Posts Tagged ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’

The Philosophy of Experiment

2013/11/26 7 comments

§1. The Philosophy of Experiment

Ralph Waldo Emerson is a philosopher in the grand tradition of care for oneself, and his work is much more about such care than it is about any particular doctrines. The form that Emerson’s care for the self takes is of a special sort: it is experimental. I spent yesterday evening in the vivifying presence of Emerson’s essay on “Self-Reliance”, and came away more convinced than ever that Emerson cannot be understood if one does not place experiment at the heart of his philosophy. Experiment, it turns out, is crucial for the very articulation of the self on which one is supposed to rely. In characterizing Emerson’s philosophy of experiment, I shall enlist a pair of allies: Friedrich Nietzsche and Gilles Deleuze. (References and abbreviations are at the end of the post.)

Emerson’s philosophy of experiment is simple at its core. It is impossible to know your powers in advance, before you have exhibited them, so experiment on yourself in order to learn what they are, how they may be deployed. “The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.” (E&L 259) This, combined with Emerson’s belief that “Power is in nature the essential measure of right” (E&L 272) is enough to yield his valorization of practices of experiment on oneself.

The same idea may be found in Deleuze: “We know nothing about a body until we know what it can do, in other words, what its affects are, how they can or cannot enter into compositions with other affects, with the affects of another body, either to destroy that body or to be destroyed by it, either to exchange actions and passions with it or to join with it in composing a more powerful body.” (ATP 257) Affects are just that which augments or diminishes an individual’s power to act. How do we learn a body’s affects? “Make a rhizome. But you don’t know what you can make a rhizome with, you don’t know which subterranean stem is effectively going to make a rhizome, or enter a becoming, people your desert. So experiment.” (ATP 251) Not only do we not know, we have little basis to predict: “We can be thrown into a becoming by anything at all, by the most unexpected, most insignificant of things. You don’t deviate from the majority unless there is a little detail that starts to swell and carries you off.” (ATP 292)

And also in Nietzsche; I will let a single passage suffice: “Knowing one’s circumstances. – We can estimate our powers but not our power. Our circumstances do not only conceal and reveal it to us – no! they magnify and diminish it. One should regard oneself as a variable quantity whose capacity for achievement can under favorable circumstances perhaps equal the highest ever known: one should thus reflect on one’s circumstances and spare no effort in observing them.” (D §326)

So there is the idea. It is simple enough in outline, though there are complications I have not yet considered. But despite this theoretical simplicity, implementing such experimental techniques requires overcoming any number of opponents. A greater feel for what it is to experiment may be obtained by considering these dangers.

§2. The opposition to experiment

A. Morality and society. In a passage to which we shall later return, Emerson names the “one fact the world hates.” (E&L 271) And indeed it is the world—which here means society—that provides one of the dominant sources of opposition to experiment. What need is there for experiment if established customs have found the correct way already? The dictates of morality (which is nothing more than a particular form of custom), when they are external to the individual, are a burden, and are not noble. “Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world,—as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances.” (E&L 263) Emerson, in contrast, imagines the person who never apologizes—never needs to apologize—and never regrets a past act. “Another sort of false prayers are our regrets. Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will.” (E&L 276)

There is thus a critique of morality inherent in Emerson’s experimental philosophy. Of course, he talks about a universal moral law all across his essays and journals, and he unquestionably means it. But it is not in any way this which society enforces. Society enforces morality as a custom, at the expense of the individual. Indeed, it is by experiment and self-reliance that we come to know this law, and not by deference to society. At the very start of “Self-Reliance”, Emerson defines genius, and his definition says all that is needed: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.” (E&L 259)

Nietzsche carried this critique of morality much further than Emerson, and in a much more thorough fashion. More than that, however, I think Nietzsche diagnosed a fundamental opposition between moral and experimental thinking that Emerson, if he did not miss it altogether, at least did not express clearly (to my knowledge). In a passage I read recently and, to my immense frustration, cannot find at the moment, Nietzsche suggests an opposition between two ways of thinking about the results of one’s actions. On the one hand, one may see them as judgments: I suffer as punishment for my actions. On the other, one may see them as answers to questions: ah, so that is how I work. So that is what I am capable of accomplishing. The latter is the experimenter’s attitude. The former is a moral outlook, and it kills experiment. It kills experiment precisely by making “bad” results into a punishment, a negative consequence, rather than a knowledge-enhancing answer to the question posed by the action. It is not uncommon for a scientist to point out that experiments with unexpected or “wrong” results are often more worthwhile than experiments that go as planned—Nietzsche has simply transported this thought into the philosophy of experimental living, and in doing show captured what is most antithetical to experiment about morality and a moral outlook on the world.

