A Pyrrhonian Nietzschean stakeout
3:AM: What you show in your analysis of Nietzsche and the Greeks is how his philosophical concerns are directly entwined with his philological ones, don’t you? And it seems that many of his ideas, which seem original and scandalous, were lifted from his reading of the Greeks. His complaint about his fellow scholars is that they didn’t think philosophically about the material they were reading isn’t it, not that they were scholars? Is this a problem even today, that we need philosophers to analyse these texts philosophically in order to avoid making assumptions about interpretation that might miss the point of these Ancients? Is that how you see your own role?
JB: Well, Nietzsche had plenty of complaints about the academics and pedants that he calls “scholarly oxen”; I’m pretty sure that would be most of us today. In his era, though, the disciplinary boundaries we take for granted were just being solidified, and in some fields, like Nietzsche’s own Classical philology, the very identity of the discipline was still being shaped by a lot of internal struggles. In his early essay ‘On the Use and Abuse of History for Life’ laments the adoption by his contemporaries in history of objectives and methods that he argues will render history useless to us — and perhaps even harmful. (The same themes can be found in his remarks for an ‘Untimely Meditation’ he planned but never wrote, to be called something like, ‘We Philologists’.) His worry, I think, was that scholars in what we might call the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften) were idealising and patterning their own disciplinary practices after those of the physical sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and, in particular, embracing the notion that the ideal investigator is thoroughly objective; that is, that his own idiosyncratic, peculiarly subjective point of view should never be allowed to show through or to colour his work. That’s an ideal that Nietzsche thinks vaguely ridiculous, and surely illusory. And he questions its desirability, both in his early and in his latest works. Under such a rubric, the historian becomes just a kind of collector and curator of cold, dead facts — on the relative value of which he either can’t or won’t pronounce. He’s more like a taxidermist than a passionate inquirer — more interested in what’s dead than what’s alive.
Nietzsche decries these antiquarian types not because they’re scholars, but because they lack a certain kind of vision, for which is required a strong sense of self and a willingness to allow one’s values to inform one’s interpretation. So it isn’t that his contemporaries didn’t think philosophically about the texts they were analysing. Instead, it’s that they have the wrong idea about what that means, insofar as they think the superior epistemic position is always that of a “disinterested” spectator — something Nietzsche calls “an absurdity and a non-concept.” Nietzsche is known to have said that philosophy needs to be practiced as an art, to employ the kind of vision I mentioned before, and I think that’s been often misconstrued as an exhortation for us just to abandon the canons of logical argumentation and embark on some sort of free-form, speculative philosophical magical mystery tour. Instead, it seems to me that for Nietzsche an artist is someone with a talent for imposing meaningful form on some material —even the material of history. Not everyone can do that, but certainly it’s what ‘scholars’ in his pejorative sense are by and large failing to do.
3:AM: You have an interesting take on Nietzschean perspectivism. It’s usually an issue that is thought of as arising as a consequence or expression of his ontology or theory of truth but you doubt this, don’t you? You kind of want to question whether Nietzsche really has a doctrine of perspectivism, or at least, whether it’s anything like what it is often taken to be. So what are your reasons for being a little revisionary here?
JB: It’s a little-appreciated fact, and one obscured especially in Walter Kaufmann’s translations of Nietzsche’s works, that Nietzsche doesn’t employ “perspective” (e.g., der Perspektivismus or even die Perspektive) talk all that often. You’d think that if he had a “doctrine” to offer under this heading, one that was central to his entire philosophical project, he’d have more to say about it. The same is true, I think, of those other Nietzschean “doctrines,” the “will to power” and the Übermensch: In the published corpus, taken as a whole, there’s simply not enough textual material there to fill out anything like a “doctrine” answering to any of these names. That’s not to say, however, that when Nietzsche does talk about perspective, he doesn’t have an interesting and important point to make. The classic passage from the third essay of the Genealogy (§12), in which he asserts that there is “only a perspective seeing, only a perspective knowing” basically reinforces the point I raised earlier, about the absurdity of “objectivity” as an ideal for us. We’re embodied creatures; every view is from some point of view or other. There’s simply no getting around that fact, and so, to continue to idealise the “view from nowhere” — as we effectively do when we strive for “objectivity” — is nothing other than to idealise what we are not (that is, disembodied and disinterested spectators) and to reject what we are. That’s what makes the failure to see that knowing is perspectival fundamentally ascetic and, literally, sick. Nietzsche, not unreasonably, in my view, regards self-loathing as indicative of psychopathology.
The other remarkable feature of this passage is the extent to which Nietzsche’s point about the “perspectival” character of knowing and seeing reiterates a standard argument, familiar to Nietzsche from his work on Book IX of Diogenes Laertius’s Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers and employed frequently by the Pyrrhonists to bring about suspension of judgment. The Greek doxographer Diogenes lists this argument as the seventh of ten skeptical “tropes”: that, since it is not possible to observe any object except from some particular position or place, we cannot know what any of them is like “in itself.” If we bear in mind, then, that our knowledge is perspectival, we’ll simply cease making pronouncements about the way things are “in reality.” It’s important to realise here that the point is not that there is a reality behind the appearances but that it’s unavailable to us. (How could we know that, after all?) That would be the anti-realist or negatively dogmatic view. Instead, the point is quite like the one with which Wittgenstein closes the Tractatus: that of which one cannot speak, one must be silent.
