Research What Are You Reading...On Friedrich Nietzsche

What Are You Reading…On Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche is a fascinating figure for many reasons. Unlike previous philosophers who sought a dispassionate and neutral stance, Nietzsche connects his life and times to his works. Similarly, the message of Nietzsche’s work doesn’t come from what he says, but in his approach to life. Third, it is a mistake to seek systematicity in his work, for it is change that should be valued; to always say the same thing is to miss the point of life. And finally, Nietzsche is a philosopher who wants you to engage his texts critically, which is one reason he used the epigram to convey some of his messages.

Such an unsystematic and critical thinker is difficult to reconcile with the approach to knowledge that sees it as something relatively fixed. Doubtless this is one reason he has been called a dangerous relativist and a callous anti-humanist. The danger of Nietzsche’s philosophy is something he himself realized; thus the claim that his was a philosophy of the future, not of his own time. An interesting question for today’s world is whether Nietzsche’s prediction of an Übermensch is possible given what we have since learned about evolution and human psychology. Whether or not Nietzsche’s ideal is a possibility, he has left us with much to ponder. The following papers relate Nietzsche’s work to topics like action, justice, and naturalism. Enjoy!

See the Routledge APA member page for more books on Friedrich Nietzsche. APA members get a 20% discount on all books.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. It would perhaps help make philosophy more relevant if some of the experts on this topic could assist us in connecting Nietzsche to OUR life and times. Did Nietzsche offer any insights which could be useful in addressing climate change, nuclear weapons, wealth disparity, the accelerating knowledge explosion etc? I have no idea myself, this is a question, not an argument.

    This principle might guide us in evaluating all philosophers. Can a particular philosopher living or dead provide anything we can use to constructively address the challenges we face today?

    It would be philosophy to discuss long dead thinkers who offers no useful commentary on our current situation. But given the scale of challenges we face today, would such investigations be an act of reason?

  2. Dear Phil,

    I wholly agree with you in principle (i.e. we should demonstrate how philosophers are relevant to the contemporary world). But I would argue that some of this work (probably not enough, but it is being done) is already going on. May I ask how much time you’ve spent looking for articles discussing how Nietzsche’s philosophy is related to topics like the knowledge explosion, climate change, etc.?

    If you want to see what I mean when I say this work is being done, check out the articles I cite. The first, by Kuehne, talks about the importance of facing paradoxes in our knowledge (e.g. reconciling faith with science or, to use one of your topics, the scientific consensus on climate change with our economic desire for cheaper gas). The last, by Ridley, asks how much of our personality or sense of self can change (this has implications for treatment of PTSD, how society should punish criminals, etc.). There are, of course, other articles that talk about Nietzsche’s relevance to contemporary which I did not include here.

    One reason you may not hear as much about Nietzsche’s relevance to our world is that the research philosophers do often does not get much attention outside the field of philosophy. I hope this will change, and I’m glad to you would like to see more public philosophy as well.

  3. Hi Nathan, thanks for your reply.

    How much time have I spent looking for Nietzsche’s topics relevant to the modern world? I’m on this site everyday, and don’t see much I consider relevant. It’s not your fault, you seem to be representing academic philosophy well in your topic choices, as best I can tell.

    Here’s evidence of the lack of relevance. I just searched this site for the phrase “nuclear weapons” using Google advanced search. Four listings including the phrase “nuclear weapons” have appeared on your site, the blog for an association of professional philosophers, over the last two years.

    => Two of those listings are from me.

    Conclusion: Professional philosophers are not interested in the most important issue of our times, the very real possibility that modern civilization could collapse at any moment. That is, professional philosophy is not relevant to the modern world.

    I used to click on the links you offer in the What Are Your Reading series. I just did again for this page. Almost all links go to sites that seem deliberately designed to discourage readership. I don’t see how to actually read the articles, and am no longer going to bother trying to figure it out. Again, not your fault, it’s clear those sources are not interested in sharing their work with the public.

