The Examined Life

The Examined Life

"The Examined Life" is a collection of philosophical meditations written by Robert Nozick and published in 1989.

Having pursued philosophy in an argumentative mode in "Anarchy, State, and Utopia", and in an explanatory mode in "Philosophical Explanations", his mode in" The Examined Life" is holistic. Instead of one rational mind coercing another (argumentative mode) or one rational mind explaining possibilities to another (explanatory mode), now a whole person speaks to a whole person. "My concern in writing here is the whole of our being," he writes in the Introduction, "I would like to speak to your whole being, and to write from mine." [Nozick, p. 17f]


His meditations aim to take his life and ours off "automatic pilot". They aim furthermore at a portrait rather than a theory. Indeed to live an examined life is to make a self-portrait. He does not say that the unexamined life is not worth living, but he does agree with Socrates to the extent of holding that the unexamined life is not lived as fully. When we guide our lives by "our own pondered thoughts", it then is "our" life that we are living, not someone else's. The Introduction is also noteworthy for announcing that he judges the libertarianism of "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" to be "seriously inadequate". [Nozick, p. 17]


Nozick reports that his eighty-two-year-old father is ailing. "Mingled with concern for my father is the thought that he is blazing a trail for me; I now suspect I will reach my eighties too and --- less welcome --- perhaps encounter similar woes." [Nozick, p. 20] His suspicion was incorrect. He died of stomach cancer in 2002 at the age of 63. He proposes that a person's regret about dying should be a function of the percent of important things he hasn't yet done that he still has the capacity to do. He confesses a mental exercise that helps him through life: "I find I don't like to think that I'm much more than halfway to the end of the major thing I'm engaged in." [Nozick, p. 22f] He has shifted throughout his life to new salient midpoints and different second halves, reporting that even as he smiles at this, "still it works!" He concludes that instead of clinging to life until the very end, someone who has had an ample life and is still capable should risk life or lay it down for another person or a noble cause.

Parents and Children

Children form part of a parent's wider identity.This is something Nozick could not have written in "Anarchy, State, and Utopia". It took the Closest-Continuer theory of personal identity that he developed later in "Philosophical Explanations", and especially its notion of a dimension. Children form a dimension of a parent's identity. A bequest can mark this extended identity. But now Nozick wants a tax on bequests, according to a subtraction rule that deducts from it what the parent did not add --- namely, the portion that the parent received through bequest. He is joining Rawls in using legislation to avoid deep inequalities that would arise by allowing wealth to accumulate and cascade down the generations: "The resulting inequalities seem unfair." [Nozick, p. 30] Nozick never disavowed this tax and its dramatically anti-libertarian implications, yet he later insisted that his departures from libertarian values were minor. This is an interpretive sore point.


Nozick writes that when a person's brain generates ideas, however 'mechanical' the explanation of how it does so turns out to be, we see those ideas as expressive and revelatory of something about the person. This backtracks from the defense of originatory value in "Philosophical Explanations", which requires indeterminism that he tried to provide with a quantum-mechanical model of contra-deterministic free choice. Creating also enables reshaping and integration of (the dimensions of) the self: "The work is a surrogate for the creator, an analog of her, a little voodoo doll to tinker with and transform and remake in something analogous to the way she herself, or a part, needs to be transformed, remade, or healed." [Nozick, p. 39] He thinks that the work is somehow effective in reconfiguring the self, not just in reshaping a surrogate or analog.

The Nature of God, the Nature of Faith

Nozick thinks of himself as having a religious sensibility suited to our intellectual time. He is not a believer, but he is willing to contemplate religion or God as a possibility. He favors a conception of God or some other conception of deepest reality as grounded in trust of revelatory experiences, not as an hypothesis invoked to explain such experiences. "Our fundamental connection to the world is not "explanatory," but one of relation and trust." [p. 53]

The Holiness of Everyday Life

Nozick thinks that natural foods have noetic essences. (He is less certain about artful concoctions, notwithstanding Brillat-Savarin's asking Adam and Eve, "who ruined yourself for an apple, what might you not have done for a truffled turkey?" [Nozick, p57] ) He also advocates occasional meditative attention to breathing. The general moral is that seeing everyday life as holy is in part seeing the world and its contents as infinitely receptive to our activities of exploring, responding, relating and creating.


If children are the strongest bond, sexuality is the most intense way of relating to another. He advocates the maxim to experiment attentively, and intelligence helps too. Sex is a mode of communication, "a way of saying or of showing something more tellingly than our words can say." [Nozick, p. 62] It is also like music; he favors an analogy to jazz improvisation. Sexuality has some implications for personal identity. We let the other within the boundaries we normally maintain around ourselves, boundaries marked by clothing and by full self-control and monitoring. He suggests a diagram of sexual intimacy, two circles overlapping with dotted lines, as fitting well the sense of merging in intense sexual experience. In sex one can engage in metaphysical exploration in which the body and person of another is a map or microcosm of the deepest reality.

