Monday, January 14, 2008

Jenkins Reviews "Nietzsche and Morality"

Scott Jenkins, a philosopher at the University of Kansas, has written a generous review of the book of new essays edited by Neil Sinhababu and myself, Nietzsche and Morality. The review is also quite informative, offering nice capsule summaries of the arguments of each essay, as well as astute questions and criticisms. I plan to take up in subsequent work the question Professor Jenkins poses about my essay with Joshua Knobe. The puzzle, in a nutshell, is this. If, as Knobe and I argue, Nietzschean moral psychology presupposes a more credible psychology than other important philosophical theories (such as Aristotle's and Kant's), what explains this fact, given that Nietzsche's primary methods of psychological investigation--namely, introspection and non-systematic observation (both his own and that of other astute observers of human behavior, from Thucydides to La Rochefoucauld)--are not one that would be considered epistemically robust these days.?Did Nietzsche just get lucky? Or does his success tell us something important about knowledge and truth in the human sciences?


Charlie H said...

Interesting question. First, I wonder what "epistemically robust" methods would be used to arrive at something like a nietzschean psychology. Isn't it always a matter of inventing a hypothesis to fit the observable behavior? I'm not sure we today have much more to go on than Nietzsche did; maybe more data.

Another thought: Spinoza proposed a similar psychology that didn't get catch on, at least until Nietzsche and Freud had their say. (I'll bet others before Spinoza suggested similar psychologies, though right now no one comes to mind, other than Plato -- but he came up with everything!) So maybe it's not so much a matter of Nietzsche luckily happening upon the truth as his luckily writing when other thinkers (like Dostoyevsky and Freud) were making similar suggestions, and helping to create a receptive audience. So we more readily recognize him, and not Spinoza or Plato, as a precursor to modern moral psychology.

Rob said...

In GM P:3, Nietzsche refers to his "historical and philological schooling, combined with an innate sense of discrimination in all psychological questions"; in the "Note" following GM 1 he makes an initial appeal to the expertise of philologists, historians, and philosophers in fulfilling the agenda of his proposed essay contest series; in many places elsewhere he attributes to the modern democratic zeitgeist various obstructions to understanding which occur in the human (and biological) sciences.
My thought is this: perhaps if we broadened our understanding of Nietzsche's "primary methods of psychological investigation" to include what his "historical and philological schooling" consists of we would find it considerably less puzzling how he arrived at a moral psychology that is enjoying such impressive empirical confirmation today.
I'm emboldened in this suggestion by the work of William Ian Miller who, through the sort of multidisciplinary means promoted by Nietzsche, operates with and arrives at conclusions about a moral psychology that is, as one might expect, strikingly Nietzschean in character. Perhaps if we early 21st century Western bourgeois liberals were -- as Miller is and Nietzsche urges us to be – better acquainted with “that which can be documented, which can really be ascertained, which has really existed, in short, the very long, difficult-to-decipher hieroglyphic writing of the human moral past” (GM P:7), we would be less puzzled by how Nietzsche arrived a such a credible moral psychology without the benefit of the systematic methods that subsequently confirm and (one hopes) update it, and might even concur with Miller when he concludes (in a spirit which recalls, to my mind at least, BGE 186):
“…though we have progressed in certain domains of knowledge – science and technology, for instance – it is not obvious to me that we are better psychologists and social psychologists than human beings were in centuries past. Indeed it is obvious to me that we are not. Nor are we better educators and scholars. And with no irony I can attest to my belief that when it comes to understanding human motivation – no less than to understanding justice and what it means to get even – we are not as smart now as we were when people worried more about their honor than about their pleasure” (“Eye for an Eye,” p. 202).

Rob said...

Neil Sinhababu has some brief impressions of Jenkins' summary of his contribution here:

Anonymous said...

Nietsches accurate moral pscychology is certainly no good luck - i think he arrives at it because he is 'very clever'!
His primary study was of the classics and the greek plays/ homer which offer a representation of human emotions and motivations that still rings true today(give or take a few gods). One observes in these plays people who only act as they should for fear of reprisal, people who do as they wish because they have the power to do as they wish. In Homer one finds ambitious mothers conniving throught their children (Aphrodite and Athene), men owing debts to their fathers (Priam, Hector and Paris, Telemachus and Odysseus,), men who are violent because they are powerful (Diomedes, Ajax) - the nietzchean characters have Homeric equivalents.
His other studies into Japanese culture and far eastern mythology provide more of the same - (i always have to admire N a bit more for this study - very rare in 19th cent Germany!!)
His observation of human nature is that of an artist, his conclusions paint a picture - they do not describe scientifically yet hit the same mark regardless.
Even if we have more statistical data to go on now,it is so open to interpretation that one requires a primary hypothesis first in order to know where to look and what to look at. Such hypotheses stil have to be arrived at with a measure of artistic intuition, not jst a reference to information that is always coloured by what is already believed.
So for me the precursor to modern pscychology is Homer, not Plato, though Nietzche turns observation into statement and makes relevant to a post- Christian era.

Lack of interest in Spinoza is not suprising - he is not nearly as much fun to read.
personally i think it is amazing that no-one quite arrived at the conclusion that 'love of the neighbour is fear of the neighbour' any earlier ..anyone with little kids knows you have to threaten them into being good and lack of reprisal = lack of good behaviour.
Ta for allowing anonymous contribs, i don' have blogger account.

Narziss said...

I thought that Schopenhauer has a view that individuals have a somewhat immutable character, so that e.g., under stress, a person's true character may come out. Each person's character accounts for particular tendencies in each person's behavior. That character view of Schopenhauer resembles Nietzsche's view of type-facts.