Thursday, September 4, 2014

Tom Stern's silly review of the Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche in the September 3 TLS

London has long been a lively place for Nietzsche studies (with Ken Gemes and now Andrew Huddleston at Birkbeck, Sebastian Gardner and Mark Kalderon at UCL, as well as Daniel Came and Peter Kail not far away to the north, and Christopher Janaway and others not far away to the south), so it's a bit surprising that Tom Stern, who also teaches at UCL and professes a scholarly interest in Nietzsche, should have penned a rather silly "review" of The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche edited by Ken Gemes and John Richardson.  Unfortunately, it's behind a paywall, though you are not missing anything if you can't access it.  I sent the TLS a brief letter about this sophomoric "review":

To the editors:
As one of 34 contributors to The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche, and one of the minority in the volume actually conversant with what remains of “analytic” philosophy, I was astonished to learn from Tom Stern (review, Sept. 3) that the Handbook represents “The Analytic Nietzsche.”  “Analytic philosophy is broadly ahistorical in outlook,” Stern notes, but much of my own work has been devoted to showing how ignorance of the intellectual history of 19th-century Germany, in particular the rise of German materialism, has distorted readings of Nietzsche.  Other contributors examine in detail the influence of Greek philosophy and culture, the German Romantics, and Kant and NeoKantians.  Stern asserts that Nietzsche was “heart and soul, a brilliant nineteenth-century German,” for whom Wagner and Bismarck were very important.  There are six dozen references to Wagner in The Oxford Handbook, many extended discussions, though fewer of Bismarck.   Nietzsche himself would have stoutly denied Stern’s cramped characterization of him, and the content of the actual essays in the volume (which are hardly discussed) belies it rather decisively, as does the wide resonance Nietzsche has had across time and cultures.
Stern continues:  “Analytic philosophy favours clear definition. Nietzsche once wrote that only that which has no history can be defined.”  Good philosophy, like good scholarship, generally favors clarity in exposition, but not necessarily definitions (as Nietzsche himself quipped:  “Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound strive for obscurity”).  Nietzsche’s point from the Genealogy that the meaning of concepts (like “punishment”) varies across historical and cultural epochs (and thus can not be defined) has no relevance to whether or not that claim can be clearly stated and evaluated.  Finally, Stern declares that, “analytic philosophers kneel before the Dread God of Consistency: if you hold ‘P’ you cannot also hold ‘not-P’.”  Actually, Socrates, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Husserl and Habermas, among others, all accept the law of non-contradiction, though I assume they are not “analytic” philosophers, despite their kneeling.  Indeed, it’s a bit hard to see what philosophical exposition of Nietzsche would look like if it were as cavalier about non-contradiction as Stern appears to be.
I have a different hypothesis about Stern’s invention of the bogeyman of “the Analytic Nietzsche.”  Anglophone Nietzsche studies has improved dramatically in the last two decades in terms of historical scholarship, sensitivity to textual evidence and nuance, and philosophical sophistication.   All this has been rather jarring to the lazy and superficial readers and sophomoric enthusiasts Nietzsche’s brilliant writing sometimes attracts.  They want to cabin off serious historical and philosophical scholarship as “analytic,” so they can ignore it.  But they have lost that philosophical battle in the Anglophone world, and are gradually losing it on the European Continent.  Nietzsche, who lauded the “art of reading well,” would have been pleased.
The review is actually worse than this letter lets on--Stern discusses almost none of the actual content of the volume, and uses what space he has mostly for sneering and misstatements both of the topics covered by the actual essays and the particular positions defended.  What an embarrassment for both TLS and UCL.