Love's Bond

Though intense sex temporarily modifies some dimensions of personal identity, love has a more lasting effect such that the welfare of another or others directly affects one's own interests. Nozick finds this adjustment of dimensions sufficiently striking that he speaks of the emergence of a new entity, a "we", created by a new web of relationships between them that have characteristic effects on (dimensions of) their identity. In addition to the effect on well-being there is an effect on autonomy. Members of a "we" "limit or curtail their own decision-making power and rights." (This suggests that a "democratic "we" could curtail individual rights by majority vote in order to pursue higher moral goals, but he denies this in his last book, "Invariances", where he is at pains to re-affirm the libertarianism of "Anarchy, State and Utopia".


Nozick starts with a conception of emotion as having three components: a belief, an evaluation, and a feeling. One's gladness is gladness that friends are visiting (belief); it is gladness that welcomes their arrival (evaluation); it is gladness characterized by warm fuzzy feelings. An emotions fits when the belief is true, the evaluation is correct, and the feelings are appropriate to the evaluation. He suggests that emotions are responses to objective value, at least in the sense that they are not simply matters of arbitrary subjective preference and perhaps also in the sense that they link us closely to external value. He is inclined to construe such value as (high degree of) organic unity, and an emotional response to such value is a picture or analog representation of that structure, thereby internalizing that value and making us "more": "Emotions do not simply feel good; intense and fitting emotions make us more." [Nozick, p. 95]


We care not only about the amount of happiness but also its distribution over a lifetime. We care not only about amount and distribution of happiness but also about the content of the life story, the narrative direction of life moving in the right direction. Nozick returns to the famous Experience Machine thought-experiment from "Anarchy, State and Utopia". The felt experience of happiness is less important than contact with reality. He calls this "the second reality principle", Freud's being the first. Freud's is instrumental to pleasure, Nozick's is not."To focus on external reality, with your beliefs, evaluations, and emotions, is valuable "in itself", not just as a means to more pleasure or happiness." [Nozick, p. 106]


The second reality principle just referred to is consistent with escaping concentration-camp horrors by retiring into memories of Mozart's music. The emotional response may have the right components, as listed above, but focusing on the music is not appropriate to the horrible actuality. So Nozick recommends a third reality principle that attends not to the accuracy of attention's focus but rather to its direction: pay attention in proportion to importance. "Through selective focusing of attention and shaping the response, we mold our emotional lives." [Nozick, p. 119]

Being More Real

Nozick likens a person to a nation with constitutional processes of change. A person can transform herself, changing dimensions of her identity or their weight. Now he introduces the idea that these changes may make a person more or less real. This scalar notion of degrees of reality is different from the binary notion of existence/nonexistence. He begins to explain it by reference to literary characters, some more real than others: Hamlet, Sherlocke Holmes, Lear, Antigone, Don Quixote, Raskolnikov. Just so, some people are more real than others: Socrates, Buddha, Moses, Gandhi, Jesus. Reality in Nozick's sense has various aspects, and corresponding dimensions (intrinsic value, depth, perfection, expressiveness, etc.) that can contribute to a higher degree of reality. The greater the reality of a dimension, the more weight it has in our identity. This is in tension with the idea, emphasized in "Philosophical Explanations", that one chooses dimensions of one's identity and assigns weight to them, but the tension is resolved presumably by his distinction between the valuable self (real self-interest, which tracks value) and felt self-interest. [Nozick, "Philosophical Explanations", p. 411ff] The fourth reality principle counsels being more real. [Nozick, p. 132]


Buddhist no-self doctrine has force against the soul-pellet view (Descartes' Thinking Substance, etc.) but not against a person as an ongoing unification of diverse dimensions, as theorized by the closest-continuer theory in "Philosophical Explanations", for instance. It is reflexive self-consciousness that constitutes and organizes this unification. He tells a genealogical story about many bits of consciousness, such as a memory of an earlier conscious event, among which is a bit which is very special, because it is an awareness "of" many other bits of experience and thought, plus an awareness of itself, a reflexive self-awareness. In this way the self begins. Somehow the step gets made from being aware of these bits of consciousness to having or possessing them. They come to belong to the self. The self is built upon reflexivity and appropriation.


There are three stances toward value that a self takes up when unifying itself and perhaps becoming more real: the egoistic, the relational, and the absolute. From the egoistic stance things are valuable or evaluatively good because of how they benefit the self. The relational stance locates value between the self and something else. The value of cooperation for instance is not in your being a cooperative person but in the relationship of cooperating. The absolute stance locates value as an independent domain, as in the Platonic tradition, not initially within us or our relations. It mandates maximizing the total reality in the universe. Each of the three stances defines a goal that gets some weight, though the weights need not be equal. Nozick proposes that measurements of the three goals should first be normalized, and only afterwards combined with weightings. (This keeps the absolute goal from swamping the others.) Then, second, the three factors are multiplied together, so that the presence and magnitude of each ampliefies the others' magnitudes. This is the fourth stance, which Nozick calls the combined stance.

