Philosophical Explanations 
by Robert Nozick.
Oxford, 765 pp., £15, November 1981, 0 19 824672 2
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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.

Nozick is splendidly honest about his reliance on intuition. As he says, he does philosophy in order to find reasons for what he believes anyway: ‘I do not stop the philosophical reasoning until it leads me where I want to go; then I stop.’ He adds, devastatingly: ‘I do not recall any philosopher reporting in distress that on some fundamental question he is forced to conclude that the truth is awful, worse even than the third best way he would want it.’ This view of philosophy leads him to abandon the attempt to put philosophy on the sure path of a science, and to urge us to see philosophy as part of the humanities. But occasionally he catches himself up and asks: ‘but what about truth?’ It was just this desire for propositional truth – the sort of truth possessed by mathematicians and physicists but not by poets and painters – which produced attempts to make philosophy ‘scientific’ and ‘analytic’ in the first place. Nozick cannot quite shake it off. He cannot resist speaking occasionally (e.g. at page 21) of ‘the true explanation’ of such phenomena as free will or selfhood or the world’s existence, even though officially he is committed to ‘philosophy as an art form’ which ‘sculptures a view’ out of ‘ideas, questions, tensions, concepts’. On the last page of the book he gives his last philosophical explanation by explaining how it is possible that philosophy both is an art form and is concerned with truth. The explanation is that all artists face constraints, imposed by their material, and that the philosopher’s come from the resistance of ‘ideas, questions, tensions, concepts’ he is sculpting. But this leaves us asking what constraint these can impose if not the logical incompatibilities between propositions of which Nozick transcended six hundred pages earlier.

The trouble Nozick (like other ‘speculative’ philosophers – Hegel, Whitehead, John Findlay, Paul Weiss) runs into here is that while explaining in the positivist’s strong ‘testable’ sense is obviously too much to expect of philosophers, explaining in Nozick’s weaker sense looks much too easy. Suppose that we want, as Nozick rightly says we do, a conception of man’s place in the world which reconciles the value of organic unity with the need to transcend any given limit – a ‘unification of the notions of value and meaning’. That is just what Hegel attempted. Hegel did it by secularising the notion of the Incarnation so that humanity was the very Body of God, the very process of God’s self-healing. But Nietzsche did it too. He did it by turning his back on such eschatological conceptions of community, letting the desired unification take place within the self-transcending spirit of the overman: the man who can rejoice in the thought of eternal recurrence. A lot of other people – including the founders of the great religions and the gurus of the less-great ‘new’ religions – did it as well. So how do we know when we’ve got a conception which succeeds in doing what all these people tried, in incompatible ways, to do? Nozick’s reply is that ‘we get a full view of man, a non-reductionist view, only by keeping all the theories in mind, only by seeing him in that multiple perspective.’ But if we accept that reply we are no longer giving explanations – no longer answering the sort of ‘how is it possible that ... ?’ question which Nozick and says he will answer. That question takes its poignancy from its similarity to questions like ‘How is the trick done?’ – the sort of thing where we want ‘the true explanation’ (as when we are told that the rabbit was not in the magician’s waistcoat, but rather came out of a hole in the table, just underneath the hat). The competitive Western instincts that lead us to ask for ‘the true explanation’ are not gratified when we are told that there are many ways, many Yogas, many paths to infinite beatitude.

Nozick does not resolve this tension. The various chapters in the book vary greatly in manner. The most argumentative and Western chapter – the one on ‘Knowledge and Scepticism’ – is the only one to offer a new technical gimmick. Here Nozick asks for an explanation of how knowledge is possible, given the fact that, as the sceptic says, we might have all the reasons to believe what we do about our surroundings even if we really are just brains in a vat, having our nerves stimulated by a computer. Nozick formulates a definition of ‘knowledge’ such that one of the conditions for knowing something is that your methods of fixing belief ‘track truth’. Roughly, if it were true you would believe it, and if it were not you wouldn’t. This notion of tracking captures the intuition that if you have a true belief by accident, it doesn’t count as knowledge. Nozick points out that his analysis is able to deal with some puzzle-cases which previous analyses of ‘Jones knows that ...’ have been unable to deal with. But its great advantage is that ‘According to our account of knowledge, I know that p yet I do not know that q even though (I know) p entails q.’

So now we can soothe the layman, whom the sceptic had startled by the suggestion that he was a brain in a vat, by pointing out that he can know that he is a full-bodied human sitting in a study even though he doesn’t know that he is not a brain in a vat. For Nozick has fixed things so that you can know a proposition to be true even if you don’t know that incompatible propositions are false. The layman may now be inclined to ask: are you simply saying that it’s OK to say that I know that I’m not a brain in a vat, even though I can’t refute the sceptic’s suggestion that that’s what I am? No, Nozick replies, you don’t get it. You don’t know that you are not a brain in a vat. You just know that you are a full-bodied human in this study. You can have the pleasures of common sense, but not those of refuting the sceptic. The analysis of knowledge has been designed so that foregoing the latter is the price of enjoying the former.

