Saturday, April 20, 2013

Thoughts on Clark & Dudrick's book on Nietzsche's BGE: Chapter 1 on Nietzsche's Preface

This is the first of a series of posts commenting on aspects of Clark & Dudrick's book (herafter C&D).  As I am quoted as saying on the dustjacket, the book is, indeed, "essential reading for Nietzsche scholars."  There is, however, much that seems to me wrong-headed, and while I'll also try to call attention to important insights and arguments C&D develop (and there are many), I will no doubt focus a bit disproportionately on where things seem to me to go wrong.  (I am reading the book in conjunction with some PhD students as part of an independent study/reading group, and while I have no doubt been helped by talking with Jaime Edwards, Claire Kirwin, and Dan Telech, they should not be thought to either agree with me or to be responsible for any mistaken claims I make!)

Chapter 1, on Nietzsche's Preface, makes two helpful and plausible claims:  first, that N's preface is, in part, a parody of Kant's preface to the 1st Critique; and second, that to understand what N. means by dogmatism and by metaphysics, it is important to realize that he was concurrently engaged with Spir's Denken und Wirklichkeit.  It is certainly true that "dogmatists" must include "metapahysician[s]...a priori system builder[s] in the pre-Kantian mode" (C&D, 18), but it has to include more than that, given, among other things, that N. plainly thinks Kant is a dogmatist.  Here is where N's reading of Spir is key, since Spir equates dogmatism with metaphysics simpliciter, that is, with any doctrines that go beyond the empirical evidence (indeed, as C&D notes, Spir even describes "the metaphysical approach to philosophy to be a kind of mental illness, which is not to be set aside through arguments" [C&D, 19], which certainly must have resonated with N!).   Thus, Spir, like Nietzsche "rejects Kant's claim concerning the possibility of a critical metaphysics" (C&D, 21)--i.e., one that first examines the limits of pure reason--and thus view the Kantian kind of metaphysics as dogmatism as well.  Of course, Plato's philosophy, with its commitment to the existence of timeless, universal, and non-empirical truths, would also be a prime example of a dogmatic philosophy.

C&D are less convincing, to my mind, on the passage's prognostications about philosophy's future.  The key passage from N's Preface is this one:
But the fight against Plato, or, to speak more clearly and "for the people," the fight against the Christian-ecclesiastical pressure of millenia--since Christianity is Platonism "for the people"--has created a magnificent tension of the spirit in Europe the like of which had never yet existed on earth:  with so tense a bow we can now shoot for the most distant goals.
For C&D, this "magnificent tension" is a struggle between what they call "the will to truth" ("believing only what corresponds to the way the world actually is" [C&D, 37]) and the "will to value" ("the will to see the world in a way that accords with [one's] values" [C&D, 44], around which their interpretation is organized.  (We will return in later postings to what they say about these two wills.)  The Preface continues:
The European feels this tension as a state of distress, to be sure; and there have already been two grand attempts to relax the bow, once by means of Jesuitism, the second time by means of the democratic Enlightnement...But we, who are neither Jesuits nor democrats, nor even sufficiently German, we good Europeans and free, very free spirits--we have it still, the whole need of the spirit and the whole tension of its bow!  And perhaps also the arrow, the task, and who knows, the goal.

C&D gloss the first bit of this as follows:  "The suggestion here is that the democratic Enlightenment and Jesuitism each tried to collapse the tension of the bow by doing away with one of the directions or forces creating it" (28).  But this just seems to mangle the tense bow metaphor:  if you do away with one of the "forces creating it" you either shoot the arrow (you release the taut string) or the arrow falls to the ground (you release the bow).   To unbend a bow is, of course, to reduce both opposed forces simultaneously--to reconcile them, as it were, or bring them together, so that the arrow neither shoots nor falls to the ground.  (In general, I think C&D are far too invested in the metaphor of the bow, but allowing that we should take it so seriously, it seems to me we should get the metaphor right in terms of how a bow actually works!)

Unexplained in all this (at least here) is how exactly Jesuitism and the democratic Enlightenment tried to unbend the bow, once we understand that metaphor correctly:  that is, what kind of reconciliation did they try to affect?

It seems to me that C&D have neglected a rather more natural reading, one that has the virtue of connecting the preface to the book's title, Beyond Good and Evil, and to familiar Nietzschean themes, such as the death of God and the defeat not simply of the Church, but of its poison (to paraphrase the famous line from GM I). 

