Robert Nozick

Robert Nozick (/ˈnoʊzɪk/; November 16, 1938 – January 23, 2002) was an American philosopher. He held the Joseph Pellegrino University Professorship at Harvard University,[3] and was president of the American Philosophical Association. He is best known for his books Philosophical Explanations (1981), which included his counterfactual theory of knowledge, and Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), a libertarian answer to John Rawls' A Theory of Justice (1971), in which Nozick also presented his own theory of utopia as one in which people can freely choose the rules of the society they enter into. His other work involved ethics, decision theory, philosophy of mind, metaphysics and epistemology. His final work before his death, Invariances (2001), introduced his theory of evolutionary cosmology, by which he argues invariances, and hence objectivity itself, emerged through evolution across possible worlds.[4]

Robert Nozick
Robert nozick
BornNovember 16, 1938
DiedJanuary 23, 2002 (aged 63)
EducationColumbia University (AB)
Princeton University (PhD)
Oxford University (Fulbright Scholar)
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Doctoral advisorsCarl Gustav Hempel
Main interests
Political philosophy, ethics, epistemology
Notable ideas
Utility monster, experience machine, justice as property rights, Nozick's Lockean proviso,[1] Wilt Chamberlain argument, paradox of deontology,[2] entitlement theory, deductive closure, Nozick's four conditions on knowledge

Personal life

Nozick was born in Brooklyn to a family of Kohenic descent. His mother was born Sophie Cohen, and his father was a Jew from the Russian shtetl who had been born with the name Cohen and who ran a small business.[5]

He attended the public schools in Brooklyn. At one point he joined the youth branch of Norman Thomas's Socialist Party. In addition, at Columbia he founded the local chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which in 1962 changed its name to Students for a Democratic Society.

That same year, after receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1959, he married Barbara Fierer. They had two children, Emily and David. The Nozicks eventually divorced and he remarried, to the poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Nozick died in 2002 after a prolonged struggle with stomach cancer.[6] He was interred at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Career and works

Nozick was educated at Columbia (A.B. 1959, summa cum laude), where he studied with Sidney Morgenbesser, and later at Princeton (Ph.D. 1963) under Carl Hempel, and at Oxford as a Fulbright Scholar (1963–1964).

Political philosophy

For Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) Nozick received a National Book Award in category Philosophy and Religion.[7] There, Nozick argues that only a minimal state limited to the narrow functions of protection against "force, fraud, theft, and administering courts of law"[8] could be justified without violating people's rights. For Nozick, a distribution of goods is just if brought about by free exchange among consenting adults from a just starting position, even if large inequalities subsequently emerge from the process. Nozick appealed to the Kantian idea that people should be treated as ends (what he termed 'separateness of persons'), not merely as a means to some other end.

Nozick challenged the partial conclusion of John Rawls' Second Principle of Justice of his A Theory of Justice, that "social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to be of greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society." Anarchy, State, and Utopia claims a heritage from John Locke's Second Treatise on Government and seeks to ground itself upon a natural law doctrine, but reaches some importantly different conclusions from Locke himself in several ways.

Most controversially, Nozick argued that a consistent upholding of the non-aggression principle would allow and regard as valid consensual or non-coercive enslavement contracts between adults. He rejected the notion of inalienable rights advanced by Locke and most contemporary capitalist-oriented libertarian academics, writing in Anarchy, State, and Utopia that the typical notion of a "free system" would allow adults to voluntarily enter into non-coercive slave contracts.[9][10][11][12][13][14][15]


In Philosophical Explanations (1981), which received the Phi Beta Kappa Society's Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, Nozick provided novel accounts of knowledge, free will, personal identity, the nature of value, and the meaning of life. He also put forward an epistemological system which attempted to deal with both the Gettier problem and those posed by skepticism. This highly influential argument eschewed justification as a necessary requirement for knowledge.[16]:ch. 7

Nozick's four conditions for S's knowing that P were:

  1. P is true
  2. S believes that P
  3. If it were the case that (not-P), S would not believe that P
  4. If it were the case that P, S would believe that P

Nozick's third and fourth conditions are counterfactuals. He called this the "tracking theory" of knowledge. Nozick believed the counterfactual conditionals bring out an important aspect of our intuitive grasp of knowledge: For any given fact, the believer's method must reliably track the truth despite varying relevant conditions. In this way, Nozick's theory is similar to reliabilism. Due to certain counterexamples that could otherwise be raised against these counterfactual conditions, Nozick specified that:

  1. If P weren't the case and S were to use M to arrive at a belief whether or not P, then S wouldn't believe, via M, that P.
  2. If P were the case and S were to use M to arrive at a belief whether or not P, then S would believe, via M, that P.
  3. [17]

Where M stands for the method by which S came to arrive at a belief whether or not P.

A major criticism of Nozick's theory of knowledge is his rejection of the principle of deductive closure. This principle states that if S knows X and S knows that X implies Y, then S knows Y. Nozick's truth tracking conditions do not allow for the principle of deductive closure. Nozick believes that the truth tracking conditions are more fundamental to human intuition than the principle of deductive closure.

Later books

The Examined Life (1989), pitched to a broader public, explores love, death, faith, reality, and the meaning of life. According to Stephen Metcalf, Nozick expresses serious misgivings about capitalist libertarianism, going so far as to reject much of the foundations of the theory on the grounds that personal freedom can sometimes only be fully actualized via a collectivist politics and that wealth is at times justly redistributed via taxation to protect the freedom of the many from the potential tyranny of an overly selfish and powerful few.[18] Nozick suggests that citizens who are opposed to wealth redistribution which fund programs they object to, should be able to opt out by supporting alternative government approved charities with an added 5% surcharge.[19]

However, Jeff Riggenbach has noted that in an interview conducted in July 2001, he stated that he had never stopped self-identifying as a libertarian. Roderick Long reported that in his last book, Invariances, [Nozick] identified voluntary cooperation as the 'core principle' of ethics, maintaining that the duty not to interfere with another person's 'domain of choice' is '[a]ll that any society should (coercively) demand'; higher levels of ethics, involving positive benevolence, represent instead a 'personal ideal' that should be left to 'a person's own individual choice and development.' And that certainly sounds like an attempt to embrace libertarianism all over again. My own view is that Nozick's thinking about these matters evolved over time and that what he wrote at any given time was an accurate reflection of what he was thinking at that time."[20] Furthermore, Julian Sanchez reported that "Nozick always thought of himself as a libertarian in a broad sense, right up to his final days, even as his views became somewhat less 'hardcore.'"[21]

The Nature of Rationality (1993) presents a theory of practical reason that attempts to embellish notoriously spartan classical decision theory.

Socratic Puzzles (1997) is a collection of papers that range in topic from Ayn Rand and Austrian economics to animal rights. A thesis claims that "social ties are deeply interconnected with vital parts of Nozick's later philosophy", citing these two works as a development of The Examined Life.[22]

His last production, Invariances (2001), applies insights from physics and biology to questions of objectivity in such areas as the nature of necessity and moral value.


Nozick created the thought experiment of the "utility monster" to show that average utilitarianism could lead to a situation where the needs of the vast majority were sacrificed for one individual. He also wrote a version of what was essentially a previously-known thought experiment, the experience machine, in an attempt to show that ethical hedonism was false. Nozick asked us to imagine that "superduper neuropsychologists" have figured out a way to stimulate a person's brain to induce pleasurable experiences.[16]: 210–11 We would not be able to tell that these experiences were not real. He asks us, if we were given the choice, would we choose a machine-induced experience of a wonderful life over real life? Nozick says no, then asks whether we have reasons not to plug into the machine and concludes that since it does not seem to be rational to plug in, ethical hedonism must be false.

Philosophical method

Nozick was notable for the exploratory style of his philosophizing and for his methodological ecumenism. Often content to raise tantalizing philosophical possibilities and then leave judgment to the reader, Nozick was also notable for drawing from literature outside of philosophy (e.g., economics, physics, evolutionary biology).[23]


In his 2001 work, Invariances, Nozick introduces his theory of truth, in which he leans towards a deflationary theory of truth, but argues that objectivity arises through being invariant under various transformations. For instance, space-time is a significant objective fact because an interval involving both temporal and spatial separation is invariant, whereas no simpler interval involving only temporal or only spatial separation is invariant under Lorentz transformations. Nozick argues that invariances, and hence objectivity itself, emerged through a theory of evolutionary cosmology across possible worlds.[24]


  • Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) ISBN 0-631-19780-X
  • Philosophical Explanations (1981) ISBN 0-19-824672-2
  • The Examined Life (1989) ISBN 0-671-72501-7
  • The Nature of Rationality (1993/1995) ISBN 0-691-02096-5
  • Socratic Puzzles (1997) ISBN 0-674-81653-6
  • Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World (2001/2003) ISBN 0-674-01245-3

