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