If you had learned your U.S. intellectual history solely from this site over the past four years, you would have seen Robert Nozick’s name explicitly mentioned only once in a post—as a secondary reference. His name has appeared indirectly, in a few books reviewed or mentioned here, such as Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture. That aside, Nozick has essentially been absent from USIH discussions until today. Why? I’m not sure. So let’s begin at the beginning:
Born in New York City, he lived from 1938 to 2002. Nozick was a professor at Harvard University, where his fields of study were moral and political philosophy—in the analytic vein. His most famous work is Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974). The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) contains a nice summary of it. Some have called Anarchy, State, and Utopia the libertarian response to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. After his most famous work, here is what the IEP article says about Nozick’s professional trajectory:
Nozick neglected political philosophy for the rest of his philosophical career. He moved on to address other philosophical questions and made significant contributions to other areas of philosophical inquiry. In epistemology, Nozick developed an externalist analysis of knowledge in terms of counterfactual conditions that provides a response to radical skepticism. In metaphysics, he proposed a “closest continuer” theory of personal identity.
Nozick also delved into public philosophy, as you will see in the titles of a few of the following books by him:
– Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1981)
– The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989)
– The Nature of Rationality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993)
– Socratic Puzzles (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997)
– Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001)
Before diving too deeply into the contents of any one book, or Nozick’s most significant ideas, let’s look ahead a bit. What is Nozick’s significance to later thinkers and scholars? A consideration of subsequent works about him may tell us something. With that, I’ve put together select list of significant books, theses, and dissertations that look at Nozick and his thought (located below, in order of oldest to most recent, gathered from here). A quick perusal of the list reveals that Nozick has received more attention over the last ten years.
On Nozick’s significant ideas and influence, estimates like these are hazardous, but a quick study of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online) reveals 106 references to, and citations of, his work. About 75-80 percent of those are related to Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
Qualitatively speaking, Stephen Metcalf recently wrote the following, for Slate.com, about Nozick’s historical significance (bolds mine):
As a moral philosopher, Nozick was free to stretch liberty further than even an Austrian economist. That is, he was able to separate out a normative claim (that liberty is the fundamental value of values, and should be maximized) from an empirical claim (that the most efficient method for allocating goods and services is a market economy). Free to pursue liberty as a matter of pure principle, Nozick let nothing stand in his way. Should we tax the rich to feed the poor? Absolutely not, as “taxation of earnings is on par with forced labor.” (Or more precisely: “Taking the earnings of n hours of labor is like taking n hours from the person.”) Well, isn’t at least some redistribution necessary on the basis of need? “Need a gardener allocate his services to those lawns which need him most?”
To the entire left, Nozick, in effect, said: Your social justice comes at an unacceptable cost, namely, to my personal liberty. Most distressingly, to this end Nozick enlisted the humanist’s most cherished belief: the inviolability of each human being as an end unto himself—what Nozick, drawing on Immanuel Kant, calls “the separateness of persons.” For Nozick, the principle of the separateness of persons is close to sacred. It affirms, as he writes, “the underlying Kantian principle that individuals are ends and not merely means; they may not be sacrificed or used for the achieving of other ends without their consent. Individuals are inviolable.”
I like to think that when Nozick published Anarchy, the levee broke, the polite Fabian [read: cautious and gradualist] consensus collapsed, and hence, in rapid succession: Hayek won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, followed by Milton Friedman in ’75, the same year Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition, followed by the California and Massachusetts tax revolts, culminating in the election of Reagan, and … well, where it stops, nobody knows.
It should be noted that the point of Metcalf’s polemical piece is to discuss why Nozick gave up libertarianism. The title reveals the article’s thesis: “The Liberty Scam: Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired.” [Aside: This article, by the way, is the best short take-down of extreme libertarianism I’ve ever read.]
That aside, the lines I excerpted from Metcalf’s article seem to demand the following conclusion: Nozick is a major marker figure in the intellectual development of the New Right.
Before leaving Nozick for reader discussion, let me provide a final plug from historians on why Nozick matters. I don’t have Daniel Rodgers’ excellent book on hand (Age of Fracture), so I can’t relay his passages on Nozick. But I do happen to have J. David Hoeveler, Jr.’s The Postmodernist Turn at my desk. Hoeveler ends his book—in the last passages just before his Afterword—with a four-page reflection on Nozick. Here are few passages (bolds mine):
In the 1960s and early 1970s, libertarianism found outspoken defenders in Ayn Rand, science fiction novelist Robert Heinlein, and Murray Rothbard. …When Rothbard happened to have a conversation with young Harvard professor, Robert Nozick, the professor decided to write a book.
