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Nagel, Thomas (1937–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD087-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2019
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

Thomas Nagel offers a distinctive realist framework across metaphysics, theory of mind, epistemology, and moral theory that shows how fundamental philosophical problems in these areas result from our capacity to take up increasingly objective viewpoints that detach us from our individual subjective viewpoints as well as from the viewpoints of our community, nation, and species. Nagel argues that our ability to recognize our subjectivity is also an objective impulse that allows us to recognize and take on more general viewpoints. But the fact that we occupy objective as well as subjective perspectives poses unsolvable problems for us because subjective and objective viewpoints reveal conflicting facts and values. Our ability to undertake increasingly detached perspectives from which objective facts become available indicates the core idea of metaphysical realism: that we are contained in a world that transcends our minds. Our ability to examine our values and reasons from a detached or impartial objective viewpoint implies that moral values are real in the sense that they transcend our personal motives and inclinations. Yet Nagel also holds that our capacity for objective thought is limited by the fact that we cannot detach ourselves completely from our own natures in our attempts either to know our world or to act morally. Subjective facts are equally a part of reality and our moral outlook is essentially the outlook of individual agents with personal and communal ties. This makes his metaphysical and normative moral realisms distinctive. His metaphysical realism opposes reductive philosophical and scientific theories that privilege objective facts, while his normative moral realism opposes ethical theories that prioritize impartial values without giving due weight to individual agents’ concern with the nature of their own actions. Nagel’s attention to the fact of our subjectivity in all its guises leads to very modest or even pessimistic views of our present understanding and its potential. He urges that without fundamental revision, the conceptual resources of physics and evolutionary science to date are not adequate to explain the development of conscious beings like us. His outlook in moral and political theory argues that the inequality that marks current socio-political institutions makes it unlikely that we will be able to transform those institutions and the motivations they shape.

Citing this article:
Sedivy, Sonia. Nagel, Thomas (1937–), 2019, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD087-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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