Philosophical Explanations

by Robert Nozick

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 299

Philosophical Explanations, above and beyond the treatments of the topics chosen, shows that Nozick’s real interests lie in methods of philosophical description. The range of the subjects shows that it is the process of philosophizing itself that Nozick is questioning. He seems to be following in the footsteps of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein, in that Nozick is attacking philosophical activity itself, the possibility of describing anything. Nietzsche described philosophers as thinking that they are doctors when they are actually the disease.

Nozick’s first articles dealt with decision making, which includes deciding what can be described clearly—Wittgenstein’s emphasis. In this context Nozick’s first book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which made a political stir upon its publication in 1974, is not really about political theory at all; it is essentially an exercise in philosophical explanation used in the realm of political theory, a “five-finger exercise” in preparation for the virtuoso performances to come.

Critics have noted that Nozick ends, despite his modest declarations, by providing proofs rather than explanations; that is, Nozick’s demonstrations are sometimes so subtle and brilliant that readers can be convinced by them, even if Nozick wants only to stimulate thought. In Aesop’s fable about the Sun and the Wind, the Wind fails to make a traveler remove his cloak. No matter how hard the Wind blows, the traveler merely grasps the cloak more tightly around himself. The Sun, however, causes him to remove his cloak merely by beaming upon him. Nozick would here be the Sun, gently coercing belief. His support of explanation over proof may change the present vogue for axiomatic demonstration—coercive proof in its most coercive form—in many fields of philosophy. If he succeeds, Philosophical Explanations may become an important book in the history of philosophy.

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