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Thomas Nagel's Mortal Questions explores some fundamental issues concerning the meaning, nature and value of human life. Questions about our attitudes to death, sexual behaviour, social inequality, war and political power are shown to lead to more obviously philosophical problems about personal identity, consciousness, freedom and value. This original and illuminating book Thomas Nagel's Mortal Questions explores some fundamental issues concerning the meaning, nature and value of human life. Questions about our attitudes to death, sexual behaviour, social inequality, war and political power are shown to lead to more obviously philosophical problems about personal identity, consciousness, freedom and value. This original and illuminating book aims at a form of understanding that is both theoretical and personal in its lively engagement with what are literally issues of life and death.


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Thomas Nagel's Mortal Questions explores some fundamental issues concerning the meaning, nature and value of human life. Questions about our attitudes to death, sexual behaviour, social inequality, war and political power are shown to lead to more obviously philosophical problems about personal identity, consciousness, freedom and value. This original and illuminating book Thomas Nagel's Mortal Questions explores some fundamental issues concerning the meaning, nature and value of human life. Questions about our attitudes to death, sexual behaviour, social inequality, war and political power are shown to lead to more obviously philosophical problems about personal identity, consciousness, freedom and value. This original and illuminating book aims at a form of understanding that is both theoretical and personal in its lively engagement with what are literally issues of life and death.

30 review for Mortal Questions (Canto Classics)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tyler

    Fourteen essays in this book tie together the question of how philosophy applies in everyday life. Nagel’s writing drags a bit in places, and not all the essays are of equal interest. The personal nature of the inquiry is the book's main draw and the best reason for reading it. The most helpful approach to this kind of book is to list its topics and give my ratings, as follows: TOPIC: Death – A rather short discussion asking why death is thought of as such a bad event. **** Absurdity – Excell Fourteen essays in this book tie together the question of how philosophy applies in everyday life. Nagel’s writing drags a bit in places, and not all the essays are of equal interest. The personal nature of the inquiry is the book's main draw and the best reason for reading it. The most helpful approach to this kind of book is to list its topics and give my ratings, as follows: TOPIC: Death – A rather short discussion asking why death is thought of as such a bad event. **** Absurdity – Excellent topic with good insights ***** Sexual Perversion -- A logically poor survey of sexual attitudes, but a fascinating look at how philosophy doubly abstracts the subject from its instinctive and psychological nature. *** War – Dated; of little interest to me. * Public Life – Less here than meets the eye ** Affirmative Action – Dated look at a trendy but exhausted subject. * Equality – Excellent comparison of individual rights, utilitarianism and egalitarianism ***** Fragmentation of Value – Must all our values derive from one source? ***** Ethics and Biology – Short and uninteresting * Unity of Consciousness – Outdated by modern brain research * On Being a Bat – Excellent discussion of subjective experience ***** Panpsychism – Channeling Spinoza **** Subjective and Objective – Very interesting. **** The discussions are a little more technical than others I’ve seen, and the author surveys many concepts. I recommend the book for people having a general interest in philosophy and at least a basic familiarity with its terms.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Nick Black

    One of the most probing and worthwhile philosophic disquisitions of the twentieth century.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Hossein Gholamie

    Thomas Nagel began with the most abstract issues and areas in philosophy to reach concrete issues: metaphysics-> epistemoligy,-> philosophy of mind-> Ethics-> political philosophy-> economics. Thomas Nagel in all areas of philosophy: "metaphysics, epistemology, ethics", and some of the most important branches of philosophy: "philosophy, ethics, philosophy of law, political philosophy, philosophy of mind", has had a huge contribution. He discusses the most abstract philosophical issues, such as "co Thomas Nagel began with the most abstract issues and areas in philosophy to reach concrete issues: metaphysics-> epistemoligy,-> philosophy of mind-> Ethics-> political philosophy-> economics. Thomas Nagel in all areas of philosophy: "metaphysics, epistemology, ethics", and some of the most important branches of philosophy: "philosophy, ethics, philosophy of law, political philosophy, philosophy of mind", has had a huge contribution. He discusses the most abstract philosophical issues, such as "consciousness", "point of veiw / perspective" (from objective and subjective point of view), "altruism and egoism" (all in philosophy of mind); Virtue and Vice, duty and responsibility(in Ethics); Equality and partiality, Justice, Legitimacy(in politic and Law). In this collection of essays (this book), he addresses concrete issues. In this book, he has discussed articles (topics), and referring to nearly 2,600 books. Nearly all of the papers in the past 40 years have been at the center of the philosophical controversy: death, absurd, moral luck, war and massacre, sexual perversion, ruthlessness in public life, the policy preference, equality, etc. Perhaps it can be said that all fourteen articles, with all their initial differences, look at one issue: the meaning of life. I have repeatedly read the essay "Absurd" and is still one of the most profound articles of philosophy that I have read about the sense of "absurd" and perhaps "the meaning of life.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    Too hard for me! I understood chunks of it, but there was plenty that whizzed past me. Great topics though. Includes the famous “What is it like to be a bat” essay. I guess I need a “Thomas Nagel for Dummies” book.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Hageman

