Saturday, February 9, 2008

Obama and Nietzsche

A New York Times article reports that as a college student, Barack Obama, one of the two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for President, was interested in Nietzsche, Freud, and Sartre. A hopeful sign! I would have been worried if as an undergraduate he had been enamored of Kant or Hegel!

(Thanks to Joe Paxton for the pointer.)


Anonymous said...

Can you explain the Kant and Hegel reference? I dont get it. Thanks.

Brian Leiter said...

Kant and Hegel are *very* different philosophers from Nietzsche, and ones that Nietzsche excorciated, with good cause (mostly).

Bryan said...

Ah, when I first read your post I thought for a second that you meant enamorment with Kant and/or Hegel was only (or only necessarily) a cause for worry if the enamored was an undergraduate.

Anonymous said...

I still don't get it. Undergrad fandom of Nietzsche, Freud, and / or Sartre is a decidedly unimpressive phenomenon, on average.

Or maybe the joke is that this could bear on Obama's politics in some way--but it's hard to see why a fan of Nietzsche should be expected to be more progressive than a fan of Kant.

Anonymous said...

Kant scholar Allen Wood once said that Nietzsche was a phase every high school boy grew out of eventually.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Leiter is, presumably, a fan of Nietzsche and Freud; at least the works of those two are within his realm of expertise. His optimistic comment here has mostly to do with the similarity between his and Obama's interests in those two thinkers; but less about undergrad fandom more generally and none about anyone's progressive quality in this context.

Now Kant's and Hegel's works are highly abstract, not to mention stylistically repellent - whereas the works of Nietzsche or Freud or Sartre are anything but those two, at least in my opinion - it would indeed be very impressive if an undergaduate became a fan of either Kant or Hegel by virtue of his understanding or appreciating their works. Perhaps Prof. Leiter's jesting comment about being worried has something to do with Obama's potential ability as a practical leader - as opposed to a leader whose main concern lies in abstraction.

On a different note, Prof. Leiter would perhaps find another hopeful sign in Obama knowing that he "ditched" the Socratic teaching method "for a more informal conversation with students" when teaching at Chicago.,CST-NWS-obamaprof18.article

Michael said...

"it's hard to see why a fan of Nietzsche should be expected to be more progressive than a fan of Kant"

That, Toby, is why you don't get the joke.

Brian Leiter said...

The Allen Wood comment quoted above really does capture the sanctimonious stupidity of far too many Kantians rather well!

Anonymous said...

You are not dumb if you don't understand Hegel, but actually rather intelligent, because you refuse to tolerate nonsense babble. See for instance:

"In Praise of Intolerance to Charlatanism in Academia" by
Mario Bunge

Too many young minds have been intellectually ruined by reading Hegel.

One can say more for Kant than for Hegel; but, unfortunately, while being coherent, he was simply wrong on too many issues (not his fault, modern science has moved on...)

Nietzsche, on the other hand, is of more relevance today than ever.

Anonymous said...

The "sanctinomious stupidity" of Kant-hating Nietzsche scholars, on the other hand, is much more attractive and fair-minded.

Anonymous said...

Just imagine what would have happened had Obama come to realize that Nietzsche was really after a natural ordering of rank. He certainly wouldn't have become a community organizer helping the weak. Who knows, he might have even become a Republican higher-man! Like Mitt Romney!

Anonymous said...

I hope Prof. Leiter was not being serious in his rejoinder to Wood as it doesn't befit an established philosopher to scuccumb to fandom of such degree. There is nothing particularly impressive or telling about having an interest in Nietzsche, Sartre and Freud while at college, and, moreover, it seems to me that understanding Nietzsche requires just as much labor as understanding Hegel. It is not accidental that only recently (roughly, past 20 years) have we had a chance to enjoy quality scholarship on either. Lastly, Nietzsche owes an enormous debt to Kant, and although a brilliant critic and innovator, he still does not hold a candle to the latter in terms of the clarity, scope and the degree of coherence of his philosophical theories.

Brian Leiter said...

Yes, well, there has been a good deal of joking in this thread (or so I thought!), starting with its subject. It is true that Nietzsche's views are not notable, unlike Kant's, for the "scope and the degree of coherence of his philosophical theories," but that is only one of many virtues one might want in philosophical theories. That they be true, or bear some relationship to a plausible human psychology, strikes me as also rather important.

"Q" the Enchanter said...

No surprise. For one thing, Nietzsche surely would have found heathcare mandates decadent and life-negating.

