Robert Nozick

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Robert Nozick
Robert nozick.jpg
Born(1938-11-16)November 16, 1938
DiedJanuary 23, 2002(2002-01-23) (aged 63)
Education Columbia University (AB)
Princeton University (PhD)
Oxford University (Fulbright Scholar)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Analytic
Doctoral advisors Carl Gustav Hempel
Main interests
Political philosophy, ethics, epistemology
Notable ideas
Utility monster, experience machine, entitlement theory of justice, Nozick's Lockean proviso, [1] Wilt Chamberlain argument, paradox of deontology, [2] deductive closure, Nozick's four conditions on knowledge

Robert Nozick ( /ˈnzɪk/ ; November 16, 1938 – January 23, 2002) was an American philosopher. He held the Joseph Pellegrino University Professorship at Harvard University, [4] and was president of the American Philosophical Association. He is best known for his books Philosophical Explanations (1981), which included his counterfactual theory of knowledge, and Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), a libertarian answer to John Rawls' A Theory of Justice (1971), in which Nozick also presented his own theory of utopia as one in which people can freely choose the rules of the society they enter into. His other work involved ethics, decision theory, philosophy of mind, metaphysics and epistemology. His final work before his death, Invariances (2001), introduced his theory of evolutionary cosmology, by which he argues invariances, and hence objectivity itself, emerged through evolution across possible worlds. [5]


Personal life

Nozick was born in Brooklyn to a family of Jewish descent. His mother was born Sophie Cohen, and his father was a Jew from the Russian shtetl who had been born with the name Cohen and who ran a small business. [6]

Nozick attended the public schools in Brooklyn. He was then educated at Columbia University (A.B. 1959, summa cum laude ), where he studied with Sidney Morgenbesser, and later at Princeton University (Ph.D. 1963) under Carl Hempel, and at Oxford University as a Fulbright Scholar (1963–1964). At one point he joined the youth branch of Norman Thomas's Socialist Party. In addition, at Columbia he founded the local chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which in 1962 changed its name to Students for a Democratic Society.

That same year, after receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1959, he married Barbara Fierer. They had two children, Emily and David. The Nozicks eventually divorced and he remarried, to the poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Nozick died in 2002 after a prolonged struggle with stomach cancer. [7] He was interred at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Career and works

Political philosophy

For Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) Nozick received a National Book Award in the category Philosophy and Religion. [8] There, Nozick argues that only a minimal state limited to the narrow functions of protection against "force, fraud, theft, and administering courts of law" [9] could be justified without violating people's rights. For Nozick, a distribution of goods is just if brought about by free exchange among consenting adults from a just starting position, even if large inequalities subsequently emerge from the process. Nozick appealed to the Kantian idea that people should be treated as ends (what he termed 'separateness of persons'), not merely as a means to some other end.

Nozick challenged the partial conclusion of John Rawls' Second Principle of Justice of his A Theory of Justice , that "social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to be of greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society." Anarchy, State, and Utopia claims a heritage from John Locke's Second Treatise on Government and seeks to ground itself upon a natural law doctrine, but reaches some importantly different conclusions from Locke himself in several ways.

Most controversially, Nozick argued that a consistent upholding of the non-aggression principle would allow and regard as valid consensual or non-coercive enslavement contracts between adults. He rejected the notion of inalienable rights advanced by Locke and most contemporary capitalist-oriented libertarian academics, writing in Anarchy, State, and Utopia that the typical notion of a "free system" would allow adults to voluntarily enter into non-coercive slave contracts. [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16]


In Philosophical Explanations (1981), which received the Phi Beta Kappa Society's Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, Nozick provided novel accounts of knowledge, free will, personal identity, the nature of value, and the meaning of life. He also put forward an epistemological system which attempted to deal with both the Gettier problem and those posed by skepticism. This highly influential argument eschewed justification as a necessary requirement for knowledge. [17] :ch. 7

