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Nietzsche for beginners

I lunched today with our Great Leader Perry, and one of the things he mentioned was how he doesn’t care for ploughing through the collected works of the Great Philosophers (something to do with preferring simply to find out “the truth”), and prefers instead to read … and I can’t remember the exact phrase he used, but the one I use in such circumstances is ‘Bluffers Guide’. I share Perry’s tastes in this matter. However, like him, I do want to know approximately what these people did say.

I was thus particularly pleased to encounter this posting, by Friedrich Blowhard. It is number three in a series of postings he has done about Friedrich Nietzsche. (Something tells me that there may not be many more in this series of potted guides.) But since Friedrich B starts Nietzsche posting number three with a brief summary of postings number one and two, I reckon that means we can skip postings one and two and just read three.

There is a definite air of challenge in what Friedrich B says to the likes of us, especially in these paragraphs:

But by his example in putting forward the Over-man as the ‘meaning of the earth’ (whether you agree with him or find this ludicrous) Nietzsche makes it clear how intellectually flaccid it is to argue for or against, say, a social policy on the basis of abstractions like ‘liberty,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘fairness.’ I have nothing against such concepts, but clearly they are pretty vague and toothless in the absence of an explicit goal or a stated purpose. I mean, who really thinks they are here on earth to pursue perfect liberty, perfect justice or perfect fairness as ends in themselves? Aren’t liberty, justice and fairness valuable only as means to some end? But can we really be surprised that the average American ends up living a life of ‘mindless consumerism’ when he or she can’t state a social goal more profound than ‘eliminating injustice’?

But I share Nietzsche’s skepticism about how long an era that remains agnostic about any higher or supreme goal can stave off the hunger pangs of meaning. As evidence of this, I would point to the rise of movements like sociobiology, and perhaps the aesthetic theories like those of Christopher Alexander. Although Sociobiology, for example, is too shy to come right out and admit that it nurtures such an ur-goal in its bosom, I think it is clearly implied: that we should live so as to maximize the odds that our descendants will survive and thrive. And since our biological ‘nature’ is the only possible basis for profound human ‘meaning,’ we must come to terms with it, if only in order to survive long enough to accomplish our goal.

These philosophies seem to me to the first signs of what I would term the emergence of post-nihilistic ‘meaning,’ but I doubt they will be the last. I look forward to seeing others arise as well. Let me announce my formula: Nihilism is dead.

Heh. Nice little joke that. But after that laugh dies away, I am left with the definite feeling that I am being got at.

My problem is that I think that the Nietzsche described by Friedrich (Blowhard), who identifies the twentieth century as the time when God died and the God gap got filled by a succession of philosophical/political catastrophes, is pretty much correct. However, I am also part of the God is Dead tendency myself. In the words of Michael Caine in The Last Valley (a movie which, it so happens, Perry and I share a taste for): “There is no God! It’s a legend!” My sentiments exactly. And if you combine that with “You can’t get an ought from an is!”, you get that pretty much all ‘meanings’ you get nowadays are actually meaningless, other than the ones I make for myself.

Okay, well that’s something for you all to think about. If your tastes are more in the direction of cool gadgets, Perry also allowed me to take a photograph of this.

Alienware Aurora PC at Samizdata.net HQ

19 comments to Nietzsche for beginners

  • Sean O'Callaghan

    It’s a pity that the concept of God has been jettisoned before a viable replacement has been discovered. True or not – his demise has been accompanied by the greatest atrocities in history and there looks to be more of the same on the horizon…

  • Weird! I was just re-reading bits of Beyond Good & Evil last night. As to this:

    “Aren’t liberty, justice and fairness valuable only as means to some end?”

    I’d say: and isn’t that end just the means to another end, and so and so on ad infinitum?

    Everything we do is a means, nothing is ever an end. Just get over it.

    BTW, isn’t that a state-of-the-gaming-art Alienware PC I spy at the foot of this post? Costing a mere £2,000 or more, unless I’m much mistaken, if it’s their top-of-the-line model.

    I recently picked up a 3GHz P4 machine, 512 RAM, 80GB SATA HD, Asus P4P8X mobo, FX5600, 19″ CRT, DVD blah blah for £1,100. It amazes me that the difference between that and Alienware is fairly slight, yet the price difference is phenomenal – just for an extra 200MHz of CPU speed that makes little diff, extra 1/2 gig of RAM no one really needs yet, and an extra 40Gb of HD which no one will ever fill unless they have an mp3 collection from Hell.

    Still, way to go Perry. How did Santa get it down the chimney anyway?

