Thursday, December 27, 2007

Comments policy

I appreciate the many comments readers have posted the last couple of months. I have generally permitted anonymous comments, and will continue to do so, except when it's important to put a name to something: for example, when praising or criticizing someone's work. Questions or free-standing informational remarks (e.g., with links) can continue to be anonymous, among others.

I hope to post some thoughts on Nadeem Hussain's interesting work on Nietzsche before too long.

Happy New Year to all readers!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

"Nietzsche, Naturalism, and Moral Psychology" Seminar

Here is the penultimate draft of the syllabus for my Spring seminar, which some readers might find of interest--and hopefully it will inspire some others to think about Nietzsche in light of contemporary developments in both philosophy and psychology:


Spring 2008

Brian Leiter

3.119D Townes Hall

University of Texas, Austin

(512) 232-1319

Class Time: M, 3:30-6:20



Enrollment is limited to Philosophy Ph.D. students or J.D. candidates with an undergraduate major or graduate degree (M.A., Ph.D., B.Phil., M.Phil, or D.Phil.) in philosophy. J.D. candidates without a graduate degree in philosophy who want to be considered for enrollment must submit an undergraduate transcript, a law school transcript, and a philosophical writing sample, not later than the first week of class. Ph.D. students from other departments should submit the same materials to the instructor.


The course has two interlocking aims: (1) to introduce students to Nietzsche’s philosophical naturalism and its role in his moral philosophy; and (2) to critically evaluate some of the philosophical issues about moral psychology that Nietzsche raises—about, e.g., moral motivation, the will, the role of conscious and unconscious mental states in agency, our self-understanding qua agents, the nature and causal import of “character”—in light of recent work in both philosophy and empirical psychology. We shall spend the first few weeks on a careful study of On the Genealogy of Morality (read in conjunction with my Nietzsche on Morality), before turning, first, to critiques of my naturalist reading of Nietzsche and then, second, to a topical study of the issues in moral psychology just noted. Each session will be based on readings from elsewhere in Nietzsche’s corpus and/or work by contemporary philosophers and empirical psychologists.


The grade will be based primarily on a term paper, which involves either philosophical exegesis of Nietzsche, or exploration of a problem in moral psychology raised by the readings. Excellent class participation (quantity and quality) will raise the grade one notch (e.g., B+ to A-; A- to A, etc.).

Required texts:

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (Hackett, ed. & trans. Clark & Swensen) (cited as GM).

Brian Leiter, Nietzsche on Morality (London: Routledge, 2002) (cited as NOM).

Course reader (CR), including texts by Nietzche, Haidt, Greene, Wilson, Janaway, Wegner, Prinz, Doris, Gemes, Rosenthal, Holton, Katsafanas, Knobe, Nichols, Leiter.

Tenative Reading Schedule

1. January 14: Introduction to Nietzsche’s Critique of Morality. Chapters 1-4 of NOM.

2. January 28: GM, Preface and Essay I; Chapters 5-6 of NOM.

3. February 4: GM, Essay II; Chapter 7 of NOM.

4. February 11: GM, Essay III; Chapter 8 of NOM.

5. February 18: Nietzsche’s Naturalism. Janaway, “Naturalism and Genealogy” in CR; Gemes & Janaway, “Naturalism and Value in Nietzsche,” in CR.

6. February 25: Nietzschean Moral Psychology and the Question of Heritability. Knobe & Leiter, “The Case for Nietzschean Moral Psychology” in CR; perhaps one other reading TBA. [Joshua Knobe (North Carolina) will participate in this session of the class.]

7. March 3: Character, Types, and Fatalism. Excerpts from Doris, Lack of Character, pp. 22-61, 71-75, in CR; Prinz, “The Normativity Challenge,” in CR.

8. March 17: The Will. Leiter, “Nietzsche’s Theory of the Will,” Philosophers’ Imprint (2007), downloadable for free here:; excerpts from Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will, pp. 3-11, 49-78, 317-342, in CR; Holton’s review of Wegner from Mind, in CR; Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 19 and Twilight of the Idols, “The Four Great Errors,” sections 1-8, in CR.

