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In S. Sarkar and J. Pfeifer (Eds.

), (2006) The Philosophy of Science: An Encyclopedia,


Volume 2, N-Z Indexed, pp.491-496. New York: Routledge.

ERNEST NAGEL
(16 November 1901-20 September 1985)

Nagel was born in Bohemia and came to the way, of New York City. For several generations of
United States when he was ten years old. He students and colleagues, his critical philosophic
became a naturalized citizen of the United States spirit and his detailed attention to scientific meth-
in 1919. In 1923, he received a B.A. from the Col- ods made him an exemplar of how philosophy could
lege of the City of New York, in 1925, a master's be related to the sciences, both natural and social.
degree in philosophy from Columbia University, His lecture courses and seminars were attended not
and in 1931, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia. merely by students of philosophy, but by a wide-
Most of his academic career was spent at Colum- ranging mixture of students from the natural and
bia, beginning with his appointment in 1931 and social sciences, as well as professional disciplines.
ending with his retirement in 1970. During his last These activities extended to a series of famous
three years at Columbia, he held the position of seminars with colleagues in other disciplines. Per-
university professor. He died in New York City. haps the best known was his long-standing seminar
Nagel received many honors. He was a Guggen- with Paul Lazarsfeld on methodology in the social
heim Fellow in 1934-1935 and 1950-1951. In 1954, sciences.
he was elected to the American Academy of Arts Nagel's own intellectual mentors were primarily
and Sciences, and in 1962 to the American Philo- Morris R. Cohen and John Dewey. Dewey was
sophical Society. He was elected to the United jointly appointed in philosophy and education at
States National Academy of Sciences in 1977. Columbia and was active there during the first
During his more than forty years of active intel- decade or so of Nagel's years at Columbia. With
lectual life at Columbia-he continued to partici- Cohen, Nagel wrote what was probably the most
pate in seminars and other activities after his influential textbook in logic and scientific method
retirement-Nagel played a central role in the in- in the United States published in the first half of the
tellectual life of Columbia and, in a more general twentieth century.
NAGEL, ERNEST

Major Works of water, taken either from different sources or from the
same reservoir which is known to be homogeneous, and
The textbook that Nagel coauthored with Cohen the like. What Nagel says about these situations and the
was An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method attitude a scientist would take with respect to such sam-
(Cohen and Nagel 1934). Nagel's (1939a) "Prin- ples i s certainly correct, but it i s no argument against A7.
ciples of the Theory of Probability," which was a If the scientist X knows anything about the individuals
contribution to the International Encyclopedia of' a,, a*, ad, a5 other than that they come from the same
Un1fic.d Scierzce (Neurath, Carnap, and Morris reservoir, and if he knows either that the water in that
1939), was published separately (see Unity of Sci- reservoir i s homogeneous or that it i s not, then the
knowledge of X i s much stronger than the evidence
ence Movement). Collections of Nagel's articles
e to which A7 refers. The special case of A7 formulated
were published under the titles Sovereign Reason by Nagel i s applicable only if, first, X does not know
and Logic without Metuphysics (Nagel 1954 and anything about the individuals a,, a, a, a5 other than
1956). His most important work was The Structure that they have the property M and if, second, hedoes not
of Science (Nagel 1961); then, much later, Teleolo- know with regard to any other individual whether or not
gy Revisited (Nagel 1979) was published. What is i t has the property M. Nagel's error here i s a case of what
important about his career is not only his teaching I shall later call the fallacy of incomplete evidence.
at Columbia and his role in New York City's intel- (Carnap 1966, 991)
lectual life, but also the very large number of arti- What is perhaps most interesting about Carnap's
cles he published on a great variety of philosophical response to Nagel is that he does not say how to
topics and, perhaps equally important, the exten- proceed if his axiom A7 of invariance is violated.
sive critical reviews, published mainly in the Jour- Nagel, on his part, is not really suggesting a de-
nu1 qf' Philosophy, of many major philosophical tailed alternative solution but is proposing a course
works in the philosophy of science. of prudence in not endorsing too easily the princi-
Some extended major critical analyses are to be ple of indifference.
