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Philosophy of Science as First Philosophy: The Liberal Polemics of Ernest Nagel

Part of the Logic, Epistemology, and the Unity of Science book series (LEUS,volume 53)


This chapter explores Nagel’s polemics. It shows these have a two-fold character: (i) to defend liberal civilization against all kinds of enemies. And (ii) to defend what he calls ‘contextual naturalism.’ And the chapter shows that (i-ii) reinforce each other and undermine alternative political and philosophical programs. The chapter’s argument responds to an influential argument by George Reisch that Nagel’s professional stance represents a kind of disciplinary retreat from politics. In order to respond to Reisch the relationship between Nagel’s philosophy of science and his politics is explored and this chapter shows how both are anchored in what Nagel once called his ‘contextual naturalism’—a metaphysics that resists imposing the unity of the world and treats all entities as embedded in a wider network of entities. Part of the argument traces out how Nagel’s views on responsible speech and professionalism reflect a distinct understanding of the political role of philosophers of science.


  • Ernest Nagel: cold war liberalism
  • Responsible speech
  • Philosophy of science
  • Analytic philosophy

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  1. 1.

    In his 1942 textbook The Theory of Competitive Price (New York: MacMillan) George J. Stigler refers to Cohen & Nagel’s An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method as “recommended readings” at the end of his introductory methodological chapter. I thank David Levy for scanning relevant pages on my behalf. For more on the context, see Schliesser (2011).

  2. 2.

    Founded in 1947, the Free Press was relatively new then. While it became increasingly known for a more conservative list, initially it was quite eclectic in its selections. Max Weber, Durkheim, Bernard Russell, and Morris R. Cohen were included among the authors it published.

  3. 3.

    Nagel does not use ‘polemic’ very often. Indeed, when he criticizes Dewey’s “logical writings” he calls them “sharp polemics” (SR 137). But Nagel is not criticizing Dewey’s logical writings because they are polemical but because they misfire (either because the are aimed at the wrong target or because Dewey seems to miss the problems in his own conception). And, in fact, Nagel commends Dewey’s “use of polemic” because it illustrates “that socialized, cooperative method of science for which he is a spokesman and a pleader.” (SR 137) I treat this claim as an instance of Nagel’s self-description, too.

  4. 4.

    I do not mean to suggest that (i-iii) exhaust the historical significance of these essays. Elsewhere I have argued that “Impressions and Appraisals of Analytic Philosophy in Europe” (republished in LWM) is significant to the sociological and conceptual founding of analytic philosophy. See Schliesser (2013).

  5. 5.

    See also the first sentence of the 1947 review of Morgenthau’s Scientific Man versus Power Politics: “The defeat of human aspirations following profound social upheavals is frequently accompanied by loss of confidence in rational methods as ways of resolving the problems of society.” (LWM 377).

  6. 6.

    One may, correctly, note that Philipp Frank and Charles Morris were as important as Nagel in promoting the congruence of pragmatism and logical empiricism. But on my account (Schliesser 2013) Nagel created the conceptual and sociological basis for this. I thank Ádám Tuboly for discussion.

  7. 7.

    This danger means that sometimes philosophers may require prudence. I explore this a bit more when I discuss Nagel’s views on responsible speech below.

  8. 8.

    This survives into his later Structure, and clearly is in the background of Kuhn’s Structure. See, for example, Bird (2004).

  9. 9.

    In light of LWM 247ff, I would expect that Nagel was familiar with Merton (1942), but Nagel avoids the kind of characterization we find in Merton (1942). I thank Treavor Pearce for discussion.

  10. 10.

    In modern scholarship this is often treated as methodological analytic egalitarianism (MAE) that was given wider currency by Peart and Levy (2009). A key feature of MAE is, to simplify, that for modeling purposes, agents are at least initially treated as roughly equal; and that any differences one attribute to agents are a consequence of their interactions and environment. In recent philosophy of science, we find versions of MAE in the Zollman school of formal epistemology of science, e.g., Bright (2017); and, more indebted to Peart and Levy, Schliesser (2018). Nagel’s commitment to MAE has metaphysical foundations which I will explore in the next section. Unfortunately, Nagel’s egalitarianism is gendered male (see also note 42 below).

