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Nietzsche and Modesty: A Response to Gudrun von Tevenar (Revised and Expanded

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This is a revised and expanded version of my response to Gudrun von Tevenar's review of my book, 'Nietzsche's Search for Philosophy: On the Middle Writings', focused on the issue of 'modesty' and whether or not Nietzsche
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    Nietzsche and Modesty A Response to Gudrun von Tevenar (Revised and Expanded) Keith Ansell-Pearson, University of Warwick I am grateful to Gudrun von Tevenar for her review of my book, Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy: On the Middle Writings   (Bloomsbury Pres, 2018), which appears in the European Journal of Philosophy  , 2018: 26, 1442-1445. I have profited from reading her perceptive engagement with the book. The review, whilst appreciative for the most part, is highly critical of my claim that Nietzsche can be construed as a philosopher of modesty. Towards the end of her review she writes that the emphasis I place on Nietzsche’s modesty in his middle period ‘is the one aspect of the book which deeply troubles me’ (1444). For her Nietzsche is not modest but a ‘great innovator with big aims even in his middle period’ (1444),  and she worries that I have produced a Nietzsche who is ‘too gentle, too serene’ and ‘too harmless’. Finally, she appeals to Thus Spoke Zarathustra  , published in 1883 (she must be referring to part one of the book), ‘just one year after the publication of the middle period work The Gay Science  ’ (1445). Without any trace of modesty Nietzsche, she says, announces and wishes to hasten in this work the arrival of the Uebermensch  . Here I will not respond at any length to her worry that in my book I present a harmless Nietzsche, though I will say this: in my view the philosophical portrait I present in the book is certainly not that of a harmless Nietzsche simply because as an enlightenment philosopher Nietzsche remains wedded to the idea that the philosopher exists to harm stupidity, as he puts it (GS 328), and there is an abundant treatment of Nietzsche as a  philosopher who harms human stupidity on display in my book. Let me remain here, though, focused on the issue of modesty in Nietzsche and in an effort to show that things are much complicated than she supposes and seems to appreciate. I have to confess that when I titled one of the chapters of my book ‘Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Modesty’ I was being deliberately provocative. I knew well that Nietzsche is not a thinker typically identified with the virtue of modesty or appreciated as a writer who presents his readers with modest conceptions and ideas. However, there is plenty of evidence to show that Nietzsche, beginning in 1878 with the publication of the first volume of Human, all too Human  , is strongly committed to the intellectual virtue of modesty and to a philosophy of what he calls ‘modest words’ . My book is an attempt to understand how this virtue, and this appeal to modest words, works in his (middle) writings, and, furthermore, why it might be significant and necessitate a revision of our appreciation of him. As I endeavour to show in chapter four of the book, one way of fruitfully understanding Nietzs che’s ethics of self-cultivation, notably as developed in Dawn   (1881), is in terms of his commitment to a more modest understanding of our capacities for ‘freedom’ , conceived , let’s say,  as exercises in self-cultivation. I think this aspect of Nietzsche’s thinking about ethics could  well be related to what he says in the preface to Dawn    –  written in 1886, so after TSZ –  about the need for philosophers to come up with ‘ more modest words’ when it   comes to ‘ morality ’  and to the task of describing ourselves. I would like to suggest that Von Tevenar’s  appeal to TSZ   and to the figure of the Uebermensch   raises more problems than it seeks to solve. One might reasonably suggest that TSZ   is a unique work in Nietzsche ’s  corpus, even an anomalous work with  its repeated stress on a superhuman ‘will to will’  and a superhuman sovereign individuality; its constant appeals to something that is called the superhuman do not sit comfortably, easily, or readily with the many things Nietzsche has argued for in his middle writings, including his various witty attempts to show that we do not have powers to create ourselves in some dramatically new fashion (a position Nietzsche adheres to well before   he develops the insights of his middle writings, as we find, for example, in his earlier text, albeit unpublished in his lifetime, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks  ). Key in this regard is an aphorism like Dawn   128. In this aphorism Nietzsche seeks to show that the desire to be our own author has its psychological roots in a narcissistic desire to experience oneself as all-powerful. He wittily draws on the myth of Oedipus to make his point: You wish to take responsibility for everything! Only not for your dreams! What miserable frailty, what poverty in the courage of your convictions! Nothing is more your own than your dreams! Nothing more  your work! Content, form, duration, actor, spectator –  in these comedies you yourselves are everything! And this is just the place in yourselves you shun and are ashamed of, and even Oedipus, the wise Oedipus, knew how to derive consolation from the idea that we cannot do anything about what it is we dream! I conclude from this: that the vast majority of human beings must be aware that they have abhorrent dreams. Were it otherwise: how greatly this nocturnal poeticizing would have been plundered to bolster human arrogance! –  Do I have to add that wise Oedipus was right, that we really aren’t responsible for our dreams, but no more for our waking hours either, and that the doctrine of free will has as its mother and father human pride and the human feeling of power? (D 128) As Michael Ure has noted in his important book Niet  zsche’s Therapy: Self   -Cultivation in the Middle Works (2008), Nietzsche is exposing the tragicomedy of existence that results from human pride and the need for the feeling of power ( Machtgefühl  ). In the passage just cited Nietzsche conceives the dreamer on the model of the figure of Oedipus with the dream itself as analogous to a tragicomic work of art. According to  Ure, Nietzsche’s cheerfully satirical viewpoint is designed to reveal to the comedy of the Oedipal dreamer. In dreams we disavow what is most our own, and in the case of Oedipus this is the dream of becoming his own father and enjoying the body of his mother. Of course, the twist Nietzsche adds to this story is that one is also not responsible for one’s waking state. The critical bite of the moral comes from Nietzsche’s attempt to expose the hubris involved in seeking to attribute to ourselves the power of auto-genesis. In such a scenario the self imagines itself to be completely self-sufficient, free of fate, and conducting the dream of self-authorship. The dangers of leading such an existence are manifold and include what Ure calls a series of intersubjective pathologies, such as melancholia and revenge. We see in this and other sections from book two of Dawn   two important features of Nietzsche ’s understandi ng of the self at this time: (1) the psychological claim that the fantasy of auto-genesis is in fact symptomatic of a desire for narcissistic plenitude; and (2) the idea that careful self-cultivation is the only therapeutic response that can work against the pathological affects borne of narcissistic loss. Let me return explicitly to my engagement with von Tevenar. It is a moot point as to how one fits TSZ   into one’s appreciation of Nietzsche and his corpus , and there are many readers and commentators who, with good reasoning it should be noted, regard the teaching of the Uebermensch   in it as a fantastical projection on Nietzsche’s part  . I myself see its positing as an act of philosophical legislation designed specifically to give humanity caught at the crossroads of nihilism (e.g. active and passive modes of this experience) a sense of hope about the future and so that it does fall into nihilistic despair and melancholy. Nietzsche has been concerned about a melancholic humanity since the time of volume one of Human, all too Human (for ‘hope’ see also the  denouement to the second essay of On the Genealogy of Morality  ; for Nietzsche’s critique of Christian hope see Dawn   546), and when one sees the figuration of the superhuman in TSZ   in these terms one might admire Nietzsche for his philosophical care about the future. To complicate the picture for von Tevenar one need only appeal to The Anti-Christ  , a text of 1888, so several years after TSZ, in which, and once again  , Nietzsche draws attention - emphatically so - to his commitment to a philosophy of modesty. This is especially evident in sections 13 and 14 of the text. At the end of section 13, for example, and after criticising those who seek a ‘picturesque effect’  from the truth, Nietzsc he writes: ‘Our modesty is what offended their taste for the longest time …And did n’t   they know it, these strutting turkey-cocks of God –’ . He then commences the following aphorism, number 14, with this declaration to the reader: ‘We have changed  our minds. We have become more modest in every way’. He refers to the need to cease deriving humanity from ‘spirit’   and ‘divinity’, so revealing his desire to place the human firmly back among the animals. He also attacks the vanity that would construe human beings as the great hidden goal of the evolution of life. The aphorism outlines a dedicated assault on human presumptions and vanities, such as freedom of the will and pure spirit, and this is an assault that is well in accord with positions and ideas Nietzsche has advanced in his middle writings, and that would suggest the human being is somehow a significant being or that it occupies a privileged position or role in nature. From the middle writings one can cite aphorism 14 of The Wanderer and His Shadow as relevant to an appreciation of the philosophy of modesty Nietzsche is espousing, or at least a core aspect of it. Here he focuses on humanity’s insignificance when viewed from the new perspectives of modern evolutionary theory and modern cosmology, with ‘the

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Oct 13, 2019
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