Why People Are Still Mad About Thomas Nagel’s 1974 Essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”
This week on the Lit Century Podcast with Sandra Newman
and Catherine Nichols
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
In this episode, Sandra and Catherine discuss Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” How did materialism, for centuries the tool of radical thinkers, become the philosophy of the status quo? And why was this philosophical essay about the possibility of understanding other minds—or any minds—so crucial for contemporary thinkers?
From the episode:
Catherine Nichols: If somebody is getting mad about subjectivity in a philosophy class, what are they actually mad about? They’re mad about having to share power with people who are saying, I disagree with you because my experience of the world is different. And that could be women. It could be trans people. It could be people from different countries. It could be aliens or bats. But which one of those are they actually the most angry at? Clearly they’re the most angry at other human beings who are saying, Carol Gilligan-style, your hierarchy is not my hierarchy. And if we’re going to be in this room as equals, you need to stop asserting that hierarchy—if we’re going to get along, if we’re going to share power, if we’re going to not have another war, or whatever. Peacekeeping means too much of that. And so it seems un-macho; it disagrees on an esthetic level because it’s an attack on power, and so people want to disagree with this essay.
Sandra Newman is the author of the novels The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, Cake, and The Country of Ice Cream Star, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and NPR. She is the author of the memoir Changeling as well as several other nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in Harper’s and Granta, among other publications. She lives in New York City.
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Jezebel and The Seattle Review, among others. She lives in Boston.