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On and off the page

Thomas Nagel, 25 July 1991

Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration 
by Edna Margalit and Avishai Margalit.
Hogarth, 224 pp., £25, June 1991, 0 7012 0925 9
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... There are writers and artists who dislike themselves – who attempt through their work to unearth, refine and then extrude something better than they are, something detached, pure and free-standing. I was put in mind of this recently while reading Ray Monk’s painful biography of Wittgenstein, who succeeded in creating a body of philosophical work so much finer and nobler than himself that for someone who has developed a strong attachment to the work, the contrast is very disturbing ...

Into the Mental Basement

Thomas Nagel: Science and Religion, 19 August 2010

Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion 
by Barbara Herrnstein Smith.
Yale, 201 pp., £25, March 2010, 978 0 300 14034 7
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... Those who offer scientific explanations of the pervasiveness of religion in human life are usually not religious themselves, and their explanations are not intended to be compatible with the self-understanding of those who are. Even if scientific explanations predict the persistence of religion, they tend to undermine any claim to the truth of religious beliefs ...

The I in Me

Thomas Nagel: I and Me, 5 November 2009

Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics 
by Galen Strawson.
Oxford, 448 pp., £32.50, 0 19 825006 1
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... What are you, really? To the rest of the world you appear as a particular human being, a publicly observable organism with a complex biological and social history and a name. But to yourself, more intimately, you appear as ‘I’, the mental subject of your experiences, thoughts, feelings, memories and emotions. This inner self is only indirectly observable by others, though they ordinarily have no doubt about its existence, as you have no doubt about their inner lives ...

Why so cross?

Thomas Nagel: Natural selection, 1 April 1999

Unweaving the Rainbow 
by Richard Dawkins.
Penguin, 350 pp., £20, October 1998, 9780713992144
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The Pattern of Evolution 
by Niles Eldredge.
Freeman, 225 pp., £17.95, February 1999, 0 7167 3046 4
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... Contemporary biologists who write for the general public usually have more to impart than scientific information. They have lessons to teach us about how to think of ourselves and our relation to the universe. This is not surprising, since biology is pervaded by Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the significance of that theory for our self-understanding remains largely unassimilated ...

Rock Bottom

Thomas Nagel: Legislation, 14 October 1999

The Dignity of Legislation 
by Jeremy Waldron.
Cambridge, 210 pp., £35, July 1999, 0 521 65092 5
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... This short, assertive and engaging book has a chip on its shoulder, hence the title. In the academic culture of legal theory that Waldron partly inhabits, legislatures come in for a lot of distrust or even contempt, by comparison with courts. Courts are widely thought to arrive at their results by reasoning, whereas legislatures are thought to operate by the crude clash of partisan interests ...

The Excessive Demands of Impartiality

Thomas Nagel, 1 July 1982

Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method and Point 
by R.M. Hare.
Oxford, 250 pp., £11, December 1982, 0 19 824659 5
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... According to Professor Hare, most contemporary moral philosophers are benighted. They cannot get through their thick skulls the clear principles of moral reasoning which he has set out and developed in two previous book-length studies of ethical theory, The Language of Morals and Freedom and Reason, and which he spells out again and develops further in this one ...

Information Cocoons

Thomas Nagel: The internet, 5 July 2001 
by Cass Sunstein.
Princeton, 224 pp., £12.95, April 2001, 0 691 07025 3
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... One of the most remarkable effects of the Internet is that it permits unlimited specialisation of contacts and information. If you’re looking for an out-of-print book on an esoteric subject, you can find out instantly where there are copies of it in second-hand bookstores from Iceland to Australia, compare prices and conditions, and order it in a few seconds ...

In whose interest?

Thomas Nagel: Euthanasia, 6 October 2011

Assisted Death: A Study in Ethics and Law 
by L.W. Sumner.
Oxford, 236 pp., £35, July 2011, 978 0 19 960798 3
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... It would be best not to have to die at all, but failing that, many of us would like to have some control over the time and manner of our deaths, should we find ourselves in a condition so hopeless that there is no point in going on. At this date, in most of the world, including Britain and most of North America, the legally permissible forms of such control do not include voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide ...