    First half of this book is a 3, while the second half is a 5..had I known it'd have a much more interesting finish, I probably would have prioritized reading it a bit more! Nagel's ideas on consciousness, value fragmentation, and the dichotomous issues of objectivity/subjectivity are seemingly timeless, and great food for thought for those that don't fall in the same camp as him on these particular issues. First half of this book is a 3, while the second half is a 5..had I known it'd have a much more interesting finish, I probably would have prioritized reading it a bit more! Nagel's ideas on consciousness, value fragmentation, and the dichotomous issues of objectivity/subjectivity are seemingly timeless, and great food for thought for those that don't fall in the same camp as him on these particular issues.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Maggie Roessler

    First time to my knowledge I've seen a philosopher argue that death is really bad and we should be scared of it. And it's a good point about the nature of goodness not being restricted to non-relational properties ascribable to a human at different times. Still, surprising that Nagel would fail to look into the huge variety of other reasons that philosophers have embraced the idea of death. Which points to a crucial element of Nagel's style. He is arguing with the language of the people, using th First time to my knowledge I've seen a philosopher argue that death is really bad and we should be scared of it. And it's a good point about the nature of goodness not being restricted to non-relational properties ascribable to a human at different times. Still, surprising that Nagel would fail to look into the huge variety of other reasons that philosophers have embraced the idea of death. Which points to a crucial element of Nagel's style. He is arguing with the language of the people, using the people's definitions of the words at stake. It has a certain charm, a feeling of someone sincerely engaged in questioning their way of life, at first it almost feels Socratic. But then one remembers that Socrates (of early Plato particularly) radically questioned the people's definitions and made them think about the definitions they'd been using. Nagel doesn't fuss over words. Is this appropriate? Let's look at the second essay, on the Absurd. I was excited to read it, as it draws on Camus' Sisyphus essay, which was one of the first works of "real" (i.e. not Christopher Pike's) philosophy I ever read. And I was really getting pleased, when I read Nagel's argument that we learn our standards of meaning within life, therefore we cannot use the same standards when we step outside of life, in order to look at the big picture. I agree entirely. Life cannot as a whole be meaningless, because meaning is only something generated from within life, and no longer makes sense as a tool with which to judge life as a whole. We pull ourselves out of the individual chain of justifications when we look at the big picture, and may no longer ask for another link on that chain. Sadly, I got the same slap in the face from the ending that I'd gotten before with Camus. We should live our lives with IRONY? Wha? Why? He's just demonstrated that we may not look at our overall struggles as meaningless. So what use do we have for irony? It's just as unjustified within the text as Camus' call to defiance. This lesson about when you can use what words (such as in the second essay, "justification" and "meaning") is throughout the book not taken seriously enough. There is a problem with using work-a-day definitions for philosophic thought, words understood according to their use in certain normal situations are plucked out of their context and made in this innocent form to take part in exotic dances. Naturally, this method leads to mixed up conclusions - unexpected, yet no more rigourous for all that. We're struck by an embarassingly clear example in the essay on Sexual Perversion, written in 1969. The conclusions do not hold and are ridiculously dated. Philosophic truths should exercise a permanent claim on our attention, and not become silly artifacts after a mere forty years. Yet, this is only possible when we examine the concepts we're using. If you take them out of the mouths of those conversing under entirely other circumstances, you end up with stiff nonsense.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Ting

    Tried using this as a broad introduction to philosophy. Too dense / abstractly written for me to really get into. Now I get why everyone who read the New Yorker likes philosophy so much... Maybe this is one I try again later in life when I'm a more sophisticated and wise guy Tried using this as a broad introduction to philosophy. Too dense / abstractly written for me to really get into. Now I get why everyone who read the New Yorker likes philosophy so much... Maybe this is one I try again later in life when I'm a more sophisticated and wise guy

