Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s New Collection of Essays on Religion, Politics, and Humanity is Excellent

Thomas Nagel’s Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002-2008  (Oxford 2010) is a breeze to read, and at just 168 pages can pretty much be read in a day. Nagel’s enormous strength (akin to Richard Rorty’s) is his calm explanatory clarity. He is very good at getting to the heart of a thing, then discussing it with insight and measure. For example, there is an essay on Nietzsche in this collection that, for its clean, seemingly effortless prose—and the light that he casts upon his subject—is worth the price of the whole book. Nagel also discusses Hobbes, Rawls, Michael Sandel, Catharine MacKinnon, and Sartre admirably.

In this particular collection of essays, however, it is on the subject of religion and atheism that Nagel shines most brightly. He is very good at talking about naturalism, Richard Dawkins, and Intelligent Design. By contrast with the entrenched factions dug in around these subjects, Nagel is sane and insightful. My impression is that Nagel, when push comes to shove regarding the question of telos  in the universe, inclines toward Camus’s notion of the absurd. In other words, the universe has no purpose. But he is just agnostic enough to keep other possibilities in play, and so not shut down discussion with eye-rolling contempt. This makes him noxious in the eyes of New Atheists. And well he should be, for his is a still open mind.

Here’s a passage from Nagel’s essay on Nietzsche that I think illustrates his power as a writer, framer, and clarifier of a subject:

Most people take life as they find it, and try to make something of the possibilities that are offered by their personal and social circumstances, avoiding catastrophe or failure, pursuing happiness, and working to realize some acceptable private or public ambitions. A small minority have the leisure to devote themselves systematically to understanding life and the world: scientists, historians, and thinkers. Others, seeing that there is much that is wrong with the world, spend their lives trying to change it for the better, and not just for themselves. Still others, creative artists, try to add to the world wonders that do not yet exists. Friedrich Nietzsche’s conception of his own task, the task of the true philosopher, was closest to the last of these—not merely to understand the world or to change it, but to create something new. And the field of his creation was himself.

Pretty good, huh?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s New Collection of Essays on Religion, Politics, and Humanity is Excellent

  1. TomH says:

    I wonder if Nagel ever gets excited about anything. I enjoy his essays, but sometimes I wonder about the man–why is he an atheist, for instance, as opposed to an agnostic?

  2. santitafarella says:

    Tom:

    I don’t read Nagel as not passionate—but the opposite. The very care and clarity that he brings to his writing suggests to me that he actually cares about what he is saying—that he fusses over his writing—and that he is looking closely at his subject—and respects reason so much that he qualifies his positions with nuance.

    Someone who is out there on a position, provoking people, but writing without care (or worse, thinking without care) suggests to me someone who is feigning passion, not actually passionate.

    By my lights, Nagel is a passionate man—and passionate in the best sort of way.

    —Santi

    • TomH says:

      Santi,

      Point taken. However, I still want to know his rationale for preferring atheism.

      I think that reason is far overrespected. I like Feyerabend’s (PKF) attack on rationalism. Curiosity and imagination are underrated.

      Who is your favorite philosopher? Mine is PKF, but I think that Polanyi is the most important philosopher of the 20th century for his contributions to POS; Kuhn “borrowed” from Polanyi. I think that Ian Hacking may also be very important for his contributions to POS–not that I know a whole lot about philosophy outside of POS and testimony. lol

      Self-serving advertisement warning: Fyi, I posted about testimony recently on biblicalphilosophy.blogspot.com .

      Benson,

      I know that Leiter writes a lot about Nietzsche on his Nietzsche blog, but what is his standing among Nietzschean scholars? Do they rely heavily on his papers?

  3. benson bear says:

    Surely if you want to know something about Nietzsche you should read Brian Leiter and not Thomas Nagel!

