Professors and Priests

Does academic philosophy have value?

I just finished reading Sue Prideaux’s interesting recent biography of Nietzsche. A persistent theme in Nietzsche’s work and life is how silly, obtuse, self-deluded most philosophers are, and especially professors of philosophy.

Nietzsche’s criticism of philosophy professors is analogous to his criticism of priests. He says both reify truth and then – conveniently – place themselves as gate keepers to the enchanted land of truth. But, Nietzsche asks, what if there is no truth as such? What if there is only individual transformations? Then what gives priests and professors their power isn’t a link to a deeper understanding of the world, but they are able to – or seek to – impose their will on the general population. But instead of being honest about it, they color it up with fancy words of truth, rationality and objectivity.

For Nietzsche this is not true just of professors and priests. All people seek to do this. And in history the great philosophers and religious seekers succeeded more than most. Socrates claimed not to know anything, but his will was strong. Similarly for St. Paul or the Buddha. Whether we are talking about philosophy or faith, for Nietzsche the main issue is whether one is being honest about their own will to power.

Nietzsche concludes from this that academic philosophy is mainly a fraud. Just like churches are a fraud. Both hide their own will to power behind a rhetoric of unbiased impartiality.

This is too strong. Nietzsche usually didn’t let subtlety get in the way of a strong conclusion.

This doesn’t show that philosophy departments don’t have value. It only shows they don’t have value for everyone. That indeed they never can. They can be valuable to people who like what professors will, the mode of inquiry and life they exhibit. But – and this is the kicker – there is no objective reality about the nature of philosophy or what Socrates or Kant “really” said which undergirds what the professors’ value. There is only at bottom the fact that the professors value it. Their own will to what they value.

Why is it, for example, that when I was an undergrad at Cornell Kant and Nietzsche were taught, but not Du Bois or the Buddha? When I asked this question back then, I was met with answers such as, “Those are not philosophers. Du Bois was a sociologist. The Buddha was a religious figure.” Nietzsche would have smelled the bad faith of these answers. One of his recurring themes – one which Wittgenstein picks up later on – is how often abstractions (Philosophy, Sociology, Religion…) are used as explanations, but without really explaining anything. For the use is not to explain, but to assert authority – that is, to assert one’s own will.

My undergrad professors would have been more honest if they said, “It never occurred to us to teach that. It’s not what we are interested in. We want to do what we are doing.”

In current times this kind of assertion would be met with a different criticism – that it is white supremacist. “Look at all these white professors asserting that they will just teach what they want to! They have the power and they don’t want to give it up!”

Let’s go slowly. “White Supremacy” is also another abstract noun which has the whiff of explaining something. But does it?

If we apply the Nietzschen view to the “woke” assertions of fighting racist structures, we have the thought: the woke critics are themselves simply asserting their will, but hiding this behind a vaneer of fighting the “objective” wrongness of how philosophy departments used to be.

It is clear enough why the old guard wants to do this. Because it’s easier for them to say their habits are grounded in the nature of Philosophy than to say it’s grounded simply in their will. But why does the new guard also fight using abstractions?

Well, imagine if they – the woke – said “We just want to do philosophy this way!” The question arises: who is this we? Is it just the people who now get to be professors? The problem is in form this is no different from what the old guard said. Those who get to be professors just do the kind of work they want to do. Professors at Cornell didn’t want to teach Buddhist philosophers 25 years ago. But the professors there now do.

Is this an objective improvement? It is certainly an improvement for those who want to study Buddhist philosophers. But what about people who want to study Native American philosophers? Or Mayan philosophers? Or those who don’t make a distinction between philosophy and religion and who see – like Thomas Merton – prayer as itself a form of contemplation? A slippery slope is forming.

Hence the woke also find abstractions useful. It gives the vaneer that the curriculum they will implement will somehow capture truly what Philosophy is. This is the myth of the diverse curriculum. The fantasy that their canon will be really the global philosophical canon.

In contrast to both the academic old guard and the new guard, I find Nietzsche’s view more honest. Or rather: more what I like. What I will. What I want to build on.

