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Philosophical Explanations Hardcover – September 28, 1981
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An important book...[Nozick is] a philosopher who is answering the questions posed by such philosophers as Kierkegaard, Sartre, Marcel and Buber with the aid of tools produced by such very different philosophers as W. V. Quine, Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam...[He displays a] striking and imaginative originality. For he does nothing less than propose a new way of doing philosophy...Perhaps one good way for the serious general reader to attack this often difficult but always rewarding book would be to begin at the end. First read the fine last chapter on 'Philosophy and the Meaning of Life'...It should then be very clear why it is important for you, whoever you are, to go back and read the rest of this book. It is important for you, whoever you are, to read...this book. Nozick is "a theorist with a style and a method of his own, and ideas as bold as they are bright." ï¿½Nozick isï¿½ a theorist with a style and method of his own, and ideas as bold as they are bright. -- Maurice Cranston "Washington Post Book World" This "remarkable new book...brings a reader into immediate and unmistakable contact with an uncommon mind. The clarity of ï¿½Nozick'sï¿½ style mirrors the lucidity of his thought...This is a major book. Nozick is moved by a splendid passion...His arguments link his explanations to what he is rightly confident of...his vision of a persistent role for philosophy in common life. -- Ian Hacking "New Republic" It is not surprising that Nozick has a following. He does not come at the reader with heavy solemnity. His prose style is insouciant, his manner whimsical, and he gives every indication of having lots of fun. ï¿½Thisï¿½ remarkable new book...brings a reader into immediate and unmistakable contact with an uncommon mind. The clarity of ï¿½Nozick'sï¿½ style mirrors the lucidity of his thought...This is a major book. -- Robert Taylor "Boston Globe" "Philosophical Explanations" "will attract intelligent people of all backgrounds...Nozick is moved by a splendid passion...His arguments link his explanations to what he is rightly confident of his vision of a persistent role for philosophy in common life. Toward the end of his talented, diverse...book, Robert Nozick embraces the idea of philosophy as an art form, and of the philosopher as a literary creator who works with ideas...ï¿½This bookï¿½ is as brilliant and exciting as anything in contemporary philosophy. -- Bernard Williams "New York Review of Books" An important book...ï¿½Nozick isï¿½ a philosopher who is answering the questions posed by such philosophers as Kierkegaard, Sartre, Marcel and Buber with the aid of tools produced by such very different philosophers as W. V. Quine, Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam...ï¿½He displays aï¿½ striking and imaginative originality. For he does nothing less than propose a new way of doing philosophy...Perhaps one good way for the serious general reader to attack this often difficult but always rewarding book would be to begin at the end. First read the fine last chapter on 'Philosophy and the Meaning of Life'...It should then be very clear why it is important for you, whoever you are, to go back and read the rest of this book. -- Alasdair MacIntyre "New York Times Book Review"
About the Author
Robert Nozick was Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard University. His book Anarchy, State, and Utopia received a National Book Award.
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Nozick is different. He doesn't provide many facts, but he deals directly with the subjects we want philosophy to tackle, including: Why do we exist? What is free will? What is an ethical life and why should we lead it?
Of course, he doesn't provide any definite answers, but you get the feeling that Nozick has led you a little along the road of understanding. It may only be a few inches along a very long road, but it's a start.
I think the section on metaphysics is the most successful part of the book. The chapter "Why is There Something Rather than Nothing?" is literally awesome.
I can't pretend the book is an easy read, although Nozick is very clear compared with most philosophers. I shall read it again and I'll give myself a month to do it!
Early in the introduction to this book, the author makes a strong and uncommon case against what he has termed 'coercive philosophy'. This, he says, is characterized by its terminology: arguments are "powerful", and best when they are "knockdown". Such arguments, if the premises are believed by your "opponent", force your opponent to the conclusion, which he/she must believe, lest they be labeled as "irrational", the latter they are told, and some of them believe, is the ultimate anathema. But if they do not, the "owner" of the argument is in trouble: he/she is faced with someone who is perfectly comfortable with the "irrational" label. What does the arguer do then?
Therefore, the author asks the reader to consider another approach to philosophy, and that approach is reflected in the title of the book. The role of philosophy is to explain, not to argue. Good philosophy will explain the fundamental problems and curiosities of life, such as ethics, the mind-body problem, the nature of knowledge, and so on. As the author puts it: "There is a second mode of philosophy, not directed to arguments and proofs: it seeks explanations. Various philosophical things need to be explained; a philosophical theory is introduced to explain them, to render then coherent and better understood."
This is a delightfully optimistic approach to philosophical inquiry, for it assumes from the beginning that the individuals who are engaging in the philosophical conversation are willing to sit down and discuss calmly, rationally, and openly, the issues at hand. The author assumes the reader is such a person, and the book is full of thought-provoking ideas presented in a way that respects the dignity and intelligence of the reader. His discussion of "explanation versus proof" is fascinating and in fact has applications in artificial intelligence.
