Friday, October 30, 2009

New Direction?

by Hanno

Someone told me I have mined this Nietzsche vein for all its worth. I have more to say, but I have been on one topic way to long. Thoughts?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Life and Pain

By Hanno

Just as a work of art or literature has many different meanings, just as we can learn from how others see a work of art, or read a work of literature, so we can do the same with life itself. But we do not need a notion of absolute truth in meaning for that to make sense. In fact, perhaps the opposite: when we demand that others read Shakespeare like we read Shakespeare, because we have the truth, we automatically shut down the other. But is our 'truth' really truth?

Why would we need truth to appreciate art? Indeed, do we not have to embrace the false? Realism in art is always a lie. It really is a statue, not a man. It really is a 2 dimensional picture, not a person. When an artist draws it 'as it is' it is essentially a lie. And then the other forms of art leave even the hint of realism behind. No, I think he is right: to appreciate art, to get something interesting out of art, you must not pretend it is the truth, but embrace the lie, give the lie meaning. Is there truth? Even if so, it will not be interesting without the lie, without the interpretation which gives it meaning.

Does this mean we must accept any lie? No, just because it is an error does not make it an interesting one. just because it is a painting does not mean it is a good one. But the painting is good not because it captures the truth, and indeed, must capture part of the lie.

If i am making any sense (and maybe I am not!)...

I do not think Nietzsche wants the pain gone. Pain is part of life. To want the pain gone is to want life over. That is part of the anti-life vision he decries.

And if you think about your life, there were (are) pains and pleasures, sorrow and joy, bad choices, good choices, evil done to you and good things done to you. But you would not be who you are if you did not fully accept both, and all. All of your experiences shape who you became. You would not be who you are today without the bad times. So to want only the good is to want to be something other than you are. To love yourself is to love yourself as you are, and that requires loving the bad things, too. Loving life requires loving things difficult to love.

And if you think of art, the same is true. Art requires good and evil, pain and pleasure. You love the tragedy in spite of (or even because of!) the bad. Hamlet would not be Hamlet if he did not die in the end.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nietzsche, Life as Art

by Hanno

I want to take a look at Nietzsche's "Attempt at Self-Criticism," his piece where he tries to explain his work "The Birth of Tragedy." He writes:
Perhaps the depth of this antimoral propensity is best inferred from the careful and hostile silence with which Christianity is treated throughout the whole book -- Christianity as the most prodigal elaboration of the moral theme to which humanity has ever been subjected. In truth, nothing could be more opposed to the purely aesthetic interpretation and justification of the world which are taught in this book than the Christian teaching, which is and wants to be, only moral and which relegates are, every art, to the realm of lies; with its absolute standards, beginning with the truthfulness of God, it negates, judges and damns art.
This clearly begins a new critique of morality, and of Christianity, but also offers a view of something else, something important. First, he tells us that the Christian world view is a moral world view. There maybe other moral points of view, there surely are, but the Christian view is the most thoroughgoing example of a moral view. As such, it demands absolute standard, especially truthfulness. This in and of itself is a key to understanding him. As part of the Genealogy, Nietzsche writes that the question which really guides his later work is Why value truth? Is truth valuable in and of itself? Kant thought so. Is truth valuable because the truth is useful? But then it should not be valued if it is not useful. No, it is the unrelenting, unyielding insistence on truth that lies at the heart of the matter.

This world view eliminates, makes impossible other world views, especially artistic ones. Now if we read Nietzsche as valuing the arts above all, we can get a totally new way to read the Genealogy: This is not praising the brute nobles of old, but opening up the possibility of a different world view, by showing that truth is not the only way, morality is not the only way. We can value this world, this life aesthetically, as a work of art, nay, as a work of literature, with all that that implies. It is not the warriors of old that Nietzsche truly admires, but the artists, the brilliant, the wonders.

