Nietzsche Couldn’t Teach Ya About the
Raising of the Wrist”
A Lecture in Liberal Studies
[Note that a portion of these remarks was delivered by Ian Johnston as a lecture in Liberal Studies 401 in November, 1996 at Malaspina University College (now Vancouver Island University). This document is in the public domain, released May 1999. It was slightly revised (mainly for typographical mistakes on December 11, 2000])
This text has three parts, which, though obviously related, are, in effect, different lectures.
For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston
Part I: Introduction to Beyond Good and Evil
At the start of this semester in which we are going to be confronting our own uncertainties about the age we live in, there’s a particular aptness to starting the study of our century with Friedrich Nietzsche. He died in 1900, and ever since people have seen something symbolic in that event and date. For Nietzsche laid down a challenge to the modern age which we are still wrestling with, and if we say, as we can, that one of the defining features of the twentieth century is great uncertainty about our traditions, then Nietzsche, more than anyone else, is the eloquent spokesperson for the creation of that uneasy situation.
By way of introducing Beyond Good and Evil, I want to point out a few salient points which establish Nietzsche as the great critic of that tradition and then suggest why this critique is potentially so powerful and disturbing. Next week, on Tuesday, I will be speaking again on Nietzsche, this time calling attention to some aspects of his very strong continuing influence on intellectual life, especially in the universities.
Now, although we can identify in Nietzsche a decisive challenge to the past, from one perspective there should be nothing too remarkably new about what Nietzsche is doing in Beyond Good and Evil (although, as I hope we have time to mention, his style of doing so is quite unique). For he is taking to the limit a method of analysis and criticism which we should be quite familiar with from the texts we have read last semester: history as critique. And he is proposing as a new possibility for our lives a program that has strong and obvious roots in certain forms of Romanticism. Thus, for the rest of this lecture I wish to explore these two points, so that I can help to illustrate how Nietzsche, the great destroyer of tradition, is himself deeply connected to certain aspects of that tradition.
Nietzsche’s Historical Critique
First, the question of Nietzsche’s historical critique. You will recall how one of the main features of the narrative we drew from the texts we read earlier was a rapidly developing interest in and use of the enormously powerful historical criticism developed by Enlightenment thinkers as a way of undermining the authority of traditional power structures and the beliefs which sustain them.
We saw, for example, how in Descartes’s Discourse on Method, Descartes offers a hypothetical historical narrative in order to undermine the authority of the Aristotelians and a faith in an eternal unchanging natural order. Then, we discussed how in the Discourse on Inequality, on the basis of an imaginative reconstruction of the history of human society, Rousseau, following Descartes’s lead but extending it to other areas (and much more aggressively), can encourage in the mind of the reader the view that evil in life is the product of social injustice (rather than, say, the result of Original Sin or the lack of virtue in the lower orders). We further read in Kant, Marx, and Darwin how a historical understanding applied to particular phenomena undercuts traditional notions of eternal truths enshrined in any particular beliefs (whether in species, in religious values, or in final purposes).
But, and this is a crucial point, the Enlightenment thinkers, particularly Kant and Rousseau and Marx, do not allow history to undermine all sources of meaning; for them, in addition to its unanswerable power to dissolve traditional authority, history holds out the promise of a new grounding for rational meaning, in the growing power of human societies to become rational, to, in a word, progress. Thus, history, in addition to revealing the inadequacies of many traditional power structures and sources of meaning, also becomes the best hope and proof for a firm faith in a new eternal order: the faith in progressive reform or revolution. This, too, is clearly something Wollstonecraft pins her hopes on (although, as we saw, how radical her position is is a matter to debate).
On this point, as we also saw, Darwin, at least in the Origin of Species, is somewhat ambiguous--almost as if, knowing he is on very slippery ground, he doesn’t want his readers to recognize the full metaphysical and epistemological implications of his theory of the history of life. And because of this probably deliberate ambiguity Darwin was variously interpreted either as offering a “progressive” view of evolution, something that could be accommodated to the Enlightenment’s faith in rational progress or, alternatively, as presenting a contingent view of the history of life, a story without progress or final goal or overall purpose.
Well, in Nietzsche (as in the latter view of Darwin) there is no such ambiguity. For him the ironies of history go all the way down and disenfranchise all claims to the Truth with a capital T. Nietzsche is the first major thinker to take seriously the full implications of the historical critique and to apply it to all of a culture’s most cherished possessions: its science, religion, morality, politics, faith in progress, science, language, in short, everything.
Every schoolchild learns sooner or later that Nietzsche was the author of the shocking slogan, “God is dead.” But what makes that statement possible is another claim, even more shocking in its implications: “only that which has no history can be defined” (Genealogy of Morals). And since Nietzsche was the heir to seventy-five years of German historical scholarship, he knew that there is no such thing as something which has no history. Darwin had, as Dewey points out that essay we examined, effectively shown that searching for a true definition of a species is not only futile but unnecessary (since the definition of a species is something temporary, something which changes over time, without any permanent lasting and stable reality). Nietzsche dedicates his philosophical work to doing the same for all cultural values.
It is important to reflect for a moment on the full implications of this claim. You will remember (no doubt) how in Liberal Studies we started our study of moral philosophy with the Meno, the dialogue which explores the question “What is virtue?” and which insists that until that issue can be settled with a definition which eludes all cultural qualificationwhat virtue is in itself once and for allthen we cannot effectively deal with morality, except through divine dispensation, unexamined reliance on traditions, skepticism, or relativism (the position of Thrasymachus). The full exploration of what dealing with that question of definition might require takes place in the Republic.
Many of the texts we read subsequently took up Plato’s challenge, seeking to discover, through reason, a permanent basis for understanding knowledge claims and moral values. No matter what the method, as Nietzsche points out in his first section, the belief was always that grounding knowledge and morality in truth was possible and valuable, that the activity of seeking to ground morality was conducive to a fuller good life, individually and communally.
To use a favorite metaphor of Nietzsche’s, we can say that previous systems of thought had sought to provide a true transcript of the book of nature. They made claims about the authority of one true text. Nietzsche insists repeatedly that there is no single canonical text; there are only interpretations. Hence, there is no appeal to some definitive version of Truth (whether we search in philosophy, religion, or science). Thus the Socratic quest for some way to tie morality down to the ground, so that it does not fly away, is (and always has been) futile (although the long history of attempts to do so has disciplined the European mind so that we, or a few of us, are now ready to move into dangerous new territory where we can put all the most basic assumptions about the need for conventional morality to the test and move on “beyond good and evil,” that is, to a place where we do not take the universalizing concerns and claims of traditional morality seriously.
Nietzsche begins his critique here by challenging that fundamental assumption: Who says it is better for human beings to seek for the truth? How do we know untruth is not better? And what is truth anyway? In doing so, he challenges the sense of purpose basic to the traditional philosophical endeavour. Philosophers, he points out early on, may be proud of the way they begin by challenging and doubting received ideas, but they never challenge or doubt the key notion they all start with, namely, that there is such a thing as the Truth and that it is something valuable for human beings (certainly much more valuable than its opposite).
In other words, just as the development of the new science had gradually and for many painfully and rudely emptied nature of any certainty about final purpose, about the possibilities for ever reaching a full understanding of the ultimate value of scientific knowledge, so Nietzsche is, with the aid of new historical science (and the protoscience of psychology) emptying all sources of cultural certainty of their traditional purposiveness and claims to permanent truth, and hence of their value, as that term was traditionally understood. There is thus no antagonism between good and evil, since all versions of good and equal are equally fictive (although some may be more useful for the purposes of living than others).
I don’t want here to analyze the various ways Nietzsche deals with this question. But I do want to insist upon the devastating nature of his historical critique on all previous systems which have claimed to ground knowledge and morality on a clearly defined truth of things. For Nietzsche’s genius rests not only on his adopting the historical critique and applying to new areas but much more on his astonishing perspicuity in seeing just how far reaching and flexible the historical method might be.
