A brief overview of the development of Western Philosophy

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Mornche Geddick
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Post by Mornche Geddick »

So, does the noumenal table affect our mind (by some means we cannot know about) and does the mind respond to that by creating a phenomenal table?

(The first Dante quote definitely refers to perception, the second to effects generally. No doubt, as you said, primarily physical effects, but it could also include perceptions. Yes, he does refer to his object as an Aristotlean form-matter compound, but we can ignore that and treat it simply as an "object".)

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Post by Mornche Geddick »

2) Philosophy and Science
At this point, philosophy and natural science disengage. Until this point, philosophers and scientists have only been working in different parts of the same field, with a great deal of overlap – Descartes and Leibniz were at the forefront of physics, Locke and Hume at the forefront of psychology, and Berkeley in his studies of perception worked experimentally as well as conceptually. Kant, however, divides the two forever: physics will now be the study of the contents of the phenomenal world, a posteriori, while philosophy will be the a priori study of the structure of the phenomenal world.
Science does use a priori as well as a posteriori reasoning. These are the stages of science as outlined by Jane Jacobs in Dark Age Ahead.
1) Asking a fruitful question. This must a) single out a mystery and b) take into account all relevant previous knowledge.
2) Devising a hypothetical answer (a posteriori reasoning from known observations).
3) Test the hypothesis (a priori reasoning is used to design the experiment. Example: if haemoglobin is the oxygen carrier, then its properties should be different in venous and arterial blood. They are; it changes colour).
4) A successful hypothesis opens up new questions.

It strikes me that dividing science and philosophy may have been a mistake. 20th century philosophy seems to many people (including me!) to have been eclipsed by science. Why hasn't philosophy made the same progress as science?

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Post by Cedh »

Mornche Geddick wrote:20th century philosophy seems to many people (including me!) to have been eclipsed by science. Why hasn't philosophy made the same progress as science?

Two of the factors that have contributed to this historically:

(1) Science has been more likely to yield results that are economically useful.
(2) Science has accepted that there are things it can't know much about, and has therefore focused on those types of knowledge that it knew it could work with. Philosophy, on the other hand, spent much of the last two centuries trying to figure out why it was so difficult to obtain "true" knowledge, and became largely self-obsessed in the process.

Of course, the above are historically contingent tendencies that do not apply to all of science or philosophy respectively, and other things have factored as well, but in the end a situation arose where the truth concepts of science and philosophy had become quite different. The thing is, "truth" plays a communicative role within these fields that is kinda similar to that of money in economy ("generalized symbolic medium" according to Parsons and Luhmann), and each time someone tries to bring these fields closer together again, the currencies have to be converted, so to speak. Which makes it harder, and contributes to the majority in each field not caring much about reuniting science and philosophy.

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Post by Salmoneus »

Many philosophers do want to unify with science again. Others want to stop pretending to be scientific and get back to a more literary form of philosophy. Some want both, and some want neither.

Why hasn't philosophy accomplished as much? Well, that's rather begging the question, I think. Philosophy has certainly lost a lot of its certainty (which may not be a bad thing), but I think its developments have been at least as considerable as those in science. Yes, many of them haven't been accepted yet, and yes, many of the developments were just an undoing of prior errors. And, of course, nobody really cares as much anyway, because you can't make money out of (good) philosophy. But that doesn't mean there hasn't been progress.

[Indeed, scientific disciplines such as computing are built upon post-1800 philosophical developments. Mill, Bradley, Frege, Russell, Whitehead, Pierce et al developed systems of logic that have become foundational in disciplines beyond philosophy]


Re Dante: no, I don't think we can ignore what he says when trying to work out what he thinks. You're distorting him to fit a modern schema.

Re the noumenal: it doesn't affect the mind, because the mind is phenomenal. It's not really clear how it can 'affect' anything, since causality is phenomenal. The best we can say is that it "causes" it in a way analogous but not identical to causation. This is indeed something of a glitch in the system, which will be dealt with by Schopenhauer.
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Post by Salmoneus »

It is often said that for each philosophy there is a time and place – and there are few examples of this more demonstrative than that of Artur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s philosophy was among the first and most prominent successors to Hegel on the continent – which is curious, because his key works were written before those of Hegel (with the exception of the latter’s early ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, written six years before the ‘On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason’ of Schopenhauer). And yet, this man, who would later be considered the pre-eminent philosopher of Europe, was not widely known of for another nearly forty years. As Europe became thrilled by the possibilities of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, the cold pessimism and restraint of Schopenhauer could not garner notice – only when the Hegelian moment had soured did his colleague (they lectured simultaneously in Berlin – Schopenhauer timed his lectures to coincide with those of Hegel, before the lack of students forced him to abandon the contest) rise to public consciousness.

Schopenhauer was a Kantian – the only true Kantian, in his view. His icons were Kant, and Hume, and Spinoza – his work is largely an attempt to render Kant more amenable to Spinoza. In this way, the philosophy of Schopenhauer was in many ways regressive – a cold dash of water and an exhortation to return to the simplicity of Kant from the irrational excesses of Hegel. His views on Hegel were forthright and not hampered by tact:

“If I were to say that the so-called philosophy of this fellow Hegel is a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage, I should be quite right.
Further, if I were to say that this summus philosophus [...] scribbled nonsense quite unlike any mortal before him, so that whoever could read his most eulogized work, the so-called Phenomenology of the Spirit, without feeling as if he were in a madhouse, would qualify as an inmate for Bedlam, I should be no less right.”


Elsewhere he turns his attention to the man himself: “a commonplace, inane, loathsome, repulsive and ignorant charlatan, who with unparalleled effrontery compiled a system of crazy nonsense that was trumpeted abroad as immortal wisdom by his mercenary followers”.



The chief work of Schopenhauer is named “the World as Will and Representation” – though the last word is subject to great debate, and may alternatively be given as ‘Idea’, ‘Presentation’ or a host of other alternatives. The title signal the direction: a return to the plain dualism of Kant: phenomenon and noumenon; the apparent, and the thing in itself. In this regard, Schopenhauer has four innovations on Kant, and three of them come from Spinoza. First, Schopenhauer denies that things in themselves are the CAUSES of phenomena – as he rightly observes, if causation is a schematic feature of the phenomenal world, it cannot bind phenomena to noumena. Instead, there is a parallelism between the two world – or, rather, both worlds are representations or instantiations of the same thing. This, of course, is deeply in debt to the parallelist account of Spinoza, in which matter and mind are aspects of the same substance – Schopenhauer has updated it to fit the new, Kantian dualism. Second, Schopenhauer oberves that if we cannot know anything about things in themselves, we cannot know that they are plural – indeed, our entire concept of plurality is an aspect of our phenomenal experience (or, as he put it, the ‘Veil of Illusion’, ‘Maya’), not of things in themselves. He believes, therefore, that there is only one thing in itself, which we interpret as a plurality – again, a borrowing from Spinoza, although also inspired by the Upanishads (which he kept by his bedside and considered the great solace of his life), and not greatly distant from the Absolute of Hegel.

Third, Schopenhauer adopts the conatus principle of Spinoza – the belief that the essential nature of all things is striving for life. However, where Spinoza saw this as an individuating characteristic, Schopenhauer saw it as uniting – the whole noumenal world was to be conceived as one great Will, eternally striving. From this, the title of his book: the world exists in two forms – a world of primordial, unitary Will, and a world of finite, plural, passive Representation. Though he would deny it, the view of the world as Will is not too distant from Schelling’s view of the world as ‘Productivity’; and the fourth innovation of Schopenhauer also owes much to Schelling – a dichotomy of subject and object. The world, believes Schopenhauer, is both a subject – willing, striving, observing – and an object – posited, observed, limiting, something to be used or overcome – and these two positions correspond to the two forms of the world. The human body is literally the human desire – the stomach IS the appetite, and the genitals ARE lust – they are will in material form. Our mind, therefore, is not disconnected and impartial, but inherently and inescapably embodied.

This allows a key development – because, at least in his view, the Subject is self-aware, and not only as the object of its own consciousness. We can think about our emotions, as objects, but we can also FEEL them, as part of our subjectivity. It is not only the free, rational human will that we know as a subject – our whole physical body, with all its aches and impulses, is known to us from the inside. The body is our window onto the world, the basis of our comprehension of it – not just our way of manipulating it. It is from this that he derives the conatus principle – our experience as subjects is ultimately an experience of willing, of striving, of desire. Because he believes the thing in itself can have no distinctions, he believes that the whole of nature must share the same striving that we feel – rocks fall because the desparately long to do so.

For those who see this longing as ridiculous without a mind, note that Schopenhauer does not believe our own, embodied, interpreted experiences will completely represent the nature of Will – a less poetic account of falling rocks is to say that they are compelled by a force, but this is saying the same thing. We choose not to phrase the forces that compel rocks because we cannot talk to rocks – but the mind that supports talking may be necessary for thought without being necessary for subjective experience. Ultimately, humans are compelled in exactly the same way that rocks are compelled. This introduces two frightening, Romantic consequences of Schopenhauer’s thought: firstly, that humans and animals, and even humans and rocks, are fundamentally the same, with the same reality and the same physical laws (a claim that may seem commonplace today, but which was once groundbreaking, at least on the continent); and, second, that the fundamental nature of reality, and of human experience, is wild, chaotic and irrational. The world is striving, and is even striving blindly against itself, without reason or logic. No more of Hegel’s steady, teleological evolution – now, a frenzied flailing was the explanation for things. No longer was humanity at the pinnacle of the universes’ purposes, as Hegel said – now, humanity was just one part of the organism, striving in turn, randomly and purposelessly crushed if it stood in the wrong place.

This is a discomforting view of the world, but Schopenhauer went further, into untrammelled pessimism. Because he holds that the experience of live is one of continual striving, he observes that striving never ends – each desire is either unfulfilled eternally, or else fulfilled for a moment before a new desire arises. The experience of desire is painful – we yearn for something, and we seek to end the pain by finding whatever it is we believe will satisfy our desires. Schopenhauer does not accept that we experience anything when we fulfill our desires other than relief – an inherently negative and dependent feeling. It is desire – and hence suffering – that is positive and real. All of life is desire, and so all of life is suffering – and even if our desires dim enough, for a moment, for our suffering to be bearable, this respite is instantly slain by the onset of boredom, itself a form of suffering.

One important consequence of this agenda is Schopenhauer’s revolutionary view of psychology. He takes the Humean view that reason is only the slave of the passions, and explores the consequences further. He has three innovations in this area. Firstly, he realises that reason does not always know its own purposes – what it may think itself to be pursuing may not in fact be what it is aiming at. Reason is carried like a leaf on the river of the passions, entirely at their mercy, seeing only what it is shown. Secondly, he adopts also the Humean view of the self as a series of experiences, but denies that these experiences are in fact contiguous – instead, we have a discontinuous conciousness, in which the gaps are filled with imaginations given by the drive of the will, shaped into coherence by the labour of reason. This means that much of what we think we have experienced has not actually been experienced, but merely interpolated by the mind, and that this interpolation is not pure and unbiased, but is shaped by our desires. These desires are not fundamentally conscious, although they do surface in consciousness from time to time, but are rather unconscious, and sometimes entirely unknown to us.

