Robert Nozick, Philosophy Scholar, Dies of Cancer

Robert Nozick, a renowned Harvard thinker who challenged the welfare state in an influential work that defended Libertarian ideas, died Jan. 23 in Cambridge, after a seven-year battle with stomach cancer. He was 63.

Nozick came to Harvard as a professor of philosophy in 1970 and was named a University professor, Harvard’s most prestigious professorial post, in 1998.

Nozick was best known for the critique of the welfare state that he offered in his first book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Published in 1974, the work remains highly influential in the ongoing debate on the merits of the welfare system. Nozick argued that the size of the state should be as small as possible, favoring Libertarian policies that do not interfere with individual rights.

His work in political philosophy served as an important response to another Harvard professor, John Rawls. Rawls, in his Theory of Justice, defended liberal governmental policies that sought to benefit the disadvantaged by redistributing wealth.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia was widely influential in the fields of philosophy and political science, as well as having a broad popular appeal. The book, praised for both its thorough argumentation and its accessible writing style, won Nozick a National Book Award.

Born in Brooklyn in 1938, Nozick studied analytic philosophy as an undergraduate at Columbia University. Later at Princeton he pursued graduate work in analytic philosophy, a field that tries to understand the relation between linguistic statements and the real-world subjects they define.

Nozick turned to political philosophy for the first time in 1971, when he delivered several talks on the topic at Harvard as a guest lecturer. Shortly after giving the lectures, Nozick later recalled, Rawls’ Theory of Justice arrived in his mailbox, and soon after he prepared his own rejoinder—which culminated three years later in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Though he achieved widespread recognition in the field of political philosophy, Nozick always considered himself primarily an analytic philosopher. He later referred to the writing of Anarchy, State, and Utopia as “an accident” that came about as a side project while he had been pursuing loftier questions of free will.

Eventually, as he returned to analytic philosophy, Nozick stopped trying to keep up with the growing literature about Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

In fact, throughout his career, Nozick made a point of exploring new fields and leaving others to discuss his past work. And it was the same way with his teaching.

“He almost never repeated a course he taught,” said Warren Goldfarb, Pearson professor of modern mathematics and mathematical logic.

When Nozick joined the Harvard faculty in 1970, his colleagues affectionately took to calling him “tigger” behind his back because he was “such a bouncy animal,” Goldfarb said.

Though none of his later work attained the same popular success as Anarchy, State, and Utopia, many within the small field of analytic philosophy consider his contributions to that field to be no less important. Nozick tackled fundamental questions, such as “why there is something rather than nothing” and whether humans have free will.

Even after being diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1994, Nozick maintained his teaching schedule.

Nozick team-taught a class this past semester about the role of philosophy in the Russian Revolution with Eric J. Lohr, assistant professor of history. As a University professor, Nozick was invited to teach across disciplinary boundaries, which he often did, relating his philosophical knowledge to other fields that interested him.

This fall he scheduled his weekly chemotherapy sessions for immediately after his class each week, in hopes that he would recover from the treatment before the next session.

“The courage with which he faced the last years of illness, and the irrepressible energy with which he continued to work, made a very deep impression on all of us,” said Christine M. Korsgaard, Porter professor of philosophy and chair of the philosophy department, in a press release.

Just last year Nozick published his last book, Invarience: The Structure of the Objective World, concerning theories of objective knowledge and values.

Nozick has served as president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. He was inducted as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was a senior fellow in Harvard’s Society of Fellows.

He is survived by his second wife, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and two children from his first marriage, Emily S. Nozick and David J. Nozick.