A leading American philosopher of science, Ernest Nagel (1901-1985) developed a logical empirical theory of science within the framework of pragmatic naturalism.
Ernest Nagel was born in Czechoslovakia on Nov. 16, 1901. His family emigrated to the United States when Ernest was 10 years old. He became an American citizen in 1919. While teaching for a decade in New York City public schools, he earned a bachelor of science degree from the City College of New York in 1923 and his doctorate from Columbia University in 1930. Except for a year at City College at the beginning of his teaching career and a year (1966-1967) at Rockefeller University, he was a professor of philosophy at Columbia University. In 1967, he became a University Professor at Columbia, the most distinguished academic rank. In addition, he served as an editor of the Journal of Philosophy (1939-1956) and of the Journal of Symbolic Logic (1940-1946).
At City College, Nagel studied under Morris Cohen, who emphasized the role of reason in science. Nagel's association with Cohen led to the publication of An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (1934), one of the first and most successful textbooks in the field. Cohen and Nagel claimed to have found "a place for the realistic formalism of Aristotle, the scientific pragmatism of [Charles S.] Peirce, the pedagogical soundness of [John] Dewey, and the mathematical rigor of [Bertrand] Russell." They interpreted empirical science experimentally, stressing the role of hypotheses in conducting research.
Trained as a logician, Nagel wrote his earliest books on logic. In the 1930s, Nagel wrote two textbooks, Principles of the Theory of Probability and The Logic of Measurement. He married Edith Haggstrom in 1935; they had two children, Alexander and Sidney.
After a year of study in Europe, Nagel published a historic report, "Impressions and Appraisals of Analytic Philosophy in Europe," in the Journal of Philosophy (1936). This essay introduced Americans to the philosophical work of the European philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Rudolf Carnap. Nagel sought to adapt the teachings of the logical positivists to the more comprehensive framework of American pragmatic naturalism. The influence of logical positivism on his thought resulted in his concepts of logic and mathematics in linguistic terms. This conclusion was developed in his 1944 paper "Logic without Ontology."
Most of Nagel's writings took the form of journal articles and book reviews. Two of his books Sovereign Reason (1954) and Logic without Metaphysics (1957) consist wholly of previously published articles. These showed him to be one of the most analytic and critical thinkers in American philosophy. They also expressed and illustrated Nagel's method of contextualistic analysis, by which he interpreted "the meanings of theoretical constructions in terms of their manifest functions in identifiable contexts."
Nagel expounded his naturalism in 1954, in his presidential address before the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. He 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, to Nagel, 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), heralded as one of the best works in the philosophy of science, examined the logical structure of scientific concepts and evaluated the claims of knowledge in various sciences. Nagel tried to show that the same logic of scientific explanation was valid in all sciences. He viewed the controversy between the descriptive, the realist, and the instrumentalist views of scientific concepts to be simply conflicts over "preferred modes of speech."
Nagel became a University Professor Emeritus in 1970 and remained a special lecturer at Columbia until 1973. In 1980, while receiving Columbia's Nicholas Murray Butler Medal in Gold, he explained his view of philosophy: "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." Nagel died of pneumonia at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City on Sept. 22, 1985.
The New American Philosophers (1968) by Andrew J. Reck; Thinkers of the Twentieth Century (1987) and The Encyclopedia of Unbelief (1985).