What Does it All Mean by Thomas Nagel


WhatDoes it All Mean by Thomas Nagel

Thereare many things and common ideas that we use in our everyday livesthat we usually do not think about or wonder its essence. In the bookWhatDoes it All Mean, thewriter, Thomas Nagel, tries to question and help the readers to thinkabout the common ideas. Nagel introduces philosophy by providing somequestions and concepts that people could think about. According toNagel, Philosophy is not the same with Science which has the methodof observation and experiments to prove theories. It is alsodifferent from Mathematics which has a formal methodology and proofs.The concepts in philosophy are done using questions, arguments, andcreating ideas on how the concepts work (Nagel, 5).

Nagelintroduces Philosophy with his nine fundamental principles orquestions which could relate most of the philosophical concepts.These are only some of the ideas in philosophy that could relate tothe common knowledge of human. Some of the main questions that Nagelargues are the concept of free will, the complexity of mind and bodyand the meaning of life. This essay tries to analyze some of thechapters of Nagel’s book and uses the arguments to present some ofthe concepts and ideas used in the philosophical methods.

HowDo We Know Anything?

Nagelfirst question the reality of the world around us by arguing aboutwhat truly exist. For some reason, it is true that the only thing aman could believe is what is inside his or her mind. Basically, weall believe things we experience or what we perceive through oursenses. For example, we believe that there is floor if you feel it inyour feet (Nagel, 13). The main argument of Nagel in this chapter isabout how to prove that anything truly exists.

Nagelintroduce the idea that the thing which truly exists is our mind andthere is an external world in which we are all dreaming andhallucinating. The product of our senses is the interpretation of themind and we are programmed to believe our experiences. There externalworld might be a different world and it is also possible that we areonly brains and have no actual body (Nagel, 14). There are manythings that are possible with this idea and Nagel helped to think allof these by providing three main questions to wonder.

Thefirst main question that Nagel introduces is about the Solipsismapproach. Solipsism is a philosophical idea that the mind is the onlything that truly exists and the external world or the other mindscannot be sure to exist. For the skepticism approach on the idea,there is no method or way that the external world or anything outsidethe mind could be observed or tell its characteristic. There is noway to get any evidence (Nagel, 15)

Thereare things that could only be certain inside the mental state of themind and the physicality of it cannot explain philosophicalquestions. The universe that we understand and believe is composingof materials which are observable by senses and these senses are onlyexplained in the conscious mind. Even if the only thing that canprove the external world is though observation by senses, no onecould ever observe mental contents. It may also be possible that themental contents do not represent a real object (Nagel, 16)

Forasserting that mind is the only certain thing that could happen, thenmany possible things could be imagined. The certainty of the realitycould never be proved using the observational science but it couldbring up some of the most important philosophical questions. There isalso a possibility that a mind is just an illusion that the memoryand experiences are only used make a person believe reality. There isalso a possibility that the physical being does not really exist andthe projections are only a state of the mind or the consciousness.This philosophical idea makes the mind and the physical being to benot totally reliable (Nagel, 17).

TheMind-Body Problem

Themind-body problem is an old philosophical question about the truerelationship between the consciousness and the brain. The DualismTheory relates the two aspects to be two completely different things.On the other hand, the Materialism Theory relates the two identitiesto be the same thing and the mental states are also the brain states.There are other ways and theories to view about the concepts of thephilosophical argument but Nagel introduces one of his viewpoints. Heintroduces the Dual Aspect Theory on the relationship between theconsciousness and the brain. The brain and the consciousness are thesame thing although they are different aspect since the mental statescannot be characterized by the physical properties (Nagel, 31).

Somecommon knowledge about the brain and the mind are believed throughthe observational methods of science. For example, we know thatcertain changes in the body, in which the brain is a part of, isconnected and related to what happens in the consciousness. Whensomeone wants to change something in his or her consciousness, therehas to be a change in his or her brain. Basically, the mind changesas there are physical changes in the body especially in the brain.These are some reasons to understand how the mind affects the brainand how the brain also affects the conscious mind (Nagel, 30).

Thephysicalism or the materialism theory is the most common to peoplesince we are living in the universe where almost all are observablesince they are all made up of matter. The mental states are only thepart of the objective reality that the physical states experience.However, the mental aspects are not observable so the physicality ofthe mind is also in question. The same goes with the dualism theory(Nagel, 33). So to explain the philosophical concept of the mind andbody problem, Nagel introduces the dual aspect theory.

Thebasic philosophical question in this chapter of Nagel’s book is howthe mind and the brain different from each other or are they thesame. As Nagel points in his book “thebrain is the seat of consciousness, but its conscious states are notjust physical states”.The phrase in his book tells the basic principle in which the dualismaspect theory relies into. The experience of an individual producesone state of the mind which is divided into two different aspectswhich are physical and mental. The physical aspect involves thephysical and chemical changes that occurs in the event or experience.On the other hand, the mental aspect involves the perception or thefeelings that the mind or the consciousness accepts or interprets(Nagel, 34).

TheMeaning of Life

Thereare many things that should answer the essence of life for anindividual. A man could live happily or care his or her love ones tocreate a meaning for his or her life or a meaning to someone’slife. However, none of the individual options that a man could chooseto create meaning to life have the whole answer to what really is theessence of living. The point is simple if you just analyze it in asmall scale which is only involving the world around you. If youpicture the whole thing covering all areas that a man could involvewith, it is very difficult to find the explanation for the meaning oflife (Nagel, 96).

Anotherquestion to the argument about the meaning of life is also themeaning of the question. The essence of the meaningless life is alsoin question. Nagel argues about how life to be meaningless a way tounderstand the essence of the world around us. The point ofeverything lies to the answer for the essence of life. And the majorquestion to ponder when answering this question is what would satisfyus for the need of the meaning (Nagel, 98).

ForNagel, the way of humans in seeking the meaning of life relates onhow they view themselves as an individual and as a part of thesociety. It is different from any living things because we have a wayof transcending ourselves in thoughts. The meaning of life can alsobe related to the philosophical ideas of religion although themeaning of anything after God would also be an argument. In the lastpart of Nagel’s chapter, he argued that life may not be meaninglessat all but he describes it to be absurd (Nagel, 101).

Theabsurdity of life also has different meanings for variousphilosophical concepts. It may come from an idea that man has shortlives compared to the universe. However, it may not change if youlive long enough to prove the meaning of life. The absurd life isseen as a man living in earth although it is only a small dust of theuniverse. It is not the incapability of the world to give meaning butit is how man view himself to the world that makes life to be absurd(Nagel, 101).

Thephilosophical argument of life being absurd could not be viewed in anindividual point of view. It can be viewed in everyday life as longas there is an imbalance for a person to distinguish aspirations intothe reality. The person may not be satisfied for everything happensthat he or she thinks that should not happened which makes life to benon-sense to them. However, there is more satisfaction for peoplewhich makes every meaning of life to be possible.


Nageltries to introduce how philosophy is different to the observationalscience which makes use of our senses to prove many things andmathematics which have the formal methods to prove quantities. ForNagel, philosophy recognizes the fact that there are questions thatcould not be answered by science and mathematics alone. Thesephilosophical questions are the foundation of philosophy and Nagelintroduces 9 of them in his book WhatDoes it All Mean.The concept of mind to be the only thing that exists also createdmany possibilities to wonder. Nagel also explained the dual aspecttheory of the mind and body problem which relates the consciousnessand the brain to be two aspects of the same thing. And lastly, healso explains how the man view himself to the world makes life to beabsurd.


Nagel,T. What does it All Mean: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy.Oxford University Press: New York Oxford. 1987. Print.