Rescher Prize Awarded to Thomas Nagel

The 2021 Nicholas Rescher Prize for Systematic Philosophy has been awarded to Thomas Nagel, emeritus professor of philosophy and law at New York University.

The Rescher Prize “is intended to counter present-day tendencies to narrow specialization by rewarding and showcasing the work of philosophers who have addressed the historical ‘big questions’ of the field in ways that nevertheless command the respect of specialists.” The prize is named for philosopher Nicholas Rescher “in acknowledgement of his extensive gifting” to his home institution, the University of Pittsburgh.

The prize includes a gold medal and $30,000. The winner delivers a prize lecture, as well, which Professor Nagel did earlier this month (a video of the lecture is not publicly available).

Rescher Prize recipients are selected by a panel composed of University of Pittsburgh Philosophy faculty, History and Philosophy of Science faculty, the director of the university’s Center for Philosophy of Science, and a past winner of the award.

Of Professor Nagel, the prize committee writes:

Professor Nagel’s writings span numerous subfields in the discipline, including moral and political philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind.  This wide range of work is unified not only by Professor Nagel’s distinctive temperament—marked by an antipathy to facile relativism and to shallowness in all of its guises—and by his problem-centered approach to philosophy—one that avoids viewing the traditional problems of philosophy as either resolvable by an appropriate extension of the sciences or dissolvable by a clarification of ordinary language—but also by a sustained, far-reaching exploration of a central tension concerning the human situation.  This central tension is the product of a conception of human beings as at once occupants of particular points of view on the world—subjective perspectives informed not only by the immediate deliverances of our senses, but by the particular attachments and affiliations that orient us practically and give meaning to our lives—and also as beings fitted with the capacity to abstract from that point of view to achieve an objective understanding of the same world, the person and their subjective viewpoint included. Tensions between the objective and subjective points of view are, in Professor Nagel’s telling, the source of many of philosophy’s perennial problems, and reconciling these points of view, where possible, is among philosophy’s chief tasks.

(via Thomas Berry)

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3 years ago

Nagel is one of the people who helped me realize it is okay to philosophize against the grain . An independent thinker. A great role model. So many role models encourage conformity. WE are philosphers, God dammit .we are here to challenge orthodoxy, not just accept it as a kind of “normal science”.

Thomas Carson
3 years ago

February 15, 2021

Thomas Nagel is richly deserving of the Rescher Prize he has received. His work is exceptionally wide ranging and influential – he has made important contributions to every area of philosophy with the exceptions of logic, philosophy of language (though one might well argue that his realism and philosophy of mind has a bearing on these areas). By any reasonable measure, Nagel is one the greatest living philosophers.

Nagel’s writing is very readable, elegant, and engaging. He is unusually accessible and readable for an outstanding philosopher. His important essays and reviews in the New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New Republic and his book on taxation and public policy, The Myth of Property, make him an important “public philosopher,” as well as being “a philosopher’s philosopher.”

Nagel has made very important contributions to the following areas of philosophy:

Philosophical Methodology and Metaphysics Nagel’s The View From Nowhere was a groundbreaking work which set the stage for subsequent debate on the tension between an objective point of view of reality and the subjective, first-person point of view. Just as John Rawls’ Theory of Justice became the chief reference point for decades of work on political liberalism, Nagel’s work has had a vital role in re-thinking the power and promise of a third-person point of view versus first-person subjectivity, values, and agency.

Philosophy of Mind. Nagel’s work on subjectivity and the first person point of view is among the most important and illuminating of any living philosopher. In The View from Nowhere and “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” (probably the most frequently cited essay in philosophy of mind since its original publication), Nagel provides powerful arguments against attempts to “reduce” mental states to physical events, or to eliminate the mental altogether. Nagle also gives persuasive arguments for thinking that reality cannot be fully described from a purely objective point of view. His analysis of the kinds of scientific evidence one would need to solve the mind body problem is a tour de force and one of deepest and most profound pieces of philosophy we have ever read.