It’s revealing that Nietzsche was not a philosophy professor, or even a professor when he wrote his main works. Though for the last century Nietzsche is in the canon in academic departments – even in analytic departments for the last 40 years – that is not what mattered to Nietzsche. Nor is it why Nietzsche’s work found an audience in broader society.

Nietzsche didn’t write aiming to be part of the normal philosophy canon. He mostly piled criticism on the traditional canon, on Plato, Kant and Mill. He wrote because he wanted to. He wrote about whatever he was moved to, bringing various parts of his life together. And he struck a nerve in many readers because they liked what he willed. To explain his attraction to readers by reference to the nature of Philosophy misses that part of his attraction – at least to me and I think many others – is that one can meet his thoughts just on their own. Unlike with Kant or Hegel, or Quine or Rawls, or Husserl or Heidegger, his thoughts are not mediated through an institution of people who claim to speak for Philosophy.

Nietzsche at root speaks for no abstract noun. He speaks just for himself. When he wills, it is clear. It is sometimes moving and inspiring. Sometimes silly and sophomoric. The profound and the silly dance often together because that was his form of willing. He was grand and deep, but was also trapped in a teenage angst of mock rebellion against everything and everyone.

Nietzsche was on to something when he saw that the greatness of great thinkers concerned their will. Their effort to not just get closer to universal values, but to change our values. That change isn’t worthwhile because it gets closer to the truth. One can say that, but it is really a tautology. It just means: that change was worthwhile because we now value it too.

Hence his criticism of professors and priests. Churches aim to help people be like Christ. Philosophy departments to help people be like Socrates. And yet to truly be like Christ or Socrates means to find the greatness of one’s own will and to follow that – not because one can then be better at faith or reason, but because then one can open new horizons and reinterpret what faith and reason themselves can mean.

Philosophy departments, like churches, can help in this process. Not everyone can transfigure values on their own, without help. Most people need help. To that extent professors and priests are valuable. Can indeed be very valuable.

But that value isn’t an end in itself. It is realized when one moves beyond teachers and can rest in the ungrounded terrain of one’s own will. When one can grow by continually overcoming oneself.

15 thoughts on “Professors and Priests”

  1. I read Sue Prideaux’s biography too, enjoyed it and learned from it.

    Why do you say that Nietzsche was trapped in “a teenage angst of mock rebellion against everything and everyone”?

    I agree that he rebels against almost everything and everyone. There are a few people he always says good things about, for example, Heraclitus, Beethoven and Stendhal. However, I wonder, first of all, why his rebellion is “teenage”. Why shouldn’t adults rebel too, although they generally don’t? Yeats, who read Nietzsche, I believe, has a great poem, “Why should not old men be mad?” Second, I don’t see anything “mock” about his rebellion: he’s as real a rebel as there ever was.

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    1. I don’t think he rebeled against everything. He didn’t rebel against colonialism. Nor against patriarchical structures. He didn’t rebel against a broadly Eurocentric vision of philosophy, which was common at his time. One can overlook this if Nietzsche himself didn’t make grand claims of being unfettered and critical of everything.

      I find Nietzsche incredibly inspiring in many ways. But also teenagerish in the following way. By “teenage rebellion” I mean rebelling against parents while living with parents, dependent on their money and care, etc. Nietzsche’s rebellion against many philosophers – say, Kant – strikes me like this. Some of Nietzsche’s criticisms of Kant hit home, and are quite deep. But it is an open question if Nietzsche’s thought can make sense without, historically, the thought and rebellion of someone like Kant. I find there is a constant mood of exagerration in Nietzsche, of feeling he alone sees things – when if he were not so isolated and lonely, he might have taken a will to power to build bridges and acknowledge historical debts rather than seem like he was creating himself ex nihilo.

      Ultimately, I find Nietzsche’s writing lacks a certain equanimity of thought and mood – the kind of equanimity which I think is central to being more self-critical. Contrast, for example, Nietzsche with Martin Luther King. Was Nietzsche more rebellious than MLK because he “saw through” the fraud of Christianity, whereas MLK was a Christian? Comparisons like these don’t make sense. MLK had a will to power as great as Nietzsche, only his will to power – like that of Thich Nhat Hahn or Thomas Merton – was a will to love and a will to find commonalities between people. I find in this regard MLK’s thought a more mature form of rebellion.

