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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2005
The Examined Life is the first I've read from Robert Nozick. I had read a review denigrating the book, one of his later works, as a mere "self-help book," but after flipping through it in a Borders' a few months ago, decided to give it a read. If nothing more than a "self-help book," it's one of the best of that genre. I feel expanded, even irradiated.

The title obviously comes from Socrates' famous line (challenge) in the Apology, and Nozick's answer is rich and full of blood. A set of meditations, touching upon one by one the significances of life, all flows forth and simply blooms from the opening line: "I want to think about living and what is important in life, to clarify my thinking-and also my life." The act of creation, sexuality, love (of parent, of child, of God), the nature of reality and its component dimensions, politics, eating, and much more are all probed, fleshed full and good.

The author's style is bold and broad: it charts new ground, it makes daring leaps from uncertain foundations. Yet, he remains modest and honest. Questions breed tentative answers and new questions: some are answered, some are ground into new questions once again. There is an unmistakable organic nature, and one is left with the warm reward of having more questions after finishing than one did when beginning. The meditations, each a chapter long, grow as crystalline lattices from little germs, pearls from simple sand. The prose is easy: the author, polite to the last, apologizes when brief incursions into metaphysics become necessary. And I, an atheist, was fascinated by these meditations on brahma and the Christian God, the creative guesses at age old paradoxes: why does He let evil things happen, and why is Enlightenment so hard to reach? And I, a libertarian, was intrigued by Nozick's own "betrayal" (if you will) of his previous positions, his investigation of political virtue and the noble-non-libertarian-whims of the electorate.

And I want to express just how much this book has changed me. I see things differently now; life itself is richer, holier, lighter. Paradigms have cracked. Possibilities are mossy and multiplied. One night I was miserable-why, I don't recall-so I flipped ahead a few chapters and read the meditation on happiness and then I was calm, content, and real.

Though the backbone is not obvious, one can sense a vague progress through the chapters, as Nozick develops his idea of the highest value, the multidimensional amalgam of "reality." What does it mean to be more "real?" How does one achieve more "reality?" What are the component parts and what are their relationships? He then attempts a grand, and-so he admits-very precarious assimilation of reality's dimensions into a rectangular matrix. When this exhausting work is done, the meditations turn to other intricacies that have been left unresolved: light and dark, the meaning of wisdom, a cute reflection on democracy, and the bittersweet conclusion, quiet and humble, sad in its finality, and positively verdant in (I don't use the word lightly) the love that shines forth.

And I loved reading his book. I hope one day I can repay the light he has shed upon me.
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51 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2002
There being so few reviews here on this work I thought I would read them all before adding my own, afterall if I would just be repeating the others why bother. I was very impressed by the general knowledge of Nozick and the philosophical sophistication of the reviewers. But I belive that same sophistication made them miss the boat on this one.
This is not hard analytic philosophy. This is an examination of everyday concerns about life that apply to everyone and it is written for everyone, not just those of us with degrees in philosophy. For the lay person, it provides a glimps at how a philosopher might approach a problem, even one where a straight answer may not be possible. The nature of "Love's bond" for example may do little more than create a framework for how to think about one's intimate relationship, but it does it in such a way as to expose the reader to the economic analysis of human motivation and also to such things as the motivations that keep people ( or political groups ) from even offering conditional statements. Even his use of parenthetical digressions encourage the reader to go beyond what he is presenting and apply their own analysis to the sub-issue. True, things like the difference between making love and f...king may not be of great philosophical importance at university but his distinction is insightful and fun and the sort of subject matter that tittilates the neophyte in to wondering why they never looked at it that way. Then that neophyte might also wonder what else they should examine in that light.
These days the only political philosophy that seems to rule the land is pragmatism, the only debate on ethics is between relativism and absolutism, and the only exposure to epistomology is via cyberpunk and "the matrix." Academic philosophers in the U.S. have made themselves invisible to the people by excessive analysis of the minutia of language, the nature of the mind, and other things that have no bearing on the common persons life. Nozick has, like Socrates, used this book to reach out to the common people in a way that demonstates that philosophy can still be relavent to them. This book encourages all to open their minds and to look at things in new ways. ( I have often lent it to other lawyers in my office only to hear things like " I never that of it that way.")
To sum it up, this is not Socrates closeted with plato discussing the nature of ultimate reality, this is Socrates, with a drink in his hand, reclining at the symposium and talking to his freinds.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 1999
I wish more philosophers of Nozick's stature would share their thoughts about the things that matter most to them, and us. A book like this took courage to write, and I found it wonderfully stimulating. This book is a great example of how a philosopher's approach to life can yield practical insights into such topics as religious faith, marriage, love, sexuality, etc. A great book.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 1999
...and far from ok if you don't. Nozick's book has a tendency toward sentimentality, but I do think he is to be applauded for trying to take on these issues. So rarely does a philosopher write about things that really matter to us, like love or death or family or sex. I suppose the price you pay for writing about human issues like these is a sacrifice of rigour and an unfortunate tendency to sound like a self-help book.
Nevertheless, the book is worth reading, if only because it reminds us where philosophy comes from and why we think in the first place. I disagreed with Nozick often and consider some of the chapters puff pieces, but I must admit that it's been a long time since I read a contemporary philosophical work that made me consider changing the way I think and act.
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37 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2000
I admire Nozick greatly, and he is one of the only philosophers I continue to read now that I've graduated college. This book is probably his best book to read "for pleasure," and as there are few contemporary philosophy books that fall into this category, this one seems like an important buy for that reason alone. Unfortunately, the ideas for most of the essays here are quite a bit more interesting than how they actually turn out. Some topics promised real intrigue, only to degenerate into mush (some) or academic gobbledygook (others). (The essay on the Holocaust is, however, a real gem.) I subtract a second star because this book is also infamous for Nozick's recanting of quite a bit of his philosophy from _Anarchy, State, and Utopia_, his most important book. He was more convincing his first time around. After spending years and years being one of the only philosophers in the universities to defend libertarianism, Nozick appears to have let his colleagues bully him into selling himself out. This might earn him a few more friends in the People's Republic of Cambridge, but long-time admirers have been seriously let down. Nevertheless, the book is very ambitious. It falls a bit short of its promise, but really gets one thinking and expands the scope of what philosophy offers. On balance, not bad at all.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on July 11, 2008
Robert Nozick's first book, "Anarchy, State, and Utopia", has been widely touted as the philosophical bible of libertarianism in America, the most rigorous case ever argued against redistributive justice and the welfare state, the Summa of anarcho-capitalism. Here's what Nozicks writes in chapter 25, near the end, of The Examined Life:
"The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate, in part because it did not fully knit the humane considerations and joint cooperative activities it left roon for more closely into its fabric. It neglected the symbolic importance of an official political concern with issues or problems, as a way of marking their importance or urgency, and hence of expressing, channeling, intensifying, encouraging, and validating our private actions and concerns toward them.... There are some things we choose to do together through government in solemn marking of our human solidarity..." John Donne, of course, said something similar: No man is an island entire unto himself.

