Thomas Nagel (philosopher)

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Thomas Nagel at New York University (2008)

Thomas Nagel (born July 4, 1937 in Belgrade ) is an American philosopher . He teaches at the New York University School of Law and works on a wide range of topics. He currently teaches at the University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University, among others . His students include Susan Wolf , Samuel Scheffler and Shelly Kagan .

Background and education

Nagel was born in Belgrade in 1937 to a Jewish refugee family from Germany . He studied after his emigration due to the threat posed by the Nazis in the United States at Cornell University (BA 1958), and later in the UK at the University of Oxford and turn the Harvard University (Ph.D. 1963).

Philosophy of mind

In the philosophy of mind , Nagel is with his 1974 essay "What is it like to be a bat?" (German: What is it like to be a bat?) became known. There he opposes reductionist efforts in relation to the explanation of consciousness . No matter how much we know about a being's brain, e.g. B. about that of a bat (hence the title), we can never open up its experience perspective. An example: If we know exactly what happens in a bat's brain when it perceives objects by means of its echo sounder-like perception apparatus, i.e. if we know the neural correlate of such a perception experience , we still do not know what it is like or what it is like the bat feels to have such sonar-like sensations - “what is it like” . And we can never know either. Here the natural sciences are evidently fundamentally subject to knowledge . Nagel's essay sparked a broad debate (the quality debate ) in analytical philosophy , the protagonists of which today are philosophers such as David Chalmers , Paul Churchland , Daniel Dennett , Frank Jackson , Joseph Levine, and Michael Tye . The neurophysiologist Emil Du Bois-Reymond made a similar criticism of the natural science's claim to knowledge in the 19th century .


Nagel has also written texts on ethics and political philosophy . His dissertation The Possibility of Altruism (1970) was supervised by John Rawls and deals mainly with the universalisability of moral motives from a Kantian perspective.

In his later work, particularly in The View from Nowhere (1986), Nagel applies the distinction between subjective and objective perspective developed in his Philosophy of Spirit to practical philosophy. He differentiates between actor-relative and actor-neutral reasons, both of which would be relevant for moral action. On this basis, he sets himself apart from ethical consequentialism (especially the utilitarianism that is dominant in the USA ), which compares different states of the world from the perspective of a neutral observer, and from a purely deontological ethics , the moral obligations of performing or not performing certain Regards actions as actor-relative. Nagel's criticism of consequentialism was later developed further by his student Samuel Scheffler .

To characterize Nagel's position, Wolfgang Kersting speaks of a tense dualism that cannot be evaded and in which human-rational existence takes place. This is capable and encouraged to self-transcend, but can never abandon the subjective perspective.

Honors, prizes and memberships



  • The limits of objectivity. Philosophical Lectures . In: Michael Gebauer (Ed.): Reclams Universal Library . tape 8721 . Reclam, Stuttgart 1991, ISBN 3-15-008721-X (Original title: The Limits of Objectivity . 1979. Translated by Michael Gebauer).
  • The view from nowhere . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1992, ISBN 3-518-58116-3 (Original title: The View from Nowhere . 1986. Translated by Michael Gebauer).
  • Michael Gebauer (Ed.): A treatise on equality and partiality and other writings on political philosophy . Schöningh, Paderborn / Munich / Vienna / Zurich 1994, ISBN 3-506-76097-1 (original title: Equality and Partiality . 1991.).
  • The last word . In: Reclam's Universal Library . tape 18021 . Reclam, Stuttgart 1999, ISBN 3-15-018021-X (Original title: The Last Word . 1997.).
  • Michael Gebauer, Hans-Peter Schütt (Ed.): The possibility of altruism . 2nd Edition. Philo, Berlin / Vienna 2005, ISBN 3-86572-066-8 (Original title: The Possibility of Altruism . 1970. Translated by Michael Gebauer, Hans-Peter Schütt).
  • Final questions . In: Michael Gebauer (Hrsg.): EVA-Taschenbuch . New extended German edition. tape 258 . Europäische Verlagsanstalt, Hamburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-434-46171-5 (Original title: Mortal Questions . 1979. Translated by Karl-Ernst Prankel).
  • What does it all mean? A very brief introduction to philosophy . In: Reclam's Universal Library . tape 18630 . Reclam, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 978-3-15-018630-5 (Original title: What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy . 1987. Translated by Michael Gebauer).
  • Spirit and Cosmos: Why the materialistic neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly wrong . Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-518-58601-3 (Original title: Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False . 2012. Translated by Karin Wördemann).


  • Other minds. Critical Essays 1969-1994 . Oxford University Press, New York 1999, ISBN 0-19-513246-7 .
  • with Liam Murphy : The Myth of Ownership. Taxes and Justice . Oxford University Press, New York 2004, ISBN 0-19-517656-1 .
  • Concealment and Exposure. And other essays . Oxford University Press, New York 2004, ISBN 0-19-517977-3 .
  • Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament. Essays 2002-2008 . Oxford University Press, New York 2010, ISBN 978-0-19-539411-5 .
  • Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False . Oxford University Press, New York 2012, ISBN 978-0-19-991975-8 .
  • Physicalism . In: The Philosophical Review . tape 74 , 1965, pp. 339-356 .
    • Physicalism . In: Peter Bieri (Ed.): Analytical Philosophy of Mind . 2nd Edition. Athenaeum Hain Hanstein, Bodenheim 1993, ISBN 3-8257-3006-9 , chap. 1 , p. 56-72 .
  • What Is It Like to Be a Bat? In: The Philosophical Review. Volume 83, No. 4, 1974, pp. 435-450 ( PDF; 196 kB, JSTOR: 2183914 , doi: 10.2307 / 2183914 ).
    • What is it like to be a bat? In: Peter Bieri (Ed.) Analytical Philosophy of Mind. Königstein 1981. New editions 1993 (there chapter 12, pp. 261–275) and 2007.
    • Ulrich Diehl (ed. And transl.): What Is it Like to Be a Bat? What is it like to be a bat? English German. Reclam, Stuttgart 2016, ISBN 978-3-15-019324-2 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Wolfgang Kersting: Thomas Nagel. In: Julian Nida-Rümelin , Elif Özmen (Ed.): Philosophy of the Present in Individual Representations (= Kröner's pocket edition . Volume 423). 3rd, revised and updated edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-520-42303-0 , pp. 457, 460.
  2. ^ Fellows: Thomas Nagel. British Academy, accessed January 9, 2019 .
  3. Member History: Thomas Nagel. American Philosophical Society, accessed January 9, 2019 .