Philosophical Explanations

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Robert Nozick was a philosopher in the original sense of the word: he loved knowledge. He had the cast of mind of an explorer, drawn to uncharted territories, eager to find unexpected ways of addressing ancient topics, and capable of making new places for reflection. Because of this attitude, the focus of his interests dramatically shifted over time. But he never left a field without first impressing his mark on it or before having achieved something considerable if not ground-breaking.

The articles of this volume address only some aspects of Nozick’s philosophy: his conception of argument, knowledge, rationality, and identity. In examining Nozick’s approach to these topics, one has to take issue, ultimately, with his peculiar conception of philosophy whose manifesto appears at the outset of Philosophical Explanations and is echoed in the introduction to philosophical method of Invariances. To transform philosophy into a science or build an impeccable deductive system was not Nozick’s dream. He thought of philosophy as aiming at explanation rather than proof. The goal in pursuing philosophy is not to establish one view, but to elaborate theories that can make us understand some phenomena better.

In this kind of enterprise, understanding grows together with self-understanding. Philosophizing is an exercise in examining a phenomenon but also in examining it from a specific starting point. To start from a point limits the possibilities open to us. That is, in such an examination we are constrained by the fact that we have to start somewhere, we are not free-standing. That we are the kinds of beings we are matters to the kinds of enterprise we can engage in: it constraints the scope and the nature of what we are doing. But this is not to say that these constraints are fixed or unsurpassable, or that our perception of what is possible is not vulnerable to modification and revision. On the contrary, the very purpose of philosophising is to make us and our views susceptible to interesting or profitable change. In providing a deeper explanation the (good) philosopher provides an explanation that (interestingly) expands on the realm of possibilities one could conceived at first. Depth of explanation is thus an extension of the possible.

This emphasis on possibility rather than on the singleness is both methodological and moral. From a methodological perspective, the model Nozick endorses and recommends is not that of the “tottering tower”, one brick wide, but that of the Parthenon. Philosophical systems and philosophical explanations are tentative, and thus doomed to be superseded by new ones. This is a complete failure only if we embrace the model of the tottering tower: when time comes and the tower crumbles down, we are left with nothing but a heap of stones. It will not be possible to recover any structure, as all depended on the one brick wide foundation and all tumbled at once. A system that takes the Pantheon as a structural model will eventually crumble down as well. But it will leave us with something valuable: the ruins. Something solid and interesting will survive and remain standing. We can build again upon the ruins, perhaps a more complex and interesting structure. Or perhaps we will realize with contentment that the ruins are actually more beautiful (useful, valuable) than a full self-standing structure. The point is that the ruins of a collapsed system can serve as a new (and better) starting point only if they are based on multiple groundings. Since this novel starting point is sparse, it also multiplies the possibilities of construction.

We can read this metaphor as an invitation to embrace pluralism as a methodology. But it also has significant moral overtones. The model of the tottering tower brings with it a coercive conception of philosophy: we argue in order to forge disciples, convince and conquer an audience by forcing upon it our conclusions. It’s an attack on others’ autonomy. And it is not responsive to their value. In arguing with another we take the other as the locus of some value, that is, we take him as a rational being. But rationality is not all we are valuable for, and being responsive to others as rational beings is not enough to be responsive to the value of others as others.

To deal with someone who is trying to transform you into an adept or a disciple calls for resistance, Nozick thought. “Is this the explanation why philosophy department audiences try especially to refute or poke holes in lectures? The lecturer is trying to ram an opinion into their minds, so quite appropriately the audience resists, because even if it is something they want to believe anyway, they don’t want to allow themselves to be forced to believe it”.i

Anybody who met Nozick at least once and saw him interact with a philosophical audience may smile at this note: there was nobody quickest than him in objecting (just for the sake of the argument, if you please), anticipating several lines of replies for each of which he had already produced a complete lexically ordered series of counter-examples. His discussions usually ended by exhaustion of the audience, as a testimony that the “optional stop rule” was too eagerly or hastily applied. But then, again, this was not an exercise in coercive philosophy for him. He was not trying to refute or confute; he was simply exploring the tenability of a view, that is, the capacity to contain the possibilities he was able to envision. The spectrum of possibilities he was capable of envisioning was usually much broader than anybody’s of his interlocutors.

Obviously, Nozick loved arguments, loved arguing and did it all the time. He cared deeply about rationality, and certainly thought of rationality as an important dimension of our value as human beings. The fact that the imposition of a belief (by argument or by force) calls for resistance, and that we can resist by arguing back, shows that there cannot be such a wide gap between rationality and autonomy. We can protect our autonomy by exercising our rationality. To respect one’s rationality cannot be that different from respecting one’s autonomy. In many contexts and at many levels, to respect persons as persons implies to treat them and to address them as loci of rationality, capable of revising their judgments according to reason, susceptible of changing behavior when rationally criticized.

