Friday, September 9, 2011

Most of all you've got to hide it from the kids

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.)  



  1. What you say about N's "daring" is like what Nagel says (in "The Absurd") about Camus' notion of "revolt"--he calls it, "romantic and slightly self-pitying," but I think his larger point that the righteousness of revolt doesn't follow any more from life's being absurd than anything else.

    Perhaps, if being "daring" or "rebellious" is to do anything here, it involves daring to rebel against--or at least challenge--our own presuppositions or pictures. (Which includes pictures we might have inherited about what follows if, e.g., there's just more space, and space is remorseless only in that it has no agency at all...) It would be to question the sources of our own anxiety, and to ask ourselves whether we are really just spooking ourselves, or inventing problems where there aren't problems. (Of course, if we feel there is a problem, then there is a problem, but maybe not the problem that we think there is. It might, as LW suggests, be more a problem of finding a point where we can stop doing philosophy and just go watch an old mystery movie with a friend...)

    It's interesting that you bring up James here, in that we might adopt something like the pragmatist spirit in thinking about our philosophical worries as practical worries about how to get on with things. (Not pragmatist in the sense that we reduce truth to what "works," whatever that means...) That we not see theory as divorced from practice (or thought from body, or reason from emotion, etc.--sorry I've been riffing on Descartes in my classes lately). But not to "reduce" as you put it either. So, the search for truth is not just a search for some "intrinsically valuable" good, but the search for a way forward. Of course, we might ask, but where is it all headed? But maybe that question is just too big, to the point of being incoherent. (Or maybe being too obsessed with that question, rather than with closer, and more focused destinations or explorations, involves something like letting our "consequentialist" impulses get out of control (which you mentioned in connection with education) or maybe involves some kind of self-absorption--that things must be headed somewhere for my life to matter, and that it's mattering has to be connected to its role in the "grand scheme of things").

  2. Duncan, this whole post of yours says nearly exactly the same thing I say in my last book, first briefly in the preface and second at more length in the very closing pages. Only the poem I criticise there is Arnold's "Dover Beach" instead of the Moorcock poem.

    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.

    Well, it didn't strike me as twee. (And better twee than naff.) Additionally, I think that some ways of "talking in admiring terms about what philosophers do" count as philosophy themselves while others do not. Certainly, I felt myself to be doing philosophy when I wrote my book - to the extent that I differentiated it in the preface from my previous book by saying that this is the one where I do philosophy.

    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.

    When discussing this particular point in the book, I draw a parallel between this attitude and Cora Diamond's notion of "the realistic spirit" (so your use of the feminine pronoun is very appropriate). It struck me while writing the book that what is the trouble with "realism" in the sense of what the term denotes in analytic philosophy - the target of her original criticism - is often also the trouble with "realism" as an attitude to life. In both cases, the problem comes from something like self-consciously attempting to be as "realistic" as possible, and thinking of one's "realism" as under constant threat from something that needs to be repelled by building some sort of big, bulky bulwarks - instead of just being, as you put it, "impressed by the very unknown quality of the world". In other words, by trying specifically not to be antirealistic one often winds up being unrealistic.

    I think your use of the word "fantasy" here - not one of the more common terms of criticism in contemporary philosophy - is also very Diamondian. It occurs nineteen times in "Realism and the Realistic Spirit" alone.

    And the urge to explain or reduce probably needs to be felt and fought, not simply ignored or shrugged off.

    Not only "felt and fought", but: "first we must learn to understand what it is that opposes such an examination [...] in philosophy" (PI §52; quoted in The Realistic Spirit, pp. 46-47, and I too quote it).

  3. Thanks, Matt and Tommi.

    Matt: I wonder whether I'm being too harsh on Nietzsche here, since fear of the unknown seems reasonable enough. But what Nagel says about Camus sounds right, and I detect at least some of the same in Nietzsche. So maybe I'm not so far off. I find it hard to imagine anyone doing philosophy well who thought of themselves as engaged in a daring or heroic enterprise. Even if it is daring (when forbidden by the government, perhaps) I think it would be distracting to think of it that way. And, yes, I think philosophical concerns ought to be practical, although perhaps any question that captures one's interest is practical. Certainly some inquiries that might at first seem purely academic can turn out to have more practical significance.