Thirdly, Schopenhauer realises that because the Will is fundamentally one, our desires are not fundamentally egoist – the striving to survive is not simply the striving by us as an individual to survive, but also of us as a species to survive. This underlying drive is typified by the sex drive, which Schopenhauer believes to be the most important part of the human experience. It is the sex drive that controls much of the current of our unconscious, even if we do not realise it.

These innovations Schopenhauer applied in pioneering studies of madness and neurosis. He observed the fragility of memory, its frequent unreliability in the mad, and its causal role in preventing sanity – and this entire process he considered to be a survival mechanism. When the mind is faced with things it cannot understand, it alters the memories of its experiences, even fabricating entire memories, until it is able to comprehend what it has been given – but this new model of comprehension may be entirely delusional. The problematic material itself may come from outside, in the form of severely incomprehensible or shocking experiences, or from within – the unconscious drives cause various feelings and thoughts to, as it were, rise up into consciousness, but these feelings and thoughts can be purposefully held down, ‘repressed’ by consciousness. This simply results in a perversion of the original impulses into new forms, creating neurosis and delusion. Above all, it is repression and perversion of the sexual drive that is responsible for our irrationality.

Schopenhauer’s pessimism is not, strictly speaking, universal – he allows forms of escape: aesthetic, moral, and ascetic. In the aesthetic realm, he praises art for enabling us to see past the individuation of the phenomenal world to something more universal – because, he says, the suffering of desire springs chiefly from our division of the world into competing things through the Principle of Sufficient Reason. In this way, science and art are direct enemies – the one helping us to fulfill, and at the same time fostering, desire, and the other enabling us to be disinterested. Of course, art, being representative (even if only of the broadest and most abstract things, as in architecture) is not entire free from individuation, but it enables us to access what he calls ‘Ideas’, in the Platonic sense – universal perfect forms. A painting of a dog, for instance, allows us to see past the various actual dogs to the real, underlying universal form of a dog. Alone among the arts, music goes further – it is not objective at all, but is a modification of our subjectivity, enabling us to experience the universal Will without intermediaries. The elements of music are representative of nothing less than the entirity of the world, from the deepest oceans in the bass lines to the finest wisps of air – but the world, not as seen as an object, but as experienced from the inside. Music is, as it were, its own consciousness which we partake of, a current as alive as that of our own identities – it does not simply inspire feeling, but IS feeling.

In the moment of aesthetic contemplation, we are wholly or partly freed from passion and desire – we are disengaged, disinterested, moved out of ourselves. But for most of us, this experience is of only a momentary ecstasy. Only a small handful of men (and for Schopenhauer it is most definitely men – the man was a lifelong misogynist, most likely due to his intelligent but domineering mother who controlled much of his early life against his will) are able to sustain the moment of ecstasy for any length of time – such men, Schopenhauer calls ‘geniuses’. The genius is able to be a channel for art, but in the process he is rendered unfit for ordinary life, and though he experiences incredible ecstasies, they only result in a more turbulant and suffering-infested, and generally short, life. The genius is tortured, and we like parasites take tiny morsels from the products of their wrecked lives.

A more enduring transcendence comes from morality. It is in this realm that Schopenhauer really shows his independence, excoriating his master Kant with all his rhetorical powers, which are considerable. Kant, he says, is a closet Christian (one of the worst accusations from Schopenhauer, though Christ himself he approves of) – his categorical imperative is but a reworked divine commandment, an excuse for a reintroduction of God into philosophy. Commandments cannot work with no commander. Instead, Schopenhauer follows the Humean tradition, both in beginning from common sense (his stated aim is to observe actual moral judgements so as to find the commonalities) and in focusing ultimately on virtues and vices (although these are attached to individual actions, and are not fixed characteristics of persons). Schopenhauer believes that all actions fall into four categories, on the basis of their motivations: egoist (the vast majority), compassionate (fewer, but still significant), malicious (suprisingly few) and self-destructive (extremely rare, but possible). These can be categorised as actions performed for the weal of the self, for the weal of others, for the woe of others, and for the woe of the self. No other motivations exist – even actions which may seem habitual or thoughtless are in fact motivated in these ways, for the habit is only the reservoir of the will, not a source of it.

Of these four, only compassionate actions are truly moral – and they are also the only ones (except, perhaps, a hypothetical universal malice) that surpass the self/other distinction to comprehend the universality of being. In feeling compassion with another, we feel one with them – their pain is literally our pain, and part of the barrier of identity between us is erased. In this way, compassion is not only moral, but it is also rewarding to the agent, because it is a way of overcoming suffering – in simple terms, if you feel the pains and joys of your competitors, you are elevated to a degree from the turbulance, fear, and unrequitable striving of the competition. And yet, compassion is not salvific – we cannot truly feel compassion for all people, and certainly not for the lower orders, all the way down to compassion for rocks and for the breeze. Even if we could, compassion is still passion – it is still will that we feel, even if it is a more universal, less particular, and hence less conflicted will. Nonetheless, compassion is the mark of the noble man – compassion not only for other humans, but for the whole of nature. In particular, Schopenhauer reminds us that we are only a species of mammal ourselves, no different from any other animal in quality, but only in degrees – therefore, he says, one can in general judge a man fairly by observing how he treats animals.
The only true escape from suffering, therefore, is through asceticism – denial of the will, to the point of death. And yet there is a paradox here – Schopenhauer cannot simply advocate suicide, because suicide is performed from desire. To desire death is still to desire – and as we, as noumenal things, as aspects of the Will, exist in a realm beyond time, we also exist beyond death, and hence death is no salvation for us. Instead, we can only cease to will when the will inside us has turned against itself – turned, not actively, as in suicide, but passively, quieting itself, until we no longer have any desire to either live or die, nor to move or act in any way. For Schopenhauer, the greatest thing that could happen to us is that we lose all will to live, and starve ourselves (accidentally, carelessly) to death. It is a blessed fate that he believes few men have ever attained. The rest of us are stuck with our eternal suffering. Those few who do achieve willlessness experience not only the absence of pain, but a peculiar, mystical awareness of the world that is beyond all categorisation.

This, of course, poses something of a quandary to his metaphysics. If it is possible for the Will to be extinguished in a person, how can that person exist in any way beyond that point, if we are, noumenally, Will? His answers are inconsistent, but at times it is clear that he suspects that the Will is not, after all, the thing-in-itself at all, but only the thing-in-itself as it presents itself to us – more true, perhaps, than the world as representation, but still, in a way, no more than a second, truer form of representation. The nothingness that follows the extinction of the will is therefore not an absolute nothingness but only a relative one – the ascetic passes beyond, discards, our species of existence, and becomes aware of the thing-in-itself in a new and truer way – and yet, perhaps still not in a true way. The universe may, in the final account, be greater and more unfathomable than we can ever perceive.



Schopenhauer is not a sophisticated philosopher. He constructs no great edifice, like Hegel – his is a simple base, which he explores, sometimes repetitively, at great length. Nonetheless, he has been immensely influential. In art, his theories revivified Romanticism, particularly through the influence of his follower, Wagner, and apotheosised the genius of the artist to an even greater degree – the artist (and, for Wagnerians, this meant specifically Wagner) is in his way not merely the entertainer of mankind but it’s salvation. Schopenhauer’s philosophy comes close to elevating the artist to the position previously occupied by Christ. In psychology, Schopenhauer was a founding figure, much of whose work was reproduced, down to the level of particular terminology, as the foundation of Freud’s revolution (although Freud admitted that his basic theories were identical to those of Schopenhauer’s, he claimed to have never read him – although it is now known that, while this may be technically true, he did intensively study certain commentaries on Schopenhauer’s psychology). In biology, Schopenhauer’s view of man as an evolved animal, and of animal behaviour as founded on the desire to perpetuate and improve the species through reproduction, and of life as a constant battle for survival between individuals and between species, was an important background note in the Darwinian moment. In ethics, his views on egoism, malice and compassion have contributed to popular and philosophical sentiment; in particular, his inclusion of animals in the moral sphere has been foundation to the animal rights movement. In epistemology, his emphasis on the signficance of our knowledge of ourselves as embodied beings has been highly significant in Continental traditions of phenomenology and existentialism. In the broader intellectual sphere, he was an important part of the introduction of Indian and even Chinese (specifically Taoist) thought into European culture. Finally, Schopenhauer can be seen as the intermediary between Kant and Nietzsche. In the immediate moment, however, he was most influential as the founder of a ‘back to Kant’ movement, which dominated (without lasting significance) the second half of the continental century. In all, he demonstrated the innovation and progress that could be produced from a relatively simple base.
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Post by hwhatting »

Salmoneus wrote:His views on Hegel were forthright and not hampered by tact:

“If I were to say that the so-called philosophy of this fellow Hegel is a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage, I should be quite right.
Further, if I were to say that this summus philosophus [...] scribbled nonsense quite unlike any mortal before him, so that whoever could read his most eulogized work, the so-called Phenomenology of the Spirit, without feeling as if he were in a madhouse, would qualify as an inmate for Bedlam, I should be no less right.”


What's your personal opinion on Hegel? I've seen other dismissive statements in that vein, e.g. from Popper, who in the "Open Society" goes on to demolish Hegel at length - not as a philosopher who went wrong, but as a charlatan who hides his intellectual emptiness behind an unpenetrable writing style -, and from German thinkers and writers whom I regard highly, like Tucholsky.

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Post by Makerowner »

hwhatting wrote:
What's your personal opinion on Hegel? I've seen other dismissive statements in that vein, e.g. from Popper, who in the "Open Society" goes on to demolish Hegel at length - not as a philosopher who went wrong, but as a charlatan who hides his intellectual emptiness behind an unpenetrable writing style -, and from German thinkers and writers whom I regard highly, like Tucholsky.


This attitude is unfortunately very common in the anglophone world, though of course it's not exclusive to it: "I don't understand this, therefore it's nonsense/a fraud". It's obvious that Hegel's writing style is difficult--though I think the difficulty has been exaggerated somewhat--but to make this difficulty an objection to his thought itself is ridiculous. It's like saying that physics is nonsense because I don't understand calculus, or that Finnegan's Wake is fraudulent because I don't know what Joyce is saying. For some reason, it's only in philosophy that "I don't understand this" is a motivation not to shut up, but to cry "charlatanism", "intellectual imposture", etc.
***
Salmoneus, I think you may have exaggerated the importance of Schopenhauer. I don't think he was ever "the pre-eminent philosopher of Europe"; he was certainly popular among artists, but positivism and utilitarianism were far more generally prominent at the time. His influence on later philosophy isn't that strong either: Freud more or less just borrows the general idea of man being governed by passions he's unaware of, which isn't really specific to Schopenhauer; the Neo-kantians I don't know very well, but I don't think they took much more from him than the "back to Kant" claim; Nietzsche of course was profoundly influenced by Schopenhauer, but he transforms his thought so much that Nietzsche's huge influence on 20th century philosophy doesn't transmit much from Schopenhauer; and the idea of embodiment in existential phenomenology is treated in an entirely different way than in Schopenhauer. Of course his influence on music was huge, and he had an effect on literature as well; though I think late 19th century wave of pessimism may have been more the cause than the effect of his success.
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Post by Mornche Geddick »

There is such a thing as obscurantism - the deliberate use of jargon and imprecise language to "inhibit clarity, inflate weak argument and obscure poor reasoning". By making his writing difficult to follow, the charlatan makes it harder for people to see through him. This is why obscure writing has a bad name.