Nozick's four conditions for S's knowing that P were:

  1. P is true
  2. S believes that P
  3. If it were the case that (not-P), S would not believe that P
  4. If it were the case that P, S would believe that P

Nozick's third and fourth conditions are counterfactuals. He called this the "tracking theory" of knowledge. Nozick believed the counterfactual conditionals bring out an important aspect of our intuitive grasp of knowledge: For any given fact, the believer's method must reliably track the truth despite varying relevant conditions. In this way, Nozick's theory is similar to reliabilism. Due to certain counterexamples that could otherwise be raised against these counterfactual conditions, Nozick specified that:

  1. If P weren't the case and S were to use M to arrive at a belief whether or not P, then S wouldn't believe, via M, that P.
  2. If P were the case and S were to use M to arrive at a belief whether or not P, then S would believe, via M, that P.
  3. [18]

Where M stands for the method by which S came to arrive at a belief whether or not P.

A major criticism of Nozick's theory of knowledge is his rejection of the principle of deductive closure. This principle states that if S knows X and S knows that X implies Y, then S knows Y. Nozick's truth tracking conditions do not allow for the principle of deductive closure. Nozick believes that the truth tracking conditions are more fundamental to human intuition than the principle of deductive closure.[ citation needed ]

Later books

The Examined Life (1989), pitched to a broader public, explores love, death, faith, reality, and the meaning of life. According to Stephen Metcalf, Nozick expresses serious misgivings about capitalist libertarianism, going so far as to reject much of the foundations of the theory on the grounds that personal freedom can sometimes only be fully actualized via a collectivist politics and that wealth is at times justly redistributed via taxation to protect the freedom of the many from the potential tyranny of an overly selfish and powerful few. [19] Nozick suggests that citizens who are opposed to wealth redistribution which fund programs they object to, should be able to opt out by supporting alternative government approved charities with an added 5% surcharge. [20]

However, Jeff Riggenbach has noted that in an interview conducted in July 2001, he stated that he had never stopped self-identifying as a libertarian. Roderick Long reported that in his last book, Invariances , "[Nozick] identified voluntary cooperation as the 'core principle' of ethics, maintaining that the duty not to interfere with another person's 'domain of choice' is '[a]ll that any society should (coercively) demand'; higher levels of ethics, involving positive benevolence, represent instead a 'personal ideal' that should be left to 'a person's own individual choice and development.' And that certainly sounds like an attempt to embrace libertarianism all over again. My own view is that Nozick's thinking about these matters evolved over time and that what he wrote at any given time was an accurate reflection of what he was thinking at that time." [21] Furthermore, Julian Sanchez reported that "Nozick always thought of himself as a libertarian in a broad sense, right up to his final days, even as his views became somewhat less 'hardcore.'" [22]

The Nature of Rationality (1993) presents a theory of practical reason that attempts to embellish notoriously spartan classical decision theory.

Socratic Puzzles (1997) is a collection of papers that range in topic from Ayn Rand and Austrian economics to animal rights. A thesis claims that "social ties are deeply interconnected with vital parts of Nozick's later philosophy", citing these two works as a development of The Examined Life. [23]

His last production, Invariances (2001), applies insights from physics and biology to questions of objectivity in such areas as the nature of necessity and moral value.


Nozick created the thought experiment of the "utility monster" to show that average utilitarianism could lead to a situation where the needs of the vast majority were sacrificed for one individual. He also wrote a version of what was essentially a previously-known thought experiment, the experience machine, in an attempt to show that ethical hedonism was false. Nozick asked us to imagine that "superduper neuropsychologists" have figured out a way to stimulate a person's brain to induce pleasurable experiences. [17] : 210–11 We would not be able to tell that these experiences were not real. He asks us, if we were given the choice, would we choose a machine-induced experience of a wonderful life over real life? Nozick says no, then asks whether we have reasons not to plug into the machine and concludes that since it does not seem to be rational to plug in, ethical hedonism must be false.

