Monday, May 19, 2008

Reading Janaway Reading Nietzsche

I've posted on SSRN my review essay (forthcoming in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews) discussing Christopher Janaway's recent book Beyond Selflessness: Reading Nietzsche's Genealogy (OUP, 2007). Here is the abstract:

Particular attention is given to the question of Nietzsche's style, and the
relationship between his philosophical positions and his therapeutic objectives; to Janaway's critique of my account of Nietzsche's naturalism; and to Nietzsche's conception of agency and the meaning of the image (from GM II:2) of "the sovereign individual."

The essay contains a good deal of critical discussion of Janaway's claims, but I want to emphasize here something I write early on about his book:

Janaway’s book will, without doubt, prove instructive and essential reading
not just to readers sympathetic to the naturalistic reading of Nietzsche I
have defended, and not just to those interested in Nietzsche’s Genealogy, but to
all scholars of Nietzsche, regardless of their philosophical and interpretive
starting points.

I would welcome substantive discussion of the issues raised in the review here. Non-anonymous postings only.


Scott said...

Thanks for making this review available prior to publication. I’ve found it very useful in working through Janaway’s book. I’m not convinced, however, by the critique of Janaway’s claim that Nietzsche’s ideal of human agency is to be found in the figure of the sovereign individual of GM II:2. The alternative position outlined in the review, that the passage is “wholly ironic and mocking”, doesn’t seem to me to fit the text. As many of the critical points in the review deal with the details of this passage, I thought I’d offer some brief comments on those points.

Point 1: The context of GM II:2. The review states that the first section of the second essay concerns the question of breeding an animal that is able to make and keep promises. Nietzsche appeals to the morality of custom and the use of pain as a mnemonic device in answering this question. The capacities that result from this process (the review suggests) thus cannot be of much value.

Comment: The second sentence of GM II:2 appears to distinguish between the task of producing an animal with the right to make promises (das versprechen darf) and the task of making people necessary, uniform, calculable, and so on. The latter task is said to serve as a condition of, or as preparation for, the former. Thus while the sovereign individual possessing the right to promise must bear some relation to the morality of custom described in Daybreak and to the practices of punishment in the Genealogy, this figure is not a direct product of those customs or practices.

Point 2: Promising. The sovereign individual is defined by its capacity to make and keep promises, which is a rather modest achievement.

Comment: In GM II:2 Nietzsche associates the sovereign individual’s right to promise with a “privilege of responsibility,” and he appears to hold responsibility in high regard in GM II:2 and elsewhere (for example, at the end of GM III:10 ). And while Nietzsche does claim that responsibility originates in institutions of punishment, Nietzsche’s remarks about origins and value in GM II:12 warn us against taking origins to determine value.

Point 3: Terminology. The name “sovereign individual” or “souveraine Individuum” is a “ridiculous and pompous” mix of French and Latin, meaning, literally, a sovereign atom.

Comment: This name certainly does sound pompous, but Nietzsche uses “Individuum” in BGE 262 to pick out a figure he appears to hold in high regard. This figure is said to have survived morality [Moral] and lives beyond it.

Point 4: Uniqueness: The sovereign individual appears only in GM II:2. This “alleged ideal of ‘freedom’ and agency simply vanishes from the corpus!”

Comment: The figure described in BGE 262 does resemble the sovereign individual in significant ways. In addition, the section of Twilight of the Idols entitled “My conception of freedom” begins a response to the question “For what is freedom?” with the phrase “that one has the will to assume responsibility for oneself” – in German, “Daß man den Willen zur Selbstverantwortlichkeit hat” (TI Skirmishes, 38). This passage appears to be in agreement with GM II:2 in identifying an ideal of freedom with the ability to hold oneself responsible.

Of course, none of this sheds much light on the issue of what Nietzsche understands by freedom or responsibility in these contexts. These passages do suggest to me that Janaway is on the right track in regarding GM II:2 as the core of Nietzsche’s account of a new, valuable form of agency.

Thanks again for a stimulating review of Janaway’s new book.
-Scott Jenkins

Rob said...

Given Nietzsche’s observation in EH that the beginning of each essay in GM “is *intended* to lead astray, cool, scientific, even ironic, intentionally foreground, intentionally off-putting,” it seems to me right to be on the lookout for irony in regard to the “sovereign individual” passage of GM 2.2 , but perhaps the irony should be located in the relative position of the passage instead of in its substance.

On this reading (which I think complements Jenkins') what is misleading and foreground is the early and compressed presentation of the process eventuating in the “sovereign individual”, and its depiction as a fully realized product, whereas the rest of the essay is devoted to revealing how this process has in fact been profoundly subverted – so much so that it is only on completion of the essay that one in retrospect can adequately appreciate that the “sovereign individual” is an ideal, that the irony lies in its presentation as a realized “fruit” of a completed process, and that we've been mocked for taking it as such.

Just a guess. I’m just wary of regarding the “sovereign individual” passage as “*wholly* ironic and mocking” since no other early passages of either of the flanking essays strike me as such, and the EH section on GM seems to encourage us to look for some broad continuity in the manner in which the essays are presented.