I doubt that Nozick would have objected at this. As the Introduction of Invariances shows, appeal reason while broadly conceived is the source of scrutiny. But this is clearly compatible with the view that philosophy is not just about winning the argument, it is about understanding. To have a clear understanding is to situate a phenomenon into a network of possibility, exploring the relations and connections it would have with other non-actual objects and processes. A good philosophical explanation is one that broadens our understanding by enriching such a network, and situating such phenomenon in actuality, that is, showing the connections it actually has with other actual objects and processes. It matters how we arrive at such networks and what they contain. Not just any extension of the possibilities we envision is a good extension, not just any expansion of what we thought possible is philosophically interesting.

Now, how else can we scrutinize such extensions except by invoking reason? Such scrutiny, of course, may not come solely by argument. It may come simply by raising a question. Raising (interesting) questions is typically what a (good) philosopher does in order to open up new possibilities. When we stop and raise a question about some familiar practice, that practice becomes a problem. We thus conceive an alternative way to look at it, to conceive of it. To continue as before is not an option any more: we have to endorse or reject it as a practice which has become problematic. We may say that the question opened up a new universe where this practice stands up scrutiny. But to raise a question does not mean necessarily to ask for a justification, plea or proof that such a practice is based on unshakable grounds. One can ask a question in order to get an explanation, to understand better why and how we engage in such a practice. To ask new questions is a sign of philosophical progress, or rather philosophical progress can take this shape.ii

Perhaps, all we need to say is that when we take the task of philosophy to be furthering our understanding, reason takes various forms, not necessarily the form of argument. But the point of Nozick’s critique is not to propose a broader conception of reason, argument or the purpose of philosophy. His polemic with arguments has to be understood, I surmise, as a polemic against a certain philosophical project that drives the model of the tottering tower: Reductionism. Reductionism is the great temptation in philosophy, perhaps the most ambitious and the most arrogant of philosophical enterprises. Its aim is exactly the opposite Nozick advocates: it wants to narrow down the possible alternatives to one, shrink the realm of possibilities we envision until everything is readable as mono-dimensional.

Nozick thought of reductionism not only as theoretical mistake, but also as a moral failing.iii When the reductionist presents a theory, he is “unresponsive, anti-responsive, even, to people’s value as value. Moreover, he convinces some to view others, and even themselves, of as a lesser worth. […] In devaluing people, the reductionist violates the principle that everything is to be treated as having the value it has”.iv Reductionism devalues people insofar as it denies the many ways they are valuable but also because it imposes a view on them as the view to be accepted once and forever, the last word. There is no such view. There is no last word. The most philosophy (just as well as science) can do is to propose theories and explanations to be accepted tentatively in the hope that they will be revised and modified and superseded by better ones.

But should not a philosopher try to get at truth? And is not truth eternal and permanent? Nozick deeply shared the concern for truth, but he expressed it, once again, in terms of the expansion of possibilities: “The philosopher aimed at truth states a theory that presents a possible truth and so a way of understanding the actual world (including its value) in its matrix of possible neighbors. […] There is a tension between the philosopher’s desire that his philosophy tracks the world […] and his desire that it depicts a world worth tracking, if not transcend the world altogether. Still, philosophy must be true enough to the world, presenting a possible (though shaped) view to be transcending it”.v

In elaborating a view, the philosopher, then, like the artist, is constrained in his creation. The constraints come from the very material he is using (that is, ideas and their relationships, possibilities to be explained and understood), but also from the world he is trying to get at and, eventually, transcend. The mistake is to take the constraints (the starting points, the concepts by which we express our starting points and some specific contents) as fixed in order to establish a permanent view. These points vary and they should vary if they have to be useful. There is something that remains invariant under transformation, but it is not always the same point. This is not different than it is in mathematics or physics, and Nozick insists on this methodological analogy in Invariances. The reductionist’s mistake is to aim at a permanent foundation. But to renounce a permanent foundation is not to renounce truth. In fact, as Nozick argues, the method of proof is not a friend of truth; it may impede that some falsities are

The best one can and should hope for in philosophy is to expose and be exposed to a different perspective and thus broaden one’s understanding and self-understanding. Then, discussing, rather than establishing a point, is the self-rewarding experience of philosophising. Rather than coerced by argument to accept a belief, the interlocutor will move along gently with the philosopher, “exploring his own and the author’s thoughts. He explores together with the author, moving only where he is ready to go”.vii A book written in this vein does convince anybody, it would not even try. But as Nozick insists in the methodological remarks of Invariances, to produce a belief, to introduce a new belief is not the ‘result’ philosophy should try to achieve. A philosophical exploration that does not produce a new belief is not for this reason a failure; this is because believing is not the only currency in philosophy. A fruitful philosophical exploration may be one conducive to a new way of classifying things, a new set of concepts, new ways of applying old methods, an original way to carry on a legacy. What does not produce beliefs can be otherwise fruitful and worth pursuing. The more creative a view, the newer the constellation of possibilities it brings to light, richer the clusters of concepts it proposes, deeper the understanding it provides, more valuable and self-rewarding as an experience to enjoy and share.

