Form and Content

A notable book on political theory appeared in 1971: A Theory of Justice by John Rawls argued brilliantly for a theory of government that would distribute the goods of its people with a Social Democratic bias toward the poor. Almost immediately afterward another brilliant book appeared which attacked Rawls’s book respectfully but powerfully—Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), by Robert Nozick, a professor in the philosophy department at Harvard University. Even more interesting than Nozick’s treatment of Rawls’s assertions—coming down on the side of individual liberty and property—was the tone of Nozick’s text. It was written in a casual chatty style, one in which powerful and dangerous assertions, rebuttals, and refutations appear and disappear in the friendly text, like sharks in custard.

In 1981 another book by Nozick appeared, Philosophical Explanations. Having made his bow to the public in political theory, Nozick took on the age-old, classical questions of philosophy. Individual chapters deal with the identity of the Self, self-knowledge, the possibility of knowledge, skepticism, value, free will, ethics, the meaning of life, and Martin Heidegger’s ultimate query, “Why is there something rather than nothing at all?” Yet the very traditionalism of the queries is deliberate. Nozick is trying to view the fundamental questions of philosophy from a new angle, that of philosophical “explanation.”

From the very first page Nozick repudiates any attempt to...

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Philosophical Explanations

This ambitious and lengthy work, alternating between high seriousness and brilliant levity, shuns what Robert Nozick calls “local vices” and celebrates “global virtues.” With tough-mindedness, joy, and wit Nozick insists on the humanizing power of philosophical inquiry. An accomplished professor of philosophy at Harvard with a reputation for controversy—his Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), which won a National Book Award, attacked social and political liberalism—Nozick’s purpose in Philosophical Explanations is to pull philosophy out of the doldrums and reestablish its centrality for the life of the mind.

Respectful of science’s narrow perspectives and tolerant of the reductive approaches of the social sciences, Nozick nevertheless feels that man must strive for “non-reductionist explanations” of the great problems of human existence. He uses “Explanations” in the title of his book to dramatize his avoidance of the limiting restrictions of “proofs.” Leave proofs, he implies, to the logicians, scientists, psychologists, and anthropologists; “explanations” are closely connected to the actual experience of reality and although tentative often feed “understanding” more effectively than overly prescribed proofs which sacrifice understanding to theory. “Do I love truth less or love understanding more?,” Nozick asks himself. Unsure, he covers his tracks by using this book to “fill the basket of philosophical views” on a variety of fundamental philosophical issues: “Does life have meaning? Are there objective eternal truths? Do we have free will? What is the nature of our identity as selves? Must our knowledge and understanding stay within fixed limits?”

To describe Nozick as “covering his tracks” is no idle colloquialism. “Tracking” is his avowed method for tracing the way the mind connects evidence to proof based on belief. He calls these “tracking conditions . . . subjunctive conditions” and in a brilliant chapter entitled “Knowledge and Skepticism” works out a carefully detailed argument, replete with symbolic logic and witty examples, to “explain” his idea of the way the mind “explains” truths to itself. Unable to refute the skeptic’s “worries,” Nozick sidesteps skepticism, which is overly focused on untracked facts, and stresses the “transitive” nature of the “tracking” mind.

In an early chapter, “The Identity of the Self,” Nozick spells out the “closest continuer schema” for documenting the self’s ability to deal with the process of changing identities. A conflation of the “closest continuer schema” and “tracking conditions” defines the heart of Nozick’s approach throughout the length of his tome. It is an approach that encourages the general reader to follow Nozick through some intricate chapters studded with complex formulae far beyond the layman’s understanding. Nozick seems to pull the reader along as he covers his own professional tracks; he does this in the ethical sense of the “pulling” or exemplary spirit discussed in his chapter on “Foundations of Ethics.” One of the chief delights of this impressive book is the way it gives the...

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American Spectator. XV, January, 1982, p. 32.

Asahina, R. “Inquisitive Robert Nozick,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI (September 20, 1981), p. 74.

Blanshard, Brand. Review in The Yale Review. LXXI (Spring, 1982), p. 404.

Book World. XI, October 18, 1981, p. 10.

Brueckner, Anthony L. “Why Nozick Is a Sceptic,” in Mind. XCIII (April, 1984), pp. 259-264.

Burnyeat, M. F. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. October 15, 1982, p. 1136.

Commonweal. CIX, January 15, 1982, p. 24.

Levin, Michael E. “Thinking About the Self,” in Commentary. LXXIV (September 7, 1982), p. 55.

Library Journal. CVI, November 1, 1981, p. 2142.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, October 7, 1981, p. 32.

Village Voice Literary Supplement. October, 1981, p. 13.

Williams, Bernard. Review in The New York Times Review of Books. XXIX (February 18, 1982), pp. 32-34.