Nietzsche Reconsidered

Readers of this blog know that I have been hard on Nietzsche.  Maybe I’ve been too hard on him because of the nutty followers he attracts – but that’s not his fault.  Through the prompting of a young philosophy grad, I have been reading through The Gay Science in a ‘modernized’ edition of an old public domain translation (T. Common & B. Chapko) available on the Kindle, and I’ve found much to like.

Well, I am preoccupied with problems of knowledge and the mind-body relationship, and Nietzsche is not, but he does address many over-arching concerns of philosophy; philosophy in the general sense of a discipline that asks, “How shall we live?” or “How do we reconcile ourselves to the world as it is?” quite well.  In many ways, he is similar to what Huxley called The Perennial Philosophy, the ideas found in Zen Buddhism as well as the Twelve Steps of AA.

Step One:  I am powerless over…  Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change…

I want more and more to perceive the necessary characters in things as the beautiful… I do not want to accuse the accusers.  Looking aside, let that be my sole negation.  …I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yes-sayer!

Poor guy, Fred!  He lived at a time when the most stupid, racist, self-serving, and morally smug notions were trumpeted as eternal truths from the press (You vomit your bile, and call it a newspaper! – Zarathustra) and in which bald-faced lies were presented by pillars of culture as true.  Not so different from today.  In addition, a ‘muscular Christianity’ was the excuse for all sorts of international brutality and oppression over less technologically developed cultures.  Perhaps all his talk of war and battle is his metaphor for moral struggle, similar to the Islamic take on jihad, or perhaps he is ironically tweaking his contemporaries for their preoccupation with tin-horn glory, the military ‘virtues,’ and their genocidal violence – the Philosopher vs. Teddy Roosevelt.  Worth considering.

His writing shows a keen understanding of science, and of Darwinism in particular.  In his desire to embrace the whole person, intellect and instinct – he recognizes that instinct lives on, and is not eclipsed by culture – he denounces those who condemn the ‘natural’ in man.  It’s easy to take this as a romantic and irrational rebellion against the materialism and moral dogmatism of the 19th century, but he is more subtle than that.  He sees man as a unique element in nature, part of nature, but ‘existentially’ different, because aware of nature.  A difficult concept to navigate:

Let us beware against thinking that the world is a living being.  How could it extend itself?  What could it nourish itself with?  How could it grow and increase?  … Let us now beware against believing that the universe is a machine:  it is assuredly not constructed with a view to one end.

Beware New Age Gaians!  Beware vulgar mechanists!  Beware creationist teologists!

Nor is he too bad when he considers technical issues dear to my heart, such as the usefulness of assessing the nature of knowledge from a historical and Darwinian point of view, rather than a contemplative, Cartesian one:

Throughout immense stretches of time, the intellect produced nothing bu errors:  some them proved to be useful and preservative of the species:  he who fell in with them, or inherited them, waged the battle for himself and his offspring with better success.  … Those erroneous articles of faith which were successful were transmitted by inheritance and  which have all become almost the property of and stock of the human species, are, for example the following:  that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances and bodies; and that at thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; and that what is good for me is also good absolutely.

Necessary notions for the fledgling hominids.  Philosophers are not known for their rough and ready survival skills.  Logic, too, evolved from this basis, so what is its status as an ultimate truth?  And why seek for the analytic justification of it?  (Ernest Mach addressed similar questions about the fundamentals of scientific investigation.)  And this, on the ultimate epistemological notion:

Cause and effect:  there is probably never any such duality; in fact there is a continuum before us from which we isolate a few portions:  just as we always observe a motion in isolated points, and therefore do not properly see it but infer it.  … An intellect which could see cause and effect as a continuum , which could see the flux of events not according to our mode of perception, as things arbitrarily separated and broken – would throw aside the conception of cause and effect, and would deny all conditionality.

There is energy, and minds, such as they are, divide it into quanta which ‘we’ take for reality.  And the success of this strategy is the evolution of organisms with minds like ours.  But our minds are limited:

Sometimes I wonder if all these questions aren’t just a problem of scale.  As the scale of things changes, some things disappear.  As we walk around, we are not aware of quantum effects at the sub-atomic level; we aren’t even aware of molecules…  What if the same sort of effects relate to time – what would that do to our notion of causality and determinism?  As we ‘zoom’ our time-scale out to the enormous, everything would appear to be happening at more or less the same time … [from Free Will and All That]

Nietzsche, my brother?

2 Responses to Nietzsche Reconsidered

  1. byyourownbootstrap says:

    A professor once told me it’s easy to project onto Nietzsche what you want him to say (which is true for everyone, but — I guess due to the scope of Nietzsche’s topics and his often cryptic references — it happens a lot with Nietzsche (e.g., any number of things that have been said about Nietzsche in a large scale)). With that in mind, I’ll mention what I find useful in Nietzsche (and if no one cares, then they don’t have to read it–keeping in style, I am not a democratic writer).

    You mentioned you are interested in mind-body discussions, and topics relating to consciousness. You may find §354 (and §355) of interest. I also think they’re functional vestibules between your interests in what stands out to you in Nietzsche, and mine. Like a good philosopher, Mr. Nietzsche manages to transform facts into matters of concern, achieves putting us into a state of informed and knowledgeable perplexity (so I guess a “good” reading of Nietzsche is a journey to perplexity). The origins of philosophy are in explaining perplexity, but an old hermeneut once told me that what Plato is really all about is managing and navigating the tension(s) that exist(s) in knowing you don’t know (or what happens when you know you don’t know–what questions do you ask if you don’t know (i.e. the Meno paradox)).

    Trained in philology, but jaded against the status quo within the field, and fascinated by the means by which authority is exercised in every which way (e.g., Christianity, Liberalism, German Nationalism–go ahead, pick one), Mr. Nietzsche (at least I feel) manages to apply that same perplexing pharmakon to common words. So he takes ‘consciousness’, a notion with growing commonality during his time (at least within scholarly discourses) and shows not only that there’s more than one way to ‘think’ you ‘know’ something (depending on what contexts you use it in and what circles you belong to–esp. §355 and §354 with the notion that knowledge is really as common as the most common denominator), but that to be conscious of something is really to be conscious of all those things in yourself that are essentially social. Knowledge only functions, and knowledge only functions in society (and different knowledges or epistemological currencies function in different societies).

    With that notion of multiple consciousnesses and perspectivism, he lays the groundwork for numerous cultural movements after him by practically inventing axiology.

    What Nietzsche also does, though, and this is the philological part, is show how even our most transcendental notions are products of very long historical processes of transfers of authority within and among dominant (and especially subordinate authorities–n.b., ‘ressentiment’ and slave morality) groups of peoples (from this, you get Foucault’s proclamation — “I am a Nietzschean”).

    Basically, I think (the intellectual peon that I am) I read Nietzsche for different reasons.

    • Lichanos says:

      [355] For “what is known is understood”: they are unanimous as to that. Even the most circumspect among them think that the known is at least more easily understood than the strange; that for example, it is methodically ordered to proceed outward from the “inner world” from “the facts of consciousness” because it is the world which is better known to us! Error of errors! The known is the accustomed, and the accustomed is the most difficult of all to “understand” that is to say, to perceive as a problem, to perceive as strange, distant, “outside of us”.

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