ADDENDUM (9/15):  The review is here (though I can't get it to download, but others say they can).  Since several of Tom Stern's colleagues (in comments below), none of whom work on Nietzsche or are familiar with the book under review, have denied that the review is at all mocking or sneering, permit me to try to explain how the review reads if you know something both about Nietzsche and the book:
Stern begins with a few paragraphs suggesting that one “can order whichever Nietzsche you want” (even though some of those offered as examples were manifest travesties of misinterpretation), and then we learn the Oxford Handbook is just the latest in this litany, “the Analytic Nietzsche.”  What’s an “Analytic Nietzsche”:  well, analytic philosophers write in “cold, unlovely, jargoned prose,” are “ahistorical,” and “kneel before the Dread God of Consistency.”  We are reminded how unlike Nietzsche this all allegedly is—Nietzsche after all is just a brilliant 19th-century German mainly concerned with Wagner and Bismarck, plus he contradicts himself a lot.  (The last two claims, for Nietzsche scholars, are at best contentious, at worst false.)

In case you didn’t yet get the point how strange the Analytic Nietzsche’s approach is, Stern reports that Nietzsche’s “analytic lieutenants” (one might have called them scholars) “inform their readers that either Nietzsche held such-and-such a very complicated, exegetically speculative ‘theory”’or he was simply inconsistent. Fear of the second option is meant to compel the reader into the awkward embrace of the first: your money or your life.”  Ha, ha, these “analytic lieutenants” are so silly.

Stern declares the Oxford Handbook is a “victory monument” to “the Analytic Nietzsche” (although only a minority of the contributions are engaged with analytic philosophy, many write on historical topics, many in fact deal with Wagner, one of the two editors is best-known for offering a brilliant defense of Heidegger’s and Deleuze’s famous reading of Nietzsche, etc.).  Stern then shifts gear to discuss another book for several paragraphs, until finally, he allows (well past the midway point of the review, and after the preceding mockery) that “to call the analytic Nietzsche a mode of interpretation is not to deny its considerable virtues….It wins, hands down, on clarity of expression and conceptual complexity.”  He then quotes something suitably obscure from the bad book by Sloterdijk by way of contrast, and declares:  “the Handbook is an excellent collection, for Nietzsche scholars working in this tradition,” i.e., the “Analytic Nietzsche” tradition that, until now, most of the review had been poking fun at.  The implication, as I note in my letter to the TLS, is that everyone else can just ignore it.

After a few lines of generic praise for unnamed articles (almost none of the content of the book, remarkably, is actually discussed), Stern return to his attack on “the Analytic Nietzsche,” to “what is left out, what is magnified and what, occasionally, gets distorted.”  One essay (I’m not sure which one, actually) that attempts to understand Nietzsche’s views on truth is mocked for allegedly “simply rid[ding] itself of” a “troublesome sentence.”  (Many Nietzsche scholars take the view that his Nachlass material is misleading, and I suspect that’s what is really at issue here.)

We conclude where we left off, with ridicule:  “Unlike many previous Nietzsche incarnations,s” the Analytic Nietzsche “finds himself on the periphery,” unlike, say, the Nazi Nietzsche.  (That’s a charming comparison, but one that also reflects Stern’s ignorance of the many surprising places Nietzsche is turning up in Anglophone philosophy [e.g., recent work by Knobe, Prinz], beyond the two or three authors he seems to be familiar with.)  Indeed, Stern reminds us, Williams thought “that Nietzsche was not a source of philosophical theories,” so yet another reason for “doubt” about the Analytic Nietzsche.  And, let’s not forget the apparently just charge (Stern does not rebut it) that “the analytic Nietzsche muffles him or suck the life from his living words.” 

Very "entertaining", sure, but also unfair and belittling toward the Handbook and its contributors and to philosophical scholarship on Nietzsche.


Lucy O'Brien said...

Dear Brian,

You say that Stern appears to be 'cavalier about non-contradiction'. There are four claims that need to be kept separate:

(I) Nietzsche was 'open to the benefits of taking up contradictory positions'.
(ii) Nietzsche held contradictory positions.
(iii) We should interpret Nietzsche using the principle 'If X holds P, X cannot hold not-P'.
(iv) It is okay to hold P and not-P.