See also


  1. ^ Robert Nozick's Political Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  2. ^ "How can a concern for the non-violation of C [i.e. some deontological constraint] lead to refusal to violate C even when this would prevent other more extensive violations of C?": Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, Basic Books (1974), p. 30 as quoted by Ulrike Heuer, "Paradox of Deontology, Revisited", in: Mark Timmons (ed.), Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics. Oxford University Press (2011).
  3. ^ "Robert Nozick, 1938-2002". Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, November 2002: 76(2).
  4. ^ Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, Volume 1, edited by John R. Shook, Thoemmes Press, 2005, p.1838
  5. ^ "Professor Robert Nozick". 2002. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 2018-08-01.
  6. ^ For biographies, memorials, and obituaries see:
  7. ^ "National Book Awards – 1975" Archived 2011-09-09 at the Wayback Machine. National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-08.
  8. ^ Feser, Edward. "Robert Nozick (1938—2002)". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 13, 2017.
  9. ^ Ellerman, David (September 2005). "Translatio versus Concessio: Retrieving the Debate about Contracts of Alienation with an Application to Today's Employment Contract" (PDF). Politics & Society. Sage Publications. 35 (3): 449–80. doi:10.1177/0032329205278463. Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  10. ^ A summary of the political philosophy of Robert Nozick by R. N. Johnson Archived 2002-02-04 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Jonathan Wolff (25 October 2007). "Robert Nozick, Libertarianism, And Utopia"
  12. ^ Nozick on Newcomb's Problem and Prisoners' Dilemma by S. L. Hurley Archived 2005-03-01 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Robert Nozick: Against Distributive Justice by R.J. Kilcullen Archived 2001-12-23 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? by Robert Nozick
  15. ^ Robert Nozick, Philosopher of Liberty by Roderick T. Long Archived 2007-02-05 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ a b Schmidtz, David (2002). Robert Nozick. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-00671-6.
  17. ^ Keith Derose, Solving the Skeptical Problem
  18. ^ Metcalf, Stephen (June 24, 2011). "The Liberty Scam: Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired". Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  19. ^ Nozick, Robert (1989). "The Zigzag of Politics", The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-72501-3
  20. ^ Riggenbach, Jeff (November 26, 2010). "Anarchy, State, and Robert Nozick". Mises Daily. Ludwig von Mises Institute. Retrieved 17 April 2017.
  21. ^ Julian Sanchez, "Nozick, Libertarianism, and Thought Experiments".
  22. ^ Herbjørnsrud, Dag (2002). Leaving Libertarianism: Social Ties in Robert Nozick's New Philosophy. Oslo, Norway: University of Oslo.
  23. ^ Williams, Bernard. "Cosmic Philosopher". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 2018-08-01.
  24. ^ Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, Volume 1, edited by John R. Shook, A&C Black, 2005, p.1838

Further reading

External links

Anarchy, State, and Utopia

Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a 1974 book by the American political philosopher Robert Nozick. It won the 1975 US National Book Award in category Philosophy and Religion, has been translated into 11 languages, and was named one of the "100 most influential books since the war" (1945–1995) by the UK Times Literary Supplement.In opposition to A Theory of Justice (1971) by John Rawls, and in debate with Michael Walzer, Nozick argues in favor of a minimal state, "limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on." When a state takes on more responsibilities than these, Nozick argues, rights will be violated. To support the idea of the minimal state, Nozick presents an argument that illustrates how the minimalist state arises naturally from anarchy and how any expansion of state power past this minimalist threshold is unjustified.

Entitlement theory

Entitlement theory is a theory of distributive justice and private property created by Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The theory is Nozick's attempt to describe "justice in holdings" (Nozick 1974:150)—or what can be said about and done with the property people own when viewed from a principle of justice.

Epistemic closure

Epistemic closure is a property of some belief systems. It is the principle that if a subject knows , and knows that entails , then can thereby come to know . Most epistemological theories involve a closure principle and many skeptical arguments assume a closure principle.

On the other hand, some epistemologists, including Robert Nozick, have denied closure principles on the basis of reliabilist accounts of knowledge. Nozick, in Philosophical Explanations, advocated that, when considering the Gettier problem, the least counter-intuitive assumption we give up should be epistemic closure. Nozick suggested a "truth tracking" theory of knowledge, in which the x was said to know P if x's belief in P tracked the truth of P through the relevant modal scenarios.