Rob said...

In what important sense, I wonder, are the theories found in -- or plausibly developed from -- Nietzsche's mature published work of lesser *scope* than Kant's?

Anonymous said...

As an ESL speaker, I am sometimes guilty of weird word use. I didn't want to claim that the scope of Nietzsche's work is narrower than that of Kant's. Rather, it seems to me that Kant argued much more extensively for his views than Nietzsche did.

Nietzsche certainly believed "a plausible human psychology" should act as a tribunal for philosophical theories, but I am not at all persuaded by his psychology, and it seems to me most philosophers are committed to such constraint, one of the most openly committed being Kant (Copernican turn, etc.) Not that I find Kant's moral psychology any more plausible.

Roman Altshuler said...

Was Kant's psychology plausible? I guess his psychology, which we find largely in the Anthropology lectures, has some serious problems. But, well, Nietzsche insisted that earlier humans did not experience suffering to the extent we do, so I guess everyone makes mistakes.

So, which of Kant's mistakes about psychology are grounds for rejecting his theories? His conception of the moral law certainly isn't based on any particular psychological assumption--that's pretty much the point. And while his working out of the ethical system does involve some assumptions about psychology, most of those are fairly plausible. I think contemporary anti-Kantians simply overestimate the role any substantive psychological claims play in Kant's ethics.

Rob said...

Isn't Nietzsche's point (in GM 2:7) about the suffering of earlier humanity rather that it had a more accommodating *attitude* towards suffering than we "modern milquetoasts" do, and that if it experienced suffering to a lesser extent than 'we' do, this pertains more specifically to ‘our’ acquisition (via “moralization”) of some kind of aggravating ("softening") meta- attitude towards it?

Anonymous said...

I take the original post to be more tongue-in-cheek than some of these comments suggest.

At any rate, I find Nietzsche insightful and compelling. But I have also had occasion to meet undergraduates who dabble in Nietzsche. And I would report that as a group, paragons of careful thinking and reasonableness they are not!

Joe Paxton said...

roman altshuler said:
And while [Kant's] working out of the ethical system does involve some assumptions about psychology, most of those are fairly plausible.

Roman, you might want to check out a paper that Prof. Leiter recently co-authored with the experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe titled "The Case for Nietzschean Moral Psychology." In particular, check out the last few paragraphs of the section called "Conscious Decision and Behavior (Against Kant)." There, you'll find the argument that Prof. Leiter likely had in mind when he suggested that Kant is committed to some unrealistic psychological claims.

Rob said...

In addition to the Knobe/Leiter paper, Leiter's paper "Nietzsche's Theory of the Will" and the upcoming work of Paul Katsafanas may also bear significantly on this issue of the extent to which the working out of Kant's ethical system depends upon empirical assumptions about psychology and the plausibility of those assumptions:

"Contemporary philosophers often endorse a claim that has its origins in Locke and Kant: self-conscious agents are capable of reflecting on and thereby achieving a distance from their motives; therefore, these motives do not determine what the agent will do. Nietzsche’s drive psychology shows that the inference in the preceding sentence is illegitimate. The drive psychology articulates a way in which motives can determine the agent’s action by influencing the course of the agent’s reflective deliberations. An agent who reflects on a motive and decides whether to act on it may, all the while, be surreptitiously guided by the very motive upon which he is reflecting. I show how this point complicates traditional models of the role of reflection in agency."

This (to paraphrase him) is apparently part of Katsafanas' broader project of clarifying whether (1) normative conclusions can be derived from an analysis of the structure of reflective agency and (2) how non-conscious aspects mental life complicate traditional accounts of agency.

For all of this, see Katsafanas' web page here:

(Perhaps Katsafanas will touch on these matters in his upcoming review of the Leiter/ Sinhababu collection?)

Maybe the answers to these questions will show that (some) contemporary anti-Kantians (as Professor Altshuler puts it) are not in fact over-estimating the role substantive psychological claims play in Kant's ethics. The question would seem to remain open until the sort of empirical inquiry Nietzsche anticipated has been more fully developed. (Perhaps then the case for Nietzschean moral psychology will then prove to be merely one for a neo-Kantian moral psychology.)

Roman Altshuler said...

I'm sorry I started this discussion here, because it's out of place in this thread. If anyone is interested, I'll be happy to put up a post on my blog in the next few days and argue about it there. I'll just say that it was a mistake for me to imply that it is only anti-Kantians who overestimate the role of substantive psychological claims in Kant. Contemporary Kantians, the ones Katsafanas discusses, do this as well.

