The Measure of Things
Interview by Richard Marshall.
‘There are really three players: ‘absolutists’, for whom it is possible to describe reality as it anyway is; ‘constructivists’ or ‘humanists’, for whom there is nothing beyond a world that is relative to human interests and conceptual schemes; and ‘ineffabilists’, like myself, for whom any describable world indeed exists ‘only in relation to man’, as Heidegger put it, but for whom, as well, there is an ineffable realm ‘beyond the human’.’
‘It is very important to recognize that these rivalries recur in other traditions, for example Indian and East Asian ones. It’s important, first, because it supports the claim that debates about this relationship are not merely the preoccupation of intellectuals situated in particular cultural contexts, but ‘vital’ ones that register universal human fears and yearnings, the need people have to understand their place in the world. In the case of many Eastern teachings, these conceptions were, rather obviously, philosophical articulations of religious sensibilities and dispensations. The Nyaya school, for example, didn’t develop ‘a theory of knowledge’ for its own sake, but with the express aim of ‘release from the wheel of life’.’
‘For many years, questions about the meaning of life were dismissed as senseless. We were told that life, not being a word or sentence or anything language-like, can’t intelligibly be said to have meaning. An encouraging development in the last couple of decades is a return by philosophers to addressing – as nearly all people do at some time or another – the question of life’s meaning.‘
David E. Cooper is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Durham University and has been President (or Chair) of the Aristotelian Society, the Mind Assocation, the Friedrich Nietzsche Society, and the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain. He was on the Executive Committee of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. Prof. Cooper has been a visiting Professor at universities in the USA, Canada, Germany, Malta and South Africa. He has been the recipient of many research awards, including AHRB and Leverhulme Trust research fellowships. He was Editor of the Ashgate Publisher’s World Philosophies series and has been on the editorial board of three journals. His philosophical interests include aspects of the history of philosophy (western and eastern), aesthetics, environmental ethics, and the philosophy of language. His larger research interests include the history of Philosophy (Western and Eastern), Aesthetics and Philosophy and the environment. Here he discusses a central tension between human beings and the world, about the way different traditions and cultures have thought about this, Chuang Tzu, Nietzsche, Kant, Advaita Vedanta, existentialism, the dis-encumbenced person, writing about nature, a philosophy of gardening, an approach to meaning that doesn’t focus exclusively on language, the educational philosophy of Nietzsche and philosophy of education more generally. Take a long winding walk…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
David E Cooper: My interest in philosophy began at school in the summer term of 1957. With the exams out of the way, our Classics master used the remaining lessons to talk, not about Greek grammar or Roman legions, but Plato’s Republic. At the same time, a local arts cinema was showing a season of films connected with Sartre – a movie version of Huis Clos, a documentary in which he appeared, and so on. What impressed me about Plato and Sartre was their conviction that we should live our lives in the light of big truths about reality and human existence. So, when I went up to Oxford, I read PPE, with the emphasis very much on the first P. Actually, the conviction instilled in me by Plato and Sartre was soon suppressed by my tutors, all adepts of ‘ordinary language’ philosophy, with its animus against both metaphysics and questions about life’s meaning. But it was a conviction that bounced back a few years later and has remained with me since.
3:AM: A way into your work is to ask about a central tension that you’ve written about from various angles throughout your career. You say it’s an ancient tension: that between human beings and a world which, following Kant, we can ‘discursively’ encounter by bringing under concepts, articulate and describe. Can you sketch out what you take this tension to be and what kind of philosophical questions arise because of it?
DC: In the first instance, the tension is best thought of as one between conceptions of how human beings are related to the world they describe and conceptualise. On the one hand are those which maintain that this world is necessarily a human world, in the sense that its features are all relative to human practices, purposes and the concepts that reflect these. To describe this world is not, therefore, to describe reality ‘in itself’, as it is independently of how we regard and describe it. On the other hand are those conceptions which insist that, in principle, it is possible to provide an account of the world as it objectively and anyway is, irrespective of how we take it to be. In recent times, for example, many people claim that the truths of physics articulate how reality ‘in itself’ is.