  8. 4 out of 5

    Miles

    The title of Thomas Nagel’s Mortal Questions may appear to promise a set of inquiries with reachable termination points, but in fact the opposite is true. This collection of short essays explores a slew of multifaceted and often-insouble problems surrounding the nature of human society and experiential life that Nagel pondered during the 1970s. Nagel is nobly driven to confront issues that are “multiple, complex, often cloudy, and mixed up with many others,” and to plumb the intellectual depths The title of Thomas Nagel’s Mortal Questions may appear to promise a set of inquiries with reachable termination points, but in fact the opposite is true. This collection of short essays explores a slew of multifaceted and often-insouble problems surrounding the nature of human society and experiential life that Nagel pondered during the 1970s. Nagel is nobly driven to confront issues that are “multiple, complex, often cloudy, and mixed up with many others,” and to plumb the intellectual depths of situations where “we may have evidence for the truth of something we cannot really understand” (141, 177). While I applaud this approach and enjoy Nagel’s able writing, I find his arguments to be of inconsistent quality. The essays that explore scientific topics are quite dated and will prove generally unimpressive to anyone familiar with the last few decades of research in experimental psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience. The essay “Panpsychism,” while containing a few nuggets of good sense, is rife with musings that could pass muster in the ’70s but seem laughable now. There are similar problems with the essays that address sexuality, the relationship between biology and ethics, and the mind-body problem. The obvious exception is “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, which remains a landmark statement of why consciousness is such a difficult subject to wrap our heads around. Nagel focuses on the specificity of what it is like to be various kinds of conscious or semi-conscious entities, as well as the intellectual commitments that follow from accepting consciousness as a gradated and pluralistic phenomenon. Even for those who accept a physicalist/materialist account of consciousness and view internal experience as essentially an illusion (which I do), this essay survives as an apt articulation of thorny questions that still tease us today. The pieces that really shine in this collection are Nagel’s existential and sociopolitical critiques. I am especially impressed with the “The Absurd,” “Moral Luck,” and “The Policy of Preference.” I shall analyze the first two together since I see them as attacking the same set of intellectual queries, and then discuss the third on its own. “The Absurd” is a terrific expansion of the idea that Albert Camus popularized in his classic essay “An Absurd Reasoning". While Camus posits the absurd as the taunting contrast between the world as we find it and the world as we imagine it might be, Nagel argues that the absurd “derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves” (17). This collision arises from our understanding of two opposing viewpoints: (1) from an outside perspective, human life is patently meaningless, and (2) from an internal perspective, we cannot help but take ourselves seriously. This is a clever reinterpretation of Camus’s original conundrum, one that I believe has important consequences for how we should understand free will (or rather, the absence of free will). Before attempting to cash out that last point, it will be useful to take up Nagel’s views on “moral luck,” which he defines as a situation “Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him…as an object of moral judgment” (26). In other words, we become morally lucky if influences outside our control cause events for which we can take (or are granted by others) moral credit, and we become morally unlucky when the opposite is true. Nagel doesn’t shy away from the weighty implications of this, stating clearly that “nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control” (26). Though it would be a stretch to claim that the issue of free will has been settled since this essay was first written, contemporary research generally concords with this conclusion, indicating that what we usually call free will is merely a placeholder for our incomplete understanding of nature’s causal mechanisms. With a little help from Marvin Minsky, Robert Sapolsky explains: "The artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky once defined free will as 'internal forces I do not understand.' People intuitively believe in free will, not just because we have this terrible human need for agency but also because most people know next to nothing about those internal forces…Our behaviors are constantly shaped by an array of subterranean forces…that, not that long ago, we didn’t know existed." ( Behave , 603, 605) The same is true for external forces that enter into our bodies and become themselves internal, subterranean forces (weather, social relationships, nutrients, etc.). As Nagel puts it: "As the external determinants of what someone has done are gradually exposed, in their effect on consequences, character, and choice itself, it becomes gradually clear that actions are events and people things. Eventually nothing remains that can be ascribed to the responsible self, and we are left with nothing but a portion of the larger sequence of events, which can be deplored or celebrated, but not blamed or praised." (37) Nagel’s concept of moral luck is a wonderful and humbling way to accept non-agency, and to generate gratitude for whatever moral luck we come across, knowing surely that we did not cause it and therefore do not deserve it. Taking moral luck seriously also prioritizes compassion when dealing with those who are morally unlucky, etiolating arguments that a morally unlucky person deserves a nasty fate as punishment for having executed a series of bad choices that could have been avoided. Returning now to the absurd, we can see how moral luck interacts with our adolescent but inescapable need to take ourselves seriously. We long for things to matter gravely and crave recognition for bringing about circumstances that are favorable to us and others. But in reality our lives are meaningless and we are rushing downstream, self-reflective but not -controlled passengers riding an endless current of causality that decides moment to moment what we are and where we go. Nagel’s description is better: "That is the main condition of absurdity––the dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an immanent, limited enterprise like a human life." (22) So, taking or being given moral credit for actions we are not responsible for (which is every action) is just as absurd as receiving blame for actions we are not responsible for (which is every action). These “actions” are just events, observable transpirings of our dragooned nature, like sunsets or winter storms. Lest we should conclude that the only available route from here is a descent into jaded skepticism about the possibility goodness or meaning in life, Nagel comes to our rescue: "Our absurdity warrants neither that much distress nor that much defiance…I would argue that absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics. Like skepticism in epistomology, it is possible only because we possess a certain kind of insight––the capacity to transcend ourselves in thought…[If] there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair." (22-3) This may seem like an intellectual cop-out to some, but I see it as a genuine “solution” to an unsolvable problem. Accepting our inability to resolve the absurdity of our lives, we can fall back on the assurance that there is nothing boring or simplistic about humans and the world that contains us. Despite our many negative capacities, we are also endowed with capacities for discovery, for euphoria, for growth, for love. The significance of these small miracles and our gratitude for their unnecessary existence need not be tarnished