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Robert Nozick
Born November (1938-Template:MONTHNUMBER-16)16, 1938
Brooklyn, New York
Died January 23, 2002(2002-Template:MONTHNUMBER-23) (aged 63)
Cambridge, Massachusetts[1]
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Analytic, political
Notable ideas Utility monster, experience machine, justice as property rights, paradox of deontology, entitlement theory, deductive closure
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Robert Nozick (November 16, 1938 – January 23, 2002) was an American political philosopher,[2] most prominent in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a professor at Harvard University. He is best known for his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), a libertarian answer to John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971). His other work involved decision theory and epistemology.

Personal life[]

Nozick was born in Brooklyn, the son of a Jewish entrepreneur from the Russian shtetl who had been born with the name of Cohen.[3] Nozick was married to the poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg. He died in 2002 after a prolonged struggle with stomach cancer. He is interred at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Career and works[]

Nozick was educated at Columbia (A.B. 1959, summa cum laude), where he studied with Sidney Morgenbesser, and later at Princeton (Ph.D. 1963), and Oxford as a Fulbright Scholar (1963–1964).

For Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) Nozick received a National Book Award in category Philosophy and Religion.[4] There he argues that a distribution of goods is just if brought about by free exchange among consenting adults and from a just starting position, even if large inequalities subsequently emerge from the process. Nozick appealed to the Kantian idea that people should be treated as ends (what he termed 'separateness of persons'), not merely as a means to some other end. Nozick thus challenged the partial conclusion of John Rawls's Second Principle of Justice of his A Theory of Justice, that "social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to be of greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society." Nozick suggested, as a critique of Rawls and utilitarianism, that the sacrosanctity of life made property rights non-negotiable, such that an individual's personal liberty made state policies of redistribution illegitimate. This principle has served as a foundation for many right-libertarian arguments in modern politics. Anarchy, State and Utopia claims a heritage from John Locke's Second Treatise on Government and seeks to ground itself upon a natural law doctrine, but reaches some importantly different conclusions from Locke himself in several ways. Most controversially, Nozick argued that a consistent upholding of the non-aggression principle would allow and regard as valid consensual or non-coercive enslavement contracts between adults. He rejected the notion of inalienable rights advanced by Locke and most contemporary capitalist-oriented libertarian academics, writing in Anarchy, State and Utopia that the typical notion of a "free system" would allow adults to voluntarily enter into non-coercive slave contracts.[1][5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16]


In Philosophical Explanations (1981), which received the Phi Beta Kappa Society's Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, Nozick provided novel accounts of knowledge, free will, personal identity, the nature of value, and the meaning of life. He also put forward an epistemological system which attempted to deal with both the Gettier problem and those posed by skepticism. This highly influential argument eschewed justification as a necessary requirement for knowledge.[17]

Nozick's Four Conditions for S's knowing that P were:

  1. P is true
  2. S believes that P
  3. If it were the case that (not-P), S would not believe that P
  4. If it were the case that P, S would believe that P

Nozick's third and fourth conditions are counterfactuals. He called this the "tracking theory" of knowledge. Nozick believed the counterfactual conditionals bring out an important aspect of our intuitive grasp of knowledge: For any given fact, the believer's method must reliably track the truth despite varying relevant conditions. In this way, Nozick's theory is similar to reliabilism. Due to certain counterexamples that could otherwise be raised against these counterfactual conditions, Nozick specified that:

  1. If P weren’t the case and S were to use M to arrive at a belief whether or not P, then S wouldn’t believe, via M, that P.
  2. If P were the case and S were to use M to arrive at a belief whether or not P, then S would believe, via M, that P.
  3. [18]

Where M stands for the method by which S came to arrive at a belief whether or not P.

