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Cosmic Philosopher

One of Nozick’s objectives is to respect and make sense of deep metaphysical and, in some cases, religious motivations that express themselves not only in some unschooled reflection but also in a variety of religious and philosophical traditions (he refers quite often to Indian thought). His way of confronting these traditional questionings, however, is often somewhat oblique. He takes up the question “Why is there something rather than nothing at all?” This has certainly in many traditions been felt to be a real and puzzling question: to such an extent that well-known attempts in philosophy to show that the question is misconceived tend to seem shallow and unconvincing. Nozick turns the issue into a subtle discussion of the theory of explanation. If it is claimed that a principle is explanatory of everything, can it also explain itself?

This is, once more, an interesting discussion, but the reader may feel that he or she has been left alone to work out the relevance of Nozick’s immense ingenuity and logical inventiveness to the archetypal metaphysical concern which started the discussion off. (The reader, incidentally, will need not only close attention, but also some technical knowledge, to follow Nozick down some of his paths in this book—what a Gödel numbering is, for example.)

By far the most successful section of the book is that on knowledge. This is very vigorous and resourceful, wonderfully clever, and, at a rather technical level, highly instructive. It is also academically the most conventional part of the book and very directly rooted in the recent literature. The argument is at the same time very original in its application. The basic idea is that someone knows something if he “tracks” the truth, where this means, very roughly, (1) that he believes something true, (2) that he wouldn’t believe it if it were not true, and (3) that if it were true, he would believe it—where the last clause adds the idea that not only is it true and he believes it, but his belief is “sensitive” to the truth. By “sensitive,” Nozick refers not to a special capacity of the believer but to the existence of a factual link between a belief and that which the belief is about. This is all worked out in considerable detail and with a subtlety that does not, as often happens in discussions of this subject, lose touch with the point of our having such a concept of knowledge.

The most spectacular result is achieved when this definition is applied to dealings with the skeptic. Nozick writes, “We do not seek to convince the skeptic but rather to formulate hypotheses about knowledge and our connection to facts that show how knowledge can exist even given the skeptic’s possibilities.” The skeptic says, for instance, that we do not know that we’re not in a tank having our brains stimulated by a mad scientist in such a way that it seems to us just as though we were in a room, seeing a table, and so on. So we don’t know that we are in fact seeing a table, even though it seems to be there, in perfect view, and everything seems as it usually does. Nozick says, and derives it from his definition, that we don’t know that we’re not in the tank; we do know that if we’re in the tank, then we are not seeing the table; yet we do know that we’re seeing the table. (Knowledge, in the technical phrase, is “not transitive under known logical implication.”)

This is the one argument that practically no one has used against the skeptic, and it testifies to Nozick’s remarkable discussion that this conclusion, which might seem a desperate device, begins to look natural and plausible. If one wants to know how to deal with skeptics, or indeed what knowledge is, this discussion must be read.

I am less certain that Nozick’s dealings with the skeptic get their strength, as he suggests, from his general objective of substituting explanation for proof. His point, as I’ve said, is that he is not trying to refute the skeptic, that notoriously discouraging task. But even if he is not trying to show the skeptic that the skeptic should not believe (or rather disbelieve) everything that he does, he is trying to show us that we need not accept what the skeptic says. If the skeptic is right, however, we should accept what he says; so the skeptic can’t be right. It is not obvious that those who have attempted to refute the skeptic (notably Descartes) have wanted more than that. But this is not a simple question, and this section is not only one in which the argument comes vividly to life, but also one in which the distinction between explanation and proof may for once be doing some helpful work in its own right.

When this high point of the book ends, we are less than halfway through. All the rest belongs to a division called “Value,” in which such things are discussed as free will, punishment, moral motivation, self-improvement, “the value of valuers,” and the meaning of life.