Truthfulness is hostility to art and to life, claims Nietzsche. But why? He claims that he understood that Christianity was hostile to life long before:
Behind this mode of thought and valuation, which must be hostile to art if it is at all genuine, I never failed to sense a hostility to life -- a furious, vengeful antipathy to life itself: for all of life is based on semblance, art, deception, points of view, and the necessity of perspectives and error.[italics added]
Here is an interesting claim: Life is art, and art is deception, a lie, a distortion. If you think that truth is good, then you think he is damning life. But if art is wonderful, then this vision of life is wonderful, too. And I think he may well be right: the story we tell ourselves about our life, or about the events of day to day, did not happen as we remember. We tell ourselves a story, and it is as interesting and important as it is false. And the story we tell ourselves alters as life goes on, embellishing, and distorting, giving events meaning and significance. We focus on certain features, and ignore others, just as we do when we interpret a work of literature. But it is literally false, it did not happen as we remember it, its meaning is not in the events, but in the telling, in the significance we give it. Our life is a lie. Sometimes painful ("My mother never loved me"), sometimes joyful ("I found my one true soulmate!"). Art does not have to have a happy ending. We can also go back, and rethink what happened to us, the events that shape us, reinterpret our very lives. And when we do, it is our life that actually changes.

But the moral view, the Christian view,
was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life's nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in "another" or "better" life.
If this life is a preface for another, better world, be it Heaven or Nirvana, what does that say about this world, this life? The more you long for a better place, the more you damn this one. the more you long for peace, for rest, the more you show your true view of this life: toil, pain, suffering. And that is to view life itself as something essentially bad. That is life's nausea: this life makes you sick, you just want it to end. The vision of this life as a punishment for original sin is just an example of this train of thought: Life interpreted as a punishment. But who could think that, if they had a fundamentally positive view of life?

So Nietzsche is yearning for a world view that makes this life valuable, worthy, wonderful, and finds that possibility in art, in a different value scheme than the moral value scheme. To the extent that your moral view, your Christian view, does not reject this world, but revels in it, Nietzsche has less of a problem with it. To the extent that your world view makes way for art, values the deceptions that make our life as we live it, Nietzsche is not arguing with you. When you love this world as it is (Ha!), bad and good, true and false, differing view points and all, then you may be living as Nietzsche hoped.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Logic by Combat

By Hanno

So I am in Logic, and two students differ about a problem. One thinks the problem is valid, the other invalid. Then it hits me: Let them fight it out! Instead of trial by combat, we can have Logic by Combat! And the best part is that we know God will be on the side of right. In the beginning was the word, and the word was God. But the 'word' in Greek was 'logos' the root of the English word logic. God was logic! With him on your side, you cannot lose!

Watching logic by combat should be far more interesting than doing truth tables, or proofs.

PS behind on my grading, hope to get my next Nietzsche piece this week, asap.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dangerous Precedents

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that "Butler University has sued an undergraduate student for making libelous and defamatory statements about administrators on a blog he kept anonymously." [full story] Essentially, Jess Zimmerman, a student, didn't agree with an administrative decision that removed the chair of the Butler’s School of Music. In full disclosure, the chair of the music department also happened to be the student's stepmother. The lawsuit is bizarre, to the say least, since the student's blog were more critical than malicious. He largely questioned certain administrators actions and called into question the handling of the process. Shortly thereafter, Butler University filed a libel and defamation suit against the student.

So as to dissociate the institutional response from the faculty response, several faculty members have spoken up about this case. An English professor wrote an editorial to the student newspaper questioning “the practice of suing our own students for their utterance." Needless to say, the idea of academic freedom is at the center of this debate.

The decision of this case is important for any number of philosophy club blogs, like this one. Philosophy adopts a critical model of inquiry that posits truth as the ultimate pursuit. Attacks are leveled at arguments, not people. Weak arguments are discarded for stronger arguments. Philosophers train their students within this method, for the pursuit of truth. Moreover, philosophers don't sue their pupils when they engage in ad hominem attacks, they point out their error and correct the method.

Topics of philosophical discussion can range from ethical vampires to vegetarianism. Often, philosophical discussions center on politics and power. Nietzsche, for example, is good discussion fodder for critiques of power. At times, philosophical discussion can aim at institutions - whether they be governmental, financial, or educational. A good philosopher encourages discussion and sometimes provokes pupils to engage and speak up about any number of topics. Success can be measured by the number of gadflys produced when the class or session is concluded.

The most engaged gadflys will continue the conversation outside of the classroom, even commenting and posting on a philosophical blog (wink). Jess Zimmerman, a gadfly, began posting and commenting on the leadership and power of the educational institution in which he was engaged. Unfortunately, those in power are the least accepting of critique. This gadfly was squashed.