A subject may not actually believe q, for example, regardless of whether he or she is justified or warranted. Thus, one might instead say that knowledge is closed under known deduction: if, while knowing p, S believes q because S knows that p entails q, then S knows q. An even stronger formulation would be as such: If, while knowing various propositions, S believes p because S knows that these propositions entail p, then S knows p. While the principle of epistemic closure is generally regarded as intuitive, philosophers such as Robert Nozick and Fred Dretske have argued against it.

Instrumental and value rationality

"Instrumental and value rationality" are classic names scholars use to identify two ways human reason when correlating group behaviour to maintain social life. Instrumental rationality recognizes means that "work" efficiently to achieve ends. Value rationality recognizes ends that are "right," legitimate in themselves.

These two ways of reasoning seem to operate separately. Efficient means are recognized inductively in heads or brains or minds. Legitimate ends are felt deductively in hearts or guts or souls. Instrumental rationality provides intellectual tools--scientific and technological facts and theories--that appear to be impersonal, value-free means. Value rationality provides legitimate rules-- moral valuations--that appear to be emotionally satisfying, fact-free ends. Every society maintains itself by correlating instrumental means with value rational ends. Together they make humans rational.

But what the head knows notoriously conflicts with what the heart knows, creating the paradox of rationality contaminating itself. When the head's cold calculations don't support the heart's hot intuitions, means become inefficient and ends become illegitimate. Unintended consequences and partisan conflict disrupt correlated behavior; partisan rationality stifles consensus.

Sociologist Max Weber observed people exercising these capacities and gave them these labels that have stuck, despite scholars constantly coining new labels. Here are his original definitions, followed by a comment showing his doubt that humans are rational to believe that unconditionally right ends can be correlated with conditionally efficient means.

Social action, like all action, may be...: (1) instrumentally rational (zweckrational), that is, determined by expectations as to the behavior of objects in the environment and of other human beings; these expectations are used as "conditions" or "means" for the attainment of the actor's own rationally pursued and calculated ends; (2) value-rational (wertrational), that is, determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some ethical, aesthetic, religious, or other form of behavior, independently of its prospects of success; ...

... the more the value to which action is oriented is elevated to the status of an absolute value, the more "irrational" in this [instrumental] sense the corresponding action is. For the more unconditionally the actor devotes himself to this value for its own sake, ... the less he is influenced by considerations of the [conditional] consequences of his action

This article demonstrates the paradox of mutual contamination between instrumental and value rationality by reporting the reasoning of four scholars. Harvard professors John Rawls and Robert Nozick, globally recognised as expert practitioners of value rationality, produced mutually incompatible theories of distributive justice. Neither is universally recognized as legitimate, but both continue to be defended as rational. Emory University professor James Gouinlock and Harvard professor Amartya Sen argued that Rawls and Nozick erred in believing that unconditionally valuable ends can work conditionally. Despite this disagreement, the scholarly community continues to accept as unavoidable this paradox of rationality contaminating itself.


Invariances is a 2001 book by Robert Nozick, his last book before his death in 2002.

Jan Narveson

Jan Narveson, OC (; born 1936) is professor of philosophy emeritus at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. An anarcho-capitalist and contractarian, Narveson's form of libertarian anarchism is deeply influenced by the thought of Robert Nozick and David Gauthier.

Journal of Libertarian Studies

The Journal of Libertarian Studies (JLS) was an interdisciplinary scholarly journal published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute and Lew Rockwell. It was established in the spring of 1977 by Murray Rothbard who also served as its editor until his death in 1995. The journal had been published by the Center for Libertarian Studies, but moved to the Mises Institute in 2000. Publication ceased in 2008.

The focus of the journal was "libertarian theory", with a strong influence of Austrian School and anarcho-capitalism, which has in the past included articles from the fields of history, economics, and philosophy.

The journal was originally a quarterly publication under Rothbard, and later under Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Roderick Long. In 2008, it was changed to an annual print and online publication, edited by Thomas Woods.

The editorial board in vol. 1, no. 1 (Winter 1977) listed the following members:

D. T. Armentano

Randy E. Barnett

Walter Block

Yale Brozen

Arthur A. Ekirch

Williamson M. Evers

R. Dale Grinder

John Hagel III

Jean-Pierre Hamilius

Ronald Hamowy

Friedrich A. Hayek

John Hospers

Ludwig M. Lachmann

Leonard P. Liggio

William Marina

James J. Martin

Felix Morley

Robert Nozick

Gerald P. O'Driscoll, Jr.

Jeffrey Paul

Joseph R. Peden

Ralph Raico

James A. Sadowsky, S.J.