    I think the problem overall is that I’m suffering from wishful thinking disease and so I keep trying to turn academic philosophy in to something that it simply isn’t and likely never will be. That’s my problem, and I’m the only one who can solve it. I think I need to start using some of that reason thing I’m always bellowing about. 🙂

  4. It would be reasonable to ask, so what would I have professional philosophers do about nuclear weapons?

    For starters, it seems one important role for philosophers is to examine the group consensus and root out assumptions which may not be true. One assumption of modern civilization seems to be that we can possess nuclear weapons without actually using them. The philosopher might test this assumption by looking for evidence of times in human history when we had vast powers which weren’t eventually used in some all out fight to death conflict. If no such evidence could be found, the philosopher might then conclude that so long as nuclear weapons exist their use is likely inevitable.

    Having developed this theory, the philosopher might proceed to explore it’s implications. They might ask questions like, if it true that the use of nuclear weapons is likely inevitable, what is the rational argument for further scientific or academic research? Isn’t whatever is learned by that process likely to be swept away in a coming calamity? And if that is true, what is the logic of discussing pretty much anything but nuclear weapons, given that all else would seem to depend upon avoiding their use?

    Having put nuclear weapons in to an appropriately urgent context, the philosopher might continue by digging deeper. A continuing analysis might reveal that nuclear weapons are just a symptom of the foundation of modern civilization, our “more is better” relationship with knowledge.

    We moderns look back over history and see that our “more is better” relationship with knowledge has served us very well, and thus assume that this will always be the case. A philosopher might ask if this very widely shared assumption of the group consensus is true. What is the logical outcome of continuing the “more is better” relationship with knowledge paradigm?

    Well, obviously, we will create more knowledge. And because the knowledge explosion feeds back upon itself (ie. the invention of computers has accelerated most forms of research etc) we should expect that we will create more and more knowledge at faster and faster rates. Ok, so far so good, this is obvious. But what are the implications?

    More and more knowledge at faster and faster rates will deliver more power and more power of ever increasing scale at faster and faster rates, right? The cultural group consensus which philosophy could be testing through a process of reason is the assumption that humanity will be able to manage whatever power is generated by the knowledge explosion, at whatever rate it is generated. Is this true? Let’s examine the evidence.

    We currently have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert aimed down our own throats. Let’s put this evidence in to context with an example.

    Imagine that Nathan invites me to the next APA conference and I show up with a gun in my mouth. Nathan is alarmed by this sight and questions me about the gun. I say in bored reply, rolling my eyes at Nathan’s hysteria, “This isn’t worth discussing, the gun has never gone off, I’m in control of the situation.”

    So, am I sane? Would members of the APA feel it logical to give me more and more ever greater powers at a faster and faster rate, in an accelerating process seemingly without end?

    An investigation in to our “more is better” relationship with knowledge might reveal that even if we somehow magically got rid of nuclear weapons, that wouldn’t solve the problem. An accelerating knowledge explosion will continue to create powers of ever great scale at an ever greater rate. The scale of these powers is the key fact, let’s keep our eye on that.

    Yes, it’s true, most of these ever larger powers would be put to wonderful miracle uses, and most of them would be successfully managed most of the time. A serious investigation by professional philosophers might reveal that this level of success is no longer enough. What nuclear weapons can teach us is that with powers of this scale it only takes one mistake one time to render all other successes irrelevant.

    What serious philosophers might discover is that the accelerating knowledge explosion celebrated by the group consensus is steadily erasing the room for error humanity has long relied on. In the past we had the freedom to experiment and learn because when we made mistakes we could always clean up the mess and then carry on. WWII seems a good example of this, we tossed around high explosives with wild abandon all over the world, but because of the limited scale of these tools the process did not collapse global civilization. Thus, once the insanity subsided we were able to clean up the mess and continue with progress.

    The group consensus which defines our civilization is still living in that past, assuming that the patterns of the history are still relevant today. Professional philosophers might be able to explain to us that the past is no longer the future, that we have entered a revolutionary new era where one mistake with one power of sufficient scale can lead to a game over.

