Thomas Nagel is University Professor Emeritus at NYU. His latest book is Mind and Cosmos. (October 2014)

Listening to Reason

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust Philosophy has always been concerned with the largest questions of what exists and what is the case. Not specific questions like “Is there extraterrestrial life?” or “What is the speed of light in a vacuum?” but maximally general questions about what kinds of things …

After You’ve Gone

Caspar David Friedrich: Chalk Cliffs in Ruegen, 1818–1819
We are all going to die, and the world will go on without us. In this highly original book Samuel Scheffler explores the powerful but often unnoticeable ways in which these obvious facts affect the values that govern our lives and the motives that shape them. The afterlife referred to …

Ronald Dworkin: The Moral Quest

Ronald Dworkin, Martha’s Vineyard, August 2005
Ronald Dworkin, who died on February 14 of this year, began to contribute to The New York Review of Books in 1968. His strong opinions and lucid prose helped to give the paper its distinctive tone, and he achieved through those writings on the law and politics of our time …

The Taste for Being Moral

Raphael: The Judgment of Solomon, circa 1518–1519
Human beings want to understand themselves, and in our time such understanding is pursued on a wide front by the biological, psychological, and social sciences. One of the questions presented by these forms of self-understanding is how to connect them with the actual lives all of us continue to lead, using the faculties and engaging in the activities and relations that are described by scientific theories. An important example is the universal human phenomenon of morality.

A Philosopher Defends Religion

Alvin Plantinga, Utrecht, the Netherlands, 1995
One of the things atheists tend to believe is that modern science is on their side, whereas theism is in conflict with science: that, for example, belief that God created man in his own image is inconsistent with scientific explanations provided by the theory of evolution. In his absorbing new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished analytic philosopher known for his contributions to metaphysics and theory of knowledge as well as to the philosophy of religion, turns this alleged opposition on its head.

It’s Revolting!

Binnie Hale and George Grossmith Jr. in No, No, Nanette, circa 1925
The contrast in literary and intellectual style between these two books on the same subject, both by philosophers, could hardly be greater. Here is a typical passage from Daniel Kelly: Taken together, the emotion of disgust consisted of a rigid, reliable type of motivation and behavior, paired with an open-ended …

Tony Judt: The Distinctions

Tony Judt, Zermatt, Switzerland, 1993
The title of The Memory Chalet refers to its method of composition. Locked inside a body made inert by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and faced with his shrinking future and approaching death, Tony Judt decided to revisit his past. Physically unable to write, but with a mind as sharp and active as ever, he plotted the twenty-five short essays that compose this book in his head, while he was alone at night, using a mnemonic device taken from accounts of the early modern “memory palace,” whereby elements of a narrative are associated with points in a visually remembered space; but instead of a palace, he used a small Swiss chalet that he had once stayed in on vacation as a boy.

Who Is Happy and When?

Peter Paul Rubens: Rubens and Isabella Brant in the Honeysuckle Bower, circa 1609
A number of surveys in recent years claim that, above a modest level of sufficiency, happiness—as measured by people’s responses to questions from polling organizations—is not strongly correlated with income. Average reported happiness is somewhat higher in rich countries than in poorer ones, and somewhat higher within any country for …

What Peter Singer Wants of You

Peter Singer at Farm Sanctuary, a shelter in upstate New York for animals that have been rescued from stockyards, factory farms, and slaughterhouses, August 2006
We all want to know how to live. That includes not only knowing how to get what we want, but knowing what to want, and what we should and shouldn’t do. Peter Singer is prepared to tell us, and because his advice would require most of us to change our …

Progressive but Not Liberal

The political system of the United States manages to contain, under conditions of peace if not civility, a remarkable range of moral, ideological, and religious conflicts. The conflicts are not so severe as those that led to the Civil War, but they are greater than those that divide most European …

In the Stream of Consciousness

Philosophy, unlike most other subjects, does not try to extend our knowledge by discovering new information about the world. It tries to deepen our understanding by reflection on what is already closest to us—the experiences, thoughts, concepts, and activities that make up our lives, and that ordinarily escape notice because …

Assisted Suicide: The Philosophers’ Brief

Later this year the Supreme Court will decide two cases posing the question whether dying patients have a right to choose death rather than continued pain and suffering.[^1] We print here the brief filed as amicus curiae in these cases by the group of six moral philosophers listed above, with …

Freud’s Permanent Revolution

Great intellectual revolutionaries change the way we think. They pose new questions and devise new methods of answering them—and we cannot unlearn those forms of thought simply by discovering errors of reasoning on the part of their creators, unless we persuade ourselves that the thoughts are identical with the errors.

The Mind Wins!

According to a widely held view, the brain is a giant computer and the relation of the human mind to the human brain is like that of a computer program to the electronic hardware on which it runs. The philosopher John Searle, a dragon-slayer by temperament, has set out to …

Sin and Significance

Abstract theories about the human mind bear an uneasy relation to our common hope of understanding ourselves. The systematic study of language currently arouses wide and intense interest partly because language, with its central place in human life, seems to promise so much for the understanding of human nature. Yet …