Nozick, Robert (1938–2002)

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Robert Nozick was born in Brooklyn, New York, graduated from Columbia University in 1959, and received a PhD from Princeton University in 1963. After stints at Princeton University and the Rockefeller University, Nozick went to Harvard University in 1969, at age thirty, as full professor. There he was named Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy in 1985, then Joseph Pellegrino University Professor in 1998. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and served as president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association.

Nozick and his Harvard colleague John Rawls were the giants of twentieth-century political philosophy. Where Rawls stuck to one task, elaborating and defending his magisterial Theory of Justice, Nozick was notably restless and interested in everything. He once said, "I didn't want to spend my life writing Son of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Return of the Son, and so on" (Socratic Puzzles 1997, p. 2). In an age of subspecialization, the range of Nozick's contributions is shocking.

Political Philosophy

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls described himself as working toward a theory of pure procedural justice. He proposed as a test of distributive justice that inequalities are just only if they offer the greatest possible benefit to the worst-off. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), Nozick's departure was to develop a genuinely procedural theory, aimed at no particular end state. Indeed, Nozick's product was less a theory of just distribution than a theory of just transfer. A transfer from one person to another is truly just, according to Nozick, if truly voluntary.

Nozick's argument sometimes is said to lack foundations, to merely postulate rights. More charitably, Nozick's bold claims about rights are his conclusions rather than his premises. Starting from Rawls's foundationindividuals are separate and may not be sacrificed for othersNozick, in the process arguing for this premise, carries it to its logical conclusion. Part 1 of Anarchy, State, and Utopia argues that a world where persons are respected as separate entities within a minimal state is a possible world. Part 3 argues that this is an attractive world. Part 2 argues that a world where our separateness is not taken to its logical conclusionnot taken to culminate in some more or less literal interpretation of Rawls's call for the "most extensive system of liberty compatible with like liberty for all" (1971, p. 302)is neither attractive nor just.

In one of the century's more influential philosophical examples, Nozick asks us to suppose that we are in a situation as perfectly just and equal as we can imagine. Then someone offers Wilt Chamberlain a dollar for the privilege of watching him play basketball. Before we know it, thousands of people happily are paying Wilt a dollar each every time he puts on a show. Wilt gets rich. The distribution is no longer equal, but no one is complaining. Nozick's question: If we assume for argument's sake that justice is a pattern of equality achievable at a given moment, what happens if we achieve the ideal? Must we then prohibit everythingconsuming, creating, trading, givingthat upsets perfect equality? Recent egalitarian work is an evolving response to the problem Nozick's story revealed. In part due to Nozick's argument, egalitarians at the beginning of the twenty-first century realize that any equality worthy of aspiring to will focus less on equality as a time-slice property of economic distribution of wealth and more on how people are treated: how they are rewarded for their contributions and enabled over time to make contributions worth rewarding.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

Nozick's last book, Invariances (2001), spans a range of topics including truth, objectivity, and consciousness, and his second book, Philosophical Explanations (1981), offers fresh ideas on free will, personal identity, and knowledge. For example, philosophers for millennia had analyzed knowledge as justified true belief. That is, S knows that p just in case p is true, S believes that p, and S 's belief is justified. Since 1963, though, philosophy had been reeling from Edmund Gettier's refutation of this seemingly straightforward analysis. Nozick's response is among the most creative. The problem with justification, as Gettier construed it, is that a belief can be justified, in virtue of coinciding with the facts, without being properly sensitive to the facts. Nozick, instead of refining or supplementing the justification condition, replaced it with a pair of tracking conditions:

If it were not true that p, S would not believe that p.

If it were true that p, S would believe that p.

Decision Theory

Nozick's Socratic Puzzles (1997), a collection of essays, includes his essay "Newcomb's Problem and Two Principles of Choice." In it Nozick introduced a class of puzzles for prevailing formulas for maximizing expected utility. For example, the devout go to heaven, according to John Calvin, but why? Because they are devout? If so, expected utility would suggest that we ought to be devout. Or because of predetermined grace, a side effect of which is an urge to be devout? In this second case, since it is more fun not to be devout, expected utility would suggest that we ought not to be devout. The crucial issue is not whether the outcome is probabilistically linked to one's action but whether it is affected by one's action. Therefore, rational choice cannot be entirely captured by any probabilistic formula. Even at its most formulaic, rational choice would have to begin with the problem of choosing a formula to govern subsequent choices, soothe choosing begins prior to having the formula. The chosen formula will be a way of processing information not only about probabilities and utilities but also about causal connections between actions and outcomes. Nozick's essay spawned hundreds of responses.

Noncoercive Philosophy

One of Nozick's biggest contributions to philosophy was to reflect on, and poke fun at, the competitiveness of philosophical discourse. Nozick returned to this theme in the introductions to each of his major works; it was the only topic that occupied Nozick continuously. "Philosophical training molds arguers. A philosophical argument is an attempt to get someone to believe something, whether he wants to believe it or not. To argue with someone is to attempt to push him around verbally. Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies " (1981, p. 4). Nozick's remarks on the ideal of "coercive philosophy" led to a generation of self-deprecating humor in seminars across the United States and eventually to a widespread relaxing of what had been a more confrontational, less cooperative disciplinary style.

See also Calvin, John; Decision Theory; Justice; Personal Identity; Rawls, John; Rights.


works by nozick

Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

The Examined Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

The Nature of Rationality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Socratic Puzzles. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

works on nozick

Feser, Edward. On Nozick. Toronto: Thomson Wadsworth, 2004. An accessible discussion of Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Lacey, A. R. Robert Nozick. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. Discusses the range of Nozick's thought.

Paul, Ellen, Jeffrey Paul, and Fred D. Miller Jr., eds. Natural Rights Liberalism from Locke to Nozick: Essays in Honor of Robert Nozick. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Paul, Jeffrey, ed. Reading Nozick. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1982. A collection of responses to Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Schmidtz, David. Robert Nozick. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A collection of essays by specialists in the various fields to which Nozick contributed.

Schmidtz, David, and Sarah Wright. "What Nozick Did for Decision Theory." In The American Philosophers, Peter French and Howard K. Wettstein, eds. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 2004.

Wolff, Jonathan. Robert Nozick: Property, Justice, and the Minimal State. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991. The first book-length critique of Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

David Schmidtz (2005)