Campus & Community

Philosopher Robert Nozick dies at 63

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Considered one of century’s leading thinkers

Robert Nozick challenged professional thinkers to think harder. (Gazette file photo)

University Professor Robert Nozick, one of the late 20th century’s most influential thinkers, died on the morning of Jan. 23 at the age of 63. He had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1994.

Nozick, known for his wide-ranging intellect and engaging style as both writer and teacher, had taught a course on the Russian Revolution during the fall semester and was planning to teach again in the spring. His last major book, “Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World,” was published by Harvard University Press in October 2001.

According to Alan Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law and a longtime friend, Nozick had been talking with colleagues and critiquing their work until a week before his death.

“His mind remained brilliant and sharp to the very end,” Dershowitz said.

He added that Nozick was “constantly probing, always learning new subjects. He was a University Professor in the best sense of the term. He taught everybody in every discipline. He was a wonderful teacher, constantly rethinking his own views and sharing his new ideas with students and colleagues. His unique philosophy has influenced generations of readers and will continue to influence people for generations to come.”

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers said of Nozick’s passing, “I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Robert Nozick. Harvard and the entire world of ideas have lost a brilliant and provocative scholar, profoundly influential within his own field of philosophy and well beyond. All of us will greatly miss his lively mind and spirited presence, but his ideas and example will continue to enrich us for years to come.”

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy R. Knowles said, “Bob Nozick was a luminous and wide-ranging philosopher who engaged students and colleagues from across the University and beyond. The loss to philosophy and to Harvard is grievous.”

Philosophy Department Chair Christine Korsgaard described Nozick as “a brilliant and fearless thinker, very fast on his feet in discussion, and apparently interested in everything. Both in his teaching and in his writing, he did not stay within the confines of any traditional field, but rather followed his interests into many areas of philosophy. His works throw light on a broad range of philosophical issues, and on their connection with other disciplines. The courage with which he faced the last years of illness, and the irrepressible energy with which he continued to work, made a very deep impression on all of us.”

Nozick’s controversial and challenging views gained him considerable attention and influence in the world beyond the academy.

His first book, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” (1974), transformed him from a young philosophy professor known only within his profession to the reluctant theoretician of a national political movement.

He wrote the book as a critique of “Theory of Justice” (1971), by his Harvard colleague John Rawls, the James Bryant Conant University Professor Emeritus. Rawls’ book provided a philosophical underpinning for the bureaucratic welfare state, a methodically reasoned argument for why it was right for the state to redistribute wealth in order to help the poor and disadvantaged.

Nozick’s book argued that the rights of the individual are primary and that nothing more than a minimal state – sufficient to protect against violence and theft, and to ensure the enforcement of contracts – is justified. “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” won the National Book Award and was named by The Times Literary Supplement as one of “The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the War.”

A former member of the radical left who was converted to a libertarian perspective as a graduate student, largely through his reading of conservative economists Friedrich Heyek and Milton Friedman, Nozick was never comfortable with his putative status as an ideologue of the right.

In a 1978 article in The New York Times Magazine he said that “right-wing people like the pro-free-market argument, but don’t like the arguments for individual liberty in cases like gay rights – although I view them as an interconnecting whole. …”

Whether they agreed or disagreed with the political implication of the book, critics were nearly unanimous in their appreciation for Nozick’s lively, accessible writing style. In a discipline known for arduous writing, Nozick’s approach was hailed as a breath of fresh air.

He explained his approach in the article cited above: “It is as though what philosophers want is a way of saying something that will leave the person they’re talking to no escape. Well, why should they be bludgeoning people like that? It’s not a nice way to behave.”

Despite the notoriety and influence that his first book brought him, Nozick moved on to explore very different territory in his second book, “Philosophical Explanations” (1981). This need to be intellectually on the move at all times characterized his career. He once told an interviewer, “I didn’t want to spend my life writing ‘The Son of Anarchy, State, and Utopia.’”

In “Philosophical Explanations,” Nozick took on subjects that many academic philosophers had dismissed as irrelevant or meaningless, such as free will versus determinism and the nature of subjective experience, and why there is something rather than nothing. In dealing with these questions, he rejected the idea of strict philosophical proof, adopting instead a notion of philosophical pluralism.

“There are various philosophical views, mutually incompatible, which cannot be dismissed or simply rejected,” he wrote in “Philosophical Explanations.” “Philosophy’s output is the basketful of these admissible views, all together.” Nozick suggested that this basketful of views could be ordered according to criteria of coherence and adequacy and that even second- and third-ranked views might offer valuable truths and insights.

Nozick continued to develop his theory of philosophical pluralism in his next book, “The Examined Life” (1989), an exploration of the individual’s relation to reality that, once again, emphasized explanation rather than proof.

In his book, “The Nature of Rationality” (1995), Nozick asked what function principles serve in our daily life and why we don’t simply act on whim or out of self-interest. “Socratic Puzzles” (1997) was a collection of essays, articles, and reviews, plus several examples of Nozick’s philosophical short fiction.

His next work, “Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World,” (2001) looks at the nature of truth and objectivity and examines the function of subjective consciousness in an objective world. It also scrutinizes truth in ethics and discusses whether truth in general is relative to culture and social factors.

Nozick’s teaching followed the same lively, unorthodox, heterogeneous pattern as his writing. With one exception, he never taught the same course twice. The exception was “The Best Things in Life,” which he presented in 1982 and ’83, attempting to derive from the class discussion a general theory of values. The course description called it 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.”

Speaking without notes, Nozick would pace restlessly back and forth, an ever-present can of Tab in his hand, drawing his students into a free-ranging discussion of the topic at hand.

He once defended his “thinking out loud” approach by comparing it with the more traditional method of giving students finished views of the great philosophical ideas.

“Presenting a completely polished and worked-out view doesn’t give students a feel for what it’s like to do original work in philosophy and to see it happen, to catch on to doing it.”

He also used his teaching as a way of working out his ideas, often leading to views that he would later present in book form. “If somebody wants to know what I’m going to do next, what they ought to do is keep an eye on the Harvard course catalogue,” he once told an interviewer.

Nozick, who grew up in Brooklyn and attended public school there, came to philosophy via a paperback version of Plato’s “Republic,” which he found intellectually thrilling. Nozick described the experience in his 1989 book, “The Examined Life” – “When I was 15 years old, or 16, I carried around on the streets of Brooklyn a paperback copy of Plato’s ‘Republic’; 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.”

Nozick obtained an A.B. degree from Columbia College in 1959, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton in 1961 and 1963, respectively. After stints at Princeton and the Rockefeller University, Nozick came to Harvard as a full professor in 1969, at the age of 30. He became Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy in 1985 and in 1998 was named the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor.

Nozick was the recipient of many awards and honors, among them the Presidential Citation from the American Psychological Association in 1998, which described him as “one of the most brilliant and original living philosophers.”

Nozick was also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Council of Scholars of the Library of Congress, a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, and a senior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He served as the president of the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division from 1997 to 1998, was a Christensen visiting fellow at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford University, 1997, and a cultural adviser to the U.S. Delegation to the UNESCO Conference on World Cultural Policy in 1982.

In the spring of 1997, he delivered the six John Locke Lectures at Oxford University. He held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

He is survived by his wife, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and his two children, Emily Sarah Nozick and David Joshua Nozick.

Nozick will be buried in a private ceremony. A memorial service is being planned for sometime in February.