B. The “divided and rebel mind.” Emerson isolates a second danger: “that divided and rebel mind, that distrust of a sentiment because our arithmetic has computed the strength and means opposed to our purpose” (E&L 260)—in short, a too excessive realism. Emerson is an idealist in just about every sense in which idealism can be contrasted with realism, including the oft-pejorativized sense of one who remains committed to an ideal in the face of recalcitrant reality. Like a moral outlook, but in a slightly different way, a too great realism may kill experimentation. Here, the mind seeks foundations for action in advance. But it is central to experiment that the answers cannot be known in advance. Great scientific experiments are precisely those that have the possibility of yielding unexpected results that cannot be assimilated to current theories, and so too experiments on the self.—As an aside, perhaps the most incisive critique of the current institutions in which scientific research takes place is that they are structured in a way that penalizes the sort of research likely to yield unexpected results, what one might, on a Nietzschean day, call dangerous experiments. But this is not the place and I am not the person to explore that issue in any depth.—In short, experimentation, by its very nature, lacks foundations. Experimentation lacks and must lack foundations, because experimentation is above all else that which has the potential to call existing foundations into question.

This fear of the absence of foundations goes hand in hand with the problems of sociality and morality: we fear the judgment of others or of some god or gods if the results do not turn out as expected. So long as that is the case, we shall stick to safe experiments, or, to put it more bluntly, we shall not experiment at all. Even if we escape that trap, there is another difficulty: the inability to handle failure. Should one experiment fail, we may become discouraged. On this point, Emerson praises the values of Stoicism, which will allow the young experimenter to take a failure in stride and move on the next. “Let a Stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves.” (E&L 275)

C. Faith. Creeds, dogmas, articles of faith—these are the next opponent of the experimental intellect. “Everywhere I am hindered of meeting God in my brother, because he has shut his own temple doors, and recites fables merely of his brother’s.” (E&L 276) To accept unquestioningly as true what is handed down is to abandon oneself, to put one’s trust in others. If the truth is received, there is no need to experiment. But such external trust involves a dilution and a half-possession, until the divine is lost altogether. Faith is even more insidious than this, however. For while dogmas represent themselves as eternal and infallible, in fact they are flexible and assimilative—and so they take in the results of experiments and make of them new dogmas. “Every mind is a new classification,” Emerson writes, “But in all unbalanced minds, the classification is idolized, passes for the end, and not for a speedily exhaustible means, so that the walls of the system blend to their eye in the remote horizon with the walls of the universe.” (E&L 276-7) Even the experimenter may be seduced by this, as Nietzsche notices: “Whenever a great thinker wants to make of himself a binding institution for future mankind, one may be certain that he is past the peak of his powers and is very weary, very close to the setting of his sun.” (D §542)

Faith corrupts in another way. It prevents action, by reversing the order of events in the mind and body. Deeds come before faith. If we encourage only faith, that is, only certain beliefs, we shall never build up enough to amount to a deed. Any deed always stretches beyond faith. “Protestant teachers continue to propagate the fundamental error that all that matters is faith, and that out of faith works must necessarily proceed. This is simply not true… The most confident knowledge or faith cannot provide the strength or the ability needed for a deed… Works, first and foremost! That is to say, doing, doing, doing! The ‘faith’ that goes with it will soon put in an appearance – you can be sure of that!” (D §22) Faith is mere rationalization, after the fact. Act first, and it will follow. Once again, experiment precedes all foundation.

D. Language. The heading of language encompasses a vicious pack of dangers. Language first of all brings the possibility of being misunderstood, a possibility that is only exacerbated when one speaks in one’s own idiom and not in the common manner. For Emerson, this danger also results from abandonment of a cloistering consistency (see 2.F below)—if one is willing to contradict oneself, “’Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’” (E&L 265) While Emerson resolves this danger quickly for himself—“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?” (E&L 265)—others do not take it so lightly. At repeated points in A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari praise experimentation in direct opposition to interpretation, “experimentation against any kind of interpretation” (ATP 267), and they write in a style that makes interpretation very difficult and experimentation more accessible.

This danger of language is exacerbated by a feature of language that is both a danger and a blessing: its poverty. I have discussed before how all translations are evil—well, what is language but a form of translation? Emerson describes words as “the far-off remembering of the intuition” (E&L 271), that is, a distant echo of the direct perception of the divine. Words, at their best, are our attempt to translate such perception into a public language, but this can be done only imperfectly. No one can experience the divine through another, by adopting his language. Language, in its highest function, is a form of translation, and so is an evil. Likewise, we may invert Nietzsche, who speaks of the need to set in motion a “subtle, many-faceted mechanism… if anything at all of an idea is to translate itself into action.” (D §22) Instead, we may wonder at the possibility of translating a deed, an experiment, into an idea, into something that may be spoken and transmitted—once again, we come upon the inherent evil and poverty of translation.