found in his articles on Russell's philosophy of sci-
ence (Nagel 1944; Russell 1944), Dewey's theory of
natural sciei~ce(Nagel 1950), and Carnap's theory of Major Articles
illduction (Nagel 1963). In these three articles, Nagel
shows many philosophical sympathies. But the Also to be mentioned is Nagel's (1955) presidential
striking thing about his approach is the carefulness address to the American Philosophical Associa-
of his critical appraisal of significant issues. tion, published as "Naturalisn~Reconsidered." It
is equally worth mentioning some of the important
and later much cited articles of Nagel. A reflection
Criticism of Carnap of his wide-ranging historical interests, as well as
Nagel's critical spirit is reflected in his analysis of philosophical ones, is his influential article on the
Carnap's use, in one form or another, of Laplace's relation between the development of modern logic
([I8 121 1952) classical priilciple of indifference (see and the development of axiomatic methods in the
Carnap, Rudolf; Inductive Logic; Probability). nineteenth century (Nagel 1939b). Equally inipor-
tant is his still much cited, informal, but detailed,
I wish next to raise an issue that concerns not only c* but argument on how physicists conceive of the reduc-
also tlie whole continuum of inductive methods Carnap
tion of thermodynamics to statistical mechanics
regards as possible candidates for explicating the notion
of evidential support. Among the conditions he lays
(Nagel 1949) (see Reductionism). This is a subject
down which any reasonable c must satisfy, there are of great technical complexity. Nagel provides a
two that bear considerable resemblance to the notorious clear analysis, showing the main ideas of the reduc-
Principle of Indifference, often regarded as the Achilles tion, without losing the reader in .the inevitable and
heel of tlie classical theory of probability. The first of complicated technical details. Other important
these stipulates that all the individuals are to be treated works dealt with psychoanalytic theory (Nagel
on par, the second introduces a similar requirement for 1959), a much-debated topic at the time, and his-
the primitive predicates. (Nagel 1963, 797) torical determinism (Nagel 1960).
Here is Carnap's response:
Nagel expresses doubts about the validity of those prin- The Structure of Science
ciples of my theory which are related to the classical
principle of indifference. . .. Nagel raises objections General Issues
especially against A7 [axiom of indifference] and in Nagel's. (1961) most important work was his
this context uses an illustration which refers to sa~nples magisterial book on the philosophy of science,
NAGEL, ERNEST

The Structure of Science. It is a mark of the depth and indeterminism in physical theory. Nagel gives a
and importance of this work that more than forty detailed analysis of the language, concepts, and
years later it is still a primary reference for students laws of quantum mechanics. In this chapter, he
in the philosophy of science. In the introductory also gives a careful and nuanced account of the
chapter, three broad areas are identified as those of way in which quantum mechanics is indeterminis-
major importance for analysis. They are the tic, and also of the way in which it is not. Here is a
good passage about'the way in which quantum
1. Logical patterns exhibited by explanations in
mechanics is deterministic:
the sciences,
2. Construction of scientific concepts, and [A]n examination of the fundamental equations of quan-
3. Testing and validation of scientific inferences tum mechanics shows that the theory employs a defini-
and their conclusions.. tion of state quite unlike that of classical mechanics,
but that relative to its own form of state-description,
The next four chapters are general ones. Chapter quantum theory is deterministic in the same sense that
2 concentrates on patterns of explanation; Chapter 3 classical mechanics i s deterministic with respect to the
on the deductive pattern of explanations, in terms of mechanical description of state. However, the state-
both individual events and of laws; Chapter 4 focus- description employed in quantum theory is extraordi-
es on the character of scientific laws, especially the narily abstract; and, although its formal structure can
questions of their universality and necessity, a topic be readily analyzed, it does not lend itself to an intui-
that has a long history in philosophy, reaching back tively satisfactory nontechnical exposition. (Nagel 1961,
to Aristotle. Chapter 5 is concerned with experi- 306)
