Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 623 words.)