Saturday, March 19, 2005

Leiter on Nietzsche

I mentioned the other day that I was reading (and writing on) Brian Leiter's book on Nietzsche. (We looked at p. 123.) Let me say more about that. Leiter's basic take on Nietzsche is that far from being a relativistic proto-postmodernist critic of science (truth, knowledge, Republicans, etc.) as merely a "regime of power" (that's Foucault, right?), Nietzsche is best described as a naturalistic critic of morality, as dedicated as any scientist to the ideals of objectivity and rigor, as befits not only his early enthusiasm for the materialist movement in Germany, but also his formal training as a classical philologist, which stressed careful, rigorous interpretive procedure, not playful, creative misreadings. Postmodern readings of Nietzsche (that is, readings of N. as a p.m.), Leiter says, depend either on tendentious, facile readings of canonic passages, or on dubious fragments from the Nachlass, usually The Will to Power, which, as everyone knows, is not an authentic publication by Nietzsche himself but instead a collection from his notebooks, spuriously arranged by his proto-Nazi sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, to appear to be the master's magnum opus (Nietzsche had indeed planned a book by this title, as outlined in several fragments presented prominently in WTP) in order to capitalize on the invalid's growing popularity.

I first ran across Leiter in 1998, when I read a brief article ("One Health, One Earth, One Sun: Nietzsche's Respect for Natural Science") in the Times Literary Supplement. I didn't read it carefully, probably because I was primed to agree with him: of course Nietzsche was neither a postmodern relativist nor a "science critic" in the contemporary sense; he was a perspectivist, and that's not the same thing at all. We do indeed have knowledge of the world (so perspectivism ≠ skepticism), and we can indeed make mistakes about it (so it ≠ relativism either). Not only is this fairly straightforward (I had thought, naively), I had just read (Maudemarie) Clark's book making these same points, so I just filed Leiter, who cites Clark approvingly himself, away with Clark in the sanely anti-relativist (or "cognitivist," as K. Westphal says) Nietzsche-interpreter file. Still with me?

Many months pass. I forget what brought me back to this stuff – maybe it was the publication of Richardson & Leiter's 2001 Oxford collection (Nietzsche, which is a good collection if you don't already have most of it elsewhere), which has more Leiter in it. Or maybe I was just defending perspectivism against the typical charges of relativism – and the inevitable, increasingly tiresome, triumphant accusation of self-refutation – from realists. Anyway, I read Leiter's article on perspectivism in the Schacht collection on the Genealogy (Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality; also a good collection), and looked more closely at the TLS piece, whereupon I was chagrined to discover that Leiter's "perspectivist" Nietzsche is nothing of the kind by my lights, but instead a sort of Quinean scientific realist. Not only that, what had seemed on casual reading to be straightforward refutations of the idea that Nietzsche rejected science turned out to be the much stronger claim that Nietzsche "repeatedly endorsed a scientific perspective as the correct or true one," with the implication that it is this and this only that keeps "perspectivism" from falling into postmodern relativism cum skepticism. Wak!

According to Leiter, although Nietzsche is not himself a materialist (that is, a proponent of physicalist metaphysics, which Leiter puts in the category of "Substantive Naturalism," as opposed to the "Methodological Naturalism" Nietzsche endorses), his rejection of "metaphysics" is limited solely to a scientific (ie naturalistic) rejection of non-empirical pseudo-inquiry, whether that take the form of theological dogmas about supernatural entities or philosophical speculation about Platonic essences. Instead, the only inquiry worth the name is rigorous empirical inquiry into the objective world as revealed by science. Similarly, his "perspectivism" rejects the idea of a "view from nowhere" only in the sense that our views of the world must be "human" perspectives of the empirical world, not mystical communion with Reality behind the Veil. Some perspectives distort (our view of) the objective world, which is why the scientific perspective is the "correct or true" one, in that its objectivity and rigor allows us to avoid the subjective distortion of reality which would otherwise lead to error. In this sense we attain an "objective view", but not in the goofy metaphysical sense.

Now, like the pomos, only differently, I had been reading Nietzsche as an ally in the fight against platonism and Cartesianism; but Leiter's Nietzsche seems more concerned with Schopenhauer than Descartes. Is Nietzsche still my friend?? Or is he just another scientific realist, essentially a fair-weather friend (an ally against "metaphysics," but then a backslider into realism)?? Tune in again, in the indeterminate future, for another exciting chapter!!

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