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Friday, May 14, 2021


Apropos Nozick's book, anyone interested can take a look at my article on it which I believe is archived at  Warren Goldfarb knew Quine infinitely better than I did but perhaps I can add one curious personal story that gives some insight not into his politics but into the way he viewed the world.  I first studied with Quine in 1950. This was only a few years after the end of World War II, when London was still repairing itself from the blitz and Berlin was still divided into several zones. Walking across Harvard Yard one day, I ran into Quine talking with a few people and stopped to listen. Quine was describing a recent trip to Germany which had taken him, among other places, to one of the death camps. He was describing the extraordinary efficiency with which the Germans exterminated millions of Jews. He was not in any way at all approving of this monstrous act but it was obvious that he was fascinated simply by the arrangements that made the efficiency possible. Quine, in my experience, was a charming, witty, and personally quite conscientious man – for example, in that time, every aspiring graduate student looking for a job wanted a letter of recommendation from Quine, even though only a handful of them had been in any real sense his students. Without complaining, Quine wrote letter after letter for them, You doing the best for them that he could. But he was in an odd way, despite his charm, rather cold and his intellectual fascination with the technical arrangements of the death camps was a rather chilling example of this. Still and all, I liked him enormously and with the sole exception of C. I. Lewis, he had a more powerful influence on my philosophical development than any of my other professors.

Bob Nozick, politics to one side, was a delight, bright, charming, engaging in all ways.  Since I am an inveterate storyteller I will tell a personal story about Bob. In the 1980s, I was living in Belmont so that my first wife could take up a professorship at MIT. My sons went to Belmont high school, in front of which there was a large semicircular driveway where parents could drop off their kids at school. During the time that I lived in Massachusetts, I had a vanity plate which read I KANT.  I also had a bumper sticker that read "Question Authority."  (Because of my little book on anarchism I always felt a certain proprietary pride about that bumper sticker.) One day, after I had dropped my boys at the high school I was starting to drive away when somebody behind me honked his horn. When I stopped, Bob came running up (he also had a child at Belmont high) and when he got to my open window he said hello and then he said with great delight "as soon as I saw the license plate and the bumper sticker I knew it had to be you!" Bob died much, much too early but my older son Patrick, who did his last two years at Harvard, had the great fortune of studying with him shortly before he passed away. His death really saddened me.


T.J. said...

A passage from Nozick's Philosophical Explanations that every philosopher should think about when they start to take themselves too seriously:

The terminology of philosophical art is coercive: arguments are powerful and best when they are knockdown, arguments force you to a conclusion, if you believe the premisses you have to or must believe the conclusion, some arguments do not carry much punch, and so forth. A philosophical argument is an attempt to get someone to believe something, whether he wants to believe it or not. A successful philosophical argument, a strong argument, forces someone to a belief.

Though philosophy is carried on as a coercive activity, the penalty philosophers wield is, after all, rather weak. If the other person is willing to bear the label of "irrational" or "having the worse arguments," he can skip away happily maintaining his previous belief. He will be trailed, of course, by the philosopher furiously hurling philosophical imprecations: "what do you mean, you're willing to be irrational? You shouldn't be irrational because..." and although the philosopher is embarrassed by his inability to complete this sentence in a noncircular fashion--he can only produce reasons for accepting reasons--still, he is unwilling to let his adversary go.

Wouldn't it be better if philosophical arguments left the person no possible answer at all, reducing him to impotent silence? Even then, he might sit there silently, smiling, Buddhalike. Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies. How's that for a powerful argument? Yet, as with other physical threats ("your money or your life"), he can choose defiance. A "perfect" philosophical argument would leave no choice.

s. wallerstein said...

Why are you surprised and dismayed that Republican congresswoman, Elise Stefanik, who replaced Liz Cheney, went to Harvard when Robert Nozick, a bearer of the same noxious ideology, taught there for many years?