Brian Leiter said...

Thanks for the substantive comments; I simply have not had a chance to reply yet, but I will get to it! Just so you know I'm not ignoring them...and I welcome others as well.

Anonymous said...

I too have always read GM II: 2 as presenting a figure of parody. I also agree with your observation in the review that the context of this passage, which forms part of a critique of the breeding of an animal that can promise, implies it cannot be taken at face value as a positive ideal.
I would agree, in line with Lawrence Hatab and Christa Acampora, that the sovereign individual described in GM II: 2 is not Nietzsche's future ideal. Rather I take it, the result of a process that Nietzsche is providing a sustained critique of, to be something that must be overcome.
I disagree, however, that this implies it is irrelevant to Nietzsche's future ideal. Indeed the tone of parody indicates to me that as with the free thinkers in BGE the sovereign individual is significant as a distortion, or misunderstanding of something that is of great value to Nietzsche; in this case the idea of self legislation. It is not self legislation as such but a false pretension to it that Nietzsche rejects. I agree that Nietzsche attacks the aspect that Rob Sica draws attention to in his post; that the Sovereign Individual takes itself to be the "ripest fruit". The moral individual as the result of breeding or spiritualisation is far from a highest point of development. Nietzsche requires that this incarnation of the sovereign individual, where the title is a false pretension, be overcome, just as the free thinkers who do not deserve the title of free spirits must be overcome to usher in free spirits the likes of which we have not yet seen. Crucial to Nietzsche's future ideal (as indicated by GS 335 and the Child spirit in Z I:1) is the capacity to give ourselves our own imperative. This personal, unique imperative, resembles in some ways what it must overcome; the Kantian categorical imperative. Thus Nietzsche's ideal, while not to be identified with the target of his mockery offered in GM II: 2, will in some ways resemble the sovereign individual even as it must overcome it, but will be truly deserving of such a title in the way the self proclaimed ripest fruit is not, having been purged of self delusion.

Brian Leiter said...

Scott, some (overdue) replies to your detailed feedback, which is quite helpful to me (as I'm writing something on this topic currently). A few thoughts in response:

Point 1: I confess I don't read the passage that way, but I will bear your reading in mind as I work on this. I should also note that I wasn't arguing that because the sovereign individual emerges from the "morality of custom" that means the capacities he has lack value.

Point 2: I wonder whether in other passages where he writes favorably about repsonsibility he associates it with the special skill of the sovereign bourgeois, namely, to remember his debts and pay them off? My sense is he does not, but I have not done the legwork that would confirm that my sense is correct.

Point 3: Thanks for the BGE 262 reference, which may, indeed, be important in this context.

Point 4: The "individual" whose breeding N. describes in BGE 262 sounds, to my ear, considerably more impressive in his skills than our keeper of promises from GM II. My claim that the "sovereign individual" vanishes from the corpus was only the claim that N. nowhere invokes the "sovereign individual" as an ideal. To be sure, he has other discussions of "freedom," but I don't actually think they fit too well with the sovereign individual passage. But that is part of the case I plan to make in the longer paper I'm working on.

Thanks again. I may have more to say about Rob's and Katrina's comments when I'm back from Southampton.

Rob said...

I think there is an important normative quality or feature distinguishing GM 2.2’s “sovereign individual” from BGE 262’s “individual” that supports a reading of the former as an ideal rather than as a figure of parody. The latter seems to appear at a less-advanced phase in the decline of the (predominance of) “morality of custom”, when standards of value are portrayed as being in a clashing state of chaos. The “individual” emerges in this condition as figure essentially *responding to* an extraneously imposed confusion.

By contrast, the former “has in this possession [of a long, unbreakable will] his *standard of value* as well”. He recalls the integrity and *activity* of the “nobles” in GM 1 more closely, I think, than does the *reactivity* and the self-division of the “individual” in BGE 262.

It is this quality of robust identification with a standard of value derived “from within” through which one hierarchically distinguishes oneself from others that, it seems to me, constitutes a non-ironic ideal of “autonomy”.

This might also support my suggestion above that the irony of the “sovereign individual” figure lies more in its premature appearance in the essay as an accomplished fact rather than in its substance.

Rob said...

Another set of considerations which might pose a challenge to the reading of the “sovereign individual” as a figure of parody instead of as an ideal (or, at least, as embodying an important component of a more comprehensive ideal of selfhood and agency) could perhaps spring from the beginning of GM 2.3:

“One can guess in advance that the concept ‘conscience,’ which we encounter here [in GM 2.2] in its highest, almost disconcerting form, already has behind it a long history and metamorphosis.”

This seems to imply not only that the process supposedly resulting in “the sovereign individual” is a more extensive one than the “entire *prehistoric* work” of “morality of custom” comprising “the origins of *responsibility*” (GM 2.2), but also that Nietzsche expects the reader to feel a certain discomfiting admiration, if not awe, towards the “sovereign individual”.