For example, Nietzsche, like some of those before him, insists that value systems are culturally determinedthey arise, he insists, as often as not from or in reaction to conventional folk wisdom. But to this he adds something which to us, after Freud, may be well accepted, but which in Nietzsche’s hands becomes for his time something shocking: understanding of a system of value is, he claims, requires us more than anything else to see it as the product of a particular individual’s psychological history, a uniquely personal confession. Relationship to something called the “Truth” has nothing to do with the “meaning” of a moral system; rather we seek its coherence in the psychology of the philosopher who produced it.
Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been; namely, the personal confession its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown. (53)
Claims to “truth” are here unmasked by a concentration upon the history of the life of the person proposing the particular “truth” this time. Systems offering us a route to the Truth are simply psychologically produced fictions which serve the deep (often unconscious) purposes of the individual proposing them. Hence they are what Nietzsche calls “foreground” truths. They do not penetrate into the deep reality of nature. To fail to see this is to lack “perspective.”
Even more devastating is Nietzsche’s extension of the historical critique to language itself. Since philosophical systems deliver themselves to us in language, they are shaped by that language and by the history of that language. Our Western preoccupation with the inner self which perceives, judges, wills, and so forth, Nietzsche can assess as, in large part, the product of grammar, the result of a language that builds its statements around a subject and a predicate. Without that historical accident, Nietzsche affirms, we would not have erred into mistaking for the truth something that is a byproduct of our particular culturally determined language system.
He makes the point, for example, that our faith in consciousness is just an accident. If instead of saying “I think,” we were to say “Thinking is going on in my body,” then we would not be temped to give to the “I” some independent existence (e.g., in the mind) and make large claims about the ego or the inner self. The reason we do search for such an entity stems from the accidental construction of our language, which encourages us to use a subject (the personal pronoun) and a verb. The same false confidence in language also makes it all to easy for us to think that we know clearly what key things like “thinking” and “willing” are; whereas, if we were to engage in even a little reflection, we would quickly realize that the inner processes neatly summed up by these apparently clear terms are anything but clear. His emphasis on the importance of psychology as queen of the sciences underscores his sense of how we need to understand more fully just how complex these activities are, particularly their emotional affects, before we talk about them so simplistically, the philosophers up to now done.
This remarkable insight enables Nietzsche, for example, at one blow and with cutting contempt devastatingly to dismiss as “trivial” the system Descartes had set up so carefully in the Meditations. Descartes’s triviality consists in failing to recognize how his philosophical system is shaped by the language he is, as an educated European, using and by his facile treatment of what thinking is in the first place. The famous Cartesian dualism is not a central philosophical problem but an accidental by-product of grammar designed to serve Descartes’ own particular psychological needs. Similarly Kant’s discovery of “new faculties” Nietzsche derides as just a trick of language--a way of providing what looks like an explanation but which is, in fact, as ridiculous as the old notions about medicines putting people to sleep because they have the sleeping virture.
It should be clear from examples like this (and the others throughout the text) that there is very little capable of surviving Nietzsche’s onslaught, for what is there to which we can point which does not have a history or deliver itself to us in a historically developing system of language? After all, our scientific enquiries in all areas of human experience teach us that nothing ever is, for everything is always becoming.
We might be tempted, as many have been, to point to the new natural science as a counterinstance, for is not natural science a progressive realization of the truth of the world, or at least a closer and closer approximation to that truth? Well, this question we will be addressing on Thursday, and we should all be considering it in our discussions of Kuhn. In fact, it’s an interesting question to think about just how closely Kuhn and Nietzsche might be linked in their views about the relationship between science and the truth of things or to what extent modern science might not provide the most promising refutation of Nietzsche’s assertion that there is no privileged access to a final truth of things (a hotly disputed topic in the last decade or more). Suffice it to say here, that for Nietzsche science is just one more “foreground” way of interpreting nature. It has no privileged access to the Truth, although he does concede that, compared to other beliefs, it has the advantage of being based on sense experience and therefore is more useful for modern times.
There’s one important point to stress in this review of the critical power of Nietzsche’s project. It’s essential to note that Nietzsche is not calling us to task for having beliefs. We have to have beliefs. Human life must be the affirmation of values; otherwise it is not life. But Nietzsche is centrally concerned to mock us for believing that our belief systems are True, are fixed, are somehow eternally right by a grounded standard of knowledge. Human life, in its highest forms, must be lived in the full acceptance that the values we create for ourselves are fictions. We, or the best of us, have to have the courage to face up to the fact that there is no “Truth” upon which to ground anything we believe in; we must in the full view of that harsh insight, nevertheless affirm ourselves with joy. The Truth is not accessible to our attempts at discovery; what thinking human beings characteristically do, in their pursuit of the Truth, is create their own truths.
A Note on Nietzsche and Our View of the Self
Now, this last point, like the others, has profound implications for how we think of ourselves, for our conception of the human self. Because human individuals, like human cultures, also have a history. Each of us has a personal history, and thus we ourselves cannot be defined; we, too, are in a constant process of becoming, of transcending the person we have been into something new. We may like to think of ourselves as defined by some essential rational quality, but in fact we are not. In stressing this, of course, Nietzsche links himself with certain strains of Romanticism, especially (from the point of view of our curriculum) with William Blake and, for those who took the American Adam seminar, with Emerson and Thoreau.
This tradition of Romanticism holds up a view of life which is radically individualistic, selfcreated, selfgenerated. “I must create my own system or become enslaved by another man’s” Blake wrote. It is also thoroughly aristocratic, with little room for traditional altruism, charity, or egalitarianism. Our livesto realize their highest potentialshould be lived basically in solitude from others, except perhaps those few we recognize as kindred souls, and our life’s efforts must be a spiritually demanding but joyful affirmation of the process by which we maintain the vital development of our imaginative conceptions of ourselves.
It might be appropriate here to contrast this view of the self as a constantly developing entity, without essential permanence, with Marx’s view. Marx, too, insists on the process of transformation of the self and ideas of the self, but for him, as we discussed, the transformation is controlled by the material forces of production, and these, in turn, are driven by the logic of history. It is not something which the individual takes charge of by an act of individual will, because individual consciousness, like everything else, emerges from and is dependent upon the particular historical and material circumstances, the stage in the development of production, of the social environment in which the individual finds himself or herself.
Nietzsche, like Marx, and unlike later Existentialists, de Beauvoir, for example, recognizes that the individual inherits particular things from the historical moment of the culture (e.g., the prevailing ideas and, particularly, the language and ruling metaphors). Thus for Nietzsche the individual is not totally free of all context. However, the appropriate response to this is not, as in Marx, the development of a class consciousness, a solidarity with other citizens and an imperative to help history along by committing oneself to the class war alongside other proletarians, but rather, in the best and brightest spirits, a call for a heightened sense of individuality, of one’s radical separation from the herd, of one’s final responsibility to one’s own most fecund creativity.
It’s vital to see that Nietzsche and the earlier Romantics are not simply saying we should do what we like. They all have a sense that selfcreation of the sort they recommend requires immense spiritual and emotional disciplinethe discipline of the artist shaping his most important original creation in accordance with the stringent demands of his creative imagination. These demands may not be rational, but they are not permissively relativistic in that 1960’s sense (“If it feels good, do it”). Permissiveness may have often been attributed to this Romantic tradition, a sort of 1960’s “Boogie ‘til you puke” ethic, but that is not what any of them had in mind. For Nietzsche that would simply be a herd response to a popularized and bastardized version of a much higher call to a solitary life lived with the most intense but personal joy, suffering, insight, courage, and imaginative discipline.
This aspect of Nietzsche’s thought represents the fullest nineteenth-century European affirmation of a Romantic vision of the self as radically individualistic (at the opposite end of the spectrum from Marx’s views of the self as socially and economically determined), and it has had, as I hope to mention briefly next week, a profound and lasting effect in the twentieth century as we become more and more uncertain about coherent social identities and thus increasingly inclined to seek for some personal way to take full charge of our own identities without answering to anyone but ourselves.