It’s crucial, though, to register that there is a further tension among the first group of conceptions – the ones that deny the possibility of an ‘absolute’ account of reality. This is between those – like Nietzsche’s or Protagoras’s – according to which there is nothing but the human world, and those – like Bergson’s and (on one reading) Kant’s – that invoke an ineffable reality beyond the reach of human discursive and conceptual powers.
So, there are really three players: ‘absolutists’, for whom it is possible to describe reality as it anyway is; ‘constructivists’ or ‘humanists’, for whom there is nothing beyond a world that is relative to human interests and conceptual schemes; and ‘ineffabilists’, like myself, for whom any describable world indeed exists ‘only in relation to man’, as Heidegger put it, but for whom, as well, there is an ineffable realm ‘beyond the human’.
One thing I want to add, in response to your question, is that these rival conceptions are not merely intellectual ones: they are ‘vital’, they reflect and shape emotions, attitudes and comportment towards the world. That’s because, in part, they are attempts to resolve what strikes me as an abiding and central concern of philosophy and religion alike – the fear that the world is alien to human beings, that nature is, in Hegel’s words, ‘out and out other’ to ‘spirit’. It’s easy enough to see how ‘constructivist’ or ‘humanist’ conceptions are efforts to dispel this fear. Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivalism’ was expressly directed against the ‘laughable juxtaposition of “man and world”’. But ‘absolutist’ accounts, too, typically try to demonstrate that human beings are integral components of the world these accounts articulate – that, for example, we are simply material bodies subject to the same natural processes as everything else.
One way to gauge what is emotionally at stake in the rivalries is to look at the accusations of hubris, bad faith and other sins that proponents of one conception level against their rivals. It is hubris, claim the critics of ‘absolutism’, to suppose that we could ever even approximate to a true description of how the world anyway is. It is bad faith or ‘bullshit’, respond ‘absolutists’, to suppose – as the rhetoric of postmodernism implies – that we could seriously live and act with the thought that truth and value are simply our own projections. An attractive feature of ‘ineffabilism’, as I see it, is that it evades these accusations. It is indeed impossible to describe reality ‘in itself’, but that does not mean that our lives are answerable to nothing but our own conventions and commitments. They are answerable to a way of things that transcends the reach of our conceptual schemes.
3:AM: Interestingly, you think that this is a tension that isn’t just a Western concern – Protagoras vs Plato and Aristotle say, but can be found elsewhere in other philosophical traditions, for instance in the tension between the Indian Nyaya (‘logic’) school and Mahayana Buddhism, and in China between Confucianism and Chuang Tzu Taoists. Can you sketch for readers what these tensions looked like in these different ancient settings – and are they helpful as we try and orientate our thoughts towards contemporary thinking?
DC: Yes, the examples I gave above to illustrate rival conceptions of the relationship between human beings and the world were taken from Western tradition. But it is very important to recognize that these rivalries recur in other traditions, for example Indian and East Asian ones. It’s important, first, because it supports the claim that debates about this relationship are not merely the preoccupation of intellectuals situated in particular cultural contexts, but ‘vital’ ones that register universal human fears and yearnings, the need people have to understand their place in the world. In the case of many Eastern teachings, these conceptions were, rather obviously, philosophical articulations of religious sensibilities and dispensations. The Nyaya school, for example, didn’t develop ‘a theory of knowledge’ for its own sake, but with the express aim of ‘release from the wheel of life’.
Second, several Asian philosophies are ‘ineffabilist’: and this is important in dispelling a familiar perception among Western thinkers that appeals to mystery, to the unsayable, are eccentric or ‘spooky’. (Think of the efforts made to show that Kant couldn’t really have meant that there exists a realm of ineffable things-in-themselves.) But it is implausible, and indeed hubristic, to regard as eccentric an acceptance, by millions of Daoists, Zen Buddhists, Advaita Vedantins and others, that the way of things is finally mysterious, ineffable.