To this we can imagine the existentially intense layman replying: ‘I thought you were promising an explanation of how knowledge is possible – how I, a poor little animal on an insignificant planet, a mere swirl of quarks, can nevertheless grasp the nature of the universe, the depths of heaven and earth. I thought you might at least tell me what methods I should use to be sure of getting knowledge. What happened? All I got was a way of defining “knowledge” which splits the difference between me and some crazy sceptic.’ This seems a fair complaint. It would not be fair if Nozick had presented himself as doing the ordinary analytic job of eliminating the contradiction between a pair of intuitively plausible propositions. But he wanted to do more than this. He wanted to show how our cognitive capacities helped make us precious and valuable. But anybody who suspected that our cognitive capacities are not all they are cracked up to be would not feel soothed by this explanation. What to say to somebody who suggests you are a brain in a vat is a nice testing-ground for dialectical acuity, a paradigm of the sort of thing about which one can be precise and argumentative, but it is just not the kind of issue which ever ‘moved anybody to take up the study of philosophy’. It is the sort of issue you get into after you’ve shrugged off the existential, after you’ve dismissed the question of how you might be precious and valuable as jejune, and have settled for competitive, coercive technicalities. (This is the loss of Eden which makes hard-nosed professional philosophers out of eager adolescents.)

Nozick’s resolution of the technical, professional issue is quite beautiful. It will be the subject of much discussion, criticism, reformulation and emendation. But it is not organically related to a larger pattern – a way of seeing oneself, or the world, as beautiful. (Nozick tries to weave such a relationship by applying the notion of tracking to moral choice as well as to cognition. He devotes considerable space to the notion of ‘tracking value’ as an explanation of what it is to be free. But since there is no specific, propositionally delimited paradox offered for resolution in the chapter on ‘Free Will’, of the sort that was resolved in the ‘Knowledge and Scepticism’ chapter, the connection is merely verbal.)

In contrast with the organised, disciplined, Western character of the ‘Knowledge and Scepticism’ chapter, Nozick’s most speculative and Eastern chapter – ‘Why is there Something rather than Nothing?’ – says that he will not endorse any answers to the title question, but will merely show that, appearances to the contrary, it is ‘possible for the question to have an answer’ by actually giving some possible answers. He begins by taking the title question in the sense of ‘Is there a true sentence which explains why all true sentences, including itself, are true?’ He commends self-subsuming sentences (like ‘Every sentence of exactly eight words is true’) – sentences which, if true, explain their own truth. One candidate for ‘an ultimate and very deep principle’ is ‘the principle of fecundity’: viz. ‘All possible worlds obtain.’ As Nozick says, ‘if it is a very deep fact that all possibilities obtain, then that fact, being a possibility, obtains in virtue of the deep fact that all possibilities do.’ But it is hard to see what ‘fact’ means here, since Nozick is dismissive about actuality: ‘The actual world has no specially privileged status, it merely is the world where we are.’ So it looks as if we are now taking the title question, not as ‘Why is the actual world actual?’ (as, so to speak, the question ‘Why are we here?’), but rather as ‘What sort of explanation would be a final explanation?’ It is hard to tell whether Nozick has shown that his title question has an answer or, fearing that it does not, has shifted questions on us.

But the principle of fecundity and its more sophisticated version, the principle of limited fecundity – ‘all self-subsuming principles hold true; all self-subsuming possibilities are realised’ – are only the beginning. After showing how to end an explanatory chain by making it loop back on itself, Nozick moves along to other interpretations of his title question. The next one is: ‘What possible relationship could there be between a law and what conforms to it, in virtue of which such conformity occurs?’ He quickly gives up on this one, but not before raising the much more interesting meta-question: ‘Does the very notion of fundamentality, with its associated ordered structuring, need to be questioned and undercut? Has philosophy’s unquestioned and unexamined presupposition been that something or other is (more) fundamental?’ He decides, disappointingly, not to discuss this meta-issue – the one which preoccupied Heidegger. Instead, he moves on to a third and final candidate for an answer to the title question. This is the sort of thing which would end doubt about the presuppositions of our categories. Consider, Nozick says, the question of whether there is something which all things which exist and all things which do not exist have in common, whether there is something beyond existence and non-existence. ‘Is there,’ he asks, ‘a biggest box, with nothing outside it? And ... if there is, how can one tell one has reached it, that there is not still some hidden transcendental presupposition, outside of which is another realm that fits none of the previous categories?’ Nozick defines ‘auming’ as ‘what that which is beyond existence and non-existence does’. He says that ‘if the only way to knowing what is beyond existence and non-existence and about auming is through an experience of it’, then it is possible that ‘there is no room for the question “why does it aum?” ’ The chapter concludes with the suggestion that we take mystical experience seriously, but that we ‘give greater credence to the mystic’s experience than to his hypotheses’. This suggestion is backed up by a baffling footnote which links Hatha Yoga (as facilitating auto-fellation) with the image (often used to describe Hegel’s self-subsuming System) of a serpent with its tail in its mouth.

