Sunday, October 21, 2007

Geuss on Nietzsche: Two Quotes

So I have been reading various essays in Raymond Geuss's interesting and iconoclastic collection Outside Ethics (Princeton University Press, 2005). Many of the essays deal with Nietzsche or Nietzschean themes. I'll offer just two samples.

In the essay on "Liberalism and Its Discontents," in the context of considering the liberal ideal of "consensus," Geuss invokes Nietzsche as follows:
Nietzsche sees human society as a field of potential and actual conflict, although the conflict in question may not always be a matter of fisticuffs but may involve only the exchange of arguments and witticisms. In the realw orld, Nietzsche argues, any existing "consensus" can be no more than a momentary truce entered into for pragmatic reasons with and with no moral implications, and to expect anything more is a utopian hope. (p. 19)
Strangely, not a single text of Nietzsche is cited in support of these claims, not even in a footnote. This is Geuss at his Rortyesque worst: attributing views to important thinkers without even the pretense of scholarly apparatus. In some sense, these might indeed be views that could be ascribed to Nietzsche, but it is not obvious to me what texts Geuss has in mind. Maybe readers can supply the pertinent references?

Far more satisfying (at least for the reader interested in Nietzsche) is the essay on "Thucydides, Nietzsche, and Williams," in which, among other things, Geuss gives an excellent account of the "optimism" of philosophers (since Socrates) that Nietzsche rejects:
First of all, traditional philosophers assumed that the world could be made cognitively accessible to us without remainder....Second, they assumed that when the world was correctly understood, it would make moral sense to us. Third, the kind of "moral sense" which the world made tous would be one that woudl show it to have some orientation toward the satisfaction of some basic, rational human desires or interests, that is, the world was not sheerly indifferent to or perversely frustrating of human happiness. Fourth, the world is set up so that for us to accumulate knowledge and use our reason as vigorously as possible will be good for us, and will contribute to making us happy. Finally, it was assumed that there was a natural fit between the excericse of reason, the conditions of healthy individual human development, the demands of individuals for satisfaction of their needs, interests, and basic desires, and human sociability. Nature, reason, and all human goods, including human virtues, formed a potentially harmonious whole. (p. 223)
Geuss suggests that "the basic structure of a philosophy centered around the claim of a harmonious fit between what is rational, what is good for us, and what is good for our society has been very widely retained" in philosophy (p. 224), and that Nietzsche's rejection of this structure figures in why he prefers Thucydides to Plato. This account strikes me as both right and illuminating. (I touched on these themes as well in my Nietzsche on Morality (pp. 47-53).)


Rob said...

In regard to the first quoted passage, perhaps Guess would adduce, among other possibilities, DAYBREAK 112 (particularly the concluding sentences), BGE 256, and the last fourth or so of GM 2.11. Still, I see no way of finding much support in this material for either of the sweeping suggestions that “pragmatic reasons” exhaust the variety of reasons (including “moral”) which may impel or sustain a consensus. But even if a textual case could be made for Guess’ claims here, it would surely have to contend with Nietzsche’s practice -- his “campaign against morality” – directed as it is towards a phenomenon he so frequently decries for its consensus-extending and -solidifying power (cf. BGE 202).

In any case – and especially in connection with the second Guess passage – I don’t think any consideration of Guess on Nietzsche should neglect to mention his keen Introduction to the Cambridge translation of BIRTH OF TRAGEDY AND OTHER WRITINGS (ISBN: 0521639875) – ranking, I think, among the best introductions to an English edition of a Nietzsche text.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the first passage, I would argue that Geuss is thinking of Nietzsche's "Homer and Competition" when he writes about "potential and actual conflict" . In this early piece N. argues for the necessity of competition. That is, competition is a sine qua non for the greatness of the state and its citizens, and thus those states which fail to foster a competitive cultural environment become weak and servile. The latter part of the passage makes sense, I think,if read with "Homer on Competition" in mind. Within a competitive society any "consensus" is always momentary and only for "pragmatic reasons", because it must give rise to a new agon (conflict/struggle) for the sake of the survival of the state.

Also, my suggestion of "Homer on Competition" would seem to be thematically consistent with the second passage. Geuss's implicit reference to Nietzsche's preference for Thucydides' realism over Plato's idealism arguably (1) brings us back to the concerns of the ancients and (2) highlights the implausibility of the "happily ever after" scenario of the tradition in favor of the necessity of coming to grips with the inevitability of conflict and suffering.

I haven't read the text yet, so I am reading Geuss out of context, and thus this is a complete stab in the dark. There is no doubt that there are equally and far more compelling interpretations available upon further study of the Geuss piece.

Rob said...

To supplement the point about optimism: on pages 13 and 14 of his essay "Nietzsche: Perfectionist" (in your co-edited collection NIETZSCHE AND MORALITY), Hurka finds that Nietzsche's variety of perfectionism is free of the optimism typical of most other variants:

"A standing temptation for moral philosophers, and indeed for philosophers generally, is to avoid difficult theoretical
questions by making optimistic factual claims about the world that make competing answers to them compatible. It is characteristic of Nietzsche to reject such optimistic claims and insist that the questions be faced directly. He does this, for example, when he denies that the beliefs most useful to us are most likely to be true, and also at many points in his presentation of perfectionism. The result is a version of that view that brings out especially sharply its distinctive features and its distinctive dangers." (p. 10)

Rob said...

Philosophy Bites podcast interview with Guess: