Sunday, April 21, 2013

Opinion: Nietzsche at Yale

Just watched Yale University's Youtube recording of a freshman level class, and its introduction to Nietzsche. Not a bad way to spend forty-five minutes:

The professor is clearly German, and while the first few minutes are boring, he gets more animated when the actual lecture begins. The course I took on Nietzsche was taught by the German department and was somewhat better, certainly more comprehensive, but this does the very bare trick of introducing the material, particularly the Genealogy of Morality

But I feel the need to raise some points of disagreement here.

Let's start with what's obviously wrong. Nietzsche was not appointed to the University of Basel as a chair professor of philosophy. He was appointed as a professor of philology, which is an academic who studies the origins of language. Nietzsche dug into the meaning and origin of words, not so much philosophical ideas, which I think makes a positive difference in his philosophy.

Second, the story of Nietzsche's collapse while hugging and protecting a beaten horse is presented as fact, and comes up later in the presentation. As allegory, it's a beautiful story that many would like to believe, but it is supported by no evidence whatsoever. It's inclusion into an academic course on Nietzsche is, as far as I'm concerned, about as respectable as including rumors that he contracted syphilis in a male brothel, another unsubstantiated rumor and about as relevant to understanding the philosophy in question.

And now, for my more opinionated critical ramblings:

The professor says some questionable things about the philosophy itself. For one, he calls Nietzsche a "humanist" without expanding on what, exactly, he means by that. Now, in the modern imagination, humanism is basically Christian ethics without the baggage of actual religion, and by this standard, there is nothing humanist about Nietzsche whatsoever. He accepted a degree of brutality that most people today find simply repellent on a deeply aesthetic level. In a very different way, Nietzsche can be seen as a humanist, but he should never be presented as such without deep ontological clarification.

The professor gives an interesting interpretation of why Nietzsche separated the dichotomies of good/bad and good/evil: he basically says that Nietzsche used one as a standpoint from which to critique the other. You can easily see why, as the entire point of the Genealogy of Morals was to critique morality itself; to do this, one must engage from a position outside the position of morality, so this makes a certain sense. However, while there is obviously some appreciation for the honorable attitude of the "master morality" in Nietzsche's works, he merely sees it as being superior to the "slave morality" and does not necessarily see it as being in any greater way right in any metaphysical sense. If there is any metaphysical standpoint from which N's critiques spring from, they stand on the foundation of the Will to Power, which is not the master morality at all. The Genealogy is, in a sense, Nietzsche being somewhat neutral; he tells a story of how he believes that the moral revolt of the slave class came about. I know people who dislike Genealogy for this structured and relatively objective approach. Nietzsche values honesty. This is not the good/bad dichotomy addressing the good/evil one so much as a comparison of both from a third stance: Nietzsche's perspective of empowerment for its own sake.

There is a brief mention of Jesus, which is frankly rather pointless: Nietzsche targets the life of Jesus much more effectively in Beyond Good and Evil, in the "What is Noble?" section, as a man greedy for love, so much so that he casts God as love embodied. This is more consistent with Nietzsche's overall philosophy. That's not to say that the professor is wrong, but that there is better source material for understanding N's attitude towards the Christ. For that matter, much of the material in Genealogy of Morality is probably better explained in that section of Beyond Good and Evil, which is probably the finest and most concise of his work.

The "blonde beast" gets exactly the wrong kind of attention from almost every academic, despite the fact that I'm fairly sure it's an allegory. If you read on from there, much is made of memory, or forgetting and remembering, and there's good reason for it: man's explicit and controllable memory is intimately responsible for his character as a species. We would not be men without it, and the professor gives a garbled interpretation of the importance of memory at the end of the video, with his words not matching what was on the projector. He says that what matters is the ability for men to suppress their memories; the slides say that what matters was the development of memory to begin with, and the administration of pain and punishment to the end of instilling it, and the slides are more accurate than the voice. The allegory of the blonde beast has, thus, a particular meaning for me: regardless of hair color, this beast was the first creature to acquire genuine memory and put it to controllable use. 

I think this has been an underrated point, from my perspective as an economist. Check out my Will to Survive and Will to Power post, and you might see why: memory is required to invest, to remember cause and effect well enough to create projects and labor now in expectation of return later. This concept is, in modern moral terminology, neither good nor bad; there are only good and bad/evil specific investments, with the concept itself being neutral. I find that highly interesting. I also find it probable that some of the first investments involved slavery: attack that weak group, enslave them, make them do what we want them to do, and profit. This falls in the realm of evil investment today, but so does pretty much all social order in the ancient world. Some would say that order in the modern world qualifies as the same.

Finally, from the beginning on, this professor takes the usual approach to Nietzsche of making his perspective a biographical one. There is some irony here: Nietzsche himself said that philosophers do not reveal truth so much as reveal themselves, that all philosophy was biographical. So calling Nietzsche's philosophy biographical is a very safe thing, but may also invite the reader to miss the point. You can't really object to it, since Nietzsche so clearly wanted the text to be read that way, but I tend to get leery when academics make too much hay out of a guy's perspective as being colored by his life; it's too easy to dismiss his experiences as being irrelevant in the broader sense, and I find Nietzsche to be not only the most interesting but the most practical and applicable of explanatory thinkers. In all things large and small, life makes much more sense through his lens.

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