Monday, November 22, 2021

Sommer on the Genealogy and naturalism

I've started reading Andreas Urs Sommer's learned (but not very philosophical) commentary on the Genealogy (Kommentar zu Nietzsches Zur Genealogie der Moral [Berlin:  de Gruyter, 2019]).  He writes regarding my naturalist reading:  "If this concept ["naturalism"] means that one avoids supernatural explanations and also that the mind is taken to be something natural, it is of course trivial" (p. 41).  I suppose that might be taken as a concession that the naturalist reading is correct, except there's more involved in my naturalist reading; indeed, I can't tell whether Sommer actually read my discussion of naturalism from his superficial characterizations.  I was even more surprised when Sommer proceeded to dismiss the idea of Nietzsche's naturalism by invocation of Anthony Jensen's (implausible to my mind) reading of the Genealogy, without further discussion or argument (p. 42).

Checking the index references for discussions of naturalism, there is nothing more substantive to be found.  At p. 580, for example, Sommer refers readers to the (interesting but unconvincing) paper by Sebastian Gardner (discussed here) regarding Nietzsche's "alleged or doubtful" naturalism, which is now reduced to the view that man is "one animal among other animals," which is pronounced a "commonplace" of the evolutionary theory of the time.  Indeed, it was, but no defender of the naturalist reading, including me, thinks that is what is at stake in Nietzsche's naturalism.  Earlier he refers to the "peculiarities of the [Anglophone] naturalism debate," but in the context, bizarrely, of discussing Daniel Conway's "strictly naturalistic explanation" of the origins of civilized society (at the hands of the "blond beasts") in GM II:17 (p. 356).  Here again the reading is not described in any detail, and is dismissed as anachronistic.  What bearing any of this has on my naturalistic reading--which Sommer admits (p. 41) popularized the "specter" of Nietzsche's naturalism--is unclear.  If Sommer has an actual argument against that "specter," I haven't yet found it, but I don't get the sense that philosophical argument, as opposed to diligent scholarship, is his strong suit, and that he has a tendency to assume that philosophy he doesn't understand is really just the result of bad philology.

I will dig further into the volume, but what I've read so far tends to confirm what Mattia Riccardi (Porto) says in his review of the Sommer volume in  Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie:

Though [he] implicitly recognizes that GM transcends these [historical] “contexts” – Sommer also adds that the point is not at all to “diminish its originality” –, the Kommentar does often seem – at least to me – to treat GM as the mere result of Nietzsche’s engagement with a host of contemporary authors working in the most disparate fields. My impression, on the contrary, is that Nietzsche often uses their work as a Tractarian ladder to be promptly thrown away. (Indeed, Sommer’s Kommentar seems to confirm that this pattern occurs frequently.) To be clear: I am not at all suggesting that Sommer’s careful reconstruction of Nietzsche’s intellectual environment has nothing to contribute to a proper understanding of his thought....Rather, what I am contesting is simply that a knowledge of that background, no matter how exhaustive, suffices to make sense of GM qua philosophical work....
The recurrent charge [against some philosophical scholarship] is that because of its severe lack of philological accuracy it ends up construing a more or less fictional Nietzsche. See, for instance: “From these discussions much can be learnt about the effects that the lack of philology can produce in philosophy as well as about the way in which interesting thought experiments in the style of analytical philosophy can be mounted on the basis of Nietzsche snippets, without any serious reading of his works” (80).... In my view, this criticism fails to hit its target. First, as I have suggested before, no bottom-up reconstruction of Nietzsche’s text can settle the interpretive puzzles it raises. Second, and relatedly, those puzzles concern the questions posed and the claims put forward by Nietzsche,
which – as Sommer acknowledges – clearly transcend all the “contexts” that played some role in the textual genesis of his work. Their resolution demands philosophical insight and scrutiny, skills that can’t be replaced by philological discoveries and that philosophers trained in analytic philosophy may very well display.


We've seen the consequences of the attitude Riccardi here criticizes in the feeble work of Tom Stern, who is much influenced by Sommer, but lacks the latter's redeeming virtue of doing original work on the historical context and sources.