At the same time, this fact about language is not an unwelcome danger. It makes Emerson’s entire philosophy of experiment possible. For the primary result of this fact about language is that it renders impossible any sort of received truth. In language, one may receive goads and prods—it is no accident that Emerson, Nietzsche, and Deleuze all write in ways designed to stir one’s body and not just one’s mind—but never truth. To accept the dogma of another is, as noticed above, at best going to lead to mere half-possession, a pale shadow of the original—as it must, since language itself is a pale shadow of the original intuition. The impossibility of a definitive formulation of truth leads to the constant need to experiment, to find one’s own formulation. This feature of language is what preserves the very possibility of and need for self-reliance without imitation.

E. History. In all sorts of ways, the past, the history of human life, sets itself in opposition to experimentation in the present. Custom, discussed above, is but a means for the past. Nietzsche captures its true nature: “Morality makes stupid. – Custom represents the experiences of men of earlier times as to what they supposed useful and harmful – but the sense for custom (morality) applies, not to these experiences as such, but to the age, the sanctity, the indiscussability of the custom. And so this feeling is a hindrance to the acquisition of new experiences and the correction of customs: that is to say, morality is a hindrance to the creation of new and better customs: it makes stupid.” (D §19) Custom is just the petrification of the results of successful experiments: they cease to be valued for their success, and instead are valued for their age. Emerson speaks thus on this point: “The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.” (E&L 261) And he himself shows how to use names, how to use the past. After saying that it is not so bad to be misunderstood, Emerson calls to mind some examples: “Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh.” (E&L 265) This is an almost totally indiscriminate lumping together of names as instances of a single phenomenon—but that is how names are to be used. They are to be called to mind when one needs them to leap over some hurdle, but they are not to be venerated. Indeed, they are to be dropped as soon as the moment of perception comes. “Whenever a mind is simple, and receives a divine wisdom, old things pass away,—means, teachers, texts, temples fall.” (E&L 270) What Emerson is doing in his use of names is what Nietzsche describes as monumental history. From monumental history, “He learns… that the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again.” (UM 69) Monumental history is clumsy in the eyes of a slave to truth, to be sure, but that is no objection if it produces its “mighty effect”: “How much of the past would have to be overlooked if it was to produce that mighty effect, how violently what is individual in it would have to be forced into a universal mould and all its sharp corners and hard outlines broken up in the interest of conformity!” (UM 69)

History combines with language to oppose experimentation—this occurs in the form of books. “Books,” Emerson once famously wrote, “are for the scholar’s idle hours”, and it is no accident that Emerson begins “Self-Reliance” by drawing a moral about reading. “I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain.” (E&L 259) This last sentence, praising sentiment over thoughts, is at the crux of the experimental relationship to books. To read books for thoughts is just another way to read them for received truths, and the danger of interpreting too closely is that one ends up with only thoughts and not sentiments. A sentiment, by contrast, will not lead to imitation or conformity, but to new, original action, if only one follows the sentiment. Deleuze and Guattari, in another elaboration of the relation of experiment to interpretation, write, “We will never ask what a book means, as signified or signifier; we will not look for anything to understand in it. We will ask what it functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities.” (ATP 4) A book, or any writing, is to transmit intensities, not interpretable thoughts.

F. Biography. We have reached the final opponent of experimentation, and the most dangerous and inescapable. We act, perhaps we even experiment once, and suddenly this comes to burden us like a promise we did not expect to make. We are now expected to act consistently with our past actions. Even if the experiment failed (and we take this as an answer and not a judgment), it is binding on us. Even more so if the experiment succeeds. Ultimately it is our own past that claps upon us the tightest shackles. In part, this is due to society, for others form their expectations of our actions on the basis of our pasts—“the eyes of others have no data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.” (E&L 265) Emerson, as in the case of misunderstanding (which in fact occurs in the same portion of the essay), waves away this worry quickly. “Why drag about this corpse of your memory, lest you contradict somewhat you have stated in this or that public place?” (E&L 265) And then comes perhaps Emerson’s single most famous quote (and thus also his most often misquoted quote): “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” (E&L 265) Better to contradict what one said yesterday than to make oneself a slave.

When Emerson waves away a problem, you can expect that it is one that especially vexes Emerson—he is at his most emphatic and inspiring precisely where he doubts the most. And indeed this is the most difficult opponent to overcome. In some fashion, we are supposed to let the present bring the past into judgment. And Emerson is confident that, if we do so, we will find, beneath the surface inconsistency, a deeper consistency. “There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour.” (E&L 266) But Emerson’s confidence admits of skepticism at its margins.