Obscurantism is different from the technical language of physics, which is obscure by being extremely precise about things the public is unfamiliar with. (The word "neutrino" for example, refers to one thing and one thing only - a particular type of subatomic particle.) It's also different from the language of novelists and poets who may be trying to capture subtleties of experience or emotion in words. Hegel may have felt he needed to invent a new technical vocabulary, like the physicists or Kant.

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Post by hwhatting »

Makerowner wrote:This attitude is unfortunately very common in the anglophone world, though of course it's not exclusive to it: "I don't understand this, therefore it's nonsense/a fraud". It's obvious that Hegel's writing style is difficult--though I think the difficulty has been exaggerated somewhat--but to make this difficulty an objection to his thought itself is ridiculous. It's like saying that physics is nonsense because I don't understand calculus, or that Finnegan's Wake is fraudulent because I don't know what Joyce is saying. For some reason, it's only in philosophy that "I don't understand this" is a motivation not to shut up, but to cry "charlatanism", "intellectual imposture", etc.


Well, those people who I've been saying such things about Hegel are people who are able to understand complicated thinking - none of them would say something like that about Kant, to name someone else who made up a lot of his own terminology. And Popper gives examples of Hegel obfuscating or hiding tautologies behind convoluted wording. I think what I want to know is, If I'd started reading Hegel, would it be a waste of time? And is that what is known as Hegelian philosophy just what people came up when they interpreted gibberish as something that was supposed to make sense?

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Post by Makerowner »

hwhatting wrote:
Makerowner wrote:This attitude is unfortunately very common in the anglophone world, though of course it's not exclusive to it: "I don't understand this, therefore it's nonsense/a fraud". It's obvious that Hegel's writing style is difficult--though I think the difficulty has been exaggerated somewhat--but to make this difficulty an objection to his thought itself is ridiculous. It's like saying that physics is nonsense because I don't understand calculus, or that Finnegan's Wake is fraudulent because I don't know what Joyce is saying. For some reason, it's only in philosophy that "I don't understand this" is a motivation not to shut up, but to cry "charlatanism", "intellectual imposture", etc.


Well, those people who I've been saying such things about Hegel are people who are able to understand complicated thinking - none of them would say something like that about Kant, to name someone else who made up a lot of his own terminology. And Popper gives examples of Hegel obfuscating or hiding tautologies behind convoluted wording. I think what I want to know is, If I'd started reading Hegel, would it be a waste of time? And is that what is known as Hegelian philosophy just what people came up when they interpreted gibberish as something that was supposed to make sense?


I have seen this kind of statement about Kant as well. I haven't read Popper, so I can't comment on what he says about Hegel. I can assure you though that Hegel is not "gibberish"; it would, however, be a waste of time for you to read him if you approach him like that. And of course, when I say he's not gibberish, I don't mean that he's easy to read or even that I understand all of what he says. Hegel is hard work, and requires multiple readings. The first time through the Phenomenology will likely not make any sense, so it will be a waste of time if you aren't prepared to reread it. (Also you should read Kant and Fichte first.)

Mornche Geddick wrote:There is such a thing as obscurantism - the deliberate use of jargon and imprecise language to "inhibit clarity, inflate weak argument and obscure poor reasoning". By making his writing difficult to follow, the charlatan makes it harder for people to see through him. This is why obscure writing has a bad name.

Obscurantism is different from the technical language of physics, which is obscure by being extremely precise about things the public is unfamiliar with. (The word "neutrino" for example, refers to one thing and one thing only - a particular type of subatomic particle.) It's also different from the language of novelists and poets who may be trying to capture subtleties of experience or emotion in words. Hegel may have felt he needed to invent a new technical vocabulary, like the physicists or Kant.


Thank you, I know what the word 'obscurantism' means, and I know that physics uses technical language. My point is that a page full of differential equations, a page from Finnegan's Wake, and a page from the Phenomenology of Spirit are about equally intelligible to the average educated person, ie. not at all. In each case, there are a few hundred or thousand experts who claim to understand what seems to most of us to be incomprehensible, who talk to each other about it, write books on the subject, etc. For physics, everyone accepts the experts' claims and blames the untelligibility of the text on their own ignorance; for fiction, you do sometimes see claims that work X is a fraud, meaningless, etc., but most people realize that this is idiotic, and just say they don't understand and leave it at that; but for philosophy, people take their incomprehension as a kind of argument against the thinker they don't understand. In physics they recognize that you have to master calculus before you can judge whether or not this page is nonsense; in literature, mostly they just ignore it if they don't understand it (or at least think they do), and assume that you have to be a "literary" type to get it; but in philosophy no preparation is required, any average Joe should be able to understand it effortlessly, or else it's obscurantism. People are even proud of their ignorance: "Thank God I can't understand a word of Hegel; that shows what sound English common sense I have, untainted by that silly German mysticism, etc." And to me, this attitude is the height of idiocy. If they don't want to bother with Hegel, I don't blame them, he's hard work; but if they don't understand him, why do they feel that they're in a position to judge him, and to impose their judgment on others?
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Makerowner wrote:I have seen this kind of statement about Kant as well. I haven't read Popper, so I can't comment on what he says about Hegel. I can assure you though that Hegel is not "gibberish"; it would, however, be a waste of time for you to read him if you approach him like that. And of course, when I say he's not gibberish, I don't mean that he's easy to read or even that I understand all of what he says. Hegel is hard work, and requires multiple readings. The first time through the Phenomenology will likely not make any sense, so it will be a waste of time if you aren't prepared to reread it. (Also you should read Kant and Fichte first.)


Ok, thanks! If I ever make it past Kant (on my bookshelf at home, unread), I'll consider... :wink:

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The "you just aren't smart enough to understand Hegel" idea is frankly nonsense.

The greatest philosophers of the nineteenth century were, in my opinion (excluding Hegel himself from the discussion, and also Fichte, who predated him), Mill, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Mill is considered one of the most intelligent men ever to have lived (eg he wrote in Greek at the age of three and invented an entire logical system as a teenager at a time when such systems barely existed at all). All of those four regarded Hegel not only as wrong (which goes without saying) but as a non-philosopher. Throw in the early analytics like Russell and Frege. Even people like Husserl and Marx, who were obviously inspired by Hegel's general ideas (the latter of whom was even an avowed Hegelian at one stage), considered his actual writing to be obscurantist, illogical and possibly fraudulent. Even the British Idealists, who considered themselves Hegelians, thought that the only route to Hegelianism was ignoring the actual words of Hegel (and indeed ignoring the whole of the Phenomenology, both words and ideas). Indeed, I don't think a single reputable philosopher has ever respected Hegel. The claim that all these people just aren't as smart as the couple of dozen semi-anonymous loyal Hegelians of the time who claimed to understand what Hegel had written just doesn't stand up to scrutiny. I know that philosophy is a personal and a contentious discipline, but there comes a point where peer review (review across the centuries, in this case) has to be taken into consideration. These men are not "any average Joe"; they have already "mastered the basics of calculus".

Likewise, it's hard to think of any reason why Hegel should be given a special pass not granted to any other philosopher. After all, it's only Hegel who provokes this reaction (and maybe Schelling, but nobody really feels like giving him a pass, because he was less significant in the history of marxism and phenomenology). Every other philosopher is generally respected even by his opponants. Claiming that Kant is a charlatan would get you laughed out of most universities.

It's not as though Hegel has any special qualities that make him hard to understand. He invents terms? Yes, like Locke, Descartes and Kant. He writes badly? Yes, like Kant. He is elliptical and even esoteric in his meaning? - perhaps, but so is Wittgenstein. He has hard ideas that are difficult to assimilate at first reading? Perhaps, but no more so than Kant, Hume or Wittgenstein. Of these examples, there's no doubt that the least assimilated is Wittgenstein - but though he may be frequently ignored, his opponants almost all confess that there is something important that he is saying that they don't quite grasp the supposed importance of. With Hegel, there is not even this. Nobody suggests that Wittgenstein is a fraud - although as a writer with little knowledge of philosophical history, with no great scholarship, with an eccentric style and no academic record, there would be every opportunity to so accuse him. With Hegel, they accuse him in spite of his fame, his respect, his power, and his significance.

Meanwhile, on those elements where he can be tested objectively, in his accounts of the writings of other philosophers, and his accounts of history, we can see that not only was he ill-informed, but he was ignorant even by the standards of his own ages - to the extent that even his contemporaries believed that he was contorting historical evidence to fit his own theories (which is one reason why the Phenomenology in particular was neglected for so long).

----

Of course, this shouldn't be read as saying that Hegel isn't important. I hope I've shown in the write-up that he had some interesting ideas, and they were certainly significant ones historically. It also can't be denied that some of his enemies, like Popper and Russell, have been dishonourable and unprofessional in their depictions of him. He is better than they claim. This is really a separate argument from whether his writing is fraudulent: just as a man can write sincerely and have nothing to say. I think the most balanced verdict is to say that he was a man who had some genuine, albeit unsystematic, ideas of considerable interest and poetic power... but that in seeking to express himself in the idiom of academic philosophy, his poetic and unsystematic thoughts were rendered cloudy and insecure, and infected by irrational and unsupportable argumentation. This account is not far from his own self-views: he acknowledged that his ideas came to him in a mystic experience as a young man, and that his later writings were an attempt to express those ideas, rather than a genuine unpreconceived construction from an inherited basis toward a firm conclusion. By the standards of reason and logic, this meant that his writings failed to reach the standards of respectability, but it does not mean that there is nothing of interest in the worldview that lies behind them, that they seek to express.

On top of this, there is also no doubt the hand of academia at work: Hegel was an academic, who relished his power and fame, which depended to some extent upon exotic obscurity rather than clarity. His position lead him both to a fusty, overtechnical style, and to an contrary neglect of good reason in favour of good imagery. These problems afflict not only Hegel but all academic philosophy - I think it no coincidence that the greatest philosophers have not been bound by academic shackles.


-----

Regarding Schopenhauer: I think you're entirely wrong. I think that you underestimate the Schopenhauerian influence on Freud - indeed, you're more generous to Freud than Freud was. I think there's almost nothing in Nietzsche that does not originate in Schopenhauer, even if Nietzsche has inverted it along the way. As an influence on art, and on culture more widely, Schopenhauer was dominant for a generation, through his disciple, Wagner. In philosophy generally, he's notable as the first philosopher of irrationality in modern European history, as well as the first major philosopher to turn to non-Western sources, and the first philosopher since Descartes to embrace embodiment as part of immanent experience, moving the debate from mind/body to self/other. In aesthetics and ethics, he's still significant today - the former goes without saying, but in the latter he's the basis of modern non-Aristotelian virtue ethics and the beginning of the animal rights movement; his dissection of Kant remains the paradigm for arguments against Kantian and other deontological systems.