mental laws and theories. Nagel identifies three Chapter 1 1 is on the reduction of theories, and
inajor components of theories. The first component Nagel returns here to his well-known formulation
is the abstract or systematic calculus; the second is a of the reduction of thermodynamics to statistical
set of rules that assign an empirical content to the mechanics. Important sections are added on emer-
concepts of the abstract system; and the third is an gence and wholes and sums and organic unities,
interpretation or~modelfor the abstract calculus. which take us well beyond considerations of ther-
What is important about Nagel's treatment of modynamics. The last section contains one of the
these matters is that he provides inany more detailed most extensive discussions of scientific psychology
scientific illustrations than will be found in many in the book, with critical attention to the claims of
comparable works. In this chapter he also provides Gestalt psychologists. The careful analysis of ho-
a detailed treatment of the rules of correspondence lism in this chapter is rightly regarded as one of the
for moving from the theory and its concepts to classical examples of critical thought in modern
experimental data. Chapter 6 deals with the cogni- philosophy of science (see Emergence). The section
tive status of theories. What is important is the begins by distinguishing eight senses of 'whole' and
coiltrast between three views-the descriptive 'part.' Toward the end of the section, Nagel has
view, the instrumental view, and the realist view of this to say about organic unities:
theories. There is here, and in many other parts of
Nagel's work, an important tension between the [Llet us turn t o . . . what appears to be the fundamental
instrumental view, in which he is influenced by issue in the present context. That issue i s whether the
Dewey, and the realist view, which he sees as close analysis of "organic unities" necessarily involves the
to much of the language and thought of scientists. adoption of irreducible laws for such systems, and
whether their mode of organization precludes the possi-
bility of analyzing them from the so-called "aclclitive
Foundations of Physics and Biology point of view." The main difficulty in this connection
In broad terms, Chapters 7-1 1 deal with the is that of ascertaining in wharway an "additive" analy-
foundations of physics. Chapter 7 focuses on the sis differs from one which is not. The contrast seems to
science of mechanics and is important in providing hinge on the claim that the parts of a functional whole
do not act independently of one another, so that any
a clear account of why mechanical explanations
laws which may hold for such parts when they are not
have played such a prominent role in scientific members of a functional whole cannot be assumed to
thinking. Chapter 8 is on space and geometry, hold for them when they actually are members. An
with reference to space in Newtonian or classical "additive" analysis therefore appears to be one which
physics especially. Chapter 9 is on geometry in accounts for the properties of a system in terms of
physics, particularly on the transition from classi- assumptions about its constituents, where these assump-
cal physics to the geometric approach of general tions are not formulated with specific reference to the
relativity theory. Chapter 10 focuses on causality characteristics of the constituents as elements in the
NAGEL, ERNEST

system. A "nonadditive" analysis, o n the other hand, many social phenomena. The second is what the
seems to be one which formulates the characteristics of scientific status of functionalism is in the social
a system i n terms of relations between certain of its parts sciences. Here "functionalism" refers to the doc-
as functioning elements i n the system. trine that every social aspect of a culture of society
However, if this is indeed the distinction between
has some purposive role to play, much in the spirit
these allegedly different modes of analysis, the difference
i s not one of f~indamentalprinciple. W e have already
of teleological approaches in biology. The third
noted that it does not seem possible to distinguish sharply issue concerns whether or not methodological indi-
between systems that are said to be "organic unities" and vidualism is the correct way to think about the
those which are not. Accordingly, since even the partsof methods and aims of the social sciences. One too
summative wholes stand in relations of causal interde- simple view is that sociology should be reducible to
pendence, an additive analysis of such wholes must in- psychology, group behavior to individual behavior.