§3. Untimeliness

What both of the last two opponents—which more or less encompass all of the others—share is a particular relationship to time, in particular the past. The proper relation to time for the experimenter is, instead, to be outside of it. Emerson praises the roses under his window, for they “make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” (E&L 270) It is impossible for humans to be perfectly out of time—Nietzsche well understands why. His essay On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life begins with an image of cattle, unable to explain their own forgetfulness—because they always forget what they want to say. Against this, man “wonders at himself, that he cannot learn to forget but clings relentlessly to the past.” (UM 61) Humans are historical animals, and that is why any human overcoming of the past—one’s own or the past of the entire species—will require something other than a mere forgetting or ignorance of it.

Yet if humans cannot exist outside of time, untimeliness still remains possible. Emerson floats an intriguing theory about the human experience of time. For him, it is fundamentally constituted by two sorts of human action: “But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future.” (E&L 270) Postponing and remembering—these two feeble acts create time for us, and insofar as we overcome them we stand outside of time, in the realm of the untimely. Nietzsche, somewhere in his essay on history, suggests that all great thinkers exist contemporaneously in the untimely sphere, and Deleuze, also somewhere whose location I cannot pinpoint, speaks of his early works on past philosophers as encounters in the untimely dimension, conversations occurring across time. But of the three, Emerson gives the idea the most beautiful expression, at the end of his book The Conduct of Life:

There is no chance, and no anarchy, in the universe. All is system and gradation. Every god is there sitting in his sphere. The young mortal enters the hall of the firmament: there is he alone with them alone, they pouring on him benedictions and gifts, and beckoning him up to their thrones. On the instant, and incessantly, fall snow-storms of illusions. He fancies himself in a vast crowd which sways this way and that, and whose movement and doings he must obey: he fancies himself poor, orphaned, insignificant. The mad crowd drives hither and thither, now furiously commanding this thing to be done, now that. What is he that he should resist their will, and think or act for himself? Every moment, new changes, and new showers of deceptions, to baffle and distract him. And when, by and by, for an instant, the air clears, and the cloud lifts a little, there are the gods still sitting around him on their thrones,—they alone with him alone. (E&L 1123-1124)

For all Emerson praises the individual and the present, he thinks it provides an avenue into the past, allows conversation with the past. Just as overcoming foolish consistency will lead to a deeper consistency, so will experimentation in the present lead to the rediscovery of old truths and virtues, truths and virtues that were lost when their formal expression became a rigid code or custom. “Honor is venerable to us because it is no ephemeris. It is always ancient virtue. We worship it to-day  because it is not of to-day. We love it and pay it homage, because it is not a trap for our love and homage, but is self-dependent, self-derived, and therefore of an old immaculate pedigree, even if shown in a young person.” (E&L 266)

This should answer any worries about the right of this philosophy to be called experimental. For, in calling something experimental, we must recognize that we do so on analogy with scientific experiments, whose hallmark is replication—the ability to be replicated. But when Emerson praises experimentation, he seems to decry replication: do not imitate the experiments of others. He has a simple reason for this: your soul is different from another’s, you could not replicate their experiment if you tried, since you are lacking an essential material. But in fact, experimentation and self-reliance do lead to a form of replication. “Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions.” (E&L 266) You will discover the same virtue and same truths as every other experimenter.

In this way, experimentation is opposed to progressivism. “Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other.” (E&L 279) Probably the most honest progressivist, B.F. Skinner, wrote, somewhere in his truly abominable novel Walden Two, that people in the Walden Two community have better things to do than be geniuses. Experimentation praises accident, what cannot be planned in advance, and tolerates failure well. Skinner, by contrast, hates accident, plans as much as he can, and does not respond well to failure, wants as much as possible to eliminate it. Skinner wants progress, and to make things better. Emerson does not oppose amelioration, as he calls it, but his interest is in great individuals, and there, “There is no more deviation in the moral standard than in the standard of height or bulk. No greater men are now than ever were.” (E&L 280) For Emerson, there is nothing but replication, endless replication in every individual up to the task. In this way, Emerson achieves a philosophy of originality that can sit side by side with the truth captured in our phrase, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

§4. The becoming self

Emerson suggests that there is something godlike about the self-reliant: “And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity, and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster. High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!” (E&L 274) This notion of being yoked to a simple purpose as to iron necessity is crucial to Emerson’s thought. Emerson’s is, at root, a philosophy of human freedom. For Emerson, freedom is inseparable from necessity. The person who is self-reliant does not really have a choice, for the dictates of their self lie on them with all the force of necessity. The less strong this necessity, the less free the individual.

