Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Robert Nozick claims to have written Anarchy, State, and Utopia by accident, during a year spent at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (1971-1972). He is almost boastful about the fact that the vast majority of his writings and attention focused on other subjects. Several years earlier, Harvard’s John Rawls had published a landmark study, A Theory of Justice (1971), which set up the foundation for a distributive state, a type of welfare state antithetical to the type of minimal state Nozick conceptualized. Rawls’s work became a handbook for liberalism and for advocates of the welfare state, and it was held up by humanitarians for making provisions for the least advantaged groups in society.

Rawls and Nozick published their studies at a time when the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair were producing serious disillusionment about the ends and means of the political system that had developed in the United States. The time was ripe for a raging debate in political philosophy. Nozick himself reminisced about the excitement produced in the 1950’s by C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite (1956); the mid-1970’s seemed similar. Nozick, however, refused to respond to the avalanche of critical literature about his work or to be bound to the specialty of political philosophy. He moved on to other areas of philosophy, but his first book-length work, his most controversial, remained central to the debate in political philosophy for the next quarter century.