Value and Meaning

Intrinsic value is organic unity, "unity in diversity". There are many other dimensions of evaluation also. Nozick acknowledges the usual custom of using the term 'value' differently, as denoting the overarching category of everything good. But he insists on value as one evaluative dimension among many, such as meaning. Value involves something's being integrated within its own boundaries, while meaning involves its having some connection beyond these boundaries. The tighter the linkages of meaning to value, the greater the meaning.

Importance and Weight

Importance is a dimension of reality that is irreducible to value and meaning. Chess is valuable but not important; a chess player's forging connections to the chess world makes for meaning but not importance. Nozick recommends a fifth reality principle: Connect with actuality in a way that has some impact on it. [Nozick, p. 171]

A fourth evaluative dimension of reality, weight ("gravitas"), is introduced to supplement value, meaning, and importance. Weight is a stable equilibrium that resists outside forces. Nozick detects an initial unification of the four diverse elements. Meaning and importance are relational notions, value and weight inherent ones; value and meaning are characterized by integration, weight and importance by strength. The construction of the 48-dimension "matrix of reality" has begun.

The Matrix of Reality

Nozick expands the list of dimensions of reality from the initial four to forty-eight. They are "organically unified" in an elaborate architecture, a philosophical Rubik's Cube. He calls it a table of values, though this courts confusion because he valorizes a narrow sense of 'value' (value as organic unity) that contrasts with the other forty-seven dimensions of evaluative goodness. He admits that his matrix project is a "strange and sometimes bewildering piece of theorizing, very much against the grain of contemporary philosophy", but he recommends it as, "however eccentric", a symbolic representation of our desire for unity within reality. [Nozick, p. 184]

The dimensions of Nozick's matrix include such as "Infinite Energy" and "Peace That Passeth Understanding". This is one factor leading some to dismiss his project as "schmaltzy". [,3604,639619,00.html] . But as his personal study of the nature of his cultural inheritance, it is a subjective take on the positive side of value, comparable to (though more subjective than) the legal system's take on the negative side. He is explicit that his matrix doesn't cut reality at the joints, but rather is more an invitation to others to make their own subjective cuts. Having replaced the argumentative mode of doing philosophy in "Anarchy, State and Utopia" by the "explaining possibilities" mode in "Philosophical Explanations", he is experimenting in "The Examined Life" with a mode that went beyond encounters between rational minds, to philosophizing that expressed and addressed the full human being.

Darkness and Light

After an inconclusive exploration of whether there are dark (negative, unethical) dimensions of reality, or paths through reality, Nozick reaffirms the contra-deterministic conception of free will from "Philosophical Explanations", in which free will resides in our giving weight to reasons that are not pre-fixed but that relate to the decision-maker as precedent relates to a judge. He also acknowledges that perhaps each of us must make our own matrix, contemplating and living "the widest and best-structured matrix we've been able to understand thus far". [Nozick, p. 211] The centerpiece of this meditation is the look at ethics itself. For Nozick now it is not one single structure, but rather four layers related by a principle of minimum mutilation (pursue higher moral goals only with minimum violation of the norms of lower, more fundamental ones.). The layers are:
# The ethic of respect. It "mandates respecting another adult person's life and autonomy (as well as a younger person's potential adulthood); its rules and principles restrict interference with the person's domain of choice, forbid murder or enslavement, and issue in a more general list of rights to be respected." [Nozick, p. 212] This is the ethical theory of "Anarchy, State, and Utopia", now serving as the foundation rather than the whole.
# The ethic of responsiveness. It "mandates acting in a way that is responsive to other people's reality and value, a way that takes account of their reality and is intricately contoured to it. Its guiding principle is to treat reality "as" real, and it too issues in guidelines: Do not destroy another person's reality or diminish it, and be responsive to another's reality and act so as to enhance it." [Nozick, p. 212] This ethic is presented in "Philosophical Explanations", Chapter 5, under the rubric of "ethical pull".
# The ethic of care. `This layer too has its values and principles; at its more intense it mandates ahimsa, nonharm to all people (and perhaps to all living things), and love (`Do unto others as you would do unto those you love.')." [Nozick, p. 213] Feminist ethicists have articulated this ethic in considerable detail.
# The ethic of Light. This is an ethic of selflessness, of being an impersonal vehicle of doing good. And so a sixth reality principle: Become a vessel of light. [Nozick, p. 214] Reflection on Light leads Nozick back to the question about Darkness. He now proposes that the row of light (truth, goodness, beauty, holiness) determines the content of reality, "while all the other dimensions of reality increase reality when (and only when) they enfold "this" content." [Nozick, p. 215]

Theological Explanations

Nozick addresses whether there is a religious explanation (theodicy) of the problem of evil, reviewing some leading proposals. He is sympathetic to an account that invokes parallel noninteracting universes. Why didn't God create a better world? He did! And this world, though not as good as that one, is still worthy of existence.

