Philosophy and/or Literature: The Case of Nietzsche

Which is more important: the artistic merit of Nietzsche’s writing, or its philosophical content? A similar question could be asked about Plato. Dialogues such as the Apology and Republic are works of art that also convey philosophical arguments.

Let’s take a look at a passage from The Anti-Christ §11. (I’ve compressed it a bit.)

A word now against Kant as a moralist. A virtue must be our invention; it must spring out of our personal need and defence. In every other case it is a source of danger. That which does not belong to our life menaces it; a virtue which has its roots in mere respect for the concept of “virtue,” as Kant would have it, is pernicious. Quite the contrary is demanded by the most profound laws of self-preservation and of growth: to wit, that every man find his own virtue, his own categorical imperative. Nothing works a more complete and penetrating disaster than every “impersonal” duty, every sacrifice before the Moloch of abstraction. Continue reading

Art, Adorno, and Communism

In Negative Dialectics, Theodor W. Adorno famously wrote that “[p]hilosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” He’s alluding to Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” (I like Baudrillard’s riposte: “activists have only changed the world in various ways; the point is to re-interpret it.”)

The realization of philosophy was the reconciliation of theory and practice, i.e. concrete, real-world freedom for all, a “polis without slaves.” The missed opportunity – the point at which freedom for all could have been achieved – was presumably the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to totalitarianism.

Personally, I’m skeptical of the idea that the Bolshevik Revolution would have resulted in a worker’s paradise but for the perfidy of the West, which Adorno seems to have believed at least as of his discussions with Max Horkheimer in 1956 (see Horkheimer and Adorno’s Towards a New Manifesto, 2011). But that’s another matter.

Adorno appears to have settled down in the view that although capitalism was bad, “actually existing communism” was worse, and the best we can hope for is the life provided by the liberal democratic welfare state – what Herbert Marcuse called the “smooth, comfortable unfreedom” of “one-dimensional society.” We can forget about the reconciliation of theory and practice. Instead, we should devote ourselves to alerting the victims of one-dimensionality to their oppression, from which they are distracted by the culture industry. There’s no viable path to communism, and attempts to act on the delusion that there is will provoke the “system” to turn from the soft power of consumerism to the coercive instruments of the police state – as Adorno thought the student movement of the 1960s was causing it to do.

Communism, then, was a failed dream, and political utopianism of any kind was downright dangerous. Are Adorno’s views on art analogous? Continue reading

Heidegger: Some Basics

Heidegger’s philosophical interests were originally stimulated by reading canonical figures such as Aristotle and Kant, but he was also inspired by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who at the time were not really regarded as philosophers. They were deeply critical of the philosophical tradition, especially in the form of what Nietzsche called “Platonism.” Heidegger too adopted a critical perspective on what he saw as insufficiently examined presuppositions of Western philosophy.

The reflections stimulated by these thinkers (along with Dilthey and Husserl, to whom Heidegger was an assistant) culminated, by some extraordinarily original process of philosophical imagination, in Being and Time (1927). Continue reading

Nietzsche on the Intellectual Conscience

By “intellectual conscience,” Nietzsche means the idea that it is wrong to believe something unless you have good reason to think that the belief is true. Someone with an intellectual conscience will form and endorse beliefs by applying the best epistemic standards known to him or her.

Most of us, Nietzsche thinks, lack an intellectual conscience:

[T]he great majority of people lacks an intellectual conscience. […] I mean: the great majority of people does not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly, without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterward…. (The Gay Science §2.)

Exercising the intellectual conscience, if one does possess it, doesn’t necessarily lead to certainty; on the contrary. The more you subject your beliefs to scrutiny, the less certain you will become about them. This is good, because searching for the truth, as well as finding it, is good. Bernard Reginster puts the point as follows:

[T]he seeker after knowledge must want both knowledge and uncertainty or ignorance. He cannot be a genuine seeker after truth unless he actually wants to find it, but since what he cares about is the search after truth, he must also welcome the uncertainty and ignorance that supply opportunities for it. (The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism.)

Although intellectual conscience is a necessary condition, it is not, Nietzsche seems to think, a sufficient one. The “last idealists of knowledge in whom alone the intellectual conscience dwells today,” namely the scientists, have rendered Christian belief untenable, but they shrink from questioning their own values. “These are by no means free spirits: for they still believe in [the value of] truth.” (On the Genealogy of Morals, III §24.) Continue reading

Wallace Stevens and the Cognitive Value of Form

There’s a tendency to find the cognitive value of art in its content rather than its form. This can focus the discussion on theme, which is one reason for skepticism about the cognitive value of art. When we paraphrase the theme of a poem, for example, it often looks rather thin. It may be cognitive, but it’s of little value.

Wallace Stevens’s poetry has cognitive content, but the cognitive value of his poetry is not only a matter of content. Stevens is interested, you might say, in the form of thinking.

Stevens is often accused of being emotionally cold, as if his attention to thinking came at the expense of feeling. But there’s a way of understanding what can seem like coldness as a device for encouraging us to reflect on an important mode of cognition, namely the experience of imaginative identification.