As for being pre-eminent: name one other philosopher who was as eminent as Schopenhauer, in Europe, in the fifties, sixties or seventies? Comte had largely discredited himself by then; Husserl and Frege were not yet famous. Mill was major, but only in ethics, and only in Britain. Spencer was obviously the most commercially succesful philosopher ever, but his influence was primarily felt in Britain and America. Perhaps I'm missing somebody, but I can't see a competitor for Schopenhauer.
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Incidentally, I do think that for most philosophers it's better to read secondary literature than what they wrote themselves - if it's interesting, try reading the original. There are exceptions, of course - Hume is worth reading in the original because it's so wonderfully written (in my view), while Nietzsche has to be read himself because most of the commentary on him is so appallingly bad. With people like Kant and Hegel, however, I think it's best to read the guidebook before you step out into the city.

Incidentally, I find that sometimes the best introductions aren't the ones labelled "X", but the ones labelled "X and Y". In the case of Hegel, for instance, all the limited respect I have from him has been from books arguing for Hegel's influence on, or prefiguring of, various later movements - likewise with Schelling. Such books usually are enthusiastic about X, and also work to bring out elements of X that have been significant or untimely. It can be easier than reading a fairly dry, uninflected "X" textbook. Although it helps if you also know about Y...
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Salmoneus wrote:The "you just aren't smart enough to understand Hegel" idea is frankly nonsense.

The greatest philosophers of the nineteenth century were, in my opinion (excluding Hegel himself from the discussion, and also Fichte, who predated him), Mill, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Mill is considered one of the most intelligent men ever to have lived (eg he wrote in Greek at the age of three and invented an entire logical system as a teenager at a time when such systems barely existed at all). All of those four regarded Hegel not only as wrong (which goes without saying) but as a non-philosopher. Throw in the early analytics like Russell and Frege. Even people like Husserl and Marx, who were obviously inspired by Hegel's general ideas (the latter of whom was even an avowed Hegelian at one stage), considered his actual writing to be obscurantist, illogical and possibly fraudulent. Even the British Idealists, who considered themselves Hegelians, thought that the only route to Hegelianism was ignoring the actual words of Hegel (and indeed ignoring the whole of the Phenomenology, both words and ideas).


I know next to nothing about Mill, but I do know that Schopenhauer knew nothing about Hegel; he objects to his style (which certainly is objectionable), and I don't know if he even read any of his works. In any case, he has nothing intelligent to say about Hegel. Kierkegaard I also know very little about, but I remember seeing one quote from him along the lines of "If Hegel had written at the end of his works 'this was all just a thought experiment' he would be the greatest philosopher ever; but as it stands he was a buffoon". Not particularly favourable, but in any case more subtle than considering him a non-philosopher. I don't remember ever seeing Nietzsche saying anything like that about Hegel either; from what I've seen, he had a similar sort of respect for Hegel as he did for the Catholic church, ie. as something basically wrong-headed but whose spirit he admired. (I don't think Nietzsche ever read Hegel either, but he does comment intelligently on his work in a few places.) I've never seen either Husserl or Marx say that Hegel's work was fraudulent; Marx's break with Hegelianism was at least partly because he thought Hegel wasn't Hegelian enough, that he betrayed his own thinking on freedom in order to align himself with the Prussian state; whereas Husserl took the opposite course, starting from a very anti-Hegelian position and ending up much closer to him. And as for 'illogical': Husserl thought that Mill and Hume, despite his admiration for them, were in the end illogical; so if he did in fact say that about Hegel that doesn't mean that he thought he was a fraud. I haven't read much of Russell, but what I have read shows me that he didn't understand Kantian philosophy at all.

Indeed, I don't think a single reputable philosopher has ever respected Hegel. The claim that all these people just aren't as smart as the couple of dozen semi-anonymous loyal Hegelians of the time who claimed to understand what Hegel had written just doesn't stand up to scrutiny. I know that philosophy is a personal and a contentious discipline, but there comes a point where peer review (review across the centuries, in this case) has to be taken into consideration. These men are not "any average Joe"; they have already "mastered the basics of calculus".


That depends on who you count as a "reputable philosopher" doesn't it? Essentially every major philosopher in France or Germany in the 20th century considered Hegel a great philosopher, including people like Foucault and Deleuze who considered themselves anti-Hegelians. If peer-review is a simple adding up of citations, then Hegel certainly passes the exam in Europe. I'm not claiming that Russell et al. aren't smart enough to understand Hegel, they were just specialized in a different area. I wouldn't presume to say that since I don't understand all its weird symbols, Principia Mathematica is a fraud; and in return, people who by their own admission don't understand Hegel shouldn't presume to judge his work on the basis of their incomprehension. And I'm definitely also not saying that anyone who opposes Hegel doesn't understand him--I think there's lots in Hegel that should be opposed; but the way to do that is not to ignore him. Which, again, doesn't mean that everyone should read Hegel or even that people who do read Hegel are better than people who don't, but just that those who don't are not in a position to evaluate his work.

Likewise, it's hard to think of any reason why Hegel should be given a special pass not granted to any other philosopher. After all, it's only Hegel who provokes this reaction (and maybe Schelling, but nobody really feels like giving him a pass, because he was less significant in the history of marxism and phenomenology). Every other philosopher is generally respected even by his opponants. Claiming that Kant is a charlatan would get you laughed out of most universities.

It's not as though Hegel has any special qualities that make him hard to understand. He invents terms? Yes, like Locke, Descartes and Kant. He writes badly? Yes, like Kant. He is elliptical and even esoteric in his meaning? - perhaps, but so is Wittgenstein. He has hard ideas that are difficult to assimilate at first reading? Perhaps, but no more so than Kant, Hume or Wittgenstein. Of these examples, there's no doubt that the least assimilated is Wittgenstein - but though he may be frequently ignored, his opponants almost all confess that there is something important that he is saying that they don't quite grasp the supposed importance of. With Hegel, there is not even this. Nobody suggests that Wittgenstein is a fraud - although as a writer with little knowledge of philosophical history, with no great scholarship, with an eccentric style and no academic record, there would be every opportunity to so accuse him. With Hegel, they accuse him in spite of his fame, his respect, his power, and his significance.


I'm not suggesting that Hegel gets a special pass: I think understanding a philosopher is a pretty basic qualifaction for commenting on their work, and thus for evaluating its worth, no matter who it is. That it requires more work for Hegel than for Hume, is obvious, but I think it's a difference of degree rather than of kind. And I'm not sure that Hegel is that much harder than Kant; it's just that Hegel is harder to misinterpret as a psychologist, which makes him farther from the concerns of analytical philosophers. (Not all of them though; besides Rorty, who only sort of counts, Robert Brandom and John McTaggart have both been doing some interesting work introducing Hegel into analytical philosophy.) Hegel's real opponents, ie. the ones who actually confront his work rather than ignoring it, obviously don't consider him a fraud.
And I'm not sure that being on the good side of the Academy and the Establishment is something that's likely to win you points among philosophers; Schopenhauer's opposition to Hegel was at least partly based on jealousy over this precise issue, since Hegel's lectures were packed and he was a respected figure while Schopenhauer's were empty and he was an unknown. And Wittgenstein wasn't that much of an outsider anyways: he had Frege, Russell, and Moore backing him up, which is about as good a pedigree as you can get in analytical philosophy. If he had written the exact same books but had no connection to those three would he be famous today? Who can say?

Meanwhile, on those elements where he can be tested objectively, in his accounts of the writings of other philosophers, and his accounts of history, we can see that not only was he ill-informed, but he was ignorant even by the standards of his own ages - to the extent that even his contemporaries believed that he was contorting historical evidence to fit his own theories (which is one reason why the Phenomenology in particular was neglected for so long).


History and the interpretation of philosophy as objective tests? If you say so...Certainly Hegel was never too concerned with the details of historical scholarship, but he did as far as I can tell stick to the accounts of the Classical historians fairly closely. (The accuracy of those accounts was only just starting to come into question in his day.) I'm not sure that the Phenomenology was neglected; Marx considered it one of his most important works. And in any case the best-known of Hegel's works is his lecture course on the philosophy of history, so obviously it's not his attitude towards history that turns people away from the Phenomenology. And of course, the Phenomenology was never intended to be a history: the French revolution comes before Zoroaster, Newton comes before Sophocles, etc. and not because Hegel didn't know in what order these events really took place or because he was hoping people wouldn't notice that he'd switched them, but because it's a story of education rather than discovery.

----

Of course, this shouldn't be read as saying that Hegel isn't important. I hope I've shown in the write-up that he had some interesting ideas, and they were certainly significant ones historically. It also can't be denied that some of his enemies, like Popper and Russell, have been dishonourable and unprofessional in their depictions of him. He is better than they claim. This is really a separate argument from whether his writing is fraudulent: just as a man can write sincerely and have nothing to say. I think the most balanced verdict is to say that he was a man who had some genuine, albeit unsystematic, ideas of considerable interest and poetic power... but that in seeking to express himself in the idiom of academic philosophy, his poetic and unsystematic thoughts were rendered cloudy and insecure, and infected by irrational and unsupportable argumentation. This account is not far from his own self-views: he acknowledged that his ideas came to him in a mystic experience as a young man, and that his later writings were an attempt to express those ideas, rather than a genuine unpreconceived construction from an inherited basis toward a firm conclusion. By the standards of reason and logic, this meant that his writings failed to reach the standards of respectability, but it does not mean that there is nothing of interest in the worldview that lies behind them, that they seek to express.


This is precisely my point: looking for "a genuine unpreconceived construction from an inherited basis toward a firm conclusion" in Hegel is just as wrong as doing so in Nietzsche or Wittgenstein--which is of course not to say that any of them are "irrational", but simply that they use different approaches. If by the "standards of reason and logic" you mean formal deducibility, then yes Hegel fails to reach the standard, but it's not because he tried but wasn't able to; he was just doing something different. Saying that Hegel fails on this standard is like objecting to Principia Mathematica because it has no love scenes. Maybe it is "irrational" to want to do philosophy in a different way--though I don't think it's any more (or less) irrational than Kafka wanting to write a novel in a different way or for Newton to want to do physics in a different way--but it seems to me even more irrational to try to evaluate someone on a standard completely extraneous to their work: Paul Klee did very bad paintings by Renaissance standards, and Beckett wrote very bad Classical tragedies.

On top of this, there is also no doubt the hand of academia at work: Hegel was an academic, who relished his power and fame, which depended to some extent upon exotic obscurity rather than clarity. His position lead him both to a fusty, overtechnical style, and to an contrary neglect of good reason in favour of good imagery. These problems afflict not only Hegel but all academic philosophy - I think it no coincidence that the greatest philosophers have not been bound by academic shackles.