But, finally, I think that Asian versions of ‘ineffabilism’ have an advantage over the best-known Western ones, like Schopenhauer’s. They are free from the dualistic image of the world of experience as the joint product of mind and reality. It’s as if, for Schopenhauer and perhaps Kant, the mind is there up and running, equipped with its categories and concepts that it then projects or smears, as it were, over what impinges upon it from the outside. This is not the image you find in, for example, Chuang Tzu: minds and nature are inseparably fused in an ever-changing whole of experience that, so to speak, constantly wells up from an indescribable source in a process that Daoists call ‘the way’ or ‘the course’.
3:AM: Is there a helpful link between Chuang Tzu’s notion of the Tao, Advaita Vedanta philosophy of Samkara’s notion of ‘brahman, Kant’s notion of the things in themselves and Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, helpful in terms of illustrating what the tension is about and why it matters? [(you may need to briefly sketch what these guys are saying)]
DC: Well, these notions are all linked by the thought that the world as we experience and describe it is not the world ‘in itself’. But they differ, interestingly, in the arguments they give for this claim. The difference emerges when you ask these thinkers why it is that people are prone to take the world of experience to be reality as such. They can all agree that this is because people fail to recognize the extent of what William James called ‘the human contribution’ to this world. For Kant, this is because we fail to appreciate that the forms and categories – like space and causality – in terms of which we experience the world are a priori categories of perception or understanding, not features of reality itself. For Samkara, somewhat similarly, we are ‘ignorant’, since we take for real what are mere sensory appearances.
What is missing from their accounts is something emphasised both by Chuang Tzu and Nietzsche: the role of purpose and practice in forging our understanding and experience of the world. Things only ‘show up’ for us as they do, as Heidegger would put, in and through practical engagements with the world that enable objects to have significance and salience – as hammers, pots, trees or whatever.
The distinction is important since the ‘pragmatist’ line taken by Daoists, Nietzsche and existential phenomenologists such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, is the best one to take in order to dispel the pretensions of ‘absolutism’. The main objection, for example, to the ‘scientistic’ claim that physics describes the world as it is in itself is that, to recall James’s remark, you ‘can’t weed out’ the human contribution. That is, the scientific image of the world, like any other, is indelibly shaped by our interests, practices and prejudices. There is no reason at all to think that creatures with very different purposes and concerns would arrive at the scientific image, and no reason at all to accuse such creatures of getting the world wrong – a point that both Chuang Tzu and Nietzsche make when comparing human and animal perspectives.
3:AM: Does your interest in existentialism stem from this tension and its idea that humanism is evaluative, that to grasp what we are is a practical and ethical matter?
DC: Certainly my interest in existentialism stemmed from one in the issue of alienation. I was keen, in my book on existentialism, to dispel a familiar misunderstanding: that existentialists somehow relish the alienation of human beings from the world. This may have been Camus’s attitude, but it was certainly not that of Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, each of whom tried to show that we can only experience the world in relation to our own projects and purposes. The world is initially one of ‘equipment’, said Heidegger: it is a world of ‘tasks’, said Sartre.
So, for me, the existentialists are important critics of ‘absolutist’ claims, and Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are, at least in their later writings, also exponents of a doctrine of mystery: Being or the ‘well-spring’ of everything is, for Heidegger, ineffable, just as what Merleau-Ponty called ‘Flesh’ is for him.
Turning to the second part of your question: I think it’s true that for existentialist thinkers, appreciation of what we are – free, makers of meaning, ‘issues’ for ourselves, and so on – is at the same time a recognition of how we should try to live. To recognize that you are radically free, in Sartre’s sense, but then to live as if you weren’t, is to live in bad faith, in denial of what you know to be true. And that’s not something anyone can sensibly want to do.