    Tommi: "Dover Beach" is a much better poem than "The Black Corridor," so good for you. I was afraid that I might sound twee because of my reference to fairy tales. I wanted to suggest Chesterton, but it's probably not wise to try to copy his style. And I agree that writing about philosophy can be philosophy--I just didn't want to get too self-congratulatory or smug. And, finally, to the extent that I'm right this probably does reflect Diamond's influence on my thinking. I think you're absolutely right about the dangers of trying too hard to be realistic. That's very well put.

  4. i think the daring is called for because the knowledge sought by nietzsche's knowledge-seeker is primarily knowledge of the histories of moral values (conceived 'psychologically'), and even pursuit of knowledge of this sort puts one, affectively, at odds with those who live out their moral values in the usual way without any glimmer of intellectual conscience. this disparity causes all sorts of suffering and unhappiness which might make the knowledge-seeker afraid to dig deeper. and the knowledge-seeker's investigations will tend to undermine her view of herself, too, so far as she shares the values on which she turns her investigative eye—potentially posing an even more forbidding danger.

  5. Thanks, j. I sort of see that, although Nietzsche seems to regard the prospect as exciting and potentially liberating as well as dangerous. So it isn't all suffering and unhappiness. I was linking what he says in that passage with the passage from Kant that he seems to echo, and Kant is talking about not just the unknown but the unknowable ("a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion, where many a fog bank and many a swiftly melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes, and engaging him in enterprises which he can never abandon and yet is unable to carry to completion"). A journey into the unknown might take daring, but a journey into the unknowable seems like something else. Then again, if Nietzsche is actually talking about a voyage that he has already made then he might know that it is painful, even if it is also liberating (like climbing out of Plato's cave). This is surely a personal matter though. For someone to lose their faith and replace it with something else might involve a great struggle. For someone who never had much faith and was born in a later time, it might seem that Nietzsche is exaggerating.

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  7. For someone who never had much faith and was born in a later time, it might seem that Nietzsche is exaggerating.

    Exactly. And I think this line of criticism is quite underrated, taking into account its relevance and cogency.

    What I contrasted "Dover Beach" with, a bit tendentiously to be sure, was a remark by the Finnish essayist and critic Matti Mäkelä: "The world is not a dramatic place, the world is Kouvola or Hamina at half past three on a Saturday afternoon." (Kouvola and Hamina are towns in the south of Finland - the rough local equivalents of, say, Swindon or Luton.) This just isn't Dover beach, the year isn't 1867, and it isn't even night - so pretending otherwise comes across very easily as merely ridiculous.

    In fact it strikes me as a kind of weird role-playing game - the kind that Marx mocked the 1851 French coup d'état for being in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

  8. Yes, although I don't know that it has to be farcical. To the extent that faith is still possible the loss of faith is still possible, and the struggle to replace faith in God with something else might be quite real. I suppose any philosophical problem can be felt deeply. In Bryan Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher, as I recall, he describes reacting physically to philosophical puzzles in ways that I find just about incredible. But how can I say that he's lying, or even exaggerating? And if Nietzsche is troubled by the "death of God" this is easier to take seriously than someone today who claims to have the same trouble. But, all the same, their trouble might be quite real. It might even be made worse by being treated as ridiculous by others. The boys throw stones at the frogs in play, but the frogs don't die in play. They die in earnest.

    Which is not to deny that there seems to be, and may well be, something farcical about a Nietzschean 'tragedy' lived out today.

  9. i think nietzsche is more concerned by the claims of common morality than on replacing a faith in god.

