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A Pyrrhonian Nietzschean stakeout

Jessica Berry interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Jessica Berry stays cool calm and collected as she pronounces Nietzsche a Pyrrhonian skeptic. She says Nietzsche sees Homer as a counterexample to all our dominant ascetic values rather than an alternative role model but who like himself regarded many of his central questions as psychological questions and was preoccupied with nihilism. She doesn’t think Nietzsche thought reality was a flux nor that knowledge is impossible and takes issue with those who say he’s some kind of anti-realist about morals because that saddles him with metaphysical views. Everything she says is mind-bombingly, brain-teasingly provocative which makes her an inspirational carpet of philosophical groovaciousness.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Was it Nietzsche?

Jessica Berry: No, actually I had no exposure to philosophy at all, much less to Nietzsche, until I went off to college. But somehow I was intrigued by philosophy even before I knew properly what it was. In the summer before I left for university, I was asked to select, from a menu of courses, one class where the instructor would act as a kind of academic advisor during the coming years. The premise wasn’t that we were selecting a major, of course, and that isn’t how I thought about it; it was more of an academic “homeroom” of sorts. I picked ‘Philosophy 101’ without any hesitation at all. It sounded completely exotic and challenging to me, and in that sense a nice change of pace after a pretty mediocre secondary school education. I remember distinctly spending weeks on Descartes’ Meditations, which I confess I found baffling at the time, and reading some Mill and Kant; I was immediately drawn in. Until then, I had always thought I would study psychology as a college student, but I quickly came to realise that the questions that attracted me to the idea of studying psychology (to which I’d had no real exposure either before college) were not questions that could sustain my interest in the discipline of psychology. In that respect, a philosophy of mind course I took was a real eye-opener for me. The problem of consciousness, the nature of mental states, the relationship between objects of perception and our representations of them, and worries about whether we have the sort of self-transparency that psychology (clinical psychology, at any rate) seemed to presuppose I just found totally absorbing. The questions about perception and self-knowledge led me to think about problems of knowledge more generally, and ultimately to an interest in epistemology and an openness to philosophical skepticism that still guides a lot of my work.

I wasn’t introduced to Nietzsche until late in my undergraduate career, and though I thoroughly enjoyed his writing, I never thought about doing any serious work on his philosophy until years later – really, when I’d finished my graduate coursework and started thinking about a dissertation. It was about that time – in light of some work I’d been doing on skepticism and its history – that Nietzsche’s thought began to make sense to me in a way it hadn’t before and that my reading of Nietzsche began to take real shape. When I reflect a little on what attracts me to Nietzsche’s work, though, I think it’s no accident that Nietzsche regards many of his central questions as psychological questions, and even that the Greek skeptics, whose practice suggested to me a framework for understanding Nietzsche’s project, regard themselves as psychologists (or therapists) of a sort. Nietzsche’s questions about the psychological springs of our actions were the very questions that had interested me from the beginning.

3:AM: One of the things you are interested in is the relationship between Nietzsche and the Greeks. The way you present it, Homer seems to be a fully fledged Nietzschean. Can you say something about the role of Homer in Nietzsche’s thought?

JB: Sure. The central preoccupation of Nietzsche’s philosophy is of course a cultural problem – the problem of nihilism. He conceives of it as a genuine threat, and when he attacks “ascetic” ideals (ideals that encourage self-denial and deflate the value of human life and our worldly existence), it’s because he thinks these lead inevitably to nihilism. Now, one thing all ascetic value systems, of which Christianity is perhaps the most striking but by no means the only example, have in common is their promotion of the view that the values to which they subscribe are universal, necessary, categorical. Christianity presents itself as the ultimate truth about the world and its values as “the only game in town.” And the triumph of these values and moral prescriptions in the modern world has been so complete – they’ve been made to seem so obvious and inevitable – that any real challenge to them seems impossible and any criticism of them seems outrageous. As Nietzsche observes in the Genealogy of Morality, even to raise the question of the value of these values is sufficient to make someone a pariah. “Even doubt,” as he says in the Antichrist, “is a sin.”

