Senior Literature Review Fall 2017

Octave’s Second Presentation


Octave presented the second half of a chapter from Robert Nozick’s book Philosophical Explanations (Nozick 1983).

I’m not sure exactly how to put Nozick’s basic idea. He thinks that things are more meaningful to the extent that they are less limited. Our lives are finite: we are small and don’t last long. So everything we do gets lost in space and time. By contrast, there are no questions about the meaning of something that is unlimited. Something without limits, like the universe, cannot suffer by comparison with something else. The universe can’t seem insignificant when compared with anything else that exists.

One thing that I got from the reading was a hardening of my own opinion that what Octave calls naturalistic subjectivism is on the right track. Here’s what I thought. (These are not exactly arguments, so we’re going to call them thoughts.) I find the phrasing of the claims that the universe is meaningful or important awkward. Why? I suppose it’s because I think things have to be meaningful or important to someone. There has to be someone or something with a point of view who finds something meaningful or important. The universe doesn’t have a point of view, so it isn’t meaningful or important to itself. Is it even meaningful or important to us? I suppose it is because it contains us. No universe, no me, so the universe is pretty important to me!

This isn’t really what Nozick had in mind. If I can give the universe meaning, I can do the same for my own little life. But then the yawning gulf between me and the universe would fade out of the story. (Unless I cared about it, of course. But the ultimate standard would still be me and what I care about.) Nozick thinks that our lives become more meaningful as we transcend their limits. I guess I think that we can give meaning to our lives while accepting their limits. Maybe if I pushed it a bit I might come to the conclusion that only limited things, that is, things with their own point of view on the world, can give meaning to something. I don’t know how to argue to that conclusion, but I’m starting to think it is something I believe.

I also had questions about the relationship between Nozick’s “meaning” and Nagel’s “absurdity.” I did not see them as obviously the same thing. But Will made a strong case for connecting them. I’m afraid that this is all I wrote down, so I don’t remember exactly what it was. But I was persuaded.

Peter brought Spinoza into the discussion. Nozick pushes the meaningful out to everything and Spinoza pushes our idea of God out to everything. Peter thought that, so understood, “everything” isn’t terribly interesting. I think that’s pretty much what Spinoza was after. Very roughly, his idea is that if God is identical with everything, then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to expect God to care about you. To put it bluntly, you’re praying to dirt.

I think we all found the end of Nozick’s chapter very hard to understand. Peter had some good ideas, as I recall. As with Will’s comments that I mentioned earlier, the notes I took are not good enough for me to recall exactly what he said. I should have written this up much closer to our discussion. Sorry!


Nozick, Robert. 1983. Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.