    Having discussed this with every scientist I can find online over a period of years I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not realistic to expect them to challenge the “more is better” relationship with knowledge they’ve built their lives upon. After all, scientists are human beings, not knowledge or logic machines. This kind of inquiry challenges not only the foundations of science, but the hero role our culture has bestowed upon scientists. I’ve been illogical in assuming that scientists would welcome any process which puts that hero role at risk.

    So, professional philosophers, it’s up to you to conduct this investigation. And should you get the urge to tell us that you already are, you’d better be prepared to back that claim up with very specific evidence.

    In closing, let’s quickly revisit what got us here.

    Two comments about nuclear weapons by professional philosophers on the blog of the APA over a period of two years.

  5. Dear Phil,

    I think using this site alone as a measure of what academics are interested in is ridiculous. While we try to be as comprehensive as we can, we have a staff of 5 people trying to cover a field of tens of thousands, and all of us have full time jobs in addition to our work at the Blog. I also think using the topic of ‘nuclear weapons’ alone as a measure of whether or not we care about current events is likewise absurd. While we haven’t focused on that issue as much as you’d like (and it is a good topic; I’m going to add it to my list of future topics to write about), we have published numerous posts on environmental destruction, authoritarian governments, racism, sexism, freedom of speech, and the importance of affirming truth if any progress is to be made. This is, of course, only a partial list.

    A much better measure of whether academic philosophers care about the topic of nuclear weapons is to use one of the search engines that categorizes publications from academics. I just did a search on “Academic Search Premier” for “nuclear weapons” and “philosophy” among peer-reviewed publications and 91 articles came up (if you take out “philosophy” and remove the peer-reviewed qualifier over 31,000 articles come up). Some use specific philosophers, others use philosophical concepts. Here are just 4 that seem relevant to your topic:

    1. “Bourdieu and the bomb: Power, language and the doxic battle over the value of nuclear weapons.” Published in European Journal of International Relations in 2014.
    2. “THE PHILOSOPHY OF NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION/NON-PROLIFERATION: WHY STATES BUILD OR FORGO NUCLEAR WEAPONS?” Published in TRAMES: A Journal of the Humanities & Social Sciences in 2017.
    3. “Inventing Proliferation: The Creation and Preservation of the Inevitable Spread of Nuclear Weapons.” Published in Review of International Affairs in 2004.
    4. “Book Review: Furio Cerutti, Global Challenges for Leviathan: A Political Philosophy of Nuclear Weapons and Global Warming.” Published in Millenium in 2010.

    The larger problem I see with your claim that academics aren’t interested in these topics is that it is a “black and white fallacy”. You say that if academics aren’t publishing about these topics then they don’t care about them. It is quite possible (and I would argue that this is the case) that there are other reasons why you don’t see as many academics speaking publicly. Some of them are that more and more academics have less and less time for writing (i.e. the cutting back of tenured positions and giving greater teaching loads to faculty), academic research is often ignored by the public sphere, and that certain types of research are prioritized by the publishing industry (which, while partially composed of academics, is also largely owned and run by financial capitalists). And the fact that the sites hosting the “What Are You Reading” papers don’t allow the papers to be read doesn’t mean academics don’t want the public to read their papers (most academics I talk to would love for that to happen); instead, it is because the logic of capitalism requires that journals make money, and so the papers cannot be posted for free online (that said, most university accounts should allow you to access them). There is a movement among academics, and I support it, to allow everyone in society free online access to scholarly materials, but the interests preventing it generally carry more political weight than we do.

    Finally, I would argue that some of the research you are critical of is actually necessary for changing society in the long run. You wrote a fairly negative comment on the Schopenhauer/Hathaway article published last week, saying that Schopenhauer has had his day and we should focus on the present. Despite your comment, the article was not really on Schopenhauer at all, but Hathaway’s solution to some of the questions he raises. And I would argue that fixing the problem of sexism in our society requires rehabilitating the contributions women have made throughout the history of ideas which have traditionally been ignored. This is what the piece was trying to do: prove that women have not been as irrelevant as our traditional masculine narrative has presented them as being.