Getting back to topic and the joking on this thread: Is Clinton more of an Uebermensch than Obama? I think she is, and it is the duty of all higher men to herald her coming.

Anonymous said...

I have a specific question about the Genealogy, and since I cannot find a thread to handle such questions, I'll pose it here. Or I'll happily take directions to post it somewhere more appropriate.

I am a relatively novice reader of Nietzsche, and am teaching the Genealogy this semester. I'm about half-way through the Second Essay and have become perplexed by a particular issue.

In Essay 2, Section 14 of the Genealogy, Nietzsche claims that punishment is NOT a source of a bad conscience. Being punished is received like any other force of nature. And it can even strengthen the punished's resolve to resist those in power. Yet in Section 3 of the same essay he says that punishment is an aid to memory -- and presumably conscience. Is Nietzsche contrdicting himself, or am I missing something?

Rob said...

I guess one way to wiggle out of the difficulty might be to suppose that those instances of punishment pertain to difference temporal phases of human “prehistory,” or to especially key changes of valence in the synthesis of meanings (as he puts in section 13) associated with punishment within more or less the same broad temporal phase. Section 14 seems to imply that there was a phase in “prehistory” in which people were appropriate recipients of punishment without any significant qualifying recourse to the state of mind of the recipient. Is such an arrangement incompatible with the largely prudentially-oriented faculty developed through the mnemo-techniques of Section 3? I don’t see why. Moreover, according the End Notes in the Clark/Swenson translation Nietzsche derived both the the list of mnemo-techniques in Section 3 and the fatalistic depiction of the recipient of punishment at the conclusion of section 14 from a single source (Albert Hermann Post).

I'm hoping that Thomas Brobjer's upcoming book will illuminate further the source material for Nietzsche's speculative anthropological claims (if that's what you call them) in the Genealogy:

KateNorlock said...

Nietzsche's not contradicting himself unless you take bad conscience to be identical to conscience. Remember that the interesting animal, which is modern man, is not to be equated with being a slave.

Rob said...

Commenting on GM 1.13 in BEYOND SELFLESSNESS (Oxford, 2007), Janaway observes:

“[Nietzsche] suggests that language may provide a kind of passive platform for all sorts of reification, and hence for the construction of the fiction that the agent, the ‘doer’, is some thing distinct from the sum total of his or her actions or doings. But his explanation here includes a more precisely motivated element, namely the will to power of the weak, whose affects actively exploit the tendency to believe in metaphysical ‘subjects’ in order to gain a kind of mastery over the naturally strong by persuading them that to exercise their strength is evil, and to refrain from exercising it good.” (p. 112)

He then quotes the portion of GM 1.13 that is especially relevant to this last point about “a more precisely motivated element” and adds:

“Nietzsche’s thought is that prior to the invention of the idea that we are free to be other than we in fact are – that our essence resides elsewhere than in the sum of our actual behavior and underlying drives – we could not have believed in accountability or blame in the manner required to maintain the moral practice of judging actions good and evil. The notion of a radically free subject of action is required in order to make human beings controllable, answerable, equal, and in particular to redescribe inaction as a virtue of which all are capable and dominant self-assertion as a wrong for which all are culpable.” (ibid.)


“It is the reactive affects of the weak, described as ’hiddenly glowing’, that drives the need to assign blame and call to account.” (ibid)

However, in GM 2.10 Nietzsche claims that as a community (in “prehistory,” temporally or genetically prior to GM 1.13, I assume) grows in power, among other tendencies which develop in penal law is “above all the increasingly more resolute will to understand every offence as in some sense *capable of being paid off*, hence, at least to a certain extent, to *isolate* the criminal and his deed from each other…”

Question: doesn’t the ‘naturalistic’ account in GM 2.10 show that, contrary to Janaway’s reading, though “the notion of a radically free subject of action” may be required to “redescribe inaction as a virtue of which all are capable and dominant self-assertion as a wrong for which all are culpable,” the notion is NOT “required in order to make human beings controllable, answerable, equal"? And, moreover, that it's through the *power* of the community that its citizens develop the practice of "calling to account" and being responsive to such a calling? Is Janaway overstating the role of the metaphysical notion of the radically free subject? And if so, is this symptomatic of a fairly widespread neglect among philosophers of the speculative anthropological claims Nietzsche makes in the GENEALOGY?