Kant? Not to mention Plato, the founder of the Academy...Of course universities have produced a lot of boring philosophy; but I imagine they produce a lot of boring biochemistry and German studies work as well. Practically all 20th century philosopers were academics; whether any of them were among "the greatest" is of course up for debate. (Wittgenstein and Sartre are the only big names I can think of at the moment who weren't basically academics, and of course Wittgenstein did teach at Cambridge.)


Regarding Schopenhauer: I think you're entirely wrong. I think that you underestimate the Schopenhauerian influence on Freud - indeed, you're more generous to Freud than Freud was. I think there's almost nothing in Nietzsche that does not originate in Schopenhauer, even if Nietzsche has inverted it along the way. As an influence on art, and on culture more widely, Schopenhauer was dominant for a generation, through his disciple, Wagner. In philosophy generally, he's notable as the first philosopher of irrationality in modern European history, as well as the first major philosopher to turn to non-Western sources, and the first philosopher since Descartes to embrace embodiment as part of immanent experience, moving the debate from mind/body to self/other. In aesthetics and ethics, he's still significant today - the former goes without saying, but in the latter he's the basis of modern non-Aristotelian virtue ethics and the beginning of the animal rights movement; his dissection of Kant remains the paradigm for arguments against Kantian and other deontological systems.
As for being pre-eminent: name one other philosopher who was as eminent as Schopenhauer, in Europe, in the fifties, sixties or seventies? Comte had largely discredited himself by then; Husserl and Frege were not yet famous. Mill was major, but only in ethics, and only in Britain. Spencer was obviously the most commercially succesful philosopher ever, but his influence was primarily felt in Britain and America. Perhaps I'm missing somebody, but I can't see a competitor for Schopenhauer.


Well I haven't studied the sociology of 19th-century philosophy so I can only give my vague impression of how much influence Schopenhauer had. For Nietzsche: the will-to-power is entirely different from the will-to-life, as Nietzsche constantly repeats, his perspectivism is entirely different from Schopenhauer's Kantian idea of the limits of knowledge, and the eternal return is entirely different from anything in Schopenhauer or anywhere else. I don't know what you mean by "the first philosopher of irrationality in modern European history": the irrationality humanity was almost an axiom of all philosophy since Descartes. Pascal's famous line that humans are so mad that it would be madness of another kind to not be mad, Hume's claim that essentially all our beliefs are unreasonable and only held out of habit, and Jacobi's pronouncement that reason leads to Spinozism and should therefore be rejected for faith, are just a few high points. The Romantics before Schopenhauer had studied Indian philosophy to some extent (eg. Schlegel), and Leibnitz had commented on Confucius; Hegel talks about Buddhism, though whether that counts as a philosophy could be debated.
Had Comte been discredited? I really don't know; but a vague sort of positivism (I imagine based more on his early scientific phase than his later religion of Man) was still a political force in the late 19th-century. Nietzsche could still count positivism as his immediate predecessor in the reverse six days of creation ("How the True World Became a Fable" in Twilight of the Idols). Probably the most influential "philosophers" of the 19th-century were not philosophers of all: Ricardo, Malthus, or economics more generally; Darwin and the social Darwinists with their concerns about degeneracy--traditionally philosophical questions like "how should we live?", "where do we come from?" were not being asked to philosophers anymore.
My picture of the late 19th-century philosophical landscape (which I expect is probably not a particularly accurate one) is: Spencer and utilitarianism dominating the popular philosophy scene and the Idealists the academic in England. Positivism dominant in France, through its political side in the popular sphere and as philosophy of science in the universities. I have an even worse picture of Germany since a lot of 19th century German philosophy hasn't been translated, but I see psychologists like Wundt and Fechner cited fairly often, and then there was the Herbart-Lotze tradition that was still influential with the Neo-Kantians but seems to have died out after them.

:? That turned out rather longer than I intended...
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Born at the time of Schopenhauer’s early work, Søren Kierkegaard was writing around the time that the former’s reputation was being born; like Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard would not be appreciated until many decades later; unlike Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard would never live to see his own fame.

Kierkegaard, like Schopenhauer, was an opponant of Hegelianism – but an opponant from the opposite direction. A devout and pious Lutheran, Kierkegaard was alarmed by the influence of Hegelianism on Christianity, and in particular upon the hierarchy of the Danish People’s Church, which he felt was headed in the wrong direction – toward, in essence, reason and happiness, as opposed to Kierkegaard’s prefered combination of absurdity and guilt. Therefore, where Schopenhauer sought to strip the Christianity and Hegel out of Kant, Kierkegaard desired to strip the Kant and Hegel out of Christianity.

At the same time, Kierkegaard did not see himself primarily as a theologian, but as a poet and a literary man. His chosen vehicle for his views was therefore the production of exceedingly literary, playful, and confusing documents. These were generally published under pseudonyms – different pseudonyms for different pamphlets. Within pamphlets, different sections would be assigned to different pseudonyms. His own name appeared as a pseudonym for some sections, and for some pamphlets – in other pamphlets, he wrote under a pseudonym, but acknowledged his own name as the ultimate author, while in others, he gave his name as the name of the editor of the various pseudonymous sections, or else would give a pseudonymous editor and make his own name that of the publisher – or leave his name entirely out of it. Because so much of his writing was written under conflicting pseudonymous names, he felt no obligation to make the views of his pseudonyms consistent with each other: indeed, he once made a point of publishing two different tracts, each directly opposing the other, on the same day. It is no surprise, then, that his university disertation was entitled “On the Concept of Irony”.

From this curious duality – dour, serious theologian and erudite player of literary games – it may not be clear why he is even considered a philosopher – and indeed the attribution has been doubted by many. Nonetheless, his influence has been so great that he cannot be ignored.
Kierkegaard had two role models as a philosopher: Socrates and Jesus Christ. Both, he believed, focused upon the ethical, not only in the sense of morality, but in the wider sense of a study of life. Kierkegaard believed in the biblical dictum, “by their works shall ye know them” – a philosopher, on his account, had to be judged not solely by their words, but by their whole life.

Kierkegaard appropriates from Hegel the concept of the dialectic – but he transforms it into a personal, individual dialectic, rather than the dialectic of society, or of the world. Accordingly, his own works are arranged dialectically – his ‘authorship’ and ‘second authorship’ are sequences of (mostly pseudonymous) works through which we are to read in succession. Only a few works (such as his early work on irony and his late, direct, attacks on the Danish People’s Church after their election of the ‘wrong’ bishop) fall outside of his ‘authorship’. Because of this dialectical structure, no single work says what Kierkegaard believes, but are rather statements of what he believes should be said at that point in the dialectic. Some works represent, therefore, beliefs that he has himself abandoned – more confusingly, some represent beliefs that he does not yet have, but which he hopes to aquire. This meant that Kierkegaard was at least as troubled by when to publish as by what to write – ultimately, he believed he had to rely on faith and the communications of God to determine whether a work should be published. Several works went unpublished for years until their proper place in the dialectic was reached; others, such as his direct ‘Report to History’, were so un-ironical that they could not be published in his lifetime at all.

In this peculiar method, Kierkegaard sees himself as emulating Socrates (the chief subject of his irony dissertation) by employing ‘indirect communication’. Kierkegaard sees Socratic irony as embodying an infinite negativity: by leading his interlocutors out from their positions into unconsidered areas, he destroys all customary thoughts, and forces his interlocutors to think for themselves – which is to say to discover themselves. Kierkegaard hopes to do the same thing – but where Socrates believed that truth was already known, and had only to be recollected, Kierkegaard believes that truth must come from the outside – from God. If this method, fraught with irony, appears difficult, this is no accident – Kierkegaard believed that modern society, religion, philosophy and the free press made everything too easy, and allowed too much knowledge. Like Socrates, Kierkegaard intended to eliminate knowledge, heighten confusion, and make the whole process of thought more difficult.

The key concept in Kierkegaard is that our existence has, or can have, several dialectical stages. At the beginning, we are immersed in sensuality and the moment, until we experience ‘eros’ – a possessive, lacking, love, in which we perceive part of ourselves as being outside of ourselves, and feel a desperate need to reintegrate that part into the whole. In this account (drawn from the Greeks), erotic love occurs when the lover perceives the loved as part of himself (as in the modern expression, “other half”) – naturally, he then desires strongly and possessively to bring them as close together as they can. For one or other reason, however, erotic love can never be fulfilled – the Other remains indelibly Other, and we cannot reintegrate ourselves. In the face of this impotence, we turn from the actual into worlds of possibilities – we come to value things not for their reality, but for their potential. These potentials are expressed through narratives, and it is these narratives we manipulate the world to fulfill. Kierkegaard gives a fictional diary of a seducer to illustrate his point: from the first sight of a woman’s ankle descending from a carriage, he imagines the whole of her, places her into a narrative of seduction in his mind, and from that point on as more desires her to fulfill that narrative than for any romantic love or physical lust.

This is the aesthetic stage, which Kierkegaard particularly associated with the decadence of the Romantics. The chief compulsion of the aesthetic is the flight from boredom, and lacking genuine sources of interest he amuses himself by playing with toys of his own construction. The root of his discontent is the ungroundedness of his self – indeed, he has no self at all, but can achieve nothing higher than an ironic reflection of his own emptiness. This stage can only come to an end when the aesthetic dares to take a stand, and make a comitment. At this point, he enters the ethical stage. In Kierkegaard, ‘ethics’ means not only right and wrong in a moral sense, but more generally all actions performed for the sake of societal norms and values. Here, for example, the craving of erotic love is transformed into the ritual of marriage; here, the turbulent self is given fixity and security and a firm basis for value.

But here there is no rest, and no true self. The self is so paradoxical, in its resolution of the finite and infinite, past and present and future, free and compelled, that the certainties of custom cannot unifiy it; nor are customs themselves fully and securely grounded; nor is any self that can be gleaned from custom truly a personal, individual, self – at this stage, man is merely of ‘the crowd’. To acquire self-hood, a further step is required: into religion. Only the paradox of God can resolve the paradox of the self; only God can ground all custom; only in the inifinity of God can each man be individual. Fichte, Schelling and Hegel had all recognised the need for the self to know the Other in order to know, and hence be, itself; Kierkegaard sees this not as a precondition for apparent selfhood, completed before consciousness, but as a precondition for real selfhood, to be strived after during life. The aesthetic knows no Other, for all he sees is his own reflection; the ethical man can know no Other, for human customs are still fundamentally human, and in any case, the ethical stage, in denying the individuality of the self, also denies the existence of Other – the self of the man has been united as a social self, but no Other can be found. All intelligeable things can be considered objectively – and through objectification they become extensions of and tools for the self. Only God – unknowable, irrational, absurd – is inescapably Other; and so only orientation toward God, who can never be less than Subject, is too unobtainable to ever be the object of anything, enables the self to truly know and establish itself.

