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Monday, August 1, 2011

That Strange Human Subspecies, the Philosopher, Part I

The following is a true statement: Some philosophers’ lives are better than their ideas, and some have ideas way better than their lives. From this it logically follows—and you should excuse the pedantic tone—that no philosopher’s thought can be judged on the basis of that individual’s life alone. Biographies may give insight into influences and motivations that went into shaping thought, as the biographies of artists often shed light on the art, but in the end the philosophies and the works of art must stand or fall on their own, and so they must be judged on their own. Are you with me so far?

I thought of heading this post “Nietzsche and Me” but wanted to make the more general argument above. David and I talked about it over Sunday breakfast. Not that it’s relevant to my thesis, but we had Sunday breakfast at the North End, sitting out in the garden behind the restaurant, talking about books and ideas and people, and afterward we went for a stroll hand in hand along Northport Creek down to the Visitor Center in Haserot Park. Haserot Park is north of the creek, the Marina Park is south. Both look out on the harbor and have trees and picnic tables. David and I pretended for an hour and a half that we were on vacation. It was great! And by the way., he agreed with what I had to say about philosophers, and the credit for making the parallel to artists’ lives and work, to which I happily assented, goes to him.

When I was nearing the end of my graduate school course work, Nietzsche reared his head and became my nemesis, as in the bane of my philosophical life, the forbidding foe of all I had come to hold dear. It was very different when I was a dreamy adolescent, uncritically reading Thus Spake Zarathustra for its witty epigrams and taking every sentence about poets, poetry and the detestable “rabble” to my heart. At age eighteen, lonely and judgmental, I had no trouble seeing eye to eye with Nietzsche. Of course, the question is how much of his philosophy I actually saw then, and the answer is, Not much. The later reading, more serious, was painful. Oh, god, had I really been so infatuated with this bitter, unhappy misanthrope? Well, adolescence is a difficult age. It’s a rare teen who feels he or she fits perfectly into the world, so any writer proclaiming himself a brilliant, misunderstood misfit has a claim to a young person’s sympathetic reading. And, in my defense, there was all that stuff about poetry, too. Nietzsche was at least no Socrates/Plato, banning imagination from his ideal world!

My doctoral dissertation was on theories of metaphor, and thus I had to wrestle with my nemesis to get my degree, because on the academic job market (my predictable, conventional goal at the time) there would be two groups of questioners, my advisor told me (bless his princely heart, and I mean that sincerely!)—the analytic types, who would question me about Donald Davidson, and the Continentals, who would want to know how Nietzsche figured into my claims, so I might as well resign myself to writing a chapter each on Davidson and Nietzsche. Okay. I slogged through Davidson and then took a deep breath....

The supposedly objective, unbiased and fair way to read Nietzsche is—well, first we set aside The Will to Power, an abortion of a book heavily edited by the philosopher’s sister, whose agenda was to make her brother’s work not only accessible but also of service to the Nazis. Ugh! Okay, so we’re not going to give any credence to that! But then (getting back to academic “fairness”), we “bracket” all those pesky, troublesome remarks about Jews, women, blacks and others said to share a “slave mentality.” Nietzsche was only using the terms metaphorically, we are told, and we are not to “paw at them” with clumsy, literal hooves. Only metaphorically? This is a defense of one of metaphor’s strongest philosophical advocates? Well, okay, I thought, I’ll bend over backward in the spirit of the so-called principle of charity (usually applied upward to Big Names but not downward to unknowns), and I’ll focus exclusively on language claims and not deal with statements about morality or about superior and inferior types of human beings except as these illustrate the philosopher’s views on meaning and metaphor. That should be fair enough.

Is anyone still with me? Anyone at all? Does anyone want to hear the conclusions I reached?


dmarks said...

"Thus Spake Zarathustra"

Well, now I have the musical adaptation in my head, after reading this.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for the link, dmarks. I'm not big on Wagner, but the images are wonderful, and the message from Terry Tempest Williams was about as far from Nietzsche and Wagner as it's possible to get.

Gerry said...

OK, I do want to know about the conclusions. I'm pretty sure I do. Probably.

P. J. Grath said...

One of these days I'll have time to write Part II. I'm sure no one will expire of impatience until then!