Ernest Nagel (November 16, 1901 – September 22, 1985) was an important twentieth-century philosopher of science. Born in Prague, he emigrated to the United States as a child and earned his doctorate in 1930 from Columbia University. He joined the faculty of philosophy at Columbia in 1931 and remained there for all but one year of his academic career. After studying the works of Wittgenstein, and Rudolf Carnap and other logical positivists in Europe, Nagel adapted their theories within a framework of American pragmatism. He developed “contextualistic analysis,” an approach that emphasized the study of logic and philosophy as they were used in empirical science and experimentation, rather than as a separate discipline.
The Structure of Science (1961), an examination of the logical structure of scientific concepts and the claims of knowledge in various sciences, was one of the earliest and most important works in the field of the philosophy of science. Nagel proposed that it was possible to create analytic equivalencies (or "bridge laws") that could translate the terminology of one science into the terms of another, and developed the theory that the social and behavioral sciences could be translated into the language of the physical sciences, even though they dealt with phenomena that were not directly observable in the same way as physical phenomena.
Ernest Nagel was born November 16, 1901, in Nové Mĕsto, Prague (now capital of the Czech Republic; then part of the Austro Hungarian Empire) and immigrated to the United States at the age of ten with his family. In 1919 he received United States citizenship. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the City College of New York in 1923, and earned his doctorate from Columbia University in 1930. He joined the faculty of philosophy at Columbia in 1931. Except for one year (1966-1967) at Rockefeller University, he spent his entire academic career at Columbia. He served as an editor of the Journal of Philosophy (1939-1956) and the Journal of Symbolic Logic (1940-1946).
Nagel collaborated with Morris Cohen, his teacher at City College of New York on An Introduction to Logic and the Scientific Method, which was published in 1934 and became one of the first and most successful textbooks of scientific method. They explored the study of empirical science through experimentation, emphasizing the role of hypotheses in conducting research.
In 1935 Nagel married Edith Haggstrom; the couple had two children, Alexander and Sidney. After a year of study in Europe, in 1936, Nagel published an essay, "Impressions and Appraisals of Analytic Philosophy in Europe," in the Journal of Philosophy, which introduced the work of the European philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Rudolf Carnap to Americans. In 1957 Nagel published Logic without Metaphysics, and in 1961, The Structure of Science (1961), considered as one of the best works on the philosophy of science.
Nagel became John Dewey professor of philosophy at Columbia University in 1955. In 1967 he achieved the most distinguished academic rank, University Professor, and in 1970, became Professor Emeritus. He remained a special lecturer at Columbia until 1973. Ernest Nagel died of pneumonia at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City on Sept. 22, 1985.
Many of Nagel’s writings were articles or book reviews; two of his books, Sovereign Reason (1954) and Logic without Metaphysics (1957) are collections of previously published articles. His masterpiece was The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation (1961). His other books were written in collaboration with others: An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (with M. R. Cohen, 1934), and Observation and Theory in Science (1971). During the 1930s, Nagel, who was originally trained as a logician, wrote two textbooks, Principles of the Theory of Probability and The Logic of Measurement. In 1958, he published, with James R. Newman, Gödel's proof, a short book explicating Gödel's incompleteness theorems to those not well trained in mathematical logic.
From the 1930s to the 1960s Ernest Nagel was the most prominent American philosopher of science. Originally, influenced by his teacher, Morris R. Cohen, Nagel advocated logical realism, holding that the principles of logic represent the universal and eternal traits of nature. Later, however, he developed an approach that stressed abstract and functional aspects of logic and the philosophy of science, in their application to empirical science and experimentation. After studying the teachings of Wittgenstein and the European logical positivists, Nagel adapted them to the naturalism of the American pragmatists. He developed what he called “contextualistic analysis,” a method for interpreting "the meanings of theoretical constructions in terms of their manifest functions in identifiable contexts." His 1944 paper, "Logic without Ontology” explored the expression of logic and mathematics in purely linguistic terms.
Nagel took the pragmatist concept that all phenomena result from the essential nature of matter, which can therefore be understood through scientific inquiry, and developed the theory that the social and behavioral sciences could be translated into the language of the physical sciences, even though they dealt with phenomena that were not directly observable in the same way as physical phenomena, and with human emotions and value judgments. He rejected any efforts at reduction that were not based on scientific experimentation.
In his presidential address of 1954 to the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, Nagel defined naturalism as "a generalized account of the cosmic scheme and of man's place in it, as well as a logic of inquiry." Naturalism, he said, was "the executive and causal primacy of matter in the executive order of nature" and "the manifest plurality and variety of things, of their qualities and their functions, ... [as] an irreducible feature of the universe."
The Structure of Science (1961), an examination of the logical structure of scientific concepts and the claims of knowledge in various sciences, was one of the earliest and most important works in the field of the philosophy of science. Nagel tried to show that the same logic of scientific explanation was valid in all sciences, and that the social and behavioral sciences could be reduced to physical science. He characterized the disagreements between the descriptive, the realist, and the instrumentalist views of scientific concepts as conflicts over "preferred modes of speech."
Nagel was the first to propose that by positing analytic equivalencies (or "bridge laws") between the terms of different sciences, it was possible to eliminate all ontological commitments except those required by the most basic science. Nagel’s account of “reduction,” the process by which one science or theory is absorbed into another, has had a continuing influence on the philosophy of science. Along with Rudolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach, and Carl Hempel, he is one of the major figures of the logical positivist movement.
”Philosophy is in general not a primary inquiry into the nature of things. It is a reflection on the conclusion of those inquiries that may sometimes terminate, as it did in the case of Spinoza, in a clarified vision of man's place in the scheme of things.” (Ernest Nagel, Acceptance Speech for Columbia's Nicholas Murray Butler Medal in Gold, 1980)
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