This book is both a product of, and a reflection on, what its title suggests: The Examined Life. Robert Nozick has thought deeply on many things, and in this book he offers the result of his thinking to the public, not as final answers, but rather to stimulate reflection and examination of our own lives and to bring philosophy itself back to life.
Western philosophy is a 2,500-year-old quest for understanding and wisdom through the use of the intellect. That quest is now in grave trouble. Philosophers have sought and sought for some solid ground of certainty on which to base their intellectual analyses. Yet this quest for certainty, coupled with the academic world’s love of, actually attachment to, rigor has led most philosophers to focus more and more narrowly on topics increasingly removed from life.
Yet the narrowing of focus has led, not to certainty, but to a deeper recognition of the pervasiveness and apparent inescapability of uncertainty. Philosophy is at an impasse, and the death of philosophy has been widely proclaimed. Indeed, it is possible these days for academic philosophers to make a respectable living writing about the death of their profession.
This contemporary impasse is widely regarded as a tragedy. Yet another possibility is that Western philosophy is the best and most enduring demonstration we have, with the possible exception of contemplative realization, of the limits of the intellect and the impossibility of discovering Truth, with a capital T, by using it. Of course this is what contemplative and mystical traditions the world over have claimed for millennia. But their claims have been based on intuitive realizations. By contrast, Western philosophy may perhaps offer an intriguing example of an intellectual demonstration of the inherent limitations of the intellect.
Yet that doesn’t mean that philosophy can’t be a valuable tool in the search for wisdom and guidance in life. The contemplative and mystical traditions are often supported by rigorous sophisticated philosophies. However the use of philosophy in this way is distressingly uncommon in the contemporary West. It is, therefore, a delight to see a book devoted to examining life and the cultivation of wisdom by a person who is also an accomplished academic philosopher, in this case the chairman of philosophy at Harvard University and one of today’s foremost philosophers.
The topics in The Examined Life cover a broad range from philosophical concepts to the nitty-gritty of life and death such as parents and children, the nature of God, the holiness of everyday life, love, sex, emotions, happiness, value and meaning, enlightenment, selflessness and, of course, wisdom. The range of Nozick’s interest extends also to Asian philosophies and contemplative traditions. There is something here for everyone.
The style is calm, clear and gentle yet penetrating. The author succeeds in working his way gently into deeper and deeper analyses. Repeatedly I found that he worked his way down to what I felt was a deep level of understanding with which I agreed, thereby demonstrating both his wisdom and my own. Then to my combined dismay and delight Nozick continued further, turning his attention to the unexamined assumptions underlying my position. Repeatedly I found myself having to question the validity and certainty of key beliefs.
For example, meditation seems to sensitize perception and experimental laboratory reports support this. At deeper levels of practice meditators perceive in ways that suggest that reality may be very different from the way we usually assume it to be. Vipassana meditation, for example, offers experiences in which all things seem to arise and pass away with extraordinary rapidity while enlightenment is claimed to reveal “ultimate reality.” Yet Nozick points to the many presuppositions inherent in assuming that reality is necessarily revealed by, and isomorphic with, these experiences. Could not, Nozick asks, the appearance of the rapid arising and passing away of phenomena reflect the design of our nervous systems more than the nature of “reality?” Note that Nozick isn’t saying that the traditional claims are necessarily wrong, nor is he necessarily providing an alternate view of reality. Rather he is inviting us to examine our assumptions and to think more deeply.
This is in large part why Western philosophy was originally created. This book is therefore, an attempt, and a fine attempt at that, to return philosophy to the people and to its original goal.