9. March 24: Compatibilism, Incompatibilism, and Moral Responsibility. Gemes, “Nietzsche on Free Will, Autonomy, and the Sovereign Individual,” in CR; G. Strawson, “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” in CR; Nichols & Knobe, “Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions.” [Ken Gemes (Birkbeck & Southampton) will participate in this class.]

10. March 31: The Illusion of Practical Reason? Haidt, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail,” in CR; Greene & Haidt, “How (and where) does moral judgment work?” in CR; Greene, “The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul,” in CR; Nietzsche, The Gay Science, sections 39, 359-360; Beyond Good and Evil, sections 3-6, 187, in CR.

11. April 7: The Unconscious and Self-Knowledge about Agency. Excerpts from T. Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, Chapters 2, 3 and 5, in CR; Nietzsche, Daybreak, sections 115-116, 119, 129-130; The Gay Science, sections 333, 335 (and review 359-360 from last week as well); Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” section 9, in CR.

12. April 14: Consciousness and Its Nature. Katsafanas, “Nietzsche’s Theory of Mind,” in CR; Rosenthal, “Consciousness and Its Function,” in CR; Nietzsche, The Gay Science, sections 11, 354; The Antichrist, section 14, in CR.

13. April 21: open for now (in case we fall behind from earlier weeks).

14. April 28: Updating the Nietzschean Project. Excerpt from Prinz, The Emotional Construction of Morals, Chs. 6 & 7 (“The Genealogy of Morals” and “The Limits of Evolutionary Ethics”). [Jesse Prinz (North Carolina) will participate in this class.]

Recommended Secondary Literature

M. Clark, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (Cambridge, 1990). An influential account of the evolution of Nietzsche’s views on truth and knowledge; also contains important interpretations of will to power and the ascetic ideal.

B. Leiter & N. Sinhababu (eds.), Nietzsche and Morality (Oxford, 2007). The essays by Risse and Wallace are especially relevant to themes in this course.

P. Poellner, Nietzsche and Metaphysics (Oxford, 1995). As I wrote in my review of this very fine book in Mind: “Poellner's study is less a book, than a collection of loosely related, often quite insightful short essays,” many treating issues in his metaphysics and epistemology, but I also recommended “the lovely, brief analysis of the psychological state Nietzsche calls ressentiment (pp. 128-31; cf. pp. 253-4); the interesting critical discussion of Nietzsche and Freud on the ‘unconscious’ (pp. 216-22); or the useful treatment of Nietzsche's account of the christian's ‘self-deception’, and Poellner's own provocative, if not wholly convincing, critique of this account (pp. 230-6, pp. 240-2).” Chapter V on “The Nature of ‘Inner’ Experience” is probably most useful for this seminar.

B. Reginster, The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism (Harvard, 2007). An intriguing systematic account of Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole, linking two “global” themes, the problem of nihilism and the doctrine of will to power. Elegant and esp. illuminating on Nietzsche’s debt to Schopenhauer; not as sensitive, though, as one might like to the philosophical or psychological plausibility of the theses ascribed to Nietzsche.

J. Richardson, Nietzsche’s System (Oxford, 1996). A powerful reconstruction of the Nietzschean corpus as organized around the doctrine of will to power—basically Heidegger’s Nietzsche, but grounded in better scholarship and argument. I am skeptical that the robust version of the doctrine of will to power that Richardson attributes to Nietzsche is actually his view; for my doubts, see my review of Richardson’s book, and Poellner’s, in Mind, available via JSTOR:

J. Richardson & B. Leiter (eds.), Nietzsche (Oxford Readings in Philosophy, 2001). Essays by Foot, Foucault, Geuss, and Nehamas (“How One Becomes What One Is”) are most relevant to this seminar.

R. Schacht, Nietzsche (Routledge, 1983). Comprehensive and attentive to the texts, but does not tell as tightly constructed a systematic narrative about Nietzsche’s philosophy as a whole as Reginster or Richardson--also not as philosophically sophisticated or dialectically probing. Still, Schacht’s book is a valuable check on any interpretive hypothesis given Schacht’s scrupulous attention to all parts of the corpus.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Film Footage of Nietzsche's Sister Caring for Him?

