Professor Robert Nozick

One of the leading political philosophers of the 20th century, whose ideas for a minimal State were taken up by the New Right

The Times
26 Jan 2002 E-Mail this page to a friend

Robert Nozick, political philosopher, was born in New York on November 16, 1938. He died of cancer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 23, 2002, aged 63.
MANY of the intellectual arguments in the 20th-century Western world had their roots in a conflict between conservatism and liberalism. If the debate in economics was between the ideas of Keynes and Hayek and in politics between the vision of Roosevelt or Beveridge and that of Thatcher or Reagan, then the equivalent debate in philosophy might be said to have been between two Harvard philosophy professors, John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Along with Friedrich Hayek, Nozick became one of the century's most important advocates of individual liberty, private property and limited government.

Rawls's Theory of Justice (1971) provided a philosophical underpinning for the welfare state, by arguing for redistributive justice: the notion that it was right for the State to redistribute wealth in order to help the disadvantaged. Nozick replied with Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), in which he argued that the rights of the individual are primary and attacked forms of paternalistic government that forbid capitalistic acts between consenting adults.

Whereas Rawls wrote that the State can help individuals to help themselves, Nozick believed that it should be merely a nightwatchman sufficient to protect against violence and theft, and to ensure the enforcement of contracts and that justice was not some end state, but a process by which people entered into their transactions.

Nozick's first book, Anarchy, State and Utopia won the 1975 National Book Award and was listed in The Times Literary Supplement as one of the hundred most influential books since the war. In a discipline known for impenetrable prose, the book was admired by critics from all ideological backgrounds for its accessible writing style (there were many diverting parentheses) and its inventive examples. Nozick at one point made a modest proposal for redistributing sex appeal by means of plastic surgery.

America's New Right was pleased to have a new philosophical justification, and the book could have made Nozick the theoretician of a national political movement, but he was uncomfortable with the possibility of being used as a political ideologue. Right-wing people like the pro-free-market argument, but don't like the arguments for individual liberty in cases like gay rights, he said. I view them as an interconnecting whole.

Moreover, his own areas of concentration changed during his career. In fact, he believed that human beings ought to change their positions over time. He compared his shifts to the world of politics: for he saw that the goals of fairness and efficiency cannot be fully pursued except at the expense of each other.

Nozick himself had been a member of the radical Left before a conversion to libertarianism as a graduate student, largely after reading works by Hayek and Milton Friedman. Born and educated in Brooklyn, the son of Max Nozick, an immigrant from Russia, he had joined the youth branch of the Socialist Party, and while an undergraduate at Columbia he founded the local branch of the Student League for Industrial Democracy.

It was as a graduate student at Princeton, where he wrote a doctorate on theories of rational decision, that he first encountered arguments in defence of capitalism. The more I explored the arguments, the more convincing they looked, he said. For a while I thought: `Well, the arguments are right, capitalism is the best system, but only bad people would think so. Then, at some point, my mind and heart were in unison.

After brief periods at Harvard and the Rockefeller University, Nozick became a full professor at Harvard in 1969, at the age of 30. At a time which saw an explosion of political theorising in Western academia, led in Europe by Louis Althusser and Jargen Habermas, Rawls and Nozick led philosophical debate in America with their publications in the early 1970s.

His work also came at a time when conservatism in Britain had reached a crossroads and was about to turn right, based on such thinking. The social philosopher and bioethicist Peter Singer characterised Anarchy, State and Utopia as a major event in contemporary political philosophy since it meant that the right of the State to bring about redistribution through progressive taxation would need to be defended and argued for instead of being taken for granted. Despite the renown of his first book, Nozick tackled very different issues in his second book, Philosophical Explanations (1981), taking on epistemology, personal identity, free will, and the foundations of ethics. It was another example of his need to remain on the move. He said: I didn't want to spend my life writing The Son of Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

In giving his explanations, he rejected the idea of strict philosophical proof, and advocated instead the notion of philosophical pluralism. There are various philosophical views, mutually incompatible, which cannot be dismissed or simply rejected, he wrote. Philosophy's output is the basketful of these admissible views, all together. Nozick suggested that this variety of views could be ordered and that even those which were not of the first rank might offer valuable truths and insights.

The following two books reflected upon different matters again. The Examined Life (1989) took on a subject that many philosophers avoid, by discussing what is important in life. He recalled in the book his first memories of philosophy. When I was 15 years old, or 16, I carried around on the streets of Brooklyn a paperback copy of Plato's Republic, he said, front cover facing outward. I had read only some of it and understood less, but I was excited by it and knew it was something wonderful.

His next book, The Nature of Rationality (1993), looked at theories of rational decision and was described by the political philosopher John Dunn as enviably clever.

From 1981 until 1984 Nozick was chairman of the philosophy department at Harvard, and in 1998 he was named University Professor, Harvard's most distinguished professorial position; at the time only 17 others in the university held the title. His teaching, like his writing, was more varied in nature than that of many professors. One of the courses that he taught was called The Best Things in Life, which was advertised to students as an exploration of the nature and value of those things deemed best, such as friendship, love, intellectual understanding, sexual pleasure, achievement, adventure, play, luxury, fame, power, enlightenment, and ice -cream.

