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Robert Nozick (1938-2002)
by Anja Steinbauer
The tall grey-haired man at the podium spoke quickly and with enthusiasm, gesticulating energetically as his lively eyes gazed over the several hundred philosophers who listened eagerly. Words such as ‘charismatic’, ‘sharp’, ‘enthusiastic’ may best describe Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick who died of stomach cancer at the age of 63 on 23 January 2002.
Born on 16 November 1938 in Brooklyn to the Russian immigrants Max Nozick and Sophie Cohen Nozick, he developed an interest in philosophy while still at school. Nozick described his early shoulder-brushing experience with the subject in his book The Examined Life (1989): “When I was 15 years old, or 16, I carried around on the streets of Brooklyn a paperback copy of Plato’s Republic, frontcover facing outward. I had read only some of it and understood even less, but I was excited by it and knew it was something wonderful.” Taking up his studies at Columbia College, Nozick therefore decided to attend philosophy classes. His teacher Sidney Morgenbesser was, following Nozick’s account in Socratic Puzzles (1997), a particular inspiration to him, raising objections to points which Nozick made in his classes and thereby challenging him to think more clearly until Nozick was ready to “major in Morgenbesser”. During graduate school at Princeton, studying with Carl Hempel, he became interested in decision theory, culminating in a thesis ‘The Normative Theory of Individual Choice’. He taught as an associate professor at Princeton, Harvard and Rockefeller universities, before becoming a full professor at Harvard at the age of thirty. Nozick was made a University Professor, the highest academic rank at Harvard, an honour only shared by seventeen of his peers. When Nozick was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1994 it was predicted that he would have no more than six months to live. Instead he fought the illness with remarkable vigour, continuing to teach, write and discuss ideas with his colleagues until only a few days before his death.
A philosopher with a wide range of interests in the subject, Nozick was dissatisfied with being labelled a ‘political philosopher’, modestly referring to his famous Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) as “an accident”. In this work he expounds and defends an extreme libertarian view, a position which he had adopted over time since once having been a member of the radical left as a young student. Nozick argues in favour of a minimal state, i.e. a state only serving to protect the rights of its members against force, theft and fraud and to help enforce contracts. The libertarian rights of the individual include the right not to make sacrifices for others, as well as the right not to be forced to do things for oneself. Nozick rejects end-state theories as well as patterns of distribution, since they entail unwanted interference. Redistributive taxation to him was much like forced labour. In order to achieve a just state of affairs, he argued, we have to follow just steps. His famous example of Wilt Chaimberlain, the baseball player who, due to his popularity, receives an extra amount of money from every member of the crowd at each game, serves to illustrate the point that just steps in the form of voluntary transactions will yield a just outcome. Anarchy, State and Utopia has been listed among the most influential books of the late 20th century. However, his intellectual curiosity drove Nozick to explore other areas of philosophy: “I did not want to spend my life writing ‘The Son of Anarchy, State and Utopia’, ‘The Return of the Son of …’, etc. I had other philosophical questions to think about: knowledge, the self, why there is something rather than nothing, and – of course – free will.”
In his Philosophical Explanations (1981) he introduces the idea of ‘tracking’. Tracking the truth acquires epistemological importance especially with view to scepticism. His book The Nature of Rationality (1993) is an inquiry into the function of principles in our lives. His recent Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World (2001) examines the status of truth and objectivity and how they relate to the conscious subject.
Nozick received numerous awards and honours during his life. He is survived by his second wife, the poetess Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and his two children Emily Sarah Nozick and David Joshua Nozick.
© Anja Steinbauer 2002
Anja Steinbauer heard Nozick’s Presidential Address to the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division in 1997.