Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Why I Ought to be Cautious About Nietzsche

Or: Was für eine Philosophie man wähle, hängt sonach davon ab, was man für ein Mensch ist. [What kind of philosophy one chooses depends on what sort of man one is. -Johann Fichte]

As much as I find for Nietzsche contra omnes on so many issues, it would be dishonest of me to deny that the philosophical is personal here as well. I must acknowledge that part of the attraction that Nietzsche's philosophy holds (and has always held†) for me lies in my own temperament, in what I tried and failed to say here about myself.

Perhaps I can best explain it by analogy to dancing: there are some for whom dancing comes quite naturally, but many of us have to consciously work at it. If we do this for long enough, then the conscious effort of counting beats and planning moves gradually fades into the subconscious, and dancing becomes what we so aptly term "second nature"; but we will never learn as much as fast as those spirits for whom it was "first nature" all along. (Yes, I know that the reality here is a continuum and not a binary opposition; but the differences of degree can be quite significant.)

Well, I once moralized as I danced: as a matter of conscious resolution. This is not to say that my vehemence was ersatz or forced, but rather that my strongest moral sentiments were really intellectual in nature, and only incidentally corresponding to things that do bother most people. I could never really identify with what Leon Kass termed "the wisdom of repugnance", because for me the content of an idea was never repugnant, only its falsity (as I perceived it). Those of you who knew me can verify, if they think about it, that what really offended me in a discussion was not the content of an idea so much as my inability to counter it in a form that would settle the argument. In the absence of a debate, I was quite at home playing devil's advocate or dealing in the most disturbing hypotheticals; but as soon as you took exception to me, I quite naturally assumed that passionate and pained countenance.

My first course in philosophy was in a high school summer program. One day they paired us off, gave us a list of applicants for liver transplants (descriptions like "Billy is six years old and has a condition that will require a new liver every ten years", or "Sarah is a forty-year-old schoolteacher whose liver was injured in a car crash") and told us to rank them in priority by any means we agreed on. I decided that a good way to do this would be to pair them against one another, decide binary preferences, and then total the results; and I started asking my partner whether Billy or Sarah should be ranked higher. I was quite surprised when he looked horrified and told me he couldn't answer, that this was an awful thing to decide. For me it was simple: there had to be an answer, it was just a matter of finding the right criteria. Of course somebody would (hypothetically) die in the end, but that just meant we had to think carefully about our decisions.

For me, the only real moral horror is self-deception, and so anything that led me to suspect I was deceiving myself (or that someone else was doing so) secretly terrified me. That's why, in retrospect, I was so afraid of atheism: because I knew it would mean I was lying to myself about a great many aspects of the cosmos, not simply the existence of a particular God. This moral instinct, the will not to deceive, was stronger than all the social stigma that compose most others' mores. When I despise a philosopher (say, Kant or Sartre or Locke), it is always because I think I have seen in them self-deception of some sort.

And this, of course, is why Nietzsche appeals especially to one of my temperament: because he speaks of observing all moral values from a position of intellectual detachment (at least as a preliminary to making a revaluation of them), pursuing harmful or dangerous truths, becoming aware of the self-deception involved in even this very project— and he truly does these things, more audaciously and thoroughly than anyone else I have read, with a firm grasp on his own psychology (the one needful thing that all the philosophers above leave out of their equations). It is for this that I admire Nietzsche, and verge on that greatest of follies: venerating him as a sage.

For his point is that there are no sages, no mystics, no secret insight into the heart of things. Some can see more clearly than others, but the patterns are there for all to read. The true service to Nietzsche is to incorporate him and then to overcome him, if I am indeed strong enough for that.

†From my first reading of Nietzsche in college, I was awestruck— I often said that I considered him the only sensible philosopher outside of Christianity.


Anonymous said...

Because Nietzsche never engaged in self-deception. After all, he WAS better than everyone around him...he was "so clever", he "wrote such good books", etc. I can't detect any psychological explanation for the fact that according to his philosophy, HE was the ubermensch...

Listen, I'm entertained by Nietzsche as much as the next guy (and he is often an insightful observer of other people). When I was younger, I wanted to BE him (without the insanity). However, I can't think of any other great philosopher whose philosophy is as nakedly geared toward gratifying their own ego.

-Andy P.

some guy on the street said...

For me, the only real moral horror is self-deception, and so anything that led me to suspect I was deceiving myself (or that someone else was doing so) secretly terrified me.