  • Nietzsche’s insight was that God was not being abolished, only replaced by secular religions. Bearded Marx for bearded Abraham. But only abolition would do for him, yet the Nietzschean project was haunted by the paradox of “freeing” man from God at the cost of erecting the Overman as the “meaning of the earth”. By defining the Overman as an entity without God then he seemed to prove his point by construction.

    Yet a close inspection will show that he never avoided circularity. He constructed his Overman out of the bits and pieces he rejected in the first place. Now comes the project of a post-Nihilistic meaning system building out of the wrack of the old. But hold on: aren’t we trying to construct a postulate free system? That’s hard to do and to the best of my knowledge, no mathematician has succeeded.

    The best course it seems, is not to try to do away with postulates altogether, but rather choose the smallest and safest set of postulates that we can. Then by empirical experience we can reexamine our postulate system periodically, to see how it squares with reality.

  • Doug Collins

    As goals we can hold in common, liberty, justice and (fairness?-whatever that is), are about all that can be reasonably pursued by a community. Their virtue is that they are necessary, and perhaps even sufficient, for individuals to dree their individual weirds.

    Philosophers have essentially proven that there is no logically consistent basis for morality derivable by reason, by their manifest failure to find one. When reason doesn’t work, you turn to trial and error. Genetic algorithms in computing and natural selection in biology are powerful methods of finding answers where reasoned analysis fails. But without liberty and justice, humans cannot participate in them.

    We have had several thousand years of trial and error already. This has given us an impressive moral baseline to work from. Those of us, myself included, who do believe in God, can continue to evolve a moral paradigm by alternately following, and violating, the rules He provided us and then observing the results -assuming we survive long enough to evaluate them. Those with other approaches and rationales can try their luck with those. I would be more concerned with the lack of economy of this approach to deriving moral absolutes, were the historical records of the last two centuries worth of ‘reasoned’ attempts to set up moral absolutes not such a bloody mess.

    Objecting to ‘mindless consumerism’ implies that one has inside information on what the proper end of life is. That’s great. Go to it and show the rest of us how clever you are. Really. And everyone else has to make their own best guess, ideally making new mistakes and avoiding old ones. This is where I think Nietzsche makes his biggest error.

    He essentially discards everything the experience of civilization has so far taught us and instead, goes back to the same ‘State of Nature’ concept that Rousseau and other assorted asses who followed him have repeatedly held up as an ideal to which we all are supposed to return. The problem is that it never existed.

    (I like to think that Locke’s state of nature is different – merely a basic conceptual state upon which rules can be constructed, and their effects analysed in a kind of ‘thought experiment’. But not a real state that existed in some wonderful dim past age.)

    Whether the human experience is a matter of learning how to apply divine rules that we imperfectly understand, or a matter of repeatedly trying and failing to work things out for ourselves, the answer is probably not going to come easily. And certainly not next week. Nietzsche reminds me of the mullets who fall for get rich quick schemes. They can’t accept the fact that wealth takes time to generate. Nor can they tolerate the disciplines necessary to generate it. We can maximize liberty and justice so humanity can make further evolutionary progress, or we can get impatient and try to use an Over-man, or a Worker’s Paradise or some other nostrum to achieve nirvana in our own lifetime. In a way, it’s a shame Nietzsche, Marx, Rousseau, Hegel and all the rest didn’t live in our time. They could all have made info-mercials and hawked their ideas on TV, at one-o-clock in the morning, among the diet plans, get-rich-with-no-money-down-real-estate schemes and collections of ’70’s rock and roll CDs.

  • John

    Ah, the Last Valley. A relatively unknown gem of a movie, at least I’ve found it so in the midwest, US.

    “Korsky was a turd.”


  • That is Perry’s Alienware beast of a machine. It is so OTT it is bloody amusing. Course it can run the latest machine crusher software no problem. So we can expert Perry to be playing Doom III. (At one time the game was unplayable on any commercially available machine.)

    I tend to read the “bluffers guides” too, which very few exceptions. Many of them are very good at reducing the sometimes verbose theory of a philospher to his vital points. Even if you plan to read the entire works of a philosopher they can be an excellent taster for what is to come.

  • That is one amazing looking computer!!

  • D Anghelone

    That is one amazing looking computer!!

    And the flag?

  • toad

    One of the reasons I retreated from aetheism and agnositism was that you actually ended up trying to apply a new “faith” to your life if you made any effort to live an ethical life. The constant strain of trying to apply logical thought to my moral dilemas and trying to understand my copy of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Philosophy,” finally caused me to go back to a “hardly at all” Protestant faith. I think that I actually worship many things, The US Constitution, the concept of the “sweety” that I’ll eventually meet, God, and money.
    Steven den Beste had a article wherein he makes a good argument that his aetheism is a “faith.”