This case appears to be isolated, but could easily apply to any number of philosophical blogs around the country connected to a university. The precedent at stake is a narrowing of philosophical discourse by punishing any criticism of structural power in the educational enterprise. A topic that may very well occur at any university among philosophy students.

As the article states, Zimmerman's first post to the blog read, “This is not a forum for attack. It is a forum for truth." A statement equally applicable to any number of philosophical blogs, radio stations, and classrooms.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nietzsche On Nietzsche

by Hanno

Nietzsche's metaphor of the lamb and the bird of prey, and his critique of morality as a mere perspective, one which need not be shared by everyone, seems to suggest that some people are exempt from morality: they are apart from, distinct from the herd, and do not share its morality. And cruel. We are cruel, too, we lambs. Just look at how we use morality to sit in judgment of others, how we use truth to be brutally honest, how we tease, and how we then turn our cruelty on ourselves, as we feel guilty about our cruelty. But they are cruel in an immoral way. If they are good, powerful, healthy, ought we put up with them? Ought we to become like them?

Nietzsche writes about his own work in various places. In Ecce Homo, he writes about the Genealogy of Morals, the work where he seems to praise the warrior the most. But he writes there that the first essay, where he describes the history of morality, as one where he shows Christianity is born out of the spirit of resentment. He does not even hint that the opposite, the noble value scheme, ought to be our own. This suggests that the point of the essay is not prescriptive in any way, but rather, is destructive: it wants above all to show that what we take to be universal values are not, what we take to be good was not always so. In short, writers about morality get it wrong because they did not understand the historical nature of all values. The third essay declares that man would rather will nothingness than not will. He means that our need for a reason why we suffer, why we live, is so great, we would rather accept a perspective that makes life itself a bad thing, a punishment, something to be accepted until something better comes our way, than live a life without meaning, without purpose. "A counterideal was lacking," he writes, "until Zarathustra." This counterideal can then not be the ideal of the noble warrior, since that existed before the Christian ideal. But the third essay, too, suggests nothing positive. It does not describe a counterideal, indeed, it is not mentioned until Nietzsche writes later about the third essay. It is not in the third essay at all.

Whatever this ideal is, or ought to be, it cannot be morality, it must be life affirming: this life, the life we live, is the point, and not the everlasting life here after. But what does this mean? And when we look at this, we will see the deeper critique of morality and Christianity.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Nietzsche and Morailty

by Hanno

As I was thinking of how to structure this entry, I realized quickly that i was biting off more than I could chew: sometimes philosophy is not well suited to a blog. Be that as it may, and end of the excuses, here goes:

Nietzsche's critique of morality is multifaceted. In the background of this critique, it may be useful to ask just what Nietzsche means (and hence just what do we mean) by the term 'morality.'

First, Nietzsche argues that the notion of choice is essential to any moral scheme. It is because we have a choice in our words and actions that someone else can sit in judgment of our actions, an essential feature of morality. If we were determined, programmed to act as we do, then it seems hard to blame someone for who they are, or for the actions they take. Nietzsche actually uses this straightforward and traditional critique of morality early in his writings, in the Gay Science, for example. There, he assumes that science, with its deterministic view of physical objects, its Newtonian mechanics, and with its view of man as a physical object, shows that morality is an illusion.

In later works, he becomes suspicious of science, too, and comes to see science itself not as vehicle for truth, but just another perspective, deeply rooted in the moral one: the central drive of science is truth, and that is a central focus of the moral view. As he becomes suspicious of truth, he must rethink his argument. But in a different form it appears again in his more mature writings. For example, in The Geneaology of Morals, first essay, section 13, he writes that an object is inseparable from the things that it does, so that it truly is what it does. Only the illusion of grammar, subject and object, makes it seem different. That is why we cannot ask of strength that it not be strong, because to be healthy is to do healthy things, and to be sick is to do sickly things. What you do is what you are. The fiction is that there is a thing-in-itself, or an atom, or some metaphysical posit, that is different from what it does, and hence can do otherwise. This belief is then exploited, Nietzsche writes,

for their own ends and in fact maintain no belief more ardently than the belief that the strong man is free to be weak and the bird of prey the lamb- for thus they gain the right to make the bird of prey accountable for being a bird of prey.
Thus, the concept of the soul, of something that can make choices, makes it possible to interpret their weakness, their inability to do something, as a choice.

