Robert Nozick Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2249 words.)