Sunday, August 1, 2010

Gardner on "Nietzsche, the Self, and the Disunity of Philosophical Reason"

This paper by Sebastian Gardner (UCL) appears in Gemes & May (eds.), Nietzsche on Freedom and Autonomy (OUP, 2009). Gardner is best-known for important books on Freud and on Kant's 1st Critique, and is currently writing the volume on Fichte and Schelling for my Routledge Philosophers series. He is certainly one of the most learned and philosophically interesting scholars of Kant and post-Kantian European philosophy working in Britain today. I first had the pleasure and good fortune of discussing the issues in Sebastian's paper with him in joint intercollegiate seminars we gave at the University of London in May 2003 on the subject of "Nietzsche as Naturalist: For and Against." The version of the paper being discussed here is a distant descendant of the version of the materials he presented then. (Once again, I am indebted to discussion of the issues that follow with Jaime Edwards, Nic Koziolek, and Santiago Mejia, though they should not be held accountable for the content that follows. Nir-Ben Moshe, alas, was in Israel, so missed this discussion, even though we offered to tele-conference him in!)

I am not going to go through Sebastian's paper in the same level of detail as we did, recently, with Paul Katsfanas's piece on N's philosophical psychology. Sebastian's paper comes in three parts, and it is the third part that presents, to my mind, the most interesting and important challenge to the naturalist reading. I'll comment more briefly on the first two major sections of the paper. The paper as a whole aims to display a tension between naturalistic and transcendental themes in Nietzsche's work, arguing, in the end, that Nietzsche self-consciously wanted to display the "disunity of philosophical reason," i.e., the difficulty or impossibility of being fully naturalistic or fully transcendentalist.

Part I proposes to illustrate the tension between Nietzsche's "theoretical" conception of the self (or the "I"), which Gardner calls variously eliminativist or fictionalist, and his purportedly "practical" concept of the self, which, according to Gardner, has to be more robust than the fictionalist treatment allows in order to make sense of Nietzsche's claims about value and valuing. An eliminativist or fictionalist view of the self might seem to have some difficulty accounting for the phenomenon that Kant identifies under the rubric of the transcendental unity of apperception, but, if I understand Gardner rightly, he thinks the eliminativist/fictionalist about the self can make sense of the phenomenon (p. 7)--but this discussion, I'm afraid, was quite obscure. But Gardner's main point isn't that N's theoretical conception of the self falls prey to Kant's argument against Hume on apperception and the unity of self-consciousness; it's rather that it is in tension with the concept of the self he needs for his practical philosophy. The core argument is at pp. 8-9, and trades, in my view, on a mistaken (in any case unargued for) view of the role of values in "self-creation" and on ambiguities about what it means for N's higher-type to legislate values (Hussain's 'fictionalist' account may help here).

Section 2 concerns naturalistic and transcendentalist conceptions of the relationship between theoretical and practical reason. My reading is presented by Gardner (at p. 15), and presented quite fairly, as the representative naturalist reading. Gardner is quite correct that on this reading "the Nietzschean subject lacks any rational warrant for regarding his valuation as anything more than the expression of a natural force" (p. 16). Gardner objects that this kind of valuing would amount to "sheer inconceivability for subjects in whom the taste for justification is well established" (p. 16). I'm not entirely sure I understand this. Certainly those who think values are genuinely objective (who do not realize that the world is, as N. says, "value-less") will be unsettled by this model of valuation. But those who do not share the "taste for justification" in question, namely N's higher types or 'free spirits,' will surely have no problem understanding that "this is good" has no ground beyond their *deeming it to be good.* (There follows at 16-17 a somewhat opaque discussion of Nietzsche and Hume, which I shall pass over.)