by the reality that we did not and cannot choose them, and their ultimate meaninglessness need not contravene their meaningfulness to our little lives in the here and now. The last essay I’d like to discuss is one that I wish would rise to public prominence is this time of social and political strife. “The Policy of Preference” is a nuanced and smart examination of how we should attempt to ameliorate some of the deepest divisions that threaten civil society. For us Americans, the most obvious of these are our despicable histories of slavery, racial discrimination, and gender discrimination, the consequences of which have been dire and pervasive in our national narrative, even as the worst results of embedded inequity have attenuated over time. Nagel delves into the difficult question of whether the act of creating a policy of preference such as affirmative action is compatible with justice. His fair conclusion is that such policies are compatible with justice, but Nagel is careful to acknowledge that policies of preference do not always solve the problems they purport to address, and also that their implementation does not come without significant cost: "When we try to deal with the inequality in advantages that results from a disparity in qualifications (however produced) between races or sexes, we are up against a feature of the system which at every turn exacts costs and presents obstacles in response to attempts to reduce the inequalities. We must face the possibility that the primary injustice with which we have to contend lies in this feature itself, and that some of the worst aspects of what we now perceive as racial or sexual injustice are merely conspicuous manifestations of the great social injustice of differential reward." (96) By “differential reward,” Nagel means that human resources are everywhere distributed unfairly due to systems that reward people based on certain qualities (skills, accomplishments, inheritance, nepotism, chance, etc.), each of which is not equally accessible to all members of society. And since any quality that can conceivably bring about a reward obtains solely from moral luck, it becomes clear that any system of differential reward is indefensible. No one deserves anything. The logical next step is to conclude that, in a just society, everyone ought to get a fair piece of what’s available. The struggle to define and distribute a “fair piece” to everyone is of course not easy or uncomplicated, but the crucial point is that the project of just distribution need not by necessity focus on any particular group or groups that have been discriminated against (although there is certainly no prohibition against that). All people are potentially vulnerable to injustice and suffering, depending on circumstance; no one has a monopoly on lousy moral luck. In our hyper-polarized political climate, I cannot over-stress the importance of this unifying view, which overrides superficial differences in identity without denying their contextual importance. Solving injustice is not about obsessing over what people look like or how they act or speak, but rather about identifying societal systems that allow for and perpetuate occurrences of unfair distribution and doing the hard work of remaking those systems with the help of allies who also want a better world. Critically, the details of how this “better world” will be and the language used to describe it need not align perfectly in order for people from different backgrounds and experiences to cooperate in common cause; dogmatism in this regard is a surefire way to kill coalitions that would prove otherwise capable of affecting widespread change. All of this brings us to a well-trodden truth that is sadly sidelined in much of modern discourse: in order to solve the many problems that ail us, we must rediscover our common humanity and insist on its status as our most important (not the only important) policy of preference. We will get there by privileging our capacities for responsible reasoning, compassionate understanding and fair compromise. In the service of this goal, Nagel cautions against two dangers: "One is the danger of romantic defeatism, which abandons rational theory because it inevitably leaves many problems unsolved. The other is the danger of exclusionary overrationalization, which bars as irrelevant or empty all considerations that cannot be brought within the scope of a general system admitting explicitly defensible conclusions. This yields skewed results by counting only measurable or otherwise precisely describable factors, even when others are in fact relevant. The alternative is to recognize that the legitimate grounds of decision are extremely various and understood to different degrees…The lack of a general theory leads too easily into a false dichotomy: either fall back entirely on the unsystematic intuitive judgment of whoever has to make a decision, or else cook up a unified but artificial system…which will grind out decisions on any problem presented to it." (137, 139) Our political and social lives are currently riddled with these seductive mentalities. On every issue, we see one side clamoring for the abandonment of reason in service of blind ideology, even as the other zealously applies an oversimplified systemic solution that ignores the true complexity of the problem. Those in the middle must devote ourselves to the calm creation and assiduous defense of common ground. This review was originally published on my blog, words&dirt.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    "Moral Luck" and "What is it like to be a bat?" are oft-cited works in other books i've read, which is why i initially bought this collection. I'm tempted to call them classic or canonical works in the field. "Death", ironically(?) the first essay, was a crucial ingredient in Todd May's book on the same topic and with the same title, so i read it 3 times. It also influences my reaction to books such as Jason Shiga's Demon series of graphic novels. "Subjective and Objective" closes the collection a "Moral Luck" and "What is it like to be a bat?" are oft-cited works in other books i've read, which is why i initially bought this collection. I'm tempted to call them classic or canonical works in the field. "Death", ironically(?) the first essay, was a crucial ingredient in Todd May's book on the same topic and with the same title, so i read it 3 times. It also influences my reaction to books such as Jason Shiga's Demon series of graphic novels. "Subjective and Objective" closes the collection and probably was my favorite. It alludes to the fact that Nagel wants to write a larger piece on the subject, which i'm virtually certain is The View from Nowhere, a book i've attempted to read more than once, each time with the same pittance of understanding as the previous one. The essay makes me want to give it yet another try even though i'll probably fail yet again. I will try to remember to seek out smarter people than i who have written about the essay and about the book in ways that i can understand so that eventually i'll be capable of translating Nagel's words into something i'll retain. "The Absurd" opened my eyes to this concept. I'd poo-poohed it as just another nihilism but maybe i finally get what Camus et al were going for. "Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness" adds to the handful of mind-related essays and books i've read in the past ~18months, especially Parfit's Reasons and Persons. "Panpsychism": i was excited to read this one, as i hoped it'd make this concept seem less ridiculous, but i can't recall much. Reading it was like trying to pick up 7 peeled mangoes simultaneously. All the unnamed essays didn't rise to the level of "interested" for me. Even though several of them were ostensibly about moral philosophy, i just couldn't get into them. I might be done with philosophy books for the year *sigh* though i really want to officially finish reading On What Matters (vols 1&2) just to move it onto my list of Great Accomplishments.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Rob Koch