The knowledge of God cannot be arrived at through reason, for God is irrational. Christianity is absurd, and can never rationally be believed. Kierkegaard gives the example of Abraham sacrificing his son – though he believed himself justified by God, how could he justify himself to others? How are we to tell the difference between a man compelled by God, and a psychotic murderer? We can’t. This inability is what gives us ‘fear and trembling’. Only faith can make the leap – a leap that is possible not in spite of the irrationality of belief, but BECAUSE of it. We are able to believe only ‘in virtue of absurdity’. God, as a transcendent being, cannot communicate with us directly, but only indirectly, through a divine/natural analogue of irony, in which it is never, by definition, possible for us to know what is meant. We must simply have faith. This is part of the reason for the inadequacy of the ethical: we cannot rationally discount the possibility of a God, and yet public reason offers no way to distinguish between a murderer and a prophet – this is a decision that must be made by faith, which cannot be explained (whichever judgement we make) from the point of view of public reason and ethics.

According to Kierkegaard, faith springs from sin. It is by coming to know ourselves as irreperably, limitlessly sinful and guilty that we come to know God – because in knowledge of perpetual sin, we know that we are always in the wrong, which requires that there be some being against whom we are always in the wrong. This being is God – alien, transcendent, so utterly apart from us that we can never possibly even begin to take a single step towards him, save by his own grace. Kierkegaard is happy with the un-ironic meaning of Hume’s sardonic quip a century before: “The Christian religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one”.

It is, in the end, only God that validates us, and makes us individuals; and the frame of this is the status of our lives as the compendium by which God judges us. It is only the judge that gives value to the thing to be judged.

Faith, however, is not merely a belief – it is an action, one of the very actions by which we are judged. It is, moreover, a continual and constant action – a repetition. It is this repetition, in fact, that establishes unity between our moments and establishes ourselves as selves. It is repetition that we seek after when we engage with Socratic irony – a repetition that repeats not what has gone before, but also what will come after. Truth through repetition is juxtaposed with the Socratic truth through recollection – repetition is a recollection of things to come.

In this regard it is important to remember that in all dialectics what has gone before is not abandoned by a new stage, but merely ‘sublated’, and incorporated in some way into what is to come. In this way, even the repetition of a previous stage is still a repetition of what is to come in a later stage, because the things of earlier stages are transfigured and transubstantiated into the things of later stages: erotic love, for instance, is transfigured into the agapic love of the religious stage, in which there is no lack to be filled by grasping, but a surfeit to be shared by giving. An important image that Kierkegaard uses is that of the preface (one of his books is entirely a collection of prefaces, under the conceit that the pseudonymous writer has sworn to his wife never to write books, and justifies his work by only writing prefaces – an oath and justification parallel to Kierkegaard’s method in the first ‘authorship’ of only writing up until the point of the religious stage, and never going beyond it, and yet of discussing it ironically): a preface is never fully understood until the whole book has been read. In this way, it was once said that he who understood the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit (Hegel’s first major work) understood the whole of Hegel’s philosophy; in exactly this way, the aesthetic is the preface of the ethical, and the ethical is the preface of the religious, just as our whole lives are prefaces to the book of God – all things are truly contained in the preface, but none can be understood until the book itself has been read, and so, for example, the experience of the aesthetic is a prefiguration of the experience of the religious, in such a way that it is comprehensible to the religious, and hence available to the religious, not as something distinct from the religious stage, but as a part of it in a different form.

Three further things must be said. Firstly, faith in this sense of repetition is neither ritualistic (for it is an inward passion) nor intellectual, for it consists in an emulation of God, and hence the attempt to follow and repeat the life of Christ. Secondly, this dialectic is not a certain one. It is easy to remain trapped at one stage; worse, one may fall pray to ‘demonic’ forces. The most significant example of the demonic that Kierkegaard gives is the concept of ‘self-enclosure’ – in which the individual becomes so reflective that they fall into narcissism or solipsism, failing to relate to the other in any way at all; Kierkegaard eventually grew concerned that his own literary employment of irony was itself a path to these demonic labyrinths. Finally, Kierkegaard speaks not only of the choice of one existential stage or another (an active choice expressed through repetition) but also of the precursor to that choice, which he names “angest”, given to English in its German translation, ‘angst’, meaning fear, dread or anxiety. Angst, we are told, is an emotion not only of fear, but also of elation, that prefigures the possibility of a decision to accept responsibility (by attaining the next existential stage) – we are simultaneously struck by the dread of responsibility (for the choice we make cannot be justified from the point of view of our current existence) and the exhilaration of freedom (as we are at the same time unchained from the restraints of our existing existence and come closer to becoming individuals).

In closing, it should be observed that Kierkegaard does not only refer forward in history (as the father of existentialism, and more broadly as a key figure in setting the agenda of the Continental tradition), but also backward. Although he appears an outsider in both biography and concerns, he could not have existed in isolation. Aside from the obvious debt to Hegel, he also draws much from Fichte – the relation of self and other, and the entire project of considering the conditions of self-hood. In this respect, he takes heavily and intentionally from the Ancients to return from the speculative heights of Hegelianism to the safe haven of real human actions.

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Friedrich Nietzsche, erstwhile philological professor and amateur composer, may well be the most difficult philosopher of all to summarise (excluding, as we always must, the Continental tradition). This can be put down to several factors: his views change throughout his oevre; much of his work is negative and destructive, more interesting in rebutting others than in advancing his own views; many of his arguments are intentionally ad hominem, but the ‘hominem’ is not always specified, is usually hypothetical, and changes between passages; he argues in a rhetorical and literary manner, rather than a precise and logical one, and is not afraid to make great leaps of reason, or else take as stepping stones questionable views which may be left as hostages to later contradictions; and finally, there is considerable scholarly dispute over the status of his unpublished ‘nachlass’, considered by some to be inferior, half-thought ideas that he rejected or refined before publication, but by others (chiefly Continentals) as almost a secret inner teaching in their own right. These difficulties are considerable, and his ideas are complex enough without them. Accordingly, I will only give an impression here of a few points that he raises.

Nietzsche became interested in philosophy at 21, when he first read Schopenhauer; likely, it was the latter’s admiration for music that engaged him. Later, he came to know Wagner, and was blessed by the Master (himself a follower of Schopenhauer) with several invitations to stay with the immortal one and his disciples. Needless to say, Nietzsche, like all those who met the Master, became infatuated with him (albeit platonically), to the extent that his first major work, ‘The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music’ contains a long encomium to the glory of the incomparable one, who, Nietzsche believes, is to be the saviour of humanity, at least in ethical and cultural terms. This work, and all his other early works, are heavily Schopenhauerian, and the influence of Schopenhauer remained with him until the end, even if it was often a negative influence – by the time of his last writings, Nietzsche chastises Schopenhauer for being wrong ‘in all matters’.

This disengagement with Schopenhauer had a combination of causes. Most important, perhaps, was the loss of Wagner’s favour, and hence of personal time with him – like most Wagnerian disciples, the religious fervour dimmed rapidly when the Presence was no longer enjoyed. At the same time, Wagner’s turn to Christianity (which Schopenhauer disapproved of and Nietzsche despised) demonstrated his hypocrisy, and Wagner would later become, along with Jesus Christ, Nietzsche’s intellectual nemesis (at least in his own mind) – it should be noted with humour how Wagner’s status as the equal of Christ was not diminished in this process, only placed in opposition to the “Antichrist”, Nietzsche himself. Finally, Schopenhauer’s artistic theory simply could not be supported alongside Nietzsche’s experience of art. Where Schopenhauer believed that art was dispassionate and calming, Nietzsche believed that it could, and should, be inflammatory and passionate. When we observe a portrait of a naked woman, or a bowl of luscious fruit, we do not dispassionately, disinterestedly, contemplate the transcendent forms thus realised – no, we feel lust, the very epitome of interest. This is the cornerstone of Nietzsche – a turn from repose and rest toward violent emotion expressed in struggle.

Perhaps this should be seen in light of Hegel. The Hegelian view – by then perhaps not ‘believed’ in the sense of orthodox Hegelianism, but nonetheless pervasive in society – was of history gradually unfolding toward some end – an ‘end’ being a point of rest. Though Hegel himself seems not to have believed that that end would ever be reached in our phenomenal, finite world, the concept of the end remained. Hegel insisted on the historical dependency of our beliefs – all our beliefs and perceptions embody the spirit of the age, and that spirit develops through the ages. It is only the end point that gives this development direction – without it, there is no reason to believe the spirit of one age is more ‘true’ than that of any other. Without an end point, we are left with no ability to transcend our era, and no guarrentee that our era itself transcends preceding ones. This reflection does not, to my knowledge, occur explicitly in Nietzsche, but I think that it may illustrate how prevailing Hegelian ideas could be transfigured by the vitalist agenda of Nietzsche into the views of his that we later see.

Perhaps the best starting point here is in one of his later works, “Twilight of the Idols”, which contains considerable recapitulation of his earlier works. In it, he offers a six-stage “History of an Error: or How the True World eventually became a Fable”:

1. The true world is unobtainable except to the sage and the pious man.
2. The true world cannot be obtained by anybody yet, but is promised to the sage and the pious man.
3. The true world is unobtainable to all, and cannot even be promised or demonstrated, but the thought of it remains powerful – “an obligation, an imperative”.
4. The true world is unobtainable, or at least not obtained, and unknown, and hence neither obligating nor redeeming.
5. The true world is superfluous, outmoded, unnecessary – and hence abolished.
6. The true world has been abolished – but “With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one”.

Nietzsche identifies the first four with Plato, Christianity, Kant and Positivism. His own writings themselves span the distance from the third to the sixth stage. In particular, his late writings repudiate the ‘nihilism’ of the fifth stage, which holds that only the apparent world is real; the later philosophy overcomes the entire fable of the true world, realising that without a true world to compare it to, there is no ‘apparent’ world – there is only the world. To take an example: the soul. A Kantian might say ‘the soul exists and is important, but we can know nothing about it’; a positivist might say ‘the soul exists, but since we can know nothing about it, it clearly doesn’t matter, so let’s get on with things’; middle-period Nietzsche would say ‘the soul doesn’t exist! all talk of souls is a fiction!’; late-period Nietzsche says instead ‘it is not that the soul does or does not exist, but what value it has, that matters’. The chain is from Kant via Schopenhauer: Schopenhauer reduced the thing-in-itself to a minimal point of knowledge, by denying, for example, our ability to talk of it regarding cause or number; Nietzsche then realises that if we can know nothing about it, it has no role in our model of the universe, and can be done away with. Because truth as correspondence depends on the apparent corresponding with the real, the obliteration of the real renders everything false – this is the nihilism of middle Nietzsche; the later Nietzsche responds by eliminating truth as correspondence.

Where this puts us is Nietzsche’s philosophy of ‘perspective’. God is dead – and so we have lost our absolute ground of truth and value. The Hegelian dialectic is not guarrenteed to progress – so, again, we have lost our absolute ground of truth and value. The Kantian thing-in-itself is so inaccessible that it may as well not exist – so, again, no absolute ground. All these things were different ways of expressing the concept of an absolute knowing, a perspective that was superior to all other perspectives. In the absence of this, we are faced with a variety of conflicting perspectives, and have no way to select one as privileged over all others. Instead, Nietzsche believes that: "There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective 'knowing'; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our 'concept' of this thing, our 'objectivity,' be." In place of an absolute singularity of views, Nietzsche therefore calls for plurality.

