Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Remembering Robert Nozick (and Some Thoughts on Philosophy as a Wiki)

May 17th, 2006 · No Comments

The call I put out a few days ago for help with my nacent Robert Nozick project has already yielded one very interesting contribution: My friend Abe Sutherland was able to pass along copies of the moving remarks delivered by some of Nozick’s family, friends, and colleagues at his memorial service in March of 2002. So far, I’ve been able to scan and Web-ify eulogies given by fellow philosophers Kwame Anthony Appiah, Amartya Sen, and Thomas Nagel. [I’ll add hyperlinks to Sen’s once I’m sure he doesn’t mind; Nagel and Appiah have already given their permission.] Nagel, of course, famously coined the often-repeated characterization of Anarchy, State, and Utopia as “libertarianism without foundations” in a Yale Law Journal article with that title; what I hadn’t known before, though, was that Nagel and Nozick were actually good friends who lived in the same apartment building in Manhattan in the ’60s.

One passage from Nagel’s euglogy struck me as perhaps shedding some light on the intriguing idea of “non-coercive philosophy,” a way of doing philosophy that would focus on exploring exciting ideas rather than proving particular conclusions or refuting opponents, which Nozick articulated in his introduction to Philosophical Explanations. Nagel says:

In his youth he was known as the most lethal philosophical critic of his generation—someone who could come up with a counterargument or counterexample to any claim that even the most careful philosopher put forward. It must have occurred to Bob, as it occurred to others, that no philosophical theory that he might devise could possibly resist his own critical powers. But because he thought it was better to make something new than to avoid error by defensive caution, he adopted toward his own exuberant creative impulses a kind of disinhibiting acceptance, and he did not subject them to his full destructive capacities—something that was absolutely necessary to permit them to flourish.

This reminds me a bit of the more general problem writers of all sorts face: If you have high standards and an active internal, ready to spot an nix an infelicitious turn of phrase, you may find yourself paralyzed, so that you don’t end up writing anything at all.

It also occurs to me that there’s a neat resonance between Nozick’s thoughts on this (stressing that there are “room for words other than final ones” in philosophy) and Yochai Benkler’s excellent new book The Wealth of Networks. One of the things that drew me to philosophy as an undergraduate—aside from the intrinsic interest in the subject matter—was the idea of taking part in this sort of massive conversation I could trace back to the pre-Socratics and imagine extending on into the future—the mother of all late-night dorm room bull sessions. And yet, as Nozick observed in the introduction to Anarchy, State, and Utopia, philosophers often write as though they’re charged with producing the definitive, final statement on their subject matter, struggling to offer up the complete and coherent Grand Theory of X, despite the rather poor track record of previous such attempts.

Maybe we can, today, put it this way: What Nozick understood was that philosophy is a wiki. What he was objecting to was writers who did philosophy as though they were producing an Encyclopedia Britannica entry: It goes out to the idea-hungry masses and that’s it (until the next edition…), so it’s got to be perfect and right the first time, however unlikely, in the case of philosophy, that might seem for any individual thinker. Your perspective changes if you instead think of what you’re doing as something akin to starting or amending a Wikipedia entry. Because while, certainly, you don’t want to deliberately include anything false, you know that whatever framework you set up, whatever start you make, will be built on in by hundreds or thousands of other smart, knowledgable people. And even if you’re smarter and more knowlegable than each of them, you’re almost certainly not smarter and more knowledgable than all of them. So if there’s a point you’re unsure of, a claim that seems like it might have something to it, but that might not ultimately hold up, well, you may as well put it in. Maybe someone else will be able to confirm it, refute it, or (maybe best of all) use it as a springboard to go off in some direction you couldn’t have imagined. The point is to start a conversation, not end it.

Tags: General Philosophy