  11. 11.

    This also informs some of Nagel’s impatience with and suspicion of the Wittgenstein circle (LWM 206).

  12. 12.

    For the significance of Nagel’s stance toward the development of what became ‘analytic philosophy, see, especially, the use of the “keen, shining sword helping to dispel irrational beliefs” (LWM 197) and the “obscurantism” of “traditional philosophy” (LWM 196).

  13. 13.

    Nagel (1938) falls outside the Corpus and in this paper I only use it as supporting evidence. Why Nagel decided to leave it aside is worth further investigation. I thank Ádám Tuboly for discussion.

  14. 14.

    See Polanyi (1962, p. 60): “The authority of scientific opinion remains essentially mutual; it is established between scientists, not above them. Scientists exercise their authority over each other. Admittedly, the body of scientists, as a whole, does uphold the authority of science over the lay public.”.

  15. 15.

    As Polanyi (1962, p. 72) recognizes, his model “society does not offer particularly wide private freedoms. It is the cultivation of public liberties that distinguishes [his] free society.”.

  16. 16.

    See Schliesser (2012, 2016). For important nuance, see Hart (1998).

  17. 17.

    Trevor Pearce called my attention to the fact that this echoes Dewey (1939). There are also echoes to the republican tradition of inspired by Rousseau.

  18. 18.

    This goes well beyond (ii), which is backward-looking; (iv) is forward looking.

  19. 19.

    He discusses Koopmans (1957, p. 140); see Nagel (1963, p. 219).

  20. 20.

    See, especially Nagel (1963, p. 218), and the sophisticated references to Knight and Samuelson.

  21. 21.

    Not all socialist programs are alike. Nagel is scathing about top-down unity of science proposed by Cornforth (LWM 399); he is much sympathetic to the Neurathian ‘unity of science’ (in Nagel 1938), presumably because it is more collaborative and democratic. I thank Ádám Tuboly for discussion.

  22. 22.

    From my perspective, it is no surprise, then, that Nagel offered a fierce criticism of Hayek (LWM 361–368). This review is primarily directed against Hayek’s view that the “extension of the methods of the natural sciences into social inquiry is an abuse of reason” (LWM 368). But it seems pretty obvious that Nagel’s sub-text is that adopting the methods of the natural sciences, when properly understood and conceptualized, in social inquiry does not lead to the (now quoting Hayek) “hubris of collectivism” (LWM 363).

  23. 23.

    See the book review by Bidney (1955). Contextual Naturalism is listed as one of the forms of naturalism in the survey by Riepe (1958, 734). An interesting exception is Frank’s last book, The Humanistic Background of Science, where Frank discusses Nagel under the label “contextual naturalism” in various sections (see, especially, pp. 271–274). I thank Ádám Tuboly for alerting me to this.

  24. 24.

    For the development of Nagel’s naturalism, see Sander Verhaegh’s chapter in this volume.

  25. 25.

    This helps explain Nagel’s polemic with, say, Blanshard, against the reality of internal relations and monism in the essay, “Sovereign Reason” (SR 266–295). Nagel’s view echoes James and Skrupskelis (1977). I thank Trevor Pearce for alerting me to this.

  26. 26.

    See Cartwright (1999); Dupré (1995). On the Stanford School, see Cat (2017), especially The position also anticipates what has become known as “Minnesota Pluralism” (associated with Helen Longino, Ronald Giere, and Ken Waters). See Solomon and Richardson (2005, p. 218).

  27. 27.

    Suppes (1994/2012) wrote a lovely, informative obituary of Nagel, but he does not speak about Nagel’s metaphysics. I warmly recommend the interview conducted by Herfeld (2016), but she did not ask about Suppes’ attitude toward Nagel’s metaphysics.

  28. 28.

    The claim about Bagehot is made by Emmett (2020, p. 303). Not all references to Knight are positive in Nagel (see SR 32n).

  29. 29.

