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Thomas Nagel

ethicist , Metaphysician

Thomas Nagel, Serbian philosopher, educator. Guggenheim fellow, 1966, National Science Foundation fellow, 1967-1969, National Endowment of the Humanities fellow, 1978, 84-85, visiting fellow All Souls College, Oxford, England, 1990; recepient Mellon Distinguished Achievement award, Andrew Mellon Foundation, 2006, Rolf Shock prize, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 2008, prize Balzan Foundation, 2008.


Nagel, Thomas was born on July 4, 1937 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Came to United States, 1939, naturalized, 1944. Son of Walter and Carolyn (Baer) Nagel.


Bachelor, Cornell University, 1958. B.Phil., Oxford University, England, 1960. Doctor of Letters (honorary), Oxford University, England, 2008.

Doctor of Philosophy, Harvard, 1963. Doctor in Law (honorary), 2010. Degree (honorary), University Bucharest, 2010.


Assistant professor philosophy University California, Berkeley, 1963-1966. Assistant professor Princeton University, 1966-1969, associate, 1969-1972, professor, 1972-1980, New York University, since 1980, professor philosophy and law, since 1986, Fiorello LaGuardia professor law, 2001—2003, University professor, since 2002. Visiting professor Rockefeller University, 1973, University Mexico, 1977, University Witwatersrand, 1982, University of California at Los Angeles, 1986, University California, Berkeley, 2004.



Nagel’s work spans and connects two main areas, ethics and philosophy of mind. The Possibility of Altruism (1970) has ‘possibility’ in its title because not everyone is altruistic, but could as well be called ‘The Rationality of Altruism’. Starting from the claim that reasons for actions are not limited to present desires, except in the trivial sense that any principle of action can be regarded as a desire qua leading to action, he argues that prudence, the concern for oneself, as a temporal continuant, at other times, implies that practical judgements must be ‘assimilable to the standpoint of temporal neutrality ‘.

To accept such a judgement is to accept a justification for what to do, not just for a belief about what one should do. This is applied to defend rationally prudence over times and then, controversially, altruism over persons.

The View from Nowhere (1986) explores further the nature of the self, favouring a dual aspect view while rejecting all forms of reductionism, including physicalism—despite his earlier reluctant acceptance of physicalism (1965), but the change may be largely verbal. The self must be what underlies experience and may well be the brain, but it is the

'subjective mental properties’ that must not be reducible.

The distinctive core of the work then attempts to reconcile two fundamentally different ways, subjective and objective, in which we view the world in answer to questions like ‘what makes just one of billions of conscious selves me?’, ‘Why am I the particular person I am?’, ‘How, while being a conscious centre, can I conceive of the world as centreless, though containing me?’ His answer is that each of us is not just a centre of experiences but is also an ‘objective self’ which has to think of itself ‘as the world soul in humble disguise’. This objective self is not a separate entity but an aspect of oneself that is the subject of an ‘impersonal conception of the world.. attached to and developed from the perspective of’ the person one is. These ideas are then applied in balanced discussions, from a generally realist standpoint, of values and duties and their mutual relations, among other topics, and in Equality and Partiality (1991) of political issues.

Discussions have focused especially on the relevance of chapter 9 of The View from Nowhere for the double effect doctrine, and on altruism, the 1974 article, and physicalism.


Member of American Philosophical Society, British Academy, American Academy Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Association.


  • Philosophers & Thinkers

    Rawls. Wittgenstein. Chomsky, Noz'ck, Harman, Wiggins. Kripke, T. Clarke. Parfit, Scanlon and R. Dworkin.

  • Other Interests

    Metaphysics; ethics; philosopher of mind.


Married Doris Blum, June 18, 1958 (divorced 1973). Married Anne Hollander, June 26, 1979.

Walter Nagel

Carolyn (Baer) Nagel

Doris Blum

Anne Hollander