Last week, the trouble with Nietzsche. This week, philosophers Babette Babich and Chris Bateman take the discussion further and consider the questions Nietzsche raises, and the relationship between an author’s books and the writer themselves.
Babette Babich: Analytic Nietzsche scholars cannot engage Nietzsche on his question which was, as Nietzsche himself tells us “the question of science.” This is not least because Nietzsche does not speak, simply and just or only of “the question of science” but challenges what we think of as ‘science,’ putting the very idea in question, telling us that ‘there are no facts,’ there is ‘only interpretation’ – a claim deeply upsetting to us in our ‘fake news’, ‘alt-truth’-anxious world. Nietzsche, almost preternaturally pre-Heideggerian, proclaims that he is the first to raise the question of science as a question.
Chris Bateman: This indeed is why The Gay Science is such a key text, and for myself especially so for my earlier philosophical work where I am having to re-assess what my time as a physicist meant, and why the sciences have somehow taken on properties traditionally attached to that overly-broad category, religion. ‘The question of science’ is therefore tied up in the desire to position ‘science’ and ‘religion’ as opposites, which is roughly the opposite of how Nietzsche sees this. What is your take on this ‘question’?
BB: I have a committed position to be sure on the issue of science and religion and Nietzsche is as subtle there as anywhere, arguing as he does that science both grows out of religion and alchemy (as so many ‘preludes’) and aspires in a terrible constellation of ascetic inversions at the end of The Genealogy of Morals to take the place of religion once again. Nietzsche names science the latest instantiation of the ‘ascetic ideal.’ But, criticizing science was for Nietzsche a precisely ‘scientific’ thing to do as Nietzsche had his own question (and it is helpful to remember what Nietzsche called the problem of the problem of science was the defining question: What makes science science? For Nietzsche, that question held and had to be explored across the disciplinary board, that is: from philology to physics and cosmology and beyond. Indeed, even Heidegger, as I have argued, is not above borrowing Nietzsche’s thunder on questioning, as Heidegger already does early in Being and Time... Thus the prime question is one that tends to be left out when one poses the question of science – it is part of the genealogical question (note that Nietzsche’s reflection is offered in his Attempt at a Self-Critique) – is the question of truth, a question which requires the prior question of why we prefer (Nietzsche expressly asks us to think about this preference) ‘truth’ to illusion or in place of deception, the ‘lie’ as Nietzsche speaks of it (and which he allies to art as well as to the world of myth and dream) as well as in the case of logic, the question of what things are called, the question of perception, that things are (or are not) as they seem to be, and so on.
CB: Right, and so the key passage in The Gay Science (section 344):
The question whether truth is needed must not only have been affirmed in advance, but affirmed to such a degree that the principle, the faith, the conviction finds expression: “Nothing is needed more than truth, and in relation to it everything else has only second-rate value.”
And that, Nietzsche traces to Christianity, and from there back to Plato at its root. That entire section went off like a bomb inside my head, and raised so many further questions that I was forced to abandon any attempt to argue against Nietzsche, and had to accept him as a very different kind of problem, a different question entirely.
BB: To me, many of these questions have been ignored because analytic philosophers have a habit of discarding the bits that make no sense to them. The result is readings that are self-assured, self-enclosed, and, neatly, incorrigible, even with the text of Nietzsche’s own writings as one has thereby and methodologically just by looking only for what seems to make sense to one, created a kind of analytical lamp-post under which alone one undertakes to look for the key to Nietzsche.
CB: Aye, which is funny, when you think about it, as Nietzsche’s writing is purposefully and thoughtfully composed to resist this kind of systematic treatment. Indeed, the aphorisms which constitute his most famous (although certainly not only) writing technique seem to have been chosen in part because they defy the academic, encyclopaedic style that typifies the university in his time. Hence MacIntyre putting Nietzsche and the Encyclopaedists into direct opposition [as discussed in Part I].
BB: I also argue, to Nietzsche scholars (although and to be fair, in philosophy – and this follows from what I already noted – Nietzsche scholars are as analytic as most other philosophers tend to be), that it is pernicious in the extreme that we tend to leapfrog over Nietzsche’s own disciplinary formation just as we also tend to bracket his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. Thus we have an inordinate number of commentaries written on The Genealogy of Morals, occasionally adding studies of Beyond Good and Evil or Zarathustra and these days and for the past few years, a little more attention is paid to Human, All too Human too... But these are analytic readings: that is one reads Nietzsche a la Leibniz, from the vantage of some self-enclosed interpretive schema or module, admitting no light from any other reading (this windowless self-sufficiency is what makes it Leibnizian, rather than some actual reference to Leibniz himself).
