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Definition: Nagel, Ernest from Chambers Biographical Dictionary


US philosopher of science

Born in Nové Město, Bohemia (Czech Republic), he moved to the USA (1911) and became a naturalized US citizen in 1919. He taught philosophy at Columbia University (1931-70) and published widely on the philosophy of science. His best-known works are his An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (1934, with M R Cohen), Logic without Metaphysics (1957) and The Structure of Science (1961).

Summary Article: Nagel, Ernest (1901–85),
from Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy

Czech-born American philosopher, the preeminent American philosopher of science in the period from the mid-1930s to the 1960s. Arriving in New York as a ten-year-old immigrant, he earned his B.S. degree from the College of the City of New York and his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1931. He was a member of the Philosophy Department at Columbia from 1930 to 1970. He coauthored the influential An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method with his former teacher, M. R. Cohen. His many publications include two well-known classics: Principles of the Theory of Probability (1939) and Structure of Science (1960).

Nagel was sensitive to developments in logic, foundations of mathematics, and probability theory, and he shared with Russell and with members of the Vienna Circle like Carnap and Phillip Frank a respect for the relevance of scientific inquiry for philosophical reflection. But his writing also reveals the influences of Cohen and that strand in the thinking of the pragmatism of Peirce and Dewey which Nagel himself called “contextualist naturalism.” He was a persuasive critic of Russell's views of the data of sensation as a source of non-inferential premises for knowledge and of cognate views expressed by some members of the Vienna Circle. Unlike Frege, Russell, Carnap, Popper, and others, he rejected the view that taking account of context in characterizing method threatened to taint philosophical reflection with an unacceptable psychologism. This stance subsequently allowed him to oppose historicist and sociologist approaches to philosophy of science.

Nagel's contextualism is reflected in his contention that ideas of determinism, probability, explanation, and reduction “can be significantly discussed only if they are directed to the theories or formulations of a science and not its subject matter” (Principles of the Theory of Probability, 1939). This attitude infused his influential discussions of covering law explanation, statistical explanation, functional explanation, and reduction of one theory to another, in both natural and social science. Similarly, his contention that participants in the debate between realism and instrumentalism should clarify the import of their differences for (context-sensitive) scientific methodology served as the core of his argument casting doubt on the significance of the dispute. In addition to his extensive writings on scientific knowledge methodology, Nagel wrote influential essays on measurement, the history of mathematics, and philosophy of law.

See also Covering Law Model, Philosophy of Science, Reduction, Vienna Circle.

Isaac Levi
© Cambridge University Press 1995, 1999, 2015

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