A commenter on an earlier post left this link to a fascinating site which, if you scroll down, has a link to what looks like a film of Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche caring for her brother. Is this for real?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

"the most revolutionary political proposition ever advanced"

That is how Mitt Romney, a Mormon who is one of the contenders for the Republican nomination to be U.S. President, described this idea: "The conviction of the inherent and inalienable worth of every life." Admittedly, in the American context, this is partly code language for opposition to abortion, but putting the parochial peculiarities of American politics to one side, Romney is surely right that the "inherent and inalienable worth of every life" is, indeed, "the most revolutionary political proposition" of modernity (perhaps ever). It is equally clear that the basis he offers for it--namely that "every single human being is a child of God"--is (viewed as a cognitive, rather than an emotive, proposition) false.

But when Nietzsche mocks the "free thinkers" who "oppose the Church but not its poison" (GM I:9) is he not thinking precisely of those who reject the false cognitive proposition but still accept that "most revolutionary political proposition," precisely the one discovered by those Nietzsche calls the "slaves" at the birth of Christianity?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Where should a beginner start with Nietzsche?

A reader writes:

I am a college student out in California and I found your name among many Nietzsche blogs and thought you would be a good source for insight. Many of
my friends have got me very interested in reading Nietzsche but I feel overwhelmed
when deciding where to begin. Could you possibly give me your insight to what I
should read first and who offers the best translations? Thanks so much.

Let's start with translations. The Walter Kaufmann and Kaufmann/R.J. Hollingdale translations are still the most widely available, and they are generally fine. Kaufmann tends to sacrifice literalism in order to capture the "feel" of the German prose, and he does so well and better than most translators. (This makes his translations a bit problematic for scholars, but preferable for those new to Nietzsche.) Hollingdale's solo translations tend to be rather flat-footed, or so it seems to me. Cambridge University Press has been releasing new translations of many of Nietzsche's works, and these are generally pretty good, though I see no reason to prefer them to the Kaufmann translations. There are other translations around, of which the Clark and Swensen translation of On the Genealogy of Morality is probably most notable.

What to read first? The very first thing I read by Nietzsche was the excerpt from "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" in Kaufmann's edition of The Portable Nietzsche. I was hooked, though as it turns out that little excerpt is not especially representative of Nietzsche's philosophy. A better place to start might be with Beyond Good and Evil, especially the Preface, and Chapters 1 ("On the Prejudices of Philosophers"), 5 ("Natural History of Morals") and 9 ("What is Noble?") (though the whole book is worth reading). That might be followed by Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality, which could be read in conjunction with the chapters of my Nietzsche on Morality discussing each essay.

From there one might go in two directions: backwards to The Gay Science, one of Nietzsche's earlier works, or forward to The Twilight of the Idols. I'd probably recommend the latter: this is a late work, not as overwrought as The Antichrist or Ecce Homo, but philosophically substantial, covering most of Nietzsche's main concerns.

There are two fine biographies of Nietzsche in English: Ronald Hayman's Nietzsche and Rudiger Safranski's Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. The latter has the virtue of giving capsule summaries of the themes of each of Nietzsche's books. The summaries aren't bad, though Safranski's philosophical understanding and competence is clearly very limited. But as a place to begin, it is useful, and the narration of Nietzsche's life is interesting.

I don't think there is a reliable and genuinely introductory book on Nietzsche in English. Michael Tanner's Nietzsche, which some people I respect do like, always struck me as neither accurate nor philosophically competent. Kaufmann's old Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist is extremely unreliable, and should be avoided. George Morgan's old What Nietzsche Means may, in some ways, be the best single volume introduction--though perhaps with too much quotation and paraphrase, compared to exposition. If you have some background in philosophy, Chapters 1-4 of my Nietzsche on Morality will introduce you to Nietzsche's moral philosophy.

I'd be curious to hear from readers where they started with Nietzsche, and what they would recommend to someone new to his work.