I Read Nietzsche As A Philosopher, Not Only As A Historical Scholar

Reading Nietzsche was instrumental in my deconversion from Christianity while I was in college. Afterwards, I went on to write my doctoral dissertation on Nietzsche’s philosophy. This blog is named using allusions to images in Nietzsche employs that resonate with me deeply. My philosophical views are so thoroughly influenced by Nietzsche that trying to determine clearly what I owe him and what I don’t among my ideas would be nearly impossible for me to do.

And yet, when doing philosophy, especially since moving on from the first four chapters of my dissertation, I freely think for myself, diverging unhesitatingly from Nietzsche when the best chain of reasoning I can see leads me away from him. But some of the places where you will see me diverge from the letter of Nietzsche’s texts I am doing so in order to make the points he wanted to make but in a way that is stronger and more technically careful and consistent. In some places I imagine Nietzsche the historical figure, were he to be reanimated, would viscerally reject what I would say, but at least in some cases I think I am doing better justice to what he was onto than he himself did. In other places, I unapologetically and straightforwardly am disagreeing with him. And in any number of other places I probably differ mistakenly because, despite regularly reading him for 14 years, I have sill failed to plumb the profundity of a given idea, or because I fail to remember any of a myriad nuanced insights he provides across thousands of pages of philosophical writing, or because I fail to have the courage to adequately confront some dangerous or unpleasant truth Nietzsche was not bashful about forcing us to look at.

And sometimes I reject Nietzsche’s ideas or formulations of them for the simplest of all reasons. I just think I have excellent reasons to think Nietzsche is essentially wrong or, at least, deeply questionable.

So when I interpret Nietzsche here on Camels With Hammers I do not treat Nietzsche as an infallible and unchallengeable source of truth and wisdom and guidance. I do not whitewash the ugly parts of his texts or try to deny all trace of tension between his thought and mine.

What I always intend to do is show you what I think is the systematizable philosophical core of his thought. I basically attempt this through several steps:

1. I grapple conscientiously faithfully with the words of his texts, talking about what he probably meant by them and imagining what he might say were he reanimated and a direct question put to him. I do this by reading texts in light of what he says elsewhere and what I sense are his ultimate motivations and central recurring themes.

2. I make no bones about explaining what I think is the best way philosophically to interpret his texts in terms of his overall philosophical goals and themes so as to make them most successful as attaining the truth and as having potential relevance to contemporary debates and to my own thinking. As part of this I am not shy about employing my own or others’ creative, consistent, coherency creating conceptual frameworks that Nietzsche the man, were he reanimated, may or may not approve of but which nonetheless would aid his philosophy in being more comprehensive, truer, and more capable of contributing to contemporary discussions in a robust and up to date way.

3. I talk about the ways and the reasons that I think we should diverge even from the best philosophically interpreted Nietzschean ideas and I note places where I think the historical Nietzsche thought things (or would have said things) that I simply think are wrong, cannot be much improved for contemporary use, and/or cannot fit with a philosophically coherent system and so should be rejected to one extent or another.

4. I explore my own ideas inspired by my engagement with Nietzsche, on my own terms and in a way that makes no effort to reconcile them with Nietzsche’s thought.

Not every post on Nietzsche necessarily features all these components. Different posts do different of these things in different orders and in different ways. But these four basic components are what you should regularly expect from “Nietzsche Saturdays”, the new series of weekly posts delving into Nietzsche that I have recently promised to write. The posts will not be simple attempts to understand what Nietzsche meant to say or would say and stop at that. Faithful, careful, responsible reading of his intended meaning will always be the foundation of these posts. But then they will try to make the most systematic, living philosophical sense of what he says even where this involves some more philosophical creativity and originality and less “reading Nietzsche’s mind”. Then we will straight on take seriously the sometimes deeply provocative and even dangerous questions and suggested answers that he raises.

I also should note that Nietzsche was a self-consciously and deliberately temporal thinker. He did not presume to give (or to be able to give) the final word in all things and he explicitly called for future philosophers to do their own acts of creation. There are cases where I see his rhetoric and his condemnations of philosophers and his emphases and his framings of conflicts and even some of his philosophical positions as colored by the late 19th Century situation he was in and that one hundred twenty years of history and changes in science, social science, and philosophy make significant differences. While I think he is still deeply relevant as many of his questions are still important and unanswered and many of his suggestions still not fully explored for their full value, there have also been improvements and evolutions in knowledge fields that make different kinds of rhetoric, questions, framings, accusations, and truths better now than they were then. A lot of things simply are better off shaded differently or with more nuance for a much different time in history.