3:AM: There’s been a great deal of focus on the influence of the Ancient Greeks on Nietzsche, especially those pre-Socratics and Homer (and not Plato and Aristotle except as negative forces that repel him) but some write about the influence of the Romans and their ‘frivolity.’ This is Richard Bett’s thesis, isn’t it? Can you say how far you think Nietzsche was also influenced by some aspects of the Romans too?
JB: Richard Bett has done some brilliant work on Nietzsche and the Greek skeptics. More recently, he worked to flesh out what precisely Nietzsche owes to the Romans — a topic that hasn’t garnered much attention from commentators, in spite of Nietzsche’s high praise of them in the chapter of Twilight of the Idols on ‘What I Owe to the Ancients’. In the end, he concludes that “no consistent picture” really emerges from Nietzsche’s rather scattered remarks, but along the way he sheds light on some very helpful themes. The most striking of them, I think, is precisely the one you’ve also hit upon — namely, Nietzsche’s praise of “Rome and its noble and frivolous tolerance.” The attitude Nietzsche focuses on here is another important counterpoint to Christianity and its “spirit of gravity.” Nietzsche frequently treats attitudes like frivolity or indifference or forgetfulness as measures of strength; the ones who never forget a slight or a debt are impoverished souls — those who cannot afford to forget.
I’m not sure how much I have to add to Bett’s study, but I think it’s worth noting that Nietzsche’s apparent celebration of Roman “frivolity” has an important epistemic upshot, too, and helps to shore up the skeptical reading of Nietzsche. According to Bett, what we see in Nietzsche’s praise of some Romans is, among other things, his rejection of the idea “that belief is a distinguishing feature of great human beings.” Here as elsewhere, Nietzsche in fact praises “thoughtlessness, skepticism, the permission to be able to shed a belief,” and in particular, moral beliefs and the dogmas that support them. Bett’s attention to this point, I think, helps to connect his occasional remarks about Roman thinkers to broader themes in Nietzsche’s work.
3:AM: Brian Leiter complains that several bad interpretations and postmodern readings of Nietzsche are derived from foregrounding material he didn’t publish. You discuss his unpublished ‘Truth Or Lie’ to put to bed the idea that he denied the possibility of truth, but doesn’t the fact that Nietzsche didn’t publish make it irrelevant what he said there?
JB: I’m really glad you asked this question. Like Leiter, I’m interested in what Nietzsche intended for us to read, and so I rarely dwell on his unpublished material. The one exception to this in my work has been ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense’; that really has been the fragment that just wouldn’t die. Just recently, in fact, I was invited to discuss it again in an episode of the philosophy podcast the Partially Examined Life. The reason to keep returning to it, though, is that this essay (as well as a handful of later fragments that found their way into The Will to Power, the book Nietzsche didn’t write) has long been a cornerstone of the radical reading — the one according to which he denies the very possibility of truth. Honestly, I’m inclined to agree with your suggestion that it’s irrelevant what he says there, but in my discussions of that early draft of an essay I’ve argued that even if we think it relevant, it still sits very uneasily with the radical reading.
3:AM: Is it possible to read Nietzsche as a post-structuralist might do given your scholarship? Or should we now all agree that Foucault and co are wrong to see him as they do?
JB: I certainly have nothing against Foucault, whose work I find provocative and whose critical theory I find very compelling. And I have no reason to doubt Foucault’s own claims that a good deal of what he’s up to is inspired by his reading of Nietzsche. On the issue of whether or not the “post-structuralists” get Nietzsche right, I’d have to say that it depends entirely on what their reading commits Nietzsche to. If it’s the sort of “epistemic nihilism” I described earlier, as it’s often taken to be, then yes, I think that reading is unsustainable on any genuinely sensitive engagement with Nietzsche’s texts. I’m not sure what could motivate one to adopt such a position, unless perhaps it’s just cynicism; Nietzsche is a lot of things, but I don’t think he’s that kind of a cynic.
3:AM: How does Nietzsche as an existentialist fare after we read him through your lens? It would seem that the idea of radical freedom and choice isn’t available in the way that some readings of Nietzsche suppose. Is this your view? And are you a Nietzschean in any way beyond the fact that he’s the object of much of your work? And what does being a Nietzschean entail from your perspective?