Nietzsche says the manificent tension of the bow was created by the struggle against Platonism/Christianity.  But who is it that is involved in this fight?  Obviously Nietzsche himself, but also, to some extent, German Materialists, and other empiricists and naturalists of all stripes.  The struggle, however, has always proceeded on two fronts:  against, roughly, Platonic/Christian metaphysics or cosmology, and against Platonic/Christian morality (Nietzsche, Machiavelli, some figures of the Rennaisance have mostly been involved in the struggle against the latter).  The attempts to "unbend" the bow have been the attempts to preserve the Platonic/Christian morality, while bracketting or disowning or turning over to the merely "private sphere" the metaphysics or cosmology.  So, e.g., Jesuits famously cultivated the method of casuistic reasoning as a way of defending Christian morals, without recourse to claims about God's will, Biblical authority, and so on.  So, too, the democratic Enlightenment tried to put reason's imprint on Christian morality (think of Kant or Bentham), while either expressing open skepticism about Christian cosmology or relegating it to the sphere of private faith, not public dogma.   The tension, of course, results from the attempt to salvage the morality without its traditional metaphysical foundations--although Jesuits and the Enlightenment try to unbend the bow, they have actually brought about "the death of God," though most do not realize that has happened or its frightening ramifications.

Nietzsche, of course, rejects Platonic and Christian metaphysics and cosmology, but, as the book's title and much of its content makes clear, he also wants to repudiate the Platonic/Christian morality that went hand-in-hand with it, indeed, that was the motivation for the metaphysics (as we learn in the first chapter of BGE).   So Nietzsche will have nothing to do with the efforts of Jesuits and Enlightenment democrats to unbend the bow, by trying to reconcile a naturalistic world view, which is incompatible with Platonic/Christian metaphysics, with Platonic/Christian morality.  Nietzsche, instead, intends to shoot the arrow by fulling repudiating the Platonic/Christian view, both its metaphysics and its morality--he needs the tension of the bow, but he is going to resolve it by shooting the arrow into a future "beyond good and evil," in which the struggle against Platonism and Christianity is won on all fronts, metaphysical and moral.

I think this understanding of the metaphor will do greater justice to the central themes of the book, but it will be for future postings to see whether that claim can be made good, or whether C&D's framework can do better.


Jessica said...

I'm excited to see a discussion about this new work. 'Long-awaited' is right; C&D have put this intricate reading together thoughtfully, and it raises important challenges. I've also been reading the book over several weeks with some sharp graduate students, and I share many of your worries.

From the outset, I had real misgivings about the "esoteric" reading. When we see claims like the one offered on p. 49, that where a passage "seem[s] to provide clear evidence" that Nietzsche is *directly contradicting* the reading on offer, the esoteric reading dictates that we read between the lines until we see the textual evidence as *confirming* the reading on offer, surely something has gone awry. On such an interpretive methodology, what *could* count as textual evidence against their reading?

I found myself wishing that the hypothesis for *why* on earth Nietzsche adopted such a Baroque strategy had come in earlier. We don't get it until the conclusion of the book, when [spoiler alert!] C&D explain that, "BGE's esotericism is designed, above all else, to strengthen each of the two sides of the philosophical soul, the will to truth ... and the will to value" [p. 247]. I remain totally unconvinced that Nietzsche had such a cryptic pedagogical objective or was so positively disposed to the "will to value." So I'm not sure I'd have been friendlier to it even if the hypothesis had been advanced earlier, but it would have been decidedly less frustrating getting through the first few chapters.

I also share the concerns about the "magnificent tension" metaphor and how large it looms. In addition to the perplexity about how to map the relevant forces onto the "bow" metaphor, I find that Nietzsche elsewhere appeals to tensions (even "magnificent" ones), where he clearly does not have a bipolar metaphor in mind at all. And that, I think, complicates the claim about the importance of this metaphor for understanding Nietzsche's project. For instance, great (dynamic) tension seems to be involved in his talk about us as aggregates of drives, in their relations with one another. Tension could well be caused by quanta of force striving in various directions at once. (Cf. the Greek atomist picture of the ‘soul’.) There's also a kind of "quivering" anticipatory tension (to which one is "condemned by pregnancy") that Nietzsche calls (in Norman's translation) a "profound tension of the spirit" [EH 'Clever' 3]. That takes us beyond the boundaries of BGE (Pt. I), of course, but C&D aren't afraid to range more widely when they need to.

adam said...

» The attempts to "unbend" the bow have been the attempts to preserve the Platonic/Christian morality, while bracketing or disowning or turning over to the merely "private sphere" the metaphysics or cosmology

I think it’s misleading (not profoundly wrong) to emphasize the “philosophy of tension”. By my reading, Nietzsche thinks the power dynamics precede and dictate that type of intellectual effort. The only importance of such a debate is as a window into the thing he really cares about – motives and power and ethics.

Viewed with an eye to power, the tension is between dominated (people) and dominators (church). Then, grand attempts to ease the tension make more sense: BGE’s preface relates the enlightenment to a free press – a tool for man to speak truth to power – and thereby become less filled with “need and distress”. And on Jesuitism, in #207, Nietzsche says, “To relax with confiding sympathy – that is the real art of Jesuitism, which has always understood how to introduce itself as the religion of sympathy.”

None of this gets me back to the C&D reading though.