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Cosmic Philosopher

Philosophical Explanations

by Robert Nozick
Harvard University Press/Belknap, 764 pp., $25.00

Toward the end of his talented, diverse, and very long book, Robert Nozick embraces the idea of philosophy as an art form, and of the philosopher as a literary creator who works with ideas. This reinforces an idea that may have already occurred to the reader; if this book is in some way like a literary work, it is clear what kind of literary work it is like.

Nozick, when young, wrote several articles of startling brilliance, originality, and, in some cases, formidable technical resource, in such fields as the formal discipline of decision theory. He then produced the notorious Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a lengthy book which advocated individual rights, libertarianism, and a minimal state; attacked public welfare; discouraged redistributive social justice; and represented taxation as forced labor. It was very clever and not very pious, and gave a distinct impression of hard-talking heartlessness (though the genuinely heartless publicists of the right who welcomed it as a philosophical liberation failed to notice that Nozick was committed, most probably, to believing that most of America belongs to the Indians).

After the hard, scandalous success we should not be too surprised to find now a book that has deeper and more spiritual ambitions, which covers many large traditional subjects, and which devotes the same outstanding talents not just to solving puzzles or showing off, and not at all to slamming the pious, but to reaching toward more speculative and awesome reflections on the meaning of life. This is Philosophical Explanations. It is an attempt at the Great American Novel of philosophy.

Like most other such attempts, it fails. It is an extraordinary mixture. In part, it is as brilliant and exciting as anything in contemporary philosophy. Quite often it is suggestive and interesting. Sometimes it is very bad, and at moments it is so deeply awful that it is only by considering the Great American Novel syndrome that one can see how it came about. A feature of that syndrome is the disposition to take the size of the attempt for success itself. That can affect readers as well as the writer. Many large things have already been said about this book by commentators. One is that it introduces new philosophical techniques, and is likely to influence the way in which philosophy is done.

Nozick does offer some claims to a distinctive method, but he sensibly makes much less of his originality in this respect than the commentators do. The idea, borne by his title, is that philosophy should try to explain things, rather than offer proofs. It is not altogether clear what he means by this distinction. He wants to avoid “coercing” people with attempted proofs to inescapable conclusions; he does not want to proceed by rigorous deduction from self-evident premises. But it is not obvious how that aim is related to offering explanations: some explanations (some mathematical ones, for instance) themselves proceed in that way. He recommends something else again when he tells us to proceed in a tentative rather than a dogmatic spirit—there can be tentative suggestions of proofs, and there can be dogmatic explanations. Nor is any of this the same as the aspiration, which he also expresses, to make a philosophical work that is more like the many-columned Parthenon than like a tall, thin tower, so that when bits fall down, as they will, something of beauty may be left. That analogy poses the question, not whether the work consists of proofs, but whether it all consists of one proof.

One kind of thing Nozick’s various distinctions do exclude: a philosophical work that tries to deduce all its conclusions from a few axioms. That is excluded, but then virtually no philosophy has been like that. Spinoza claims to have done that in his Ethics, but no one believes him. At the very beginning of Western philosophy, Parmenides’ poem (or half of it) may have tried to do that, but it is hard to tell from its ruins—except that they seem more like the ruins of a temple than of a tower.

In fact, almost all past philosophy has consisted of explanations, and has been known by its authors to do so. Plato’s did, and the word aitia, the Greek for “explanation,” is closely associated with its most notorious speculative construct, the Theory of Forms. Aristotle was obsessionally explicit in offering explanations. Even the rationalist Descartes can be seen as, much of the time, explaining—and he was aware, in the case of physics (at least), of something to which Nozick draws attention, the power of explanations that one knows to be untrue. Kant was centrally engaged in explanation: explaining, as Nozick reminds us, how something can be so (for instance, that every event must have a cause), but also, and very illuminatingly, how we can seem to be forced to believe things that are absurd or impossible. Kant and other philosophers, such as Wittgenstein, have believed something that Nozick mentions but does not in fact attend to very much in this book: that a good philosophical explanation, insofar as it corrects everyday belief, carries with it an explanation also of error, and of why incorrect everyday belief should seem true.