What's the big ethical different between Nozick and Stefanik? Maybe Stefanik, "politics aside," is also "delightful, bright, charming, engaging in many ways."

LFC said...

I think you're mashing up some different things here, s.w.

Nozick made a case for minimal-state libertarianism. While its political implications could be seen as callous and "noxious," it's not the same as being a fan and defender of a would-be authoritarian like Trump.

Btw, Stefanik's voting record in the House is apparently less conservative than Liz Cheney's, not too surprising since Cheney, among other things, represents a very conservative state. What divides them is not, especially, how right-wing they are, but that Stefanik has been a defender of Trump and Cheney a critic. This is about how closely tied the Repub Party shd be to Trump and/or how openly critical of him, not about ideology really. As you yourself might have said on this blog, Trump doesn't really have a coherent ideology. He has a mishmash of populism and xenophobic nationalism and "America First" and de-regulation and right-wing culture war positions, but his real ideology is Donald Trump-ism.

LFC said...

There's also something more basic and prosaic going on here. A lot of House Republicans just want to try to ignore Trump, to the extent possible, and focus on winning back the House in 2022. With Cheney continuing in the leadership position she had and continuing her very public back-and-forth w/ Trump, they didn't think that was possible. I'm not defending them, of course, just saying that was the reasoning, at least for some of them.

s. wallerstein said...


You can make the argument that Nozick, for all his charm and delightfulness, did more damage to humanity than Trump, for all his crassness and vulgarity.

Nozick was one of the favorite thinkers of the so-called Chicago Boys, the neoliberal technocrats who dismantled the welfare state in Chile and turned what was once a society into a market.

I'm fairly sure that Nozick inspired other neoliberal counter-revolutions in many emerging economies.

jeffrey g kessen said...

If Liz Cheney thinks she can lead a successful rebellion against the current Trump-minded Republican party, she's as deluded as her father ever was. Yet I approve whole-heartedly of her effort---it can only splinter the party the more.

aaall said...

"I'm fairly sure that Nozick inspired other neoliberal counter-revolutions in many emerging economies."

And also in emerged economies. Corey Robin had a piece on Hayek and Pinochet (libertarians need authoritarians to work their magic).

JGK, given our flawed way doing elections, there is great danger in giving never-Trumpers a third option.

LFC said...

The Chicago Boys already had the works of Friedman, Hayek et al. I'm not sure they even needed Nozick. I'm not sure exactly what he gave them. _Anarchy State and Utopia_ does give philosophical arguments against (most) redistribution, but it's really not primarily a defense of 'the market', though it is that to some extent. It's more a case for the minimal state, one that does a *very* limited number of things, and that's not what the Chicago Boys implemented in Chile, I'm pretty sure. Yes there are some intellectual affinities betw them and Nozick, but I think also some differences.

s. wallerstein said...

Sorry, LFC, but I was in Chile from 1979 on and I read El Mercurio, the rightwing neoliberal newspaper every Sunday and in their Sunday literary supplement they talked endlessly and proudly about the intellectual roots of their wonderful social experiment in neoliberalism, and of course they sang the praises of Friedman and Hayek, but Nozick was included too. If you don't believe me, you might check out back issues of El Mercurio from
1979 to around 1982, when the Chilean economy crashed and they became a bit more reticient about singing its praises.

LFC said...

I believe you.

Ridiculousicculus said...

Professor Wolff's fondness for Nozick as a person - regardless of Nozick's personal or ethical commitments or the things Nozick actually did - reminds me of the David Sidorsky tenure story in Professor Wolff's memoirs.

Sidney Morgenbesser apparently agreed that the guy shouldn't get tenure, and agreed to vote against tenure, but then abstained in the vote because Sidorsky was a "nice jewish boy" who couldn't get a job somewhere else.

As a younger man reading that 10 years ago, I wondered why Professor Wolff considered a man who would vote like that "great". Now I'm older and recognize that we all have our faults, and you can respect or love or think a person is a great man while disagreeing with what they do.

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