A great deal of the energy and much of the humour in Nietzsche’s prose comes from the urgency with which he sees such creative self-affirmation as essential if the human species is not going to continue to degenerate. For Nietzsche, human beings are, first and foremost, biological creatures with certain instinctual drives. The best forms of humanity are those who best express the most important of these biological drives, the “will to power,” by which he means the individual will to arrogate to oneself and to create for oneself what one needs in order to live most fully. Such a “will to power” is beyond morality, because it does not answer to anyone’s system of what constitutes good and bad conduct. The best and strongest human beings are those who create values for themselves, live by them, and refuse to acknowledge their common links with anyone else, other than other strong people who do the same and who are thus their peers.
His surveys of world history have convinced Nietzsche that this basic human drive has been turned against human beings by the development of systems of morality favouring the weak, the suffering, the sick, the criminal, and the incompetent (all of whom he lumps together in that famous phrase “the herd”). He salutes the genius of those who could accomplish this feat (especially the Jews and Christians), which he sees as the revenge of the slaves against their natural masters. As a result of this centuries-long act of revenge, human beings are now filled with feelings of guilt, inadequacy, jealousy, and mediocrity, a condition alleviated, if at all, by dreams of being helpful to others and of an ever-expanding democracy, an agenda powerfully served by modern science (which tends to bring everything and everyone down to the same level). Fortunately, however, this ordeal has trained our minds splendidly, so that the best and brightest (the new philosophers, the free spirits) will be able to move beyond the traditional boundaries of morality, that is, “beyond good and evil” (his favourite metaphor for this condition is the tensely arched bow ready to shoot off an arrow).
It’s important to stress, as I mentioned above, that Nietzsche does not believe that becoming such a “philosopher of the future” is easy or for everyone. It is, by contrast, an extraordinarily demanding call, and those few capable of responding to it may well have to live solitary lives without recognition of any sort. He’s demanding an intense spiritual and intellectual discipline which will enable the new spirit to move into territory no philosopher has ever roamed before, a land where there are no comfortable moral resting places and where the individual will probably (almost certainly) have to pursue an intensely lonely and perhaps dangerous existence (hence the importance of another favourite metaphor of his, the mask). But this is the only way we can counter the increasing degeneration of European man into a practical, democratic, technocratic, altruistic herd animal.
Part II: Nietzsche’s Project, An Overall Review
By way of a further introduction to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, I would like to offer an extended analogy, something which emerged from a seminar discussion, so I apologize that the opening parts of this may be familiar to some students. But I hope quickly to extend the remarks into directions we did not explore.
Before placing the analogy on the table, however, I wish to issue a caveat. Analogies may really help to clarify, but they can also mislead. And I hope that the analogy I offer will provide such clarity, but not at the price of oversimplifying. So, as you listen to this analogy, you need to address the questions: To what extent does this analogy not hold? To what extent does it reduce the complexity of what Nietzsche is saying into a simpler form?
An Analogy: Culture as Recreation
The analogy I want to put on the table is the comparison of human culture to a huge recreational complex in which a large number of different games are going on. Outside people are playing soccer on one field, rugby on another, American football on another, and Australian football on another, and so on. In the club house different groups of people are playing chess, dominoes, poker, and so on. There are coaches, spectators, trainers, and managers involved in each game. Surrounding the recreation complex is wilderness.
These games we might use to characterize different cultural groups: French Catholics, German Protestants, scientists, Enlightenment rationalists, European socialists, liberal humanitarians, American democrats, free thinkers, or what have you. The variety represents the rich diversity of intellectual, ethnic, political, and other activities.
The situation is not static of course. Some games have far fewer players and fans, and the popularity is shrinking; some are gaining popularity rapidly and increasingly taking over parts of the territory available. Thus, the traditional sport of Aboriginal lacrosse is but a small remnant of what it was before contact. However, the Democratic capitalist game of baseball is growing exponentially, as is the materialistic science game of archery. And they may well combine their efforts to create a new game or merge their leagues.
When Nietzsche looks at Europe historically what he sees is that different games have been going on like this for centuries. He further sees that many of the participants in any one game have been aggressively convinced that their game is the “true” game, that it corresponds with the essence of games or is a close match to the wider game they imagine going on in the natural world, in the wilderness beyond the playing fields. So they have spent a lot of time producing their rule books and coaches’ manuals and making claims about how the principles of their game copy or reveal or approximate the laws of nature. This has promoted and still promotes a good deal of bad feeling and fierce arguments. Hence, in addition any one game itself, within the group pursuing it there have always been all sorts of sub-games debating the nature of the activity, refining the rules, arguing over the correct version of the rule book or about how to educate the referees and coaches, and so on.
Nietzsche’s first goal is to attack this dogmatic claim about the truth of the rules of any particular game. He does this, in part, by appealing to the tradition of historical scholarship which shows that these games are not eternally true, but have a history. Rugby began when a soccer player broke the rules and picked up the ball and ran with it. American football developed out of rugby and has changed and is still changing. Basketball had a precise origin which can be historically located.
Rule books are written in languages which have a history by people with a deep psychological point to prove: the games are an unconscious expression of the particular desires of inventive games people at a very particular historical moment; these rule writers are called Plato, Augustine, Socrates, Kant, Schopenhauer, Descartes, Galileo, and so on. For various reasons they believe, or claim to believe, that the rules they come up with reveal something about the world beyond the playing field and are therefore “true” in a way that other rule books are not; they have, as it were, privileged access to reality and thus record, to use a favorite metaphor of Nietzsche’s, the text of the wilderness.
In attacking such claims, Nietzsche points out, the wilderness bears no relationship at all to any human invention like a rule book (he points out that nature is “wasteful beyond measure, without purposes and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power--how could you live according to this indifference. Living--is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature” (Epigram 9). Because there is no connection with what nature truly is, such rule books are mere “foreground” pictures, fictions dreamed up, reinforced, altered, and discarded for contingent historical reasons. Moreover, the rule books often bear a suspicious resemblance to the rules of grammar of a culture (thus, for example, the notion of an ego as a thinking subject, Nietzsche points out, is closely tied to the rules of European languages which insist on a subject and verb construction as an essential part of any statement).
So how do we know what we have is the truth? And why do we want the truth, anyway? People seem to need to believe that their games are true. But why? Might they not be better if they accepted that their games were false, were fictions, having nothing to do with the reality of nature beyond the recreational complex? If they understood the fact that everything they believe in has a history and that, as he says in the Genealogy of Morals, “only that which has no history can be defined,” they would understand that all this proud history of searching for the truth is something quite different from what philosophers who have written rule books proclaim.
Furthermore these historical changes and developments occur accidentally, for contingent reasons, and have nothing to do with the games, or any one game, shaping itself in accordance with any ultimate game or any given rule book of games given by the wilderness, which is indifferent to what is going on. And there is no basis for the belief that, if we look at the history of the development of these games, we discover some progressive evolution of games towards some higher type. We may be able, like Darwin, to trace historical genealogies, to construct a narrative, but that narrative does not reveal any clear direction or any final goal or any progressive development. The genealogy of games indicates that history is a record of contingent change. The assertion that there is such a thing as progress is simply one more game, one more rule added by inventive minds (who need to believe in progress); it bears no relationship to nature beyond the sports complex. Ditto for science.
So long as one is playing on a team, one follows the rules and thus has a sense of what constitutes right and wrong or good and evil conduct in the game, and this awareness is shared by all those carrying out the same endeavour. To pick up the ball in soccer is evil (unless you are the goalie); and to punt the ball while running in American football is permissible but stupid; in Australian football both actions are essential and right. In other words, different cultural communities have different standards of right and wrong conduct. These are determined by the artificial inventions called rule books, one for each game. These rule books have developed the rules historically; thus, they have no permanent status and no claim to privileged access.
Games, Super-games, and Aristotle
Now, at this point you might be thinking about the other occasion in which I introduced a game analogy, namely, in the discussions of Aristotle’s Ethics. For Aristotle also acknowledges that different political systems have different rules of conduct. But Aristotle believes that an examination of different political communities will enable one to derive certain principles common to them all, bottom-up generalizations which will then provide the basis for reliable rational judgment on which game is being played better, on what constitutes good play in any particular game, on whether or not a particular game is being conducted well or not.