But at this point, we must ask just what this self on which we are to rely is. And Emerson tells us, quite explicitly: “Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that for ever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside.” (E&L 271) This is the most fascinating element of Emerson’s experimental philosophy, and one that cannot be overlooked. The self is not something stable, not something pre-existing on which one can rely. The self is rather constructed in the process of self-reliance. Power lies in the moment of transition to a new state, but that new state by definition does not exist until after the transition takes place. Self-reliance thus runs up against the problem that there is no stable self on which to rely. And Emerson is aware of this: “Why, then, do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confident but agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is.” (E&L 271-2) As Deleuze puts it somewhere in Negotiations (I found it again here): “It’s a strange business, speaking for yourself, in your own name, because it doesn’t at all come with seeing yourself as an ego or a person or a subject. Individuals find a real name for themselves, rather, only through the harshest exercise in depersonalization, by opening themselves up to the multiplicities everywhere within them, to the intensities running through them.”

The philosophy of experiment is, then, a sort of egoism. It can never escape this charge. But it is a very special sort of egoism, one that goes on in the absence of a stable self, an egoism of selflessness.


E&L: Emerson’s Essays & Lectures, published by Library of America
UM: Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, published by Cambridge
D: Nietzsche’s Daybreak, published by Cambridge
ATP: Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, published by University of Minnesota


Nietzsche at Sea

2013/11/10 1 comment

Mindful of this situation in which youth finds itself I cry Land! Land! Enough and more than enough of the wild and erring voyage over strange dark seas! At last a coast appears in sight: we must land on it whatever it may be like, and the worst of harbours is better than to go reeling back into a hopeless infinity of skepticism. Let us only make land; later on we shall find good harbours right enough, and make the landfall easier for those who come after us. (UD 116)

What is it that could bring Nietzsche to cry “Land! Land!”? From what skepticism is he running? Above all, what is the mood of this passage, and of the essay that contains it? Might there be a situation in which Nietzsche could celebrate the sea and skepticism? (Citations to On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, designated UD, are from the Cambridge edition of Untimely Meditations, edited by Daniel Breazeale. Citations to On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, designated TL, are to the Cambridge edition of The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs.)

In both On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life and On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, Nietzsche attempts to characterize the liberated intellect, which is to be contrasted with the enslaved intellect. To achieve this, he plays with the theme of the human/animal boundary, using it now for one purpose, now another. A brief summary of these uses will then be helpful.

The opening paragraph of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense could not be clearer: humans are animals; we achieve nothing that extends beyond human life, which is just a sort of animal life; all we get from cognition, which supposedly separates us from the animals, is an ungainly and bloated pride. At the same time, Nietzsche does allow our intellect to separate us from the animals: we turn our metaphors into concepts—or, in other words, we let our metaphors die. In all of this, we are characterized by forgetting: we forget how language originates in dissimulation and metaphor, and from this we get our drive to truth; we forget ourselves as artistically creative subjects, and so we become slaves to the facts—facts that amount to little more than conventions we’ve established. Our truths capture little more than the relations of things to humans. The enslaved intellect erects these inventions into a life raft to which we can cling as we move through life. The liberated intellect, by contrast, smashes up concepts, brings unlike things together, and proceeds via intuition rather than concept. The liberated intellect is, in this way, quite animal.

Things are less straightforward in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. Nietzsche characterizes animal life as fundamentally unhistorical, characterized by forgetting, whereas human life involves memory and thus history. The contrast between the liberated and enslaved intellect arises again: the enslaved intellect treats history as a science, and overwhelms life with history. The enslaved intellect is chained to memory, and will not allow itself to forget even the slightest detail. The liberated intellect, by contrast, uses history in the service of life. Sometimes, as in the case of critical history, this involves remembering details and faithfulness to the facts, but in the case of monumental history, a great deal of falsification and forgetting is required. When the intellect is in chains, Nietzsche claims, we are permitted Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum, but not vivo, ergo cogito. We do not live. Instead, “the feeling that tells me I exist warrants to me only that I am a thinking creature, not that I am a living one, not that I am an animal but at most a cogital” (UD 119). Here the animal is placed above the cogital. Yet Nietzsche earlier says of the great man that his body does not contain his life, and when his body dies all that is left behind is “the dross, refuse, vanity, animality that had always weighed them down” (UD 69) and which was an object of his contempt. Nietzsche here seems caught between two tendencies: the one to lower the human to a place below the animal, the other to suggest something more than animal that the human can achieve. Some sense is made of this by Nietzsche’s later admission of “the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – doctrines which I consider true but deadly” (UD 112). Nietzsche thinks the animality of the human is a truth that must be handled delicately, in a way that preserves and engenders rather than destroys life. Nietzsche’s oscillation reflects his attempt to do just that.

The desire to suggest something higher than the animal in Nietzsche’s essay on history is the key to understand his cry of “Land! Land!” In the finest passage of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, there is no such desire for land.

That vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions. No regular way leads from these intuitions into the land of the ghostly schemata and abstractions; words are not made for them; man is struck dumb when he sees them, or he will speak only in forbidden metaphors and unheard-of combinations of concepts so that, by at least demolishing and deriding the old conceptual barriers, he may do creative justice to the impression made on him by the mighty, present intuition. (TL 152)

I take the “vast assembly of beams and boards” to be a boat, for Nietzsche earlier describes it as erected on “flowing water” (TL 147). I confess also that I cannot help but reading this passage anachronistically, in light of Neurath’s boat. Neurath’s boat metaphor runs as follows:

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction. (I took it from here)

Nietzsche’s account of the liberated intellect is that of one who, instead of clinging to this boat, uses it as the springboard for acrobatic leaps—perhaps at the cost of destroying and sinking the boat. What is absent is any sense of reaching land. Neither Neurath’s nor Nietzsche’s boat ever reaches land: there is no indication that it reaches any destination, or even that there are any destinations it could reach. In this way it is like animal life: it serves no purpose, has no end goal. There is simply play, then death.

Nietzsche’s cry for “Land! Land!” is a cry for some solid resting ground after a voyage through the sea of skepticism. How do we end up in this sea? “The madly thoughtless shattering and dismantling of all foundations, their dissolution into a continual evolving that flows ceaselessly away, the tireless unspinning and historicizing of all there has ever been by modern man, the great cross-spider at the node of the cosmic web…” (UD 108). Nietzsche is clear: this skepticism is the result of the “concept-quake caused by science” that “robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal” (UD 120-121). In so robbing us of all foundations, Nietzsche thinks that science may tyrannize over life, and life enslaved to science is weak and fearful. The liberated intellect and life should reverse this relationship and dominate science, using it to its own ends. And what is life? In great individuals, at least, the purpose of life is to “form a kind of bridge across the turbulent stream of becoming” (UD 111) and so to be a foundation for those with whom they live contemporaneously—i.e. the great individuals of other ages.

This is something stable, permanent, and eternal—or at least untimely. The vision of On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense is a lonesome, animal vision of the individual playing at sea, for no audience, present or future. That of On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life is more social and more human, if not more cogital and not less animal. The historicity of humanity, set against their forgetful animality, leads to the extinguishing of life. But when unified with that animality, when yoked to the service of life, it makes possible something above the animal, something that ignores, perhaps willfully, the dangerous truth that humans are just another sort of animal, no more.

Scientific and analogical history

2013/11/09 1 comment

By what is perhaps a lucky coincidence, the human/animal seminar I am taking arrived at Nie­tzsche (from whom we are reading On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense and On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life) at the same time as I concluded Emerson’s ad­dresses and lectures—next up is his first book of essays, which begins with his essay on history. (In fact, I completed the addresses and lectures a month or so ago, but simply have not had time to push forward with the essays until now.) My intent for this post was to bolster my Emerson-Nietzsche metempsychosis hypothesis, which in fact was bolstered by reading Emerson on history shortly after reading Nietzsche on history. (Nietzsche’s essay in fact contains two references to Emerson, though not to “History”.) However, I after reading the essay, I am more interested in something that is more internal to Emerson than it is comparative. Nevertheless, I find Nietzsche at the start of this path, if only for a time. (Nietzsche citations, designated UD, are to the Cambridge edition of Untimely Meditations used in the previous post. Emerson citations, designated H, are to his Essays & Lectures, published by Library of America.)

Nietzsche distinguishes three sorts of history that may aid life: monumental, antiquarian, and critical history. Antiquarian history preserves what is old, looking on it with “love and loyalty” (UD 72). Antiquarian history functions by preserving “for those who shall come into existence after [the antiquarian historian] the conditions under which he himself came into existence – and thus he serves life” (UD 73). It is of the least interest here. Critical history serves to “break up and dissolve a part of the past” by showing it worthy of being condemned (UD 75). This is not difficult: “every past, however, is worthy to be condemned, for that is the nature of human things: human violence and weakness have always played a mighty role in them” (UD 76). This sort of history is exemplified by Nietzsche’s own genealogical work, which is nothing but a critical history of morality (and Christianity) for the sake of condemning it. Foucault’s work also falls in this category. It is a dangerous form of history. It can easily lead to a debilitating skepticism and ultimately catatonia, because it is a universal acid: every past, subjected to critical history, turns out to be worthy of condemnation. So it must be used selectively: it is a tool by which life can act to free itself from some bondage, but it should not be pursued for its own sake.