Nozick took a circuitous route to libertarianism. In high school in the 1950s he had joined the youth branch of the Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party, and as an undergraduate at Columbia he founded another Socialist group. But Nozick gradually yielded to the persuasive forces of individualism and of moral and economic systems that gave highest priority to the free individual. …
Nozick’s book [Anarchy] is not an easy matter. It flourishes with the philosopher’s love of dense logic-chopping and finely-tuned disputation. The reader will find many pages full of mathematical symbols. In its analytical depth it resembles the work of Nozick’s rival Rawls. …One reviewer called [it] “a major event in political philosophy.”…[noting] that recent political theory generally assumed the necessary distributive role of the state. However correct, he added, after Anarchy…these axioms could no longer be taken for granted. (pp. 168-69)
From here Hoeveler spends a great deal of time summarizing the book, discussing Nozick terms and axioms like “the entitlement theory,” “end-result” or “end-state” principles, and Nozick’s long (50-page) direct critique of Rawls. Here is Hoeveler’s final statement on Nozick—which happens to also be the last page of the text (again, bolds mine):
Anarchy, State, and Utopia offered a theoretical, philosophical defense of libertarianism. …It often gave illustrations, but too often came up short of details. Nonetheless, reviewers took Nozick’s book to be, ultimately, a polemic against all the apparatus of the modern liberal state—welfare operations, public health care, compulsory social security, state-sponsored education, progressive taxation, and legislated equality of any kind. Some conservatives therefore welcomed Nozick’s ideas. But Nozick wanted to be consistent. His libertarianism, however welcomed by conservative businessmen…aspired to give them no privileges. Nozick insisted that he opposed any government favoritism, as, for example, no subsidies to businesses (the airlines) or in protective tariffs. …True and consistent libertarianism, like Nozick’s, always confounds the liberal-conservative dichotomies. (p. 172).
With that, I ask the reader: How important does Nozick seem to be in the spectrum of conservative political (and social) philosophy? How significant was he to neoconservatives, or the New Right generally? If a “libertarian mind” exists (I don’t necessarily believe ~one~ does), how has Nozick helped in its formation? How have you seen Nozick cited in USIH-type works beyond Rodgers and Hoeveler? – TL
 The IEP article is probably the most comprehensive of those I found online. It was written by Edward Feser of Pasadena City College. For what it’s worth, Feser is a self-proclaimed political conservative and “traditional Roman Catholic” in matters of religion.
 The Postmodernist Turn: American Thought and Culture in the 1970s (New York: Twayne Publishers/Simon & Schuster Macillan, 1996).
Select, Significant Books, Dissertations, and Theses About Nozick
(Listed from oldest to most recent)
– Golash, Deirdre. “Entitlement and Equality: A Response to Robert Nozick.” Thesis–University of Maryland, College Park, 1976.
– Goldsworthy, Jefferey Denys. “Robert Nozick and the Justifaction of Coercive Government.” Thesis (LL. M.)–University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1983, 1983.
– Luper, Steven. The Possibility of Knowledge: Nozick and His Critics. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1987.
– Paul, Jeffrey, ed. Reading Nozick: Essays on Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991.
– Wolff, Jonathan. Robert Nozick: Property, Justice, and the Minimal State. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1991.
– Roberts, P. M. “Historical Entitlement Theory: Robert Nozick and Hillet Steiner.” Thesis (M.A.)–University of Wales Swansea, 1994, 1994.
– Jovic, Dejan. Robert Nozick: between Anarchy and State. Manchester: University of Manchester, 1995.
– Hailwood, Simon. Exploring Nozick: Beyond Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Sydney: Avebury, 1996.
– Lacey, A. R. Robert Nozick. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.
– Casey, David T. “Negative Rights and Social Indifference: Trying to Resuscitate Robert Nozick’s Libertarianism.” Norton, MA: Wheaton College, 2001.
– Schmidtz, David, ed. Robert Nozick. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. [right]
– Feser, Edward. On Nozick. Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004.
– Payne-Johnson, Jesse Paul. “Anarchy, State, Utopia & the Social Contract: The Contractarian Foundations of Nozick’s Libertarianism.” Thesis (A.B., Honors in Government)–Harvard University, 2006, 2006.
– Bakaya, Santosh. The Political Theory of Robert Nozick. Delhi: Kalpaz, 2006.
– Schwab, Alexander B. “Rectifying Justice in Rectification: Dealing with Historical Injustice in Nozick’s Minimal State.” Thesis (A.B., Honors in Philosophy)–Harvard University, 2006, 2006.
– Murray, Dale F. Nozick, Autonomy, and Compensation. London: Continuum, 2007.
– Boaheng, Paul Biredu. “Nozick’s Non-Libertarianism: A Philosophical Reconstruction.” Thesis (Ph. D.)–University of Alberta, 2007, 2007.
– Bader, Ralf M. Robert Nozick. New York: Continuum, 2010.
– Papaioannou, Theo. Robert Nozick’s Moral and Political Theory: A Philosophical Critique of Libertarianism. Lewiston, NY [u.a.]: Mellen Press, 2010.
– Bader, Ralf M., and John Meadowcroft. The Cambridge Companion to Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. [right]