The View from Here and Now

Thomas Nagel: A Tribute to Bernard Williams, 11 May 2006

The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy 
by Bernard Williams, edited by Myles Burnyeat.
Princeton, 393 pp., £26.95, March 2006, 0 691 12477 9
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In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument 
by Bernard Williams, edited by Geoffrey Hawthorn.
Princeton, 174 pp., £18.95, October 2005, 0 691 12430 2
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Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline 
edited by Bernard Williams and A.W. Moore.
Princeton, 227 pp., £22.95, January 2006, 0 691 12426 4
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... a series of historical stages, in morality as in science. It is not because he was stupid that Thomas Aquinas was not a liberal, any more than it was stupidity that prevented Newton from discovering the theory of relativity – not to make more of the analogy than that. Precisely because he is convinced that it is not a judgment from an absolute point of ...

By Any Means or None

Thomas Nagel: Does Terrorism Work?, 8 September 2016

Does Terrorism Work? A History 
by Richard English.
Oxford, 367 pp., £25, July 2016, 978 0 19 960785 3
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... When​ I am hit with news of yet another terrorist attack, I often wonder what these people hope to achieve. In a depressingly timely book, Richard English tries to answer that question for a number of important cases, in order to address the broader question of his title. First, he has to specify what would count as ‘working’, and then he has to look at the historical facts to determine what the groups he studies have actually achieved ...

What is it about lemons?

Thomas Nagel: Barry Stroud, 20 September 2001

The Quest for Reality: Subjectivism and the Metaphysics of Colour 
by Barry Stroud.
Oxford, 228 pp., £19.99, January 2000, 0 19 513388 9
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... This strange and absorbing book sets out to undermine the central metaphysical ambition which has dominated philosophy since the 17th century – that of reaching what Bernard Williams calls an ‘absolute conception of reality’. The aim is to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the world, consistent with modern science, which distinguishes between what exists objectively, independent of our minds, and what is merely subjective – due to the effects of the world on our minds and our responses to it ...

An Invitation to Hand-Wringing

Thomas Nagel: The Limits of Regret, 3 April 2014

The View from Here: On Affirmation, Attachment and the Limits of Regret 
by R. Jay Wallace.
Oxford, 279 pp., $45, April 2013, 978 0 19 994135 3
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... This interesting, careful and occasionally outrageous book explores the complex interaction and competition between the attitudes of affirmation and regret that are almost inevitable as we look back on our lives and celebrate or deplore the conditions and choices that have made us what we are – that underlie our successes and failures, and our personal attachments ...

Getting on with each other

Thomas Nagel, 22 September 1994

Ethics in the Public Domain: Essays in the Morality of Law and Politics 
by Joseph Raz.
Oxford, 374 pp., £40, June 1994, 0 19 825837 2
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... Liberalism of one kind or another is the dominant political tradition of Western culture; that is why it is under such constant attack. But while the conflicts between liberalism and various authoritarian, repressive, radical, romantic or theocratic alternatives produce a good deal of excitement on a world scale, a quieter and intellectually more demanding argument has gone on within the tradition concerning the best way to interpret liberalism, both theoretically and in application to concrete social and political problems ...

Really Good at Killing

Thomas Nagel: The Ethics of Drones, 3 March 2016

Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President and the Rise of the Drone 
by Scott Shane.
Bantam, 416 pp., £20, September 2015, 978 0 8041 4029 4
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... Pacifists​ are rare. Most people believe that lethal violence may be used in self-defence, or the defence of others, against potentially lethal threats. Military action is justified by a collective institutional version of this basic human right, which sets an outer limit on the right to life. Lethal aggressors who cannot be stopped by lesser means are liable to lethal attack, and this does not violate their right to life so long as they remain a threat ...

The Central Questions

Thomas Nagel: H.L.A. Hart, 3 February 2005

A Life of H.L.A. Hart: The Nightmare and the Noble Dream 
by Nicola Lacey.
Oxford, 422 pp., £25, September 2004, 0 19 927497 5
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... When I finished this book I was left wondering why H.L.A. Hart hadn’t destroyed his diaries before he died. Perhaps modesty made him think that no one would want to write about him – he was not, in spite of his great distinction, world-famous like his friend Isaiah Berlin. But he certainly could have predicted that his widow Jenifer, whose indiscretion was well established, would do nothing to protect his privacy or her own ...

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