Much poetry solicits imaginative identification by means of empathy and sympathy. In empathy the reader is invited to share the point of view of the speaker, and in sympathy the reader is invited to share the goals of the speaker. Consider a classic of Romantic poetry: Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.”

The poem provides many details about the speaker, which individuate him and invite us to imagine his point of view. We know that it’s been five years since he was at the river Wye, we know the impression the region made on him (“steep and lofty cliffs”), what it meant to him (“thoughts of deep seclusion”), and that it sustained him (“in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din/Of towns and cities”) over years of suffering. Having aroused our concern about what caused the speaker to suffer, we are led through the rest of the poem and finally see his point of view, that of a widower addressing his lost beloved.

Contrast this with Stevens’s poetry. In it, we typically learn virtually nothing of the speaker’s personal history, there is little effort to arouse our curiosity about him, and the feelings aroused or named are harder to get at compared with the drama of love, grief, and healing. The effect is to de-emphasize sympathy, empathy, and identification. Continue reading

The Concept of Art

Is there a universal way to define the word “art”?

If by “universal” you mean a way to define art that captures everything that is a work of art and excludes everything that is not a work of art, as opposed to a definition of art that is universally accepted, the answer is yes.

At least, there are ways of trying to define art universally, although none has been conspicuously successful or satisfying to all. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something by making the attempt and by reflecting on attempts made. There was quite a lot of that in the last half of the twentieth century, though in the last couple of decades the focus has shifted to artistic value – why art matters – and issues involving aesthetic properties. Beauty, especially, has gotten a good deal of (in my view) needed attention.

There are other ways to form a conception of something than by defining it, especially if you think of a definition as a statement of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. In the last century, however, George Dickie seemed to have found one. He said, roughly speaking, that something counted as an artwork just in case it was offered as a candidate for appreciation by someone institutionally authorized to do so. The institution in question was usually thought of as the “art world,” a rather loose but not utterly incoherent arrangement of practices, beliefs, values, authorities and other things we associate with an ongoing and purposive social activity. Continue reading

Why did Nietzsche call Kant a “theologian in disguise”?

Nietzsche meant that Kant established the validity of Christian morality by making philosophical arguments that didn’t rely on Christian beliefs.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:

Kant wanted to prove, in a way that would dumbfound the common man, that the common man was right: that was the secret of this soul. He wrote against the scholars in support of popular prejudice, but for the scholars and not for the people. [§193.]

Kant held that all rational persons have an a priori understanding of the basic principles of morality. These consist of duties, both to oneself and to others, and above all the duty to respect rational agents. Most persons, however, do not understand that morality is a priori, and their moral commitments are therefore vulnerable to corrosive skeptical criticism. In The Metaphysics of Morals Kant formulates the ultimate standard for moral judgment, namely universalizability, and establishes the rational necessity of morality.

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Progressivism and Disciplinary Power

Over the last decade or so, “progressive” activists have exhibited a desire to regulate the personal behavior and values of their fellow citizens. Language, attitudes, expressions, gestures, feelings, and even thoughts are to be policed, with the aim of enforcing principles of conduct established by self-appointed “experts” in the workings of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and other injustices.

Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power might conceivably help us think about the rise of illiberalism on the progressive left. There are at least as many differences as there are similarities, however, between disciplinary power and the regulation of personal behavior pursued by activists today.

What is disciplinary power? Foucault’s view was that after the Enlightenment had undermined the moral authority of religion, modern societies developed professional and academic disciplines that purported to use scientific methods to acquire empirical knowledge of human behavior. These sciences – psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, criminology, medicine – established how human beings normally behaved under various circumstances.

Theoretically, “normal” meant “average.” But in practice, “normal” was implicitly taken to mean “good” or “ideal.” This, Foucault argued, made possible a form of oppression that was characteristic of liberal democratic societies: individuals “internalized” the norms established by the disciplines and regulated themselves accordingly. In this way, social scientific “experts” in human behavior played the role of the earlier religious and moral authorities.

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What do Horkheimer and Adorno mean when they say: “myth is already enlightenment”?

Myth is “already” enlightenment because myth and enlightenment have something in common: the desire to control nature, rooted in a fear of nature and aggression.

In myth and religion, human beings tried to control nature (at least to the extent of sustaining the right amounts sun, rain, and fertility) by propitiating the gods, offering them sacrifices and other signs of devotion. Myth and religion understood nature in personal terms, seeing in forces such as sun, rain, and wind the recognizably human qualities of purpose and desire. Knowledge of reality was acquired by means of inspired mystical experiences, and passed down through the generations as authorized by tradition.

The central principle of the Enlightenment, on the other hand, was the sovereignty of reason. Reason is the highest source of intellectual authority, and its findings trump religion and tradition. Reason establishes the value of religion and tradition, but neither religion nor tradition can evaluate reason. As Immanuel Kant put it in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781):

Our age is, to a preeminent degree, the age of criticism, and to criticism everything must submit. Religion through its sanctity, and the state through its majesty, may seek to exempt themselves from it. But then they arouse just suspicion against themselves, and cannot claim the sincere respect which reason gives only to that which sustains the test of free and open examination. (Critique of Pure Reason A.xii.)

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