I have read the full review and it seems to me that following are true:

Stern holds that (i) appears to be true. He says 'Nietzsche, explicitly, appears more open to the benefits of contradictory positions'.

Stern holds that (ii) is true. He thinks that Nietzsche contradicts himself.

Stern holds that a current strain in Nietzsche scholarship uses (iii) as a principle of interpretation in a way that can lead to distortion. He does not say we should not use (iii)

Stern does not discuss (iv). There is no discussion of the prospects of dialetheism.

There is no evidence that Stern is cavalier about non-contradiction. Indeed, given the tension between holding (i), (ii), and an incautious use of (iii), one might read him as making a claim on its behalf in our interpretation of Nietzsche.

In case the above distorts the focus of the review it ought to be said that in fact its purpose is not to reject an analytic approach to Nietzsche – indeed it says 'to call the analytic Nietzsche a mode of interpretation is not to deny its considerable virtues, nor to imply that all modes are the same: it may be the best'. The point is an historical one about the variety and nature of interpretations of Nietzsche philosophy has delivered up over the years. This is a point that is likely to be of interest – as befits a TLS review – to those outside philosophy.

I am Stern's colleague at UCL and I am not remotely embarrassed, and I doubt that Tim Crane, the TLS Philosophy editor, is. Stern's wit and scholarship are threaded through a highly entertaining review, suitable for a wide audience, of four books on Nietzsche. I am, however, a little embarrassed to belong to a profession the norms of which seem to allow an international audience to be presented with a portrait of a brilliant young colleague as 'sophomoric', as 'a flake', as a 'hack', as 'silly', and perhaps 'lazy', in the space of two days by one person through the idiosyncratic representation of a review that is behind a paywall.

Brian Leiter said...

I empathize with Dr. O'Brien's desire to defend a colleague.
Dr. O'Brien, like Tim Crane, knows nothing about Nietzsche or Nietzsche scholarship, and I have no doubt that Dr. Stern's review is "highly entertaining" to those completely ignorant of the serious philosophical scholarship he is ridiculing. Ridicule is often entertaining to those ignorant of the actual merits of the target.

I confess it is not my fault that Dr. Stern's review is behind a paywall. As injustice goes, however, I think Dr. Stern's ridicule of the Oxford Handbook (notwithstanding the brief positive bit Dr. O'Brien quotes) in the TLS is a much more serious offense before "an international audience," than the fact that I've posted my reaction (shared by other Nietzsche scholars I've heard from) on a blog with a hundred or so visitors each day.

If Dr. O'Brien is really embarrassed that Dr. Stern's hack work has been called out, then she can leave the profession and perhaps find a field where nonsense is permitted to pass in silence--there are many such fields in the academy, though philosophy is happily not one of them.

I did, however, remove the word "flake" from the other blog post about where to study Nietzsche, since that was unnecessary. I thank Dr. O'Brien for calling that bit of overkill to my attention.

Unknown said...

Lucy is quite right, I am not embarrassed in the slightest.

What is more, I have read the review again, and I am at a loss to find the ‘sneering’, ‘’ridicule’ or ‘nonsense’ you talk about. Instead I find this, for example:

‘Edited by two eminent professors, both involved from early on in the analytic Nietzsche project, the Handbook is an excellent collection, indispensable for Nietzsche scholars working in this tradition, with contributions from the big-hitters covering many major works and themes. The most successful papers, of which there are plenty, set out, critically, clearly and generously, the various major positions that have been taken (by other analytic scholars) or chromatograph his many-coloured thoughts. Some authors can’t help pushing their personal and sometimes highly eccentric lines. The best balance critical overview with authorial personality. This is where to go to find out what the analytic Nietzsche has to say.’

Nor can the criticism he goes on to make be fairly described as ‘ridicule’ or ’sneering’, let alone ‘sophomoric’.

The review is now online at Tom Stern’s website, so readers of your blog can make up their own minds:

Brian Leiter said...

