James and Nietzsche on the Aim of Philosophy
I have been invited to contribute a chapter to The Jamesian Mind—the installment of Routledge’s Philosophical Minds series on William James, edited by Sarin Marchetti (Università Sapienza di Roma)—about James’s and Nietzsche’s conceptions of the aim of philosophy.
I have presented preliminary versions of this research under the title “‘The Moral Earth, Too, Is Round’”—a quotation from section 289 of The Gay Science which expresses the common theme of the two philosophers’ understanding of the purpose of philosophy: to provide articulation and justification of the various pre-conscious, affective, value-laden perspectives on how the world is and should be that everyone implicitly has (or in James’s words in Lecture I of Pragmatism, “the more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means”). I argue that their construal of philosophy in these particularistic, personal terms is bound up with their perspectival epistemologies and denial of the possibility of a universally authoritative ‘view from nowhere.’
Nietzsche on the Good of Cultural Change
This project has moved between the front and back burner often enough that if it were a stew, it would either be pretty congealed and crusty, or the meat would be falling off the bone. It has recently been relocated to a front burner after an extremely productive discussion at the London Nietzsche Seminar concluded that I should try to publish first an article explaining the basic outlines of the idea and then, later, a short monograph fleshing it out in full.
The basic argument is that Nietzsche puts forward a theory of cultural development according to which pyramid societies—steeply hierarchical societies following a unified morality—systematically alternate with motley societies, which emerge when pyramid societies encounter other cultures or allow their strict mores to relax. Motley societies contain multiple competing value systems due to individual innovation or intercultural contact, and are less stringent in dictating individuals’ roles. Consequently, many people are torn between incompatible values and lack direction, so they are drawn to a morality of mediocrity, which offers the modest goals of comfort and conformity. However, the need to mediate between conflicting values also tends to yield exceptional individuals who invent new rules for living.
I argue that Nietzsche favors neither type of society at the expense of the other, but believes the alternation itself is valuable: a pyramid society develops a value system to its full potential; then, when it encounters alternative values, the extraordinary individuals in the resulting motley society synthesize the competing systems into a fuller vision of human flourishing. Nietzsche should not be read as a traditional political philosopher with a vision of the ideal society that should be established and endure forever; rather, he values the process of change that enables new and interesting ways of life to come into being, even if that process brings with it the risk of decline.
Review of Jeffrey Church, Nietzsche’s Culture of Humanity: Beyond Aristocracy and Democracy in the Early Period. Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Autumn 2019), pp. 336-342.
“‘The Moral Earth, Too, Is Round’: Nietzsche and James on the Practice and Purpose of Philosophy.” Women in Pragmatism International Conference, Universitat de Barcelona, January 2020; Post-Kantian European Philosophy Seminar, Oxford University, October 2019.
“Justice in Nietzsche’s Virtue Epistemology.” Ethics@Noon, University of Toronto Centre for Ethics, September 2018.
“Teaching On the Genealogy of Morality to First-Year College Students.” Presentation to the teaching staff of the Contemporary Civilization Core Curriculum, Columbia University, April 2017.
“Nietzsche on the Good of Cultural Change.” Conference of the North American Nietzsche Society, October 2016.
“Commanders and Scientific Laborers: Nietzsche on the Relationship Between Philosophy and Science.” Colloquium at the Western Michigan University Philosophy Department, September 2016.
“‘Gay Science’ as a Conditional Will to Truth.” Humboldt-Princeton Graduate Student Philosophy Workshop, June 2016.
“Tolstoy’s ‘Sick Soul’: The Significance of a Literary Case Study for William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience.” Princeton University Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures Graduate Student Conference, October 2015.
“The Postulated Author of Art and Nature: Kant on Spinoza in the Third Critique.” 12th International Kant Congress, Vienna, September 2015.
The Will to Truth and the Will to Believe: Friedrich Nietzsche and William James Against Scientism
My dissertation brings into conversation two thinkers who are seldom considered together and highlights previously unnoticed similarities in their critical responses to scientism, which was just as prevalent in the late 19th century as it is today. I analyze this attitude as consisting of two linked propositions. The first, which Nietzsche calls “the unconditional will to truth,” is that the aims of science, discovering truth and avoiding error, are the highest human aims; and the second is that no practice other than science can achieve them. Both Nietzsche and James criticize the unconditional will to truth for privileging a transcendent ideal over the demands of human life.
This unconditional will regards truth as valuable in itself and demands that we pursue it under all circumstances—even if that demand comes into conflict with other values. I lay out the ways in which Nietzsche and James view the value of truth and the imperative to pursue it as conditional on its promotion of human flourishing. In response to the second proposition of scientism, both philosophers argue that science can neither tell us what we should value, nor fully account for the value we in fact find in certain objects, activities, and experiences. And crucially, science cannot tell us whether or why its own goal of attaining truth is valuable. Nietzsche and James reach different conclusions about what is ultimately valuable, and whether traditional religious belief is defensible in light of the discoveries of science.
Nonetheless, the hitherto unappreciated similarities I have uncovered in their arguments show that principled opposition to scientism need not be associated with any particular moral or religious viewpoint. This analysis is not only of historical interest: those who consider scientism to be ill-founded and intellectually confining can take some cues from our 19th-century predecessors’ strategies for combating it.
Advisors: Alexander Nehamas (Princeton University) and Philip Kitcher (Columbia University)
Defense date: January 16, 2018