JB: How does Nietzsche fare as an existentialist? Not well, I’m afraid, if an existentialist is someone who’s committed to a kind of radical freedom we must exercise in order to live “authentically” or to “take responsibility” for ourselves and our lives. There isn’t much in Nietzsche’s philosophy that is transparent; but few things are clearer, it seems to me, than his rejection of the idea that we have a “will” that is metaphysically free. There are also few questions less appropriate to ask of Nietzsche’s philosophy than how we should go about being “Nietzscheans,” since he also gives quite a clear answer to those who wonder how they should follow him. That answer is, “Don’t.”
3:AM: You appeared in the Brian Leiter/Michael Rosen anthology of continental philosophy. So what’s your take on the so-called continental/analytic divide? Is it bogus, or does it have its uses?
JB: This is another great question. I was very pleased to be asked to contribute an essay to that volume, and there’s a lot to be said about the ways in which German philhellenism especially helped determine the trajectory of philosophical thought in modern Europe. But with respect to the alleged “divide” in the profession of academic philosophy, I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that the terms ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ do not name natural kinds; the alleged division is utterly an artifact of early twentieth-century academic politics. That’s not to say that the terms are utterly meaningless, but to say that what they refer to are political or ideological categories and not useful philosophical ones. Really, I think that the insistence on these categories has done more to preclude interesting philosophical conversation than it ever has to facilitate it; the sooner they’re retired, the better.
3:AM: Are there books, films, music that outside of your philosophical work you’ve found enlightening?
JB: I’m afraid I don’t read nearly as much fiction as I’d like (or as much as I did before I started graduate school in philosophy), and I don’t generally look to music or film for enlightenment. If there’s a word for the opposite of a “film buff,” then I’m that. Lately, I’m more likely to become engrossed in good serial dramas than in movies. I love the psychological complexity of characters with redeeming qualities or magnetic personalities who are drawn into immoral situations or activities; so, unsurprisingly, I’m a big fan of Dexter and Breaking Bad. I enjoy wondering to what extent we can be invested in the success of those characters’ projects, and whether and what kind of satisfaction we’re allowed to take in their successes. But the same is true of the obtuse-but-not-obviously-malicious characters you find in good, dark comedies like The Office. (I’m thinking of Ricky Gervais’ character in the original British series.) There’s a lot more to good comedic anti-heroes than simple emotional ignorance or narcissism. Whenever I see East Bound and Down, for instance, I’m always tempted to think that if you read Nietzsche through the eyes of Ayn Rand, you don’t get Howard Roark, you get Kenny Powers (though it’s a caricature of Nietzsche’s views either way, of course). At any rate, I find those sorts of characters really fascinating.
Otherwise, when I’m not directly engaged in philosophical work, what I find most enjoyable are manual tasks that get me out from behind a computer screen. The three books I’ve been most excited about recently are Dana Willard’s Fabrics: A to Z, Gretchen Hirsch’s Gertie’s New Book for Better Sewing, and The River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens. Making things you would ordinarily (and unreflectively) buy ready-made really does have a transformative effect on your relationship to everyday objects, just as I think Marx promises. And the process of making them is not only thoroughly absorbing, but it also allows you to lose yourself in your immediate environment in ways that make that environment salient to you in new, and I suppose enlightening, ways. I think that experience probably explains a lot about why I enjoy teaching Heidegger’s Being and Time now and again; there are few philosophers who take “everydayness” seriously in a non-hokey way.
3:AM: And finally, for the budding Nietzschean classicists here at 3:AM, are there five books (excluding your own which we’ll be dashing away to read straight after this) that we should read to get further into your world?
JB: I would recommend to anyone at all to read Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism. It’s very concise, and also the best account we have of the basic thrust of Pyrrhonian skepticism. An excellent recent essay (or short monograph) on Greek skepticism is Casey Perin’s The Demands of Reason. Lots of specialists in Ancient philosophy have taken issue with his presentation of Pyrrhonism, but I think he builds a very compelling defense of skepticism against the charge that the skeptic must lead an irrational (or at least arational) sort of existence. He argues for a claim I think is true, namely that the Pyrrhonist in fact succeeds better than his dogmatic opponents at fulfilling the demands of rationality. Happily, that lays a lot of the groundwork for Nietzsche’s internal critique of dogmatism. An indispensible text for anyone interested in skepticism is Richard Popkin’s classic The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. It’s highly readable and will make you think about the history of philosophy in the early modern period very differently. To anyone looking for a good overview of philosophical thought before Plato, I’d recommend Richard McKirahan’s Philosophy Before Socrates. It strikes a nice balance between presenting the fragmentary texts of the pre-Platonic philosophers in a sensible order and giving the reader enough of interpretive framework to appreciate the big advances of the period. When I teach the pre-Platonic philosophers, I often use this text as the backbone of the course. And finally, one of the best books I’ve read lately, which I liked enough to organize an entire undergraduate senior seminar around it, is Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s book Objectivity. It’s a study of the illustrations in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific atlases with a slightly Foucauldian twist; it builds a case for the claim that the notion of ‘objectivity’ “has a history,” and that its history and its dominance as an epistemic ideal are both more recent and more contingent than we might have thought.
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Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 23rd, 2012.