clude special assumptions about the actual organization Nagel's detailed analysis of the subtle aspects of
of parts in those wholes when it attempts to apply some this controversy is among the best in the extensive
fundamental theory to them. There are certainly many literature. The final chapter, Chapter 15, is on pro-
physical systems, such as the solar system, a carbon atom, blems in the logic of historical inquiry. Much of the
oracalcium fluoridecrystal, which despite theircomplex
focus is on philosophical problems of the nature of
form of organization lend themselves to an "additive"
analysis; but it isequally certain that current explanations
history that have been current for a very long time
of such systems in terms of theories about their constitu- but remain controversial. T o provide insight into
ent parts cannot avoid supplementing these theories with how Nagel approaches these matters, two extensive
statements about the special circumstances under which quotations are cited. The first is on the selective
the constituents occur as elements i n the systems. (Nagel character of historical data and the accompanying
1961,394-395) analysis:
Chapter 12 is on mechanistic explanation in It is a platitude that research in history as in other areas
biology. This chapter anticipates the contents of of science selects and abstracts from the concrete sub-
Nagel's John Dewey lectures, which were delivered ject matter of inquiry, and that however detailed a his-
at Columbia in 1977 and published in the Journal torical discourse may be i t i s never an exhaustive
account of what actually happened. Curio~~sly enough,
of Philosophy in the same year, and also in Nagel's
although natural scientists have rarely been agitated by
1979 book, Teleology Revisited. This chapter and parallels i n their o w n branches of study to these obvious
the later lectures provide a careful account of the features of historical inquiry, the selective character of
importance of a scientific notion of teleology in historical research c o n t i n ~ ~ etos be a major reason his-
biology, with a particular emphasis on the structure torians give for the sharp contrast they frequently draw
of teleological explanations. In the last part of the between other disciplines and the study of the human
chapter Nagel clears a critical path between the past, as well as the chief support for the skepticism many
rhetorical excesses of some organismic biologists of thein profess concerning the possibility of achieving
and the unsupported dogmatism of some mecha- "objective" historical explanations. . . . Were this doc-
nistic biologists. trine sound, every historical account that could be con-
structed by a finite intelligence would have to be
considered a necessarily mutilated version of what actu-
ally happened; indeed, all science and all analytical
Social Sciences and History discourse would have to be condemned in an identical
Chapter 13 is on methodological problems in the manner. But the claim that all historical explanations are
social sciences, with an emphasis on work in soci- inherently arbitrary and subjective i s intelligible only on
ology, but with comments as well on issues in psy- the assumption that knowledge of a subject matter rnc~st
chology, economics, and anthropology. A notable be identical with that subject matter or must reproduce it
feature of this chapter is Nagel's critique of the in some fashion; and this assumption, as well as the
well-known view of John Stuart Mill that experi- c l a i m accompanying it, must be rejected as absurd.
inentation in the social sciences is not possible. Thus, a map cannot be sensibly characterized as a dis-
torted version of the region it represents, merely because
Nagel shows that in fact Mill was not at all success-
the map does not coincide with rhe region or does not
ful in trying to draw a sharp line between the mention every item that may actually exist in that re-
possibility of experimentation in the natural gion; o n the contrary, a "map" which was drawn to
sciences and in the social sciences. Chapter 14 is scale and which omitted nothing would be a monstrosity
on explanation and understanding in the social utterly without purpose. (Nagel 1961, 576-5771
sciences. Nagel concentrates on three important
issues. The first is why statistical generalizations Nagel's vivid map analogy is a cl~aracteristicfea-
are to be expected as appropriate explanations of ture of both his lectures and his writing-finding
NAGEL, ERNEST

something concrete and familiar, but-' serious, to concepts on which specific results depended. The
illuminate the argument. goal, with philosophical readers in mind, was to
The second problem concerns historians' use of talk about details but to minimize mathematical
counterfactuals: formulations and con~putations.How Nagel felt
about the desirability of entering into the intrica-
[Nlo mention has thus far been made of a familiar special cies of any scientific discipline on which one wished