Hmm... I think I see what you're getting at, but, you know, it looks kinda backwards to me. Perhaps I should therefore explain how I understand "deception", and you can see if it matches your intention with the word. I'll follow up with some thoughts on why it matters.

Let us say Bob deceives Alice if Bob deliberately convinces Alice of something Bob does not believe. Magicians do this, and then reveal the contradictions that follow, but usually not the missing information; hypocrites do it badly; the Résistance hid Jews and stray paratroopers this way, though some may question their methods.

Self-deception looks like a particularly hopeless case, and unless used to ease oneself into some graver evil it looks to me more sad than reprehensible.

Patrick said...

Sorry, Blogger ate my first comment.


I haven't yet hit the late-period Nietzsche, so in his last months before madness he may have considered himself the Ubermensch, but that wasn't the case for most of his life: the highest egoism he aspired to was playing John the Baptist (which is, of course, still pretty audacious). Anyway, Nietzsche's incisive criticisms of other Western philosophers (say in Book I of Beyond Good and Evil) make the case that he was indeed more honest and clever than they. Is there necessarily a problem with justified egoism?


I'm speaking about unconscious self-deception, which I think is pretty ubiquitous in human life. Think of a hard-core creationist confronting the fossil record, or an unrequited lover telling himself that his beloved will fall for him if only he proves his ardor, or a person espousing relativism who spews moral invective at those who don't.

If we have a strong enough reason to believe X, be it social inclusion, fear of the alternative, justification of our way of life, or the like, we will find a way to believe X regardless of what our reasoning would normally conclude. (This works best when we don't consciously acknowledge our real reasons for believing X.)

Finally, the dangerous fact is that the more intelligent may be better at discovering others' self-delusions, but they are also better at deceiving themselves in more subtle ways. Self-deception reigns everywhere the Delphic inscription is not followed to its painful conclusions. (In fact, perhaps it simply reigns everywhere.)

Anonymous said...

Patrick --

I'll respond properly later on (or I'll forget) -- I'm getting ready to fly to Denmark for 3 weeks to give a bunch of lectures, so I don't have time to write anything right now.

-Andy P.

some guy on the street said...

"the delphic inscription", eh? Google can't tell me what this is, only point out examples.

It seems to me a BIT odd to declare moral imperatives against _unconscious_ acts; perhaps you mean that a habit of careful introspection has a virtuous character. Even so, I'd still say that, for practical reasons, one will probably have to admit some external authority in one's basic epistemology. On that note, How Do You Know that Nietzsche's ideas are so hot? Ehh???

c said...

Anyway, Nietzsche's incisive criticisms of other Western philosophers (say in Book I of Beyond Good and Evil) make the case that he was indeed more honest and clever than they.

Sounds like my undergraduate degree.

Seriously, it's super easy to find flaws in other people's philosophies. There are holes in all of them. Coming up with a comprehensive, coherent philosophy that isn't monstrous is extremely difficult... I'm not sure it's ever been done.

Patrick said...


Above the entrance to the oracle at Delphi were inscribed the words, "Know Thyself".

As for the other point, strangeness doesn't enter into it: I'm telling you descriptively that I do feel a moral impulse to avoid even subconscious self-deception. (I'm speaking as I did a few posts ago when I use the word "moral" here.)

Perhaps you think our moral impulses should be proportional in strength to certain criteria (in this case, the criteria we typically use to determine culpability), but as a matter of brute fact this isn't necessarily the case. More on this later.


Finding flaws with philosophies is one thing; completely demolishing them on their own terms is another. I've in the past "refuted" philosophers by counterposing what is culturally "obvious" at present, i.e. condemning Aristotle for being insufficiently egalitarian on human dignity; but outside of this culture such a criticism would be worthless. And I've also found facile logical errors in philosophers, and rested assured that I no longer needed to worry about their conclusions; but this doesn't settle whether they might be right after all, and just sloppy about it.

Nietzsche's annihilation of Descartes' proof of the soul (for example) is of a different order, however; he takes apart the "immediate certainty" by which Descartes hides the linguistic trick that ensnares him. Read it in Beyond Good and Evil (Sections 16-19; actually, the entire first book is what I point to) if you're curious.

c said...

I did actually mean refuting philosophies on their own terms.

For example, it's pretty clear that Descartes in the Meditations is all downhill after the Cogito; one can even argue that the Cogito itself is a linguistic trick (I myself find it powerful, but not super informative). The rest of it doesn't seem to follow his own rigorous standards of evidence, to put it mildly.

I'd be more interested in what you take Nietzche's positive philosophy to be.