In other words, Aristotle maintains that there is a way of discovering and appealing to some authority outside any particular game in order to adjudicate moral and knowledge claims which arise in particular games or in conflicts between different games. Plato, of course, also believed in the existence of such a standard, but proposed a different route to discovering it.
Now Nietzsche emphatically denies this possibility. Anyone who tries to do what Aristotle recommends is simply inventing another game (we can call it Super-sport) and is not discovering anything true about the real nature of games because reality (that’s the wilderness surrounding us) isn’t organized as a game. In fact, he argues, that we have created this recreational complex and all the activities which go on in it to protect ourselves from nature (which is indifferent to what we do with our lives), not to copy some recreational rule book which that wilderness reveals. Human culture exists as an affirmation of our opposition to or contrast with nature, not as an extension of rules which include both human culture and nature. That’s why falsehoods about nature might well be a lot more useful than truths, if they enable us to live more fully human lives.
If we think of the wilderness as a text about reality, as the truth about nature, then, Nietzsche claims, we have no access whatsoever to that text. What we do have is access to conflicting interpretations, none of them based on privileged access to a “true” text. Thus, the soccer players may think they and their game is superior to rugby and the rugby players, because soccer more closely represents the surrounding wilderness, but such statements about better and worse are irrelevant. There is nothing rule bound outside the games themselves. Hence, all dogmatic claims about the truth of all games or any particular game are false.
The Death of God, the Guarantor of the Truth of Our Game
Now, how did this situation come about? Well, there was a time when all Europeans played more or less the same game and had done so for many years. Having little-to-no historical knowledge and sharing the same head coach in the Vatican and the same rule book, they all believed that the game was the only one possible and had been around for ever. So they naturally believed that their game was true, and they shored up that belief with appeals to scripture or to eternal forms, or universal principles or to rationality or science or whatever. There were many quarrels about the nature of ultimate truth, that is, about just how one should tinker with the rule book, about what provided access to God’s rules, but there was agreement that such access must exist.
Take, for example, the offside rule in soccer. Without that the game could not proceed in its traditional way. Hence, soccer players see the offside rule as an essential part of their reality, and as long as soccer is the only game in town and we have no idea of its history (which might, for example, tell us about the invention of the off-side rule), then the offside rule is easy to interpret as a universal, a necessary requirement for social activity, and we will find and endorse scriptural texts which reinforce that belief, and our scientists will devote their time to linking the offside rule with the mysterious rumblings that come from the forest. And from this, one might be led to conclude that the offside rule is a Law of Nature, something which extends far beyond the realms of our particular game into all possible games and, beyond those, into the realm of the wilderness itself.
Of course, there were powerful social and political forces (the coach and trainers and owners of the team) who made sure that people had lots of reasons for believing in the unchanging verity of present arrangements. So it’s not surprising that we find plenty of learned books, training manuals, and locker room exhortations urging everyone to remember the offside rule and to castigate as “bad” those who routinely forget about that part of the game. We will also worship those who died in defence of the offside rule. And naturally any new game that did not recognize the offside rule would be a bad game, an immoral way to conduct oneself. So if some group tried to start a game with a different offside rule, that group would be attacked because they had violated a rule of nature and were thus immoral.
But for contingent historical reasons, Nietzsche argues, that situation of one game in town did not last. The recreational unity of the area split up, and the growth of historical scholarship into the past demonstrated all too clearly that there was overwhelming evidence that all the various attempts to show that one particular game was privileged over any of the others, that there was one true game, are false, dogmatic, trivial, deceiving, and so on.
For science has revealed that the notion of a necessary connection between the rules of any game and the wider purposes of the wilderness is simply an ungrounded assertion. There is no way in which we can make the connections between the historically derived fictions in the rule book and the mysterious and ultimately unknowable directions of irrational nature. To play the game of science, we have to believe in causes and effects, but there is no way we can prove that this is a true belief and there is a danger for us if we simply ignore that fact. Therefore, we cannot prove a link between the game and anything outside it. And history has shown us, just as Darwin’s natural history has demonstrated, that all apparently eternal issues have a story, a line of development, a genealogy. Thus, concepts, like species, have no reality--they are temporary fictions imposed for the sake of defending a particular arrangement.
Hence, God is dead. There is no eternal truth any more, no rule book in the sky, no ultimate referee or international Olympic committee chairman. Nietzsche didn’t kill God; history and the new science did. And Nietzsche is only the most passionate and irritating messenger, announcing over the PA system to anyone who will listen that someone like Kant or Descartes or Newton who thinks that what he or she is doing can be defended by an appeal to a system grounded in the truth of nature has simply been mistaken.
So What’s the Problem?
This insight is obvious to Nietzsche, and he is troubled that no one seems to be worried about it or even to have noticed it. So he’s moved to call the matter to our attention as stridently as possible, because he thinks that this realization requires a fundamental shift in how we live our lives.
For Nietzsche Europe is in crisis. It has a growing power to make life comfortable and an enormous energy. But people seem to want to channel that energy into arguing about what amounts to competing fictions and to force everyone to adhere to a particular fiction.
Why is this insight so worrying? Well, one point is that dogmatists get aggressive. Soccer players and rugby players who forget what Nietzsche is pointing out can start killing each other over questions which admit of no answer, namely, questions about which group has the true game, which group has privileged access to the truth. Nietzsche senses that dogmatism is going to lead to warfare, and he predicts that the twentieth century will see an unparalleled extension of warfare in the name of competing dogmatic truths. Part of his project is to wake up the people who are intelligent enough to respond to what he’s talking about so that they can recognize the stupidity of killing each other for an illusion which they mistake for some “truth.”
In addition to that, Nietzsche, like Mill (although in a very different manner), is serious concerned about the possibilities for human excellence in a culture where the herd mentality is taking over, where Europe is developing into competing herds--a situation which is either sweeping up the best and the brightest or is stifling them entirely. Nietzsche, like Mill and the ancient pre-Socratic Greeks to whom he constantly refers, is an elitist. He wants the potential for individual human excellence to be liberated from the harnesses of conformity and group competition and conventional morality. Otherwise, human beings are going to become destructive, lazy, conforming herd animals, using technology to divert them from the greatest joys in life, which come only from individual striving and creativity, activities which require one to release one’s instincts without keeping them eternally subjugated to an overpowering historical consciousness or a conventional morality of good and evil.
What makes this particularly a problem for Nietzsche is that he sees that a certain form of game is gaining popularity: democratic volleyball. In this game, the rule book insists that all players be treated equally, that there be no natural authority given to the best players or to those who best understand the nature of quality play. Hence the mass of inferior players is taking over, the quality of the play is deteriorating, and there are fewer and fewer good volleyball players. This process is being encouraged both by the traditional ethic of “help your neighbour” (now often in a socialist uniform) and (as mentioned above) by modern science). As the mass of more numerous inferior players takes over the sport, the mindless violence of their desires to attack other players and take over their games increases, as does their hostility to those who are uniquely excellent (who may well need a mask to prevent themselves being recognized).
The hopes for any change in this development are not good. In fact, things seem to be getting worse. For when Nietzsche looks at all these games going on he notices certain groups of people, and the prospect is not totally reassuring.
First of all there is the overwhelming majority of people: the players and the spectators, those caught up in their particular sport. These people are, for the most part, continuing on as before without reflecting or caring about what they do. They may be vaguely troubled about rumours they hear that their game is not the best, they may be bored with the endless repetition in the schedule, and they have more or less reconciled themselves that they are not the only game going on, but they’d rather not think about it. Or else, stupidly confident that what they are doing is what really matters about human life, is true, they preoccupy themselves with tinkering with the rules, using the new technology to get better balls, more comfortable seats, louder whistles, more brightly painted side lines, more trendy uniforms, tastier Gatorade--all in the name of progress.