form in which historians frequently assign an order of to make philosophical remarks is well exemplified
relative importance to events, namely, when they assert
by the following quotation on the theory of
contrary-to-fact conditionals about the past. . . . To cite a
famous example, many historians believe that the battle
natural science by Dewey, a philosopher whom
of Marathon in 490 B.C. was one of the decisive military Nagel admired but of whom he was appropriately
conflicts in human history; and they support this belief critical:
by the contrary-to-fact judgment that, had the Persians
been victorious, an Oriental theocratic-religious culture But there are also less external reasons for the hesitations
would have been established in Athens, with theconse- which even those in full sympathy with Dewey's aims
quence that Greek science and philosophy, i n which and over-all conclusions have experienced with his
Western civilization has its roots, would not have been account of natural science. The great William Harvey
developed.. .. Contrary-to-fact judgments are unavoid- i s reported to have said of Francis Bacon that he wrote
able except by eschewing all judgments of relevance about science like a Lord Chancellor. O f Dewey it can
and all attempts at explaining what has happened. We be said with equal justice that he writes about natural
had occasion to note much earlier [in chapter 41 the science like a philosopher, whose understanding of
intimate connection between scientific laws and coun- it, however informed, i s derived from second-hand
terfactual statements; and, since historical explanations sources. With rare exceptions, the illustrations lie
require at least the tacit use of general assumptions, such supplies for his major theses on the nature of physical
explanations thereby assert at least by implication science and its methods come from everyday inquiries
contrary-to-fact conditionals.. .. Nevertheless, it i s i n of a fairly elementary kind, or from popularized versions
general by no means an easy task to provide reasonably of the achievements of theoretical physics. It is indeed
firm grounds for contrary-to-fact judgments in human curious that a thinker who has devoted so much effort to
history. The task is undoubtedly more difficult than the clarifying the import of science as has Dewey, should
analogous task i n many other disciplines, partly because exhibit such a singular unconcern for the detailed artic-
(as has so often been noted) it i s impossible to perform ulation of physical theory. INagel 1950, 247)
experiments on nonrecurrent events, but in large mea-
Writing this summary of The Srructt[re of Sci-
sure because of the paucity of relevant data on most
of the questions about which historians make such
ence, almost a half a century after it was first
judgments. Despite these disadvantages, the task i s not published, it seems appropriate to end by some
'

quite so hopeless as i s frequently claimed. (Nagel 1961, comments on aspects of science and the philosophy
588-5091 of science that were not so evident in that earlier
period but are now salient.
Nagel's way of doing philosophy is nicely illu- The first is that the treatment of causality by
strated by this quotation. He is skeptical of bold Nagel is too centered on determinism. At the time
philosophical claims of absolute distinctions-for he was writing, one could scarcely find mention of
example, between the methods of physicists and the word cause in a standard statistical analysis of
those of historians. But he is happy to focus on data, even if that were implicit in the design of the
distinctions or similarities that have serious con- experiment from which the data arose. The situa-
ceptual or empirical support. It is sweeping, overly tion is very different now. There is a large and
general pronouncements about science, its methods complicated literature on probabilistic causality,
or its structure, that spur his critical spirit to dig but much of what Nagel has to say about causality
into the details whatever the subject matter, be it is not affected by this move from .deterministic to
motion of atoms or battles of the past. probabilistic conceptions.
The sweep of this work, with detailed analysis The second and related point is that the discus-
ranging from quantum mechanics to history, is sions of statistical laws and statistical genera1'iza-
unique among major works in the philosophy of tions, especially in the social sciences, seem too
science published in the second half of the twenti- purely empirical after half a century of building
eth century. In considering mathematically devel- probabilistic or stochastic models of all kinds of
oped parts of science, such as quantum mechanics, psychological, economic, and social behavior. The
he was usually, but not always, successful in con- origin of such models can be traced back to before
veying a definite sense of the major conceptual the second.half of the twentieth century, but the
issues without using explicitly the mathematical renaissance certainly did not occur until then.
