Intros to European Philosophy: Nietzsche


Previously read: Birth of Tragedy, the, ‘Seventy-Five Aphorisms from Five Volumes’, Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, Case of Wagner, the, Ecce Homo.  But, I have n’t read him in awhile: the last time was the gap-year between undergrad and masters.  Also, when the title is European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (ed. M. Beardsley), you ‘re a bit happy to finally have arrived at the end. Of the philosophers to be found therein, I feel most familiar with Nietzsche.  You could accuse me of starting this blog as a place to exercise (probably not exorcise) Nietzsche and Kierkegaard’s stirrings.

Key texts: Beyond Good and Evil (abr.)

Overall impression: Nietzsche was n’t an unfamiliar subject, but I was for once able to locate him against (often) Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel.


**’^`’ *


Abstrusest im-pulses


“Indeed, to understand how the abstrusest metaphysical assertions of a philosopher have been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to first ask oneself: ‘What morality do they (or does he) aim at?’  Accordingly, I do not believe that an ‘impulse to knowledge’ is the father of philosophy; but that another impulse here as elsewhere, has only made use of knowledge (and mistaken knowledge!) as an instrument. (European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche ed. M. Beardsley, p. 808)”

I ‘m quite partial to these sentiments regarding the ‘true vital germ’ of philosophers; they are not chosen for knowledge’s sake but in view to accomplishing some other aim, an aim which is all too often contrary to the means of communicating it.  Beware the one who is elusive in this matter.


Begging the Faculty and Opiates


“But let us reflect for a moment – it is high time to do so.  ‘How are synthetic a priori judgments possible?’  Kant asks himself – and what is really his answer? ‘By means of a means (faculty)’ – but unfortunately not in five words, but so circumstantially, imposingly, and wish such a display of German profundity and verbal flourishes, that one altogether loses sight of the comical niaiserie allemande involved in such an answer… One can do no greater wrong to the whole of this exuberant and eccentric movement…than to take it seriously, or even treat it with moral indignation… But is that – an answer?  An explanation? Or is it not merely begging the question?  How does opium induce sleep?  ‘By means of a means (faculty),’ namely the virtus dormitiva, replies the doctor in Moliere,

Quia est in eo virtus dormitiva,

Cujus est natura sensus assoupire.

[Because it contains a soporific power,

Whose nature is to dull the senses. ~ trans. Monroe Beardsley] (p. 811)”

We should expect scalding remarks from Nietzsche; it is our weakness then to be surprised and reflect little on the content therein.  Opium induces sleep because it has a ‘soporific effect’, just as any other physical explanation fails to explain the phenomena in absence of the physical relation – the same could be said for our explanations of gravity: things fall because the smaller mass experiences the pull exerted by the greater.  We still have no idea why.  Why then we should agree with Kant, if he has ‘explained’ nothing – it does not matter, for Nietzsche, as they are in our mouths only false judgments (p. 812).


Who exactly is doing the thinking here?

“With regard to the superstitions of the logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small, terse fact, which these credulous minds are unwilling to recognize – namely, that a thought comes when ‘it’ wishes and, not when ‘I’ wish; so that it is aperversion of the facts of the case to say that the subject ‘I’ is the condition of the predicate ‘think.’  Something thinks; but that this ‘something’ is precisely the famous old ‘ego,’ is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an ‘immediate certainty.’ (European Philosophers, p. 815)”

Even the something which thinks is imposed by the observer.  So much for Descartes, but then, this is what happens when Nietzsche is allowed the last word: he relishes it.


In a name, prejudice lurks


“But it seems to me again that in this case Schopenhauer also only did what philosophers are in the habit of doing – he seems to have adopted a popular prejudice and exaggerated it.  Willing seems to me to be above all something complicated, something that is a unity only in name – and it is precisely in a name that popular prejudice lurks, which has got the mastery over the inadequate precautions of philosophers in all ages. (p. 816)”

The will is certainly an important matter for both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, a matter too much neglected in many prominent philosophical systems (Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and to some extent Hegel), but it is certainly a complex matter.  It is not simply enough to know that the will to power or the will to action are the reason for which we think and discuss matters, we must not make the mistake of Descartes in allowing it to be simple.


The escape into normalcy


“That the various philosophical ideas do not evolve randomly or autonomously, but in connection and relationship with each other; that, however suddenly and arbitrarily they seem to appear in the history of thought, they nevertheless belong just as much to a system as the members of the fauna of a continent – is betrayed in the end by the circumstance: how unfailingly the most diverse philosophers always fill in again a definite fundamental scheme of possible philosophies.  Under an invisible spell, they always revolve once more in the same orbit; however independent of each other they may feel themselves with their critical or systematic wills, something within them leads them, something impels them in definite order, the one after the other – to wit, the innate methodology and relationship of their ideas. (pp. 817-818)”

Leave it to Nietzsche or Foucault to say a lot in two sentences, with a lot of Nietzschian/Foucauldian asides to mark their respective streams of consciousness, but still to wander on their way.  It makes for interesting reading and it is n’t ‘clean’ in the manner of some philosophers.  That ideas operate within a discourse and are essentially all reactions to each other (and necessarily they are always in response to some finite series of former reactions) is a point which needs making (even as a reaction, it still needs to be said again as the counterreaction is sure to come back).