Philosophical method

Nozick was notable for the exploratory style of his philosophizing and for his methodological ecumenism. Often content to raise tantalizing philosophical possibilities and then leave judgment to the reader, Nozick was also notable for drawing from literature outside of philosophy (e.g., economics, physics, evolutionary biology). [24]


In his 2001 work, Invariances, Nozick introduces his theory of truth, in which he leans towards a deflationary theory of truth, but argues that objectivity arises through being invariant under various transformations. For instance, space-time is a significant objective fact because an interval involving both temporal and spatial separation is invariant, whereas no simpler interval involving only temporal or only spatial separation is invariant under Lorentz transformations. Nozick argues that invariances, and hence objectivity itself, emerged through a theory of evolutionary cosmology across possible worlds. [25]


See also


  1. Mack, Eric (30 May 2019). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  2. "How can a concern for the non-violation of C [i.e. some deontological constraint] lead to refusal to violate C even when this would prevent other more extensive violations of C?": Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, Basic Books (1974), p. 30 as quoted by Ulrike Heuer, "Paradox of Deontology, Revisited", in: Mark Timmons (ed.), Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics. Oxford University Press (2011).
  3. Gerard Casey, Murray Rothbard, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013: "Rothbard and Nozick".
  4. "Robert Nozick, 1938-2002". Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, November 2002: 76(2).
  5. Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, Volume 1, edited by John R. Shook, Thoemmes Press, 2005, p.1838
  6. "Professor Robert Nozick". Daily Telegraph. 2002. ISSN   0307-1235 . Retrieved 2018-08-01.
  7. For biographies, memorials, and obituaries see:
  8. "National Book Awards – 1975" Archived 2011-09-09 at the Wayback Machine . National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-08.
  9. Feser, Edward. "Robert Nozick (1938—2002)". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 13, 2017.
  10. Ellerman, David (September 2005). "Translatio versus Concessio: Retrieving the Debate about Contracts of Alienation with an Application to Today's Employment Contract" (PDF). Politics & Society. Sage Publications. 35 (3): 449–80. doi:10.1177/0032329205278463 . Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  11. A summary of the political philosophy of Robert Nozick by R. N. Johnson Archived 2002-02-04 at the Wayback Machine
  12. Jonathan Wolff (25 October 2007). "Robert Nozick, Libertarianism, And Utopia"
  13. Nozick on Newcomb's Problem and Prisoners' Dilemma by S. L. Hurley Archived 2005-03-01 at the Wayback Machine
  14. Robert Nozick: Against Distributive Justice by R.J. Kilcullen Archived 2001-12-23 at the Wayback Machine
  15. Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? by Robert Nozick
  16. Robert Nozick, Philosopher of Liberty by Roderick T. Long Archived 2007-02-05 at the Wayback Machine
  17. 1 2 Schmidtz, David (2002). Robert Nozick. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN   0-521-00671-6.
  18. Keith Derose, Solving the Skeptical Problem
  19. Metcalf, Stephen (June 24, 2011). "The Liberty Scam: Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired". Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  20. Nozick, Robert (1989). "The Zigzag of Politics", The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations. Simon & Schuster. ISBN   978-0-671-72501-3
  21. Riggenbach, Jeff (November 26, 2010). "Anarchy, State, and Robert Nozick". Mises Daily. Ludwig von Mises Institute . Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  22. Julian Sanchez, "Nozick, Libertarianism, and Thought Experiments".
  23. Herbjørnsrud, Dag (2002). Leaving Libertarianism: Social Ties in Robert Nozick's New Philosophy. Oslo, Norway: University of Oslo.
  24. Williams, Bernard. "Cosmic Philosopher". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 2018-08-01.
  25. Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, Volume 1, edited by John R. Shook, A&C Black, 2005, p.1838

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