CB: It’s tricky, though, with a writer whose output is as substantial as Nietzsche’s... are we engaging with one text, or with the simulacrum of the author we get by engaging with a complete set of works? For instance, I got into trouble using just one of Foucault’s books, The Archaeology of Knowledge (which builds upon Nietzsche), because Foucault scholars who were peer reviewing me insisted I had an obligation to engage with his later work (all his discussions of power). That did not ring true to me at all. My engagement with Archaeology was specific to that work, and was not a question of power at all. Frankly, I did not appreciate being obligated to engage with a different Foucault to the one I had chosen to read.
BB: This is a fascinating point – and has direct corollaries with recent readings of Deleuze or indeed what certain proprietors of ‘performance philosophy’ call and thus define as the de facto standard reading. Thus at the Society of European Philosophy that recently met in Winchester and about which I tweeted (alas to the sorrows of some folk on Twitter inspiring departures and fits of ‘no! not again!’ conference live-tweeting pique) I was surprised to note just how careful young scholars were to explicitly delimit their work so as to avoid having to have to talk about arenas they did not wish to engage. This is the flip side of the same point you are making about Foucault and power or as some will like to say, just to keep the stamp neatly trademarked: biopower. Thus, papers began with dutiful disclaimers, just Deleuze on Spinoza, not Deleuze and Guattari or, and vice versa, just and only Mille Plateaux. To my mind, this practice is consonant with the Foucault point you make. Fiefdoms get established and doorkeepers – and young scholars are more inflexible on being doorkeepers than I think have ever seen before, and it was always bad – insist on having obeisance paid to just and only their specializations, alas in consequence not recognizing the voice of the other in the process.
CB: I would suggest we are entitled to encounter a philosopher by a single work provided we do not think in doing so we have captured anything of them as a person. Understanding who a philosopher is and engaging with one of their texts are very different tasks. Wittgenstein, for instance, was so utterly misjudged on the basis of the Tractatus. Ray Monk, very honourably, tackles the problem of Wittgenstein’s life, which I feel is essential to appreciating the Tractatus, while Alain Badiou, also honourably, gets to an understanding of Wittgenstein at the time of the Tractatus from within the text itself – but he too reads Monk’s biographical work in order to get there.
BB: True! And this is why one takes such good care with delimitating one’s claims. But your other point for me is just as important, that is: one ought to recognize that the thinker him- or herself may exceed a particular work. At the same time, scholars do tend to move in their own circles so they tend solely to expect that others be open to them without imagining any need for reciprocity on their own part. Badiou is a scholar who takes account, as the French do, of what the English write, but does this same engagement work in the other direction? I would argue that this goes back to the analytic-continental divide – does Monk himself undertake to engage Badiou or is he not a Leibnizian sphere complete unto himself? There are rather a huge number of biographies written of Wittgenstein in France, in Germany, even a few in English, but a text appears – this is Monk’s achievement – and suddenly it is as if no other book ever existed, , by which I do not mean to reduce Monk’s work but there is Walter Schulz after all, and perhaps Badiou benefitted (rather literally, title-wise) from that and there is the wonderfully tweedy (to me) P.M.S. Hacker. I think, scholarship is all about realizing that there is an awful lot out there and the more inclusive we are, the richer we are, not the other way around.
If we mean to get to Nietzsche it means, I think, and I am echoing his own contention here, that we need to pay attention to all his books but perhaps and most especially, because this is exactly what we do not do, to his first book, without reducing it to a kind of distillate of the first sentence whereby the whole book is all and only about the distinction to be made between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, because that is, in the spirit of 1066 and All That, the only bits we can remember and thus and as if all the rest of the book were tacked on as a kind of incidental oversight.
CB: This reminds me of the way that Roger Caillois’ is reduced in game studies to the patterns of play he discusses. Which is ironic, since those patterns are developed by Caillois in order to make his wider point about the decline of play in culture (following on from Johan Huizinga, who inspired him). But nobody in game studies goes much further with Caillois than the opening chapters – indeed, in all too many cases, they don’t get beyond the introduction with its convenient definition of play (which, I might add, was largely irrelevant to Caillois himself). It’s the trouble with readily graspable ideas like Ludus and Paidia in Caillois, or Dionysian and Apollonian in Nietzsche: why dig deeper when there’s something oh-so comfortable sat at the surface?
The dialogue continues next week: Prime Time Culture