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Department of Philosophy


Publication details for Professor Matthew Ratcliffe

Ratcliffe M. (2002). Husserl and Nagel on Subjectivity and the Limits of Physical Objectivity. Continental Philosophy Review 35(4): 353-377.
  • Publication type: Journal papers: academic

Author(s) from Durham


Thomas Nagel argues that the subjective character of mind inevitably eludes philosophical efforts to incorporate the mental into a single, complete, ‘physically objective’ view of the world. Nagel sees contemporary philosophy as caught on the horns of a dilemma - one either follows phenomenology in making all objective phenomena subjective, or one follows physicalism in making all subjective phenomena objective. He contends that both approaches lead to different but equally untenable forms of idealism and suggests that we currently lack the forms of understanding required to tackle the question of how to relate the subjective and objective aspects of experience. This paper draws a number of positive comparisons between Nagel’s position on subjectivity and that of the later Husserl. It is argued that Nagel is wrong to dismiss phenomenology as ‘idealist’, thus clearing the way for a plausible Husserlian interpretation of his position. Husserl’s more developed treatment of the relationships between subjectivity and objectivity can be employed to clarify, strengthen and elaborate Nagel’s claims in a number of ways. However, the comparison also serves to show that Nagel does not go far enough in his critique of physical objectivism. The paper concludes by remarking on the continuing relevance of some central Husserlian themes as a critique of and positive alternative to deeply sedimented objectivist assumptions currently prevalent in Anglo-American philosophy.