- Philosophical Explanations by Robert Nozick
Oxford, 765 pp, £15.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 19 824672 2
Philosophers are saddled with expectations which no one could possibly meet. They are supposed to respond helpfully to large questions posed by anguished laymen. (Am I more than a swarm of particles? What meaning does life have?) They are supposed to be paragons of argumentative rigour, strenuously criticising seemingly obvious premises, fearlessly pushing inferences to bitter ends. Finally, they are supposed to be learned and wise. They are expected to have read all that has been written in response to the layman’s large questions, and to rearrange it in novel and luminous dialectical patterns, sympathetically harmonising all the suggestions offered by all the great dead philosophers.
Since philosophy became self-consciously professional, the first task has usually been disdained as ‘mere’ edification. The analytic philosophers take on the second assignment, and congratulate themselves on their ‘scientific’ devotion to truth, hardness of nose, and sheer cleverness. The so-called ‘speculative’ and ‘Continental’ philosophers – those impressed by the examples of Hegel or Whitehead or Heidegger – take on the third. They weave webs of words which put their predecessors in their proper dialectico-historical places. The analysts despise the fuzziness of the speculators. The Continentals despise the illiteracy and gimmickry of the analysts. Both despise the cheerful, wealthy, unprofessional authors of best-selling paperbacks on how to live. A good time is had by all. It is a reasonable divvying-up of varied assignments which no single person could possibly carry out. So when a book like Nozick’s comes along which sets out to do the impossible – to do everything anyone has ever hoped a philosopher might do – the event is both exhilarating and depressing. Admiration of audacity is mingled with fear of witnessing a pratfall.
Nozick begins by saying that he will take up ‘familiar questions ... Does life have meaning? Are there objective ethical truths? Do we have free will?’ ‘These questions,’ he says, ‘moved me and others to enter the study of philosophy.’ Somebody who knows Nozick’s reputation among analytic philosophers (he is often referred to as ‘the smartest philosopher in America’) may, at this point, still expect that these large questions will, as usual, rapidly be reformulated so as to abandon the non-technical level at which they were initially asked. But the very next paragraph shifts the tone. ‘Our various questions,’ Nozick continues, ‘stem from one: how are we valuable and precious?’ This is a good question, but not a suitable topic for analysis. Analytic philosophy was invented so that philosophers with argumentative talents could stick to neatly formulated problems produced by apparent contradictions between intuitively evident premises. Only if one sticks to that sort of problem (the sort which rapidly gets so technical that laymen suspect the subject has been changed) can one display argumentative rigour. For argumentation is the manipulation of propositions. Only if such rigour is displayed can one have a satisfying, conclusive battle with rival philosophers. One of the reasons analytic philosophers get so annoyed with speculative and Continental philosophers is that it is so hard to judge competitions between them. (Did Hegel really beat Schelling? Did Foucault do Derrida any real damage?) If one weaves a web of words to redescribe the human situation, instead of playing off against one another propositions previously used to describe it, who is to say whose tapestry is the richest, whose syntheses the most comprehensive? So how, the reader asks himself, is Nozick going to explain ‘how we are valuable and precious’ and still give us that good old rigorous argumentation? How will we tell the winning answer to that question?
Nozick responds with a polemic against ‘coercive philosophy’. He tells us that he will not offer the expected sort of argument, and that we should not have been so morbidly eager for it: ‘Considering objections, hypothetical situations, and so on, does help to sharpen a view. But need all this be done in an attempt to prove, or in arguing?’ ‘Why are philosophers intent on forcing others to believe things? Is that a nice way to behave towards someone?’ He explains his choice of title by saying that he wants to substitute ‘explanations’ for ‘proofs’. An explanation, he tells us, answers the question: ‘How is one thing possible, given certain other things?’ But, Nozick says, the opposition between the fact of X and the apparently excluding fact of Y may not consist in the logical incompatibility of a proposition about X with one about Y, but simply in ‘tension’ between X and Y themselves. Thus there is a tension, he tells us in the chapter on ‘Free Will’, between the fact of freedom and the ordinary scientific picture of the universe. But he does not proceed, in the usual analytic style, to identify some proposition about freedom and some incompatible proposition entailed by science. He just remarks that we all feel a tension. This appeal to unanalysed pre-propositional intuition flies in the face of everything young analytic philosophers are taught in school. When it comes to offering an explanation, Nozick answers the question ‘What is it about (some of) our decisions, what feature do they have, that lifts them above the nexus of causal determination?’ by saying that he can offer only ‘a vague speculation’: viz. that ‘reflexive self-subsuming acts have an intrinsic depth’ and that perhaps ‘an effect cannot have a greater semantic depth than what causally determines it.’ Old-time positivists would rather tear their own heads off than call that an explanation. They would insist that it is not even a candidate for that status, but merely a reformulation of the original, fuzzy, pseudo-problem-creating intuition.