The Holocaust

Although he does not believe the Edenic original-sin story about the Fall, he thinks that something like that has occurred now. "Mankind has fallen." [Nozick, p. 238] The saving message of Christ no longer operates. "In this sense, the Christian era has closed." [Nozick, p. 239]


Nozick investigates whether there is a deeper reality that is not accessible to ordinary modes of consciousness. He endorses an interpretation of Zen enlightenment or "satori" as a very different yet particular vision of "this" world rather than an escape to another realm. Zen koans make sense and have answers once a gestalt shift has shaken loose the picture organized around the self.

Giving Everything Its Due

Via a discussion of spiritual teachers Nozick comes to a seventh reality principle: Connect to the very highest and deepest reality. And an eighth: Connect with and be fully responsive to all of reality, not only the deepest and highest.

What Is Wisdom And Why Do Philosophers Love It So?

Wisdom is practical. It is conducive to the best life and an ingredient of it. But " [w] isdom need not be geriatric." Even an older person with balance need not stay always on the Aristotelian mean. "She may follow a zigzag path, now moving with an excessive enthusiasm in this direction, later counterbalancing it with another in the opposite." [Nozick, p. 278]

The Ideal and the Actual

Nozick is skeptical about blaming human nature for the failure of certain ideals. It is more fruitful to consider how much energy society would have to expend to alter or diminish certain traits and how much energy to maintain modes of cultural socialization that would avoid these traits. Human nature is not a set of outcomes but a gradient of difficulty: "Here is how steep the price is for avoiding certain traits." [Nozick, p. 281]

The Zigzag of politics

Democratic politics are not only effective (in controlling the powers of government, etc.) but they express and symbolize "in a pointed and official way our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction." [Nozick, p. 287] His earlier libertarianism was severely inadequate because "it did not fully knit the humane considerations and joint cooperative activities it left room for more closely into its fabric. It neglected the symbolic importance of an official political concern with issues or problems, as a way of marking their importance or urgency, and hence of expressing, intensifying, channeling, encouraging, and validating our private actions and concerns toward them." [Nozick, p. 287]

The pivotal role of the closest-continuer theory from "Philosophical Explanations" manifests itself in this re-evaluation of democracy. In "Anarchy, State and Utopia" he was loftily disdainful of democracy for allowingrights restrictions that rational citizens of a minimal state wouldnot agree to. He makes this point with a just-so story about"demoktesis", in which people sell shares in themselves such thateveryone (amazingly) ends up with a share in everyone else. Then, but only then, democratic voting outcomes could be regarded as fully and rationally consensual; the reader is invited to accept this as a "reductio ad absurdum" of democracy. From this point of view it is out of the question that one could be related to others in a social union, such that harm to oneself is outweighed by the benefit to the social union that includes oneself. There are only individual people, "Nothing more.", as he emphasizes there. [ Nozick, "Anarchy, State and Utopia", p. 33] In particular there is no "social entity" with a good that could undergo some sacrifice for its own good. But with the closest-continuer theory it becomes possible for a social union including oneself to be a"dimension" of one's identity. In "The Examined Life" such a union is dubbed a "we" and admits of large-scale instantiations such as democratic states as well as small-scale ones such as marriages. A benefit to the social union may outweigh a harm to oneself (given sufficient weight of that dimension). Democracy is celebrated as an opportunity to express ourselves as a social union and invest our communal life with meaning.

Philosophy's Life

Nozick imagines scores or points given for the components of a person's existence, with a maximum of 100 points. Being alive counts for 50; being human, 30; being at some reasonable threshold of competence and functioning, 10. The question of how to live would concern only the remaining 10 points. "A part, then, of philosophy's advice about the discretionary part of life, the possible 10 percent left, would be to send some of it focusing upon and appreciating the 90 percent that is already present. Such advice evidences a grasp of life's magnitude and helps with the remaining 10 percent too." [Nozick, p. 299]

A Portrait of the Philosopher as a Young Man

A short anecdote about Nozick as a teenager in Brooklyn, carrying around a paperback copy of Plato's "Republic," "front cover facing outward". [Nozick, p. 303]



  • Nozick, Robert. "Anarchy, State and Utopia". 1974: Basic Books.
  • Nozick, Robert. "Philosophical Explanations". 1981: Harvard University Press.
  • Nozick, Robert. "The Examined Life". 1989: Simon & Schuster.

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