    This was really not my cup of tea. I was expecting it to be more interesting or perhaps relevant to questions that I've had on the subject that I've posed to myself. I would say in general that the book was too dry/technical. I'm the last person who would fault something for being excessive in this way, but somehow Thomas Nagel managed to achieve that criticism from me. It's also possible that this wasn't really meant to be a point of entry to his work or for people unfamiliar with this field of This was really not my cup of tea. I was expecting it to be more interesting or perhaps relevant to questions that I've had on the subject that I've posed to myself. I would say in general that the book was too dry/technical. I'm the last person who would fault something for being excessive in this way, but somehow Thomas Nagel managed to achieve that criticism from me. It's also possible that this wasn't really meant to be a point of entry to his work or for people unfamiliar with this field of inquiry. In any case, I'll have to read the last couple of essays in the future if I ever determine it's necessary to return.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Eric Witchey

    Thought provoking philosophical considerations. A bit of a slog to get through, but worth it -- especially if you have someone with whom to discuss the material.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    One of my favorite philosophy books, covering topics such as animal consciousness, panpsychism, death, value judgments, and others.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    Recommended by Julia Galef on 10/24/10 Rationally Speaking podcast.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Dunigan

    A thought-provoking collection of 14 relatively short (~15 page) essays by philosopher Thomas Nagel focusing on topics like death, consciousness, and ethics. Some of the essays were too arcane for me and are probably only of interest to people who have actually studied philosophy. However, a few of the essays make the collection well worth the price of admission, and even if you aren't going to read the entire collection, I'd suggest reading a few them on their own. In particular, I'd suggest rea A thought-provoking collection of 14 relatively short (~15 page) essays by philosopher Thomas Nagel focusing on topics like death, consciousness, and ethics. Some of the essays were too arcane for me and are probably only of interest to people who have actually studied philosophy. However, a few of the essays make the collection well worth the price of admission, and even if you aren't going to read the entire collection, I'd suggest reading a few them on their own. In particular, I'd suggest reading Nagel's essays titled "Death," "The Absurd," and "Moral Luck." "Death" is an essay about whether or not death in itself is a bad thing. In Nagel's own words: "I want to ask whether death in itself is an evil; and how great an evil, and of what kind, it might be." An excerpt from this essay that I like: "Think of how an ordinary individual sweats over his appearance, his health, his sex life, his emotional honesty, his social utility, his self-knowledge, the quality of his ties with family, colleagues, and friends, how well he does his job, whether he understands the world and what is going on in it. Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern." "The Absurd" is an essay about Camus' concept of the absurdity of life. There is a lot of thought provoking discussion here. For example, "What we say to convey the absurdity of our lives often has to do with space or time: we are tiny specks in the infinite vastness of the universe; our lives are mere instants even on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived for ever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts seventy years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity? And if our lives are absurd given our present size, why would they be any less absurd if we filled the universe (either because we were larger or because the universe was smaller)? Reflection on our minuteness and brevity appears to be intimately connected with the sense that life is meaningless; but it is not clear what the connection is." Also, a highlight of this essay is when Nagel calls Camus' conclusions romantic and self-pitying: "Camus – not on uniformly good grounds – rejects suicide and the other solutions he regards as escapist. What he recommends is defiance or scorn. We can salvage our dignity, he appears to believe, by shaking a fist at the world which is deaf to our pleas, and continuing to live in spite of it. This will not make our lives un-absurd, but it will lend them a certain nobility. This seems to me romantic and slightly self-pitying. Our absurdity warrants neither that much distress nor that much defiance. At the risk of falling into romanticism by a different route, I would argue that absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics. Like skepticism in epistemology, it is possible only because we possess a certain kind of insight – the capacity to transcend ourselves in thought. [.....] If there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair." "Moral Luck" is an essay on the concept moral luck, which in itself is a very interesting concept that most would benefit from being exposed to. In Nagel's words, "Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck. Such luck can be good or bad." If you're only going to read one of these essays, I think this one would give you the most bang for you buck.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Andrei Khrapavitski