I found chapter five on "The Foundations of Ethics" the most lucid of all in the book, and I thoroughly enjoyed its reading. That does not mean that I agree with all that he asserts. In fact that opening sentence of the chapter, that states that "ethical truths find no place within the contemporary scientific picture of the world", I profoundly disagree with. But no problem, as the author encourages disagreement, and speaks to the reader over and over again, imploring him/her to reconsider their positions, think through the issues, ask themselves questions, and find answers never before thought of.
Indeed, everything about this book is good, and the practice of "philosophical explanation" results in a more productive and interesting methodology. There is no place for anger, ridicule, or other forms of negativity in philosophical, or any other forms of inquiry. Genuine respect for all ideas expressed by all individuals, no matter how radical, no matter how "offensive" is the optimum path to truth. Such a path may not be the shortest one, but it is certainly the best one.
At that point, I knew he meant Robert Nozick. I don't necessarily agree that he is an upstart, but I can see why academics of certain complexions and backgrounds might. In his book `Anarchy, State, and Utopia', he challenges conventional thinking on many socio-political theories of the current culture -- liberalism, socialism, and conservatism. This book irritated many people, and while it has somewhat faded from view, still remains a text that calls for consideration.
Nozick's follow-up book, `Philosophical Explanations', is the continuation of Nozick's philosophy in the areas of metaphysics, epistemology, and value. He continues his pattern of exploration (a particular word Nozick likes to use with regard to his method): `At no point is the person forced to accept anything. He moves along gently, exploring his own and the author's thoughts. He explores together with the author, moving only where he is ready to; then he stops. Perhaps, at a later time mulling it over or in a second reading, he will move further.'
This is indeed the manner I found this book most useful, in re-reading at different times to pick up on different aspects of the narrative and the theory. Nozick explores in the introduction the difference between explanation and proof -- proof requires (in most manner of logical thinking) a particular pattern of argument with dependent pieces being led in a certain direction of inexorable conclusion; explanation can be tentative, sometimes dialectical, subject to revision without throwing out the entire structure built.
This, obviously, is a problem for rigourous scholars and philosophers. It certainly gives a sense of the kind of subjectivism that liberal academia is constantly accused of, and angers those who are set on belief and discovery of absolutes. But in his discussion of how to take skeptics seriously, he addresses the problem of what becomes important for consideration.
That a skeptic becomes convinced of the argument does not solve the problem, for the questions remain even in the absence of the skeptic. It is to the argument. to the problem that philosophical explanations and theories must speak. That being said, there are some presuppositions that must be made at the start. This is precisely the area in which explanation becomes of more value than proof.
By using the method of explanation, one can modify the structure without 'breaking a chain' of proof that would require the whole structure to be abandoned. As we none of us can start from an objectively neutral starting point, this becomes an intriguing and valuable way of approaching the subjects.
Modern psychology, sociology, and political science strives to find patterns and 'expected events' in the lives of their respective individual and collective subjects. It is easy to see patterns that would support both the idea of free will and the idea of deterministic control.
The final chapter of this section deals with the meaning of life. Nozick offers no easy answers (so don't buy this book thinking that it has the meaning you're searching for!) -- the meaning of life is not a property imputed into the object (or subject). While Nozick does explore different considerations, ultimately philosophy cannot answer the question of the meaning of life in an emotionally and intellectually satisfying way. Nozick does explore what it means to have a God-based meaning attached to life, but this also has difficulties that philosophy has difficulty resolving. Is this where faith comes into play? Most probably, but a faith built on ignorance (particularly built upon deliberate ignorance) becomes more of a self-delusion than than a meaning.
Nozick finishes the book with philosophy connected in a value-based way to art, literature, and the humanities, in which many find those indescribable facets of the meaning of life. `We can envision a humanistic philosophy, a self-consciously artistic one, sculpting ideas, value, and meaning into new constellations, reverberative with mythic power, lifting and ennobling us by its content and by its creation, leading us to understand and to respond to value and meaning -- to experience them and attain them anew.'
This is not easy reading. This takes dedication, some philosophical background (particularly for the section on epistemology), and a desire for inquiry. Nozick's philosophy does not neatly fit the pattern of any particular philosophical school, so questions will arise from beyond the text. For the theologically minded (my particular area of concern at the present), the considerations here are important to take into account in avoiding many common intellectual blunders in theological explanation. Theology often draws on the explanation model of development rather than the proof model (as the proof model can fall to pieces very quickly with just a few assumptions challenged or removed). The themes and ideas contained here can help build a stronger theology (although Nozick might not have intended that as one of the purposes of this book!).