    In sum, I would say your claim that the problem is that philosophers aren’t interested in the world’s dangers contains the same issue I had with your “end men” suggestion to the problem of violence: it is overly simplistic. There is a whole system of processes, forces, agents, and laws producing a result that you and I both dislike: the withdrawal of academics from important political issues. It is not simply that academics don’t care (though for some people that is truly the case, and you and I have the same criticism of them). I encourage you to ask provocative political questions in response to the posts on this site, but your categorical condemnation of academia as such is both misplaced and dangerous. Misplaced because it is not actually true; dangerous because by focusing on that you ignore the real problems preventing a more robust engagement in politics from academics. And as long as we are not focusing on the real problems, we can’t solve them.

    I have some concerns about your claim that academics have a “more is better” attitude and that nuclear weapons must be prioritized before everything else, but I’ve gone on long enough. We can discuss those another time.

  6. Hi again Nathan, good day to you sir.

    Using the blog of a professional philosophers association as a sample of academic philosophy is clearly reasonable, just not a perfectly representative sample of the whole. To argue that using this blog as a sample of academic philosophy is ridiculous would be to argue that your topic selection choices are ridiculous, which as best I can tell doesn’t appear to be the case. If that were true, I believe you’d be receiving complaints from more important readers than myself.

    One of the more interesting differences between our perspectives is highlighted by your claim that some of my points are simplistic. What you see as simplistic I see as an attempt to sweep away the distracting clutter and get to the bottom line, and then present the bottom line in language that is widely accessible, that is, a reach for clarity in thought and expression. Here’s an example…

    I agree with you that a great many sophisticated academic articles have addressed the subject of violence from very many different angles. But, as best I can tell, academic philosophy has yet to produce a solution to violence that is as specific, widely accessible and sweepingly effective as my “stop making men” proposal.

    Thus, it seems reasonable to question the value of sophisticated analysis. I’m not willing to accept that value in every case simply because it is assumed by others. If academic philosophy is to be relevant to the modern world we need to see the connection between sophisticated analysis and practical real world solutions to important problems. Where such a connection can be credibly demonstrated, I’m happy to accept the value of sophisticated analysis.

    To me, philosophy and reason are not automatically the same thing. It would be philosophy to present a sophisticated analysis of Nietzsche and other famous philosophers. But such an analysis does not, in my view, rise to level of being reason unless it somehow specifically assists us in addressing pressing challenges. As example, if your house was on fire it wouldn’t be reason to focus instead on the article you are writing about Nietzsche. Sophistication for the sake of sophistication is not reason, but rather intellectual wanking.

    Here’s why I am challenging the blog on the subject of nuclear weapons.

    ============

    There is no point to further scientific or academic research unless the nuclear challenge is successfully resolved, because whatever is learned by that process will be swept away in a coming global calamity.

    ============

    As people of reason, we are supposed to be interested in evidence developed from the real world, and there is no evidence in the record of human history to suggest that we can indefinitely possess vast powers without eventually using them against each other.

    Show us the academic article which makes this specific point, and we will be moving towards each other. Show us the authors who specifically state that there is no point to further academic inquiry unless we solve the nuke question. Show us the authors who have achieved this level of clarity.

    And if you can’t, ok, fair enough, let’s be intellectually honest enough to admit that there is shortage of such clarity, and then proceed to work together to develop it.

    As a start in that direction, here’s a specific suggestion of what academics and scientists could do to help shift our focus on to the all important question of nuclear weapons.

    Go out on strike.

    Just a one day walk out for starters, a media event. The intellectual elites need to start communicating to the public that they are going to stop fueling the knowledge explosion unless our culture can demonstrate that it can responsibly manage the knowledge we already have.

    Yes, selling such an action plan in academia will be very difficult, indeed, probably impossible for now. But again, here’s the ruthlessly simple bottom line….