One tool he uses to this end is ‘genealogy’, seen most extensively in ‘Toward the Geneology of Morals’, but in small vignettes throughout his other works. This is a method by which Nietzsche traces a history, or pre-history, of a word or concept, demonstrating not only the contingency of our current concept, but also the contingency of the value and interpretation we place on that concept, by showing how the ‘same’ concept has been used in different ways at different times. Particularly subject to this genealogical method are concepts of morality – guilt, sin, justice, debt, conscience, good, bad, evil, cruelty and so forth – but other concepts, like love, truth, asceticism, power, piety, faith and the like are not spared either. Sometimes these geneologies appear historically plausible, as when he observes, through philological evidence, the nature of the good/bad valuation in Greece (in which ‘good’ is associated with excellence, fineness and beauty, while ‘bad’ is associated with misery, poverty and misfortune); at other times, it seems more psychological in nature, as in his gealogy of debt, punishment, guilt and sin (debt is a prerequisite for the power to make promises; punishment is a sadistic compensation extracted in place of a debt that has not been paid, as well as a method by which we are trained to remember and be constant; guilt is a punishment we are trained to inflict upon ourselves when external authorities are unable to inflict it on us, and hence ultimately a form of transfigured debt; sin is a debt we owe to our parents and ancestors, which we can never repay due to their death, and which we can therefore never be free of without the intervention of God, and a debt which consequently produces an irredeemable guilt). It does not matter, however, if the genealogy is historical or psychological – or whether it is real or hypothetical or utterly counterfactual. The purpose is a rhetorical one – to undermine all fixed uses of words and spur a pluralist consideration of them.

A key positive part of Nietzsche’s worldview is his concept of ‘will to power’; this is an acceptance of the Schopenhauerian idea that subjectivity is will, but changes the object of that will from ‘life’ or ‘survival’ or ‘reproduction’ to ‘power’. The will to power is the chief motivation for all people. That power is valued more than life itself is demonstrated through the figure of the martyr: in Nietzsche’s interpretation, the martyr is somebody who is willing to sacrifice their life in order to demonstrate (and in the process make it so) that their opponants have no power over them. The martyr would rather die than recant, because recanting as a result of threats would place their accusers in a position of power over them: denying that the life that their accusers can take from them is the most important thing to them is denying that their accusers have any significant power.

A similar thing is seen in Nietzsche’s analysis of mercy and justice. Justice, he believes, is the punishment meted out by a community in order to defend itself and maintain its own power. It is not revenge – if it were revenge, the punishment would become greater the more powerful the community were. Instead, he believes that the stronger a community is, the less severe will be its punishments. A community struggling to survive will punish without mercy, because it dare not permit any attack on it; a community that is strong and safe and healthy will punish far less, because it does not need to be severe. The same applies to the strong man and the weak – the weaker the man, the more bitter and the more precise he will be in extracting what is owed to him, while the strong man will often merely shrug and then forgive. Nietzsche gives the example of a man and an ant – if an ant assaults a man, why should the man strike back? It is only an ant – it cannot harm him and he can harm it without challenge or danger – therefore the healthy man will shrug and go on his way, glad not to be an ant. This is what we call mercy – when the powerful forgo their due because they cannot be bothered to extract it. By showing mercy, a man shows that neither his attacker, nor the thing that has been taken from him, have any power or hold over him. At the same time, because we acknowledge that the strong man has been wronged by the weak man and is owed, but the strong man has by his own fiat waived that debt, the exercise of mercy is itself a display of power over the weak. [In this, perhaps we should see some echo of the master/slave dialectic in Hegel – the strong man is merciful to the weak, because to be otherwise would be to acknowledge that he was dependent on the weak in some way. If the strong man makes himself a master and a tyrant out of a desire to tyrannise others, he shows that he needs those others, and thus that those others have power over him.]

A misunderstood concept in Nietzsche is that of ‘master morality’ and ‘slave morality’. His genealogy states that a long time ago, there was a master morality – he identifies the master race with the Greeks, the Aryans, the Arabs, and the Japanese ruling classes. In this morality, the excellent and beautiful were good, and the good paid little heed to the poor except to pity them. Among each other, the good were noble and honourable; let loose in another place, the ‘blond beast’ would indulge in orgies of murder and rape – the name for a nobleman abroad is “barbarian”. The primary quality of this master race was a power of oblivion – they shrugged off all slights, ignored past pains, and cared little for the future. As a result they were noble, exciting, dangerous, and simple. Over time, however, the ‘slaves’ overcame them and imposed a new morality – the morality of sheep, by which standards birds of prey are evil. Slave morality is concerned with hoarding past wrongs, plotting future revenge, blaming those who are powerful for their power, and praising those who are already impotent for nobly choosing to do nothing. It is easy to think that Nietzsche unproblematically prefers the barbarian – but that would be far too easy. On the contrary, Nietzsche praises the slave – it is only their cunning that has made us intelligent, and their plotting and hoarding that has enabled us to live outside the present moment. The master is a simple thing, little more than an animal, and to be wondered at in the way that we feel awe for certain powerful animals – but it is only slave morality that gives us depth, and that makes us ‘interesting’.

Closely related to slave morality is asceticism. This is a process by which the will to power of an impotent man turns inward – he can control nothing, so he seeks to control himself. It is this part of slave morality that gives us depth. In particular, the ascetic is too weak to will anything, and so chooses to will nothing, for a man would rather will nothingness than not will. This is where we get the ethic of rejection, of negation, of humility, chastity, and poverty.

Again, however, Nietzsche does not say that this is wrong. Like all other concepts, asceticism has different value to different people. For the weak, it gives an outlet to their will. To the priest, it gives power over the weak, and helps herd the weak in a constructive direction – the priest is a doctor and a shepherd to the weak. Here again we see the will to power – Nietzsche gives the example of the Indian ascetics, who superficially renounced wealth and the world to the point of self-starvation, but who, in doing so, demonstrated their power over themselves to the point of inducing awe and fear among the populace, giving them, in turn, power over others. Surprisingly, Nietzsche also praises asceticism for the philosopher – simply because it is in his nature. A philosopher by nature is like an albatross – surveying alone the world from a great height, he only rarely touches land. He is the opposite of a magpie – he has no time for “shiny” things, like fame, riches and women. His is a noble asceticism, and an asceticism that trains his mind and spirit toward his goal, and helps him achieve it. Here, asceticism is appropriate. It is only when asceticism becomes universal, imposed upon the strong by the weak, that Nietzsche finds it problematic. It makes the strong sick, and without the strong, human society is dull, dreary, and predictable – it is only with danger and fear that we also have exhileration and awe. For centuries the priests have sought to control and tame the strong; now it is the turn of democracy, the great leveller. The democratic/religious dogma is absolutist, and acknowledges no plurality – the ascetic ideal becomes paramount and universal, the only acceptable objective. This, Nietzsche calls the highest vanity – that any man should believe that what is good for him is good for everybody.

Nietzsche does, however, have good things to say for religion – it is a sickly and uninspiring ideal, but it is still an ideal, and as an ideal it is capable of giving value to things. With the death of God, we have to find a new ideal, and Nietzsche worries that the democratic world may not be able to find one, in part because it seeks an ideal for everybody equally. The result of this is nihilism, the negation of life. He briefly considers science as an alternative, but discards it. A scientist is still an ascetic – he refuses to allow his own values to influence his work, subordinates himself to method and truth, and thus science cannot be a source of values in itself. Indeed, science is only an extension of religion by other means: the scientist holds up ‘truth’ as an absolute in which all answers are to be found, a value which can be given no value in itself for it is the origin of all other values. Science is a manifestation of the same “will to truth” as religion – and the will to truth is a totalitarian will that admits no more than one position, and a will that is ultimately ascetic and resignatory in its surrender to a power that is ineffably Other, irrepairably free from human control, immeasurably distant and disinterested, to whom we hand over our responsibilities and beneath whom we lie down in our weakness, saying ‘thy will be done’. Whether the Other is named God, or Truth, or Absolute Knowing, it makes no difference.

This is unacceptable to Nietzsche’s perspectivism. The core of his ethic is that all things must be doubted, all things revalued and seen from new perspectives; even the value of truth itself must be called into question. Even if we decide to value truth, it is essential that it be possible to call that value into question – and neither science nor religion permits this.

What Nietzsche desires, then, is a “revaluation of all values” – a ‘transvaluation’. He believes himself not to represent the future, but the beginning of the future – he is the dynamite that levels the ground for fresh building. Before him, philosophers have been content to ‘judge’ – the philosophers of the future will ‘command’. By this he does not mean that they have political power, but that they have ethical power: instead of trying to discover the nature of the world (that is, the thing in itself), they will decide it – they will impose their values onto the world.

Which values will they be? He believes that they will be healthy and strong values, that exploit our slave-born depth and powers of self-control without falling victim to nihilism and hatred. He calls for a life of acceptance – and, more, affirmation! He believes we must embrace life passionately, even its suffering, and not do so by contrasting the imperfections of this life with a ‘true’ life, whether that is to be found in a heaven of Platonic Forms, or a heaven of Jehovah and Christ, or in the untouchable demi-realm of the Kantian thing-in-itself. Our life must be affirmed by its own standards if we are to give it positive value, rather than lament its inadequate mirroring of something else, something imaginary, that we would rather have.

Perhaps his most interesting illustration of this concept is his notion of ‘eternal recurrence’ – the doctrine that everything has happened before, and everything will happen again, exactly as it happens this time. Whether this is true or not, or whether Nietzsche believed it was true, is peripheral to its importance. Instead, we should see it as a test – a ‘hammer’ with which we tap our idols to see if they are hollow. Tell each man that everything he does, everything he experiences, everything he endures, will be done again, seen again, inflicted upon him again – tell him that every moment of his life will be repeated again and again, without end, for eternity, and that he will have no power to change even the slightest moment of any of it. The weak man, the sick man, the normal, current, present man, will quail at the thought of it, will feel himself undone in despair; the strong and healthy man of the future will rejoice at the prospect, for he would not want one moment of his life changed in any case. What would be hell to the weak is heaven to the strong – and Nietzsche enjoins us to consider which we are.
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Post by Aurora Rossa »

Based on your description and what I have read elsewhere about Nietzsche, it sounds like he took a relativist regarding truth. Since we have only perspectives and no absolute reality, we can no longer speak of objective truth, only a myriad of contradictory perspectives. If indeed he argued for that, then how does he explain the fact that our perspectives line up pretty well? What else but a True World could give us such parallel perceptions of the world that we can reach a consensus about what it looks like?
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Post by Salmoneus »

Strictly speaking, perspectivism is the claim that all encapsulations/perceptions/experiences/descriptions/interpretations/presentations/etc of the world are from a particular perspective, and that knowledge comes from synthesising perspectives rather than eliminating them. Perspectivism denies objectivity - that is, the idea that any description of the world can be independent of the mind, and indeed independent of a particular individual mind. This entails the possibility of conflicts between perspectives, and these conflicts cannot necessarily be resolved by appeal to a "more true" perspective, because the claim that Perspective A is more true than Perspective B is itself perspectival.