The core of this section of the paper, however, is the argument that we can ascribe to N. a picture of the "unity of reason" (that we might associate with Kant and post-Kantians) on the basis of what N. says about the Presocratics. Gardner claims the "wisdom" of the Presocratics on the Nietzschean view involves "the standpoint of reflection which aims to unify the practical and theoretical perspectives" and "the idea of the primacy of practical reason and, connectedly, of a non-realistic, transcnedental or regulative warrant for norms" (p. 19). Here I think Gardner is guilty of a misreading of N's treatment of the Presocratics and of projecting a quasi-Kantian framework onto them (and N's reading of them). The "wisdom" of the Presocratics for N. (starting with Thales; I discuss this in NOM, 41-43) consists in their recognition that the "truth is terrible," and that, for the sake of life, one should sometimes put limits on the pursuit of knowledge. The Presocratics, in short, are not guilty of the error at issue in GM III, namely, treating truth as the highest value, which is just an analogue of the Socratic/rationalistic optimism critiqued in BT. I do not see "a buried transcendentalist dimension to Nietzsche" (p. 19) in these observations. Rather, it is the very simple thought that sometimes we should put limits on theoretical reason for the sake of other values. The question is what this view has to do with Kant?

Section 3 of the paper, "Naturalism and Transcendentalism in Nietzsche," was, to my mind, the most interesting. The focus here is on my naturalist reading of the argument in GM III, and Gardner's central claim, if I am reading him rightly, is that the naturalist is not entitled to help himself to something like "a psychological need for meaningfulness"--that such a posit is a gratuitous posit simply meant to square N's actual argument with naturalistic strictures. The human need for meaning, in other words, can not be assimilated to the naturalistic framework. In any case, I think that's the strongest point Gardner is arguing here, though he says some things along the way that strike me as wrong or off point. But the core challenge, if I have it right, is a serious one, to which I'll return at the end.

First, a recap of my argument (in NOM), which is Gardner's target and which he gives a pretty good statement of at p. 26 (though with some confusion about what exactly the explanans and the explanandum are supposed to be--more on that in a moment). The core puzzle of the Third Essay is this: why is it that ascetic religions have had such a profound grip on the human mind? What exactly is the source of their appeal and attraction? Why would people be drawn to religions that impose restrictions, often severe restrictions, on all kinds of desire-satisfaction (for sex, for cruelty, for power, for pleasure)?

Nietzsche's explanation for the power of ascetic ideals assumes two additional facts: first, that most people (the "vast majority" as he says) suffer (and suffering gives rise to ressentiment which would, if undischarged, ultimately lead to 'suicidal nihilism'); and second, that every creature strives for the "optimal conditions" for producing the "maximum feeling of power" (GM III:7). The question is why ascetic religions would triumph given these two facts.

Here is Gardner's (slightly incomplete) gloss (p. 26) on my argument:

Leiter claims that the ascetic ideal's solution to the 'curse of meaninglessness' referred to in section 28 is to be understood in terms of the following explanatory elements: first, the claim of the First Essay that suffering produces ressentiment; second, the later claim (GM III 15) that relief from ressentiment is achieved by blame, which facilitates discharge, the effect of which is anaesthetic; and third, the role of the ascetic priest in redirecting blame by designating a new culprit, namely
oneself. In this way the ascetic ideal allow suffering to be 'overcome.' What it is, then, for suffering to 'be meaningful,' on the naturalistic account, consists simply in a pattern of psychological causation described in a reductive, mechanistic and hedonistic psychology: it is straightforwardly equivalent to our having the means to achieve hedonic relief from suffering by means of an anaesthetsia-inducing discharge of affect directed at a fictional blame-object.