It would be outright unNietzschean and bewilderingly naive to ahistorically to take everyone of Nietzsche’s pronouncements, moral judgments, diagnoses of culture or the sciences, etc. as eternally valid. Much is still staggeringly fresh and prophetic. That’s why I want people to pay so much attention to him. But neither are all of his propositions nor accusations timeless.

As a student of Nietzsche I was uneasy and unsatisfied with so much Nietzsche scholarship that dispassionately explicates any number of disquieting ideas Nietzsche advances and then ends without answering any hard questions about the truth or goodness of what he has said or how any of it reconciles with the scholar’s own personal philosophical views. I understand the virtue of such non-judgmental scholarly detachment and far prefer it to the writing of people who prove themselves incapable of understanding another’s thought without injecting their own emotions and moral judgments about it or, worse, letting their emotions and moral judgments read everything in the least charitable way possible. I am deeply committed to the principle of charity, even with ideas we find questionable.

But I also personally resolved while writing my dissertation that explicating and advancing discussion of Nietzsche’s thought gives me an ethical responsibility as a philosopher to go beyond being a careful scholar and additionally publicly address my reasons for either embracing, rejecting, or simply being cautious about the substance of what Nietzsche is saying. As a scholar I feel impelled to tell the truth about what Nietzsche really says, even when it’s terrible. And as a philosopher and a human being I feel responsible to not simply defer judgment about what he says to others but to engage with it seriously and as though it were a matter of important consequence.

So in coming weeks I hope to lay out my overall picture of what Nietzsche is saying about morality and truth and other pertinent matters, to dig into texts I simply find interesting, and to reconcile my reading of Nietzsche with texts which, at least prima facie (and sometimes in fact) contradict that reading. Readers are invited to suggest good examples of difficult texts for my reading of Nietzsche to reconcile. I am excited that a couple of readers have submitted excellent, difficult texts that I will get to in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, for more of my theory of how to interpret dead philosophers in general–which philosophy I reflectively developed in no small part through interpreting Nietzsche for years–read my post from this past Wednesday on what reading charitably entails and on the difference between reading a thinker philosophically as opposed to just psychologically and historically.

To catch up with what I have already explicated of Nietzsche’s philosophy on Camels With Hammers in my posts directly about him see the following posts:

A Brief Overview of My Dissertation
4 Kinds of Irony and Nietzsche. An Excerpt From My Dissertation
Nietzsche’s Immoralism As Rebellion Against The Authoritarian Tendencies Of Moralities
Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”
Nietzsche: “‘Good’ Is No Longer Good When One’s Neighbor Mouths It”
Nietzsche: We Cannot “Selflessly” Investigate Morality
Mostly True Not Mostly False
Evolution and Epistemology
Rough Sketches of Nietzsche’s Politics and Philosophy of Religion
On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints
Nietzsche on Freedom and Autonomy
When I Deconverted: I Was Reading Nietzsche’s “Anti-Christ”, Section 50
How I Deconverted: Nietzsche Caused A Gestalt Shift For Me (But Didn’t Inspire “Faith”)
Why Camels With Hammers
Apostasy As A Religious Act (Or “Why A Camel Hammers the Idols of Faith”)
In Memory of Christopher Hitchens, A Nietzschean Lion
After My Deconversion: My Nietzschean Lion Stage of Liberating Indignant Rage

If you’re looking for a book introducing Nietzsche’s thought, the best entrance point in print I know of is Lawrence Hatab’s Nietzsche’s ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’: An Introduction (Cambridge Introductions to Key Philosophical Texts). My favorite in-depth scholarly analysis of Nietzsche’s thought is John Richardson’s Nietzsche’s System. I loved Richardson’s book so much I asked him to be a reader on my dissertation, which to this day I am amazed and grateful to say he agreed to do.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • 3lemenope

    A passage from The Wanderer and His Shadow has repeatedly resurfaced in my mind over the past week or so, in the context of the Martin shooting/Zimmerman trial.