    This is a second book by Thomas Nagel I've read, first being "Last Word," which I liked a lot and would recommend to anyone fallen under the influence of postmodern denial of objectivity. "Mortal Questions" didn't disappoint, too. I'd read some of the essays collected here previously and was familiar with some of Nagel's claims, but it was great to go back to these texts and learn firsthand about his philosophy. The interesting thing about this book is that many of the "mortal questions" Nagel p This is a second book by Thomas Nagel I've read, first being "Last Word," which I liked a lot and would recommend to anyone fallen under the influence of postmodern denial of objectivity. "Mortal Questions" didn't disappoint, too. I'd read some of the essays collected here previously and was familiar with some of Nagel's claims, but it was great to go back to these texts and learn firsthand about his philosophy. The interesting thing about this book is that many of the "mortal questions" Nagel poses are approached in a very consistent way but left without conclusive answers. Readers are left to ponder upon the big questions of philosophy and morality. The book was first published in 1979, the year when I was born. Most of these questions are still unresolved, even though some of Nagel's views are challenged by new developments in neuroscience and other philosophers. Especially convincing criticism can be found in works of Derek Parfit, a brilliant philosopher whose groundbreaking books I can't recommend enough. I found "Death," the first essay in the book, particularly striking. Obvious as the conclusions may be if you ask pretty much anyone these days, it's interesting to read a philosopher carefully exploring the subject and proving why death is actually a bad thing. "Absurd," a second essay explores the meaning of life, its minuteness and brevity. Here Nagel reiterates some of the ideas expressed by existentialists, this part of the book might seem to be less original for that reason. But Nagel's position is well-argued. The third essay, "Moral Luck," is a must read. I think everyone should read it or, at least, be aware of what moral luck was. Here's a Wikipedia article about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_luck. There are other interesting essays in this book. For instance, "War and Massacre" collides utilitarian ethics with absolutism, "Ruthlessness in Public Life" explores the challenges of public and individual morality, "Equality" summarizes the problems of achieving equality and how it comes into conflict with utility and rights, "Panpsychism" challenges panpsychism (the view that consciousness, mind or soul is a universal and primordial feature of all things. Nagel's controversial and often quoted "What is it like to be a bat?" shouldn't be missed by anyone interested in consciousness. The preceding chapter "Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness" is another interesting piece, but somewhat outdated, I think. "Subjective and Objective" is the concluding chapter and one of the strongest, in my opinion. This is where we get to the problem of opposition between subjective and objective points of view. We should aim for objectivity, but this is a hard nut to crack. As Nagel claims, "Even on a consequentialist view, what one should do will depend on what one is in a position to do, and on the relative desirability of the possible outcomes. Nevertheless, the consequentialist judgment that one should do something is essentially the judgment that it would be best if one did it - that it ought to happen . The right thing to do is to turn oneself as far as possible into an instrument for the realization of what is best sub specie aeternitatis." But "life is always the life of a particular person, and cannot be lived sub specie aeternitatis." The coexistence of these conflicting points of view (objective and subjective) is not just a practically necessary illusion but an irreducible fact of life, Nagel concludes. Nagel explores this topic further in his following book "View from Nowhere." I like Nagel's early writings. However, I find some of his claims made here and elsewhere dubious. But then most of us never come to think about these challenging questions, let alone attempt to answer them.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Max

