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Monday, January 23, 2012

Groping Toward Nietzsche I

Tentative initial remarks after a great deal of reading:

Walter Kauffman won’t allow me to suggest that Nietzsche was toying with insanity when he composed his Genealogy of Morals, and Walter Kauffman is much smarter and more knowledgeable than I, and do make this suggestion would only serve to avoid the text that must be engaged, so I will not make it. At the same time, I do hold in the back of my mind the feeling that if I’m taking seriously the words of a madman, I may not be putting my time to its best use.
                Well, there are all sorts of reasons for taking Nietzsche seriously even if he was pulling the wool over our eyes by imitating sanity so convincingly.
                Still, if we allow ourselves at least a little of the irony, just a little of the sarcasm that Nietzsche allowed himself, what defense does he have? I am in a bad position. If I reply mock for mock, I will be accused of disengagement, of private ire, in short of resentiment.  But if I respond with good sense and sober judgment to the man who mocks me, I run the risk of looking all the more worthy of mockery.
                Despite his mockery, despite his sarcasm and his own blinding resentiment, one cannot help but have great respect for Nietzsche, even great sympathy. (Nietzsche noted that “true Christians” always read him with sympathy.) His insights were profound and important, and he did work out real cracks in the foundation of his opposition. He found real fault lines, and these made his job possible. Christianity’s real shame made him possible. If we see this, we can move forward. If we do not, we are stuck with the same duplicitous, the same two-sided agony that is the cornerstone of our shame.
                Nietzsche asks the essential question: “What light does linguistics and especially the study of etymology throw on the history of the evolution of moral concepts?”
                The answer is, not much. Linguistics can reveal the moment at which such concepts entered language and the development of our understanding of these concepts (“development” is an apter word than “evolution”), but it cannot say a thing about the viability—in brief, the truth—of such concepts. “Evil,” “good,” and “bad” have histories. Those histories are either histories of understanding or histories of establishment and adornment—or they are, as I believe they are, a single history of a non-Hegelian dialectic of tension and struggle. In short the words either apply to “real” things unrelated to contingent history OR they are human inventions, created and developed to serve specific historical purposes and no more. The fact that they arose in history does not of itself prove that they are confined to history.
                By way of analogy: A small child learns the word “fair” before she develops a concept of fairness (as either each according to his deserts or equal shares for all). In her first deployment of the word “fair” means only “good for me.” “That’s not fair,” means “I didn’t get what I want.” (You can all come up with your own examples.) Later, when the child is matured and corrected, she comes to understand and, we hope, accept the notion that fair means that you may have to give up some or all of what you have and want and that not just to keep the peace, not just to avoid the war of all against all, but because it is fair. And on an even higher moral plane, she might even want to give up her excess because she desires fairness above her hoarding personal benefit.
              The concept “fair” arose in this child’s history as “good for me” but developed into an abstraction that means “best for all.” Etymology may likewise tell us that “good” comes from a concept of “good for me” and “evil” as “bad for me,” but that while it is certainly history working on these concepts, so sanded out “good for me” (or “good for the king”), being “bad for you” (or, or “good for the people” or “bad for the king”) to “best for all.” But this does not mean that the concepts “fair” and “just” are stuck in history. They may be. But the judgment is based on the a priori judgment regarding history, not on observation derived from history.
                The question had to be asked, and its answers are of some value, but are not of the value Nietzsche suggests. 

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