Relativism, meanwhile, denies absolutism - that is, relativism claims that particular types of truth are relative to particular things.

These are quite different inflexions. The emphasis on perspectivism is not on "this is true relative to my perspective", but on "this truth is seen from my perspective". It is open to the perspectivist either to insist on an absolute truth that is only known perspectivally (eg Ortega's view of an absolute truth composed of the sum of all perspectives), or to deny even the notion of "truth" that relativists use - to claim that "X is true relative to Y" implies the existence of a concept of truth that is practically relative but conceptually absolute - the unproblematic quality of truth is simply assigned in a relative manner. I think the latter approach is what Nietzsche would have endorsed: the relativism/absolutism debate presupposes a problematic concept, and relativism is thus part of the "nihilism" phase of the history of error: absolutism makes a claim, and relativism denies it, but Nietzsche denies the validity of the question.

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Anyway, this is all extremely debated. It's not really necessary in answering your question, either. I think the question has three answers: firstly, we are all quite alike, so naturally our perceptions are quite alike; secondly, we are all looking at the same thing, so naturally our perceptions are similar; and thirdly, how on earth could a "True World" give us such parallel perceptions of the world in the first place? Remember, Nietzsche is confronting the Kantian doctrine of things-in-themselves vs phenomena, where causality is a part of what we add, not what the world contains. In that light, how can the "True World" give us anything in a non-causal way?
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secondly, we are all looking at the same thing, so naturally our perceptions are similar; and thirdly, how on earth could a "True World" give us such parallel perceptions of the world in the first place?


I suppose we have different concepts in mind when talking about this "true world". By that I simply mean a reality existing outside any of our minds, whether it be the noumena of Kant, the forms of Plato, or the physical cosmos of modern science. Certainly some of those involve untestable speculation, but the last one seems pretty well rooted in experience. Where does this thing we are all looking exist if a world more true and consistent than our own perceptions?

We have some good answers for explaining how the physical world interacts with our minds to create parallel perceptions, of course. Modern neurology has come a long way in describing how our sense organs communicate with the brain and how that constructs a perspective.
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No it hasn't! It hasn't even addressed the real question. We are still left with Hume's Fork - either our "perspective" comes from our senses, or it comes from our reason. All our reason can do is play with tautologies, not give us real information about the world. And our senses cannot, for example, enable us to distinguish causation from sufficiently enduring correlation.

So, from a strictly materialist and empiricist point of view, we have three options: say that causation doesn't exist, say that causation is purely a creation of our own minds, or say that causation exists in parallel both in the world and in our minds.

Philosophy of science, like its empiricist forebears, generally takes the first option: there is no causation. What there is is all correlation - but we can distinguish a subset of correlation that has predictive utility to us. Predictive utility, however, does not require, and often does not accompany, actual truth - so the fact that a theory is predictively useful only tells us that our model is useful, not that it reflects reality. The predictivity model only tells us about models, not about the world (unless you are a Pragmatist, which I shall cover later).

The third option, given the possibility of the first and second options, is clearly based on sheer faith.

The second option, that causality is a name we happen to give to certain perceptions we have of particular temporal correlations, explains how we can know about causal connexions - but as a sacrifice, it tells us causality does not exist in the world itself. Consequently, we cannot say "the world-in-itself causes our perception of the world-as-perceived" - we can only say that it correlates with it closely. This is fine, if all we want is to be confident that our perception is useful to us, but it stops us from saying "the world-in-itself causes the similarity of our perceptions", because the world-in-itself is outside causation.

Neurology doesn't address these questions about the nature of causation. It just fills in some details about particular causal mechanisms.

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I think everybody believes that there is a reality existing outside of our minds. Nietzsche does not deny this. I can't think of anybody who does.
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Salmoneus wrote:No it hasn't! It hasn't even addressed the real question. We are still left with Hume's Fork - either our "perspective" comes from our senses, or it comes from our reason. All our reason can do is play with tautologies, not give us real information about the world. And our senses cannot, for example, enable us to distinguish causation from sufficiently enduring correlation.


I don't think I like "Hume's fork" - "either-or" choices are often false choices.
What if causation exists in the world and we're sometimes able to diagnose it correctly and sometimes not? We'll never know for sure whether we correctly diagnose it, but that's a different issue.

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No it hasn't! It hasn't even addressed the real question. We are still left with Hume's Fork - either our "perspective" comes from our senses, or it comes from our reason. All our reason can do is play with tautologies, not give us real information about the world. And our senses cannot, for example, enable us to distinguish causation from sufficiently enduring correlation.


But we can hardly deny that our senses get the perceptions that form our perspective from somewhere. Neurology gives all kinds of elaborate explanations for how the eye sends impulses to the brain, the brain assembles them into vision, and so forth. You say that we have no proof that light hitting the retina causes these perceptions, but at the same we have no evidence it does not. The way I see it, a theory with plenty of evidence for it and none against it stands pretty well without that sort of absolute proof. The countervailing hypothesis that deems all our neurological studies an illusion presents no evidence and cannot explain perception.

So, from a strictly materialist and empiricist point of view, we have three options: say that causation doesn't exist, say that causation is purely a creation of our own minds, or say that causation exists in parallel both in the world and in our minds...

The third option, given the possibility of the first and second options, is clearly based on sheer faith.


[rant]To be honest, I never understood this idea, since we have a powerful body of experience as well as faith to indicate the third option. If you throw a ball at a pane of glass (assuming you have a big enough ball and typical glass), it will shatter every time. Not one historical record describes a ball flying into a window only to bounce off like a wad of cotton or something. And furthermore, I guarantee that even Hume did not want children playing ballgames in his front yard. He may have claimed that causality did not exist, but he intuitively grasped that a ball kicked into the window would leave a nasty mess. Any standard of proof higher than "happens every single time without exception" seems rather pointless in my opinion.[/rant]
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Eddy wrote:
No it hasn't! It hasn't even addressed the real question. We are still left with Hume's Fork - either our "perspective" comes from our senses, or it comes from our reason. All our reason can do is play with tautologies, not give us real information about the world. And our senses cannot, for example, enable us to distinguish causation from sufficiently enduring correlation.


But we can hardly deny that our senses get the perceptions that form our perspective from somewhere. Neurology gives all kinds of elaborate explanations for how the eye sends impulses to the brain, the brain assembles them into vision, and so forth. You say that we have no proof that light hitting the retina causes these perceptions, but at the same we have no evidence it does not. The way I see it, a theory with plenty of evidence for it and none against it stands pretty well without that sort of absolute proof. The countervailing hypothesis that deems all our neurological studies an illusion presents no evidence and cannot explain perception.

Maybe that's why nobody believes it?

First, a perspective isn't just perceptions. It may also be concepts; it may, indeed, not consist of anything in the mind at all, but only a limit on the mind.
Second, no, neurology does not give any explanation for how the brain assembles nerve impulses into vision. It can't, because it's a science. Science talks about correlations with predictive utility. Neurology can give us correlations between patterns of nerve impulses and patterns of ensuing behaviour. It does not tell us anything about the mental side of things except by extrapolation. What is extrapolated is a model, which would work just as well if it were false as if it were true - and moreover it is only a model of how "the external world" correlates with "thoughts". That is, it is about "the external world", not about the external world. A correlation between "the external world" and "perception" is just as viable if "the external world" is causedby perception, or if both are caused by the same thing (eg the actual external world).

A photon is not a bundle of light - it is a bundle of experimental behaviours that we posit. Whether there is a real photon underlying our model photon is almost by definition subject to debate (after all, we used not to believe in photons, and we may well not believe in them in the future). And even if there are real photons, this tells us nothing about the nature of causation.
So, from a strictly materialist and empiricist point of view, we have three options: say that causation doesn't exist, say that causation is purely a creation of our own minds, or say that causation exists in parallel both in the world and in our minds...

The third option, given the possibility of the first and second options, is clearly based on sheer faith.


[rant]To be honest, I never understood this idea, since we have a powerful body of experience as well as faith to indicate the third option. If you throw a ball at a pane of glass (assuming you have a big enough ball and typical glass), it will shatter every time. Not one historical record describes a ball flying into a window only to bounce off like a wad of cotton or something. And furthermore, I guarantee that even Hume did not want children playing ballgames in his front yard. He may have claimed that causality did not exist, but he intuitively grasped that a ball kicked into the window would leave a nasty mess. Any standard of proof higher than "happens every single time without exception" seems rather pointless in my opinion.[/rant]


Firstly, no, even a little experience will tell you that balls often don't break glass. It only breaks glass under certain conditions - and we haven't exhaustively defined those conditions, so we don't have any "every time without exception" rules about it.

Secondly, throughout the entire history of humanity, burning things has never had a noticeable effect upon our climate... until now. Up until fairly recently, "burning things will not effect global climate" would have met that standard of proof, to the best of our ability to determine that. Personally, I'm quite glad that we DON'T just stick to that standard of proof, because if we did that we would be met by a lot of nasty surprises.

Thirdly, you're talking about correlation. Hume would have accepted the strong correlation between unwise ballgames and broken glass. But correlation is not causation. At least, non-Humeans say that correlation is not causation. If you accept that they are the same, you're saying that "causation", as something distinct from correlation, is a human creation. If you don't accept that they're the same, then you haven't shown any causation in this scenario, only correlation.

Other examples: please prove the existence of time, and of number, as things independent of human judgement or experience.
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hwhatting wrote:
Salmoneus wrote:No it hasn't! It hasn't even addressed the real question. We are still left with Hume's Fork - either our "perspective" comes from our senses, or it comes from our reason. All our reason can do is play with tautologies, not give us real information about the world. And our senses cannot, for example, enable us to distinguish causation from sufficiently enduring correlation.


I don't think I like "Hume's fork" - "either-or" choices are often false choices.
What if causation exists in the world and we're sometimes able to diagnose it correctly and sometimes not? We'll never know for sure whether we correctly diagnose it, but that's a different issue.


Why are threefold choices better than twofold choices?

Your scenario is my third option. But the question is not "is A the cause of B?", but "is there causation?". We have the concept of causation - but if we have obtained the concept of causation, and the world actually has the sort of causation we think that it had, we're relient on divine providence if we think that we can obtain this basically correct idea by pure chance with no recourse to experience.

But if our concept comes from experience, we face the problem that all we experience is correlations of varying degrees of reliability, so the concept of a causation distinct from correlation cannot be obtained from experience alone.

Likewise, we have a concept of time, but we do not directly experience time. If our concept of time does not come from experience, where does it come from?

a) it comes from our way of organising sensory data and is just part of how we see the world (in which case we've no grounds for saying it is also part of the world)
b) it comes from some innate idea that we have that happens to be true - but then who gave us that idea, if not experience?
c) it just arises spontaneously in all of us AND happens to be true - which seems even less believable and more reliant on religious faith.
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