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I guess the sentence its possibility is still that of the continuation of a good for him is an inversion, I try to rephrase it to "the continuation of a good for him is still possible". Am I right?

I have no idea of what the two pronouns -- it (in its possibility) and that -- in this sentence refer to. Please clarify these pronouns. Thanks : )

The direction of time is crucial in assigning possibilities to people or other individuals. Distinct possible lives of a single person can diverge from a common beginning, but they cannot converge to a common conclusion from diverse beginnings. (The latter would represent not a set of different possible lives of one individual, but a set of distinct possible individuals, whose lives have identical conclusions.) Given an identifiable individual, countless possibilities for his continued existence are imaginable, and we can clearly conceive of what it would be for him to go on existing indefinitely. However inevitable it is that this will not come about, its possibility is still that of the continuation of a good for him, if life is the good, we take it to be.

-- From Nagel, Thomas. "Death." In Mortal Questions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. pp. 1-10

2

The antecedent of its is "what it would be for him to go on existing indefinitely."

Translated into plain English, the sentence means:

If life is good, then continuing to live is good.

The sentence expresses that thought in a very, very complicated way. To clarify how all the parts fit together grammatically, you could rephrase it and the preceding sentence like this:

We can imagine many possibilities for how a person can continue to live. We can even imagine a person living forever. Even though surely no one will live forever, living forever would be the continuation of something good, at least if life is good, and we think life is good.

Its possibility means "the possibility of living forever".


The quoted paragraph is horrible writing. The meaning is not very clear, the sentences are way too complicated, and their complication results not from having something complicated to say, but from carelessly mixing thoughts together. While this is formal English, and it's grammatically correct, it's very bad use of English.

I think the reason why the sentences are so unnecessarily tricky and confusing is not that the author came from Yugoslavia, but that the author doesn't have anything worthwhile to say. Notice that when you rewrite the passage to make the meaning clearer, you find that there isn't much meaning. The author is dressing up his lack of substance with fancy, complicated wording. It's what we call "pretentious writing".

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Correction:

The its is a mistake I believe it should be "it's" as in his or the persons.

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  • individual is a person here, isn't the him referred to individual? There is a him in the sentence, see the last word. – wang zhihao Jan 28 '15 at 5:00
  • Sorry, I made a mistake and corrected the answer. – Trevor Clarke Jan 28 '15 at 5:04

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