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      1. We’re all products of our time. Did any 19th century European criticize colonialism? Both Mill and Marx had positive things to say about British imperialism in India. I’m not an expert on the history of anti-colonial struggles, but the first European work that is critical of colonialism that comes to mind is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, written in 1899, when Nietzsche was already mad.

        I would not call Martin Luther King a rebel. He was a charismatic leader, maybe a revolutionary, a visionary, but finally a politician. I see a rebel as someone who is less integrated in the social system than Martin Luther King. Merton, whom you mention, is more of a rebel.

        There is no doubt that Nietzsche lacks equanimity. That is precisely his virtue. If you seek equanimity, read someone else.

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        1. I do seek equanimity in the authors I like to read. That’s why I read others, and I don’t enjoy reading Nietzsche as much. Not saying others shouldn’t read him. I am highlighting what strike me as his limits.

          We need to be clear in what way MLK was more integrated into the social system than Nietzsche. MLK would not be integrated into the social system of the Wagners, or the aristocratic circles that Nietzsche and some of his friends moved in. But MLK was more socially well adjusted because he had a stable family life, he identified with his Church and his education (even when his education was European), and saw meaning in his communal projects. This was certainly not true of Nietzsche. Was this because he was more a rebel than MLK, or because he wasn’t as “well adjusted” as MLK, or perhaps he was more handicapped with mental illness than MLK?

          To say that Nietzsche was more a rebel than MLK suggests that somehow MLK didn’t question things as much as Nietzsche did. This I would strongly disagree with. If MLK seems to you mainly a politician (I disagree with this), lets think of someone like Thomas Merton, who, being a Christian, was nonetheless deeply rebellious while cultivating equanimity.

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          1. I enjoy reading Nietzsche. I skip or skimp his misogynous stuff, which is easy to do given his fragmentary and discontinuous style.

            I would not call Nietzsche “mentally ill” until his breakdown in 1889. He was a misfit, queer (in the traditional sense of the word), an outsider, a stranger (as in the title of Camus’s novel).

            I myself do not cultivate equanimity nor do I see it as a virtue in itself.

            I don’t see Martin Luther King as a rebel at all. He was conventional as politicians tend to be: to lead huge masses of people you need have much in common with them.

            As I said above, I see Merton as more of a rebel.

            Nietzsche didn’t so much reject others as reach out to them without much success. Zarathustra comes down from his mountain to talk to the masses and they reject him. Nietzsche’s books did not sell well during his lifetime, but his whole life can be seen as one unsuccessful effort after another to reach others.

            I’ll have to think a bit about what I mean by “rebel”. If I come up with any new idea, I’ll get back to you in a few days. Refusing or questioning conventions seems a necessary condition for being a rebel, but not a sufficient one.

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            1. I find there is a particular use of “rebel”, as applied especially to white males, in the last 200 years which is a kind of honorific, of which rock n roll stars is maybe the latest version.

              Perhaps it is not what you mean, but I am resisting this sense of rebel. Here is one way to put the point: can we imagine anyone other than a white male writing the way Nietzsche does and yet it being treated as amazing, and willing to discount not just the misogyny, but the constant preening about one’s own insights and putting down other great thinkers as silly and stupid and deceptive? There is a cultural privilege which Nietzsche has which he is not being reflective of at all, and yet assumes world history consists of him and a few other mainly European men. I find it exhausting to keep ignoring the skewed historical narratives.

              More to the point: none of this is at all needed for the insights which Nietzsche had about religion, philosophy, the unconscious and reason, etc. Not that he should write like a contemporary academic. But I see the dry academic style and the Nietzsche style (or even Kierkegaard style) as opposites which somehow go together. Too extreme on both sides.

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              1. Everything can and will be commodified, turned into something to be marketed and rebelliousness is no exception: thus, the rock stars and the kids with green hair or whatever the latest rebellious style is. Spirituality can be marketed too, by the way.