Increasing numbers of people are moving into the stands or participating through the newspaper or the television sets. Most people are thus, in increasing numbers, losing touch with themselves and their potential as instinctual human beings. They are the herd, the last men, preoccupied with the trivial, unreflectingly conformist because they think, to the extent they think at all, that what they do will bring them something called “happiness.” But they are not happy; they are in a permanent state of narcotized anxiety, seeking new ways to entertain themselves with the steady stream of marketed distractions which the forces of the market produce: technological toys, popular entertainment, college education, Wagner’s operas, academic jargon.
This group, of course, includes all the experts in the game, the cheerleaders whose job it is to keep us focused on the seriousness of the activity: the sports commentators and pundits, whose life is bound up with interpreting, reporting, and classifying players and contests. These sportscasters are, in effect, the academics and government experts, the John Maddens and Larry Kings and Mike Wallaces of society, those demigods of the herd, whose authority derives from the false notion that what they are dealing with is something other than a social fiction.
There’s a second group of people, who have accepted the ultimate meaninglessness of the game they were in. They have moved to the sidelines, not as spectators or fans, but as critics, as cynics or nihilists, dismissing out of hand all the pretensions of the players and fans, but not affirming anything themselves. These are the souls who, having nothing to will (because they have seen through the fiction of the game and have therefore no motive to play any more), prefer to will nothing in a state of paralyzed skepticism. Nietzsche has a certain admiration for these people, but maintains that a life like this, the nihilist on the sidelines, is not a human life.
For, Nietzsche insists, to live as a human being, is to play a game. Only in playing a game can one affirm one’s identity, can one create values, can one truly exist. Games are the expression of our instinctual human energies, our living drives, what Nietzsche calls our “will to power.” So the nihilistic stance, though understandable and, in a sense, courageous, is sterile. For we are born to play, and if we don’t, then we are not fulfilling a worthy human function. At the same time, however, we have to recognize that all games are equally fictions, invented human constructions without any connections to the reality of things.
Hence we arrive at the position of the need to affirm a belief (invent a rule book) which we know to have been invented, to be divorced from the truth of things. To play the best game is to live by rules which we invent for ourselves as an assertion of our instinctual drives and to accept that the rules are fictions: they matter, we accept them as binding, we judge ourselves and others by them, and yet we know they are artificial. And just as in real life a normal soccer player derives a sense of meaning during the game, affirms his or her value in the game, without ever once believing that the universe is organized by the rules of soccer or that those rules have any universal validity, so we must commit ourselves to epistemological and moral rules which enable us to live our lives as players, while at the same time recognizing that these rules have no universal validity.
The nihilists have discovered half of this insight, but, because they are not capable of living the full awareness, they are very limited human beings.
The Free Spirits, New Philosophers
The third group of people, that small minority which includes Nietzsche himself, are those who accept the games metaphor, see the fictive nature of all systems of knowledge and morality, and accept the challenge that to be most fully human is to create a new game, to live a life that is governed by rules imposed by the dictates of one’s own creative nature. To base one’s life on the creative tensions of the artist engaged with creating a game that meets most eloquently and uncompromisingly the demands of one’s own irrational nature--one’s will--is to be most fully free, most fully human.
This call to live the selfcreated life, affirming oneself in a game of one’s own devising, necessarily condemns the highest spirits to loneliness, doubt, insecurity, emotional suffering, (because most people will mock the new game or be actively hostile to it or refuse to notice it, and so on; alternatively, they will accept the challenge but misinterpret what it means and settle for some marketed easy game, like floating down the Mississippi smoking a pipe), but a self-generated game also brings with it the most intense joy, the most playful and creative affirmation of what is most important in our human nature).
It’s important to note here that one’s freedom to create one’s own game is not unlimited. In that sense, Nietzsche is no existentialist maintaining that we have a duty and an unlimited freedom to be whatever we want to be. For the resources at our disposal the parts of the field still available and the recreational material lying around in the club house--are determined by the present state of our culture. Furthermore, the rules I devise and the language I frame them in will almost certainly owe a good deal to the present state of the rules of other games and the state of the language in which those are expressed. Although I am changing the rules for my game, my starting point, or the rules I have available to change, are given to me by my moment in history. So in moving forward, in creating something that will transcend the past, I am using the materials of the past. Existing games are the materials out of which I fashion my new game.
Thus, the new philosopher will transcend the limitations of the existing games and will extend the catalogue of games with the invention of new ones, but that new creative spirit faces certain historical limitations. If this is relativistic, it is not totally so.
The Value of the Self-Created Game
The value of this endeavour is not to be measured by what other people think of the newly created game; nor does its value lie in fame, material rewards, or service to the group. Its value comes from the way it enables the individual to manifest certain human qualities, especially the will to power. But whether or not the game attracts other people and becomes a permanent fixture on the sporting calendar, something later citizens can derive enjoyment from or even remember, that is irrelevant. For only the accidents of history will determine whether the game I invent for myself attracts other people, that is, becomes a source of value for them.
Nietzsche claims that the time is right for such a radically individualistic endeavour to create new games, new metaphors for my life. For, wrongheaded as many of the traditional games may have been, like Plato’s metaphysical soccer or Kant’s version of eight ball, or Marx’s materialist chess tournament, or Christianity’s stoical snakes and ladders, they have splendidly trained us for the much more difficult work of creating values in a spirit of radical uncertainty. The exertions have trained our imaginations and intelligence in useful ways. Hence, although those dogmatists were fundamentally unsound, an immersion in their systems has done much to refine those capacities we most need to rise above the nihilists and the herd.
Games as Cultural Metaphor
Now, I have put this analogy on the table in order to help clarify some central points about Nietzsche. But the metaphor is not so arbitrary as it may appear, because this very notion of systems of meanings as invented games is one of the central metaphors of the twentieth century thoughtand those who insist upon it as often as not point to Nietzsche as their authority.
So, for example, when certain postmodernists insist that the major reason for engaging in artistic creativity or literary criticism or any form of cultural life is to awaken the spirit of creative playthat that is far more central than any traditional sense of meaning or rationality or even coherence, we can see the spirit of Nietzsche at work.
In a lecture next semester, I’m probably going to be wrestling with one of the most perplexing terms in recent cultural history, the term modernism. Today, we don’t use that term to describe our own times, preferring instead the rather odd term postmodernism. I’m going to suggest that one crude but useful way in which to understand the transition from modernism to postmodernism, that is, from early twentieth-century culture to our own times, is to see the latter as the triumph of the Nietzschean view of games (suitably watered down and distorted in many places)the triumph of that approach to culture over the earlier preoccupation with lamenting or worrying about a loss of meaning or attempting to reconstruct a meaning in our cultural lives.
Earlier in this century, as we shall see in the discussions of early modern art, a central concern was the possibility of recovering some sense of meaning or of recreating or discovering a sense of “truth” of the sort we had in earlier centuries, or, as we shall see in the poetry of Eliot, lamenting the collapse of traditional systems of value. And Marxists were determined to assist history in producing the true meaning towards which we were inexorably heading. To the extent that we can characterize post-modernism simply at all, we might say that it marks a turning away from such responses to the modern condition and an embrace, for better or worse, of Nietzsche, joyful self-affirmation in a spirit of the irrationality of the world and the fictive qualities of all that we create in order to deal with life.
Postscript: Some Modern Attitudes, Potential Responses
After this rapid and, I hope, useful construction and description of an analogy, one final point remains: So how have we responded and are we still responding to all of this? What sort of an impact has this powerful challenge to our most confident traditions had? Well, there is not time here to trace the complex influence of Nietzsche’s thought in a wide range of areas. That influence has been immense and continues still. However, I would like to sketch a few points about what seems to be happening at present.
Here I must stress that I am offering a personal review, which is not informed by an expertise in this question. Still, any general reading in modern studies of culture indicates that responses to Nietzsche are important and diverse. His stock has been very bullish for the past two decades, at least.