One crucial move, therefore, in the struggle to loosen the stranglehold of ascetic morality on the world is to make alternatives to it salient. And this, among other things, is what makes the Homeric epics so valuable for Nietzsche. Homer, whom Nietzsche mentions more than any other Greek thinker or writer, paints a vivid picture of an exuberant, if sometimes brutal, civilisation with a wholly different scheme of values. And that functions as an important counterexample to the claim that our contemporary values are the only possible values. It’s really important to note here, I think, that this in no way implies that Nietzsche is encouraging us to “return” to those values or that such values are either possible or desirable for us to adopt. The Homeric warrior-heroes are not models for us – I mean, how absurd a suggestion is that? – but counterexamples. They reveal possibilities precisely where, say, Christianity has a stake in having us believe that none exist.

3:AM: Heraclitus is another Greek Nietzsche found impressive. But you worry that too many interpretations of Niezsche’s interest in Heraclitus take him as being interested in his ‘all is flux’ ontology as support for perspectivism. You say that Nietzsche wasn’t interested in that aspect of the Greek primarily but rather it was his character that drew him, as a cultural force and representative of the tragic world view. Is this right?

JB: Nietzsche mentions Heraclitus often – not quite as often as Homer, but often – and throughout his career. And when he mentions Heraclitus, he does so in consistently positive, even glowing, terms – terms like kinship and reverence. And this is understandable: if you’re into wise, curmudgeonly hermit-types with an oracular style and a healthy disdain for the common run of humanity – and Nietzsche pretty clearly is — there’s a lot to love about Heraclitus. Nietzsche’s early writings focus explicitly on Heraclitus’s “personality”; an early manifestation of the psychologist Nietzsche’s interest in thinkers as “types.” A surprising number of commentators, though, have managed to reduce Heraclitus’s thought to an ontological position he’s alleged to have held — a doctrine of radical flux – according to which there are no stable entities at all, and have taken Nietzsche’s enthusiasm for Heraclitus as sufficient to attribute to him some pretty wild views. For instance, if all reality is just a chaotic flux, and if there are no enduring objects, then to the extent that they represent the world as having some stability, all our beliefs are nothing but hopeless distortions. There is no truth. Knowledge is impossible. All we have are “mere” interpretations or our own idiosyncratic “perspectives” on the world, and there can be no way to ground a preference for one over any other. Arthur Danto once aptly described this view as “epistemic nihilism.”

I’m not sure such a view is even coherent, but I’m sure it’s not interesting. On this account, there is exactly one rejoinder to any claim whatsoever: we just imagine Jeff Bridges as The Dude muttering, “Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man”. Philosophically, I think this view is just a non-starter; interpretively, as an understanding of Nietzsche’s texts, it seems to me to be both unappealing and unwarranted. It’s definitely the “nuclear option.” If all our beliefs are equally hopeless distortions, then it cannot matter what we believe. And if it can’t matter what we believe, then it cannot matter to Nietzsche that, say, Christians believe as they do. Even if it does matter to him, it’s not available to us to ask why, because there can be no reason that could be binding on us, and therefore, it shouldn’t matter to us what Nietzsche thinks about Christian morality or anything else. And so we simply have no reason to read Nietzsche.

3:AM: Do you actually think Heraclitus didn’t endorse a flux ontology to the extent that we might have believed?

JB: That Heraclitus endorsed an ontology of “radical flux” is a crucial premise in an argument that I think is bad, but that nevertheless continues to be advanced in more and less sophisticated versions: Nietzsche really likes Heraclitus; Heraclitus taught a doctrine of radical flux; therefore, Nietzsche endorsed an ontological doctrine of radical flux. No matter how much Nietzsche admires Heraclitus, it clearly doesn’t follow that he would have to endorse everything Heraclitus endorses. Nietzsche is a selective admirer, to be sure, but he likes sufficiently many thinkers that if we were to attribute to him all of their views, the result could only be a real philosophical muddle. So we have to begin with the question what it is about this or that thinker that would draw Nietzsche’s admiration in the first place, and as I’ve said, with Heraclitus, there’s a lot to admire completely independently of his cosmological or ontological theories, which themselves are pretty murky. On that issue, I think there are a lot of open questions: did Heraclitus really subscribe to a “flux doctrine”? Did Nietzsche think Heraclitus subscribed to such a doctrine? What’s the content of the flux doctrine, anyway?

