Thursday, September 4, 2014

Tom Stern's silly review of the Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche in the September 3 TLS

London has long been a lively place for Nietzsche studies (with Ken Gemes and now Andrew Huddleston at Birkbeck, Sebastian Gardner and Mark Kalderon at UCL, as well as Daniel Came and Peter Kail not far away to the north, and Christopher Janaway and others not far away to the south), so it's a bit surprising that Tom Stern, who also teaches at UCL and professes a scholarly interest in Nietzsche, should have penned a rather silly "review" of The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche edited by Ken Gemes and John Richardson.  Unfortunately, it's behind a paywall, though you are not missing anything if you can't access it.  I sent the TLS a brief letter about this sophomoric "review":

To the editors:
As one of 34 contributors to The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche, and one of the minority in the volume actually conversant with what remains of “analytic” philosophy, I was astonished to learn from Tom Stern (review, Sept. 3) that the Handbook represents “The Analytic Nietzsche.”  “Analytic philosophy is broadly ahistorical in outlook,” Stern notes, but much of my own work has been devoted to showing how ignorance of the intellectual history of 19th-century Germany, in particular the rise of German materialism, has distorted readings of Nietzsche.  Other contributors examine in detail the influence of Greek philosophy and culture, the German Romantics, and Kant and NeoKantians.  Stern asserts that Nietzsche was “heart and soul, a brilliant nineteenth-century German,” for whom Wagner and Bismarck were very important.  There are six dozen references to Wagner in The Oxford Handbook, many extended discussions, though fewer of Bismarck.   Nietzsche himself would have stoutly denied Stern’s cramped characterization of him, and the content of the actual essays in the volume (which are hardly discussed) belies it rather decisively, as does the wide resonance Nietzsche has had across time and cultures.
Stern continues:  “Analytic philosophy favours clear definition. Nietzsche once wrote that only that which has no history can be defined.”  Good philosophy, like good scholarship, generally favors clarity in exposition, but not necessarily definitions (as Nietzsche himself quipped:  “Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound strive for obscurity”).  Nietzsche’s point from the Genealogy that the meaning of concepts (like “punishment”) varies across historical and cultural epochs (and thus can not be defined) has no relevance to whether or not that claim can be clearly stated and evaluated.  Finally, Stern declares that, “analytic philosophers kneel before the Dread God of Consistency: if you hold ‘P’ you cannot also hold ‘not-P’.”  Actually, Socrates, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Husserl and Habermas, among others, all accept the law of non-contradiction, though I assume they are not “analytic” philosophers, despite their kneeling.  Indeed, it’s a bit hard to see what philosophical exposition of Nietzsche would look like if it were as cavalier about non-contradiction as Stern appears to be.
I have a different hypothesis about Stern’s invention of the bogeyman of “the Analytic Nietzsche.”  Anglophone Nietzsche studies has improved dramatically in the last two decades in terms of historical scholarship, sensitivity to textual evidence and nuance, and philosophical sophistication.   All this has been rather jarring to the lazy and superficial readers and sophomoric enthusiasts Nietzsche’s brilliant writing sometimes attracts.  They want to cabin off serious historical and philosophical scholarship as “analytic,” so they can ignore it.  But they have lost that philosophical battle in the Anglophone world, and are gradually losing it on the European Continent.  Nietzsche, who lauded the “art of reading well,” would have been pleased.
The review is actually worse than this letter lets on--Stern discusses almost none of the actual content of the volume, and uses what space he has mostly for sneering and misstatements both of the topics covered by the actual essays and the particular positions defended.  What an embarrassment for both TLS and UCL.

ADDENDUM (9/15):  The review is here (though I can't get it to download, but others say they can).  Since several of Tom Stern's colleagues (in comments below), none of whom work on Nietzsche or are familiar with the book under review, have denied that the review is at all mocking or sneering, permit me to try to explain how the review reads if you know something both about Nietzsche and the book:
Stern begins with a few paragraphs suggesting that one “can order whichever Nietzsche you want” (even though some of those offered as examples were manifest travesties of misinterpretation), and then we learn the Oxford Handbook is just the latest in this litany, “the Analytic Nietzsche.”  What’s an “Analytic Nietzsche”:  well, analytic philosophers write in “cold, unlovely, jargoned prose,” are “ahistorical,” and “kneel before the Dread God of Consistency.”  We are reminded how unlike Nietzsche this all allegedly is—Nietzsche after all is just a brilliant 19th-century German mainly concerned with Wagner and Bismarck, plus he contradicts himself a lot.  (The last two claims, for Nietzsche scholars, are at best contentious, at worst false.)

In case you didn’t yet get the point how strange the Analytic Nietzsche’s approach is, Stern reports that Nietzsche’s “analytic lieutenants” (one might have called them scholars) “inform their readers that either Nietzsche held such-and-such a very complicated, exegetically speculative ‘theory”’or he was simply inconsistent. Fear of the second option is meant to compel the reader into the awkward embrace of the first: your money or your life.”  Ha, ha, these “analytic lieutenants” are so silly.

Stern declares the Oxford Handbook is a “victory monument” to “the Analytic Nietzsche” (although only a minority of the contributions are engaged with analytic philosophy, many write on historical topics, many in fact deal with Wagner, one of the two editors is best-known for offering a brilliant defense of Heidegger’s and Deleuze’s famous reading of Nietzsche, etc.).  Stern then shifts gear to discuss another book for several paragraphs, until finally, he allows (well past the midway point of the review, and after the preceding mockery) that “to call the analytic Nietzsche a mode of interpretation is not to deny its considerable virtues….It wins, hands down, on clarity of expression and conceptual complexity.”  He then quotes something suitably obscure from the bad book by Sloterdijk by way of contrast, and declares:  “the Handbook is an excellent collection, for Nietzsche scholars working in this tradition,” i.e., the “Analytic Nietzsche” tradition that, until now, most of the review had been poking fun at.  The implication, as I note in my letter to the TLS, is that everyone else can just ignore it.

After a few lines of generic praise for unnamed articles (almost none of the content of the book, remarkably, is actually discussed), Stern return to his attack on “the Analytic Nietzsche,” to “what is left out, what is magnified and what, occasionally, gets distorted.”  One essay (I’m not sure which one, actually) that attempts to understand Nietzsche’s views on truth is mocked for allegedly “simply rid[ding] itself of” a “troublesome sentence.”  (Many Nietzsche scholars take the view that his Nachlass material is misleading, and I suspect that’s what is really at issue here.)

We conclude where we left off, with ridicule:  “Unlike many previous Nietzsche incarnations,s” the Analytic Nietzsche “finds himself on the periphery,” unlike, say, the Nazi Nietzsche.  (That’s a charming comparison, but one that also reflects Stern’s ignorance of the many surprising places Nietzsche is turning up in Anglophone philosophy [e.g., recent work by Knobe, Prinz], beyond the two or three authors he seems to be familiar with.)  Indeed, Stern reminds us, Williams thought “that Nietzsche was not a source of philosophical theories,” so yet another reason for “doubt” about the Analytic Nietzsche.  And, let’s not forget the apparently just charge (Stern does not rebut it) that “the analytic Nietzsche muffles him or suck the life from his living words.” 

Very "entertaining", sure, but also unfair and belittling toward the Handbook and its contributors and to philosophical scholarship on Nietzsche.