Thomas Nagel asks the same question for us in his compelling and accessible book called What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy. Originally published by Oxford Press in 1987, the book is a mere 112 pages, but it’s a lucid introduction to some of the key problems of philosophy, and it sets forth the central problems of philosophical inquiry for the beginning (or advanced) reader in an easy to follow, conversational tone coupled with a dose of humor. And, in case anyone is wondering, the answer is “No,” the text, though published originally about 35 years ago, is not dated – rather it reads fresh and engaging.
In What Does It All Mean? Nagel asks many core questions, such as: Is there really an external world? Are there other minds? How does the mind relate to the brain? Is there such a thing as free will? What is the nature of morality and justice? How do words manage to refer to things? How should one feel about death? What is the meaning of life? He offers short, engaging discussions of each.
Arguing that the best way to learn about philosophy is to think about its questions directly, Nagel considers possible solutions to nine problems:
- Knowledge of the world beyond our minds.
- Knowledge of other minds.
- The mind-body problem.
- Free will.
- The basis of morality.
- Right and wrong.
- The nature of death.
- The meaning of life.
- The meaning of words.
Thomas Nagel is Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he has taught since 1980. Some of his previous books include Mortal Questions and The View From Nowhere. More recently, in 2012, he published Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.