Thomas Nagel

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Thomas Nagel (born 4 July 1937) is Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University.


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Everyone is entitled to commit murder in the imagination once in a while, not to mention lesser infractions.
    • "Concealment and Exposure".
  • 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" in Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 23.
  • Philosophy is different from science and from mathematics. Unlike science it doesn't rely on experiments or observation, but only on thought. And unlike mathematics it has no formal methods of proof. It is done just by asking questions, arguing, trying out ideas and thinking of possible arguments against them, and wondering how our concepts really work.
    • Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy (1987), 1. Introduction
  • The main concern of philosophy is to question and understand very common ideas that all of us use every day without thinking about them. A historian may ask what happened at some time in the past, but a philosopher will ask, "What is time?" A mathematician may investigate the relations among numbers, but a philosopher will ask, "What is a number?" A physicist will ask what atoms are made of or what explains gravity, but a philosopher will ask how we can know there is anything outside of our own minds. A psychologist may investigate how children learn a language, but a philosopher will ask, "What makes a word mean anything?" Anyone can ask whether it's wrong to sneak into a movie without paying, but a philosopher will ask, "What makes an action right or wrong?"
    • Thomas Nagel, What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy (1987), 1. Introduction
  • 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.

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