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Mortal Questions

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  569 ratings  ·  41 reviews
Questions about our attitudes towards death, sexual behavior, social inequality, war and political power progress to more obviously philosophical problems regarding personal identity, consciousness, freedom and value.
Paperback, 213 pages
Published June 28th 1991 by Cambridge University Press (first published 1979)
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Average rating 4.07  · 
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Jul 19, 2009 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Fans of Philosophy
Shelves: philosophy
Fourteen essays in this book tie together the question of how philosophy applies in everyday life. Nagel’s writing drags a bit in places, and not all the essays are of equal interest. The personal nature of the inquiry is the book's main draw and the best reason for reading it. The most helpful approach to this kind of book is to list its topics and give my ratings, as follows:


Death – A rather short discussion asking why death is thought of as such a bad event. ****

Absurdity – Excell
Nick Black
Jun 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
One of the most probing and worthwhile philosophic disquisitions of the twentieth century.
Hossein Gholamie
Jan 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Thomas Nagel began with the most abstract issues and areas in philosophy to reach concrete issues: metaphysics-> epistemoligy,-> philosophy of mind-> Ethics-> political philosophy-> economics.
Thomas Nagel in all areas of philosophy: "metaphysics, epistemology, ethics", and some of the most important branches of philosophy: "philosophy, ethics, philosophy of law, political philosophy, philosophy of mind", has had a huge contribution.
He discusses the most abstract philosophical issues, such as "co
May 21, 2019 added it
Too hard for me! I understood chunks of it, but there was plenty that whizzed past me. Great topics though. Includes the famous “What is it like to be a bat” essay. I guess I need a “Thomas Nagel for Dummies” book.
Daniel Hageman
First half of this book is a 3, while the second half is a 5..had I known it'd have a much more interesting finish, I probably would have prioritized reading it a bit more! Nagel's ideas on consciousness, value fragmentation, and the dichotomous issues of objectivity/subjectivity are seemingly timeless, and great food for thought for those that don't fall in the same camp as him on these particular issues. ...more
Maggie Roessler
First time to my knowledge I've seen a philosopher argue that death is really bad and we should be scared of it. And it's a good point about the nature of goodness not being restricted to non-relational properties ascribable to a human at different times. Still, surprising that Nagel would fail to look into the huge variety of other reasons that philosophers have embraced the idea of death.

Which points to a crucial element of Nagel's style. He is arguing with the language of the people, using th
Matthew Ting
Tried using this as a broad introduction to philosophy. Too dense / abstractly written for me to really get into. Now I get why everyone who read the New Yorker likes philosophy so much...

Maybe this is one I try again later in life when I'm a more sophisticated and wise guy
Feb 10, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The title of Thomas Nagel’s Mortal Questions may appear to promise a set of inquiries with reachable termination points, but in fact the opposite is true. This collection of short essays explores a slew of multifaceted and often-insouble problems surrounding the nature of human society and experiential life that Nagel pondered during the 1970s. Nagel is nobly driven to confront issues that are “multiple, complex, often cloudy, and mixed up with many others,” and to plumb the intellectual depths ...more
Jul 05, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: deep-thought
"Moral Luck" and "What is it like to be a bat?" are oft-cited works in other books i've read, which is why i initially bought this collection. I'm tempted to call them classic or canonical works in the field.

"Death", ironically(?) the first essay, was a crucial ingredient in Todd May's book on the same topic and with the same title, so i read it 3 times. It also influences my reaction to books such as Jason Shiga's Demon series of graphic novels.

"Subjective and Objective" closes the collection a
Rob Koch
Sep 09, 2009 rated it liked it
This was really not my cup of tea. I was expecting it to be more interesting or perhaps relevant to questions that I've had on the subject that I've posed to myself. I would say in general that the book was too dry/technical. I'm the last person who would fault something for being excessive in this way, but somehow Thomas Nagel managed to achieve that criticism from me. It's also possible that this wasn't really meant to be a point of entry to his work or for people unfamiliar with this field of ...more
Eric Witchey
Thought provoking philosophical considerations. A bit of a slog to get through, but worth it -- especially if you have someone with whom to discuss the material.
Jul 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing
One of my favorite philosophy books, covering topics such as animal consciousness, panpsychism, death, value judgments, and others.
Nov 18, 2010 marked it as maybe-read
Recommended by Julia Galef on 10/24/10 Rationally Speaking podcast.
May 17, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A thought-provoking collection of 14 relatively short (~15 page) essays by philosopher Thomas Nagel focusing on topics like death, consciousness, and ethics. Some of the essays were too arcane for me and are probably only of interest to people who have actually studied philosophy. However, a few of the essays make the collection well worth the price of admission, and even if you aren't going to read the entire collection, I'd suggest reading a few them on their own.
In particular, I'd suggest rea
Andrei Khrapavitski
Mar 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a second book by Thomas Nagel I've read, first being "Last Word," which I liked a lot and would recommend to anyone fallen under the influence of postmodern denial of objectivity. "Mortal Questions" didn't disappoint, too. I'd read some of the essays collected here previously and was familiar with some of Nagel's claims, but it was great to go back to these texts and learn firsthand about his philosophy. The interesting thing about this book is that many of the "mortal questions" Nagel p ...more
Jan 03, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Mortal Questions, if I understand correctly, is more a series of works than it is a work in itself, and this is apparent both in its subject matter and in its wildly unequal quality. Nagel's discussion of such topics as Death and morality are incredible, but he has an entire thing about why affirmative action is obviously bad but not like, so bad, and it's weird to read such a dumb take next to so many thoughtful ones.