Given the persistence of a certain caricature of Heraclitus, there’s actually less evidence than you might think for the attribution to him of a doctrine of radical flux. There are about 120 fragments attributed to Heraclitus, and textual support for this doctrine rests almost entirely on three or four fragments about rivers: “Upon those who step into the same rivers different and [still] different waters flow,” for instance. And, again as Nietzsche was well aware, both the authenticity and the translation and interpretation of these fragments were matters of vigorous debate. Moreover, of the participants in the debate, those on whom Nietzsche relied most heavily (for instance, as sources for a lot of his lecture material) seemed to favour interpretations far more conservative than we would need to support the radical reading. At most, some of Nietzsche’s contemporaries suggested that Heraclitus thought objects of our experience have a kind of “ship of Theseus” existence, such that their identity over time is questionable. But that view of course presupposes that there are objects we can individuate from one another and talk about perfectly sensibly, so it’s incompatible with the claim about chaotic flux that’s alleged to render linguistic representation impotent and truth and knowledge chimerical.

Readers who persist in attributing those positions to Heraclitus and Nietzsche also seem to me almost willfully to neglect Heraclitus’s insistence on the order, measure, regularity and necessity he finds in the cosmos and the eternal, law-like principles that govern it. Those themes are far more prevalent than the tantalising bits that earned Heraclitus the dubious honor of being, according to some, the forerunner of post-modernism. I discuss all this at greater length in an article for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on Nietzsche. Here, I’ll just say that, at a bare minimum, I think that if the claim is that Nietzsche’s appreciation of Heraclitus somehow constitutes evidence that Nietzsche maintained an ontology of “radical” flux, then the claim just needs to be rethought.

3:AM: There are those who argue that Nietzsche was a skeptic about both knowledge and truth. But you say we need to know what is meant by ‘skeptic’ and it’s in respect of this question that Nietzsche’s relationship to Pyrrho is important isn’t it? So who was Pyrrho and what kind of skepticism does he bring to the table?

JB: Absolutely. The view I just described — the one according to which truth and knowledge are impossible – often travels (misleadingly, in my view) under the name of ‘skepticism’, when it’s really a very strident, very metaphysically ambitious set of views. There’s nothing cautious about this position at all, and I don’t think Nietzsche was an “epistemic nihilist” of this kind. There’s also a growing interpretive orthodoxy according to which Nietzsche is a ‘skeptic’ in the sense associated with what J. L. Mackie called moral skepticism, but which is really an anti-realism. Some interpreters have taken this as a semantic theory about moral language (i.e., it all fails to refer), others as a theory about the metaphysical status of values (i.e., there are none), but either way, it saddles Nietzsche with a lot of systematic, theoretical views I just don’t think he develops. Among other things, I have trouble seeing how any of these readings are reconcilable with Nietzsche’s consistent and undeniable rejection of metaphysics and systematic, theoretical philosophy, with his warnings about dogmatism and its consequences, or with his self-identification as a critic, challenger, debunker and destroyer, rather than a “system-builder.”

Pyrrhonian skeptics are those who adopt a certain practice with a nod to Pyrrho of Elis, a Greek figure of the mid-fourth to mid-third century BCE, who actually left no writings but with whom the practice is said to have originated. Our best knowledge of this variety of skepticism in fact comes from a second century CE physician named Sextus Empiricus. What makes the Pyrrhonists unique among other sorts of skeptics is that on all speculative, “philosophical” questions, they suspend judgment. This ephectic attitude is in fact the hallmark of Pyrrhonism. From their point of view, other skeptics turn out to be nothing more than negative dogmatists. And that’s a crucial observation, because it’s what gives the Pyrrhonist his claim to being a real skeptic – a word that originally means “inquirer.” If I’ve suspended judgment on an issue, it makes sense for me to continue investigating. If, on the hand, I’ve made up my mind that, say, there is no God or that values don’t exist or that knowledge is impossible, then I’ve closed off that avenue of investigation and come to rest with a position I have to defend no less vigorously than my dogmatic opponents.

