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Western Philosophy
20th-century philosophy
Name: Thomas Nagel
Birth: 1937
School/tradition: Analytic philosophy
Main interests
philosophy of mind, political philosophy, ethics
Notable ideas
consciousness and subjective experience cannot be reduced to brain activity
Influences Influenced

Thomas Nagel (born 1937) is an American philosopher, currently University Professor and Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. His main areas of philosophical interest are philosophy of mind, political philosophy, ethics. He is widely known for his critique of reductionist accounts of the mind in his essay "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?" (1974). However, he is also well known for his contributions to ethical, political, and social issues. For example, in The Possibility of Altruism (1970), Nagel defends altruism—the view that people can commit acts that benefit another without the expectation of benefit for oneself—against rival views, such as egoism.


Thomas Nagel was born July 4, 1937 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia); his family was Jewish. He received a Bachelor degree from Cornell University in 1958, a BPhil from Oxford University in 1960, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1963 under the supervision of John Rawls. Before settling in New York, Nagel taught briefly at the University of California, Berkeley (from 1963 to 1966) and at Princeton University (from 1966 to 1980). In 2006, he was made a member of the American Philosophical Society.[1]

Throughout his career, Nagel has received several awards and recognitions. To name a few, he is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Fellow of the British Academy, and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.[2]


Much of Nagel's work concerns the tension between objective and subjective perspectives: on reasons for action, on agency, on experience, and on reality as a whole. He is known within the field of philosophy of mind as an advocate of the idea that consciousness and subjective experience cannot be reduced to brain activity. Along with Bernard Williams, he has also contributed much to the early development of the problem of moral luck, detailing its various aspects, and analyzing its impact on ethics and moral evaluation. For many years, Nagel has conducted a seminar noted for an array of guest speakers with his colleague Ronald Dworkin.

Philosophy of mind

One of Nagel's most famous articles is "What is it Like to Be a Bat?". 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. However, the essay has been reprinted in several books that are concerned with consciousness and the mind, such as The Mind's I (edited by Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter), Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology (edited by Ned Block), and Nagel's Mortal Questions (1979).

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 to be that organism—something it is like for the organism."[3] Nagel also suggests that the subjective aspect of the mind may not ever be sufficiently accounted for by the objective methods of reductionistic science. He claims that "[i]f we acknowledge that a physical theory of mind must account for the subjective character of experience, we must admit that no presently available conception gives us a clue how this could be done."[4] Furthermore, he states that "it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective."[5]

While Nagel is sometimes categorized as a dualist for these sorts of remarks, he is more precisely categorized as an anti-reductionist. Nagel (1998) writes:

...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.[6]

Selected publications


  • 1970, The Possibility of Altruism, Oxford University Press. (Reprinted in 1978, Princeton University Press.)
  • 1979, Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press.
  • 1986, The View from Nowhere, Oxford University Press.
  • 1987, What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, Oxford University Press.
  • 1991, Equality and Partiality, Oxford University Press.
  • 1995, Other Minds: Critical Essays, 1969-1994, Oxford University Press.
  • 1997, The Last Word, Oxford University Press.
  • 2002, The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice, (with Liam Murphy) Oxford University Press.
  • 2002, Concealment and Exposure and Other Essays, Oxford University Press.


  • 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.
  • 1969, "The Boundaries of Inner Space", Journal of Philosophy, pp. 452-8.
  • 1970, "Death", Nous, pp. 73-80.
  • 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.
  • 1971, "The Absurd", Journal of Philosophy, pp. 716-27.
  • 1972, "War and Massacre", Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 1, pp. 123-44.
  • 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. Online text
  • 1976, "Moral Luck", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary vol. 50, pp. 137-55.
  • 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.


  1. Biographical information from Nagel's CV at NYU (PDF).
  2. From Nagel's faculty page at New York University.
  3. Nagel, "What is it Like to Be a Bat?" (1974), p. 436.
  4. Ibid., p. 445.
  5. Ibid., p. 450.
  6. Nagel, "Conceiving the Impossible and the Mind-Body Problem" (1998), p. 337.

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