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The Identity of Nozick

In response to:

Cosmic Philosopher from the February 18, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

At several points in his review of Robert Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations [NYR, February 18], Bernard Williams fails to display the precision and care in argument characteristic of his work in philosophy. After stating, for example, a principle of personal identity which, to his evident consternation, Nozick rejects, Williams says: “Nozick actually claims to show that the principle that he rejects is false, by producing a counterexample… [but] the counterexample is weak and proves nothing” (p. 32). Williams rightly points out that one’s intuitions about the example in question may differ from Nozick’s; but it is surely misleading of him to suggest that the sum and substance of Nozick’s case for rejecting Williams’s principle of identity rest upon this example alone. In point of fact, Nozick presents and discusses a large number of puzzling cases, which, he endeavors to show, may be solved or at least rendered much less troublesome if one adopts his closest continuer theory. It is, of course, open to Williams to reject Nozick’s solutions to the cases as unsatisfactory. Even if he were to find Nozick’s solutions otherwise persuasive, he might still choose to reject them on the grounds that his intuition in favor of his principle of identity outweighs whatever strength Nozick’s examples possess. To adopt either of these courses would necessitate a detailed scrutiny of Nozick’s discussion; but, disappointingly, Williams does not attempt to do this. Instead, he makes it appear that Nozick rejects a plausible principle on the strength of one disputable case.

Williams also seems to me to create a misleading impression by the following passage: “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 had 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” (p. 33). Although Williams does not directly say so, isn’t the sense of this passage that Nozick has ignored altogether the important question of how the closest continuer theory is consistent with caring about one’s continued existence as a person? A reader who interpreted Williams in this quite natural way would, if previously unacquainted with Philosophical Explanations, be quite surprised when he arrived at the section “Ties and Caring” beginning on page 62 of the book. This section essays an answer to just the question Williams poses. Once more, Williams is perfectly free to reject Nozick’s account, and one would welcome an examination of Nozick’s discussion by a philosopher of Williams’s acuity. Why, instead, does he pass by Nozick’s analysis as if it did not exist?

When Williams says, furthermore, that “[W]e believe, for example, that our claims to personal identity do not depend on who else is around” (p. 33), he begs the question against Nozick. Nozick does not claim that our identity depends on the existence of other people than ourselves: precisely the point at issue is what must be taken into account in determining what is involved in our identity over time. By stating the issue in the manner he does, Williams makes it seem as if Nozick is denying, and failing to explain why we falsely believe, a deeply rooted common belief. Yet in actuality, all that Nozick denies is a philosophical theory held by Williams and other writers on personal identity, such as John Perry. If Williams thinks that his principle of identity, far from being a mere philosopher’s construct, is in fact an entrenched common belief, he owes us some argument. It is surely not enough just to assume that because Nozick rejects Williams’s theory of personal identity, that he rejects anything that “we very deeply believe” about that subject.

Williams’s criticism of Nozick is not confined to disputes over technical issues important only to professional philosophers. Opposing the entire thrust of Nozick’s section on values, he accuses him of supporting an elitist competition for spiritual superiority. This charge flies in the face of the following passage:

Nor should the perfectionist aspirations to self-development, for example, to a harmoniously hierarchically ordered being, be interpreted as a denigration of what one hopes to improve on or of others not so intent. If we are to strive for a state judged higher, then something also must be ranked lower: to judge something as less than the best need not involve any elitist contempt for it. [Philosophical Explanations, p. 510.]

The sentiments expressed here, furthermore, are elaborated at some length in the section “Developing Self and Others” (pp. 510-515), part of whose opening paragraph I have just quoted. Once again, Williams seems to think it entirely in order, in criticizing Nozick, to ignore those parts of the text that discuss the issue he raises.

Finally, at the risk of making manifest that I have a tin ear, I must confess I fail to see anything wrong with the passages Williams cites whose alleged stylistic enormities make him recoil in horror. If, for example, one considers the lengthiest such passage Williams quotes, one will, I think, find nothing bizarre present in it. It is surely a familiar fact that, as the passage points out, certain people have, through the force of their personalities, made a strong impression on others. (As an example, think of the numerous memoirs describing the personal impact of Wittgenstein.) Is it so very strange an idea to suppose, as Nozick suggests, that great religious leaders have had, to an even larger degree, this quality of inspiring others? And, further, when Nozick, adopting the language of Nicolai Hartmann, describes this phenomenon as that of the radiance with which certain people glow, what exactly is so inappropriate in this phrase as to excite derision on the part of Williams? If, to Williams, “glowing” conjures up Closer Encounters of Some Yet Higher Kind, perhaps he has been too much affected by seeing bad movies.

One suspects that Nozick’s real fault is simply that he has employed in a favorable way the term “inspiration.” For Williams this is to threaten to make philosophy edifying, which he thinks would be a “dreadful thing.” Whether or not Nozick believes in edification, he clearly has a view of philosophy Williams finds strongly repellent. But, to adopt an argument which Williams (in my view, wrongly) uses against Nozick—the fact that Williams thinks the world of philosophy would be a better place without Nozick’s approach to value is not an argument against any of Nozick’s ideas. It may well be part of an explanation, however, of why Williams rejects them.

David Gordon

Los Angeles, California

Bernard Williams replies:

On Mr. Gordon’s first point, I did not say, and did not mean to imply, that the Vienna Circle case provided all that Nozick had to say in favor of his own position. I mentioned it because I took it to be uniquely intended as a direct counterexample to the principle that Nozick rejects. The cases about personal identity which follow provide amplications of Nozick’s theory and clarifications of it. They do not all provide arguments for it as against the principle he rejects—nor does Nozick claim that they do—since in some cases the intuitions they fit are fitted also by the rejected principle. But if I did imply that Nozick made only the Vienna Circle point, I apologize.

Mr. Gordon asks, second, whether the passage he quotes from me about caring for one’s self doesn’t have the sense that Nozick has ignored altogether the issue of how his theory deals with future self-concern. No, I don’t think that it has that sense. Nozick indeed has several pages on the subject. They are mostly concerned with answering the question: granted that closest continuers are the best going in the way of identity, why should we care for our closest continuer? It seemed to me, however, and it still seems to me, that he did nothing to diagnose our conviction that closest continuers are not necessarily enough. This conviction is not, in my view, simply a philosophical theory, differing from Nozick’s; I believe it to be deeply entrenched in the everyday outlook. As such, I did not (question-beggingly) use it to argue against Nozick; I suggested that he should explain it. I made it clear, and repeat, that Nozick’s theory could be correct.

The other matters that Mr. Gordon mentions we must leave other readers to judge. The only thing that I would add is that if Nozick does leave anyone besides me with the impression that his conception of self-development is rather competitive (“elitist” is not my word), the fact that Nozick denies it may not in itself be enough to reassure them.

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