  10. That could well be. The two sort of go together, though, don't they, in his opinion?

  11. well, yes. the point i would like to make, though i'm not clear on how to, is that i kind of get the impression nietzsche is being assessed here on his attitudes toward something more of interest to other philosophers than to him. but i guess i'll have to think about what's bothering me. one thing seems to be that i am not necessarily putting that much weight, when i think of nietzsche, on the idea that there is a problem now that traditional values have been devalued. instead i would stress that he wonders how to understand his own values, as a seeker of knowledge (on something like the model of philosophy / science broadly understood). i would specify the difference between those two thoughts partly by saying that the former imagines the disappearance (for whatever reasons) of the kinds of desires which formerly sustained traditional values. but in many cases these are also values which nietzsche attributes to others, rather than dealing with them as ones which he himself has lost (and must deal with the consequences of losing). the latter, nietzsche's values, are ones to which he continues to find himself attached - the desires are still there, he is still attracted to knowledge. but because they stand at odds in certain ways to the traditional values (or rather, to the attitudes of people who continue to affirm traditional values), pursuing his own values brings consequences toward which certain attitudes are needed, or useful, if pursuit is to continue.

    agh, i'm not sure what my problem is. maybe i'd say: i think it's on the wrong track to treat nietzsche's recommendation of 'daring' for the knowledge-seeker as an answer to a supposed crisis (the death of god).

  12. You could be right. I find Nietzsche very hard to interpret with confidence. In The Gay Science 283 he talks about courageous human beings "who know how to be silent, lonely, resolute, and content and constant in invisible activities." These are the ones, I take it, who live at war with themselves and their peers. Being lonely and at war with one's peers takes a kind of strength, I agree, but if these people are to be unpretentious and opposed to vanity, as Nietzsche also says, then the rhetoric of heroism might be counterproductive. Maybe that's a matter of taste.

    As for crisis, I'm sure someone has said that one person's crisis is another's opportunity, and in 343 this seems to be the kind of idea that Nietzsche has in mind. The section, and thus Book Five, "We Fearless Ones," begins with a reference to the death of God as the greatest recent event. It is at least the background, it seems to me, of his discussion of this daring and fearlessness. A sun has set and a new dawn is beginning, so the people of the past (if I can put it that way) face cataclysm while the people of the future are cheerful and excited.

    But what is there to be so excited about? Apparently it is the new opportunity afforded by the present and future impossibility of belief in God (although in the Antichrist authentic Christianity is presented as always possible and Christianity-as-we-know-it is presented as always having been impossible, hypocritical). This impossibility or death brings other things with it, such as the death of the old morality. But Nietzsche, as I understand him, doesn't want a radically different morality. Or rather, he wants a morality that is, for the most part, only different radically, at the root. What he approves and disapproves is much the same as what everyone else approves and disapproves, but his reasons are different. I'm not sure how exciting this really is, or how much courage it calls for.

    Especially for us today, living after two world wars, various forms of totalitarianism and bouts of genocide, the sexual revolution, the rise of feminism, etc. (I don't mean that these are all bad things!) If Nietzsche was not a little hysterical in his own day, it certainly would seem a little odd to me if someone were to talk as he does as if the old sun had still just set and a new one was still just dawning. At least I might expect such a person to recognize that a lot has happened in that dawn already to upset traditional ideas about morality. Nothing settled has replaced the foundation of the old morality, such as it was, perhaps, but it's not as if we're in for a bumpy ride. If such a ride was ever going to begin it did so decades ago. And this is so not only in terms of political and historical events and movements, but in philosophy too. Especially in ethics, and the foundations of ethics in particular. Old ideas are constantly being challenged and rejected.

    But I sense myself getting worked up and at least in danger of saying things just because they fit the trajectory of my rhetoric. Does this in way address your concern?

  13. AUGH.

    i so lost the comment that i just typed here. but i ended it by saying: 'sorry if this isn't making sense - i should probably write up something longer elsewhere. it's hard to think in this little comment box.' maybe i will have to take my own advice.

  14. I know the feeling. I'll look elsewhere for a longer comment/post.