NAGEL, ERNEST

Their impact has been profound and has made Cohen, Morris Raphael, and Ernest Nagel (1934). An Intro-
probabilistic modeling and ways of thinking an in- ducfion to Logic and Scienfific Method. New York: Har-
court, Brace, Jovanovich.
tegral part of the social sciences and also, at the Laplace, Pierre Simon, Marquis de ([I8121 1952), A Philo-
beginning of the twenty-first century, of biology. sophicul Essuy on Probabilities. Translated from the 6th
But there is little in this new emphasis that goes French edition by Frederick Wilson Truscotte and Fre-
against any fundamental tenets of Nagel's view of derick Lincoln Emory.'New'Yofk: Dover.
the structure of science or the place of probability in Nagel, Ernest. (1939a), "Principles of the Theory or Proba-
bility," in 0. Neurath, R. Carnap, and C. Morris (eds.).
it. If it had happened earlier, it is a move he would International Encyclopedia oJ Unijled Science (Vol. I ,
have applauded. No. 6). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Third, the various chapters on the social sciences, (1939b), "The Formation of Modern Conceptions
with their emphasis on sociology, anthropology, of Formal Logic in the Development of Geometry,"
and history, seem, in many ways, out of kilter with Osiris 7: 142-224.
(1944), "Russell's Philosophy of Science," in Paul
the main theoretical developments in the social and Arthur Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy oJ Bertrand Ru.crell
behavioral sciences over the past several decades. (Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. 5). Chicago:
These developments have centered on the increasing Northwestern University Press, 317-350.
use of mathematically formulated models and the- (1949), "The Meaning of Reduction in the Natural
ories, in economics especially, and also, to a lesser Sciences," in Robert C. Stouffer (ed.), Science anti Civili-
zafion. Madison: U~iiversityof Wisconsin Press, 99-1 35.
degree, in psychology. If new chapters were to be (1950), "Dewey's Theory of Natural Science," in
added, one on the structure of modern theories of Sidney Hook (ed.), John Dewey. P1tilosol)hcr of' Sciencc~
economics and another on psychology, it would be and Freedom. New York: Dial Press.
very appropriate. In terms of themost recent events, (1954), Sovereign Reason. Glencoe, tL: Free Press.
the one on psychology would also move, in a de- (1955), "Naturalism Reconsidered," Proceedings
and Addresses oj'the American Philosophical Association
tailed way, toward the intimate involvement with 28: 5-17.
the neurosciences, which will, in the rest of this . (1956), Logic withoril Melaphysics. Glencoe. 1L:
century, surely have a profound impact on our sci- Free Press.
entific conception of human nature, and on the way (1959), "Methodological Issues in Psycl~oanalytic
that psychologists formulate their theoretical ideas Theory," in Sidney Hook (ed.), P.sychou17aly.sisScientific
Mcfhod and Philosophy. New York: NY U Press. 38-56.
and philosophers of science modify their concep- (1960), "Determinism in History," Philo.ropl~j~ u17d
tions about the nature of language and mental rep- Phenomenological Research 20: 29 1 -3 1 7.
resentation. But, again, Nagel would be the last to (1961), The Sfrucfure of Science: Prob1en1.r in the
be surprised at such developments, and they would Logic oJ Sciertftjk Exphnafion. New York: Harco~lrt,
not disturb, in a deep way, his insistence that what Brace & World.
(1963), "Carnap's lieo or^ of Induction," in Paul
he was after in The Structure of science was to give Arthur Schilpp (ed.), Tlie Philosophy oJ Rudol/ Carnap
the general framework of the scientific method, not (Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. I I). LaSalle. LL:
the current details of specific disciplines. Open Court, 785-826.
PATRICK SUPPES (L979), Teleoiog)~Revisifed. New York: Columbia
University Press.
Neurath, Otto, Rudolf Carnap, and Charles W. Morris
References (1939), International Encyclopedia oJ Unified Science
(Vol. I, NO. 63. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Carnap, Rudolf (1966), "Replies and Expositions," in Paul Russell, Bertrand (1944), "Reply to Criticisms,'' in. Paul
Arthur Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy oJ Rudolj Carnap Arthur Schilpp (ed.), The Philosophy oJBerm~ndRus.rel1
(Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. 1I). LaSalle, IL: . (Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. 5). Chicago:
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