After publishing my most recent book—concerned with Friedrich Nietzsche’s analysis of the problem of nihilism, I briefly turned away from looking at Nietzsche directly. This post will offer a few comments on a section by Nietzsche, We Scholars, §204, from Part VI of Beyond Good and Evil. In many places, Nietzsche focuses on calling forth philosophers to a take on a certain social, political, psychological role. For Nietzsche, philosophy ought to be concerned with an evaluation of values, with thinking about which values are most valuable. This is also a topic that is central to the book, because Nietzsche believes that nihilism is defined as the logical or psychological untenability of values that nevertheless continue to guide action.
Nietzsche came of intellectual age in a scholarly environment that bellowed with optimism about the capacity science would have to perform that function, independent of any important insight from philosophy. In this passage, Nietzsche is thinking about the prioritization of the scientific mode of reasoning over and above the philosophical. It doesn’t seem that, in the United States, philosophy has become the ancilla of science. Even though many philosophers take their hint about how to do philosophy from a certain scientific view of the world, it’s also obvious that science takes its hint about how to represent its knowledge from a fairly elementary set of philosophical assumptions. …Is Nietzsche just bored?
What I do think he’s onto here is the lack of social credibility that is involved in the title of “philosophy”. Many philosophers would rather remain rather incredible. Rarely does a culture or a people, broadly construed, that prioritizes action produce intellectual works of a caliber that rival the intellectual works of a culture that prioritizes intellectual works. This is not necessarily even a difference about order of rank, but merely about the style or manner of how to guide the execution of one’s political monuments. In the US, both science itself and philosophy are ancillary to the way of life that has its paradigmatic expression in the Bill of Rights.
Another way of looking at this is to say that philosophy has to aim for things that can be accomplished. Some people might consider it defeatist even to wonder how much influence an American philosopher could have on the global phenomenon of, e.g., pollution. At any rate, Nietzsche might have found it almost funny that, despite the unprecedentedly broad scientific consensus about human involvement in climate change, little of consequence has been done to correct the problem. The theoretical scientific worldview oftentimes so blandly or calmly communicates this sort of information that, even if the situation were dire, it would require another logical step to prove 1) that the situation is dire, and 2) that anyone should make the effort to understand the problem and to change something about his or her actual lifestyle.
If ever there were a situation that did call for the intercession of philosophy, it seems like that would be the right kind of problem. Unsurprisingly, the United States is beset at all sides with other challenges that are perhaps as equally serious as the corrosion of the quality of the air we breathe. Part of the reason that philosophy might remain mute is that, at a certain point, thinking about political action feels like an endless game of whack-a-mole. A lot of people feel that way, I think, feel exasperated with the hysterical churning of the 24/7 news cycle, which prioritizes sensationalist headlines over earnest thought.
In “We Scholars” Nietzsche recommends that professional philosophers play the social role of value-valuators. But tenure does not protect freedom of thought, because the institutions that grant tenure 1) cannot physically protect the people that have tenure and 2) cannot afford to house a controversial figure. The journalist could be a modern analogue to the social role that Nietzsche prescribes to the philosopher, except that the journalist is a salaried employee whose communications are filtered through an editorial process that is sometimes shaped by the fear of being disliked, or worse, targeted with violence.
The point of all this is that, if the truth to be told is at all uncomfortable, then our thinkers are not too warmly encouraged to tell it. To do so does anything but pay. A thinker in any shape tells the truth at the risk of being hated, blackballed, scalded with hot oil, chemically scalded, dog-piled on Twitter, not liked as much as before, fired, kind of ignored, and so on. But, for all the whinging that thinkers and institutions are doing about the criticism they receive on the Internet, the constraints that are put on our ability to think freely—for our own sake, for the sake of each other—are totally unexceptional in history. Such disdain for free thought must have been surprising at first, but does it still have its shock value? The solution is always to turn the volume down on critics and get back to the first things.