A Pyrrhonian skeptic, then, is essentially someone with a peculiar talent for countering any argument with an opposing argument. It’s crucial to see that the Pyrrhonist is not a stubborn sort of person, unwilling to be convinced; it just happens to be devilishly hard to convince him, such is his talent for opposing one argument to another. In the face of his keen awareness of arguments on both sides of every issue, he suspends judgment, and a state of well-being — psychological equanimity – is said to follow this suspension “like a shadow follows a body.” And this is the end at which Pyrrhonian skepticism aims: psychological well-being and health.

The aim of these thinkers (or, more precisely, these practitioners) was not to advance theories, but was instead to cure, where they could, what they called the “conceit and rashness” of dogmatic philosophers. I read Nietzsche’s perennial concern with health as expressing fundamentally the same aim.

3:AM: So is it through the lens of Pyrrho that we should understand Nietzsche’s attitude to knowledge and truth?

JB: I do. And I think the metaphor of a “lens” is particularly helpful here. I want to be clear about the nature of the relationship between the Pyrrhonists and Nietzsche, because I think that philosophers often aren’t perspicuous enough about the nature of historical “influence.” I’ve in fact deliberately avoided, or at least have highly qualified, the claim that Nietzsche is “influenced” by Pyrrho or by Sextus. You won’t find in Nietzsche’s published work any reference at all to Sextus Empiricus, and you’ll find only a couple of allusions to Pyrrho himself. And Nietzsche certainly doesn’t identify himself as a Pyrrhonist. My own view is that if we really take the time to familiarise ourselves with this variety of skepticism, if we come to appreciate its motivations and recognize the moves standardly made by Pyrrhonian skeptics, then we cannot fail to see these motivations and many of the same moves in Nietzsche’s writing, and we’ll come to see Nietzsche’s work in a new light, one in which it becomes less opaque, more coherent, and even more subtle and interesting. So the best description of my interpretation of Nietzsche would be that I read him on the model of Greek skepticism.

I think there are a number of clear advantages to this approach. Instead of treating Nietzsche’s views on truth or knowledge in isolation, which misleadingly suggests that he has a worked-out theory of truth or an epistemology, it allows us to see more precisely how Nietzsche’s pronouncements about truth and knowledge are directly relevant to his concerns about health and sickness, as I suggested above, and to his critique of ascetic ideals. It also recovers a picture of Nietzsche as a psychologist — a physician, even – and makes sense of claims like the one he makes in Ecce Homo to be both “the destroyer par excellence” and also a benefactor of sorts. Nietzsche is not out to “prove” that there is no truth or knowledge (supposing such an objective to be coherent in the first place); rather, he’s interested in what it is about us that makes us so determined to have those things, apparently at any cost.

I believe most human beings — in antiquity, in Nietzsche’s era, and today – simply presuppose that uncertainty or lack of knowledge is incompatible with well being, and they exhibit what Nietzsche identifies as the “metaphysical need” to believe just about anything rather than nothing at all. But that’s a pathology, on his account, and on the Skeptics’ account. And finally, on this reading, he can, as the Skeptics do, continue to value truth, consistently describe himself as a seeker of knowledge, and still regard inquiry as a goal-directed enterprise — it aims at truth; and, at the same time, he can raise the question of the value of truth and ask, “Why not falsehood instead?” I think many readers take Nietzsche’s questions as rhetorical, as advancing positions of his own, or as endorsements or recommendations. I read them more straightforwardly; they’re questions.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 23rd, 2012.