The purpose of a philosophical conversation is not to get the adversary by producing a knocking down argument, but to mutually stimulate further new thoughts, to reciprocally expand the realm of what we think possible: an action in concert, rather than a combat. In reading and writing a philosophy book, Nozick imagined “author and reader travelling together, each continually spurting in front of the other”.viii

One may share Nozick’s concern for combating Reductionism or the coercive practice of philosophy, and yet disagree with him about the nature and scope of arguing. In her “Optional Stops, Foregone Conclusions, and the Value of Argument”, Catherine Z. Elgin examines the implications of Nozick’s “optional stop rule”: «I do not stop the philosophical reasoning until it leads me where I want to go; then I stop».ix Nozick’s aim in reflecting on the nature of philosophical argumentation is to show that too narrow a conception of the role of argument unduly limits philosophy’s self-understanding. In response to Nozick’s remarks, Elgin offers a richer account of the purposes of argument, uncovering the many ways it proves to be valuable and useful to our practices, and also the many levels of relationships it entertains with our epistemic set.

Elijah Millgram takes up the issue of arguing in a specific context, that of the existence of God. Nozick once wrote that God would need to prove His own existence to Himself, and considered the ontological proof the “most famous of all fishy philosophical arguments”.x Millgram maintains that if Nozick is right about the purpose of arguing, precisely the best argument would not prove the existence of God.

If arguments are in point of fact always fallible, and subject to the “optional stop rule”, does not skepticism lurk in the background? Nozick’s purpose in discussing Skepticism was not “to refute the skeptic, to prove he is wrong, to convince him , to marshal arguments and reasons which must convince him (if he is rational)”.xi Rather, his aim is to consider how knowledge is possible, given what the skeptic says. There is something to learn from the skeptic, namely, we have to consider what the skeptic has to say in order to explain and understand how knowledge is possible.xii

Nozick takes the question of whether knowledge is closed under known implication to be crucial for our understanding of, and response to, external world skepticism. In his “Skepticism, sensitivity, and closure”, Adam Leite argues both that Nozick’s response to skepticism fails, and that understanding of the skeptical argument is incorrect. Moreover, he attempts to show that even if the Closure Principle is true, it does not yield a successful argument for skepticism.

Jonathan Kvanvig’s “Nozickian Epistemology and the Question of Closure is also dedicated to the issue whether knowledge is closed under known implication. Nozick raised the question as to whether failure of closure counts as a warranted merriment. Some recently claim that minor emendations in Nozick’s approach will save closure. In contrast to this view, Kvanving maintains that the question of closure provides a serious obstacle to Nozickian approaches to epistemology.

Ronald de Sousa argues in his “Rational Animals” that, on the basis of Nozick’s discussion of rationality, one can defend the view that the capacity for language makes human rationality impossible for non-human animals. Paradoxically, according to de Sousa, it is precisely our capacity for irrationality that explains the gulf between human and non-human animals.

“The Closest Continuer View Revisited”, by Marc Slors, aims to show that the conception of personal identity proposed by Nozick as solution to the problem of fission or reduplication does not so much resolve such a problem as it dissolves it. More precisely, Nozick’s theory dissolves the whole metaphysical framework in which the problem of fission could arise. Although this was not Nozick’s intended aim, the dissolution of this metaphysical framework is a very important contribution to the debate on personal identity, and one compatible with recent developments in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. In this respect, as in several others, Nozick had the “disadvantage of being ahead of his time” as Slors remarks.

I would like to thank the Authors for their contributions, which appear here for the first time, and the Advisory board of the Croatian Journal of Philosophy for their assistance.

In putting together this volume, I intended not so much to offer a tribute to the memory of Robert Nozick as to continue a conversation and a journey with him. I hope you will join us.

Carla Bagnoli, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

i Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981, p. 5.

ii Nozick, Invariances. The Structure of the Objective World. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001, “Introduction”.

iii Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p.631.

iv Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p. 631.

v Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p. 647.

vi Nozick 2001, Introduction.

vii Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p. 7.

viii Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p. 7.

ix Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p. 2.

x Nozick, Invariances, p. 130.

xi Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p. 15.

xii Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p. 16.

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