What's really cool about Nagel though (and the reason my philosophy book club*
Feb 09, 2021 rated it liked it
Always fun but also extremely challenging and frustrating to read philosophy. This is no beginner’s intro to philosophy and I definitely but off more than I can chew.

The essays on war and massacre, the fragmentation of value, and the subjective objective were my favourites.

War and massacre because I’m a utilitarian/consequentialist and Nagel wrote a convincing argument against utilitarianism and for absolutism. I’

The fragmentation of value was excellent because it’s so applicable (like many of
The Bean of
Jul 29, 2020 rated it liked it
Some quotes:

~~ the absurd results "by the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt" Pg. 13

"A person can be morally responsible only for what he does; but what he does results from a great deal that he does not do; therefore he is not morally responsible for what he is and is not morally responsible for. (This is not a contradiction, but a paradox)" Pg. 34

"The inc
Katherine Gibson
Jul 06, 2020 rated it liked it
This book is quite good - there's loads of supported citations in each chapter arguing for or against whichever topic the author writes about, though I gave it three stars due to the density of his writing.

As a novice turning into an amateur about learning and practicing philosophy, there were many heavy sentences I could not connect with immediately. I regard it as an advanced book for someone who may have achieved a B.A. in Philosophy, so the terminology might be more suited to academics. I di
Sep 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
I got introduced to “Moral questions” through Very Bad Wizards podcast, and Nagel’s discussions especially around absurdity, moral lucks & sexual perversion are really fascinating to me. But unfortunately, the language of the book, specially in the latest essays gets completely hard to understand. Isn’t this the author responsibility to make the content of the book more accessible to the readers?
Alex Bejan
While the title of the book and the essays would lead you to believe that this is an approachable book, if you’re not a phylosophy major better skip it. It’s pretty difficult to read and the lack of examples (with a few exceptions) make it more of a grind than a pleasurable and insightful experience.
Ivan Pretorius
Jan 19, 2018 rated it liked it
One of the relatively few contemporary philosophers who not only addresses important subjects of general intellectual interest (the fear of death, the attractions of sex, the influence of luck upon personality, etc.) but writes very intelligently about them.
Jon Rossetti
Nov 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Perfect for anyone looking for clear, concise philosophical arguments with some exploration of overlooked philosophical absurdities.
Jan 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great book exploring various philosophical topics like consciousness, objectivity, and justice.
David Jones
Feb 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Am influential book. A collection of (readable) essays that immediately became a must-read. It includes the landmark, 'What is it like to be a bat'. ...more
Tim Gorichanaz
May 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
An inspiring collection of essays on challenging topics.
Jawdan Truckey
Mar 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Piercing and well reasoned philosophical inquiry into wide-ranging topics. Favourite essays: What is it like to be a bat?, Moral Luck, Death, Panpsychism.
André de Lannoy Tavares
A bit more complex than I expected, especially initial and last chapters
Sep 11, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
In Mortal Questions Nagel tackles many great philosophical issues, and he does it in a very concise and readable style.

This collection of essays from the eminent american philosopher Thomas Nagel is at times enthralling and profound, at other times (though not often) dull and uninteresting. Thankfully, a great majority of what is to be found within the pages of this book piqued my own interests, and reading through them felt like a worthwhile effort. In my opinion, What is it like to be a bat? w
Billie Pritchett
Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel is a great, easily-readable collection of essays about topics that relate to what it means to be human. A few highlights: there's an essay on the fear of death, whether we should fear it, another essay on why life so often feels absurd, and another essay about where our values come from, and if there's any real system underlying our values. Great little collection. ...more
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Thomas Nagel is an American philosopher, currently University Professor and Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he has taught since 1980. His main areas of philosophical interest are philosophy of mind, political philosophy and ethics. He is well-known for his critique of reductionist accounts of the mind in his essay "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?" (1974), and for his con ...more

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