Nagel, Thomas (1937–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD087-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 24, 2024, from

2. Metaphysics

Nagel’s realism is complex in that it advances one intuitive idea at the core of the realist outlook, the idea of a world that contains and radically transcends us, at the cost of the intuitive and equally core idea of a single objective reality. For Nagel, the ‘pure idea of realism’ is the idea ‘that there is a world in which we are contained’ (1986: 70). He understands the idea of containment in terms of mind-independence. Thus, the world is independent of us not only causally, but also epistemically: the way things are might completely transcend our ability to know them, even to think about them. His development of this idea in terms of the distinction between subjective and objective standpoints entails that there is no single way that things are in themselves. If, as Nagel holds, reality includes all the myriad subjective viewpoints and the subjective facts they make available, then there is no one way that things are. It is not possible to give a single account from the completely detached or objective view, because such an account would fail to include subjective facts (that are only available from irreducibly distinctive subjective viewpoints).

Hence Nagel’s approach is not only anti-verificationist and anti-idealist in its commitment to the intuitive idea of a mind-independent world. His realism is also anti-reductionist, because of its denial of the idea of a single objective reality. As both reductionism and idealism are prevailing tendencies in contemporary philosophy, Nagel’s views on many issues challenge the prevailing positions. On the one hand, Nagel objects that many contemporary approaches, such as that of the later Wittgenstein, are essentially idealist in that they involve ‘a broadly epistemological test of reality’. On the other hand, as we will see, Nagel opposes a variety of reductionist accounts by arguing that the phenomena at issue are subjective facts or values that cannot be described or explained from a more objective standpoint in terms of objective facts or values. Nagel’s anti-reductionist arguments thus depend on whether he is right that the recalcitrant phenomena are essentially subjective (see Realism and antirealism).

Citing this article:
Sedivy, Sonia. Metaphysics. Nagel, Thomas (1937–), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD087-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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