Ethics The Possibility of Altruism is Nagel’s first book. It is a difficult, but very important book. Nagel argues that accepting the objectivity of prudential judgments commits one to accepting the objectivity of moral judgments. This book is a brilliant extension of Kant’s project of justifying morality by appeal the practical rationality. The Possibility of Altruism has been the subject of many doctoral dissertations – Judith Covey Carson (Tom Carson’s late wife) wrote one of those dissertations. Nagel refines and clarifies this argument in his more recent book The Last Word. The latter work is also notable for its powerful critique of postmodernist “unmasking arguments,” e.g., “you believe ____ only because you are white/male/female/wealthy/poor.” Nagel is also well known for his criticisms of utilitarianism and his discussion of moral Luck. His paper “The Fragmentation of Value,” poses a serious challenge to the view that competing values are commensurable and can be weighed and aggregated for the purposes of utilitarian calculation.

Moral Psychology Nagel’s contribution to ethics has included some insights into moral psychology. His essays on moral luck, dirty hands, and moral dilemmas, have developed a complex portrait of decision-making that is at odds with consequentialism. This work has fed the literature on person-relative non-person specific reasoning.

Applied Ethics and Political Philosophy. Several of his papers “War and Massacre” and “Sexual Perversion” are classics which have helped to shape several sub fields of applied ethics. His paper “Concealment and Exposure” which deals with issues of privacy and sexual conduct and the Clinton Impeachment and Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing is also a classic. Nagel has also brilliantly brought to bear his analysis of objectivity and subjectivity on the articulation of a broadly conceived liberal political philosophy in Equality and Partiality.

Textbook. Nagel’s book What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy is simply the best book of it kind. It is clear and sophisticated; it engages readers with serious philosophical arguments and debates. This book has had an enormous influence world-wide and has been transacted into many Languages. The only remotely comparable book is Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. These are the only two general introductions to philosophy written by great philosophers.

Taxation. The standard view is that the concept of “pretax income” represents an important
normative notion and that there is at least some kind of moral presumption against taxation. According to this view there is a prior “market distribution” of income that government taxation alters; people have some kind of claim to their “pretax income.” Nagel and Murphy argue that this is completely mistaken. Without government there are no markets and no property rights, just a Hobbesian state of nature that involves destitution for all. The claim that people have some kind of entitlement to their “pretax income” is logically incoherent because the sums of money that we count as our pretax income can’t exist without the existence of government and taxation to support the government. This simple conceptual point is very important because it shows that the libertarian view that taxation is theft or at least a prima facie violation of our rights is mistaken. Defenders of taxation don’t have the burden of proof that libertarians allege.

The Meaning of Life. Nagel’s wonderful essay “The Absurd” is a profound and convincing meditation on the meaning of life. It is a deep but wonderfully clear and lucid piece. We frequently use this in our classes and find that many of our best students are in awe of Nagel. Nagel thinks that it is a mistake to think that everything must have a meaning (purpose) and that if something is without purpose it is therefore has no value. This line of thought ignores the obvious fact that some things and some activities are intrinsically good or worthwhile good even if they have no point and lead to nothing. The view in question also ignores the fact that something can be good as a means to fulfilling some purpose only if the thing(s) to which it leads
is (are) intrinsically good. Nagel claims that human life is absurd in the following sense. There is a huge conflict between the seriousness with which we take our own lives and endeavors and the inescapablity of doubt about the ultimate importance of our lives and endeavors when we consider them from an impartial point of view. According to Nagel the absurdity of life derives from our ability to simultaneously occupy the subjective point of view and to our ability to make detached judgment from an objective point of view.

Tom Carson
Professor of Philosophy Emeritus
Loyola University Chicago
[email protected]

Charles Taliaferro
Professor of Philosophy
Saint Olaf College
[email protected]

Alan White
3 years ago

Theme song: Overkill, by Men at Work.