Now Gardner talks (e.g., 26) as if the explanandum were the need for suffering to have a meaning, whereas the real explanandum is the triumph of the ascetic ideal. To explain that triumph we need to assume that meaningless suffering is unbearable and would lead to suicidal nihilism, and so thwart the feeling of power that comes with self-preservation. The meaning for suffering is supplied by the ascetic ideal (the ascetic priest teaches that people suffer because of their immoral desire: for power, sex, cruelty etc.--so they themselves are to blame for their suffering), which also permits the discharge of ressentiment in blame, thus alleviating some of the pain that leads to suicidal nihilism (though continuing, perversely, the cycle of suffering because of the pain associated with guilt etc.). Suffering is not, contrary to Gardner's presentation, "overcome": it is rather rendered bearable enough that the sufferer does not give up on life altogether--the only "feeling of power" available to the vast majority of mortals on N's picture. And this realization of the "feeling of power" is only possible if sufferers can interpret their condition in light of the ascetic ideal--or so claims Nietzsche. (So Gardner is wrong that on my account the "final explanans is the painfulnes of pain; N's is the threat of its meaninglessness" [p. 27]. The ultimate explanas is the instinctive need for creatures, even those who suffer, to achieve some feeling of power, which for most mortals means maintaing a will to live, not giving up on life--and they can only thward suicidal nihilism if their suffering, the basic fact of their life, is meaningful.)

So the key assumption is that creatures like us can not endure suffering that makes no sense: we can endure (and thus preserve ourselves, and a get a small feeling of power) if our suffering "makes sense," but not otherwise. Why can't the naturalist help himself to such an assumption about human needs? That's the key question.

Here is one comment by Gardner that might be taken as responding to the key question:

My suggestion would be that N. regards suffering in its primary, hedonic sense as occasioning the formation of the need for Sinn, indeed as necessary for its crystallization, but that he regards the need for Sinn as then assuming a life of its own, such that, if per impossible we ceased to suffer in the hedonic-Schopenhauerian sense, we would continue to stand in need of Sinn. (p. 27 note 40)

We might well stand in need of meaning, but the need for meaning simpliciter plays no role in the argument of GM III. What is at issue (contrary to Gardner's somewhat misleading over-emphasis on the final section of the essay) is the need for suffering to be meaningful. If most mortals didn't suffer (which, as Gardner acknowledges, isn't a possibility), then they wouldn't be threatened by suicidal nihilism, and so they would be able to achieve their maximal feelings of power without the need of ascetic ideals. But this simply isn't our world, or N's concern.

Now I think Gardner's core objection is really this one (p. 28):

If N. were to be a consistent naturalist, then he would have to agree that the need for Sinn can be explained as some kind of evolutionary or whatever Nebenwirkung [side-effect], to be resolved back into a naturalized, mechanistic, hedonistic psychology. But--if naturalization of the need for Sinn were to have the meaning for N. that it has for the consistent naturalist--N. would then have to take Freud's line, that the need for Sinn cannot be taken with philosophical seriousness, and his practical philosophy would crumble. Because N. instead holds fast to the internal, practical perspective from which the question of Sinn is genuine and ineluctable, he cannot regard the question fo whether the need for Sinn is 'really' nothing but another natural drive or accidental by-product of such is not a real possibility; the need cannot be de-validated through an exercise of theoretical reason.
This passage seems to me to confuse a number of issues: (1) N. does not aim (and my account does not require him to aim) for a naturalistic explanation of "the need for meaning" in terms of other naturalistic forces (evolutionary or otherwise); (2) N. does not claim (and my reading does not require him to claim) that the "need for meaning" might be "de-validated" in virtue of being a naturalistic phenomenon; (3) N's account (and my interpretation of his account) is entirely third-personal, without any import for the first-personal character of experience for agents in the grips of the ascetic ideal, who are suffering, etc.

The "need for meaning"--more precisely, on my account, the need for suffering to have a meaning--is a kind of psychological primitive for N. Of course, it's not wholly primitive: for the reason we need suffering to be meaningful is because suffering generates ressentiment, and undischarged ressentiment will cause a kind of pscyhological explostion or melt-down--and the latter would be inconsistent with the drive for the maximal feelings of power (so the fundamental psychology is not hedonic, but oriented around need for the feeling of power). None of this is meant to "de-validate" the first-person experience of the sufferer--to the contrary, the whole point of the argument is to explain the puzzling phenomenon that ascetic moralities and religions should be so dominant among creatures like us, i.e., creatures with ravenous appetites for power, for sex, for cruelty, etc.

