Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Nietzsche and existentialism

To: Paul M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Nietzsche and existentialism
Date: 14th September 2011 14:05

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of 31 August, with your fourth essay for the Associate Award, entitled, 'The emergence and positive application of the existential attitude: A Nietzschean based interpretation.'

There are good things about this. You have succeeded in getting into the swim of Nietzschean thought, especially with regard to the question of the relation between his doctrine of will to power and his perspectivism. I detected a nuance of the later Wittgenstein in the emphasis on the 'full context of the human condition', a point of contact between otherwise dissimilar philosophies.

Another point of contact between Nietzsche and the later Wittgenstein, perhaps, is Nietzsche's characteristic way of developing his viewpoint through 'indirect discourse', rarely stating explicitly what he thinks but hinting, contrasting different views, using multiple voices -- Kierkegaard is another example of this. But this sets a problem for the interpreter. It becomes all-too easy to justify a particular interpretation by selecting suitable quotes. You avoid the problem entirely by never once referencing the works of Nietzsche. Which isn't really a solution at all, because what it means, in effect, is that your essay reads as your 'take' on Nietzsche (I good take, I would say) but where very little is offered in the way of argument or defence.

Readings of Nietzsche typically emphasize his rejection of Christianity, his opposition to theism, Platonic ideals, the Kantian categorical imperative etc. -- the metaphysical moral absolutes which merely constitute, in his eyes, 'the last fumes of evaporating reality' (Twilight of the Idols). What is less often stressed is his case against science, and its attempt to describe reality -- including the reality of the subject and agent -- from a purely objective point of view. This point is essential for grasping the idea of 'perspective' in Nietzsche's philosophy. But if we were to compare the amount of words which Nietzsche expends on the first target -- religion and traditional metaphysics -- with the amount of words which he uses to critique the ideal of science, I would guess that the former considerably outnumbers the latter.

I have only quickly looked at Maureen Finnegan's paper, but I'm guessing that your argument here is quite heavily dependent on her interpretation. As evidence I would cite Finnegan's statement,

'As truth is not objective, in like manner, it is not subjective. Since thinking is not wholly rational, disconnected from the body, or independent of the world, the subjective perception, or conception, of truth through the intellect alone is impossible.'

Compare your,

'However although truth is not objective in turn this does not mean that it is a wholly subjective rational process either. An individual's truth is not simply derived from reason but is in addition to this a complicated combination of instincts, drives, passions and will situated within a context of life.'

When I read your essay, I underlined 'wholly subjective rational process'. This is an odd thing to say, given that the idea or ideal of rationality is generally associated with the objective, disinterested view. Now I can see (I think) the point Finnegan is making here. If you get rid of the 'objective', you simultaneously get rid of the 'subjective' contrasted with it. My intellect is not an isolated faculty, but part of my whole being, so in this sense individual human reason is always in a context of emotions and drives: there is no such thing as an 'objective view' even of my own self, because I am the viewpoint that I occupy.

Or something like that.

You can see the problem. I applaud the fact that you have done some research on this, looked and found suitable material. But in the complete absence of references it is impossible to tell where your thought or contribution ends and that of others, or of Nietzsche, begins.

So what I am going to say now applies to your other essays too. You need to mark clearly the parts of your essay where you are paraphrasing a view which Nietzsche expresses in his writings (modulo the difficulty I mentioned in the beginning), as well as claims about or interpretations of Nietzsche, such as Finnegan. In both cases, the device of footnotes serves well. Make it clear where you are stating what you have gathered from reading Nietzsche, what you have learned from reading secondary sources, i.e. the work of interpreters of Nietzsche, and where you are offering your own thoughts.

Your writing flows well. I've got used to this, but you seem to want to avoid the use of commas at all costs, which can make things difficult for the reader. I would advise a few more suitably placed commas to help the reader follow the structure of the sentences, shorter sentences and also shorter paragraphs.

In this essay, I did miss the comparison with other existential thinkers such as Heidegger (who has written extensively on Nietzsche). Your title announces that this is about existentialism. What about it? How else are we to assess Nietzsche's particular contribution except by contrast to, or in comparison with, the contribution of other existentialist thinkers? It is not necessary to radically revise the structure of your essay. Just a suitably placed sentence or two is all that's needed here.

All the best,