Steven H Propp
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Thomas Nagel (born 1937) is an American philosopher, currently University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he has taught since 1980. He has written many other books, such as [[...]], [[...]], Equality and Partiality, [[...]], [[...]], etc.
[NOTE: page numbers below refer to a 215-page paperback edition.]
He wrote in the Preface to this 1979 book, “My own philosophical sympathies and antipathies are easily stated. I believe one should trust problems over solutions, intuition over arguments, and pluralistic discord over systematic harmony. Simplicity and elegance are never reasons to think that a philosophical theory is true: on the contrary, they are usually grounds for thinking it false… It is always reasonable in philosophy to have great respect for the intuitive sense of an unsolved problem, because in philosophy our methods are always themselves in question, and this is one way of being prepared to abandon them at any point. What ties these views about philosophical practice together is the assumption that to create understanding, philosophy must CONVINCE. That means it must produce or destroy belief, rather than merely provide us with a consistent set of things to say. And belief, unlike utterance, should not be under the control of the will, however motivated. It should be involuntary.” (Pg. x-xi)
He continues, “These essays… are held together by an interest in the point of view of individual human life and the problem of its relation to more impersonal conceptions of reality… The same concern with the place of subjectivity in an objective world motivates the essays on philosophy of mind… and others. It has been at the center of my interests since I began to think about philosophy, determining the problems I work on and the kind of understanding I want to reach. Some of these essays were written while the United States was engaged in a criminal war, criminally conducted…” (Pg. xii)
He suggests, “Given the limitations on human action, it is naïve to suppose that there is a solution to every moral problem to which the world can face us. We have always known that the world is a bad place. It appears that it may be an evil place as well.” (Pg. 74)
He begins an essay with the statement, “The great modern crimes are public crimes… The judgments I am presupposing are controversial: not everyone agrees that American policy during the Vietnam War was criminal. But even those who do think so may find it hard to attach the crimes to the criminals, in virtue of the official role in which they were committed. Few old anti-war demonstrators would feel more than mildly uncomfortable about meeting one of these distinguished figures, unless it was just because we were unaccustomed to personal contact with anyone as powerful as the president of the World Bank.” (Pg. 76)
He asserts, “If someone with an income of $2000 a year trains a gun on someone with an income of $100,000 a year and makes him hand over his wallet, that is robbery. If the federal government withholds a portion of the second person’s salary … and gives some of it to the first person in the form of welfare payments, food stamps, or free health care, that is taxation. In the first case it is (in my opinion) an impermissible use of coercive means to achieve a worthwhile end. In the second case, the means are legitimate, because they are impersonally imposed by an institution designed to promote certain results. Such general methods of distribution are preferable to theft as a form of private initiative and also to individual charity.” (Pg. 88)
He argues, “For a defender of rights, the respects in which each person is inviolable present a direct and independent limit to what any other person may do to him. There is no single combination of viewpoints which yields a common goal for everyone, but each of us must limit our actions to a range that is not unacceptable to anyone else in certain respects. Typically, the range of what may be done because it violates no rights is rather large.” (Pg. 115)
He observes, “To look for a single general theory of how to decide the right thing to do is like looking for a single theory of how to decide what to believe. Such progress as we have made in the systematic justification and criticism of beliefs has not come mostly from general principles of reasoning but from the understanding of particular areas, marked out by the different sciences, by history, by mathematics. These vary in exactness, and large areas of belief are left out of the scope of any theory. These must be governed by common sense and ordinary, prescientific reasoning.” (Pg. 135)
In his famous essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”, he points out: “Without consciousness the mind-body problem would be much less interesting. With consciousness it seems hopeless. The most important and characteristic feature of conscious mental phenomena is very poorly understood. Most reductionist theories do not even try to explain it. And careful examination will show that no currently available concept of reduction is applicable to it. Perhaps a new theoretical form can be devised for the purpose, but such a solution, if it exists, lies in the distant intellectual future.” (Pg. 166)
This book contains some of Nagel’s most interesting essays, and will be very helpful for anyone studying his philosophy.