The Examined Life is a book of homilies - sermons - expressing the earned wisdom of a lifetime of philosophy. I'm not a devoted sermon reader, and I can't profess to find this book fun to read, but it is full of simply-expressed clear thinking. Perhaps a chapter a week - there are twenty-six - on Sundays would be serviceable. Nozick's goal, I think, is to sketch out a kind of secular morality or ethics, not based on religious myth but rather on shared humanity and empathy.

Chapter 20, entitled The Holocaust, impresses me as the most fearsomely cogent declaration of the fallen state of human progress that I've ever read: "I believe the Holocaust is an event like the Fall in the way traditional Christianity conceived it, something that radically and drastically alters the situation and stautus of humanity." Nozick declares taht he is not a Christian, and continues: "It now would not be a special tragedy if humankind ended... I do not mean that humanity deserves this to happen... but now that history and that species have become stained, its loss would now be no special loss above and beyond the losses to the individuals involved. Humnaity has lost its claim to continue." In relation to Christian eschatology, Nozick declares that humanity has desanctified itself. "There still remain the ethical teachings and the example of the life of Jesus before his end, but there no longer operates the saving message of Christ. In this sense, the Christian era has closed."
A few pages later, Nozick offers this: "Perhaps it is only by suffering ourselves when any suffering is inflicted, or even when any is felt, that we can redeem the species. Before, perhaps, we could be more isolated; now that no longer suffices.... If the Christian era has ended, it has been replaced by one in which we each now have to take humaity's suffering upon ourselves. What Jesus was supposed to have done for us, before the Holocaust, humanity must now do for itself."

It's not so rare to find a philosopher repudiating his earlier opinions, and perhaps more than once. To find Robert Nozick, however, repudiating his Ayn Rand hyper-individualism, meretricious free-market economic dogma, and opposition to social justice through government, is unusually satisfying. Here's a beaker of health to you, Professor Nozick! Live long and thrive!
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2000
While I apparently don't have depth of some of the other reviewers, I got a tremendous amount out of this book. While hardly an easy read, Nozick is thoughtful and accessible, something that is all too rare in contemporary philosophy. To those who say this is pablum, and a disapointment, I would say go back to your ivory tower. The rest of us who live in the real world appreciate having a conversation with someone who 'gets it' where so many contemporary philosophers fail either to expound a theory that is coherent, or end up with something like the Men are From Mars, et al garbage that can best be filed next to the National Enquirer. This is an excellent book and highly recommended if you want to have a catalyst for thinking about what matters to you.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on December 27, 2009
I bought this book, excited about the opportunity to read what purported to be a thoughtful man's ruminations about the big questions in life. I've never found a book to be so disappointing and frustrating. Nozick seems to have an "instinct for the capillary." It's maddening how he'll start out on a topic that offers some promise and then go off on a tangent about one or more trivial aspects related to that topic. To give one example: He has a chapter on parenting. Not being a parent myself, I was still interested in hearing about the process of bringing another person into the world, the sacrifices, the joys and disappointments, and how it does or does not give meaning to one's life, etc. etc. Instead, I got a chapter devoted primarily to how inheritance laws should be fashioned. Exasperating is the best word for this book, I'm sorry to say. I read about four chapters and then could take no more.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2014
A worthwhile read but life does not need to be this complicated.
It is a worthwhile read but digest it as if you are eating an elephant; a chapter at a time
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on November 22, 2013
He writes exceptionally well, but this book isn't as philosophically rigorous as Philosophical Explanations (his best book) or Anarchy, State and Utopia. This book is his witty and wise reflections on his examined life, and those are the reflections of an extraordinarily intelligent person. They are well worth reading. John Searle's recent book, Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, is much more rigorous and, from that standpoint, much more philosophically interesting, but it isn't as "personal". But both should be read by thoughtful people.
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