Thomas Nagel

American philosopher

Thomas Nagel (born 4 July 1937) is an American philosopher. He is University Professor of Philosophy and Law, Emeritus, at New York University, where he taught from 1980 to 2016. His main areas of philosophical interest are legal philosophy, political philosophy, and ethics.

Nagel in 2008


  • All of us, I believe, are fortunate to have been born.
    • Death (essay), Thomas Nagel, CUP, 1970 and 1979 versions.
  • If sub specie aeternitatis [from eternity's point of view] there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.
    • "The Absurd" 1971, The Journal of Philosophy, also in Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 23.
  • That is what is meant, I think by the allegation that it is good simply to be alive, even if one is undergoing terrible experiences. The situation is roughly this: There are elements which, if added to one's experience, make life better; there are other elements which if added to one's experience, make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive. Therefore life is worth living even when the bad elements of experience are plentiful, and the good ones too meager to outweigh the bad ones on their own. The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather than by any of its consequences.
    • Death (essay), Thomas Nagel, CUP, this paragraph not present in the 1970 version, but present in the 1979 version.
  • The problem is one of opposition between subjective and objective points of view. There is a tendency to seek an objective account of everything before admitting its reality. But often what appears to a more subjective point of view cannot be accounted for in this way. So either the objective conception of the world is incomplete, or the subjective involves illusions that should be rejected.
    • "Subjective and Objective," in Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 196.
  • Eventually, I believe, current attempts to understand the mind by analogy with man-made computers that can perform superbly some of the same external tasks as conscious beings will be recognized as a gigantic waste of time.
    • The View from Nowhere. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 16. ISBN: 0195056442.
  • In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
    • The Last Word, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 130-131.
  • I believe that there is a necessary connection in both directions between the physical and the mental, but that it cannot be discovered a priori. Opinion is strongly divided on the credibility of some kind of functionalist reductionism, and I won't go through my reasons for being on the antireductionist side of that debate. Despite significant attempts by a number of philosophers to describe the functional manifestations of conscious mental states, I continue to believe that no purely functionalist characterization of a system entails — simply in virtue of our mental concepts — that the system is conscious.
    • "Conceiving the Impossible and the Mind-Body Problem," Royal Institute of Philosophy annual lecture, given in London on February 18, 1998, published in Philosophy vol. 73 no. 285, July 1998, pp 337-352, Cambridge University Press, p. 337.
  • Everyone is entitled to commit murder in the imagination once in a while, not to mention lesser infractions.
    • "Concealment and Exposure" (1998).

The View From Nowhere (1986)

  • We assume that our own advances in objectivity are steps along a path that extends beyond them and beyond all our capacities. But even allowing unlimited time, or an unlimited number of generations, to take as many successive steps as we like, the process can never be completed. ... What is wanted is some way of making the most objective standpoint the basis of action.
    • pp. 128-129.
  • Ethics increases the range of what it is about ourselves that we can will—extending it from our actions to the motives and character traits and dispositions from which they arise. We want to be able to will the sources of our actions down to the very bottom.
    • p. 135.

What Does It All Mean? (1987)


Quotes about Nagel

  • The kind of worry I am talking about here—the worry about what’s left of the individual—moved Thomas Nagel, in The View from Nowhere, to reverse his own earlier defense of the publicity of reason, and to argue that some kinds of reasons are private or agent-relative after all. An agent has a special relationship to his own projects and own loved ones, and Nagel argued that, because of that relationship, the agent’s desires to engage in those projects and to promote the happiness of his loved ones are sources of reasons for him but not necessarily for anybody else.
    • Christine M. Korsgaard, Self-Constitution (2009), Chap. 10 : How to be a Person
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