3:AM: What do you mean by a dis-incumbenced person?
DC: Not a pretty neologism (derived from the Latin word for ‘to lean on’), but one that, I hope, captures a certain attitude or stance urged on us by, among others, Protagoras, Nietzsche, Sartre, Rorty and a regiment of postmodernists. The dis-incumbenced stance is the one people should cultivate, we are told, once they recognize that there is no world beyond the human world. They will, indeed must, have their beliefs and values, but they will recognize that these ‘lean upon’ – and are answerable to – nothing other than human commitments and purposes. The only fidelity, Rorty remarked, can be to our own conventions.
In my book The Measure of Things I argued that the aim of dis-incumbence is a hubristic one, for it requires confidence in the ability of men and women to live in the belief that nothing they do can, in the end, be justified by anything. That’s a belief that it is easy to proclaim in seminar rooms or pubs, but not one that people could actually live with.
3:AM: Both sides could claim to be humble in their approaches, couldn’t they? One side for saying that humans are nothing special in the universe, that as Nagel puts it ‘the world is not our world even potentially’: the other side for saying that all we are left with is investigations of ego and that to think they could ever grasp a world beyond that is sheer folly. Where do you stand on this – and who are the heroes and villains?
DC: Certainly each side – the ‘absolutists’ and the ‘constructivists’ or ‘humanists’, as I’ve labelled them – accuses the other of hubris, and lays claim to humility. But, as I suggested in response to your question 2, I see hubris on both sides: a pretence that we could ascend to an objective account of the world, on the one hand, and a pretence that we have the resources to live and act without a sense of there being something to which we answerable, on the other. So both sides are ‘villains’. My ‘heroes’ are those – like Chuang Tzu and Heidegger – who recognize that the world of experience is a human world, but recognize too that there is a ‘way’ or a ‘source’ to which our lives are answerable.
3:AM: You’ve written about nature and made a point of saying that this kind of writing is different from natural scientific writing. You have Gilbert White, Rousseau, Wordsworth and Thoreau in mind haven’t you. So what is distinctive about this approach to writing? Is it that it’s writing that isn’t really about nature but about thoughts about nature – how do you counter the charge that this approach is very egotistical?
DC: The subtitle of Richard Mabey’s recent book, The Cabaret of Plants, is Botany and the Imagination, and the title itself is intended to suggest an ‘intimate, interactive relationship between our two spheres of existence’, human and vegetal. So, yes, the writing I have in mind and sometimes indulge in myself is concerned, not with plants, mountains or birds as items of scientific description, but with experiences of nature that impinge upon our moods and emotions, enrich our imagination and reveries, and shape our sense of how we stand in relation to the environing world. In a broad sense of the term, this kind of writing is an exercise in phenomenology, an attempt to render the significance that birds, plants or whatever have for us.
I don’t see anything ‘egotistical’ or viciously ‘anthropocentric’ in such an exercise. I think ‘deep ecologists’ have done a disservice by insisting that concern for nature should eschew considerations about how nature is ‘for us’. It is important, of course, to distinguish a benignly anthropocentric interest in a mountain as, say, a place of spiritual refreshment or ancient religious significance and a less benign perception of it as a mere resource – a place to mine for its quartz, perhaps, or to erect a ski resort on.
3:AM: So what should our relationship to nature be, and does your thinking follow on from the work you’ve done examining existentialism, Daoism, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, McDowell et al? Is it that these philosophers all point to a Daoist /Buddhist approach where it’s their accounts of the virtues – eg compassion, equanimity, humility etc – that make them eco-friendly rather than any stress that may be found in it on the essential unity of human beings and the natural world?
