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national academy of sciences

ernest nagel


A Biographical Memoir by
patrick suppes

Any opinions expressed in this memoir are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.

Biographical Memoir Copyright 1994
national aCademy of sCienCes washington d.C.

November 16, 1901-September 20, 1985

born November 16, 1901, in Nove Mesto, Bohemia (now part of Czechoslovakia) and came to the United States when he was ten years old. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1919, and received his higher education entirely in the United States. In 1923 he received a Bachelor of Science from the College of the City of New York, in 1925 a Master's Degree in philosophy from ColumbiaUniversity, and in 1931, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia. He spent most of his academic career at Columbia. He was on the faculty there from 1931 to 1970, with the exception of the academic year 1966-67 when he accepted a position at Rockefeller University. From 1967 to 1970 he held the position of university professor at Columbia, and he continued to be active in the intellectual affairs of theuniversity after his retirement, including teaching seminars and courses. Ernest Nagel died in New York City on September 20, 1985. After his arrival in New York City in 1911, Nagel spent his entire life there, although he and his family regularly spent the summer in Vermont for many years. On January 20, 1935, he married Edith Alexandria Haggstrom, and they had two sons, Alexander Joseph, who is aprofessor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Sidney





Robert, who is a professor of physics at the University of Chicago. His wife Edith died in 1988. During his long and active academic career Nagel received many honors including honorary doctorates from a number of institutions. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in1934-35 and 1950-51. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1954, and to the American Philosophical Society in 1962. In 1977 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Nagel's many contributions to the philosophy of science are discussed below, but what is most important to emphasize about his more than forty years' association with Columbia University is the centralrole he played in the intellectual life of Columbia, and more generally, of New York City. To many generations of students he was the outstanding spokesman of what philosophy could offer in terms of analysis of the scientific method, as it is practiced in many different sciences, and in the relation between science and perennial problems of philosophy such as those of causality and determinism.What is important about this influence is that it was not simply students of philosophy, but students of many different disciplines whom he influenced in a way that many of them still remember. He saw his principal role as that of a philosophical critic of ill-conceived notions from whatever quarter they might come. It is this critical spirit of analysis and reflection that he especially communicatedto others. He was properly skeptical of philosophical edifices built independent of detailed scientific considerations. But he was equally critical of the writings of scientists who too blithely thought they could straighten out their colleagues on fundamental philosophical questions without proper knowledge of the many issues involved. His own intellectual mentors were Morris R. Cohen, with ERNEST NAGEL


whom he wrote the most influential textbook in logic and scientific method published in the period between the mid1950s and the mid-1950s, and John Dewey, who taught at Columbia for many years and was one of the most important American philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century. Throughout his career Nagel tried to combine the best elements of Cohen's...
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