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The Nature of Rationality (Princeton Paperbacks) Paperback – 29 Nov 1994

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"Robert Nozick's brief, vivid, energetic, intensely personal and enviably clever book attacks head-on the question of what rationality really is."--John Dunn, The Times Higher Education Supplement

"Robert Nozick always attacks his problems in a disconcertingly original way. . . . From Mr. Nozick you always expect fireworks. . . . The questions he addresses are fundamental in the true philosophical sense: Why exactly should we want to act and believe rationally? Why should we formulate principles of action and try to stick to them? The questions are not moral but explicatory. He is not out to argue that unprincipled or irrational behavior is immoral; rather, he invites us to consider what we are trying to do, and what the justification for such behavior is. . . . Sure to attract a great deal of interest."--Anthony Gottlieb, The New York Times Book Review

"To Nozick, rationality and belief are each an evolutionary adaptation to a world that changes in nonregular ways. Our acts resonate with symbolic meaning and 'stand for' our principles and beliefs. In this boldly original . . . inquiry which will reward serious students of philosophy, Nozick uses decision theory to propose new rules of rational decision-making that take into account the symbolic, practical, and evolutionary components of our behavior . . . . this challenging treatise champions reason as a faculty that enables us to transcend our mere animal status and to strive toward goals by the light of principles."--Publishers Weekly

"From Mr. Nozick you always expect fireworks. . . . The questions he addresses are fundamental in the true philosophical sense: Why exactly should we want to act and believe rationally?"--The New York Times Book Review

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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Reasons for, and the Properties and Functions of, Rationality 10 July 2006
By D. S. Heersink - Published on
Format: Paperback
Nozick, a consummate philosopher in the analytical tradition, addresses the central issue of philosophy itself. What is the nature of rationality? If Man is the rational animal that philosophers claim, what are the principles, features, properties, methods, functions, and purposes of reason itself? Nozick concedes any attempt to ground "reasoning" fails, and all reasons for reason are circular, but not viciously circular.

For the brevity of the book, Nozick covers considerable territory. He discusses how reason itself functions and the functions themselves (interpersonal, intellectual, overcoming temptation, investment, symbolic utility, and teleological devices), using decision-value (the most technical topic), Newcomb's Problem, Prisoners' Dilemma, and other distinctions, to explicate how one arrives at rational belief, the reasons we want rational beliefs, and some rules to obtain it.

The most interesting (and disappointing) chapter is on evolutionary considerations. Few philosophers to date raise the specter of evolution at all (unless it is the topic), when, as Nozick rightly suggests, it may have its own overriding features and its own reasons and justifications. He's clearly on to an important facet and introduces issues that "limit" the need for rationality as well as require it.

My principal cavil is that he treats natural selection as a purposive agent without any disclaimers or caveats. Worse, his natural selection's purposive agency is, of course, teleological. First, that's bad form, and second, it's bad (actually wrong) evolutionary science. A subsidiary cavil is that evolution becomes a "rug" under which a-rational, even irrational, decisions may be swept (which may be true, if he is not persuasive).

Ultimately, "a rational decision will maximise an action's decision-value, which is a weighted sum of its causal, evidential, and symbolic utility" (137, passim). And, while rationality is predominately instrumental, it is not exclusively instrumental, giving excellent exemptions and reasons for them.

He considers the effect of biases, preferences ("it is a function of the preferences and believes to be rationally coherent and approximately true [and minimally consistent], and it also is a function of the mechanisms that produce such believes and preferences to produce things like that, with those functions" [149]), reflexivity, interpretation, conditionalization, probability, philosophical heuristics, and imagination on the outcomes, regardless of the cause.

Overall the book succeeds admirably in capturing the nature of rationality, those features and functions which we expect it to have, why they are important, why rationality remains important for everyone (not just philosophers), some basic rules to achieve it, principles to guide us, and its purposes in human life. He does so with economy, clarity, coherence, consistency, always reflexively to determine necessity and sufficiency. His presentation is paragon for doing and writing philosophy well.
22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Still a classical approach 10 April 2000
By Alexei Grinbaum - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Nozick is famous, always clear-thinking, always expressing himself briefly but to the point. His style makes the book a wonderful philosophical enterprise. But in fact, Nozick is still where social science was 10 years ago. He makes an impressive effort of combining different paradigms, evidentialism, causal theory, cognitive psychology, in one overall approach; he then applies this monstruous creature to old problems and paradoxes. The true reasons of these paradoxes, as was shown, for instance, by Bach (1984), are violations of applicability of classical rationality and decision-making theory. Not surprisingly, Nozick arrives to the same result with quite a different methodology. So, in brief, the book remains a brilliant study of ideas brought into social science years before; Nozick succeeds in beautifully arranging various paradigms. He still fails to be innovative in what concerns foundations.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Steven H Propp - Published on
Format: Paperback
Robert Nozick (1938-2002) was an American political philosopher and professor at Harvard University; he also wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Philosophical Explanations, and The Examined Life.

He admits early in this 1993 book, "The political philosophy presented in Anarchy, State, and Utopia ignored the importance to us of joint and official serious symbolic statement and expression of our social ties and concern and hence (I have written) is inadequate." (Pg. 32)

He suggests, "In the study of reliable processes for arriving at belief, philosophers will become technologically obsolescent. They will be replaced by cognitive and computer scientists, workers in artificial intelligence, and others." (Pg. 76)

He asserts, "My argument that instrumental rationality is not the whole of our rationality has not been disinterested. If human beings are simply Humean beings, that seems to diminish our stature. Man is the only animal not content to be simply an animal." (Pg. 138) He later adds, "But rationality's power does not reside only in its striking individual triumphs. Rationality has a cumulative force." (Pg. 175)

This is not my "favorite" among Nozick's books, but it is still of interest to students of contemporary philosophy.
1 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Is the reason an atavistic human attachment or a device from divine inspiration? 30 Dec. 2006
By Hiram Gomez Pardo - Published on
Format: Paperback
According the Greek mythology, the rationality was represented by Apollo, which meant the supreme perfection and the astonishing symmetry. In this sense, the author always proposes hisproblems in a disconcertingly original way: " Why exactly should we want to act and believe rationally ? ... Why should we formulate principles of action and try to stick to them ? "

As you know, the further discussion of these interesting issues would lead us to establish a large exchange of ideas.

"The man is conservator by own nature, but when this tendency weakens, the revolutions tend to preserve it"

Ernesto Sabato
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