  • Jacob

    “It amazes me that the difference between that and Alienware is fairly slight, yet the price difference is phenomenal ”

    Does your machine LOOK like this Alienware ? Apropos “The Substance of Style” – the Alienware sure has style (acording to the photo). Style has substance – and you pay for it.

  • I am typing this post on an Alienware machine myself. As for the price, I had this one custom-made and tried to have the same specs put together by Dell and one other on-line firm. For the specs Alienware was not only cheaper, the other firms would not have the beast to me in a bit over a weeks’ time, rather 8 weeks to 3 months!

    Yes I got it to run Doom3 (and the like). But they keep delaying the release!

  • One other thing: I highly recommend the Klipsch/THX sound system that Alienware steered me to… I was skeptical but now I am not.

  • I have an older Alienware, and could not even begin to justify getting one to replace it. Instead I built 2 comparable high end computers, in cases picked individually, for less than the price of one Alienware. I also wasn’t too impressed with their service when I got mine. It took 5 weeks to be assembled and sent, and had some equipment troubles, that they were a bit slow on fixing. I have to say they’re better than most assemblers, but if you have ANY clue, build your own. 🙂

    As for Nietzsche, I don’t have any idea.

  • In my gut I cannot believe that, by and large and with or without religious faith, my fellow, average man is possessed of sufficient data to discriminate very finely in matters of meaning. It all ought to have been laid down organically and with love in his mental processes from early childhood. But we simply do not live in a society in which such wisdom is embedded.

    Anyway, discriminating or not, man must be accorded respect. He must be free to live and die by his own creative capacity and will since no one, not his neighbour, not some authoritarian politician nor churchman, NO ONE has any prospect of delivering a better outcome for him – nor any right whatever to insist upon doing so. Hence, for me, libertarianism remains the most advantageous if still imperfect politic.

    But – and here’s where the challenge comes in – libertarianism does not merely leave a mighty vacuum where there should be meaning, It positively creates it and, accordingly, some highly favourable conditions for that descent into the nihilism and self-destructiveness that Nietzsche feared. Friedrich Blowhard mentions sociobiology as an obviously very tentative and weak attempt to pull in the other direction, which I found interesting. Sociobiologists would probably tell him, though, that the real McCoy is genetic science. One day the challenge to the geneticists will be to reveal not just life’s method but something of its meaning – or, at least, the existence of meaning. I’ll give you an example:-

    Let us ask whether the mental state of beatification or transcendental bliss, which is attested in the monastic traditions of all religions, is delusional or the result of privation or some kind of acquired behaviour – or whether it is the operation of a mind much like yours or mine, but in a state of genuine revelation. Now, if it were the latter such a noumenal quirk has no reference to natural selection. We do not need it for fitness to our macro-environment. We would arrive at the same point in our ability to function in the world on a daily basis without ever, as a species, having experienced any flood tide of high meaning. Why, then, should it exist, if it does? Only genetic science can, in time, answer this question because what is real in us is founded in our genes and can be discovered there. Genetic science has the capacity to make meaning real, no matter how nihilistic we may become in the interim. And the father of the Uber-mensch had never even heard of it.

  • Patrick

    Re: D Anghelone: “and the flag?”

    Is hung backwards. Stars always up and to the right, the flag’s right.

    Or perhaps there is a deaper meaning…

  • Joe

    From experience I’ve got to say the best way to do it… Re philosophy, business or Computerdesign.. is to learn how to build one for yourself!

    Though that statement doesn’t seem quite so sound on listening to the grrrrrrrinding noise coming from my computers innards 😉

  • Nietzsche meets Alienware. Now there’s a post you never imagine in your wildest dreams.

    “Steven, Does your machine LOOK like this Alienware ? Apropos “The Substance of Style” – the Alienware sure has style (acording to the photo). Style has substance – and you pay for it.”

    No, it doesn’t, but I don’t care. My machine could be mounted on a wooden frame and held together with string so long as what’s inside does the business. Style has substance only when style is the substance, which it is not in the case of computers. (IMHO.)

    “Yes I got it to run Doom3 (and the like). But they keep delaying the release!”

    Umm, then how did you get to play it?

  • Mark

    And what’s with the map of Yugoslavia (or it’s devolved states) in the background?

    Anybody who has trouble with the meaning of life must not have children. Once you have them, then you know why you’re here. It’s as simple as that.

  • Jacob

    “Nietzsche meets Alienware.”
    Nietzsche sought for something that could give meaning to life. Maybe Alienware is relevant, in some symbolic way.