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January 24th, 2003 · No Comments

We lost Robert Nozick a year ago yesterday.

I didn’t know him, really, but I was hit when I heard almost as though I had. A co-worker over at Laissez Faire Books, where I worked then, emailed me from the West Coast office assuming I’d heard, which I hadn’t. My first thought, after sitting stunned for a minute or two, was of Robert Anton Wilson, who has a character in The Illuminatus! Trilogy explain that “all the great anarchists died on the 23rd day of some month or other…” I’d talked to him a bit a few months earlier, and he had sounded sharp, vibrant, ready to work on new and exciting things.

I didn’t know him, but the way Nozick wrote, if you cared about the ideas he was wrestling with, it felt a little like you did. He’d written that he disliked what he called a “coercive” way of doing philosophy: staking out a view and defending it, working to refute objections, and to patch up weak points, in an attempt to advance a set of propositions that the reader would have to accept. His model was different: he would take you with him as he worked through an issue, making no effort to hide points of doubt or confusion, often running off on intriguing tangents or raising problems only to admit he couldn’t fully resolve them. It was the Austrian and libertarian focus on process and history over time-slices and distributional patterns applied directly, and it made you feel as thought you were looking “under the hood” of an incredibly powerful philosophical mind. Sometimes — and this is characteristic of the best philosophy, I think — you’d reach the end of a page, struggling with the implications of what had been written there. And just as you begin to grope your way towards some new and interesting territory, you turn the page, only to find it mapped and explored far better than you could have hoped to do yourself… and then the process begins again at the end of that page.

Like a lot of people, my first encounter with Nozick was Anarchy, State, and Utopia. As a high school student, I had come to suspect that I was one of these wacky “libertarians,” an impression that reading David Boaz’s Libertarianism: A Primer, which had just come out, seemed to confirm. There and elsewhere, I kept hearing about this masterpiece by a Harvard maverick that was universally regarded as the bible of serious theoretical libertarianism. The suburban New Jersey bookstore at which I worked then was the sort that has, as a “philosophy” section some smattering of books on eastern religion, self-help treacle, and if you’re lucky a few volumes from Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, but I put in a special order for it and eagerly dove in.

I didn’t get it. Or rather, I got some of it, but much of the reasoning would’ve been over my head even if I had been familiar with Rawls’s A Theory of Justice — the book Nozick takes as his primary foil — which I wasn’t. I struggled on for a while, and then finally gave up.

As a freshman at NYU with a few philosophy classes under my belt, I decided to give it a second go. It was like an entirely different book. Perhaps primarily because I now had a point of comparison writers like Kant and Rawls, the book no longer seemed a struggle, but a dizzying parade of insights clothed in a series of ingenious examples and thought experiements. What I liked about the book was, I now see, one of the reasons I always liked using libertarian arguments in debate. The ability of the book as a whole to convince you of its conclusion is really secondary: even if you walked away from it a convinced egalitarian, you would take with you a set of potent analytical tools with wide applicability to diverse and unforseen contexts. Nozick was more interesting even when you thought he was probably wrong than most theorists were when they got it right.

I gradually picked up the rest of Nozick’s books, none of which had much to do with politics. Y’see, Nozick was serious about “non-coercive” philosophy. He didn’t much care about refuting critics, or convincing people his position could withstand all objections. He was interested in exploring new things, in inviting others to join him in looking at problems in a certain way.

There’s an old Zen koan about a student who is having trouble in his studies, and goes to seek help from a Zen master. The master brings him out under the night sky and points up at the moon. “Now,” he says, “you follow my finger to look at the moon. But in studying the sutras, you look only at the finger, and not at the thing to which it points.” When I think of this, I think the best homage those of us who were strongly influenced by Nozick can pay him is not to defend his vision of the minimal state — though, of course, I doubt he’d mind that — but to work as he did, looking for wide paths to wander, and not a heavily fortified position (a “battleship,” as an acquaintance in academia calls his particular area of expertise) to defend.

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