    Mortal Questions, if I understand correctly, is more a series of works than it is a work in itself, and this is apparent both in its subject matter and in its wildly unequal quality. Nagel's discussion of such topics as Death and morality are incredible, but he has an entire thing about why affirmative action is obviously bad but not like, so bad, and it's weird to read such a dumb take next to so many thoughtful ones. What's really cool about Nagel though (and the reason my philosophy book club* Mortal Questions, if I understand correctly, is more a series of works than it is a work in itself, and this is apparent both in its subject matter and in its wildly unequal quality. Nagel's discussion of such topics as Death and morality are incredible, but he has an entire thing about why affirmative action is obviously bad but not like, so bad, and it's weird to read such a dumb take next to so many thoughtful ones. What's really cool about Nagel though (and the reason my philosophy book club* chose to read it) is that Nagel is very good about his references to other philosophers. Whereas the writing of Simone De Beauvoir might be incomprehensible to someone not already versed in existentialism, each page littered with references to obscure things said by her boyfriend, Nagel is very careful in where he includes the works of other philosophers, only doing so when he believes that their ideas are important to the topic and relevant to his own. He takes great care to explain why he uses each reference, and explains what the original writer meant and picks highly evocative quotations for each. A particular quote by Sartre on Sexuality made me really regret being on a plane, one of the few locations where I couldn't go and download that Sartre book and start reading the rest of it immediately. Nagel rocks, and this book rocks. I originally rated this book 4 stars because of the sections of it that are pretty bad, but I have amended this to 5 stars because those parts that are good are so good that they elevate the whole thing. There were parts of my wedding day where I was just standing around waiting but that doesn't mean it wasn't a perfect day for me. *I have a philosophy book club, as we all do, because I am very cool, as we all are.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Christina

    Always fun but also extremely challenging and frustrating to read philosophy. This is no beginner’s intro to philosophy and I definitely but off more than I can chew. The essays on war and massacre, the fragmentation of value, and the subjective objective were my favourites. War and massacre because I’m a utilitarian/consequentialist and Nagel wrote a convincing argument against utilitarianism and for absolutism. I’ The fragmentation of value was excellent because it’s so applicable (like many of Always fun but also extremely challenging and frustrating to read philosophy. This is no beginner’s intro to philosophy and I definitely but off more than I can chew. The essays on war and massacre, the fragmentation of value, and the subjective objective were my favourites. War and massacre because I’m a utilitarian/consequentialist and Nagel wrote a convincing argument against utilitarianism and for absolutism. I’ The fragmentation of value was excellent because it’s so applicable (like many of the ideas in this book) to everyday life. We are all faced with decisions and will face many difficult decisions that really offer no solution. What makes these decisions so difficult is the fact that each one has multiple values of varying degrees. How should we then evaluate each of those values comparatively? Nagel provides a useful framework for bettering our judgement and at the very least made me feel better about not always having to make the best decision. Subjective and objective was also persuasive on the inaccuracy of claiming there is an objective reality. Overall I found Nagel’s approach of “the middle” way, multiple solutions, “there’s not really a solution that comes to my mind this is just the problem” to be slightly annoying because I want definitive answers. But I also realize that that’s just a fact of life and philosophy. Not many rules can really be strictly applied and the rules to be applied will likely require a case by case analysis. (3 stars bc honestly it was quite technical and I didn’t understand a decent amount of this book)

  18. 4 out of 5

    The Bean of

    Some quotes: ~~ the absurd results "by the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt" Pg. 13 "A person can be morally responsible only for what he does; but what he does results from a great deal that he does not do; therefore he is not morally responsible for what he is and is not morally responsible for. (This is not a contradiction, but a paradox)" Pg. 34 "The inc Some quotes: ~~ the absurd results "by the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt" Pg. 13 "A person can be morally responsible only for what he does; but what he does results from a great deal that he does not do; therefore he is not morally responsible for what he is and is not morally responsible for. (This is not a contradiction, but a paradox)" Pg. 34 "The inclusion of consequences in the conception of what we have done is an acknowledgment that we are parts of the world, but the paradoxical character of moral luck which emerges from this acknowledgment shows that we are unable to operate with such a view, for it leaves us with no one to be." Pg. 38