Later books[]

The Examined Life (1989), pitched to a broader public, explores love, death, faith, reality, and the meaning of life. According to Stephen Metcalf, Nozick expresses serious misgivings about capitalist libertarianism, going so far as to reject much of the foundations of the theory on the grounds that personal freedom can sometimes only be fully actualized via a collectivist politics and that wealth is at times justly redistributed via taxation to protect the freedom of the many from the potential tyranny of an overly selfish and powerful few.[19] Nozick suggests that citizens opposed to wealth redistribution that funds programs they object to should be able to opt out by supporting alternative government approved charities with an added 5% surcharge.[20] The Nature of Rationality (1993) presents a theory of practical reason that attempts to embellish notoriously spartan classical decision theory. Socratic Puzzles (1997) is a collection of papers that range in topic from Ayn Rand and Austrian economics to animal rights, while his last production, Invariances (2001), applies insights from physics and biology to questions of objectivity in such areas as the nature of necessity and moral value.


Nozick created the thought experiment of the "utility monster" to show that average utilitarianism could lead to a situation where the needs of the vast majority were sacrificed for one individual. He also devised the thought experiment of The Experience Machine in an attempt to show that ethical hedonism was false. Nozick asked us to imagine that "superduper neuropsychologists" have figured out a way to stimulate a person's brain to induce pleasurable experiences.[21] We would not be able to tell that these experiences were not real. He asks us, if we were given the choice, would we choose a machine-induced experience of a wonderful life over real life? Nozick says no, then asks whether we have reasons not to plug into the machine and concludes that since it does not seem to be rational to plug in, ethical hedonism must be false.

Unusual method[]

Nozick was notable for the exploratory style of his philosophizing and for his methodological ecumenism. Often content to raise tantalizing philosophical possibilities and then leave judgment to the reader, Nozick was also notable for drawing from literature outside of philosophy (e.g., economics, physics, evolutionary biology).


See also[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Obituary by The Independent
  2. Feser, Edward (May 4, 2005). "Nozick, Robert". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  3. "Obituary:Professor Robert Nozick". Daily Telegraph. 28 Jan 2002.
  4. "National Book Awards – 1975". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-08.
  5. Ellerman, David, Translatio versus Concessio: Retrieving the Debate about Contracts of Alienation with an Application to Today’s Employment Contract
  6. Obituary by The Guardian
  7. Philosopher Nozick dies at 63 From the Harvard Gazette
  8. Robert Nozick Memorial minute
  9. Robert Nozick (1938–2002) by Edward Feser
  10. A summary of the political philosophy of Robert Nozick by R. N. Johnson
  11. Robert Nozick, Libertarianism, And Utopia by Jonathan Wolff
  12. Nozick on Newcomb's Problem and Prisoners' Dilemma by S. L. Hurley
  13. Robert Nozick: Against Distributive Justice by R.J. Kilcullen
  14. Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? by Robert Nozick
  15. Robert Nozick at the Open Directory Project
  16. Robert Nozick, Philosopher of Liberty by Roderick T. Long
  17. Schmidtz, David (2002). Robert Nozick. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-00671-6., ch. 7
  18. Keith Derose, Solving the Skeptical Problem
  19. The Liberty Scam: Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired
  20. Nozick, Robert (1989). "The Zigzag of Politics", The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-72501-3
  21. Schmidtz, David (2002). Robert Nozick. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-00671-6., pp. 210–211.


  • Cohen, G. A. (1995), Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, Oxford UP. A widely-cited criticism of Nozick.
  • Frankel Paul, Ellen, Fred D. Miller, Jr. and Jeffrey Paul (eds.), (2004) Natural Rights Liberalism from Locke to Nozick, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-61514-3
  • Robinson, Dave & Groves, Judy (2003). Introducing Political Philosophy. Icon Books. ISBN 1-84046-450-X.
  • Schmidtz, David (Editor) (2002), Robert Nozick Contemporary Philosophy in Focus, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-00671-2
  • Schaefer, David Lewis (2008) Robert Nozick and the Coast of Utopia, The New York Sun, April 30, 2008.
  • Wolff, Jonathan (1991), Robert Nozick: Property, Justice, and the Minimal State. Polity Press.

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