By Alvin Powell
Robert Nozick, the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy, has been named University Professor, Harvard's most distinguished professorial position, President Neil L. Rudenstine announced.
Nozick, a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and one of the nation's most influential philosophers, has been appointed the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor.
University Professorships were first created in 1935 and are awarded to distinguished individuals whose pathbreaking work crosses the boundaries of different disciplines. With the distinction comes the opportunity to work in any of Harvard's schools and programs, a chance Nozick said he is looking forward to.
"This is an encouragement to pursue the boldest intellectual projects and an opportunity to teach innovative courses elsewhere in the University," Nozick said. "What more could a professor want!"
Nozick's appointment brings the current number of University Professors to 18.
The Pellegrino University Professorship was established in 1992 with gifts from Joseph Pellegrino '60 and his family. Pellegrino is president of Langford Capital Corp. and former president of the Prince Co., owned by his family and best known for its pasta products.
Pellegrino has taken an active role at Harvard and is a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' Dean's Council, the Committee on University Resources, the FAS Boston Major Gifts Steering Committee, the Visiting Committee for Athletics, and the Advisory Committee for Shareholder Responsibility. He has also established a scholarship fund for the College, and has given generously to improve basketball facilities.
Rudenstine said that not only has Nozick had an important influence on contemporary philosophy, but "his ideas have made a real difference well beyond his discipline, and beyond the academy.
"Robert has one of the most versatile, piercing, and agile minds that I have ever encountered," Rudenstine said. "When he joined the Mind, Brain, and Behavior program, for example, he began immediately to invade the biological sciences, and to devour neuroscience. He's pure pleasure in serious or playful conversation. I never seem to score any points, but I'm happy to be on the same court with him, even for a set or two."
Nozick, 59, came to Harvard from an assistant professorship at Princeton University in 1965. He served as an assistant professor here for two years and went to Rockefeller University in 1967 as an associate professor. He returned to Harvard at age 30 as a full professor of philosophy in 1969. He served as chair of the Philosophy Department from 1981 to 1984.
Though already well-known at Harvard and in philosophical circles, Nozick burst onto the public consciousness in 1974 with his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
He followed that book with four other works: Philosophical Explanations, a book on the nature of knowledge, the self, free will, and ethics, which won the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award of Phi Beta Kappa; The Examined Life, a book of reflections on themes such as love, happiness, and creativity, as well as evil and the Holocaust; The Nature of Rationality, which studies and develops formal models of rational action and rational belief; and, most recently, Socratic Puzzles in 1997, a collection of his articles, reviews, and works of fiction.
Jeremy R. Knowles, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said Nozick has had a major impact here at Harvard.
"Bob Nozick is an eclectic intellectual and a creative force in the Faculty. I am delighted by his appointment to the Pellegrino University Professorship," Knowles said.
In addition to his five books, his Ph.D. dissertation, The Normative Theory of Individual Choice, was reprinted in 1990.
Nozick, who grew up in Brooklyn and attended public school there, came to philosophy via a paperback version of Plato's Republic, which he found intellectually thrilling. Nozick described the experience in his 1989 book, The Examined Life:
"When I was 15 years old, or 16, I carried around on the streets of Brooklyn a paperback copy of Plato's Republic, front cover facing outward. I had read only some of it and understood less, but I was excited by it and knew it was something wonderful."
Hungry for more, Nozick took an introductory philosophy course when he arrived at Columbia College, which he found not very inspiring. His interest was revived when he took a nonphilosophy course in contemporary civilization, taught by the philosophy professor Sidney Morgenbesser.
In that course, Nozick said, every time he opened his mouth, Morgenbesser challenged him, pointing out a flaw in his reasoning, a problem with his original assumptions, or some other reason he was wrong. Nozick took more philosophy courses to sharpen his reasoning. By the time he graduated with an A.B. in 1959, Nozick said, he had "majored in Morgenbesser."
From Columbia, Nozick entered graduate school at Princeton, where he received an A.M. in 1961 and a Ph.D. in 1963.
Nozick's first book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, won a National Book Award and propelled him into the public eye. The book, championing individual liberties, argued that the rights of the individual are so sweeping and primary that nothing more than a minimal state -- sufficient to protect against violence, theft, and to ensure the enforcement of contracts -- is warranted. The book also argues that the justice of a distribution depends upon the process by which it arises rather than upon the pattern that it exhibits.
Anarchy, which was listed by The Times Literary Supplement as one of "The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the War," is still in print and has been translated into 11 languages. His most recent book, Socratic Puzzles, touches on a range of subjects, from Socrates to an Israeli kibbutz to W.V. Quine.
Nozick expects to complete his next work within two years. Called The Structure of the Objective World, the book looks at the nature of truth and objectivity and examines the function of subjective consciousness in an objective world. It also scrutinizes truth in ethics and discusses whether truth in general is relative to culture and social factors.
The post of University Professor carries with it the opportunity to work across the normal boundaries of academic disciplines, something Nozick has already done to some extent. Over the years, he has taught courses jointly with members of the Government, Psychology, and Economics Departments, and at the Divinity School.
In the late 1970s, Nozick taught a seminar in the Law School about Philosophy and the Law, which examined free will, responsibility, and punishment. He plans to repeat the seminar this spring, focusing on issues concerning objectivity in the law and in ethics. Beyond that he says he is contemplating new courses in other schools.
Nozick has been the recipient of many awards and honors, among them the Presidential Citation from the American Psychological Association in 1998, which described him as "one of the most brilliant and original living philosophers."
Nozick is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the Council of Scholars of the Library of Congress, a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, and a senior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He served as the president of the American Philosophical Association's Eastern Division from 1997 to 1998, was a Christensen visiting fellow at St. Catherine's College, Oxford University, in 1997, and a cultural adviser to the U.S. Delegation to the UNESCO Conference on World Cultural Policy in 1982.
In the spring of 1997, he delivered the six John Locke Lectures at Oxford University. He has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.
Colleagues said Nozick is an excellent choice for University Professor, describing him as "brilliant" and saying they are proud of his achievement.
"The Philosophy Department is delighted and very proud he was named University Professor," said Christine Korsgaard, professor of philosophy and chair of the Philosophy Department.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who has known Nozick for many years, said the appointment will help all of Harvard, because it will give Nozick the opportunity to work with students in different schools.
"That's an excellent appointment. He's a brilliant, interesting, engaging personality," Breyer said. "I think it will be of great benefit to the University."
Charles Fried, the Carter Professor of General Jurisprudence Emeritus and a Distinguished Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School and a justice on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, said he has known Nozick since they met at a lecture Fried gave shortly after Nozick arrived at Harvard.
"I was giving a paper and he asked one of his typical questions -- friendly, inquiring, but in the end, devastating," Fried said. "I think [this appointment] is very, very appropriate. He is a brilliant, productive, wide-ranging, open-minded, thoroughly interesting mind."
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College