The section on free will is at several places uncharacteristically hesitant, not just in conclusion, but in direction. This is particularly so in the passage on retributive punishment, a subject on which, it seems to me, if Nozick had applied the same trenchancy as he has done to banging more fashionable views, he might well have given up. Here he attempts another application of the idea of explanation. The aim is not to justify retributive punishment (or to give a retributive justification of punishment), but to give an account of what its underlying ideas are. Nozick starts with some distinctions between revenge and retribution, and gives an elegant account of what an act of retribution is, revealing it as a form of communicative behavior which does not merely hurt but shows someone something. He then considers the simplest view of punishment as “showing” someone—a teleological version of it, in which the aim is to produce a change in the offender by which he comes to recognize his guilt.

There are well-known problems with theories of this kind, which tend to go around in a circle. The painful element, essential to punishment, in such an instructional act seems gratuitous. If the point of hurting a man is to tell him, why not just tell him? Or, if the aim is not just to tell him, but to convince him, the rationale may well become the same as that of reformative punishment. Anyway the rationale will not apply to the unreformable—apart from the point that it will always be an open question whether he might not be more effectively convinced by other means.

So Nozick moves to a wholly nonteleological interpretation, as he hopes, of retributive punishment. The aim of retribution is not merely to produce certain consequences but to do something “right or good in itself.” The aim, as he puts it, is to “connect the offender with correct values,” where this is not an aim that is added on to the act of punishment, but inherent in it. Nozick’s idea is to produce an effect on the offender, not necessarily in him: correct values are given “some significant effect in his life.” But, once again, why painful punishment rather than something else? This, replies Nozick, is necessary for it to be a significant connection with values. Why then should only those who have actually done wrong be so connected with values? Because, Nozick would answer, the wrong they have committed shows them to be not just unlinked, but “anti-linked,” to values. Is this, however, not also true of the dispositionally wicked? But, Nozick claims, if they have not committed acts they have not flouted values, and the aim of retributive punishment is to “replace flouting with linkage.”

The effect of Nozick’s criticism of the old arguments against retribution is simply to have reduced to the smallest possible circumference the circle in which the argument moves. He is not trying to produce a justification of retribution, but he does aim to produce its rationale, and the rationale provided moves round in so tight a circle that it is hard to see how the justification of retribution might eventually be applied. The “role of suffering in punishment,” Nozick says, is “to negate or lessen flouting by making it impossible to remain as pleased with one’s previous anti-linkage.” That version, in fact, is not yet entirely purged of the teleological—for suppose he remains pleased with his previous anti-linkage? But even with that impurity, the account is so utterly wrapped in itself that it is not going to give much insight to anyone who was previously puzzled by the idea of retributive punishment.

Another feature of the discussion of punishment is shared by all the material on value: it is vastly removed from any actual social institution. There are one or two desultory references to the law, but virtually nothing that focuses on the fact that punishment is inflicted by some actual authority in some actual social circumstances. This characteristic, spread over the whole large discussion of value, issues in a level of abstraction that is often bewildering, and which utterly discounts many obligations which one might have thought to be precisely obligations of philosophical explanation.

Value, we are told (I suppose one should rather say: “it is suggested”), consists basically in the degree of “organic unity.” We value, he implies, that which unifies diverse and apparently separate materials or experiences. Not much is done to give content to this old and uninformative proposal. For Nozick, as for earlier writers, it is based on the differing complexities of higher and lower organisms and on some selected considerations about aesthetic objects—despite well-known and indeed obvious difficulties about measuring “organic unity” anywhere, and, in the case of art, when we can supposedly detect it, doubts about necessarily preferring its increase. But such problems do not seem to concern Nozick very much. He is more interested in a set of logical devices dealing with the notion of value in the abstract. He discusses in detail such topics as what would be involved in “tracking bestness,” as he puts it, and “why is being a value-seeker and responder to value qua value itself valuable?”

