Language, Truth, and Pasta

By | Mar 23, 2021 | No Comments

Not everyone who dined at Trattoria Dell’Arte was a movie or rock star. There were some intellectual giants—at least in my book—deserving of as much attention as the celebrities were getting. One with whom I enjoyed having fruitful conversations on his occasional visits to New York was the Harvard philosophy professor Robert Nozick.

Robert Nozick
Robert Nozick

Nozick was a star philosopher who had written a handful of books, two of which were influential. The first book which introduced me to his work was Philosophical Explanations (1981), whose title echoed Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I had read this book in college and found it mind-altering, even though much of it I didn’t understand, and probably still don’t today. That book laid out Nozick’s theories of knowledge, free will, and personal identity and had a concluding chapter on the meaning of life, which I found to be more accessible and enjoyable. What struck me most about Philosophical Explanations was Nozick’s writing style. He had a flair for writing and could turn a phrase like few other philosophers, which made wading through some of the book’s more difficult passages palatable. I still have the exact copy I read in college, which occupies its own special Nozick section on my bookshelves.

The other, perhaps more influential book that Nozick penned, was Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). This book presented Nozick’s political philosophy of the minimal state. In it, he argued that a state should function merely as a “night watchman,” with powers limited to those necessary to protect its citizens against violence, theft, and fraud. It was a critique of the social-democratic liberalism espoused by his Harvard colleague John Rawls, who had written his own equally influential work on political philosophy a few years earlier called A Theory of Justice (1971). The “New Right,” who had considered it a defense of their cause, immediately hailed and embraced Nozick’s book, even though he was uncomfortable with this association.

The first time I met Nozick was when he came with his wife, poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg, with whom he often dined. I spotted him immediately as I had a mental picture of him from his books’ dust covers. He had these unmistakable bushy caterpillar eyebrows and a bright, big, beautiful smile. He was a strikingly handsome man. When he arrived at the maitre d’ stand, I said, “Welcome, Mr. Nozick,” which surprised him. He said, “How do you know me?” And I replied, “I studied philosophy and read some of your books.” He was taken aback, and that’s how our friendship began.

Robert Nozick
Personal inscription to The Examined Life.

Over the next few years, I looked forward to his visits and enjoyed our many philosophical discussions. He had given me a couple of signed books of his I hadn’t read, one of which was highly technical, and another which I loved called The Examined Life, which the New York Times touted as “a book that simply must be read.”

On one of his last visits, Nozick shared some bad news and informed me he had stomach cancer. He was doing all he could to fight it but didn’t think he had a lot of time left. I remember feeling very sad upon hearing this, and we had a tearful conversation about it. Nozick lived another six years until his untimely death in 2002 at 63.


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