    There’s no point to your career unless something along these lines can be accomplished.

  7. Good day to you too, Phil. Thanks for your comment; I have a better sense of your argument now, and as always, have both some significant agreements and disagreements.

    First, I take issue with the idea that you are using the Blog just as a sample as such; you are using it as a representative sample. This is why you were able to make the argument that because the Blog doesn’t post things about nuclear weapons, academics must not care about it. To say the Blog is a sample of some academic opinion is true; to say it is a representative sample is not. A simple Google search reveals many organizations (the Federation of American Scientists, the Arms Control Association, and Union of Concerned Scientists, just to name three), composed of academics who work to end the threat of nuclear weapons.

    I would also question whether you are getting rid of the clutter with elegant and effective solutions. For one thing, you are assuming the solutions are elegant and effective without having done any research, and possibly without having read much either. I would agree with your “end men” solution if it was proven effective, but research shows otherwise. No biologists have traced violence back to the male genome, nor have they shown that violence inevitably results from–and only from—being male. Quite the opposite, they say that violence is cause by many factors, from culture to certain chemicals both natural and artificial. If the causes of violence will persist after men are gone (and neither the cultures nor the chemicals that produce violence will disappear when men die), there’s good reason to doubt that your solution will be effective.

    In short, simple and elegant solutions are a virtue only when grounded in a solid analysis. And I’m worried that in your haste for elegant solutions you avoid doing such analyses as you assume they will only lead to convoluted solutions. I would respectfully say that some of the most simple and elegant solutions (e.g. Einstein’s theory of relativity) came after lengthy and detailed study.

    As for your claim that further research is beside the point until nuclear weapons have been handled, I would point you to the many instances in history when research that was done in the midst of a major problem actually helped solve it. Husserl’s theory of phenomenology, developed to study perception, was used by Simone de Beauvoir and Franz Fanon (among others) to produce movements for social justice around the world. Systems theory, developed by math to study abstract problems like how to calculate movement, helped us to predict global warming. Nietzsche, whose work sparked this discussion, helped doctors to develop new ways of treating serious psychological conditions. It is difficult to predict the applications research will have in advance.

    Your idea of going on strike is interesting, and could possibly be effective (though given how many politicians and military leaders already despise academia, I’m not sure it couldn’t backfire). But the topic of whether academics are doing enough is a separate one from whether they care, since it is quite possible to care about something but not know what to do about it.

    You and I both want to see more action ending the threat of nuclear weapons. But when the problem is complex, avoiding detailed analyses so that the solution will be elegant is ineffective, and potentially deadly. It would be like trying to solve the problem of disease by shooting everyone who is sick.

  8. Good morning Nathan, thanks as always for your reply, and a quite prompt one in this case.

    Would it be fair to say that this blog is a representative sample of what interests APA members, a large association of professional philosophers? If no, I must ask, why are you posting articles that don’t represent the interests of APA members? If the blog is a representative sample, then the evidence clearly shows that APA members, as a group, are not particularly interested in nuclear weapons.

    To me, this seems like quite useful information as it can guide us toward a goal we both share, making philosophy more relevant to the modern world. What is more relevant than the ever pending destruction of everything??

    As to violence, I again respectfully propose that you are a victim of a bias for complexity. Turn on your TV Nathan. Or open your history book if you prefer. Who do you see committing the violence? No PhD required!

    Again respectfully, you are making the same logic error as the rest of our society. You are assuming that it’s enough to defeat a proposed solution proposal and then return to the sleepy status quo group consensus.

    It is indeed entirely valid to challenge the “stop making men” idea, I enthusiastically welcome that, am indeed begging for it. I’m not married to that particular idea, I’m just trying to stir the pot. However, the only valid way to challenge this or any proposed solution is to replace it with a better one. Here’s why…

    Although there is not space enough to do so here, I assure you with confidence that it’s possible to make a compelling case that the status quo (the marriage between violent men and the knowledge explosion) is going to lead directly to the end of everything all of us care about. Once that is seen clearly then the urgent need for some solution becomes obvious, and merely dismissing ideas without replacing them with better ideas is seen to be insufficient.

