosophy of mind, epistemology, and metaphysics. Furthermore, he does not shy away from asking about the really big and seemingly intractable issues, such as the nature of consciousness and the meaning of life. Nagel offers a systematic philosophical vision of the world, although he would be the first to point out that this picture is incomplete and somewhat rough and sketchy in any number of places. His most distinctive contributions are probably his defense and development of a deontological account of our ordinary moral thinking and his rejection of a physicalist and reductionist conception of the human mind. However, in all his writings, a reader cannot but be struck both by the clarity and carefulness of his thought and by his intellectual modesty and restraint.

Additional Reading

Churchland, Paul M. Matter and Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984. A short introductory text on the philosophy of mind. Unlike Nagel, Churchland believes that the physical sciences are capable of capturing every significant fact about the mind.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991. Another of Nagel’s major critics. Nagel presents a review of this book in Other Minds.

Hofstadter, Douglas C., and Daniel C. Dennett, eds. The Mind’s I. New York: Basic Books, 1981. A popular collection of materials on the philosophy of mind. Includes Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” and several pages of critical remarks by the editors.

Jackson, Frank. “What Mary Didn’t Know,” Journal of Philosophy 83 (May, 1986): 291-295. Jackson employs a strategy similar to Nagel’s in “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” His argument turns on the case of Mary, a scientist who knows everything about the mechanics of vision but who has been confined to a black and white world since birth. This example, like Nagel’s bat example, is supposed to show that physicalism cannot tell us the whole story about the world.

Kim, Jaegwon. Philosophy of Mind. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. A good intermediate introduction to the philosophy of mind, with a useful bibliography. Nagel’s views are discussed in chapter 7.

Korsgaard, Christine. “The Reasons We Can Share: An Attack on the Distinction Between Agent-Relative and Agent-Neutral Values.” In Creating the Kingdom of Ends. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. This piece was inspired by Nagel’s treatment of the two standpoints—subjective and objective—in ethics.

Korsgaard, Christine. The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Contains a very influential account of the normative status of ethical claims, including a discussion of Nagel’s moral realism. Also contains comments by Nagel, Bernard Williams, and others, together with Korsgaard’s replies.

McGinn, Colin. The Character of Mind. 2d ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. A general introduction to the philosophy of mind, uncluttered by references to the secondary literature.

Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1984. Parfit covers some of the same ground as Nagel in this very influential work, notably concerning personal identity and its relation to the nature and source of moral reasons.

Scheffler, Samuel, ed. Consequentialism and Its Critics. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988. A much-used anthology of articles about the ethical debate between consequentialism and deontology (which is a more specific instance of Nagel’s general tension between objectivity and subjectivity). Contains two pieces by Nagel and a helpful bibliography.

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