A Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel

An American philosopher from the New Your University, Thomas Nagel, published his book What Does It All Mean? in 1987 at Oxford University Press, describing it as a short introduction to the mother of all sciences – philosophy. Written with exceptional clarity, rich with ideas and insights, the book sheds light on major philosophical problems, which “reflective human minds find naturally puzzling”, and provokes a reader to reconsider his view on questions concerning our mind, body, soul, morality and life as a whole. The true value of this book is that the author tends not to discuss significant but still complicated works of the great philosophers of the past and directly approach the universal philosophical questions “from our relation to it”. As Nagel states himself “the philosophical raw material comes directly from the world . . ., not from writings of the past. That is why they come up again . . . in the heads of people who haven't read about them”. What is more, the author does not present his ideas as answers to the posed questions, but leaves them open, giving readers the chance to think over the fundamental puzzles and find out own solutions. And no less important feature of the book is that is written in an accessible way which is welcoming to the new students of philosophy.

What Does It All Mean? is divided into ten chapters, each of them, besides introduction, represent nine philosophical questions: How do we know that the inside of our mind is not the only thing that exists and the reality is just a giant dream? How can we be sure that other people also have conscious mind and the other things, assumed unconscious, do not have it? What if people, feeling the same phenomenon of the reality, receive radically different experiences? How does a word or a sign mean anything? Do we have free will or all of our decisions have been already determined before we even act?  What makes us think that something is right and something is wrong? Why do unfair things happen to people and if there is a way to make it all fair? Is the life after death possible and how should we consider nonexistence? And lastly, do our lives have any meaning?

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The introduction of the book tells the readers what they should expect while reading the following chapters. Here the author tries to make us understand that even though philosophy questions common ideas, it is not always easy to deepen our understanding of them. One major philosophical problem can have plenty of following questions behind. But trying to solve them by yourself is a very entertaining and, more important, useful experience. 

The second chapter “How Do We Know Anything?” puts into question the existence of the reality outside our minds. Frankly speaking, it is very difficult to imagine that everything and everyone we know, everything in this world is just a plot of our imagination. Fortunately, Nagel provides readers with different views on every question in the book. In this chapter he demonstrates how the given matter is viewed by solipsists and skeptics. Solipsists believe that “your mind is the only thing that exists” and there is no external life outside it. And skeptics think that reality is the real world in which we live, but “our idea of the things that exist is just our idea of what we can observe”. This philosophical problem probably will never find any solution. But most of us so powerfully and instinctively believe in the real world outside our minds that maybe it is better to leave it as it is and stop demanding grounds for our belief.  

The third chapter, titled “Other Minds”, points out the fact that we do not have access to other people’s thoughts and feelings. We cannot look inside their minds. And this gives us the ground to doubt that people become similar experiences when they face similar realities of the world. There is no evidence that your friend sees the same green color as you when he looks at the grass, he might call it “green” but sees pink instead. In this chapter Nagel poses one more radical question, concerning consciousness. Again, we cannot formally prove that things around us, which are just believed to be unconscious, are actually unconscious. As far as we have no access inside of a person’s mind, there is a possibility that inanimate objects can be as conscious as a human being. 

In the fourth chapter “The Mind-Body Problem” Nagel presents two different views on the connection between our mind and brain: dualism and physicalism. Dualists believe in existence of soul. They think that our mental life goes on in our soul apart from the physical processes in our body.  The followers of the physicalism do not believe in soul. They are convinced that things we feel and our experiences are the result of complicated physical processes in our brain, that “mental states are just states of the brain”. Yet, the author provides one more possible answer to the current question: mental life takes place in the brain, but it is not a physical process. In other words, both physical and mental processes occur in our brain. Maybe in future the scientists will be able to explain how the physical elements when properly put together can form a conscious being. Then such finding will either confirm one of the theories or refute each of them. 

The fifth chapter “The Meaning of Words” looks into the mystery of word meaning’s location. As ridiculous as it may sound, it seems that the meaning of words is just suspended somewhere between the word and the thing it represents, and our mind just grasps it when we talk or think about this particular thing. Linguists believe that every word has a concept behind it, and there is a connection between a word, concept and the phenomenon of the reality this word stands for (they refer to it as semantic triangle). But what exactly is this concept?  There is no definite answer and the question “how does a word or a sign means anything?” stays open. 

In the sixth chapter “Free Will” the author suggests a possibility that all the decisions we have ever made, have been determined in advance by some circumstances, which, in their turn, have been influenced by other circumstances and so forth. Assuming that our decisions have been decided for us, it seems right to say that we cannot be responsible and blamed for what we do. But it is just an assumption and there is every chance that the determinism is false and the open possibility to choose is true.  

“Right and Wrong”, the seventh chapter, questions the morality, is it universal or not and what motives people have when it comes to decide what is right and what is wrong. Someone believes that people do right things in order to avoid later the feeling of guilt. Or the decision depends on person’s social background and situation. Nobody knows for sure how the morality works.

The eighth chapter “Justice” mainly addresses the problem of inequality in society. Very often people suffer from injustice undeservingly. They can do nothing wrong, but since their birth undergo material, social or any other disadvantages. Nagel appeals to a reader to think of the ways how to cure the injustice legitimately. 

The last two chapters are the most significant in the book and raise fundamental and universal questions about life and death.  The chapter “Death” firstly brings into a question the possibility of life after the death of body and the survival of soul. Of course, there is no evidence confirming such theory, but still many people truly believe in an afterlife, because it is a part of the faith they profess. Another question raised in the chapter is how people should feel about death. The opinions differ on this matter. Some people believe that death is an evil happened to someone, while others consider it as a relief or even as a blessing. And the author seems to believe that nonexistence cannot be something positive or negative, taking into account that death is nothing at all. 

The last chapter “Life” poses a question that probably every person asks himself at a certain period of his life: what is the meaning of my life? We all know that death is something inevitable. This statement raises doubts if anything we do in our lives really matters when it all is going to disappear one day. But the answer can be very easy – it is up to us to define whether our life is worth anything. “If there's any point at all to what we do, we have to find it within our own lives. Why is there any difficulty in that?”.

It is an interesting overall belief that philosophy can’t be formally proved by experiments and is grounded on asking questions and thinking of possible answers and arguments for and against them. Thomas Nagel has done a great job summarizing the major controversies, that are bothering people’s minds for centuries. What Does It All Mean?  presents a row of fundamental philosophical problems and provides readers with some already existent ideas while encouraging them to explore the matter by themselves and make own contribution to the great science.

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