Robert Nozick

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Article abstract: Nozick’s writings on political theory, decision theory, rationality, and metaphysics, among other areas, produced bold new insights. His attack on established doctrines catalyzed dynamic philosophical debate, adding new vitality to philosophy.

Early Life

The only child of a manufacturer, Robert Nozick was raised in the Brooklyn working-class neighborhoods of Brownsville and East Flatbush. His early teenage memories include carrying a copy of Plato’s Republic (Politeia, c. 388-366 b.c.e.; English translation, 1701) to impress others and to try to draw intelligent adult conversation. Later in life, he would reflect that the person he wanted most to attract was the person he would become. Nozick’s parents encouraged him, as a brilliant student, to pursue a career in medicine. Instead, philosophy courses taught at Columbia College, particularly those taught by Sidney Morgenbesser, drew Nozick into continual fascination with philosophy and the intricacies of decision theory.

At Columbia, he became involved with campus socialist groups. Student activism took its toll; he failed five courses, three of them in philosophy. At Columbia, vigorous classroom debate caused Nozick to reexamine his socialist assumptions and to gravitate toward libertarian beliefs. After graduating in 1959, Nozick married and went on to Princeton University. He received his master’s degree in 1961 and Ph.D. in 1963. Princeton’s Carl Hempel, a leading decision theorist, became a seminal influence on Nozick, and under his influence, Nozick chose as his dissertation topic The Normative Theory of Individual Choice (published in 1990). Decision theory would become a major focus of Nozick’s later works.

After receiving a Fulbright Fellowship to Oxford University (1963-1964), Nozick returned to Princeton (1964-1965) as an assistant professor. In 1965, he received an appointment at Harvard University, where he would remain, except for brief sojourns to such institutions as Stanford University and Rockefeller University. Early in his career, he published a variety of articles of a technical nature. In 1969, at the age of thirty, Nozick received tenure at Harvard. An article he published that year, “Coercion” (in Philosophy, Science and Method, edited by his former mentor, Morgenbesser), would become the basis for his famous Anarchy, State, and Utopia. At Harvard, over the next fifteen years, Nozick became legendary for refusing to teach the same course twice, preferring instead to use the classroom to refine thinking in diverse areas.

Life’s Work

Although he was long recognized by his peers as a brilliant philosopher, it was Anarchy, State, and Utopia that catapulted Nozick into international fame. The study won the 1975 National Book Award for Philosophy and Religion, and it was embraced by the libertarian movement as a work of inspired revelation. Nozick’s concept of a minimal state as a framework for a utopia came several years after A Theory of Justice (1971), the landmark work of another Harvard scholar, John Rawls. Rawls, in opposition to Nozick, argued for a distributive state, and these two books set in motion a vigorous debate reinvigorating interest in political theory. Uncomfortable with the entourage of libertarians he attracted, Nozick bemoaned that most people he knew and respected disagreed with him, and he supported positions they despised and detested.

Viewing his focus on political theory as accidental, in 1976 Nozick began, during a sabbatical year spent in Israel, his reflections on what is important and meaningful in life. The end result was Philosophical Explanations , which projected Nozick’s vision of philosophy as both playing an important role in everyday life and serving as an art form. Nozick argued that philosophy should be noncoercive, attempting to offer explanations rather than absolute proofs about issues of central concern such as free will...

(This entire section contains 2249 words.)

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and the meaning of life. His major intent was to show how philosophy could add value to life and spur the reader on to further contemplation. Taking an indeterminist view of free will, Nozick admitted, “if we cannot solve the problem, at least we can surround it.”Philosophical Explanations won the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award in 1982. Critics found it to be a brilliant book, but written at a level of abstraction far removed from the real world. Nozick himself, in the introduction, stated his love for unreadable books and his hope that he had written one that would inspire the reader to grapple with larger issues.

In 1981, Nozick’s marriage to Barbara Fierer dissolved after having produced two children, Emily and David. Six years later, he married Gjertrud Schackenberg. Although Nozick was a libertarian, he joined the American Civil Liberties Union to fight against violations of individual rights. Also true to his belief that animals have basic rights, which were to be defined at some future date, he became a member of the Jewish Vegetarian Society.

Nozick continued his work on decision theory and free will in The Examined Life. In twenty-seven chapters of widely varying length and quality, dealing with topics as varied as dying, sexuality, and the Holocaust, Nozick explored theories of rational decision and rational belief as they affect twentieth century life. For Nozick, the good life emerges as commitment to an ideal, not merely action directed toward satisfying desires or achieving goals. Knowledge and rational awareness are prerequisites to defining an ideal. Individuals with clearly defined ideals—such as Socrates, Buddha, Moses, Mohandas Gandhi, and Jesus—are capable of a more real existence than the rest of humanity. Critics pointed to Nozick’s avoidance of addressing the evil side of rational belief.

Nozick furthered his study of rational belief in The Nature of Rationality, which contains concepts drawn from economics, social science, and comparative science. In this study, he attempts to show why rational behavior is important and how it is connected to rational belief and action. He defines the key concept of symbolic unity, the connection between action and its consequences. Nozick sees human rationality as evolving and not yet having reached the biological maturity to deal with many fundamental philosophical problems. Rationality nevertheless is the key that made civilization and human progress possible. In a somewhat ethnocentric manner, Nozick finds that the dominance of the West, in recent centuries, is the result of rational behavior. Truth itself, Nozick contends, can be discerned only through rational means. He goes on to discuss the rules to derive truth and avoid subjective bias, and the justifications for these rules. He offers practical advice to help people reason better but also floods the study with equations and formulas that make the content beyond the reach of anyone except a specialist in the field. Rationality is of utmost importance for Nozick, but by giving people control over their actions and emotions, he leaves the path open for creative imagination to introduce new meaningful insights to be explored rationally.