DC: Your question indicates two points I certainly want to defend. First, that we should get away from the rhetoric of human beings’ ‘oneness’ with nature. It’s very difficult to construe such a claim except as trite (‘We’re connected in all sorts of ways with the natural world’) or very implausible (‘I am the tree: the mountain is me’). One thing that attracts me in Daoism and Heidegger is a delicate combination of recognizing deep differences between human being and any other kind of being, and a desire, nevertheless, to cultivate an intimacy with animals, trees, mountains and so on. Chuang Tzu and Heidegger both emphasise the virtue of ‘spontaneity’ – a sort of mindful responsiveness to things as they are. It’s this notion, I suspect, that is the best bet for helping to make some sense of talk about harmony or unity with nature.
Second, the focus of environmental ethics should indeed be on the virtues – like those you mention – and how these inform our relationship to natural environments. I’m very sceptical about the prospects for ‘big’ environmental causes – ‘saving the planet’, halving the world’s population, ending the exploitation of animals, and so on – but a person can ask him- or herself how he or she personally may exercise compassion or humility towards animals, vegetal life and so on.
Something I’ve written about in a forthcoming book, Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature, is how various ways of being with nature – the company of animals, for example, or walking or participating in music outdoors – may cultivate a sense of mystery. It’s one thing to assent to propositions like ‘The way of things is ineffable’, and quite another to internalise what it is being gestured at by such propositions, to get a sense or feel for mystery. For me, at least, it is in and through ways of engaging with nature that this sense is intimated. These ways, to anticipate your next question, include being in the garden.
3:AM: You think the question ‘Why garden?’ is philosophically charged don’t you? So how do you think we should take the question and what kind of questions aren’t you interested in? Is it that it links to the notion ‘dwelling’, of being in the world and the way gardens and gardening enters our lives intimately that catches your philosophical imagination rather than aesthetic or historical or social issues?
DC: I recall a remarkably silly review of my book, A Philosophy of Gardens, in which the reviewer declared that there could no more be a philosophy of gardens than a philosophy of safety-pins! This displays a startling ignorance of the ways in which, in all great civilizations, garden discourses have belonged to larger discourses about beauty, the good life, the relation of humankind to nature, and so on.
You’re right that aesthetic and historical issues are not, per se, my primary interest, but it’s important to note how these can be tied up with moral and metaphysical issues that I do address. The garden is, for example, a good place for examining the independence or otherwise of moral and aesthetic appreciation. Does the unmistakeable intent of Versailles to proclaim dominion over nature destroy its aesthetic appeal, as Schopenhauer thought? Does the greenness of the lawn lose its allure when we learn how much water, sorely needed elsewhere, it uses? And historical shifts in garden taste – from formal, ‘French’ gardens to ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscapes, for instance, or from the elaborate gardens of imperial Kyoto to Zen ‘dry’ gardens – register important changes in philosophical or religious attitudes.
The questions that occupy me most concern the meaning or significance of gardens, and their contribution to the good life. Gardening is an excellent example of a practice to which, as Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, certain virtues are ‘internal’. Good gardening requires a certain goodness on the part of the gardener: care, humility, patience, and respect, for example. As for the meaning of gardens, particular gardens may have, of course, all sorts of different meanings – emotive, historical, emblematic, religious, commemorative, and so on. But I think that good gardens all signify or exemplify an important truth about the relationship of culture and nature – their inseparability. It’s not simply that gardening alters a natural environment and that the forces of nature – rain, sunshine – have an impact on the garden. It’s not these causal connections I have in mind but an experiential – if you like, phenomenological – one. How people make gardens is bound to reflect a way of experiencing the natural world, while at the same time this experience of nature is bound to reflect a culture – ways of painting nature, for example, or representing nature in literature, or of course making gardens. The garden is as good a symbol as you can find of a dialectic between spheres of experience – of culture and nature – that presuppose one another.
3:AM: Is experiencing nature like experiencing music and how is ineffability important in this?
