The man in the moon

Socratic Puzzles
October 10, 1997

About 30 years ago it seemed as if philosophers in Europe and America were converging on a new consensus. They were abandoning the dream that mathematical logic, epistemology or the theory of science might provide them with a lofty platform from which they could pass judgement on the games people play with concepts; indeed they were beginning to suspect that their own formal systems were only another game, quite as arbitrary as all the rest. They could no longer believe in a special philosophical method that would yield detachable theoretical results comparable to those achieved by natural science. Philosophers might be able to perform a residual cultural function as a kind of metaphysical vice squad, and beyond that they would simply have to reinvent themselves as humanistic cultural historians or conceptual anthropologists.

But a few true believers bucked the trend - especially in the United States, where Rudolf Carnap, Carl Hempel, Ernest Nagel and W. V. Quine were able to pass on their faith in scientific research programmes for philosophy to a new academic generation. For example there was Robert Nozick. Nozick completed his Harvard dissertation - a notably hard-edged but imaginative study of "The Normative Theory of Individual Choice" - in 1963 when he was 25. His publications in the following few years included a spectacular piece of logicomathematical gamesmanship called "Newcomb's problem and two principles of choice" and an elaborately clever discussion of "Coercion" based on the observation that although no one minds having his/her preferences altered by enticements, everyone objects to having them distorted by threats.

The young Nozick was cultivating a style rather like Chomsky's, abrupt and puritanically unadorned, and his most ambitious essay of the 1960s - an exceedingly complicated study of "Moral complications" - began with a characteristically austere promise: "I shall discuss some problems," Nozick wrote, "in representing one structure which may be exhibited by part of the moral views of some people." It might be said that the philosophical persona on show in these articles exhibits a humility so clamorous and severe that it turns into its opposite. In any case they unmistakably announced the arrival of a many-faceted philosophical wonderboy, and Nozick has since made a starry career at Harvard and given a big fillip to the kind of analytic philosophy that once seemed destined for extinction.

Socratic Puzzles brings together 22 essays from three decades, offering a panorama of Nozick's philosophical development, and perhaps a kind of personal manifesto or testament as well. The introduction tells us that Nozick recently recovered from life-threatening illness, and the title essay, written after the crisis, contains an analysis of the role of personality in argumentation which leads to reflections on the ways in which philosophy can be "embodied" in personal conduct - a suggestion perhaps that a more meditative and less defiant style is in the offing.

But Nozick still presents himself as the very model of a modern scientific philosopher, the righteous lone friend of truth who prefers "thinking independently" to making himself a sectarian of "someone else's ideas". He will go boldly wherever philosophy leads, with no weapon, as he insouciantly remarks, except the "method of clarity of thought and reasoning".

However, Nozick's paradigm of methodological clarity is a very particular one: the tradition of "decision theory" that stretches back through John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern to the founders of "Austrian economics". The cynosure of philosophical technique, for Nozick, is the a priori mathematics of the pursuit of individual preferences in a perfect free market.

And it is not just the mathematical rigour and "loveliness" of decision theory that have attracted Nozick. Without pausing to consider either its broad presuppositions or its historical adequacy, he immediately tried to turn it into a "moral foundation" for capitalism. Although he criticised some of the crudities of Ayn Rand's libertarianism in an essay of 1971, he has always shared her impatience with utilitarian arguments about the need to help the helpless: for Nozick, the only question in politics is what system will provide the best arena for the sovereignty of personal choice; and the only answer is the "free market", or in other words - so he thinks - "capitalism".

Nozick elaborated his procapitalist position in Anarchy, State and Utopia, which appeared in 1974, a year before Thatcher took over the Tory party, and six years before Reagan became president. It was his first book, and it marked an epoch in political debate outside the academy as well as within. Earlier defenders of capitalism had conceded that socialism may have its attractions in theory. Nozick, however, managed to shift the pro-capitalist case on to the utopian pastures where ethical socialists had safely grazed for a century and a half. There he nurtured a flock of ethical procapitalists who, instead of wearily defending a least-worst capitalist status quo, fantasised yearningly about an immaculate after-the-revolution free market where individual rights would no longer be trampled upon by a thieving redistributive state.

And before long philosophical socialists were picking up the rhetorical cast-offs of their opponents: capitalism might be very fine in theory, but experience shows that it is unsustainable in practice. Ah, but you are too hasty, the youthful procapitalists lisped in reply: genuine capitalism has never yet been tried.

After putting philosophical politics through his analytical looking glass, Nozick quickly lost interest. In Socratic Puzzles he mourns the fact that he is known mainly for "an early work", protesting that the book was "an accident" and that he has never been a "political philosopher". And he has a point: despite the storm it caused, Anarchy, State and Utopia was not a partisan ideological tract. Rather it was an innocent philosophical excursion - all too innocent, some might say: innocent to a fault. For Nozick's political reasoning is quite arbitrarily confined to abstract questions of just process, regardless of the general desirability of outcomes. From this point of view, there is only one political evil: the curtailment of the right to individual choice.

Nozick seems to have an empty space where most people have a sense of local particularity and an awareness of the historical traditions that bear down on our free choices. An essay entitled "Why do intellectuals oppose capitalism?" blandly proposes a "new sociological law" to the effect that nerdy wordsmiths tend to be biased against the market because it does not replicate the scholastic reward systems that cosset our fragile academic egos. This is not an original observation, but it enables Nozick to apply a fresh coat of neglect to the most elementary distinctions between different varieties of anticapitalism.

But this inane infatuation with individual choices in a historical vacuum may just be the flipside of Nozick's philosophical power. For better or for worse, he has an exceptional capacity to absent himself from ordinary human concerns. Perhaps it is not his fault if his detachment sometimes seems more lunar than olympian.

Jonathan Ree teaches philosophy, Middlesex University.

Socratic Puzzles

Author - Robert Nozick
ISBN - 0 674 81653 6
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £23.50
Pages - 400

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