In 1994, at the height of his career, Nozick was diagnosed with stomach cancer. As he has related, when he came out of anesthesia following seven hours of surgery, his first words to his attending physicians were, “I hope we don’t have to do this again. I don’t have the stomach for it.” He underwent months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He served as Guggenheim Fellow during the 1996-1997 academic year and was voted president-elect for the Eastern section of the American Philosophical Association. Also in 1997, he published Socratic Puzzles, in which he shows philosophy as constituting a way of life worth continuing until the end. The work, which Nozick admitted is only loosely related to Socrates, explores diverse topics such as animal rights, why intellectuals tend to oppose capitalism, extremism, and metaphysics. It also updates his thoughts on key concepts contained in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, such as his “invisible hand” explanation for the filtering and equilibrium process in causing protective associations to adjust to one another and the local environment. In the last section, titled “Philosophical Fictions,” Nozick creatively explores the concept of God, the meaning of the Creation, and even his own existence.


Nozick is one of the foremost philosophers of the last quarter of the twentieth century, and he has few rivals in terms of originality, diversity, and controversy. Ironically, he is best known for his Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a work he viewed as an accident and one that he wanted to leave behind as an encumbrance to new ideas. The work reflects a strong early influence of philosopher John Locke’s concept of the social contract and philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Nozick updates Locke (without accepting his deistic origins of rights given by nature) and joins Kant in viewing people as an end and not a means. Although not a traditional conservative, Nozick pushed the concept of private ownership of property further than would most conservatives. His end utopia, a minimal state composed of mutual protective associations entered into by voluntary agreements, fired the emotions of libertarians. By adding his intellectual stature to the libertarian movement, Nozick’s study transferred legitimacy to libertarianism as a political theory. Although Nozick’s interests changed and although he remained aloof from the fray, his delving into political theory caused a controversy within it that still raged at the close of the twentieth century.

Nozick is also a child of Enlightenment rationalism. His work on the nature of rationality, decision theory, and ethical behavior points to a future world that was envisioned in the eighteenth century but still seemed distant at the close of the twentieth. His emphasis on philosophy as a way of life would lead to a more rational world; however, the abstract vagueness inherent in much of Nozick’s works acts counter to bringing his conclusions to any mass audience. He has stated the necessity for a kinder, gentler philosophy, one that rests on exploration and not coercive proofs of truths. Other philosophers may be wise, as Nozick has been, to share their uncertainties with their readers, draw intriguing eclectic connections, and seek not precise theory but stimulation of further thought by others. This is an age, however, as Nozick himself bemoans, in which students are more likely to discuss good films than be caught up in examining major issues or ideas.

It is striking that Nozick titled one of his later works Socratic Puzzles. Like his hero, Socrates, Nozick is a gadfly nihilistically stinging all those who mindlessly accept established philosophical truths, in his effort to move philosophy along the continued search for truth. Until the truths are obtained, according to Nozick, “there is room in philosophy for other than last words.” The evolution of Nozick’s own interests and the maturation of his thoughts will affect other philosophers for generations to come. He had the courage to reflect on the macro level at a time when scholars pursued smaller and smaller micro specialties that were of interest to only a handful of other microspecialists. Nozick also had the audacity to evolve new interests, stimulating debate whenever he wrote but refusing to be forced into the debate or into a track where he did not wish to remain. As a philosophical truth seeker, he readily admitted that his was not the definitive word, and like Socrates, he had the courage to ask questions for which he did not have easy answers. As a scholar, he never departed from his role as a teacher, teaching a wide variety of new courses to solidify his ideas, even if it meant learning from his students.

Additional Reading

Cohen, G. A. Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. The first chapter of this study, “Robert Nozick and Wilt Chamberlain: How Patterns Preserve Liberty,” is an excellent Marxist critique of Nozick. Analysis of Nozick’s libertarian political philosophy is made throughout the study. For Cohen, Nozick is one of the most extreme modern spokespersons for the capitalist view of the sanctity of private property.

Corlett, J. Angelo, ed. Equality and Liberty: Analyzing Rawls and Nozick. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. This book contains eighteen essays, divided between analyzing the political and moral concepts of John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Most of the essays are reprinted from major philosophical journals and represent continued scholarly interest in the famous Rawls-Nozick debate.

Hailwood, Simon A. Exploring Nozick: Beyond Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Hampshire, England: Avebury, 1996. Hailwood attempts to unify Nozick’s earlier and later works by examining the theory of neutralism in the exercise of state power. He provides an in-depth critical analysis of the development of Nozick’s moral and political theories. Nozick’s evolution is also compared to that of other major political philosophers.

Luper-Foy, Steven, ed. The Possibility of Knowledge: Nozick and His Critics. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987. The first part of this book contains part 3 of Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations (1981). This is followed by twelve critical essays about Nozick’s work. Several essays find Nozick unsuccessful in rebutting skepticism; others criticize Nozick’s externalist analysis of knowledge and evidence.

Paul, Jeffrey, ed. Reading Nozick: Essays on Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981. A collection of essays on Nozick dealing with civil rights, anarchism, utopianism, and human rights. The majority are highly critical. Particularly illuminating is Paul’s “The Withering of Nozick’s Minimum State.”

Wolf, Jonathan. Robert Nozick: Property, Justice, and the Minimal State. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991. Wolf explains the attractions and limitations of Nozick’s libertarian minimal state. He analytically dissects Nozick’s core arguments while identifying digressions and vagueness in Nozick’s ideas. Wolf argues that Nozick does not do justice to Locke’s views and that Nozick, while exposing fallacies in competing political philosophies, fails to demonstrate the truth in his own views.