Thomas Nagel  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Thomas Nagel (born July 4, 1937) 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.

Nagel is well known for his critique of reductionist accounts of the mind, particularly 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. Continuing his critique of reductionism, he is the author of Mind and Cosmos (2012), in which he argues against a reductionist view, and specifically the neo-Darwinian view, of the emergence of consciousness.


Philosophy of mind

What is it like to be a something

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, and has been reprinted several times, including in 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." His critics have objected strongly to what they see as a misguided attempt to argue from a 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.

Natural selection and consciousness

Template:See In his Mind and Cosmos (2012), Nagel argues against a materialist view of the emergence of life and consciousness, writing that the standard neo-Darwinian view flies in the face of common sense. He argues that the principles that account for the emergence of life may be teleological, rather than materialist or mechanistic.

Nagel is an atheist and not a proponent of intelligent design (ID). He writes in Mind and Cosmos that he lacks the sensus divinitatis that would allow him see the world in terms of divine purpose. He disagrees with both ID defenders and their opponents, who argue that the only naturalistic alternative to ID is the current reductionist neo-Darwinian model. He has argued that ID should not be rejected as non-scientific. He wrote in 2008 that "ID is very different from creation science," and that the debate about ID "is clearly a scientific disagreement, not a disagreement between science and something else."

In 2009 he recommended Signature in the Cell by the philosopher and ID proponent Stephen C. Meyer in The Times Literary Supplement as one of his "Best Books of the Year." Nagel does not accept Meyer's conclusions but he endorsed Meyer's approach, and argued in Mind and Cosmos that Meyer and other ID proponents, David Berlinski and Michael Behe, "do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met." Nagel's views on ID have been criticized by some from the scientific community. Stephen Fletcher, a chemist at Loughborough University, wrote in The Times Literary Supplement in 2009 that Nagel "should not promote the [Meyer] book to the rest of us using statements that are factually incorrect."


  • 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 (repr. in Mortal Questions).
  • 1969, "The Boundaries of Inner Space", Journal of Philosophy, pp. 452-8.
  • 1970, "Death", Nous, pp. 73-80 (repr. in Mortal Questions).
  • 1970, "Armstrong on the Mind", Philosophical Review, pp. 394-403 (a discussion review of A Materialist Theory of the Mind by D. M. Armstrong).
  • 1971, "Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness", Synthese, pp. 396-413 (repr. in Mortal Questions).
  • 1971, "The Absurd", Journal of Philosophy, pp. 716-27 (repr. in Mortal Questions).
  • 1972, "War and Massacre", Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 1, pp. 123-44 (repr. in Mortal Questions).
  • 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 (repr. in Mortal Questions). Online text
  • 1976, "Moral Luck", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary vol. 50, pp. 137-55 (repr. in Mortal Questions).
  • 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

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