  19. 4 out of 5

    Katherine Gibson

    This book is quite good - there's loads of supported citations in each chapter arguing for or against whichever topic the author writes about, though I gave it three stars due to the density of his writing. As a novice turning into an amateur about learning and practicing philosophy, there were many heavy sentences I could not connect with immediately. I regard it as an advanced book for someone who may have achieved a B.A. in Philosophy, so the terminology might be more suited to academics. I di This book is quite good - there's loads of supported citations in each chapter arguing for or against whichever topic the author writes about, though I gave it three stars due to the density of his writing. As a novice turning into an amateur about learning and practicing philosophy, there were many heavy sentences I could not connect with immediately. I regard it as an advanced book for someone who may have achieved a B.A. in Philosophy, so the terminology might be more suited to academics. I did underline key phrases and sentences/paragraphs that caught my eye and that I'd like to learn more about, but in my opinion, this is not designed for pleasant reading. Definitely good topics to learn and debate about later on!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Feriyal

    I got introduced to “Moral questions” through Very Bad Wizards podcast, and Nagel’s discussions especially around absurdity, moral lucks & sexual perversion are really fascinating to me. But unfortunately, the language of the book, specially in the latest essays gets completely hard to understand. Isn’t this the author responsibility to make the content of the book more accessible to the readers?

  21. 4 out of 5

    Alex Bejan

    While the title of the book and the essays would lead you to believe that this is an approachable book, if you’re not a phylosophy major better skip it. It’s pretty difficult to read and the lack of examples (with a few exceptions) make it more of a grind than a pleasurable and insightful experience.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ivan Pretorius

    One of the relatively few contemporary philosophers who not only addresses important subjects of general intellectual interest (the fear of death, the attractions of sex, the influence of luck upon personality, etc.) but writes very intelligently about them.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jon Rossetti

    Perfect for anyone looking for clear, concise philosophical arguments with some exploration of overlooked philosophical absurdities.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    Great book exploring various philosophical topics like consciousness, objectivity, and justice.

  25. 5 out of 5

    David Jones

    Am influential book. A collection of (readable) essays that immediately became a must-read. It includes the landmark, 'What is it like to be a bat'. Am influential book. A collection of (readable) essays that immediately became a must-read. It includes the landmark, 'What is it like to be a bat'.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tim Gorichanaz

    An inspiring collection of essays on challenging topics.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jawdan Truckey

    Piercing and well reasoned philosophical inquiry into wide-ranging topics. Favourite essays: What is it like to be a bat?, Moral Luck, Death, Panpsychism.

  28. 5 out of 5

    André de Lannoy Tavares

    A bit more complex than I expected, especially initial and last chapters

  29. 5 out of 5

    Seabeast

    In Mortal Questions Nagel tackles many great philosophical issues, and he does it in a very concise and readable style. This collection of essays from the eminent american philosopher Thomas Nagel is at times enthralling and profound, at other times (though not often) dull and uninteresting. Thankfully, a great majority of what is to be found within the pages of this book piqued my own interests, and reading through them felt like a worthwhile effort. In my opinion, What is it like to be a bat? w In Mortal Questions Nagel tackles many great philosophical issues, and he does it in a very concise and readable style. This collection of essays from the eminent american philosopher Thomas Nagel is at times enthralling and profound, at other times (though not often) dull and uninteresting. Thankfully, a great majority of what is to be found within the pages of this book piqued my own interests, and reading through them felt like a worthwhile effort. In my opinion, What is it like to be a bat? was the most engaging of these essays, and that might be why it is also the most well known of the lot. However, I’m sure I’ll be returning to much of Nagel’s writings in the near future, in particular his discussions on topics such as value judgements, consciousness, personal identity, and the meaning of life. As I was reading the final essay, Subjective and objective, I was struck by the amount of parallels that existed between Nagel’s discussion of personal identity, specifically our conception of selves and Galen Strawson’s book by the same name. It will definitely be interesting for me to make further comparisons and to refer back to this text whenever I decide to seriously dig into Strawson’s work. Another (arguably more important) point made in this essay is that of recognising the common polarity between subjective and objective, as well as to not make the assumption that any understanding of the world can only come from a position of detachment (from our subjective point of view). In short, that “reality is not just objective reality”. Summa summarum—I highly recommend picking this book up if you have any interest in philosophy at all since the really excellent essays far outweigh the less excellent ones.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Billie Pritchett

    Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel is a great, easily-readable collection of essays about topics that relate to what it means to be human. A few highlights: there's an essay on the fear of death, whether we should fear it, another essay on why life so often feels absurd, and another essay about where our values come from, and if there's any real system underlying our values. Great little collection. Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel is a great, easily-readable collection of essays about topics that relate to what it means to be human. A few highlights: there's an essay on the fear of death, whether we should fear it, another essay on why life so often feels absurd, and another essay about where our values come from, and if there's any real system underlying our values. Great little collection.

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