  4. santitafarella says:

    Benson:

    I get the irony behind your observation, but if you take your advice seriously as well, I don’t agree. Leiter, at least for me, is someone who trucks in mystification. One feels, when reading Leiter, that he is throwing irony bombs from a very well guarded fortress to which only he, and perhaps a small circle of like-minded advanced students of philosophy, get the joke. The right word is alienation—he makes me feel alienated. It’s hard to take pleasure—or learn something—from someone who gives off an impatient vibe.

    Maybe I’m just dumb, but I like the clarity of Thomas Nagel. From Nagel you feel that someone is bringing you in on the discussion. Nagel strives for clarity; Leiter for obfuscation and insider clubbiness.

    —Santi

    • benson bear says:

      I think it’s pretty clear that Leiter is often a bully and a jerk. However, his book on Nietzsche On Morality seems very good (but I have not read it yet) and I think it is very highly regarded in general. I don’t know about papers. The paper in The Future For Philosophy also looks very good, but I’ve only read some of it so far. I wouldn’t judge his academic work from what he does on his blog (especially since he has apparently now defended the Noble Lie in his attack on Nagel); the academic work is far less ideology driven, although I think there is still some pretty dismissive attitudes towards things he does not like. But I think it is mostly pretty clear and well-written.

      His attempt to portray Nietzsche as a scientific naturalist seems very procrustean but interesting. It is also interesting in a wider context in that the the two apparently very different enemies of a an adequately full blown realism (containing the mental, the moral, the mathematical, the modal, for example) are the naturalist and the postmodernist, and I have always suspected these groups might be closer than imagined. If you can read Nietzsche as either then that is provocative. Leiter’s paper seems very relevant in this regard. Freud, Marx, Nietzsche as naturalists can all be considered largely deflationary of the sort of realisms Nagel would like to defend, just as, if not more than, the postmodernists, and in a similar way. (However, realists such as Nagel I think still have resources to deal with this sort of thing).

      I can’t agree, unfortunately, that Nagel is always all that clear. Parts of The View From Nowhere are really very bad in terms of clarity. He waffles about “objective” and “subjective” in the introduction, making strong claims about them before giving them adequate characterization, so it isn’t clear what he is saying, nor what his argument is for the claims.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Tom,

    My favorite philosophers? For pleasure of reading (and people I return to again and again) I have to say that Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, and Gabriel Marcel are high up on my list. I also love Hazel Barnes (but nobody has heard of her). She used to teach at the University of Colorado, and was the first translator of Sartre into English. You can still find her books at Amazon. Check her out. She’s really, really good.

    Here’s a link to one of her books: http://www.amazon.com/Literature-Possibility-Study-Humanistic-Existentialism/dp/B000E2ZC34/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1261978685&sr=8-1

    —Santi

  6. santitafarella says:

    Benson:

    I agree with you that there are parts of “The View from Nowhere” that are difficult to read. His most recent book of essays, though, really impressed me for its clarity. The prose skates.

    As for Leiter, your conviction that his book on Nietzsche is important to have persuades me to get it.

    I don’t know if you saw this, but I wrote a couple of days ago a blog response thinking about Nietzsche’s relation to Darwin here:

    https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2009/12/26/what-did-friedrich-nietzsche-take-from-charles-darwin/

    I think that Leiter is right that Nietzsche absorbed naturalism, first of all from Darwin—and his philosophy is a response to it. But Leiter startles me with a lot of his counterintuitive ideas about what Nietzsche means. Leiter, at his blog, seems to suggest (for example) that the “Superman” is not all that central to Nietzsche’s thought. In any event, I’ll get his book and see how he lays out his arguments.

    —Santi

  7. benson bear says:

    Well, I don’t know if it is important to *have* that book… you can get The Hermeneutics of Suspicion on line for free.

    But I’m not too interested in Nietzsche; I found your blog looking for stuff about Nagel’s recent faux pas. I’m mainly interested in the relationship between the natural and the normative, and too bad its only manifestation in the public sphere is really between the new atheists and the intelligent design crowd. Nagel did try to make the point that this is not really where the main issue lies, in his review of The God Delusion, but not strongly enough.

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