Lastly, there is monumental history. Nietzsche occasionally engages in this, but I think it is on the whole best exemplified by Emerson. Monumental history serves the “man of the present” by showing him “that the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again” (UD 69)—it shows, in short, what is possible, and fortifies him who would achieve it. Characteristic of monumental history is a sort of violence against truth: “How much of the past would have to be overlooked if it was to produce that mighty effect, how violently what is individual in it would have to be forced into a universal mould and all its sharp corners and hard outlines broken up in the interest of conformity!” (UD 69)

As I read it, Emerson’s “History” is a straightforward call for monumental history, though perhaps not of a sort identical to Nietzsche’s. Emerson insists, right from the start, on two points: (a) “There is on mind common to all individual men.” (b) Of the works of this mind history is the record” (H 237). Emerson later develops this thought when he claims that history is more or less a set of variations on a few themes: the laws of this universal mind. In this way, Emerson effects the overlooking of details Nietzsche mentions: in all of history there are but a few patterns to be isolated. All of history is to be shoved into a universal mould. (Incidentally, anyone who has experienced the way Emerson more or less indiscriminately lumps names together as exemplars of some point can attest that Emerson diligently adhered to this doctrine in his own reliance on history.)

But this reduction of history to a few laws is not to be achieved scientifically. There is purification by means of overlooking irrelevant details, but this is not to be accomplished experimentally or scientifically. Rather, it is to be accomplished analogically. “Nature is full of sublime family likeness throughout her works; and delights in startling us with resemblances in the most unexpected quarters” (H 243). The examples that immediately follow this statement make it clear that these likenesses are analogical, not causal.

Analogies, however, are easy to come by. What can lend any sort of rigor to history performed in this manner? Surely it must end up lax and undisciplined. As usual, for Emerson, the route to the universal begins by burrowing into oneself. “The fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible” (H, 238). What in history cannot be corroborated by private experience is to be ignored. In this way, there is a dual movement in which private facts are generalized, and public facts privatized.

History, so achieved, is not a matter of standing on the shoulders of giants. History should show us what is possible and give us the strength to achieve it—Emerson is in this a monumental historian—but it does not cover any ground for us. “Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself,—must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know” (H 240). Indeed, in a way, the more history there is, the greater the mind’s task, for “We must in ourselves see the necessary reason of every fact,—see how it could and must be” (H 240).

History illuminates to us our own biography, even as our own biography orders and justifies history. History, then, can never outstrip biography. “The student is to read history actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary” (H 239)—with the result that “History becomes fluid and true, and Biography deep and sublime” (H 246). There is nothing but self-knowledge to be found in history.

Most fascinating about this last quote, to me, is the equivalence between History being “fluid” and History being “true”. Normally we think of what is stable as true, which would in this case be the stable facts of history, scientifically undertaken. But, for Emerson, what is stable and material is secondary to what is fluid and ideal, to relations. Emersonian history is true, when it is true, because it is fluid. (There is more on this in my post on the transparent eyeball passage of Nature.)

Emerson grows impatient with history undertaken scientifically: science acts then precisely as an undertaker, and history is carried out like a corpse. Emerson’s vision of history is one that is, he believes, unrealized except in the rare case: “Nay, what does history yet record of the metaphysical annals of man? What light does it shed on those mysteries which we hide under the names Death and Immortality?” (H 256). At the essay’s emotional summit, Emerson implores self-reliance over servitude to the material facts:

What is our life but an endless flight of winged facts or events! In splendid variety these changes come, all putting questions to the human spirit. Those men who cannot answer by a superior wisdom these facts or questions of time, serve them. Facts encumber them, tyrannize over them, and make the men of routine the men of sense, in whom a literal obedience to facts has extinguished every spark of that light by which man is truly man. But if the man is true to his better instincts or sentiments, and refuses the dominion of facts, as one that comes of a higher race, remains fast by the soul and sees the principle, then the facts fall aptly and supple into their places; they know their master, and the meanest of them glorifies him. (H 252)

When there is this possibility in view, who would choose slavery? “Why should we make account of time, or of magnitude, or of figure? The soul knows them not, and genius, obeying its law, knows how to play with them as a young child plays with graybeards and in churches” (H 242).

— — Interlude: My original plan for this post shows its face here: I cannot resist quoting the following passage from Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, to be read in light of the foregoing. “That vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions.” (Page 152 in the Cambridge edition of The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs.) End interlude. — —

This opposition between mastery over and slavery to the facts is, I think, the core of Emerson’s essay on history—and Nietzsche’s, too. There is a needy life that clings to facts as the beams and boards of a ship, because it has no answer of its own to give them. And there is the self-reliant life that confronts these facts as material for play of the most deadly serious sort, taking those it can use, rearranging them in the most interesting and vital combinations, revealing what is fluid and eternal in nature. Incidentally, my response to those who claim that On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense is an immature essay of Nietzsche’s, full of views he thankfully overcame, is that such a view is superficial. Nietzsche there is asking the same questions about the value of truth that he asked throughout his career: just how valuable is truth for life. Like Emerson before him, he claimed truth should serve life, and not the other way around.

