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Nozick on the Holocaust

Wrote Robert Nozick in The Examined Life:

The significance of the Holocaust is more momentous than even these tracings can know and these responses can encompass. I believe the Holocaust is an event like the Fall in the way traditional Chistianity conceived it, something that radically and drastically alters the situation and status of humanity. … Mankind has fallen.

I do not claim to understand the full significance of this, but here is one piece, I think: It now would not be a special tragedy if the humankind ended, if the human species were destroyed in atomic warfare or the earth passed through some cloud that made it impossible for the species to continue reproducing itself. I do not mean that humanity deserves this to happen. … What I mean is that earlier, it would have constituted an additional tragedy, one beyond that to the individual people involved, if human history and the human species had ended, but now that history and that species have becomes stained, its loss would be no special loss above and beyond the losses to the individuals involved. Humanity has lost its claim to continue.

…Although we are not responsible for what those who acted and stood by did, we are all stained.

…If a being from [another] galaxy were to read our history, with all it contains, and that story were then to end in destruction, wouldn’t that bring the narrative to a satisfying close, like a chord resolving?

Reading this, one might wonder, what the hell is philosophy good for, if it produces this pompous, stupid, narcissistic, self-absorbed nonsense masquerading as “deep” thought? This is typical philosopher’s bullshit: notice he just asserts, as if he’s some authority, that because of the Holocaust, “Mankind has fallen.” Whatever this means. Even he does not know what he means: “I do not claim to understand the full significance of this…” So, he does not know. “Ah, dear reader, don’t expect even me, in my brilliance, to be able to fully understand the outpourings of that same brilliance… I’m so complex, so complex…” But he does know “one piece, I think”—you think? great!—”It now would not be a special tragedy if the humankind ended,” blah blah blah. Libertarianism individualism FAIL.

Hoppe was right, in the Introduction to Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty, when he wrote:

Methodologically then, Nozick and Rothbard were poles apart. But why would Nozick’s unsystematic ethical “explorations” find so much more resonance in academia than Rothbard’s systematic ethical treatise, especially when their conclusions appeared to be largely congruent? Nozick touched upon the answer when he expressed the hope that his method “makes for intellectual interest and excitement.” But this was at best half of the answer, for The Ethics of Liberty, too, was an eminently interesting and exciting book, full of examples, cases, and scenarios from the full range of everyday experiences to extreme—life-boat—situations, spiced with many surprising conclusions, and above all solutions instead of merely suggestions to problems and puzzles.

Nozick’s method rather made for interest and excitement of a particular kind. Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty consisted essentially of one successively and systematically drawn out and elaborated argument, and thus required the long sustained attention of its reader. However, a reader of Rothbard’s book could possibly get so excited that he would not want to put it down until he had finished it. The excitement caused by Anarchy, State, and Utopia was of a very different kind. The book was a  series of dozens of disparate or loosely jointed arguments, conjectures, puzzles, counterexamples, experiments, paradoxes, surprising turns, startling twists, intellectual flashes, and razzle-dazzle, and thus required only short and intermittent attention of its reader. At the same time, few if any readers of book likely will have felt the urge to read it straight through. Instead, reading Nozick was characteristically done unsystematically and intermittently, in bits and pieces. The excitement stirred by Nozick was intense, short, and fleeting; and the success of Anarchy, State, and Utopia was due to the fact that at all times, and especially under democratic conditions, there are far more high time-preference intellectuals—intellectual thrill seekers—than patient and disciplined thinkers.

Despite his politically incorrect conclusions, Nozick’s libertarianism was deemed respectable by the academic masses and elicited countless comments and replies, because it was methodologically non-committal; that is, Nozick did not claim that his libertarian conclusions proved anything. Even though one would think that ethics is—and must be—an eminently practical intellectual subject, Nozick did not claim that his ethical “explorations” had any practical implications. They were meant to be nothing more than fascinating, entertaining, or suggestive intellectual play. As such, libertarianism posed no threat to the predominantly social-democratic intellectual class. On account of his unsystematic method—his philosophical pluralism—Nozick was “tolerant” vis-à-vis the intellectual establishment (his anti-establishment conclusions notwithstanding). He did not insist that his libertarian conclusions were correct and, for instance, socialist conclusions were false and accordingly demand their instant practical implementation (that is, the immediate abolition of the democratic welfare state, including all of public tax-funded education and research). Rather, libertarianism was, and claimed to be, no more than just an interesting thought. He did not mean to do any real harm to the ideas of his socialist opponents. He only wanted to throw an interesting idea into the democratic open-ended intellectual debate, while everything real, tangible, and physical could remain unchanged and everyone could go on with his life and thoughts as before.

Following the publication of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick took even further steps to establish his reputation as “tolerant.” He never replied to the countless comments and criticisms of his book, including Rothbard’s, which forms chapter 29 of this book. This confirmed that he took his non-committal method seriously, for why indeed, should anyone reply to his critics, if he were not committed to the correctness of his own views in the first place?

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Steven August 28, 2009, 10:10 am

    Having recently studied political philosophy at postgraduate level, I can confirm Hoppe’s insights here are on the money. The recent death of Jerry Cohen is just another reminder of the harm Nozick’s most famous book did to the the status of liberty-as-an-idea in academia. (Not that it didn’t also do some good).

  • Bob Kaercher August 28, 2009, 11:20 am

    “[W]hat the hell is philosophy good for, if it produces this pompous, stupid, narcissistic, self-absorbed nonsense masquerading as ‘deep’ thought?”

    Amen to that.

  • iawai August 28, 2009, 11:53 am

    The quote from Nozick sounded more like a pre-modern blog post than a serious entry into the philosophical record – but nevertheless proved through its use of language that Nozick was always more concerned with the “we” of Mankind, the “we” of Nationality and the “we” of Religiosity.

    If he could have let go of trying to personally own all of humanity, maybe he could have lived the principles he explored and could not dispute and lead humanity into a more peaceful existence.

    Claiming that one man’s or combined group’s actions have forever damned us all from philosophical Eden is to force even the angelic among us to share his personal hell.

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