There are perhaps two distinctive things that Nozick particularly has in mind in emphasizing explanation as against “coercive” proof. He is telling us, for one thing, that philosophers should entertain ideas in a patient and imaginative manner, and not treat them, or those who offer them, as the local heavies in a Western movie treat the stranger in town. It is not the most creative approach in philosophy to shoot an idea out of someone’s hand as soon as he picks it up. Here Nozick’s conclusion is fine and good. Not everyone needs to be told it.

The second thing that Nozick encourages goes further and is less good. This—which emerges much more in the later part of the book, about value—is the idea that a philosophical conception recommends itself if, as well as fitting a number of our spontaneous practices of thought and feeling, it would be nice if it were true. At times, Nozick starts at quite a distance from the facts and constructs a model of how things might be, the main point of which seems to be that the world would be a better and less squalid place if that were how things turned out to be. Thus he offers a picture in which we have a dignity that lies in possessing genuine free will; in which there is an objective world of values that are not created, though they are in some way brought to life, by our thought; in which these cosmic values are what give meaning to life.

These are not contemptible ideas, and Nozick does not merely assert them. He puts them to some explanatory work—though that work is rather narrowly conceived—and he argues about them in some detail. But what gives the ideas their initial impetus does not lie in any explanatory power—at least any beyond their effortless ability to match the conviction we may have, some of us more than others, that we have the dignity of undetermined free will and that there are objective values. What launches them is the feeling that everything would be higher and more inspiring if things conformed to Nozick’s model, and it is that feeling, together with a certain tone (of which more later), that grounds the fear that this book is trying to do a dreadful thing: to lead philosophy back to an aspiration from which the work of this century has done so much to release it, the aspiration to be edifying.

There are some important kinds of philosophical explanation that do not figure enough in these pages. One is that Kantian type of explanation I have already mentioned, the explanation of why what seems to us to be so should seem to be so if in fact it is false. There is a good example of this lack in Nozick’s first section, on the identity of the self. Philosophers have much discussed issues of what differentiates one person from another and what it is for a particular person to continue to exist: is it continuity of body, of character, of memories, or what? An important slant to these questions is given when the perspective is the person’s own. Suppose I am invited to reflect what person in the future would, under various imaginable transformations—e.g., if my memories or character or body should be radically altered—be me. Some philosophers (including myself) have claimed that the following principle applies to such cases: that the question whether a certain person in the future, let us call him Y, is the same as a person present now, X, cannot be a question of whether Y is merely the best candidate available at the time for being X.

Imagine two different states of affairs five years from now. In one of them, a certain living body, Y (not your present one), has been programmed to have your present memories and character (more or less), and your own present body has been destroyed. In the other state of affairs, Y exists, just the same, but your present body, X, also continues, with the same memories and character. Clearly in the second case, X is you, and Y is not. Y is just a copy. Does that mean that Y cannot be you in the first case either? I and others have argued that is does mean that. Nozick denies this, and claims that who one will be in the future depends on the available candidates. In the first case, you will be Y, since there is no better candidate; in the second case, you will not be Y, since there is a better candidate. He calls this the “closest continuer” theory of (personal) identity.

Nozick actually claims to show that the principle that he rejects is false, by producing a counterexample. This strays a bit, early in the book, from the protocol of eschewing proof, but in the event he does not stray far, since the counter-example is feeble and proves nothing. (It concerns a group of émigré philosophers who will be the Vienna Circle if there is no other and larger group of émigré philosophers elsewhere, but will not be if there is. But a group of persons is not the same sort of thing as a person. “Are you the Vienna Circle?” the welcoming committee asks. “At least some of it,” the émigrés might reasonably reply.)

More interestingly, Nozick proceeds to find other kinds of philosophical issues which, he claims, have a similar structure, for example, the analysis of justice, or the meaning of sentences. This is worthwhile, and sheds light on a number of questions. But even if this is so, it will not answer the question that many will feel most needs answering: how can this be the right answer for personal identity? How can it be that the question whether I should fear for what happens to some future person (supposing that I care about myself) should depend on whether someone else has been killed off who would have had a better claim to being me if he had survived? Perhaps the question can be answered, but it is not answered here, and it certainly needs to be. If what Nozick claims is true, then some things that we very deeply believe about personal identity are false. We believe, for example, that our claims to personal identity do not depend on who else is around. And what needs philosophical explanation is why we believe them. That explanation would also help us to think straight about our future without. believing those things.

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