    No government admits any more that it keeps an army to satisfy occasionally the desire for conquest. Rather the army is supposed to serve for defense, and one invokes the morality that approves of self-defense. But this implies one’s own morality and the neighbor’s immorality; for the neighbor must be thought of as eager to attack and conquer if our state must think of means of self-defense. Moreover, the reasons we give for requiring an army imply that our neighbor, who denies the desire for conquest just as much as does our own state, and who, for his part, also keeps an army only for reasons of self-defense, is a hypocrite and a cunning criminal who would like nothing better than to overpower a harmless and awkward victim without any fight. Thus all states are now ranged against each other: they presuppose their neighbor’s bad disposition and their own good disposition. This presupposition, however, is inhumane, as bad as war and worse. At bottom, indeed, it is itself the challenge and the cause of wars, because, as I have said, it attributes immorality to the neighbor and thus provokes a hostile disposition and act.

    It is morally praiseworthy to defend oneself. Preparing to defend oneself inevitably leads to the necessity of defending oneself. Thus the morally praiseworthy principle leads pretty directly to more dead bodies.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Great find; thanks!

    • John Alexander Harman

      I think “inevitably” is an exaggeration, but preparing to defend oneself by taking up arms probably does increase the probability that one will find oneself in a situation where it appear necessary to defend oneself — things that can be done easily are much more likely to be perceived as “necessary” than things that can only be done with difficulty, or not at all. (In concrete terms, a person with a weapon is more likely to fight when he or she would be better advised to run away than an unarmed person is.)

      Unfortunately, however, not preparing to defend oneself does not eliminate the risk that one will encounter the necessity of defending oneself, and suffer harm or death by being unable to do so. Being unarmed does not prevent being targeted by a criminal; that a nation has no army does not mean that its neighbors, who have armies “for self-defense,” cannot come up with some pretext for invading and conquering the unarmed nation that will suffice to convince their own people that it’s a good idea.

    • 3lemenope

      I tend to think that Nietzsche’s analysis of self-defense works better for people than for nations, not least because political science wasn’t really a fully realized discipline at the time he was writing, and so many insights from early International Relations theory were out of his grasp, which tend to vitiate the moral force of his argument.

      What strikes me about his feelings towards peace both in this passage and elsewhere is that he seems to argue that peace can only really have value if it is generated by people who are powerful (and could conceivably choose otherwise). Later on in that same passage:

      At bottom, indeed, it is itself the challenge and the cause of wars, because, as I have said, it attributes immorality to the neighbor and thus provokes a hostile disposition and act. We must abjure the doctrine of the army as a means of self-defense just as completely as the desire for conquests. And perhaps the great day will come when people, distinguished by wars and victories and by the highest development of a military order and intelligence, and accustomed to make the heaviest sacrifices for these things, will exclaim of its own free will, “We break the sword,” and will smash its entire military establishment down to its lowest foundations. Rendering oneself unarmed when one had been the best-armed, out of a height of feeling—that is the means to real peace, which must always rest on a peace of mind; whereas the so-called armed peace, as it now exists in all countries, is the absence of peace of mind. One trusts neither oneself nor one’s neighbor and, half from hatred, half from fear, does not lay down arms. Rather perish than hate and fear, and twice rather perish than make oneself hated and feared—this must someday become the highest maxim for every single commonwealth.

      Our liberal representatives, as is well known, lack the time for reflecting on the nature of man: else they would know that they work in vain when they work for a “gradual decrease of the military burden.” Rather, only when this kind of need has become greatest will the kind of god be nearest who alone can help here. The tree of war-glory can only be destroyed all at once, by a stroke of lightning: but lightning, as indeed you know, comes from a cloud—and from up high.

      This tracks his quip in Zarathustra about laughing at the weak who think they are good only because they have no claws. If you lack the capacity to harm, then restraint of the desire to harm is meaningless. He seems to conceive of it as a simple choice, a writing of a new value (which only the strong can do); decide to give up military strength from a position of strength, because then it can be honestly understood as being for reasons other than fear, conciliation, or submission. If you do it from a position of weakness, it will be interpreted as a symptom of that weakness and exploited. It is not the sort of decision that a political system can generate precisely because it requires a sudden and radical revaluation of a value, defense.

      It is true that disarming leaves one vulnerable. But criminality is itself very, very rare, and so the question becomes does a person do more damage to his or her view of self and others by feeling the need to carry a gun, or are they risking more by going about their business unarmed. I’d hazard that Nietzsche was on to something by suggesting that the posture of hate and fear both indicated and reinforced by preparations for self-defense really does have a corrosive effect on how citizens see one another, causing them to be viewed as potential assailants in place of other considerations.