One group we can quickly identify is those who have embraced Nietzsche’s critique, who appeal to his writing to endorse their view that the search to ground our knowledge and moral claims in Truth are futile, and that we must therefore recognize the imperative Nietzsche laid before us to self-create our own lives, to come up with new selfdescriptions as a means of affirming the irrational basis of our individual humanity. This position has been loosely termed Antifoundationalism. Two of its most prominent and popular spokespersons in recent years have been Richard Rorty and Camille Paglia. Within Humanities departments the Deconstructionists (with Derrida as their guru) head the Nietzschean charge.
Antifoundationalists tend to link Nietzsche closely with Kuhn and with Dewey (whose essay on Darwin we read) and sometimes with Wittgenstein and take central aim at anyone who would claim that some form of enquiry, like science, rational ethics, Marxism, or traditional religion has any form of privileged access to reality or the truth.
The political stance of the Antifoundationalists tends to be radically romantic or pragmatic. Since we cannot ground our faith in any public morality or political creed, politics becomes something far less important than personal development or else we have to conduct our political life simply on a pragmatic basis, following the rules we can agree on, without according those rules any universal status or grounding in eternal principles. If mechanistic science is something we find, for accidental reasons of history, something useful, then we will believe it for now. Thus, Galileo’s system became adopted, not because it was true or closer to the truth that what it replaced, but simply because the vocabulary he introduced into our descriptions was something we found agreeable and practically helpful. When it ceases to fulfill our pragmatic requirements, we will gradually change to some other vocabulary, some other metaphor, some other version of a game. History indicates that such a change will occur, but how and when it will take place or what the new vocabulary might be--these questions will be determined by the accidents of history.
Similarly, human rights are important, not because there is any rational non-circular proof that we ought to act in accordance with these principles, but simply because we have agreed, for accidental historical reasons, that these principles are useful. Such pragmatic agreements are all we have for public life, because, as Nietzsche insists, we cannot justify any moral claims by appeals to the truth. So we can agree about a schedule for the various games and distributing the budget among them and we can, as a matter of convenience, set certain rules for our discussions, but only as a practical requirement of our historical situation; not by any divine or rationally just system of distribution.
A second response is to reject the Antifoundationalist and Nietzschean claim that no language has privileged access to the reality of things, to assert, that is, that Nietzsche is wrong in his critique of the Enlightenment. Plato’s project is not dead, as Nietzsche claimed, but alive and well, especially in the scientific enterprise. We are discovering more and more about the nature of reality. There may still be a long way to go, and nature might be turning out to be much more complex than the early theories indicated, but we are making progress. By improving the rule book we will modify our games so that they more closely approximate the truth of the wilderness.
To many scientists, for example, the Antifoundationalist position is either irrelevant or just plain wrong, an indication that social scientists and humanities types don’t understand the nature of science or are suffering a bad attack of sour grapes because of the prestige the scientific disciplines enjoy in the academy. The failure of the social scientists (after generations of trying) to come up with anything approaching a reliable law (like, say, Newton’s laws of motion) has shown the pseudo-scientific basis of the disciplines, and unmasks their turn to Nietzschean antifoundationalism as a feeble attempt to justify their presence in the modern research university.
By the same token, Marxists would reject Antifoundationalism as a remnant of aristocratic bourgeois capitalism, an ideology designed to take intellectuals’ minds off the realities of history, the truth of things. There is a truth grounded in a materialist view of history; denying that is simply a means of diverting intellectuals away from social injustice. No wonder the most ardent Nietzscheans in the university have no trouble getting support from the big corporate interests and their government lackeys: the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Within the universities and many of the humanities and legal journals, some of the liveliest debates go on between the Antifoundationalists allied to the Deconstructionists under the banner of Nietzsche and the historical materialists and many feminists under the banner of Marx.
Meanwhile, there has been a revival of interest in Aristotle. The neoAristotelians agree with Nietzsche’s critique of the Enlightenment rational project--that we are never going to be able to derive a sense of human purpose from scientific reason--but assert that sources of value and knowledge are not simply contingent but arise from communities and that what we need to sort out our moral confusion is a reassertion of Aristotle’s emphasis on human beings, not as radically individual with an identity prior to their political and social environment, but rather as political animals, whose purpose and value are deeply and essentially rooted in their community. A leading spokesman for this position is Alisdair McIntyre.
In opposition to such a communitarian emphasis, a good deal of the modern Liberal tradition points out that such a revival of traditions simply will not work. The break down of the traditional communities and the widespread perception of the endemic injustice of inherited ways are something that cannot be reversed (appeals to Hobbes here are not uncommon). So we need to place our faith in the rational liberal Enlightenment tradition, and seek for universal rational principles, human rights, rules of international morality, justice based on an analysis of the social contract, and so on. An important recent example such a view is Rawls’ famous book Social Justice.
Finally, there are those who again agree with Nietzsche’s analysis of the Enlightenment and thus reject the optimistic hopes of rational progress, but who deny Nietzsche’s proffered solution. To see life as irrational chaos which we must embrace and such joyous affirmation as the value-generating activity in our human lives, while at the same time recognizing its ultimate meaninglessness to the individual, to many people seems like a prescription for insanity. What we, as human beings, must have to live a fulfilled human life is an image of eternal meaning. This we can derive only from religion, which provides for us, as it always has, a transcendent sense of order, something which answers to our most essential human nature far more deeply than either the Enlightenment faith in scientific rationality or Nietzsche’s call to a life of constant metaphorical selfdefinition. A prominent spokespersons for this reaction to Nietzsche is George Grant--the last author we shall be considering in our curriculum (and the author of an interesting critique of Nietzsche: Time as History, the transcript of a series of lectures on the CBC).
To read the modern debates over literary interpretation, legal theory, human rights issues, education curriculums, feminist issues, ethnic rights, communitarian politics, or a host of other similar issues is to come repeatedly across the clash of these different positions (and others). To use the analogy I started with, activities on the playing fields are going on more energetically than ever. And right in the middle of most of these debates and generously scattered throughout the footnotes and bibliographies, Nietzsche’s writings are alive and well. To that extent, his ideas are still something to be reckoned with. He may have started by shouting over the PA system in a way no one bothered to attend to; now on many playing fields, the participants and fans are considering and reacting to his analysis of their activities. So Nietzsche today is, probably more than ever before in this century, right in the centre of some of the most vital debates over cultural questions.
Part III: Nietzsche and Language: Some Observations
The War Between Poetry and Philosophy
You may recall how, in Book X of the Republic, Plato talks about the “ancient war between poetry and philosophy.” What this seems to mean in the context of the argument is an ongoing antagonism between different uses of language, between language that seeks above all, denotative claritythe language of exact definitions and precise logical relationshipsand language whose major quality is its ambiguous emotional richness, between, that is, the language of geometry and the language of poetry (or, simply put, between Euclid and Homer).
Another way of characterizing this dichotomy is to describe it as the tension between a language appropriate to discovering the truth and one appropriate to creating it, between, that is, a language which sets itself up as an exact description of a given order (or as exact as is presently available) and a language which sets itself up as an ambiguous poetic vision of or an analogy to a natural or cosmic order.
Plato, in much of what we studied, seems clearly committed to a language of the former sort. Central to his course of studies which will produce guardianrulers is mathematics, which is based upon the most exact denotative language we know. Hence, the famous inscription over the door of the Academy: “Let no one enter here who has not studied geometry.” And underlying Plato’s remarkable suspicion of a great deal of poetry, and particularly of Homer, is this attitude to language: poetic language is suspect because, being based on metaphors (figurative comparisons or word pictures), it is a third remove from the truth. In addition, it speaks too strongly to the emotions and thus may unbalance the often tense equilibrium needed to keep the soul in a healthy state.
One needs to remember, however, that Plato’s attitude to language is very ambiguous, because, in spite of his obvious endorsement of the language of philosophy and mathematics, in his own style he is often a poet, a creator of metaphor. In other words, there’s a conflict between his strictures on metaphor and his adoption of so many metaphors (the central one of a dramatic dialogue is only the most obvious). Many of the most famous and influential passages from the Republic, for example, are not arguments but poetic images or fictional narratives: the Allegory of the Cave, the image of the Sun, the Myth of Er.