“[O]ne should use ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ only as pure concepts, that is to say, as conventional fictions for the purpose of designation and mutual understanding –not for explanation. (pp. 818-819)”

I love considering causality, and alternatives to causal explanations, but prefer to note that ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ are useful in day to day discourse as language conventions; but ought to not be thought of formally as useful descriptors.  For Nietzsche, the only helpful causality is the causality of will (because any who wills certainly expects to make a specific change – to will this thing) (p. 823) and for Ghazali it is most important that causality not limit God’s freedom.

  • This is only an aside, but in speaking of experience Nietzsche leaves this: “[E]xperience, as it seems to me, always implies unfortunate experience? (p. 833)”


Fear of the known

“Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood.  The latter perhaps wounds his vanity; but the former wounds his heart, his sympathy, which always say: ‘Ah why would you also have as hard a time of it as I have?’ (p. 849)”

I have elsewhere remarked on this passage, so I only here would say that understanding, as truth or knowledge, is power-language and can so be deemed abusive by one who feels experience has given her a right to speak thusly.

the Will to Mis-Understanding

290.  Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood.  The latter perhaps wounds his vanity; but the former wounds his heart, his sympathy, which always says: “Ah, why would you also have as hard a time of it as I have?”

~Beyond Good and Evil (trans. Helen Zimmern) from the European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002) the Modern Library, NY. ed. Monroe Beardsley: p. 849

If I had to make a guess where the concept (which I still can neither nail down, nor wish to by giving it a definite origin and limit its applications) of trying-to-be-misunderstood originates, my guess would be that the language of it at least sounds Nietzschian at first pass.  But then, what do I know? or so what?

Nietzsche put his finger on the psychology of introspective thinking.  There’s a strong tendency for me to not only believe that certain thoughts are ‘mine’ but further, to guard them as if they were.  Perhaps we should wonder why intellectual property is so closely guarded in Western societies.  It’s because we thinkers also want to have some say concerning how our ideas are appropriated – and sometimes with good reason!

But I’ll move past this thought to consider why any deep thinker would prefer being misunderstood to understanding.  Nietzsche here asserts that the psychological impulse rejects another’s claim to understand because a solitary thinker resists the assertion that her experience is common.  How can anyone else have suffered as I have suffered; this is worth far more to me for I have waited here in the damp cold for enlightenment, but what have you done?  Why should you be paid for the whole day’s work when I arrived before the dawn – when I have not rested!  That she is indignant is easy to grasp in theory, but her tears have been her own and we must not claim them.

So too the friend who has consoled another in hard moments should know better than to utter those ill-fated words I’ve been there.  Pain has its own language and few are permitted to speak it.  The rest of us may sit with him until he should speak, but entrance to this club is bought dearly should we wish to offer our own experience.  While the suffering of the thinker – the travails of her exile – may not amount to the same, it is for her to decide; not us.

Another word on the psychology of being understood (though I hope it will be readily seen that the right to claim understanding is not to be taken up lightly – even if it is not entirely the mourner’s or the thinker’s (I’m tempted to write tinkerer here to show better what I mean for that better approximates the task of the deep thinker) to decide who can speak): We’re talking about power.  After all, we’re drawing from Nietzsche – how could we avoid power talk?

Understanding is about the right to speak – if we understand her, there’s not much left for her to explain.  But if we’re dealing with a deep thinker, not enough can be explained.  It is not that we are unable to offer feedback, it’s that she ought to retain some right to answer.  Otherwise we deny the Will to Power for which she toils.  She approximates, scrapes not only for language with which to construct but also to best communicate her thoughts, and at last presents it.  It may be premature even to assert that she understands her project in full.  Instead she misunderstands well – she has developed a point from which to approximate and communicate her vision, she has a unique misunderstanding.  We may reply to her from our own vantage points, but we should hesitate before we too quickly assert that we understand her.

  • Update: my friend, Jess L, responded with an interesting bit of language that might, I think, be offered instead of the dubious ‘I understand’ – ‘I dig’

Brief Excursus on Graduate Studies and Jobs

It seems that, ever since the real possibility of attending graduate school presented itself, I have met with many counter-voices seeking to pop the bubble as it were.  A good example is Rob Jenkins’ article: ‘On Hiring’ published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Particularly concerned with the myth that ‘I can always teach at community college’, Jenkins counterposits that in his experience, hiring committees often won’t hire those without significant teaching experience.  I ‘ve highlighted this, as Jenkins has underlined by treating the subject in more depth, because this may be a neglected part of the graduate experience.

