Nagel, Ernest

views updated Jun 11 2018

NAGEL, Ernest

(b. 16 November 1901 in Nové Mesto, Bohemia; d. 20 September 1985 in New York City), one of the United States' most prominent philosophers of science, whose 1961 book Structure of Science was considered a defining work in the logic of scientific explanation.

Nagel, one of two children in an immigrant family, was born in an area that is in today's Czech Republic. His parents were Isadore Nagel, a businessman, and Frida Weiss Nagel. The family arrived in the United States in 1911, and Nagel became a U.S. citizen in 1919. In 1923 he received his bachelor of science degree in social studies from the City College of New York. He pursued his master's and doctoral degrees in philosophy at Columbia University, receiving them in 1925 and 1931 respectively. Between 1923 and 1929 he taught physics in New York City public schools. Nagel moved on to City College of New York as an instructor in 1930, and in 1931 he began teaching philosophy at Columbia University. In 1935 Nagel married the physicist Edith Haggstrom, with whom he had two sons. With the exception of the year 1966–1967, when he taught at Rockefeller University, Nagel stayed at Columbia until his retirement in 1970. He continued to give seminars at Columbia and remained strongly connected to it until his death in 1985.

At Columbia, Nagel became part of a core group of naturalists, philosophers who believed that only nature, without the assistance of supernatural powers, was responsible for the laws of science and society. At City College he was trained by Morris R. Cohen, with whom he published Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method in 1934. The book was immensely successful and remained one of the most influential in the field well into the 1950s. Following a year of study in Europe, Nagel published "Impressions and Appraisals of Analytic Philosophy in Europe" in the Journal of Philosophy (1936). This work introduced logical positivism—the marriage of empiricism and linguistics—to American philosophers.

In 1961 Nagel published his most famous and widely read book, The Structure of Science. This book, which discusses the logic of scientific explanation, is still considered one of the most definitive works in this area of the philosophy of science. Nagel first discussed four types of scientific explanation: deductive, where the explanation follows logically from the premises of the argument; probabilistic, where the explanation is probable given the premises; teleological(functional), where the explanation defines the function or goal of what is explained or studied; and genetic, meaning historical, where the explanation relies on earlier knowledge to explain the studied object. The Structure of Science clearly and methodically examined the problems in the logic of the various methods of scientific explanation. The book also examined the nature of scientific theories and attempted to show that all scientific theories, including those in the social sciences, can be explained by the same empirical methods usually associated with the physical sciences.

The 1960s were a tumultuous time. Conflict raged around the globe, while in countries such as the United States and England student movements were calling for a change. Science itself was swiftly changing, with new discoveries and better understanding of the living world. In that climate of radicalism, philosophy itself was undergoing a fundamental transformation. It is a testament to Nagel's clarity of style and logic that his book remained as respected as it did. The philosophy of logical positivism was fast becoming outdated in people's minds. A year after Structure of Science was published, Thomas S. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). The book became a best-seller.

Like the decade in which it was published, Kuhn's book departed radically from traditional thought. While Nagel and others saw science as progressing in a logical fashion, each discovery building on previous knowledge gained, Kuhn espoused the idea that science progresses in fits and starts, "a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions … the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science." Following these revolutions, "one conceptual world view is replaced by another." Kuhn referred to each worldview as a paradigm. His use of the term paradigm popularized it for generations to come. Kuhn opened the floodgates of the New Philosophy of Science, a modern school of thought whose main proponents were Paul Feyerabend, Norwood Russell Hanson, and Imre Lakatos. The New Philosophy was fast replacing logical positivism and naturalism.

In a decade that saw a growing antagonism toward traditional philosophies often perceived as intolerant, the respect in which Nagel was held speaks to his open-mindedness. Kuhn's book was more appealing in a world filled with scientific revolutions and political unrest, but Nagel's willingness to criticize, as Patrick Suppes points out, "ill-conceived notions from whatever quarters they might come" made him an inspiration to students not only of philosophy but of other disciplines as well. It did not hurt that Nagel also was involved in the changing world around him, writing for the Nation and Partisan Review. While his brand of philosophy was falling out of favor in the 1960s, he himself remained relevant.

