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What is the story about Nagel and the spider?

Jerry Fodor Read more from
Chapter Analytic Philosophy

While Nagel was working in William James Hall at Harvard University one summer, he noticed a spider that lived in the men’s urinal. Every time the urinal flushed, the poor arachnid would make a mad dash for its life so as not to drown. Nagel was concerned about what would happen to it when classes were in session and the urinal was flushed with greater frequency.

After long and careful deliberation, Nagel decided to liberate the spider. He carefully removed it from the urinal with a paper towel and placed it in a corner of the room. At first the spider did not move, and Nagel assumed it was getting its bearings. He left town over a holiday weekend, and when he returned the poor spider had still not moved. It was quite dry and quite dead.

Nagel recounts this episode in The View from Nowhere (1986). His implication seems to be that even the greatest compassion and best intentions may miss their objective, due to a lack of understanding of the circumstances of another.

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