Such descriptions were important. His teaching often led to ideas that he would later present in book form, and he admitted: If somebody wants to know what I'm going to do next, they ought to keep an eye on the Harvard course catalogue.

Nozick also taught courses with members of the government, psychology and economics departments, and at the divinity and law schools. Recently he taught a new interdisciplinary course, Thinking About Thinking, with the scientist Stephen Jay Gould and the law professor Alan Dershowitz.

Nozick was found to be suffering from stomach cancer in 1994. Before Christmas of last year he taught a course on the Russian Revolution and until a week before his death he had been talking with colleagues and discussing their work. His last major book, Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World, published in October 2001, presents bold new philosophical theories that take account of recent advances in science, and discusses whether truth is relative to cultural and social factors.

Nozick in the course of his career acquired many official distinctions. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy and a Senior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. In 1997 he delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford University.

That same year Nozick and Rawls were among six leading political philosophers who submitted a brief to the Supreme Court which urged the court to uphold two federal appeals court rulings that mentally competent, terminally ill patients have a constitutional right to a doctor's aid in killing themselves. The fundamental principle was that in deeply personal decisions, an individual must be free to follow his or her own religious or ethical convictions, without government interference beyond the minimum needed.

One Harvard professor, Michael Sandel, called the group that composed the brief the dream team of liberal political philosophy; Rawls and Nozick, though from different perspectives, believed that rational agents should have the right to do what they want with their own body. Neither accepted religous arguments against assisted death, even though they still disagreed on the role of the State in the life of the individual. Despite their philosophical differences, the pair were not only colleagues but friends.

Nozick married twice. In 1959 he married Barbara Fierer. After their divorce in 1981 he married the poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg, who survives him, with a daughter and a son from his first marriage.

Robert Nozick, political philosopher, was born in New York on November 16, 1938. He died of cancer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 23, 2002, aged 63.

The original was published on the The Times website

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I’m not clear on what it took to get on your lists -- are these supposed to be the five most intriesteng books you’ve read in each category? Most influential? Most convincing?Also, I think you miscategorize Nietzsche because you are conflating two categories into one, and two dimensions into one.The dimension you say you are trying to get at is the dimension of "exceptionalism." For you, the perspective of believing humans are exceptional leads people to write books trying to define this exceptional sense of morality that they believe humans have, and explicitly or implicitly prescribe the actions that fall under their definition of "right." Rawls falls into this category, as do John Stuart Mills and lots of other classic ethical theorists (I don’t remember Nozick, Gauthier, or Frank well enough, but they probably fall in this category as well).At the other end of this dimension are people who don’t believe humans are exceptional and (therefore?) write books explaning the origins of morality in historical terms. Your focus here is on "historical" in the sense of "evolutionary/biological," but to me the non-exceptionalism assumption might well also prompt people to write *cultural* histories of different ethical systems in the sense of an historian or anthropologist.I think the best part of Nietszche’s project is the cultural history of the Judeo-Christian ethical system, which is NOT the kind of thing an exceptionalist would usually be interested in doing. The reason you are tempted to lump him in the second category is because you see him making prescriptions and assume that that makes him an exceptionalist.But that is where you are conflating two dimensions. The dimension of exceptionalism is separate from the dimension of, for lack of a better term, "activism." It is quite possible and consistent to reject exceptionalism and still make prescriptions in one’s writing -- in fact, I dare say, your blogging is an excellent example of this. The goal of impacting others’ behavior, including behavior in the realm of what we commonly term morality, through one’s writings is not contingent upon the exceptionalism premise.(NOTE: In a technical (but important) sense, all writings have activist projects -- the goal might be to affect the behavior of the committee making tenure decisions, for instance. But I’m using activism here in a much less inclusive sense of self-conciously attempting to influence the ethical norms of others)Hence, I think that Axelrod and probably the other books you listed in your first set (I haven’t read them) have non-exceptionalist, non-activist projects. Rawls (and probably some of the others in your second set) have exceptionalist, activist projects. But Foucault, me, non-exceptionalists who make policy recommendations, and (under some readings, at least) Nietzsche have non-exceptionalist, activist projects.

Hello Anthony,Believing and being are definitely not the same. The cup of cofefe on my desk is (it has being) but it doesn’t have beliefs. And my belief that the cup of cofefe is half-finished, is made true by the fact that the cup of cofefe IS half-finished. If we distinguish believing we are happy’ and being happy’ then it looks as if being happy is the fact that makes true the belief I’m happy’. But there is a problem. We know we might hallucinate a cup of cofefe but can we hallucinate being happy? Some people believe that if we believe we are happy we must BE happy. But I agree that the experience machine throws doubt on this: surely, believing we are happy because we are attached to a machine that is causing us to believe this, doesn’t seem to amount to BEING happy. I am not sure what you mean when you say understanding the state of things trumps belief’.Marianne

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chotliAnonymousGeneral Comment
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