Nagel's vast knowledge of science set him apart from other philosophers of science. He had an intense interest in physics, which he continued to pursue after retirement, and he conducted a regular seminar on methodology in social sciences. In 1978 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, not a common occurrence among philosophers. In his long and distinguished career he won numerous honors and awards. Among them were Columbia University's Nicholas Murray Butler Medal in Gold (1980); an honorary doctor of science degree from Brandeis University; and doctor of letters degrees from Rutgers University (1967), Case Western Reserve University (1970), and Columbia University (1971). He served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1961 to 1963. In addition to publishing in various philosophical journals, Nagel was editor of the Journal of Symbolic Logic (1939–1945), Journal of Philosophy (1940–1956), and Philosophy of Science (1956–1959). He died of pneumonia and is buried in South Wardsboro, Vermont.

Biographies of Nagel include Patrick Suppes, "Ernest Nagel," Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 65 (1994): 257–273; Antony Flew, "Nagel, Ernest," in The Encyclopedia of Unbelief (1985); and Andrew Reck, The New American Philosophers: An Exploration of Thought Since World War II (1968).

Adi R. Ferrara

Ernest Nagel

views updated May 21 2018

Ernest Nagel

A leading American philosopher of science, Ernest Nagel (1901-1985) developed a logical empirical theory of science within the framework of pragmatic naturalism.

Ernest Nagel was born in Czechoslovakia on Nov. 16, 1901. His family emigrated to the United States when Ernest was 10 years old. He became an American citizen in 1919. While teaching for a decade in New York City public schools, he earned a bachelor of science degree from the City College of New York in 1923 and his doctorate from Columbia University in 1930. Except for a year at City College at the beginning of his teaching career and a year (1966-1967) at Rockefeller University, he was a professor of philosophy at Columbia University. In 1967, he became a University Professor at Columbia, the most distinguished academic rank. In addition, he served as an editor of the Journal of Philosophy (1939-1956) and of the Journal of Symbolic Logic (1940-1946).

Pioneer in Scientific Logic

At City College, Nagel studied under Morris Cohen, who emphasized the role of reason in science. Nagel's association with Cohen led to the publication of An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (1934), one of the first and most successful textbooks in the field. Cohen and Nagel claimed to have found "a place for the realistic formalism of Aristotle, the scientific pragmatism of [Charles S.] Peirce, the pedagogical soundness of [John] Dewey, and the mathematical rigor of [Bertrand] Russell." They interpreted empirical science experimentally, stressing the role of hypotheses in conducting research.

Trained as a logician, Nagel wrote his earliest books on logic. In the 1930s, Nagel wrote two textbooks, Principles of the Theory of Probability and The Logic of Measurement. He married Edith Haggstrom in 1935; they had two children, Alexander and Sidney.

Introduced Wittgenstein to Americans

After a year of study in Europe, Nagel published a historic report, "Impressions and Appraisals of Analytic Philosophy in Europe," in the Journal of Philosophy (1936). This essay introduced Americans to the philosophical work of the European philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Rudolf Carnap. Nagel sought to adapt the teachings of the logical positivists to the more comprehensive framework of American pragmatic naturalism. The influence of logical positivism on his thought resulted in his concepts of logic and mathematics in linguistic terms. This conclusion was developed in his 1944 paper "Logic without Ontology."

Most of Nagel's writings took the form of journal articles and book reviews. Two of his books Sovereign Reason (1954) and Logic without Metaphysics (1957) consist wholly of previously published articles. These showed him to be one of the most analytic and critical thinkers in American philosophy. They also expressed and illustrated Nagel's method of contextualistic analysis, by which he interpreted "the meanings of theoretical constructions in terms of their manifest functions in identifiable contexts."