The preceding comment, just to clarify, is from Tim Crane, the philosophy editor of TLS who commissioned the review under discussion and who, like Dr. O'Brien, is not a Nietzsche scholar or conversant with Nietzsche scholarship. The reaction from Nietzsche scholars, by contrast, has been uniform: "shocked and disappointed" by the review is how one senior figure in the UK put it to me, and others had less pleasant things to say. Unfortunately, the review does not appear to be on-line at Dr. Stern's website. The positive snippets have been quoted (though they explicitly cabin off the volume's contributions as being to merely one, idioynscratic Nietzsche, 'the analytic' one as Stern dubs it), but without the full context of the review (and without knowledge of its actual contents), it is hard to see why those knowledgeable about Nietzsche share my reaction. I'll post a bit more of it below, for the benefit of readers who may be mislead by the preceding comments. (I did not comment initially on Dr. O'Brien's attempt to rationalize the silly comments about non-contradiction. Stern certainly made claims 1-3, as O'Brien acknowledges, though he exaggerates #2, but he also clearly chides readings that do not accept #4.)

Brian Leiter said...

Herewith some more of Stern's "review"; those who know something about Nietzsche and about Nietzsche scholarship will realize why the reaction of actual specialists has been "shocked and disappointed" by this snide, contentious and error-ridden review:

It sometimes feels like you can order whichever Nietzsche you want. Kurt Tucholsky thought so: “Tell me what you need and I’ll sort you a Nietzsche quotation for it!”. Virtually unknown during the sane, productive part of his life (ending in 1889), Nietzsche exploded on the scene in the next decade to stake his claim as the greatest Rorschach test of Western cultural history. But Nietzsche interpretation was never just a matter of haphazard, individual readings. There were trends. First, Nietzsche joined and inspired assorted pre-war, avant-garde dreamers...Then the nationalist Nietzsche followed German soldiers into the trenches....Humiliated, the post-Versailles Nietzsche was recruited by the Nazis...After the Second World War, Nietzsche was horrified: he hadn’t meant it like that. He sailed the Atlantic to become an inoffensive humanist. Look, he praised the Jews and hated the anti-Semites of his day! As the century grew old, he settled in France as a “deconstructionist”....

But by then Nietzsche had begun his next move: he was becoming a so-called “analytic philosopher”. Since then – at least in philosophy departments in English-speaking universities – that is what he has become. [BL COMMENT: no hint so far that some of the preceding readings were manifestly mistaken]

Analytic philosophers attack and defend well-defined theories in cold, unlovely, jargoned prose: “I will defend a modified Jonesian nominalism against Smith’s first objection”. Nietzsche was an excitable writer of fictions, essays, poems, polemics, histories, fragmentary aphorisms and songs. Analytic philosophy, typically, reveres mathematics and natural science. Nietzsche was capable of this, but capable, too, of the opposite. Analytic philosophy is broadly ahistorical in outlook and finds no special place for the arts. Nietzsche was a trained historian and musician, whose history of morality inspired Max Weber and Michel Foucault, and whose own major influence, arguably, was Richard Wagner. Analytic philosophy is an anglophone movement, for which specific, nineteenth-century German problems – What is Germanness? What is the significance of Bismarck? – are quarrels in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing. Nietzsche was, heart and soul, a brilliant nineteenth-century German. Analytic philosophy favours clear definition. Nietzsche once wrote that only that which has no history can be defined. He frequently uses the same term to mean completely different things. Above all, analytic philosophers kneel before the Dread God of Consistency: if you hold “P” you cannot also hold “not-P”. Yet Nietzsche appears more open, explicitly, to the benefits of taking up contradictory positions. In any case, he often contradicts himself.

Brian Leiter said...

