Philosophical Explanations

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Philosophical Explanations
Philosophical Explanations (first edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition
AuthorRobert Nozick
CountryUnited States
PublisherHarvard University Press
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)

Philosophical Explanations is a 1981 metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical treatise by the philosopher Robert Nozick. The book received positive reviews. Commentators have praised it for Nozick's discussions of the fundamental questions of philosophy and of topics such as epistemology and ethics, and welcomed it as a convincing response to charges that American academic philosophy is overly concerned with technical issues. Nozick's discussions of knowledge and skepticism have received much critical attention.


Nozick discusses problems in the philosophy of mind, ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics.[1] The issues Nozick explores include personal identity, knowledge, free will, value, the meaning of life,[2] and skepticism.[1]

Observing that philosophers often seek to deduce their total view from a few basic principles, showing how everything follows from their intuitively based axioms, Nozick compares such an approach to building a tower by piling one brick on top of another: if the brick at the bottom crumbles or is removed, everything collapses, and even the insights that were independent of the starting point are lost. He suggests instead that the Parthenon should be the model for philosophy, and advocates an explanatory model of philosophical activity rather than an argumentative or coercive one.[3]

In the Parthenon model, separate philosophical insights are placed one after another, like columns, and only afterwards are they united under a roof consisting of general principles or themes. That way, when the philosophical ground crumbles, something Nozick regards as likely, something of interest and beauty remains standing.[4]

Publication history[edit]

Philosophical Explanations was first published in 1981 by Harvard University Press. By 1994, it was in its eleventh printing.[5]


Mainstream media[edit]

Philosophical Explanations received positive reviews from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in The New York Times Book Review,[6] the philosopher Ian Hacking in The New Republic,[7] and the philosopher David Gordon in Library Journal.[8] In The American Scholar, the book was reviewed by the political scientist Mark Lilla and later received a discussion from the philosopher Jim Holt.[9][10] The book was also reviewed in The Economist,[11] and discussed by CW in National Review.[12]

MacIntyre considered the book an important, well-written, and rewarding discussion of the central problems of philosophy, writing that it "communicates its author's own excitement about both the problems and his solutions". MacIntyre credited Nozick with showing "striking and imaginative originality" by proposing that philosophy should replace the ideal of proof with "the notion of explanation", vindicating the importance of technical discussions in the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind with "the uses he finds for their conceptual end products", and indirectly showing "how Continental philosophers who have been explicitly concerned with human value and significance have too often presented us with impoverished and barren discussions on these great issues because they have neglected the more technical discussions of Anglo-American analytic philosophy." He also praised Nozick's discussions of the identity of the self, knowledge, free will, and skepticism, writing that they provide "splendid insights and arguments".[6]

Gordon described the book as "amazingly original", and praised the "extraordinary elegance" of Nozick's arguments, as well as his "vigorous and enthusiastic style."[8] Lilla wrote that the book showed the same "intellectual virtues" as Nozick's previous work Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), and that it "testifies to the voraciousness of his intellectual appetite." He praised Nozick's chapter on ethics as "probably the most accomplished in the book", and suggested that together with the philosopher Richard Rorty in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Nozick may have helped achieve "a revival in American academic philosophy." He credited Rorty and Nozick with confronting philosophy's crisis with "careful reason, wit, and a humane concern for the fundamental questions", thereby showing that academic philosophy is still worth studying. He described both their works as "major books" that directly address the "doubt in which academic philosophy finds itself" due to charges that it is overly technical and ignores or misunderstands continental philosophy.[9]

Holt credited Nozick with having "clever things to say about every issue in contemporary philosophy".[10]

Academic journals[edit]

Philosophical Explanations was reviewed by the philosopher Stephen F. Barker in Harvard Educational Review,[13] the philosopher Robert Cummings Neville in Modern Age,[14] the philosopher Robert Fogelin in The Journal of Philosophy,[15] Russell Hardin in Ethics,[16] Leslie Stevenson in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science,[17] George Weckman in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion,[18] Anthony Ellis in Mind,[19] and Jeffrey Stout in The Journal of Religion.[20] The book was also discussed by Frederick Kroon in The Philosophical Quarterly,[21] the criminologist Nigel Walker in Philosophy,[22] the philosopher Alvin Goldman in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research,[23] and St Hope Earl McKenzie in Philosophy and Literature.[24]