Proponent of Naturalism

Nagel expounded his naturalism in 1954, in his presidential address before the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. He defined naturalism as "a generalized account of the cosmic scheme and of man's place in it, as well as a logic of inquiry." Naturalism, to Nagel, was "the executive and causal primacy of matter in the executive order of nature" and "the manifest plurality and variety of things, of their qualities and their functions, … [as] an irreducible feature of the universe."

The Structure of Science (1961), heralded as one of the best works in the philosophy of science, examined the logical structure of scientific concepts and evaluated the claims of knowledge in various sciences. Nagel tried to show that the same logic of scientific explanation was valid in all sciences. He viewed the controversy between the descriptive, the realist, and the instrumentalist views of scientific concepts to be simply conflicts over "preferred modes of speech."

Nagel became a University Professor Emeritus in 1970 and remained a special lecturer at Columbia until 1973. In 1980, while receiving Columbia's Nicholas Murray Butler Medal in Gold, he explained his view of philosophy: "Philosophy is in general not a primary inquiry into the nature of things. It is a reflection on the conclusion of those inquiries that may sometimes terminate, as it did in the case of Spinoza, in a clarified vision of man's place in the scheme of things." Nagel died of pneumonia at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City on Sept. 22, 1985.

Further Reading

The New American Philosophers (1968) by Andrew J. Reck; Thinkers of the Twentieth Century (1987) and The Encyclopedia of Unbelief (1985). □

Nagel, Ernest

views updated May 23 2018


NAGEL, ERNEST (1901–1985), U.S. philosopher. Nagel, who was born in Nove Mesto (Moravia), emigrated to America at an early age. He received a B.S. from the City College of New York in 1923 and an M.A. (1925) and a Ph.D. (1930) from Columbia University. He was appointed to Columbia's faculty in 1930. He became John Dewey Professor of Philosophy in 1955 and university professor in 1967. Upon his retirement, he was professor emeritus at Columbia.

Though he was best known for his incisive and learned essays in the philosophy of science, Nagel's interests as a philosopher were broad. Many of his writings deal with social and political questions and with questions of religion. In these latter domains, influenced by his interest in the philosophy of science, his work emerges as a type of philosophical naturalism. According to Nagel, the types of explanation of the world that produce human knowledge are essentially those based on the model of explanation in the physical sciences. He argued, however, that such types of explanation must not be interpreted narrowly, as a kind of rigid scientism, but rather broadly; e.g., explanations of mental phenomena are not to be reduced to descriptions of the movement of material particles as in the physical sciences. He thus distinguished between naturalistic explanations and materialistic ones, where "materialism" is taken to mean that philosophical view which denies the existence of mind or mental qualities. In a similar vein, Nagel argued that "determinism" in physical theory is not such as to entail the denial of human freedom with regard to moral and political decisions. His analysis of morality and of human history accordingly allowed for the attribution of responsibility to human agents for their actions. Thus he maintained that naturalism, although committed to giving a correct account of scientific knowledge, includes within its scope a place for imagination, liberal values, and human wisdom. Nagel's main contribution to the philosophy of science is to be found in The Structure of Science (1961). He served as president of the Association of Symbolic Logic (1947–49), and as president of the Philosophy of Science Association (1960–62).

Among Nagel's other important writings are An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method, with Morris Raphael Cohen (1934); Principles of the Theory of Probability (1939); Sovereign Reason (1954); Logic without Metaphysics (1956); Gödel's Proof, with James R. Newman (1958); Observation and Theory in Science (1971); and Teleology Revisited and Other Essays in the Philosophy and History of Science (1979).

add. bibliography:

S. Morgenbesser (ed.), Philosophy, Science, and Method; Essays in Honor of Ernest Nagel (1969); E. Madden, Philosophical Problems of Psychology (1962).

[Avrum Stroll /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]