Very little of this offers a direction to a psychology of moral action. Nor does it stoop to recognize any of the wellknown problems raised by social explanations of actual systems of moral value, for example the conflicts between different systems of value in different societies and the difficulty of achieving objectivity in describing or explaining them. Indeed Nozick barely pays much attention to any distinctively human category. The picture we are left with is of the objective cosmic dimension of value as organic unity, with our having the opportunity to link ourselves with this, and by that be transformed and elevated. These salutations to independent values, alternating as they do with very detailed formalistic arguments (on the conflict of obligations, for instance), give the impression of some beautiful nebula, at one time seen through the optical telescope, at another with its light broken down through the spectroscope. There is a difference, however, since a nebula sends light to us, but values are inactive, unless we make them active in and through us. As Nozick puts it, in a very typical passage:

Value seekers and responders have a cosmic role: to aid in the realization of value, in the infusion of value into the material and human realm.

Can that possibly, one begins to wonder, be the way to put it—to put anything?

If we do take up our cosmic role, then we may, according to Nozick, be transformed. One of the most important features of his account, and one that he seems least prone to regard as peculiar, is his emphasis on the notion of spiritual superiority, and indeed on a kind of ressentiment, a destructive and belittling envy that can be aroused by the spiritual superiority of people who, as Nozick sees them, have excelled in this cosmic role. Many of his passages that are most genuinely passionate are about this subject. They have the same note, and the same animus, as was to be found in Anarchy, State, and Utopia on the subject of envy directed toward more mundane forms of superiority. The tone of the present account introduces more than a hint of a competition in spirituality.

There is something very wrong with the way in which these notions are deployed in Nozick’s writing: that is to say, there is something wrong with the writing, and also something wrong with them. The theory itself does not give much content to these ideas of spiritual self-improvement, and the level of generality prevents his giving us any side illumination from the merely historical or psychologically particular. He tries to give us the idea directly, so to speak, and the fact is that we cannot trust him as a messenger from any spiritual height, because by the time that he is fully launched on his cosmic role he not only cannot hear anything that is happening on Earth, but cannot properly listen to himself.

It is not merely a matter of the occasional sententious banality: “It is better and lovelier to be moral”; “imagination has always been a faculty prized by students of literature and art”; “in our own biographies, at least, each of us is the leading character.” Such phrases are alarming enough—as Anthony Burgess’s narrator says in Earthly Powers, “If I could write so blatant a tautology, I could write also of the goodness of evil or the badness of good, and probably, somewhere or other, did.” But it is more generally true that the nearer we get to Nozick’s image of what he calls “spiritually advanced persons”—the arousers of ressentiment in those unwilling to be, as he puts it, “helped along” in this direction—the more his capacity to listen to himself seems to lapse:

There are some individuals whose lives are infused by values, who pursue values with single-minded purity and intensity, who embody values to the greatest extent. These individuals glow with a special radiance. Epochal religious figures often have this quality. To be in their presence (or even to hear about them) is to be uplifted and drawn (at least temporarily) to pursue the best in oneself. There are less epochal figures as well, glowing with a special moral and value loveliness, whose presence uplifts us, whose example lures and inspires us.

There is a lot more of this. There is even more about people glowing. Such writing sounds like Close Encounters of Some Yet Higher Kind, or a commercial for breakfast food. Whether its defects derive from the state of the modern world or from the English language now or (as I believe) from confusion about values, it will not do. And Nozick, even if he has switched off the monitor to Earth, will know, since he is a very good philosopher, that the problem cannot just be a matter of finding some happier way of saying the same thing.

In fact I think that the part of this book that is about value is utterly misconceived, and that the whole enterprise of approaching the problems in this abstract way, virtually unrelated to human psychology or society, and assuming ill-defined and suspect notions of spiritual superiority, is a large error. I do not believe that there is any cosmic role, and I think that Nietzsche was right when he said that philosophy should stick close to the Earth. But even if I am wrong, and there is something to be recovered from such conceptions, it is a basic truth, which Nozick seems not to have encountered at all, that it could not be recovered in these terms, or by such ingenuous methods. It is not a new truth. The wise men to whom Nozick sometimes refers, rabbis, gurus, Zen masters, have known and shown that the cosmic role, if there is one, needs a high measure of irony, personal and indeed cosmic, in order to be presented or interpreted. A craftier route to the beyond will always be needed, if there is a beyond, and the mere combination of cleverness with earnestness is not going to find it.


The Identity of Nozick May 27, 1982

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