Explaining Nozick


Philosophical Explanations, by Robert Nozick, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981, 752 pp., $25.00.

You think you're reading this review of Philosophical Explanations by Robert Nozick, "but could you not be hallucinating or dreaming or having your brain stimulated to give you the experience of seeing these marks on paper although no such thing is before you?" Nozick's approach to this skeptical question—to my mind the most brilliant section of a brilliant and beautiful work—is that you can't know you aren't hallucinating, but you can know you are really reading this review.

This seemingly incoherent position follows quickly and gracefully from Nozick's daring postulation that knowledge is not closed under known logical implication, which means that knowing A and knowing that A implies B are not themselves enough to know B. (They may let you conclude B or believe B, but they don't let you know B—for philosophers, knowledge is a very strong claim.)

The skeptic argues that since we all know that reading this review implies you are not hallucinating, then not knowing you are not hallucinating must mean that you also don't know you're reading this review (if you knew that, you'd know you weren't hallucinating). Nozick counters that nonclosure means we can have it both ways.

How this can be flows from Nozick's discussion of knowledge as a subjunctive relation of belief to facts, of belief "tracking" facts (through nearby subjunctive worlds). This model of knowledge, its ability to handle the well-known "problem cases" and also to disarm the skeptic, is just one of the pearls of this amazing work of philosophy.

Heady stuff. But that's what we've come to expect from Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick. His first book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), made an impassioned case for a (or at least no more than) minimal state and developed an entitlement theory of justice—grounded (to a degree) in Locke and meshing well with libertarian theories of rights, ownership, and acquisition. The theory of justice wreaked havoc among establishment partisans of "patterned" theories by demonstrating that patterns, to be maintained, require constant interference in the peaceful, voluntary choices of millions of individuals. That book won the National Book Award, and now his second book, Philosophical Explanations, is demonstrating that Nozick's ability to write wondrous tomes, ponderous and provoking, is not a flash in the pan. Who is this man?

Robert Nozick is a libertarian but does not want to be known as a libertarian philosopher; he wants to be known as a philosopher who is a libertarian. And this was, perhaps, a problem. Anarchy, State, and. Utopia was such a stimulating and provocative defense of individual rights that many who knew only this about him must have thought that this was all there was about him. After all, to have invested so much time, creativity, and ingenuity in a study of the (lack of) justification of state power, and a host of related issues, must have depleted his philosophic reserve.

With the publication of his second major work, we find it was not so—that, far from being depleted, Nozick's creative drive, brilliant insights, daring hypotheses, rigorous analyses, and childlike love of playing with ideas show no signs of exhaustion. They appear stronger than ever.

In Philosophical Explanations Nozick goes beyond libertarianism to wrestle with long-standing philosophic questions: What is the nature of the self and its continuity through time? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is knowledge, and how is it possible given what the skeptic says? How can there be free will? What is value, and does it have an objective grounding? What is the meaning and worth of life?

Nozick no doubt believes that the answers he puts forth to these questions are generally correct. (He's less certain about some of the details, saying at one point, "It is important…to learn how (and when) to fake things, to glide over topics with a plausible patina, trusting (fallible) intuitions that…something of that sort can be worked out—preferably by someone else.") But even though he believes his answers are good ones, he refuses to argue for his positions directly, claiming such action constitutes "coercive philosophy."

Why are philosophers intent on forcing others to believe things? Is that a nice way to behave toward someone? I think we cannot improve people that way—the means frustrate the end. Just as dependence is not eliminated by treating a person dependently, and someone cannot be forced to be free, a person is not most improved by being forced to believe something against his will, whether he wants to or not. The valuable person cannot be fashioned by committing philosophy upon him.

Those who think Nozick is simply making an analogy here, or joking, should review his early essay entitled "Coercion," where he develops a rather encompassing notion of coercion. Of course (I assume), Nozick does not believe all coercive acts are actionable; he does not, for instance, believe you should be jailed for "committing philosophy" upon him. It appears that, for Nozick, "coercion" as a term is not confined to the political realm but falls within the (broader) moral realm, which is to say that Nozick sees coercion, even the nonforceful kind, as diminishing one's value—something to be avoided, even if not always prohibited.

If Nozick doesn't argue for his answers to those fundamental philosophical problems he tackles, what does he do? He explains how such questions can have answers by creating a wide framework within which many answers are possible, each with its own set of advantages and problems.

Nozick in a sense has created a philosophical or intellectual version of Lord of the Rings. As Tolkien whisks us away to journey in Middle Earth, a place teeming with surprises and adventure, so too Nozick draws us into a journey through his world of thought, also teeming with excitement and surprise. Both books contain lightness and wit but also a remarkable depth. And just as Tolkien's characters are first fanciful and fantastic but soon are seen as old friends, and often found to have more power than they first revealed, so is it too for Nozick's characters, his ideas.

In Philosophical Explanations, you'll meet the Closest Continuer (in the discussion of identity over time) and the Reflexively Self-referring, Self-synthesizing I (as the essence of the self). You'll observe the Nothingness Force and the Self-subsuming Principle (in an attempt to explain why there is something rather than nothing). You'll journey to a land where belief "tracks" facts and free will "tracks" bestness. You'll explore the notion of value as degree of organic unity and uncover the theories of ethical pull and ethical push. You'll learn about meaning and transcending limits, and through it all you'll have Nozick as your (suggestive but noncoercive) guide.

In acting as an explanatory guide over such vast and diverse territory, Nozick has explained as well the difference between a libertarian philosopher and a philosopher who is a libertarian. And he's shown himself as a phenomenal example of the latter.

Ross Levatter has a degree in philosophy and is currently a resident physician in Ann Arbor, Michigan.