Sudha R. Shenoy

Louis M. Spadaro

Joseph R. Stromberg

Thomas S. Szasz, M.D.

Libertarianism (metaphysics)

Libertarianism is one of the main philosophical positions related to the problems of free will and determinism, which are part of the larger domain of metaphysics. In particular, libertarianism, which is an incompatibilist position, argues that free will is logically incompatible with a deterministic universe and that agents have free will, and that, therefore, determinism is false. One of the first clear formulations of libertarianism is found in John Duns Scotus; in theological context metaphysical libertarianism was notably defended by Jesuit authors like Luis de Molina and Francisco Suárez against rather compatibilist Thomist Báñezianism. Other important metaphysical libertarians in the early modern period were René Descartes, George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Reid. Roderick Chisholm was a prominent defender of libertarianism in the 20th century, and contemporary libertarians include Robert Kane, Peter van Inwagen and Robert Nozick.

List of epistemologists

This is a list of epistemologists, that is, people who theorize about the nature of knowledge, belief formation and the nature of justification.

Night-watchman state

In libertarian political philosophy, a night-watchman state is a model of a state whose only functions are to provide its citizens with the military, the police and courts, thus protecting them from aggression, theft, breach of contract and fraud and enforcing property laws. The nineteenth-century UK has been described by historian Charles Townshend as standard-bearer of this form of government among Western countries.

Philosophical Explanations

Philosophical Explanations is a 1981 metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical treatise by the philosopher Robert Nozick. The book received positive reviews. Commentators have praised it for Nozick's discussions of the fundamental questions of philosophy and of topics such as epistemology and ethics, and welcomed it as a convincing response to charges that American academic philosophy is overly concerned with technical issues. Nozick's discussions of knowledge and skepticism have received much critical attention.

Philosophy of happiness

The philosophy of happiness is the philosophical concern with the existence, nature, and attainment of happiness. Philosophers believe happiness can be understood as the moral goal of life or as an aspect of chance; indeed, in most European languages the term happiness is synonymous with luck. Thus, philosophers usually explicate on happiness as either a state of mind, or a life that goes well for the person leading it.

Socratic Puzzles

Socratic Puzzles is a 1997 collection of essays by the philosopher Robert Nozick.

State of nature

The state of nature is a concept used in moral and political philosophy, religion, social contract theories and international law to denote the hypothetical conditions of what the lives of people might have been like before societies came into existence. Philosophers of the state of nature theory deduce that there must have been a time before organized societies existed, and this presumption thus raises questions such as: "What was life like before civil society?"; "How did government first emerge from such a starting position?," and; "What are the hypothetical reasons for entering a state of society by establishing a nation-state?".

In some versions of social contract theory, there are no rights in the state of nature, only freedoms, and it is the contract that creates rights and obligations. In other versions the opposite occurs: the contract imposes restrictions upon individuals that curtail their natural rights.

Societies existing before or without a political state are currently studied in such fields as paleolithic history, and the anthropological subfields of archaeology, cultural anthropology, social anthropology, and ethnology, which investigate the social and power-related structures of indigenous and uncontacted peoples living in tribal communities.

The Examined Life

The Examined Life is a 1989 collection of philosophical meditations by Robert Nozick. The book drew a number of critical reactions.

The Nature of Rationality

The Nature of Rationality is 1993 book by the philosopher Robert Nozick, in which the author explores practical rationality.

Utility monster

The utility monster is a thought experiment in the study of ethics created by philosopher Robert Nozick in 1974 as a criticism of utilitarianism.

Voluntary Socialism

Voluntary Socialism is a work of nonfiction by the American mutualist Francis Dashwood Tandy (1867–1913). First published in 1896, it has been favorably cited by many individualist anarchists, including Clarence Lee Swartz, minarchist Robert Nozick and left-libertarian Roderick T. Long, who has noted that "many of the standard moves in market anarchist theory today are already in evidence in Tandy".Tandy was a member of the "Denver Circle", a group of men who associated with Benjamin Tucker and contributed to the periodical Liberty. In the preface to Voluntary Socialism, he declares his intent to "give a complete outline of [Voluntaryism] in its most important bearings". To that end, chapters one through four outline the foundation for Tandy's anarchism, drawing heavily from Max Stirner and Herbert Spencer. Chapters five through fourteen cover specific areas of interest, including private defense agencies, the labor theory of value, mutual banking, transportation, and political strategy.

The book is dedicated to Benjamin Tucker, "whose lucid writings and scathing criticisms have done so much to dispel the clouds of economic superstition".

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