Plato, in fact, has always struck me as someone who was deeply suspicious about poetry and metaphor because he responded to it so strongly. Underlying his sometimes harsh treatment of Homer may be the imagination of someone who is all too responsive to it (conversely Aristotle’s more lenient view of poetry may stem from the fact that he didn’t really feel its effects so strongly). If we were inclined to adopt Nietzsche’s interpretation of philosophy, we might be tempted to see in Plato’s treatment of Homer and his stress on the dangers of poetic language his own “confession” of weakness. His work is, in part, an attempt to fight his own strong inclinations to prefer metaphoric language.
Geometry and Poetry
If we accept this characterization of the “ancient war” between two different uses of language, then we might want to ask ourselves why they cannot be reconciled. Why must there be a war? This has, in part, to do with the sorts of questions one wants to ask about the nature of things and about the sorts of answers which the enquiring mind requires. For traditionally there have been some important differences between the language of mathematics or geometry or a vocabulary that seeks to approximate the denotative clarity of these disciplines and the language of poetry. The central difference I would like to focus on is the matter of ambiguity.
The language of mathematics, and especially of Euclidean geometry, is characterized, above all, by denotative clarity: precise definitions, clear axioms, firm logical links between statementsall of which are designed to produce a rationally coherent structure which will compel agreement among those who take the time to work their way through the system. The intellectual and aesthetic pleasures of Euclid, I would maintain, arise, in large part, from this. And people who want this sort of clarity in their understanding of the world will naturally be drawn to define as acceptable questions and answers which frame themselves in a language which seeks this sort of clarity.
Poetical language, by contrast, is inherently ironic, ambiguous, elusive. As soon as I move from clear definition to metaphor, that is, to a comparison, or to a narrative which requires interpretation (like the Book of Exodus, for example, or the Iliad) then my statement requires interpretation, an understanding which cannot be quickly satisfied by an appeal to exact definitions and clear rules of logic. To reach a shared agreement about metaphor requires explanation and persuasion of a sort different from what is required to get people to accept the truths of Euclidean geometry.
For example, if I have trouble with the statement “The interior angles of a triangle add up to two right angles,” I can find exact definitions of all the terms, I can review the step-by-step logical process that leads from self-evident first principles to this statement, and I then understand exactly what this means. I am rationally compelled to agree, provided I am not disturbed by the initial assumptions and the logical adequacy of the process. And I am in a position to explain the claim to someone else, so that he or she arrives at exactly the same understanding of the original statement about the sum of the interior angles (the compelling logic of this form of language is, of course, the point of the central section of Plato’s Meno, Socrates’s education of Meno’s slave in the Pythagorean Theorem).
But a claim like “My love is like a red, red rose” is of a different order. I can check the dictionary definitions of all the words, but that by itself won’t be enough. How do I deal with the comparison? I can go out and check whether my love has thorns on her legs or her hair falls off after a few days standing in water, but that’s not going to offer much help, because obviously I am not meant to interpret this statement literally: a comparison, a metaphor is involved. An understanding of the statement requires that I interpret the comparison: What is the range of association summoned up by the metaphor which compares my beloved or my feelings for my beloved to a common flower?
And on this point, if we sit down to discuss the matter, we are likely to disagree or at least fail to reach exactly the same common rational understanding which we derived from our study of the first statement concerning the interior angles of the triangle. If we want to reach a shared agreement on the metaphor, then we are going to have to persuade each other, and even then our separate understandings may well not be congruent.
We have had direct experience of this in Liberal Studies. When we discussed Euclid, we had nothing to argue about. The discussions focused on whether or not everyone understood the logical steps involved, the definitions and axioms, and possible alternative logical methods. But no one offered seriously as an interpretative opinion that the interior angles of a triangle might add up to three right angles or one and a half right angles. If someone had claimed that, then we would have maintained that he or she had failed in some fundamental way to follow the steps in the proofs. By contrast, when we discussed, say, King Lear or the Tempest or Jane Eyre or Red and Black, we spent most of our time considering alternative interpretations of particular episodes, and we did not reach any precisely defined shared conclusion. Nor could we, if we spent the entire four semesters debating the issue.
It is no doubt a vast oversimplification to present the issue of language solely in terms of these two diametrically opposed ways, but for the sake of discussion it’s a useful starting point. And we might go on to observe that, again to make a vast oversimplification, people tend to prefer one use of language over another: some like their verbal understandings of things clear, precise, logically sound, so that there is the possibility of a universally agreed upon meaning with minimum ambiguity, or as close as we can get to such a goal. Others prefer the ambiguity and emotional richness of metaphor, even though (or because) the price of such a language is an inherent irony, a multiplicity of meanings, the suggestion of no simple, shared, precise, final meaning.
The Language of Christianity: Interpretation as Power Base
The question of the language appropriate to a proper understanding of things is particularly important for a comprehension of the history of Christianity, too, because, as we all know, Christianity takes as its central text a book full of poetry, narrative, imagery. And faith in what this book “means” or what it “reveals” about the nature of the divinity is a central part of being a Christian. Many of the most urgent and contumacious disputes in the history of Christianity have arisen out of the metaphorical nature of this holy text: since metaphors and metaphorical narratives are inherently ambiguous, they need interpretation. And whose interpretations are decisive in any disagreement becomes a vital concern.
Controlling the text and maintaining the authority to determine interpretations of the holy text were always a central imperative of the medieval Catholic Church, which recognized very clearly and correctly that to give people (even parish priests) access to the Bible would result in interpretative anarchy. Hence, the Catholic Church’s strict control of the book, its refusal to distribute it widely or to translate it into the common language of the people, and its insistence that the basis for popular sermons should be, not the Bible itself, but the clear and unambiguous official interpretations authorized by the Vatican.
The Church’s suspicion of the anarchy that would follow upon any general access to the Bible revealed itself as correct once Luther’s Reformation made the holy text generally available in translation. All of a sudden, the enforced interpretative consensus dissolved, and scores of competing sects arose, each claiming a correct version of the truth derived from an interpretation of the metaphorical constructions in the Bible. An extreme (but not altogether uncommon) example was the war between the followers of Zwingli and the followers of Muntzer, two Protestant leaders, over whether the communion wafer was the body of Christ or symbolized the body of Christ and over the interpretation of baptism. Many thousands died in the quarrel over these interpretative questions.
Said Zwingli to Muntzer,
“I’ll have to be blunt, sir.
I don’t like your version
Of total immersion.
And since God’s on my side
And I’m on the dry side
You’d better swing over
To me and Jehovah.”
Cried Muntzer “It’s schism
Is infant baptism.
Since I’ve had a sign, sir
That God’s will is mine, sir,
Let all men agree
With Jehovah and me
Or go to hell singly”
Said Muntzer to Zwingli.
And each drew his sword
On the side of the Lord.
Today such issues which involve killing others over the ontological status of a biscuit or bathwater may seem ridiculous, but the issue is not. An authority which derives from a poetical metaphorical text must rest, not on that text, but on a particular interpretation of it. And whoever is the spokesperson for the official interpretation has official power. Thus, from this point of view, one can interpret the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as quarrelsome interpretation run amok.
The Enlightenment Call for Linguistic Clarity
Certainly, the conclusion of the religious wars brought with it a demand to clean up language, to be wary of metaphors and especially of writing that was highly metaphorical, and to place our verbal understanding of the world and ourselves on a more rationally clear basis in a language more appropriate to such a requirement.
It’s no accident that the period following the religious wars (the mid-seventeenth century) marks the beginning of an interest in dictionaries (whose major goal is to promote accuracy of shared denoted meanings), a revival of interest in Euclidean geometry, a growing distrust of political and philosophical arguments based upon scripture, a rising criticism of extravagant rhetorical styles (like those of Shakespeare or John Donne or “enthusiastic” preachers), the beginning of a concerted attempt to understand moral and judicial questions mathematically, and a rising demand for a language as empty of ambiguous metaphor as possible.
