Me, Nozick, and Jack Daniels

OK, so this all started off one night in 2004 when I was hanging around Russell Square, waiting for the 188 bus, around 8ish, after a late lecture on the categorical imperative.  Who did I notice out of the corner of my eye?  None other than Robert Nozick.  Star-struck, I kept my head down and only allowed myself furtive looks as he bounded down the street.  I entertained the idea of asking him for his signature, but I realised the only book I had on me was the Tractatus, and that would’ve just been inappropriate.

Before I could muster up another sycophantic ploy, Nozick had me in his sights and was gesturing to get my attention.  He asked me for directions to somewhere or other, but I wasn’t paying attention because I was too busy trying to muster the courage to ask: “Are you Robert Nozick?  The Robert Nozick?  The one who made political philosophy sexy?”  I must’ve said something to this effect, because all of a sudden he was chuckling with humility and offering to buy me a drink.

Then I did the lamest thing ever. I asked him: ‘From each as they choose, eh?Straight away I hated myself for saying this.  Never quote a guy to his own face.  But it didn’t turn out too bad, since Nozick did a bit of a guffaw and then replied: “To each as they are chosen!”  .  Then he patted me on the back and we were on our way.

And that’s how my night out with Nozick started.

We should probably flash-forward, for sake of decency.  It’s just gone 2 a.m..  We’re in Stringfellows, Wardour Street, but I can’t remember how we got here.  Naked women gyrating all over the place.  I was nursing a double Jack Daniels.  Nozick came back from the toilet, yanking his tie down to his belly, giving me a big theatrical wink.  I think the wink was on account of the round of doubles he’d just bought me, and his refusal to accept any of my money.  “Look, I’ve imposed myself on you without any legitimate authority,” he said, “So drink up! Or I’ll coerce you!  Just you watch, I’ll invade your moral space and coerce you!”

It was pretty hard, all in all, to get anything serious out of Nozick.

Later on, after much unprintables, we stumbled out onto the street, went to the nearest kebab house, and I tried to get him to admit that his ‘Experience Machine’ wasn’t that bad, really.  He wouldn’t let himself be bated – this guy was a pro, even after a dozen doubles and a mean kebab – but he said in a thick slur: “People matter.  Real people matter. And philosophers probably matter more than most other people.”  And he fumbled in his jacket pocket for this little book bound in green leather.  It dropped onto the floor and he sort of waved it away before hailing a cab.  Then he staggered over to the cab, offered the remnants of the kebab to the cabbie, and after that the remnants were declined he went to shake the cabbie’s hand with a chilli-sauce-mucky hand.  And do you know how he introduced himself to the cabbie?  Just like he’d introduced himself to everyone since midnight: “Call me Wilt!

The last thing I saw Nozick do was throw a pound coin out of the window at me, shrieking: “A voluntary transfer!  Justice in transfer! Amen to that.”

And then Nozick was gone.  But this isn’t really about Nozick.

As the cab pulled away I went to pick up that little green leather-bound book, expecting just some free Bible he’d picked up in a hotel or something.  But it wasn’t.  I leafed through to a random page.  There was a name: ‘Saul Kripke’ and a telephone number – ‘1-408-555-1234’.   I turned the page. ‘Tom Nagel – 1-302-464-7684’. ‘  Next: ‘Donnie Davidson – 1-765-443-6072’.  It went on.  I yelped in excitement and dropped my battered sausage.  I had the personal numbers of literally hundreds of famous(-ish) philosophers in my hands.

I was still pretty inebriated and something just didn’t seem to be fitting together right.  I kept looking at the names and at the numbers.  The names.   The numbers.   Something was dawning on me but I couldn’t work out quite what.   I found myself looking at ‘Mike Dummett – 07754320087’ and just above him was ‘John Dewey – 08445137789’. A shiver went down my spine.  Wasn’t John Dewey dead?  And long dead?  Wasn’t even his philosophy pretty dead?   And come to think of it, wasn’t Donald Davidson dead (but his philosophy more alive)?   Yet they both still had phone numbers.

A few entries on: ‘Ayer – 094565356’. ‘Rudolf Carnap – 00885419312’. ‘Francis Bacon – 00765010924’.    I raced to the front of the book.  It started with ‘Anaxagoras – 6651991909’.  I raced to the end. It ended with  ‘Zeno of Elea – 11122209712’.  I could hardly breathe.  I mean, not only did I have the phone number of Zeno of Elea, but who’d ever heard of an area code starting tripe-1-triple-2?

And then I tried to get a grip.  It was Nozick, I told myself, he was a joker.  Of course.  What a Nozickian thing to do, to concoct this bizarre artefact – some kind of practical joke.  The guy was a pranker in philosophy and a pranker in real life.  I tried to laugh at myself.

But then the laughter got stuck in my throat.  I remember realising something, gulping as a chill came over me so quickly that the saliva in my throat felt cold, like it was someone else’s, and then when I gulped again it was like I was gulping down someone else’s spit.

What I had suddenly come to realise was this: wasn’t Robert Nozick dead?  Hadn’t he died two years ago, in 2002?  So who was that, who’d called himself ‘Wilt’, who’d transferred resources to me in a just process, who’d pushed twenty pound notes into the thongs of slinky women?

Most people probably would’ve taken themselves to a hospital at this point.  Or at least vomited.  But I did not.   Some thing calling itself Nozick had come to me and given me this gift.  Whatever it was, it would’ve wanted me to exploit my legimitately acquired resources.  I leafed through and found ‘Immanuel Kant –  089-6433-92’.  I mean, what the hell, if you’re going to go for any philosopher, why not Kant?  What was the worst that could happen?  So I gave the number a ring…

Brr brr…. brr brr... brr brr…

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