DC: Plenty of people hold that ‘sublime’ experience of nature and listening to great music are unique in their powers to induce a sense of the transcendent – of Wordsworth’s ‘something far more deeply interfused’, say, or of the ‘infinite that transcends us’ which Hans Küng heard in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Well, I’ve had my Wordsworthian moments and had some pretty uncanny feelings when listening to certain pieces of music, the slow movement of Schubert’s String Quintet, for instance. But I’d be suspicious of inferring from such experiences that there is an ineffable realm of which, to use Küng’s terms, they are ‘ciphers or traces’. Suspicious for the same reason as I would be of similar claims made by mescaline users and adepts of Tantric sex.
It’s with a rather different connection between nature and music that I’m interested. Wang Wei liked to play the zither sitting by the river; Thoreau played his flute from a small boat to entertain the fish; Debussy dreamt of ‘a kind of music composed especially for the open air’. Between nature and music there seems to be an elective affinity: they fit together, and when they do experiences of an ineffable kind are generated.
In Senses of Mystery I describe how I sat on a shingle beach on the north-west coast of Scotland listening, through earphones, to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture as I looked out at, suitably enough, the Hebrides. The experience was a powerful one, impossible to describe because of its indivisibility. It did not consist of – was not the sum of – an auditory experience of the music plus a visual experience of the lowering clouds plus kinaesthetic ones of the breeze and the feel of the shingle. Without the other dimensions of the experience, the music would have sounded different, just as without the music each of those dimensions – the appearance of the clouds, say – would have been different. I find in an experience like this a ‘cipher or trace’ of the larger indivisibility of our experience of the world, its resistance to being analysed or reduced to atomic components, of which Bradley so eloquently wrote.
3:AM: Philosophers have tended to talk about meaning by focusing on language – but you’ve approached it via social action, gesture, art and so forth. Why have you done this?
DC: I started my professional life as a philosopher of language and for several years took the orthodox line that meaning is an essentially linguistic phenomenon. Whether as a result of simply listening to everyday talk about meaning, or reading books of anthropology, sociology and art history, it dawned on me that there is nothing at all privileged or central about linguistic meaning. As your question indicates, actions, gestures, art works – indeed, just about anything, in an appropriate context – can be said to have meaning.
So there is something myopic and stunted in focussing only on the meaning of words and sentences. And this myopia is especially unfortunate when combined with a rather abstract view of a language as a set of elements and rules for combining these. For the result is to divorce enquiry into meaning from attention to the way words – and gestures, facial expressions, rituals and so on – are embedded in practices, in what Wittgenstein called ‘the stream of life’.
3:AM: Is meaning from your perspective just a ‘folk term’ and properly understood, we shouldn’t strive for meaning but just muddle through and be?
DC: Well, certainly ‘meaning’ is a familiar, vernacular term. Most of us ask and talk almost every day about the meaning of this or that utterance, action or whatever. So I’m puzzled when I come across pronouncements, like ‘Meaning is what a theory of meaning is a theory of’, which make ‘meaning’ into a term of art, a theoretical notion. It turns out, in fact, that ‘theories of meaning’ are typically not about meaning in an everyday or ‘folk’ sense at all. They are theories designed to compute the truth or assertibility conditions of sentences from their components.
More sensible, in my view, is Wittgenstein’s advice to attend to meaning by considering what, in ordinary contexts, count as ‘explanations of meaning’. These can take many, many forms – indicating what a word refers to, describing the social effect of a gesture, showing the way a musical passage contributes to the whole piece, and so on and so on. I argued in my book Meaning that, in the final analysis, all explanations of meaning, various as they are, serve to indicate how something is ‘appropriate’ in and to our practices, our lives in effect.
An interesting and unfortunate by-product, incidentally, of the myopic focus on language was that, for many years, questions about the meaning of life were dismissed as senseless. We were told that life, not being a word or sentence or anything language-like, can’t intelligibly be said to have meaning. An encouraging development in the last couple of decades is a return by philosophers to addressing – as nearly all people do at some time or another – the question of life’s meaning. So, no – in reply to the last part of your question – I don’t think we should just ‘muddle through’ and ignore the question of life’s meaning. Or better, perhaps, I don’t think it is a question that can be ignored once the business of asking about the worth and significance of what one is doing – one’s work, one’s pleasures, one’s ambitions and so on – has got going. You can’t at any point stop the urge to ask Tolstoy’s questions, ‘… and then what?’, ‘What’s the point of that?’. I agree with Robert Nozick that the question of meaning goes all the way down: if human life as a whole is meaningless, so is everything that occurs or belongs within it. Since that’s not a thought it is easy to live with, there is good reason to search for life’s meaning.