Kroon, though expressing sympathy for Nozick's view that the claim that people know many facts about an independently existing world can be reconciled with the position that people do not know that certain skeptical possibilities do not obtain, questioned whether Nozick had correctly identified how to accomplish this, and suggested that a better way was available.[21] Walker, discussing Nozick's justification of punishment, questioned his "analogy between revenge and retribution", arguing that it created problems that "raise questions about Nozick's attitude to utility." He agreed with Nozick that "satisfaction is the point of revenge" but questioned "whether it is also the point of retribution."[22]

Evaluations in books[edit]

The philosopher Bernard Williams credited Nozick with providing "the most subtle and ingenious discussion of propositional knowledge that I know" in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985).[25] The philosopher Jonathan Wolff observed in Robert Nozick: Property, Justice and the Minimal State (1991) that the sections of Philosophical Explanations in which Nozick discusses knowledge and skepticism have received much critical attention.[1] A. R. Lacey commented in Robert Nozick (2001) that reviewers generally agree that Nozick's chapter on epistemology is the best chapter of Philosophical Explanations. He credited Nozick with usefully developing ideas first put forward by the philosopher Fred Dretske a decade or more earlier.[26] The philosopher Michael Bratman described Philosophical Explanations as "a rich and wide-ranging exploration of some of the deepest issues in philosophy" in the philosopher David Schmidtz's anthology Nozick (2002). He praised Nozick's discussion of free will, describing it as "fascinating, suggestive, and worth our further reflection." However, he argued that "Nozick's views about personal identity and value themselves raise a host of difficult questions."[2]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c Wolff 1991, p. 2.
  2. ^ a b Bratman 2002, p. 155.
  3. ^ Nozick 1994, pp. 3–4.
  4. ^ Nozick 1994, p. 3.
  5. ^ Nozick 1994, pp. iii–iv.
  6. ^ a b MacIntyre 1981, p. 7.
  7. ^ Hacking 1981, pp. 32–35.
  8. ^ a b Gordon 1981, p. 2142.
  9. ^ a b Lilla 1982, pp. 426–432.
  10. ^ a b Holt 1990, pp. 458–462.
  11. ^ The Economist 1986, pp. 98–99.
  12. ^ W. 1981, p. 1029.
  13. ^ Barker 1983, pp. 82–85.
  14. ^ Neville 1983, pp. 322–325.
  15. ^ Fogelin 1983, pp. 819–825.
  16. ^ Hardin 1984, pp. 326–327.
  17. ^ Stevenson 1984, pp. 83–85.
  18. ^ Weckman 1984, p. 199.
  19. ^ Ellis 1984, pp. 450–455.
  20. ^ Stout 1985, pp. 133–134.
  21. ^ a b Kroon 1986, pp. 391–395.
  22. ^ a b Walker 1995, pp. 581–586.
  23. ^ Goldman 2009, pp. 223–230.
  24. ^ McKenzie 2016, pp. 34–43.
  25. ^ Williams 1993, p. 218.
  26. ^ Lacey 2001, p. 100.


  • Barker, Stephen F. (1983). "Philosophical Explanations". Harvard Educational Review. 53 (1).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Ellis, Anthony (1984). "Philosophical explanations (Book Review)". Mind. 93.  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Fogelin, Robert J. (1983). "Philosophical explanations (Book Review)". The Journal of Philosophy. 80.  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Goldman, Alvin I. (2009). "Recursive Tracking versus Process Reliabilism". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 68 (1).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Gordan, David (1981). "Philosophical Explanations (Book)". Library Journal. 106 (19).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Hacking, Ian (1981). "A rebirth of philosophy?". The New Republic. 185 (14).
  • Hardin, Russell (1984). "Philosophical explanations (Book Review)". Ethics. 94.  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Holt, Jim (1990). "Is The Examined Life worth reading?". The American Scholar. 59 (3).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Kroon, Frederick W. (1986). "Philosophical explanations and sceptical intuitions". The Philosophical Quarterly. 36 (144).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Lilla, Mark (1982). "Philosophical Explanations (Book Review)". The American Scholar. 51 (3).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • McKenzie, St Hope Earl (2016). "Sculpting ideas: can philosophy be an art form?". Philosophy and Literature. 40 (1).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Neville, Robert C. (1983). "The Valuable and Meaningful". Modern Age. 27 (3/4).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Stevenson, Leslie (1984). "Philosophical explanations (Book Review)". British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. 35.  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Stout, Jeffrey (1985). "Philosophical explanations (Book Review)". The Journal of Religion. 65.  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • W., C. (1981). "Random notes". National Review. 33 (17).  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Walker, Nigel (1995). "Nozick's revenge". Philosophy. 70.  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Weckman, George (1984). "Philosophical explanations (Book Review)". Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 52.  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • "Philosophical explanations (Book Review)". The Economist. 299. 1986.  – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
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