So the right way, I think, to frame something like Gardner's challenge is in terms of explanatory parsimony. Is the naturalist, in order to make his psychological story about the triumph of ascetic ideals work, entitled to posit as a kind of primitive psychological need the need for suffering to be meaningful? What kind of natural fact would that be? And the answer to that question, I think, turns on whether N's explanatory framework is one that can justify its ontology of psychological needs, not only for meaningful suffering, but for feelings of power, as well as the operations of ressentiment. Now that is a hard question, and its answer turns on what the competing accounts for the triumph of asceticism look like. At least as things stand now, though, no one, as far as I can see, has a competing account for the triumph of asceticism. If there is one that can dispense with psychological primitives like "the need for meaningful suffering," then the Nietzschean naturalist loses. But that's how it should go for naturalists, Nietzschean or otherwise.


david said...

I'm not sure I understand this. Is there a distinction being made between the clearly ascetic, ressentiment filled psychology and predicament of the masses, seduced by the doctrines of the ascetic priest, and the response to suffering represented by types such as Epicurus, Buddha, and Jesus, where ressentiment and asceticism is, by contrast, expressly forbidden?

Here "meaning" of a transcendent, metaphysical and moralistic sort seems to play no part. Here the "diet" for life is essentially practical, contingent and experimental. (see also A.39).

"In the teaching of Buddha egoism becomes a duty: the 'one thing needful', the 'how can YOU get rid of suffering' regulates and circumscribes the entire spiritual diet" (A.20)

Of course, N labels such types as "decadent" in that they view the reduction/absence of suffering as the chief goal. But such types (who are hypersensitive to suffering) are still significantly different from the ressentiment filled and moralistic/ascetic masses.

The Homeric Greeks and the Christians interpret their suffering very differently; for the Greeks, witnessing human suffering is aesthetically pleasing to the Gods; yet both interpretations require an audience, God(s) to dignify, justify, explain suffering. Whereas for Buddhism "the concept 'God' is already abolished by the time it arrives"(A.20).

The "decadent" Buddha, Jesus, Epicurus types seem to require no such metaphysical, transcendent, "meaning". (again, see A.39).

Perhaps i've misunderstood? Perhaps none of the above is disputed, and the question at issue is simply: for the countless millions who in fact HAVE subscribed to ascetic ideals,
why have they done so? I think N's brief answer to that question is that most people simply aren't sufficiently sensitive, objective, enlightened and positivistic enough to derive a sense of preservation and growth (power) from the example of Buddha types.

Marc said...


I'm French and I have studied some writings of Nietzsche at university ; I'am reading your very interesting book : Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Nietzsche on Morality. I have a question about something you write in the beginning : « […] we also now know that Nietzsche wanted his notebooks destroyed after his death […] » (p. xvii). I have never heard about that, and I think this is important to know that Nietzsche didn't want that his notebooks published after his death. But it's seems you didn't gave any reference that prove it. So, could you please tell me where you have found that ?

Thank you.

p.s. Have you thought about a french translation of your book ? I think that could be very helpful for the french students who try to understand this philosopher : for there is no equivalent of this kind of handbook in my country (I mean, books with this methodological level).

Brian Leiter said...

Nietzsche's wish that the notebooks be destroyed is discussed in Mazzino Montinari's "Nietzsche Lesen" and, if I recall correctly, is also noted in R.J. Hollingdale's biography (in English).

I'd be pleased if there were a French translation, but so far no one has offered to publish one!

Glad you have found the book helpful.

Klyde said...

Hello Brian, I just found your blog after reading your comment on 'The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality' which I found to be a breath of fresh air after 10+ comments which seemed to almost completely misunderstand the author. I was delighted to find that you have a Nietzsche blog and I look forward to reading your posts in reverse chronological order...

I am (also?) a naturalist and appreciator of Nietzsche. I would comment specifically on this post but it seems to me that Gardner simply misinterprets Nietzsche and you have clarified the matter.

I would be curious to know more of your personal philosophy if there is a public account of it you could direct me to.