I want to end with what remains, for me, an aporia. Emerson supposes we encounter the universal by self-reliance. Yet, for Emerson, there is no stable self. “A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world” (H 254). Relations, as we have seen, are fluid, are subject to change. Indeed, Emerson knew this as well as anyone: the self-reliant man is not necessarily consistent (recall Emerson’s account of hobgoblins), is not chained to his past. The self on which one relies is not yet accomplished when one approaches history: history indeed is a guide to one’s “unattained but attainable self” (H 239). Yet it is self-reliance that is supposed to guide the approach to history. Thus there is a Meno problem for Emerson: if the self is attained, we do not need history, but if the self is not attained, we end up slaves to historical fact, for we lack the resources to approach history. (This same problem arises for the Nietzschean imperative to become who one is.) How is this problem to be resolved? Once again, I must end:

I do not know.

An impossible argument in Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations

I am recently coming to suspect that Nietzsche, that most naturalist of philosophers, was a vitalist. This leads him into trouble, but not the usual troubles. When I call Nie­tzsche a vitalist, I do not mean that he thought an additional, non-physical law or princi­ple was needed to account for the phenomenon of life. (Perhaps that is what his will to power is. I don’t know. In any event I am focusing on the younger Nietzsche.) Rather, I mean that he viewed life as something special, something that perhaps not all living organisms possess. [All citations will be to the Cambridge editions of Untimely Meditations, translated by R.J. Hollingdale and edited by Daniel Breazeale.]

This comes out when Nietzsche says, in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, that history should serve life rather than life serve history. What Nietzsche means by “life” is only a subset of what there is to living beings. Consider the following passage, in which Nietzsche asks of possessors of life (in the vitalistic sense):

What was left of them to bury! Only the dross, refuse, vanity, animality that had always weighed them down and that was now consigned to oblivion after having for long been the object of their contempt. But one thing will live, the monogram of their most essential being, a work, an act, a piece of rare enlightenment, a creation: it will live because posterity cannot do without it. (69)

Here life is not our living bodies, but our “essential being”, which may be found in a work or an act, and which remains even when our bodies are decayed. Nietzsche at one point (I haven’t been able to track it down) suggests a pruning metaphor: the great individual prunes himself, shedding that which is not life or not in service of life, preserving only what is or serves life. Life is only a small part of the living organism, if any.

It is this life that history is supposed to serve. We can well imagine utilitarianism or Christianity has been useful for the preservation of the species, yet Nietzsche could still adamantly respond: yes, but they have not served life! The same is true for history: its application could preserve the human race, perhaps, but not human life.

Nietzsche, later in the essay, gives an argument for why history must serve life—for its own sake!

As cities collapse and grow desolate when there is an earthquake and man erects his house on volcanic land only in fear and trembling and only briefly, so life itself caves in and grows weak and fearful when the concept-quake caused by science robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal. Is life to dominate knowledge and science, or is knowledge to dominate life? Which of these two forces is the higher and more decisive? There can be no doubt: life is the higher, the dominating force, for knowledge which annihilated life would have annihilated itself with it. Knowledge presupposes life and thus has in the preservation of life the same interest as any creature has in its own continued existence. (121)

(Note: Nietzsche in the essay considers whether or not history should be a science or an art. So when Nietzsche considers science and life, history is included under science, I believe.)

There is an uncontroversial sense in which knowledge presupposes life: it requires living beings to carry it out. But what I have been suggesting is precisely that Nietzsche has been developing a sense of ‘life’ that is distinct from that of living beings: life may be found even after the death of the living being (think how often in his later philosophy Nietzsche praises the life that squanders itself—or even think of the very idea of untimeliness and posthumous birth), and the living being can exist without life, if those living parts have been pruned away, leaving only the dross and vanity.

Nietzsche’s argument turns on an equivocation: history presupposes living beings, and Nietzsche slides from this uncontroversial claim to the much more interesting view that history presupposes life. Nietzsche’s argument is impossible: his peculiar definition of ‘life’ makes it so.

I don’t wish to speculate why Nietzsche fell into this mistake. Carelessness, perhaps, or maybe it was deliberate. It is an interesting mistake, in my view, since so much of Nietzsche’s work is premised on the idea that something might be incredibly harmful to life, to health, without having the slightest negative consequences for the preservation of the species. Nietzsche confronts, again and again, the possibility and even reality of what is non-life in humans dominating what is life in them. Yet here he would rule out that possibility a priori. A defensive maneuver, perhaps? A retreat from a terrible truth he was not yet ready to face?

I do not know.