Robert Nozick, R.I.P. — I’ve just heard that Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick, died this morning. It’s strange… I recently finished Nozick’s new book Invariances, and I was blown away, once again, by the depth and suppleness of Nozick’s intelligence. I was meaning to plump for Nozick as role-model, both political and epistemological, far superior to Popper. Yet, sadly, I didn’t get around to it. Let me try to correct that, at least a little.
Nozick was one of the most talented philosophers of the past half-century, making significant contributions to every major area of philosophy. However, to libertarians, Nozick was a giant. His first book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia , is universally considered a classic of 20th Century philosophy, and it inserted libertarianism, to the chagrin of the establishment, into the “conversation” as a serious intellectual position demanding respect and careful consideration. (Those who’d like a bit more info about Nozick, and some links to related sites, try this page I wrote for my employer.)
Nozick is one of my heroes. Not just because he was a libertarian of incredible intelligence (several of the smartest men I know have said that Nozick was the smartest man they ever met), but because he was singular in his intellectual independence and creativity. Nozick, true to his libertarian soul, espoused a “non-coercive” philsophic method that sought to open up new vistas of the intellect rather than craft airtight, drop dead arguments — arguments that tend to be sophistical in any case. Nozick was interested in everything, but you can’t accuse him of being a dilettante, because his knowledge of his varied subjects was profound. A philosopher friend once related a story of Nozick’s one-upping David Friedman in a discussion first of philosophy, then of economics, and finally of particle physics. This is no mean feat, David Friedman being the son of Milton, an economics professor, and a University of Chicago physics Ph.D.
Nozick’s books are odd in they way they range over subject matters, explore intriguing possibilities, raise profound questions and then leave them in the reader’s lap, unanswered. He never quite fits into existing “conversations” because his questions are very often his own, and he slips in and out of the philosophy literature as it suits his interests. Thus, his work never suffers from the clubbish, insular feel of so much Anglophone philosophy. The impression is one of a man who has an intense (even “burning”) curiousity about the way the world works, almost entirely innocent of preconceptions about the way the inquiry should turn out. That is to say, Nozick was a philosopher, in the very best sense of the word. May his work, and his example, live on.