It can be tempting to be skeptical, to believe that all the best things in life are little more than fairy tales we tell to children or, as Lou Reed put it, that "everything is just dirt." Kant's response to this kind of thing is epistemological humility. How could you know that villains always blink their eyes? How could you know that life is just to die? In a similar vein, William James argues that an optimistic faith is justified by its beneficial effects, given our ignorance about the ultimate nature of reality.
This is too convenient for the likes of Nietzsche. If we don't know, we don't know, and we shouldn't help ourselves to any cozy faith. Instead we should boldly face the uncomforting reality, such as it is and so far as we can.
But this kind of thing can be a fantasy, and childish, too. At least the rugged cowboy fantasy part of this piece by John Holbo is right:
When Americans dream about something ideal, politically, that they kind of know they aren’t going to get, they dream a conservative dream. Since conservatism is, officially, an anti-utopian philosophy, this creates the odd situation of collective dreams of anti-utopian utopianism. But people are funny that way. (It’s sort of the opposite of the famous ‘and a pony’ strategy for wishes. Namely, since wishes are free, you might as well ask for absolutely everything. But, then again, sometimes it’s more appealing to think of being a rugged cowboy, with nothing but your pony, riding off into the Western sunset. Something like that.)And the fantasy that it takes courage to face reality or the truth or life, boldly going into the known unknown, isn't only an American fantasy, as Michael Moorcock's sci-fi poem "The Black Corridor" shows. (That's pretty obscure. Here's what I'm thinking: the Starship Enterprise goes "where no man has gone before," so its crew knows that it is heading into the unknown, like Vikings heading across the Atlantic. They have already sailed on part of that ocean, and now they are heading for more. What Nietzsche has in mind is not quite clear to me, but I think he means something completely unknown and perhaps even unknowable, yet he uses images of something much less uncanny than that.) Anyway, here's the poem:
This poem embodies a mistake, it seems to me. Space is remorseless, but only because it would make no sense to attribute remorse to it. It isn't heartless in any but the literal sense. And maybe Nietzsche makes a similar mistake when he talks about the daring lover of knowledge who sets out to face any danger on the open sea. When voyaging into the completely unknown and unknowable isn't it a fantasy to talk of "our sea" and to characterize oneself as daring rather than, say, insane? If God is dead and the old values we have grown up with no longer have any value, no longer make any sense, then why do we need daring? A world without values in this sense is not an evil or especially dangerous world (even though such a world might also be described as being without values). Nietzsche seems to be putting a heroic spin on something that is barely conceivable (the revaluation of all values) let alone plainly heroic. Perhaps positive thinking is healthy, but then what makes Nietzsche's optimism better than James's or Kant's?
Kant might offer a fantasy of what is 'out there', but Nietzsche offers a fantasy of the philosopher as Jason or Captain Kirk. The fantasy-free philosopher, it seems to me, retains Kant's humility but refuses his particular faith. She has a positive attitude, like Nietzsche, but not because she has such a high opinion of herself. Rather she is impressed by the very unknown quality of the world. Her 'Why?' and her 'How?' are not so much questions as intakes of breath. And of course she has no answers. Least of all those of the cynic. Or, at any rate, no more those of the cynic than those of the worst dogmatist. In a way, the philosopher is like a child in a fairy tale, but not naively so. She is the least deceived of all, because she is not fantasizing about what might be out there, nor about her heroic relation to it. She focuses instead on what she knows, namely what she does not know or understand.
(This is probably too twee and the real work, if I am right, is actually doing philosophy, not talking in admiring terms about what philosophers do. But I think it might be one way of getting at what the greatest philosophers of the last century tried to do. And what they do, on this account, is find things to wonder at and then fight the urge to explain or reduce them. Finding might be only a matter of noticing, but that isn't always easy. You don't notice anything when you're asleep, and waking oneself up is not a simple matter. And the urge to explain or reduce probably needs to be felt and fought, not simply ignored or shrugged off.)