                People rebel against their zeitgeist, not the zeitgeist of 2020. I’d say that Spinoza is a rebel for daring to criticize the orthodox judaism of his day and getting excommunicated for that, yet Spinoza nowhere criticizes his cis white male privilege. So too with Nietzsche. I don’t believe that any 19th century or early 20th century European criticized their own white male privilege. That just wasn’t on the agenda of the zeitgeist. Now that may turn you off and nobody is obliging you to read 19th century white male thinkers.

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                1. I hope it is clear I am not making a social justice warrior type of criticism of Nietzsche. Part of the post is about how I admire Nietzsche, more so even than I do the woke crowd. We were talking about whether Nietzsche questions “everyone and everything”. How is that compatible with saying that of course Nietzsche didn’t question his own European privileges?

                  You keep making this point that no one is obliging me to read Nietzsche. Let me flip it around. No one is obliging you to read this blog. It strikes me as not generous to come here and keep making a point you have made many times now on several posts, as if if I don’t like something, I don’t have to read it. That is not my situation. I like Nietzsche and yet feel deeply alienated by his writing. My post is one attempt to come to grips with that. If you can contribute to my project for myself, do. Otherwise, you don’t have to write here.

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                  1. I myself would not read anyone whom I felt deeply alienated from. If I comment in your blog in the future, I’ll start from the fact that you read (on your own, not as a university assignment) writers whom you feel deeply alienated from.

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                    1. I read authors who I admire and with whom I feel some connection. Some of these authors – usually European or American authors in the last 200 years, including many contemporary philosophers – I also feel very alienated from. It is a struggle to hold on to the good stuff without being overwhelmed by the alienating stuff. Maybe others don’t have that struggle, and it shows a limitation in my character. I doubt it, but that’s fine. But it is nonetheless what I am struggling to do. If I didn’t read anyone I felt deeply alienated from, I can’t try to make sense of my own education, and my own intellectual formation.

                      It is a nice hope that everyone can only read texts they are not alienated from. But it is not my reality, nor I suspect the reality for many people. This is not to blame anyone, let alone the authors from a past time. But it is to confront the reality as I experience it.

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  2. s. wallerstein –

    “Now that may turn you off and nobody is obliging you to read 19th century white male thinkers.”

    I see there are two ways to interpret this statement. First, it can be in a kind of defensive posture with regard to 19th century white male thinkers. As in: “If you don’t find this interesting, screw off. Nobody is forcing you to be here.” I have gotten this from many people on the philosophy blogosphere and when I was in academia.

    Given your normally thoughtful comments, I think this is not what you meant. Perhaps you meant it more as: “You don’t have to put yourself through this. If reading 19th century white male thinkers is so alienating, and such a struggle to ignore the unhelpful stuff, then maybe you can spare yourself the pain, and not read it. Why put yourself through it?”

    If this is what is meant, I very much appreciate the concern, and the idea. But I don’t think it is feasible for me. If I can’t read Hegel, or Nietzche or Mill, or Frege, there are too many other things in the 20th century I wouldn’t be able to read. Even more, I love the ideas these thinkers were articulating, even when I disagree with them. But the ideas are nonetheless wrapped in a covering which is very alienating for me. Separating the good from the bad is not, I think, a simple matter. And when we do separate them, I feel it will shed an entirely new light on the good ideas. Going through this I see as a kind of heroic struggle. Not to avoid the pain of it, but to embrace the pain, while affirming a Nietzschean “Yes” to what can be created in the process.

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    1. Yes, I meant option two.

      Thanks for your explanation of what you go through reading traditional white male thinkers. I’ll try to be more empathetic in the future.

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      1. Thank you.

        It is worth emphasizing I don’t feel this with all traditional white male thinkers. When I read Plato or Aristotle, or Marcus Aurelius, no alienation. For me, it is really the modern period, and especially post-Kant. There was something very specific that happened with Kant and Hegel, which was carried on since then in the West. I will write about this at some point to elaborate more on it.

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