Also, it’s not clear to me that the rest of GM 2.3 sheds any further light on that “long history and metamorphosis” behind the “sovereign individual”, so it does not seem that the latter is “simply the culmination of” either of the two “breeding devices” featured in GM 2.2 and 2.3. Another reason, I think, to regard the “sovereign individual” as an ideal, or the embodiment of part of a more comprehensive ideal.

Recalling other passages (GM 1.7, 2.22, 3.16, 3.20) in which he notes what the reader will already have guessed or anticipated from what has already been discussed, it seems to me reasonable to take Nietzsche to mean simply what he says at the beginning of GM 2.3: for the audience he is addressing, there is something disconcerting about the “sovereign individual”. And, as mentioned above, I think this has to do primarily with the robust normative integrity he embodies, contrasting as it does with the kind of reader I take Nietzsche to be addressing, mired in “this decaying, self-doubting present” (GM 2.25), internally “conflicted” and “a real battleground” in the sense described in GM 1.16.

This also lines up fairly well, I think, with Nietzsche’s later coupling of “modernity” and “decadence” in, for instance, CW Epilogue (final paragraph), TI 18 and 41, as essentially involving internal conflict and lack of integration.

The “individual” in BGE 262 is, I think, meant to figure quite differently. My gloss on that section is that it is supposed to make roughly plausible to the reader (already disconcerted by the sections of the chapter that have been variously valorizing “noble morality”) that the ethos of “modern ideas” emerged from that of “morality of custom” – that the former has “an incriminating link, bond, or tie” (BGE 2) to the latter -- and also how the latter subtends the former, ever-poised to emerge from a state of greater or lesser latency (GM 2.9; first sentence). The purpose being akin to the thrust of what I take some of Jonathan Haidt’s work to be: the complex Nietzsche calls “modern ideas”roughly coincides with the “harm/care” and “fairness/justice” foundations, whereas “morality of custom” with the remaining three.

(One reason perhaps why I give Bernard Williams more slack than Professor Leiter does for the obscurity that crops up in his work from LIMITS onwards is that in distinguishing the “ethical”, which roughly coincides with all five of Haidt’s foundations, from “morality”, which roughly coincides with those of “modern ideas”, I think Williams was engaged in a presciently heroic effort to convert Nietzschean insights into an idiom that modern anglo moral philosophy could deal with: he was a sort of proto-experimental philosopher, minus the legwork of empirical research, who promoted the historical understanding that Nietzsche would have liked to have seen somehow integrated with that research. )

So one way in which GM is a “supplement and clarification” of BGE is that it offers a more sustained and detailed account of how not only “modern ideas” and “morality” represent a subset of a larger domain of the ethical, but how it is that this subset has obtained its recent predominance in the West, and what it is about it that makes its predominance depend so much on denial or obliviousness about its “incriminating” genetic and dynamic link to the “morality of custom” Haidt-ian moral foundations.

What, then, is disconcerting about the "sovereign individual" is that he appears as an ideal of potent integrity unscathed by the conflict Nietzsche wants to raise awareness of in those of his readers who, by means of such awareness, can (along the lines of Leiter's "esoteric moralist" reading) become free of the false consciousness of "morality" and "modern ideas".

Scott said...

Brian – I agree that the figure described in BGE 262 cannot simply be identified with the sovereign individual of GM II:2 – in part for reasons that Rob identifies – but I still find these two figures to be quite similar. I suspect that we disagree on ‘Point 4’ above largely because we understand the relation of GM II:2 to its context in different ways. Working through that issue in the blog would be very difficult, I think, but it might be useful approach the issue by focusing on the question of whether Nietzsche describes two separate tasks in the opening sections of the second essay.

If we take the second sentence of GM II:2 to distinguish between two different tasks, then we would have to read the remainder of the second essay as shedding light on just one of those tasks, that of making people calculable, regular, like among like, etc. The task of producing an individual with the right to promise – the “long history and metamorphosis” that Rob discusses just above – would then fall outside the scope of the second essay. This fact would explain why Nietzsche asserts in EH that the beginning of the essay is calculated to mislead. The essay would open with a remark concerning a task that is not discussed in any detail within the essay itself.

On the other hand, if we read the opening sections of the second essay as presenting a single task, that of producing an animal with the right to promise, we would then be committed to regarding Nietzsche’s tone in GM II:2 as ironic and mocking. The capacities that Nietzsche accounts for in the essay are rather unimpressive, after all.

On another topic – do you know whether the papers from the Southampton conference are available online? They appear to engage with some very interesting issues.

-Scott Jenkins

Rob said...

I wonder if the conception of "greatness" articulated in BGE 212 (and elucidated in Hurka's essay on perfectionism) might not be helpful in getting a fix on the "sovereign individual" of GM 2.2 and the "individual" of BGE 262, the relation between them, and in supporting a reading of the former as (at least part of) an ideal.

The "sovereign individual" might be something of an idealized embodiment of those features of "greatness" discussed in BGE 262 that concern "unity", "strength of will", and "capacity for long-term resolutions", whereas the "individual" -- with whom the reader is intended to identify -- represents the "multiplicity" that needs integrating or unifying in order for "greatness" to be possible.