Stern's review continued:

The analytic Nietzsche must be seen in this light. His early efforts were particularly concerned with undermining the “no-truth” readings of the deconstructionists: viewed in context, the “mature” Nietzsche was not so radical about truth. As for science, Nietzsche became a “naturalist”: roughly, his philosophy was not anti-science and was perhaps best understood as working in tandem with natural scientific inquiry. And while he seemed inconsistent in places, his “considered position” (what he would think if he had thought about it more, or better, and therefore hadn’t published some inconvenient sentences) was not inconsistent on fundamental points. “Theories” emerged from Nietzsche, comparable in kind to those of analytic philosophers, whose interests, aims and methods were not different from his. Often, his analytic lieutenants inform their readers that either Nietzsche held such-and-such a very complicated, exegetically speculative “theory” or he was simply inconsistent. Fear of the second option is meant to compel the reader into the awkward embrace of the first: your money or your life.

While it contains occasional traces of earlier or other Nietzsches and some biographical contributions, the recently published, 800-page Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche may be seen as a victory monument to Nietzsche’s latest reinvention: it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that this is a handbook to analytic Nietzsche scholarship alone. The fact that it does not say so is also telling: the sign of a victorious mode of interpretation...

As for the French Nietzsche: Derrida is not in the Handbook’s comprehensive index. Compare The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche of 1996, with its paper on Nietzsche’s twentieth-century influence (Heidegger, Mann, Foucault) and a dedicated essay on the “French Nietzsche”. Vestiges of the fight against the French Nietzsche are visible in frequent attempts to play down Nietzsche’s apparently radical, truth-sceptical claims: as always, some of this downplaying is effective, some tenuous, some desperate. Nietzsche wrote that science gives us “the insight into delusion and error as a condition of cognate and sensate existence”. One commentator, attempting to minimize Nietzsche’s error-talk, simply rids himself of this troublesome sentence....

Brian Leiter said...

Stern's review continued:

Edited by two eminent professors, both involved from early on in the analytic Nietzsche project [BL comment: Richardson, one of the two editors, in his 1996 book developed themes from Heidegger and Deleuze in a reading of Nietzsche] the Handbook is an excellent collection, indispensable for Nietzsche scholars working in this tradition, with contributions from the big-hitters covering many major works and themes. The most successful papers, of which there are plenty, set out, critically, clearly and generously, the various major positions that have been taken (by other analytic scholars) or chromatograph his many-coloured thoughts. Some authors can’t help pushing their personal and sometimes highly eccentric lines. The best balance critical overview with authorial personality. This is where to go to find out what the analytic Nietzsche has to say.

As such, it is no surprise what is left out, what is magnified and what, occasionally, gets distorted. There is little, for example, about Nietzsche on Germany, the Jews or race. He wrote about all, especially the former, a great deal. In an essay by one of the editors, Nietzsche is quoted as follows: “In the present age human beings have in their bodies the heritage of multiple origins, that is opposite and not merely opposite drives and value standards that fight each other and rarely permit each other any rest”. Nietzsche’s sentence actually begins: “In an age of disintegration that mixes races indiscriminately, human beings . . .”. For whatever reason, the quotation is altered, omitting the reference to mixing races. Wagner gets a paltry few pages. The contribution on The Birth of Tragedy – Nietzsche’s first book, often an embarrassment to the analytic Nietzsche and, occasionally, to the real, older Nietzsche – spends four pages on the book itself, before lingering on more comfortable later works....

Unlike many previous Nietzsche incarnations, the analytic Nietzsche finds himself on the periphery. The Nazi Nietzsche was a Nazi pin-up; the First World War Nietzsche was, with Goethe and the Bible, the most popular author among German soldiers. Analytic philosophers rarely cite Nietzsche; he is hardly allowed into the clubhouse except on festive occasions and even then only when accompanied by an adult. Often, the adult in question is a quirky one. Many of the figures in the Handbook’s “influence” essay, while hugely respected, have enjoyed a certain critical outsider status: Bernard Williams, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre. Rorty, in the end, preferred not to work in a philosophy department. Williams thought that Nietzsche was not a source of philosophical theories –which, if true, would throw into doubt much of the analytic Nietzsche’s hard work.

