Anarchist in the Academy

Robert Nozick, R.I.P.


Philosopher Robert Nozick died Wednesday, at the age of 63. Nozick, a Harvard professor from 1969 until his death, wrote on many topics, but he remained best known and most discussed for his first book, the National Book Award-winning Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). This was the first book to make libertarian views on the nature and legitimacy of the state respectable in academia.

Anarchy, State and Utopia set out to prove, in a manner both intellectually rigorous and playful, that the only morally defensible state is one restricted to the minimal functions of adjudication and defense against force and fraud. No welfare state, no industrial policy, no bailouts, no anti-discrimination laws allowed.

One revolutionary element of Anarchy for mainstream political philosophy is that Nozick started his discussion from the individualist-anarchist viewpoint that he was exposed to by libertarian economist Murray Rothbard. Rather than accepting the state's legitimacy as a given, Nozick spun long, complicated webs of thought before capturing a legitimate state of any sort. He brought within the mainstream of political philosophy what had previously been thought of as kooky fringe notions about competing, private defense agencies. Nozick did conclude that a single defense agency could indeed arise from anarchy to become an effective minimal state without violating anyone's rights. This was the shift, within the book's three-part structure, from anarchy to state.

Discussions of Anarchy often focus on his detailed arguments about how to justify a minimal state and his arguments with liberal philosophical powerhouse John Rawls over the justice of government wealth redistribution. That's understandable, but often leads to neglect of the book's fascinating "utopia" section. Nozick explains that his vision of the minimal state is the closest we can come to utopia. His utopia is not one in which a central vision of the good life predominates. Rather, it's a multivarient, cornucopic world where people could form communities that met their needs without being ordered around by a managing state. "Utopia is a framework for utopias," he concludes, "a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others…utopia is meta-utopia: the environment in which utopian experiments may be tried out; the environment in which people are free to do their own thing." And a libertarian minimal state, Nozick posited, was that utopia.

Nozick found himself in a firestorm of controversy and condemned by many as a disreputable ideologue. As Jonathan Wolff, author of a book on Nozick, put it, "I first read Nozick as an undergraduate in 1980. At that time philosophy students usually reacted to Anarchy, State and Utopia in one of two ways. Either they thought its conclusions so repugnant that it should not be taken seriously as political philosophy at all, or they thought its conclusions so repugnant that it was vital…to show how it fails." In 1990, Wolff, by then a professor himself, wrote that he "fairly often…encounter[s] a third [view]: that, broadly speaking, Nozick is right."

Nozick went on to write many other works of philosophy, including Philosophical Explanations (1981) and The Nature of Rationality (1995). Rarely returning to purely political topics, he remained aloof from the fray of commentary and attacks that Anarchy inspired. Nozick's goal was not to convert people to a viewpoint; as he once wrote, his "mode of philosophy is not designed to induce belief in something or the acceptance of it as true." In his popular work, The Examined Life (1989), he abandoned the limited-state idea expressed in Anarchy, explaining that "it neglected the symbolic importance of an official political concern with issues or problems, as a way of marking their importance or urgency, and hence of expressing, intensifying, channeling, encouraging, and validating our private actions and concerns toward them." In later interviews, Nozick said he still considered himself a libertarian, if not a "hardcore" one. Throughout his career, he remained engaged with the larger libertarian intellectual conversation, citing, quoting, or discussing such thinkers as Israel Kirzner, Julian Simon, and Ayn Rand, none of whom exactly looms large in the intellectual worlds of most academic philosophers

Nozick refused to settle for the continuous repetition that defines many a long intellectual career. He was famous at Harvard for almost never teaching the same course twice. His energy and will to tackle big topics remained unabated even as he suffered through the stomach cancer that eventually killed him. His last book, Invariances (2001), tackles big issues in a rigorously detailed way. The rough theme of Invariances is applying recent scientific advances in areas like quantum physics and neurology to the philosophical conversation over matters like truth, objectivity, and ethics.

Nozick was fond of speculating about the universes next door. Let us leave those aside for now. This world will be lacking many interesting and valuable thoughts and observations with Robert Nozick no longer in it.