Whether I return to this topic in particular, it is easily demonstrable that the job market for higher education requires more than completion of the core curriculum.  Members of a hiring committee must either like your teaching experience, your publications and references, or other relevant skills/experiences.  And that ‘s the minimum.  No, not the minimum to teach at a university, it is likely required for you to teach at a community college.

I insert here the caveat that exceptions occur – but the core claim that a completed degree in which the applicant achieved proficiency is of itself inadequate to secure a job in this market will hold for most cases.


The results I wish to draw from this are twofold: one, academic advising should mean a lot more than providing students with the information necessary to graduate, and two, graduate programs should offer students with more opportunities to adapt their studies to meet their future employment goals.

My experience of academic advising at the community, private, and graduate school levels was largely unhelpful.  The advisers, to be fair, had to be knowledgeable of that which was required to meet retroactive standards according to the offered schedule of classes.  This alone was a difficult process, but one I was able to navigate largely without their help.  I say largely because I still had to have their signatures to alter my major at the private college and drop my concentration at the graduate school.  However, in neither case was an adviser able to meaningfully assist me in gaining a picture of that which would be necessary to attain a job in my chosen field.  Their job priority was to help me graduate by making sure I was n’t taking too many courses outside of the bounds required for my degree, in both cases.

But the fact that publishing, teaching, or other relevant experience would be required after graduation to secure a job, not a good job, but a job, was not communicated.  I agree with Jenkins here:

“In fact, I would argue that they [graduate programs] need to do more than just present students with their options. They need to make sure they understand what each option might require of them and then provide opportunities for students to meet those requirements.”

This is my experience in a nutshell: competent advisers know how to almost painlessly plug your previous coursework into your amended program [‘so you don’t want to be an engineer? ok, well if you want computer programming drop this course, add statistics…etc’].  I.e., they know how to shift from one core curriculum to another (at least that should be the minimal skill required); to change your coursework to match your new goal within their offered degree programs.

I realized some of this in my final years of undergrad and began taking courses in hopes of broadening my interests.  It took an unbelievable amount of effort to explain why I wanted to study abroad as I already had the credit hours accounted for that I needed.  My pursuits included but were also outside the bounds of the degree.  I was n’t so interested in checking the boxes off the list (and I found I could do this with less hassle myself) and was pleased with the resulting effects on my learning.  While some things prepared me for the study abroad, nothing had as great or as focused of an effect on me; nothing incited me to learn at a higher level like that study.  While an adviser should dissuade some from taking such measures, in my case it was thoroughly needed.  In short, my adviser knew my degree but not my purpose or what was required to get there.  If they had, they could have offered more helpful steps to achieving that goal.  Instead I was left largely to my own devices (and thankfully to the counsel of caring professors who were willing to share their concerns and advise courses of pursuit).


Jenkins supplies a means by which graduate schools might offer assistance: adaptations.  He suggests offering a ‘research’ track in which little teaching transpires and a ‘teaching’ track in which research is minimized.  In either case, the core goal of the student is met.  A core curriculum is still met, but the skill set practiced is ultimately what is of value not only in securing a job but executing it.  This reminds me of a struggles I had with the head of my department where I asked for some flexibility in the interest of teaching or researching instead of satisfying a system ill suited to sharpening my core skills.

In graduate school I was met with a system which promised to be more flexible, but which offered few opportunities.  Where we as students would have been better served with a division wherein courses could be taken either with a research focus aimed at academic discourse or a teaching section of the course and finally a mixed option.  And I mean for these to be offered at the masters level, for my courses were far too crowded with students never having encountered a given subject before, whether in personal or formal study.  So a course in Ethics would have the following offerings: Ethics- Research Focus, Ethics- Teaching Focus, Ethics in Practice, and Introduction to Ethics.  The same could be constructed for Philosophy, Religious Studies, Literature, and Language offerings.

Further adaptations could be offered; the result would be students better practiced in the core skills required for their profession.  And, for those who are by nature interdisciplinary, the possibilities still exist for them to be stretched through challenging coursework.


A fuller picture requires input not only from students content with receiving their degree; those who already think outside of the bounds of the degree need to be afforded opportunities to practice those skills which will allow them to offer something to their respective fields.  Otherwise, they are forced to the periphery if they are unable to find the proper networking outside of the institution whereas the institution should be not only aware of such difficulties but adapted to fit the real needs of the paying underlings (whether directly or indirectly) who comprise the student body.