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…

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