3:AM: You’ve written about Nietzsche’s educational theory and have been interested in philosophy of education. How do you understand Nietzsche’s educational philosophy and what is the importance of the notions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘nihilism’ to it? For Nietzsche and then for you, can there be an authentic teacher, an authentic education, school, student? You’ve also written about Heidegger’s legacy for educationalist thinking? Does he complement or oppose Nietzsche’s approach?
DC: Like Nietzsche’s own writings on education, most of mine were relatively youthful ones. Both were inspired by a critical animus against prevailing trends in education: in Nietzsche’s case, the production either of ‘useless’, dry-as-dust scholars or people ‘useful’ for the needs of an expanding industrial economy; in my case, a similar subjection of education to economic imperatives, but also to ideological obsessions, notably with promoting ‘equality’. At the time, I rather shared Nietzsche’s conception of the kind of individual that an ideal education should be cultivating. ‘Authenticity’ is not Nietzsche’s term, but as used by some existentialists, it nicely captures what Nietzsche admired – the resolve of an individual person to forge his or her own ‘table of values’, to be emancipated from strait-jacketing conventions, traditions, and ideologies. As embodied in the ‘Overman’, authenticity is the antidote to ‘bad’ nihilism. The Overman will himself be a nihilist in the (good) sense of rejecting any metaphysical or religious grounding for truth and value, but instead of curling up in despair, or simply going along with the crowd like the ‘passive’ nihilist, he will recognize himself as the sole source of truths and values to live by.
Nietzsche fairly soon abandoned any hope that that German education could be reformed so as to promote such a goal. It would be through individual effort, inspired perhaps by reading Nietzsche’s books, that the Overman might emerge, not through social or educational engineering. I, too, lost that relatively youthful confidence in organized education to cultivate the good life: the demands of the economy, and more recently those of political correctness and the diktat against ever offending anyone, are not conducive to a classroom or university seminar climate in which genuinely free and critical reflection on how to live prospers.
I had also and anyway travelled a long way from Nietzsche’s idea of authenticity, not least through reading Heidegger, who saw Nietzsche as a very great but very dangerous thinker. In the doctrine of the world and humankind as ‘will to power and nothing else’, Heidegger identified not an antidote to nihilism, but the completion of it. For what can be more destructive of truth and value than the doctrine that these are simply the impositions on the world of human exercises of power?
Like Nietzsche, Heidegger also gave up on the prospect that schools and universities would nurture the kind of reflective openness to the way of things that, certainly by the 1940s, he identified with authentic thinking. The authentic person is not the Promethean, iron-willed figure that pops up in Nietzsche, but someone more like the Daoist sages whom Heidegger admired. My own trajectory of thought has been very like Heidegger’s. So while I am happy to make the occasional foray into educational philosophy – writing, for example, of the difficulty in the contemporary context for a teacher to be ‘truthful’ – it is more the personal conduct of a life than social institutions that I am concerned to examine.
3:AM: And finally, are there five books other than your own you could recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?
DC: The question is nicely posed. You’re not asking me for a list of The Greatest Works of Philosophy, in which I would include, I suppose, Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, but for ones that have shaped and informed my present philosophical direction and sensibility. Well, I suspect that my list – like a Desert Island Discs list – would change according to what I’ve just been reading or listening to, and to my latest enthusiasms and moods. But here’s the five that, this week at least, I recommend you to take to your desert island or your study:
The Book of Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi)
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation
William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 4th, 2017.