    The significance of the human body might make one suspect that Nagel could be a fellow traveler of, say, progressive embrace of eugenic practices. But as far as I can tell he resists this lure, and is scathing about racialized eugenics (e.g., SR 32; in context, this is partial concession to the neo-Thomist critique of modernity).

  30. 30.

    I thank an anonymous referee for the objection.

  31. 31.

    See Pearce (2020, p. 282) for the roots of this material in Dewey and Mead.

  32. 32.

    While some (including Popper and Hayek) have a tendency to treat Popper as a fellow traveler with Austrian economics, there is no doubt that Popper views are compatible with elements of the New Deal or social democratic sensibility. On the role “working hypothesis” in pragmatism, see Pearce (2020, pp. 329–331).

  33. 33.

    While I do not deny that in his bottom up sensibility, Nagel is closer to Dewey than he is to Walter Lippmann (who has a fondness for the circulation of elites through society and government), they (Nagel and Lippmann) share in a liberalism that embraces what I have called a ‘spirit of adaptation’ in Schliesser (2019).

  34. 34.

    Part of the contrast between pragmatism and contextual naturalism, is the fact that the latter contain not just the keenest, but many of the “best disciplined minds among the younger men” (53). For the contemporary significance of discipline within philosophy, see Williamson (2006, esp. p. 182).

  35. 35.

    Crucially, for Nagel ‘logic’ or the ‘inclusive sense of logic’ studies the “methods employed by men aiming at stable knowledge, assays their efficacy in achieving this aim, examines the role of critical thought in every department of human activity, and institutes a rigorous inquiry into conditions upon which the significance and effective operation of discourse rests. It is a genuine organon for achieving a rational life and society.” (LWM 52).

  36. 36.

    A speculation: this is also obliquely indicated in the criticism of Morgenthau. For Nagel liberalism, of the sort represented by Mill, can take on board not just a more historicized understanding of social explanation/science, but also romanticism’s insights into human need and individuality. That is to say, against Morgenthau’s “irresponsible romanticism” (explicitly indebted to Nietzsche), Nagel places a more responsible romanticism indebted to Mill (LWM 380).

  37. 37.

    As noted in Schliesser (2013), Nagel himself was about to embark on a funded tour of Europe where he would discover and partially help legislate a very different philosophical scene.

  38. 38.

    There is clearly a limit to Nagel’s pluralism that is partially set by his commitment to rigor and clarity. Unlike, say, Lippmann (Schliesser 2019), Nagel leaves very little space for the confused and those he suspects lack a liberal temper.

  39. 39.

    Adam Smith noticed the same phenomenon about the effects on the machine laborer.

  40. 40.

    For non-exhaustive overview, see Suppes (1994/2012).

  41. 41.

    In Nagel (1938, p. 46), Nagel makes this very point about formal logic: “In our own day formal logic, traditionally a part of philosophy, is becoming so specialized that in the near future perhaps only men with a thorough mathematical training will be capable of following its development.” In larger context Nagel is exploring what might be subject matter for philosophers. (Sadly, he does not seem to be alert to his own gendered presuppositions here.).

  42. 42.

    A curious feature of Reisch’s book is the absence of Heidegger. This is presumably why the question of responsible speech is not salient for him.

  43. 43.

    Concern over responsible speech also has a long history in liberal political theory; see Schliesser (2017).

  44. 44.

    On the consequentialist justification of Carnap’s methodology, see especially Stein (1992).

  45. 45.

    I thank Don Howard for helping me get clear on this.

  46. 46.

    Nagel is describing what he calls ‘naturalism’ here, but it is naturalism that is supposed to result from professional methods.

  47. 47.

    I thank Don Howard, Trevor Pearce, and an anonymous referee, for feedback. I thank Michael Weisberg, Anna Alexandrova, and Liam Kofi Bright for encouragement. I am very grateful to Ádám Tuboly for his many helpful suggestions.


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Schliesser, E. (2022). Philosophy of Science as First Philosophy: The Liberal Polemics of Ernest Nagel. In: Neuber, M., Tuboly, A.T. (eds) Ernest Nagel: Philosophy of Science and the Fight for Clarity. Logic, Epistemology, and the Unity of Science, vol 53. Springer, Cham.

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