I think this implies, but for non-scientific reasons, a hard core determinism. We are not determined by the laws of physics and biology, no. But we are what we do, we would not be who we are if we did any differently. If there is no thing that can do otherwise, no agent, then it is hard to see how we have a choice in anything we do. And it is certainly true that Hanno would not be Hanno if he did not do everything that he actually did, and will do. If so, the moral view is incoherent.

A second critique of morality, and the one Nehamas highlights, is that the moral perspective denies that it is a perspective. In that, it holds everyone by the same standard, and demands of everyone that they share the same view. In the same section, 13, Nietzsche uses the metaphor of the lamb and the bird of prey:
That lambs dislike birds of prey does not seem strange: only it gives no grounds for reproaching these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs. And if the lambs say amongst themselves: "These birds of prey are evil; and whoever is least like a bird of prey, but rather its opposite, a lamb- would he not be good?" there is no reason to find fault with this institution of an ideal...
This analogy is quite rich, and has been read in different ways. for me, the most important features include first, that just because the lamb creates their value scheme from there own experience is no reason to suppose that those values are in fact universal. Yet morality does just that, demanding that those who do not see the world in that way ought to. And second, that there is nothing wrong in the creation of the lambs value scheme. Given who the lambs are, they are right to form their world view in that way. Indeed, not to do so, not to see the birds of prey as evil, seems crazy. Just do not think that the birds of prey should view themselves in the same way, says Nietzsche. Third, the metaphor shows how the value scheme is created from the weakness of the weak, from the psychological needs of the weak. They are victims, and look at the world as victims. Morality, Nietzsche is saying, is itself a victim mentality, a need for a spiritual revenge, one which is created because actual revenge is impossible precisely because they are lambs.

If he is right, then morality is just a perspective. But the moral view denies this. For Nietzsche, the moral view is also the view of the ascetic, the view that pain and suffering, and the absence of pleasure and living, are good. The ascetic ideal says 'no' to life. Sex is bad. Power is bad. Conflict is bad. Wealth is bad. Meekness, humility, poverty, chastity, these things are good. Nietzsche then associates the values of the monk with the values of morality. We may see that someone like Kant would agree. Morality says 'no' to the desires which make us happy. But the monk, the puritan, the moral crusader, is not content to life his or her life in that way, but demands that everyone ought to live like this, too.

The ascetic ideal has a goal - a goal which is so universal that all other interests in human existence, measured against it, seem small and narrow. It interprets times, people, and humanity unsparingly with this goal in mind. It permits no other interpretation. No other goal counts. It rejects, denies, affirms, and confirms only through its own interpretative meaning (and has there ever been an interpretative system more thoroughly thought through?). It doesn`t submit to any power. By contrast, it believes in its privileged position in relation to all other powers, in its absolutely higher ranking with respect to all other powers. It believes that there is no power on earth which does not have to derive its meaning first from it, a right to exist, a value, as a tool in its own work, as a way and a means to its own goals, to a single goal. . .
It insists that it is the truth, and this is part of the world view, the interpretation itself.

Now, if Nietzsche hopes for an alternative, it becomes a key feature that this alternative does not suffer from these properties, and hence will not be morality at all. It will be a value scheme, yes, an interpretation, yes... but not the life killing moral scheme of 'NO!' And it will not sit in judgment of others. It may well be that other views are the product of weakness, of sickness... but they are the values suitable to those people. They cannot do anything else. The lamb cannot cease to be a lamb just because someone tells them she is a product of disease.

I have a third critique of Morality on Nietzsche's view, but this is already too long, so it will have to wait. Till next time.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Full Disclosure

By Hanno

In response to the FCC's decision to force bloggers to disclose all connections between blogger and corporations, I want to inform my readers that the series on Nietzsche has been underwritten by Random House in an effort to get people to buy more books. They gave me lots of money. Lots. L O T S.

The next part will appear tomorrow, as I am snowed under with grading at the moment.

And remember: Buy books. And read them. Don't just buy them, put them on your shelf, and pretend you read them. Yes, we know you do that. Its pathetic, really. Now go read.