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Monday, March 30, 2009

On the Prejudices of Philosophers

Part One of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil is devoted to a critique of philosophy and asks whether or not the entire tradition of western philosophy is based on a sham, or at the very least, a radical misunderstanding of the limits of reason. Nietzsche speaks of the seductive charms of philosophy, especially as formulated by Plato. Much of philosophy since Plato has been a response to his claim that reality is essentially rational, and can be perceived, with proper guidance, as a region of ultimate truth. Truth, for Plato, is the state of absolute perfection, a realm of eternal ideas or "forms" which prop up the inferior material world (the world of "appearances") that we all inhabit. Nietzsche blames Plato for propagating a myth, a kind of metaphysical ghost story which has burdened philosophy with pointless speculation about abstract ideas, when in fact the only truth worth pursuing is the study of our own human nature, or what Freud might call the inner life of man. Of course, Nietzsche would not approve of Freud's invention of the subconscious, with its own mythological entities such as the id or superego. But at least Freud was correct to focus his research on the substratum of human behavior, the drives and impulses that guide our every action.

For Nietzsche, Plato, is simply the father of all lies, a Mephistopheles who infects human reason with the fantasy of a non-visible world of spirit. Why does this matter? Because the legacy of this fantasy will be our entire body of Judeo-Christian morality which we inherit from the merger between Jewish religion with neo-Platonic philosophy. Nietzsche believes this merger was catastrophic for western culture. Christianity becomes a repudiation of all things material and substitutes for normal human drives a kind of neurotic fascination for other-worldly salvation. But his analysis of western morality is not addressed here. Part One is entitled "On the Prejudices of Philosophers" and that is where he directs his complaint.

Nietzsche suggests that the whole project of philosophy, i.e., the search (or will) for truth is delusional...

Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosopher so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir. (13)

There is no way to separate human reason from human psychology. We are fundamentally biological organisms with biological needs. Philosophy is an attempt to impose reason upon nature, which is unreceptive to human feeling. In this respect, Nietzsche believes that our current trust in the power of science or technology to resolve basic problems in human society is also doomed to fail. The really significant problems such as crime, social unrest, war, insanity, etc., are mere manifestations of a deeper conflict that cannot be resolved through logic. Morality is society's attempt to regulate this conflict and keep it within acceptable limits. But morality cannot transform or cure what nature has provided. Inequalities exist because nature is not a slave to human desire. Philosophy (and science) is man's attempt to understand nature, but human understanding itself, as Freud recognized, is subject to irrational forces beyond our control.

Nietzsche believes that philosophy seduces man into believing he can transcend his human limitations. That is why all philosophy deals in dogma. It hides behind a cloud of illogical assumptions. For example, western philosophy is dualistic in its approach. It assumes that reality can be divided into opposing categories: matter and spirit; truth and error; substance and quality; day and night; good and evil. But, in fact, no clear line separates these categories because we have no clear understanding of what these categories represent. Every noun in human speech is a metaphor that points to something we have in mind. But what, exactly, do we have in mind? An idea? An image? An intuition? Objects in nature at least have empirical properties that can be tested. But abstract ideas such as freedom or virtue are not easily identified. Nietzsche suggests that language itself presents an impassible barrier to our understanding because it is a symbol system whose fundamental nature is poetic, not logical. In other words, we inherit assumptions about what our ideas (symbols) refer to without really knowing for certain what these things are. Another way of stating this is to say that philosophy and poetry are essentially interchangeable. They suggest approximations to the world, but lack the means to fully disclose it.

Dogma is harmful because it hides behind the illusion that truth is knowable (or discoverable). But, in reality, truth is a manufactured product, assembled from our limited storehouse of knowledge to satisfy our human craving for certainty. What Plato provides is a theory which offers man the hope that something endures beyond our brief tenure on earth: i.e., the Good. But dogma arrives at your doorstep like an unwanted guest. You start with dogma (earth as the center of creation) and proceed outward, expanding your conception of nature to account for observations which conflict with your sacred assumptions, namely the retrograde motion of the planets. Dogma always masquerades as prophesy. Like the divine right of kings, we assume its truth and adjust our observations to align with its center of gravity, in Ptolemaic fashion. Nietzsche argues that all philosophy is dogma of one kind or another. But some forms are more dangerous than others. Philosophy can only reveal the prejudices of the philosopher while unable to provide anything useful to human existence. In other words, philosophy is a palliative. It gives comfort and serenity in the illusion of truth, but is unable to relieve our distress. Moreover, it makes no difference whether we adopt Plato, Hegel, Spinoza or Kant as our guide, for they will only lead us around in circles. To escape from this intellectual wilderness, we need to abandon rationalism and return to the physical world of men and nature. For that, we must turn away from dogma toward an examination of what Nietzsche calls "the will to power."


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