So let’s return to Nietzsche’s question: what is the value of this practice? For many philosophers, enthusiasts and Nietzsche scholars, the analytic Nietzsche muffles him or sucks the life from his living words. Frequently, indeed, those words are treated with unartistic licence, especially when a new “theory” is scented. But that might not matter if one thought the results were worth it by some other standard. We may have to wait and see about that. Meanwhile perhaps it is up to those who find the analytic Nietzsche objectionably distorted to give us not just their own undistorted Nietzsche, but also some sense of his value. That may be the one thing needful before Nietzsche, as he surely will, reinvents himself again.
=======end of review=======

It's a testimony to Stern's extensive ignorance that he is unaware of the lively interest in Nietszche by "analytic" philosophers of cognitive science like Joshua Knobe, Jesse Prinz, Mattia Riccardi and others. But that is just one of a half-dozen inaccurate claims he makes both about Nietzsche and about the contents of the volume, quite apart from the ill-informed snideness and sneering.

Exilio Cósmico said...

I haven’t read any Nietzsche since I was an undergraduate, and I certainly wasn’t planning to read my colleague Tom Stern’s review of three scholarly works on Nietzsche, but it’s made my friend Brian Leiter so angry that I had to take a look. I respect Brian’s judgment, so I was expecting to feel some embarrassment on UCL’s behalf. I’m only writing to report that, having read the review, I, like Professors O’Brien and Crane, feel no such thing. I’m happy to take Brian’s word when he says that the OUP collection doesn’t really represent an analytic reading of Nietzsche to the extent that Tom claims, and that it is more historically informed than Tom makes it sound. I can’t see that these inaccuracies in the review, if that’s what they are, would amount to anything close to ridicule. Then there is consistency. Tom claims that Nietzsche was open to the benefits to taking up contradictory positions and suggests that the analytic interpreters are blinded to this by their attachment to consistency. I don’t know if Tom’s accusation is correct, but, once again, it doesn’t amount to ridicule. What Tom does seem to ridicule, as ‘kneeling before a Dread God’, is the respect for consistency felt by many (not all) analytic philosophers, and, as Brian points out, many other philosophers outside the analytic tradition. I agree with Brian that sneering at consistency is reprehensible, but even if that’s what Tom is doing I can’t see how this should go into the assessment of the review.
Jose Zalabardo

Jo Wolff said...

I've come to this rather late. Speaking as a philosopher from UCL, and not a Nietzsche scholar, I feel I must respond to Brian's remark that UCL should be embarrassed by Tom's review. Having read it, and read Lucy O'Brien's and Tim Crane's response, and Brian's response to them, I'm at loss at Brian's reaction. Tom's piece is stylish, as befits a TLS review, rather than sneering. Brian has read it in a way that it was not intended, and then fired off a range of insulting and hostile comments not just to Tom but to others who have tried to defend him and others. There is, no doubt, scholarly disagreement about how best to read Nietzsche, and Brian is entitled to his view, just as Tom is also entitled to his view (although Brian appears not to think so). To respond in this way brings credit to no one.

Brian Leiter said...

Tom is of course entitled to his view; indeed, he has gotten his view into the TLS, while mine languishes on a blog! I am impressed by the loyalty of Tom's colleagues, and I have tried to explain in the update what it is they are all missing, unlike every Nietzsche scholar I've heard from. I do find it insulting to be told that my criticism of Stern's bad review is an "embarrassment to the profession," as Lucy O'Brien did to start things off. I hold the UCL Department in the highest regard, as I do Tim Crane, Jo Wolff, and Jose Zalabardo, who I have known for a long time. (I regret that I do not know Prof. O'Brien, except by her excellent reputation as a philosopher.) I stand by my original criticisms of the review, however, and I hope Dr. Stern will do better in the future.