Philosophical Explanations

by Robert Nozick

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 623

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 provide a definitive treatment of any of these questions, simply because a successful act of definition ends discussion. This definitive procedure, of attempting to answer philosophical questions once and for all, is what Nozick calls “coercive”:The terminology of philosophical art is coercive: arguments are powerful and best when they are knockdown, arguments force you to a conclusion, if you believe the premises you have to or must believe the conclusion, some arguments do not carry much punch, and so forth.

These metaphors of combat show that philosophy has traditionally been regarded as a coercive activity. If a philosopher refuses to engage and retreats, he is not considered sporting:If the other person is willing to bear the label of “irrational” or “having the worst arguments,” he can skip away happily maintaining his previous belief. He will be trailed, of course, by the philosopher furiously hurling philosophical imprecations. . . . Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies. How’s that for a powerful argument?

Nozick asks what useful purpose philosophical argument serves: “Why are philosophers intent on forcing others to believe things? . . . The valuable person cannot be fashioned by committing philosophy upon him.” What does Nozick recommend? He recommends explanations rather than proofs. The reader reading an explanation engages in a gentle dialogue with the text, in which his own ideas are evoked in response to the text’s gentle nudges. In this way, a cooperative process is initiated. Here philosophy becomes “a nice way to behave,” a benign collective activity rather than a bullfight where the text’s author is the matador and the reader is the bull.

Philosophical Explanations contains 778 pages and is divided into three large sections bearing traditional names—“Metaphysics,” “Epistemology,” and “Value”— each of which is divided into several chapters. The first section, “Metaphysics,” includes “The Identity of the Self” and “Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?” “Epistemology” is composed of “Knowledge,” “Skepticism,” and “Evidence.” The third section, “Value,” by far the longest section in the book, is composed of three chapters, “Free Will,” “Foundations of Ethics,” and “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.” Some of these titles seem ironic, as if Nozick were...

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going back to traditional philosophical topics and, despite his attempt to avoid coercing the reader, settling them once and for all.

Philosophical Explanations

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1314

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 student-reader the courage of his own questions and strengthens him in the hope that philosophy can be understood. The following passage demonstrates Nozick’s trust in “tracking,” even when it takes the form of a student’s uninformed “gliding”:

My departmental colleagues are meticulous intellects who instill in students the importance of mastering all the details whereof they speak; while I think it important for students also to learn how (and when) to “fake” things, to glide over topics with a plausible patina, trusting (fallible) intuitions that something like what they say, something of that sort, can be worked out—preferably by someone else. I agree, of course, that sometimes gliding over the details shields one from seeing that one’s general conception just cannot be worked out, and a very different one is needed. . . . On the other hand, often the details merely reinforce a picture, adding nothing of real philosophical interest. What then can one do but follow one’s hunches?

The above calls attention to the essential quality of Nozick’s book that has earned for him both praise and derision: its creative impressionism. Not only does his book invite the reader to “glide,” but also Nozick himself often seems to soar above all the thorny issues he is raising; he does so with a trust in his own creative thinking that defies not only the restrictions of knowledge theory but also some of the oldest warnings of rationality, metaphysics, and what some have called the tragic sense of life.

Yet, in fairness to the author, one must remember that at the beginning of his work he insisted that his thinking be judged on the collective premises of an explanatory approach. What gives Nozick the confidence of his individualism (“Could I not rather be a star or the Messiah or God?”) is not a naïve solipsism or egotism; on the contrary, his discovery, through the “tracking condition” of the explanatory power of the idea of “organic unity,” subsumes self to “global virtue.” To respond to the world is to discover its underlying unity: “Ethical action and more generally responsiveness to value is part of an even more general category that includes knowledge as well: responsive connection to the world . . . establishes a tight organic unity between us and the world.”

Whereas traditional ethics and value theory stress rational principle as the guiding norm—Immanuel Kant’s Categorial Imperative is the stellar example—Nozick calls value the result of a kind of “probability.” Value flourishes when a person who is “making free decisions . . . ends up tracking bestness.” Bestness, as a norm, is arrived at through what Nozick calls a form of “evolutionary selectiveness.” Nozick makes sure that one cannot easily dismiss these ideas as determinism. He insists that “organicism” precludes any simple categorization of “determined or indetermined” forces; whatever gets one “tracking bestness” is in the service of a pursuit of value.

Nozick’s equation of “value” with “organic unities” leads him to renewed conviction of the sanctity of the self. It was the self “tracking” its perceptions that enabled Nozick to combat skepticism, and it is the “pull” of the “value seeking I” in others that encourages Nozick’s belief in the value of his own “being as I.” Reality enables the self to become the greatest possible organic unity. A person, says Nozick, “must harmonize his own value and spiritual improvement while advancing the value and spiritual improvement of others.”

Ultimately, the discovery of self leads to the richest enlightenment philosophy provides: insights into the “Meaning of Life.” Why do people fear death more than they mourn their absence from the past that predates their birth? Why is immortality a future-directed fantasy? Because, suggests Nozick, people crave unlimited “possibilities.” People cringe at death not because it cheats them of the future as time, but because “it limits the possibilities” that they can realize. Possibility captivates the imagination because it constantly expands and broadens capacities for increasing the “measure of the degree of organic unity . . . life brings to the realm of value.” Because the “Humanities” pursue value more assiduously than other forms of knowing, Nozick gives them the highest marks for explaining the meaning of life. With the concept of “empathetic understanding,” which echoes the doctrine of sympathetic imagination espoused by many Romantic poets and thinkers, Nozick brings together in the most impressive “organic unity” of his entire treatise the poles of his argument: Knowledge and Value.

Critics have accused Nozick of cosmic generalization—“global vices,” as it were. They have also questioned the originality of his enterprise: philosophy has always done more explaining than proving. While all these criticisms are not without foundation, Nozick’s conviction that “reductionism” in thinking is not always worth the verifiable “truths” it settles for cannot be dismissed. This, it would seem, is a point more than worth making in a world increasingly more fragmented by perceptions (such as Deconstructionist literary criticism) that feed on the destruction of hard-won organic unities in culture and society as well as in epistemology, ethics, and the arts.


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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 108

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.


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