We witness this in a number of writers, above all in Hobbes. As we discussed, Hobbes’ major concern in Leviathan is to recommend practices which will minimize a return to the civil chaos of the religious wars and the English Civil War. And Hobbes is centrally concerned about language. Over half of Leviathan is concerned with religion, above all with the question of interpretation of scripture. For Hobbes is deeply suspicious of literary interpretation and has a clear preference for the language of geometry, the argumentative style of Euclid--not necessarily because that language provides a true description of the nature of the world (although many people claimed and still claim that it does) but rather because only that sort of deductive clarity--based on clear definitions and fundamental principles of deductive logic--can win wide agreement, can, that is, promote social harmony essential to political peace and “commodious living.”
The reason for this preference in Hobbes seems clear enough. Metaphorical language breeds arguments over interpretations; such arguments breed civil quarrels; civil quarrels lead to a break down in public order and foster a return to a state of nature. A different language, one based on the precision of geometry, can foster agreement, because we all can share a common understanding if definitions are exact and the logic correct.
One of the attractions of the new science (although there was considerable argument about this) was that it offered an understanding of the world delivered in the most unambiguous way, in the language of mathematics rather than of scripture. Newton’s equations, for those who could follow the mathematics, did not promote the sorts of arguments that arose from, say, the text about Ezekiel making the sun stand still or Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea or God’s creating the world in a week. And what disagreements or ambiguities Newton’s explanation did contain could be resolved, and were resolved, by a further application of the method he demonstrated (in the “normal science,” as Kuhn calls it, which took place in the generations after Newton).
And throughout the nineteenth century, the rising success of the new science seemed to be delivering on the promise of an exact description of the world. And the application of this spirit of empirical observation and precise, unambiguous description to an understanding of history and morality, of the sort offered by Karl Marx, set up the hope of a triumph of the language of philosophy (as defined earlier) over the language of poetry (in spite of the objections of the Romantics).
It was an alluring vision, because it promised to lead, as Hannah Arendt points out, to the end of traditional political argument. Since we would all have a full and shared understanding of the way a just state really does work, we wouldn’t need to argue about it (any more than we argue about the Pythagorean Theorem). Anyone could govern, since governing, traditionally the most challenging task in human affairs, would be simply a matter of applying known and agreed upon rules, something a technician could do. As Lenin observed, governing would be for cooks, because the truths of political life would be expressed in a language coherent to anyone, a language which did not require interpretation of any sort.
There was an enormously arrogant confidence or, if we think in terms of classical tragedy, of hubris about this, especially among some scientists and social scientists, who firmly believed that many of the most contentious moral, political, and scientific questions would soon be settled for all time. The future of physics, said A. A. Michelson in 1894, will consist of little more than “adding a few decimal places to results already known.”
Nietzsche’s Sense of Language: “Truth” as Metaphor
Nietzsche, as we have already seen, sets his sights firmly against such a confidence that language, any language, can provide an accurate description of the Truth. That was, in the nature of things, impossible, because language is inherently metaphorical, it is an invented fiction, with a history, a genealogy, a contingent character.
For Nietzsche, the belief that the sort of language developed by Euclid or the new sciencewith its emphasis on precision and logical clarity--is somehow “true to nature” is, like beliefs that any system is true, plainly erroneous. All language is essentially poetry, inherently metaphorical, inherently a fiction. Those who, like so many scientists, make claims that their descriptions of the world are true or even more accurate than alternative languages are simply ignorant of the metaphorical nature of all language.
In other words, for Nietzsche there is no privileged access to a final definitive version of life, the world, or anything else, and thus no privileged language for achieving such knowledge. Truth is, in Nietzsche’s pregnant phrase, “a mobile army of metaphors,” a historical succession of fictions, which does not, as Kant and Marx claimed, reveal any emerging higher truth, like progress or the march to a final utopia or a growing insight into how reality really works. In Nietzsche’s view of language there is no final text available to us; there is only interpretation, or, more accurately, an unending series of freshly created interpretations, fresh metaphors.
Thus, as Rorty has observed, Nietzsche is announcing the end of the ancient war between poetry and philosophy by indicating that all we have in language is metaphor. We were mistaken in believing that the language of Euclid was anything other than one more fiction. It is not. Therefore, it has no special preeminence as the language most appropriate to a description of reality.
Since there is no privileged language and since accepting as true any inherited system of metaphor is limiting oneself to a herd existence, our central purpose is the construction of new metaphors, the assertion of new values in a language we have made ourselves. Hence, central to Nietzsche’s vision of how the best human beings must live their lives is the insistence that individuals must create for themselves a new language, fresh metaphors, original self-descriptions. To escape the illusions of the past, to release the arrow in flight, these activities are linked to the creative ability to construct in one’s life and language new metaphors.
Hence, under the influence of this idea, a major part of the cultural imperative of the Twentieth Century artists has been a craze for originality, something which has produced a bewildering succession of styles, schools, experiments. When we explore Hughes’ text, one of the first impressions is the almost overwhelming range of different subject matters, different styles, the pressure, even in the context of a single artist’s life, constantly to invent new perspectives, new self-descriptions, new ways of metaphorically presenting one’s imaginative assertions, in Nietzsche’s phrase, one’s will to power.
The same is true in many aspects of art: in prose style, in poetry, in architecture, in music, and so on. The influence of Nietzsche on this point (which is, as I have argued, an extension of one stream of Romanticism) has been pervasive. And this phenomenon has had some curious results.
First, the constant emphasis on individualist self-assertion through new metaphors has made much art increasingly esoteric, experimental, and inaccessible to the public, for the Nietzschean imperative leaves no room for the artist’s having to answer to the community values, styles, traditions, language, and so on. Hence, the strong tendency of much modern art, fiction, and music to have virtually no public following, to be met with large-scale incomprehension or derision.
This, in turn, has led to a widening split between many in the artistic community and the general public. Whereas, in a great deal of traditional art, the chief aim was to hold up for public contemplation what the artist had to reveal about the nature of his vision (e.g., public statues, church paintings, public musical recitals, drama festivals), in the twentieth century the emphasis on avant garde originality has increasingly meant that much art is produced for a small coterie who think of themselves as advanced in the Nietzschean sense--emancipated from the herd because only the privileged can understand and produce such “cutting edge” metaphors. The strong connections between much “radical” modern art and intellectual elitism characteristic of extreme right wing anti-democratic ideologies owes much to Nietzsche’s views, since the aristocratic elitism of Nietzsche’s aesthetic links itself easily enough to political systems seeking some defense of “aristocratic” hierarchies (even if the understanding of Nietzsche is often skimpy at best).
Hence, as Hughes points out, there has been a drastic decline in much high quality public art. To be popular, in fact, becomes a sign that one is not sufficiently original, a sign that one’s language is still too much derived from the patois of the last people. There is still much public art, of course, especially in state architecture and market-driven television, but, as Hughes points out, the achievements in these fields are generally not impressive and don’t appear to be improving. Certainly the art which commands the attention of many artists these days is increasingly private.
In the universities, Nietzsche has, rightly or wrongly, become the patron saint of those who believe that novelty is more important than coherence or commitment to anything outside a rhetorical display of the writer’s own originality. To object that this ethos produces much irrational individualistic spouting is, its defenders point out, simply to miss the point. The creative joy of self-affirmation through new language is the only game in town, and traditional calls for scientific scholarship or social criticism on Marx’s model are simply reassertions of dogmatism. There are some English department now, for example, where in the job descriptions, the writings one has to produce for tenure can include confessional autobiography; in effect, to produce an aphoristic self-description, whether that is at all interesting or not, qualifies one as a serious academic scholar and teacher in some places.
Given that most of society, including those who are maintaining the traditional scientific and economic endeavour launched in the Enlightenment, pay this sort of talk very little attention, finding most of it incomprehensible, there is thus a widening gap between much of what goes on in our society and many of its leading artists and intellectuals. The legacy of Nietzsche may cheer them up, and, in various watered down versions, especially on this side of the Atlantic, he certainly gives them license to be strident while declaring their own superiority, but just what he offers by way of helping to cure this dichotomy (if it needs to be cured) is a question worth exploring