Friday, July 06, 2018

Yet more Nietzsche summarised

Over at the TLS, yet another summary of what Nietzsche was on about.

I like to read these to reinforce my continual surprise as to why people respond to his pessimism and ambiguities which are obviously dangerous for their ready application by those who want to refute a morality based on a common sense view of decency.  [And, quite frankly, his complaint that morality - whether based on Christianity or utilitarianism, according to this article - is "inhospitable to the realization of human excellence" and/or "makes man ridiculous and contemptible" is just nonsense of the kind that barely separates him from Ayn Rand, and I have trouble understanding why people continue bothering to study him.]

Anyhow, I was interested in this section, talking about the philosophical background he was coming from, and in particular, a writer who was obviously very influential in Germany in the mid 1850's, but of whom I had never heard:

Nietzsche’s classical training had educated him about ancient philosophy; the Presocratic philosophers (with their simple naturalistic world view) were his favourites, while his disagreements with Socrates and Plato persisted throughout his corpus. But it was only by accident that he discovered contemporary German philosophy in 1865 and 1866 through Arthur Schopenhauer and, a year later, the neo-Kantian Friedrich Lange. Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (which was first published in 1818, but only came to prominence decades later, contributing to the eclipse of G. W. F. Hegel in German philosophy) set Nietzsche’s central existentialist issue: how can life, given that it involves continual, senseless suffering, possibly be justified? Schopenhauer offered a “nihilistic” verdict:  we would be better off dead. Nietzsche wanted to resist that conclusion, to “affirm” life, as he would often put it, to the point that we would happily will its “eternal recurrence” (in one of his famous formulations) including all its suffering.

Lange, by contrast, was both a neo-Kantian – part of the “back to Kant” revival in German philosophy after Hegel’s eclipse – and a friend of the “materialist” turn in German intellectual life, the other major reaction against Hegelian idealism after 1831. The latter, though familiar to philosophers today primarily by way of Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx, actually received its major impetus from the dramatic developments in physiology that began in Germany in the 1830s.  Materialism exploded on the German intellectual scene of the 1850s in such volumes as Ludwig Büchner’s Force and Matter, a publishing sensation which went through multiple editions and became a bestseller with its message that “the researches and discoveries of modern times can no longer allow us to doubt that man, with all he has and possesses, be it mental or corporeal, is a natural product like all other organic beings”. (Think of Büchner as the Richard Dawkins of the nineteenth century: a popularizer of some genuine discoveries, while also an unnuanced ideologue.)  Nietzsche, who first learned of these “German Materialists” from Lange, wrote in a letter of 1866, “Kant, Schopenhauer, this book by Lange – I don’t need anything else”.

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