Nietzsche vs the philosophical philistine

Tom Stern, who was a graduate student here in Cambridge while I was still in the Faculty, has edited The New Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, newly published by CUP. I’ve dipped into it. The editor’s “Introduction: Nietzsche’s Life and Works” is characteristically lucid. But I was very struck by his peroration:

Looking at the different ‘Nietzsches’ described in this introduc- tion – the phases of his writing, the varying interpretations, textual complexities, stylistic challenges and the likely unfamiliarity of his historical context – the non-specialist reader may be tempted to despair of ever finding a stable, satisfactory view of his ideas. One could offer many responses to such perfectly understandable despair: that Nietzsche may have cultivated it, and certainly to some degree deserves it; that some ideas nonetheless appear often enough, and with sufficient force, to be ascribed to him; that often there is, if not critical consensus, at least a shared sense of the available options, with their strengths and weaknesses. But perhaps the best reply would be that, whatever Nietzsche thought, the confrontation with his texts and his interpreters has repeatedly proven itself to be enormously fruitful. When reading his works, or a Companion such as this, you will probably meet some thought which lights you up. And it might even be one of Nietzsche’s.

And there you have why I can’t find much enthusiasm for writers like Nietzsche. I do read a fair amount of literary fiction and poetry. But when it comes to philosophy, I really don’t want to be “confronting” texts, I don’t want “stylistic challenges”, I don’t want to tangle with “varying interpretations”. I just want the directest plain talk, as explicit as possible, with reasoning  laid out on the table and the steps signalled as clearly and frankly as may be. I’m not sure I particularly want to be “lit up” — I much rather want to see honest toil in working through the details of hard arguments. So in philosophy, I guess I’m just a bone-headed philistine. (Or still a mathmo at heart, and not a real philosopher at all.)

2 thoughts on “Nietzsche vs the philosophical philistine”

  1. George Berger

    Your point of view is why Carnap’s “Introduction to Symbolic Logic and its Applications” got me into philosophy. Later Russell and Brentano came close to that model.

  2. Chris Hutchinson

    I think there is a place for both being ‘lit up’ and, also, for admiring hard graft. As an undergraduate, I didn’t particularly like trying to fish the bones out of Kant, in order to contrive an essay on which interpretation of Kant was correct. Years later, I enjoy reading Kant for my own pleasure and insight; mulling over his arguments for their own sake, and sometimes just thinking ‘wow, never thought of it in that way’. At the same time, I also get pleasure from reading new-ish papers: trying to follow an argument, deciding whether I think an argument works etc. Davidson was once asked why he still read the moderns when he was into such technical stuff and he replied that all he could say was that it helped him; I think I can see what he meant. Having said all that, Nietzsche was the only philosopher I was made to read at uni which I also found unreadable and utterly useless; yet brilliant philosophers such as Bernard Williams got a tune out of him, so maybe some of it is just temperament, how we are philosophically wired, etc.

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