    You write…

    “But the topic of whether academics are doing enough is a separate one from whether they care, since it is quite possible to care about something but not know what to do about it.”

    Ok, but now the APA, a prestigious collection of intellectual elites, know what you can do about it. You can go out on strike. At the least you can write articles about such a possibility to engage these leading minds in an intellectual analysis of such a proposed plan of action.

    Here’s another practical suggestion. How about debate forum to focus APA members on specific questions such as this: Should APA go out on strike to raise awareness of the nuclear threat, yes or no?

    The blog seems to be failing to engage anybody but me, and I’m only here because I suffer from incurable typoholic mania. Maybe introducing another format could help? If yes, I may be able to assist in some manner.

    Good discussion, thanks!

  9. A quick example of alternative plans. The marriage between violent men and the knowledge explosion can be approached from two angles, 1) removing violent men OR 2) removing the knowledge explosion.

    Yes, I know, both options are very unpopular, but then I don’t make the rules, I’m just reporting them.

  10. You write…

    “As for your claim that further research is beside the point until nuclear weapons have been handled, I would point you to the many instances in history when research that was done in the midst of a major problem actually helped solve it.”

    I’m all for research that could solve the problem of nuclear weapons. Show it to us in the field of philosophy if you can.

    My point was that if that particular research is not successful, none of the other research being done matters. When all of the research in the world is dependent upon a single thing, it seems logical, rational, an act of reason, to put a great deal of focus on that single thing.

    If you dare, look hard and long at how the millions of very intelligent people who make up the elite strata of our society are not focused on the ruthless simplicity of this equation. Do one thing, or surrender everything.

    When it’s not terrifying, it’s fascinating. Our entire culture is like that man who walks in to the APA conference with a loaded gun in his mouth, a situation he finds too boring to discuss. We would call that man insane, but when we do the very same thing ourselves, we call it the reasonable sensible group consensus.

  11. I’ve enjoyed this discussion too. Thanks!

    I don’t feel like I have much else to say, but before ending the discussion, and after reading your comment, I do want to emphasize a point of commonality between our points of view.

    I am not at all comfortable with the sleepy status quo. It is highly disturbing that so many powerful men speak so cavalierly about nuclear weapons and violence. I have presented papers and spoken loudly about these dangers many times in many venues. You and I both agree that the status quo is unsustainable and more needs to be done.

    I don’t see our discussion, nor my questioning of your solution, as an impediment to change, but as part of that process. In every revolution discussions like these took place before, during, and after the events in the streets and on the battlefields. I ask you questions about your solution to make it stronger, not to force you to accept the status quo. The stronger it is, the better a chance there is of convincing others that it is viable.

    Please continue trying to convince others that change is needed; as you say, that fact is pretty self-evident. Just remember that thoughtful analysis is not the enemy–it is, in my opinion, one of the best weapons we have.

  12. Hi again Nathan,

    Ok good, this meeting of the Rebel Alliance will come to order. As the first order of business I propose that….

    1) We call upon the APA to lead the intellectual elites in a one day strike (for starters) to call attention to the nuclear threat, or…

    2) We replace that proposal with a better one which a thoughtful analysis reveals to be more effective, or…

    3) We admit that we’re going to do neither, and take the rational honest act of making peace with the status quo and a future that could vanish at any moment.

    I can agree to any of the above, but will experience difficulty with us just wandering off to other subjects and pretending this conversation didn’t happen.

    Yes, questioning and challenging is good, we agree on this completely. Thumbs up for thoughtful analysis as well. I’m just attempting as best I can to point out that thoughtful analysis is not necessarily an act of reason when it serves no end higher than itself.

    Thanks as always for engaging. Here’s hoping we can find some method of engaging others. It’s really not my goal to dominate the comment section, I’d prefer to be one of a hundred voices all smarter than I.

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