Just wondering. I should add that I greatly admire Janaway's book.

Anonymous said...

I would be worried if Obama had been a fanboy of Satre.

I'm not familiar with Being and Nothingness but it was my impression that it continues a Kantian line of reasoning, or serves as a reformation of Kant, at least in a loose way. I'm not sure how this would affect one's political beliefs.

I am a bit more familiar with Sartre's actual politics, though, and that is what would worry me if Obama had been a fan of Sartre. Sartre apologized for Stalinism and terrorists in the Algerian war for independence. Camus took the middle-path - the much more humanist, approach if you ask me, and much more in line with the progressive or liberal politics that Prof. Leiter seems to support on his main blog.

Camus excoriates Sartre quite effectively in his novel The Fall, which shows the inhumane consequences of Sartre's views.

Permit me to quote from Willhoite's Beyond Nihilism, an examination of Camus' contribution to political thought, regarding The Fall:

"Near the conclusion of his monologue, Clamence speaks of modern intellectuals who, like him, cannot bear the weight of true freedom: “hence one must choose a master, God being out of style.” Believing that all choices are arbitrary, they nevertheless cannot refrain from judging; bereft of a foundation for morality, they moralize all the more. In quest of security for their threatened egos, they run from the freedom they find onerous and embrace, or at least collaborate with, a force powerful enough to impose an arbitrary order upon the world: “In short, you see, the essential is to cease being free and to obey, in repentance, a greater rogue than oneself.” This submission is a perverse and distorted form of the quest for communion: “Death is solitary, whereas slavery is collective. The others get theirs too, and at the same time as we – that’s what counts. All together at last, but on our knees and heads bowed.”
The principal difference between Clamence and the Sartrean intellectuals, as Camus saw it, was the former’s complete knowledge and admission that he is a proponent of submissiveness: “I invite the good people to submit to authority and humbly to solicit the comforts of slavery, even if I have to present it as true freedom.” This, for Camus, was precisely the ultimate meaning of Sartre’s existentialism cum Marxism. Those who set out from the premise of limitless human freedom, denying the reality of any permanent human nature or the possibility of men’s discerning any common meaning, are most likely to be mastered by a “passion for summits.” They seek to actualize their boundless freedom by aligning themselves with a movement which claims the authorization of history for its exercise of total freedom, expressed as an effort to remold men through the creation of a perfect society. This submission – as Camus regarded it – gives to the Sartrean intellectuals, in their own view, a platform elevated well above the heads of their bourgeois neighbors (92) and of all insufficiently progressist writers. From this height they play the role of judge-penitents. Their normless judgmentalism, Camus concluded, amounted to a peculiar, shabby, and personally vicious form of antirebellion. (93)"

I share an interest in Nietzsche with Prof. Leiter, but mine is a hobby only. How can Nietzsche's views on morality be squared with politically progressive or liberal (for lack of a better word) views? Prof. Leiter, you will admit that Nietzsche is a pointedly illiberal thinker. Wouldn't this worry you, in terms of politics?

Ned Ludd said...

There is a youtube of a MLK sermon on the Vietnam War. Besides all his appeals to the gospels - he is speaking to a crowd of true believers - at about 17 minutes into it he makes a mistaken and disparaging reference to Nietzsche(if I heard correctly).

It implies that followers of Nietzsche are responsible for the war.

"Why I am opposed to the War in Vietnam".

Rob said...

"The works that have influenced Obama illustrate that he would be the most literary president in recent memory -- and one likely to govern from the center. [...] Obama himself went through a period of 'devouring' the work of Nietzsche while living in New York."


Rob said...

"In theology and philosophy Obama mentioned Nietzsche, Niebuhr and Tillich — writers consistent with his acknowledgment that while life is bleak, it is not hopeless."


Anonymous said...

Obama seems to be onto a PHILOSOPHY of selected people who disagree with him to work in his administration.

"In one's friend one shall have one's best enemy. Thou shalt be closest unto him with thy heart just when thou withstandest him." Thus Spoke Zarathustra (see THE FRIEND)

It really surprises me that so few people seem to have much idea of the kind of inspiration Nietzsche is capable of beyond the usual catch phrases.

Rob said...

"[Obama] recalls that [...] later, during an ascetic phase in college, he immersed himself in the works of thinkers like Nietzsche and St. Augustine in a spiritual-intellectual search to figure out what he truly believed."

"From Books, New President Found Voice"