Does Nozick succeed in his announced project of showing that the question ‘Why is there Something rather than Nothing?’ is answerable, even if we are not yet sure of the right answer? I do not see how one could tell whether he succeeds or not. Questions of this sort are so flexible that it is hard even to know whether one has discussed them, much less proposed an answer to them. Here, as in many other places in the book, it is hard to tell whether Nozick really has a project in mind or is simply whistling variations on a tune. More generally, it is hard to locate Nozick in dialectical space, to figure out where he stands in relation to other philosophers’ questions and answers. This is because he takes the large, abstract, flexible questions he discusses to be intuitively clear. He sees no need to fix their sense by relating his discussion to the panoplies of argument which the history of philosophy has reared around them. The odd un-conversability of his book is partially explained by his description of his aim and method: ‘my desire is to explain how knowledge is possible, how free will is possible, how there can be ethical truths, how life can have meaning. That is what I want to know. Other philosophical views are scanned and searched for help.’ Nozick is too sure that he already knows what he wants to know. The more philosophy one reads, after all, the more one reformulates one’s initial questions, the less sure one is of knowing what counts as a good question. Reading Plato or Kant or Hegel in search of help for answers to antecedently formulated questions is not a profitable use of their work. Such thinkers, read in this way, can easily wind up sounding as silly as Nozick makes Hegel when he says ‘Hegel’s theory leaves us being Geist’s little helper and arena; but how inspiring is a Geist that needs us as the arena in which it achieves self-consciousness, how ennobled can we be by being connected with such a Geist? Would you join a country club that needs you as a member?’ Although the hundred pages of notes at the back of Philosophical Explanations refer to practically everybody, the presence of the authors referred to is rarely felt in the text. It is as if Nozick has never talked with the great dead philosophers, but had only ‘scanned and searched’ them. In this respect he falls short of the example set by his fellow speculative philosophers. In The Phenomenology of Spirit or Adventures of Ideas or Findlay’s Discipline of the Cave or Weiss’s Modes of Being, the writing is constantly modulated by a sense of what the mighty dead, looking over the author’s shoulder, might rejoin.

I have not discussed – and, in the space available, cannot discuss – Nozick’s other chapters. There is, for example, a very interesting chapter on selfhood which starts with rather dull puzzles about brain-switching but winds up with an intriguing quasi-Fichtean theory about the self as ‘self-synthesiser’. There is a very long discussion which purportedly explains why we should be moral, but which merely rings changes on the notion of ‘organic value’. There is a short, lucid, persuasive discussion of the rationale of punishment. And much, much more. This sprawling book is almost impossible to sum up, either in a description or in a judgment of its worth. It is very intelligent and very self-indulgent, full of insights and of platitudes. It is easiest to deal with negatively. It is not, in the first place, a book for the layman. Non-professionals who pick it up are unlikely to penetrate very far. It is not an application of ‘the methods of analytical philosophy’ to ‘the enduring problems’. There are no such methods. The idea of ‘philosophical analysis’ as a searchlight which can be swivelled so as to lay bare the essence of whatever it touches is just a blurb-writer’s fantasy. (Nor are there enduring philosophical problems. Rather, there are certain words and phrases which great philosophers pick up and reshape.) It is not a philosophical system. The themes of ‘self-subsumption’ and ‘organic value’ which run through the book are not given enough concrete application to take on a life of their own. The terms remain hopeful gestures. It is not – despite its bulk and the ballyhoo with which the publishers surrounded its appearance – a Hauptwerk. It should not be judged as if it had attempted to be one. Nozick himself issues an implicit disclaimer, saying: ‘I do not yet have a philosophical view that flows so deeply and naturally’ as to ‘guide without forcing’. Perhaps it is best read as a set of preparatory exercises – a toning-up of muscles which its author was not trained to use in his youth but which he is now, laudably, testing out. The reader is left hoping that his next book will flow more deeply and naturally. For Nozick is an interesting man, not merely a clever one. Philosophical Explanations is better for browsing than for close study, but its successor may make greater demands and offer greater rewards.

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