Kant, Nietzsche and Alienation

I said in the discussion of the previous post that I found reading Nietzsche alienating. This is true, more generally, when I read the great white philosophers of the past couple of centuries. What do I mean by this, and why do I say it?

I can appreciate the pure literary genius – and fun – of Nietzsche’s writing. The exuberance, the purposely outlandish exaggerations, the dressing down of great thinkers. As well as the insightful ideas and cultural analysis. But when I speak of alienation, I mean that there is also a move to push the book away with a sense that Nietzsche isn’t speaking to my lived situation or my perspective. To continue reading, to hold on to the good stuff, requires a lot of mental work and struggle. A kind of being constantly on guard against letting myself be pulled into Nietzsche’s framing of the issues, lest I forget or lose grip on other things which are very important to my thinking, but which are entirely missing from Nietzsche’s thinking. And not missing just in an incidental way, but which is contrary to the spirit of the grand narratives and big picture that is Nietzsche’s concern.

When I read Nietzsche – as when I read Kant or Wittgenstein or Russell or Heidegger – I have to work to keep my own independent critical thinking alive by standing apart from some of their main moves. I have to work to resist their natural universalizing tone that they are speaking for the human condition. To be mindful of when they are actually speaking in a way which applies to all people and when they are speaking from a more blinkered perspective of taking their white maleness of their time for granted.

I don’t deny the greatness of these thinkers and of their appeal. Which is why I have to work to separate out what can apply to me – what is inspiring me in their writing – from what doesn’t apply to me and which is getting covered over by their prestige and position. With lesser thinkers I wouldn’t feel the need to do this, because there is nothing for me to gain by putting myself through this struggle of inspiration/alienation.

To some extent resisting an author’s worldview is just part of intellectual engagement. When Kant disagreed with Hume, he felt he had to resist being pulled into the extremes of empiricism and skepticism. But of course Kant wasn’t alienated from Hume’s writings. To the contrary, he found in the logical space of Hume’s views a possibility for a respectful disagreement, where in principle Hume might see Kant’s resistance as that of an equal.

In alienation, this sense of one’s resistance as that of an equal is precisely what is missing. Alienation from a text is to feel a blank stare from the author. It’s a form of unrequited love. When I spend time with the texts of Hume, Kant or Hegel, there is a kind of imaginative gaze of mutual recognition between us which doesn’t exist right now. I have to put in all the work to understand them, and they stand aloof, unmoved by my concerns and uninterested to understand me

But this is dance with three parties, not just two. It’s not just a question of me the reader and Kant the author. For my engagement with Kant the author is through the prism of contemporary academic philosophy – that is, through the gaze of current philosophy professors

When I read Kant I am aware of his greatness as a philosopher. It is exactly that awareness which hurts. For if such a great thinker accepted so easily that only Europeans can do philosophy, maybe there is an insight there. Maybe I don’t deserve the imaginative look of equality from Kant. Maybe I am unlovable, or at least not as lovable as Kant would find Strawson, McDowell or Rawls.

Perhaps this is a silly thought. Perhaps I should just push through and affirm a mutual recognition between me and Kant.

But this is made hard not by Kant or what he thought in his time. After all, Kant is long dead. Rather, It is made hard by the fact that Kant’s racism and its impact on his philosophy is ignored or excused by most of my contemporaries. The blank stare I experience peering back at me from Kant’s pages is actually a reflection of the blank stare of my professors and my colleagues. That blank stare is rooted in a presumption that I should just naturally be able to set aside Kant’s racism – and that if I am not able to, it must reflect my limitations as a philosopher. That I can’t get on in the right way. That I am like the student who continues “2..4..6..8..” with “-42!”.

Too often the picture of alienation is that of a reader who can’t enter, say, the world of Kant’s books. Where the racism is a block which keeps one from engaging with the books altogether. This is unfortunately true for many people – and the philosophy profession ignoring this is a moral, pedagogical mistake, akin to a math teacher who always sees a struggling student as a bad student.

But alienation can take on a more subtle and complicated form. A person can acknowledge the greatness in Kant’s work. That person can in fact love aspects of Kant, and so seek to find a wholesome, positive intellectual relationship to Kant. And yet that person can still be alienated, if he feels that his appreciation of Kant is premised on him having to squash doubts about Kant’s great mistakes about race or if he is supposed to dismiss them in a perfunctory way.

Developing a relationship with a great thinker is like developing a lifelong friendship. That is only possible if all the doubts and concerns one has about that thinker can be aired and discussed in an open and critical way. If one just asserts the answer is obvious – that obviously Kant’s racism is irrelevant to his philosophy, or that obviously it maligns all of his thinking – then one is cutting off the room for the give and take, the listening and the learning, the vulnerability and the growth required for a deep friendship.

***

So back to Nietzsche: why I do feel alienated when I read him?

Is it because he is white, and western philosophy in general is racist? No. I don’t feel alienated when I read Plato or Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. It makes no sense to speak of western philosophy as such as racist, for the racism we are familiar with is a distinctly modern phenomenon.

Is it because Nietzsche is a part of modern Europe, and so implicated in the broader colonialist practices of his time? No. I don’t feel alienated listening to Mozart or Beethoven, which I greatly benefit from. In these cases I can obviously distinguish the work from the social context of its origins. When listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas I don’t find myself thinking, “This is really good, but I need to resist it also!” I find myself letting go fully and to immerse myself in it without reservation. Just the kind of immersion – of a philosophical kind – I find hard with modern Western philosophers.

Is it because, like Locke, Hume or Kant, Nietzsche said and did racist things which it is hard to ignore? The way in which one may find it alienating to read Heidegger knowing his embrace of Nazism? No, this isn’t it either. I don’t familiar of any particularly racist things Nietzsche said or did. It is by now pretty clear that he was, unlike many Europeans of his time, against anti-semitism, and was more cosmopolitan and against German nationalism.

So then what is it?

Let me get at this by first saying what I like about Nietzsche. I love the idea of the reevaluation of values. In particular, that people and organizations tend to reify old values and treat them as timeless, universal truths which we have to abide by. One of his great insights is that universities do this as much as churches – if in a different way. Metaphysical notions of faith and reason become limits on our sense of possibilities, creating boundaries which we feel we can’t trespass. Seeing that these reified abstract nouns – Faith, God, Reason, Philosophy – are mainly historical relics which are ossified is both necessary for growth and can be traumatic. The death of God – also of Philosophy – can shatter a sense of a well structured world, leaving one feeling disoriented. But in this time of crisis, Nietzsche affirms life by saying that idols are meant to be smashed, that the current idols are themselves the result of older idols having been smashed. That in the pain of the disorientation one can also find the will to power, to create anew, to say “Yes!” to life, not on anyone else’s terms, but in terms of the genius and the will to create that one find’s in oneself.

As with his book Thus Spoke Zarathurstra, all this is a kind of secular spirituality. Nietzsche captures – and lived – something like the phenomenology of spirituality, but written entirely in a modern, scientific, atheistic, playful, psychologically insightful way. It is William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, but from the inside out – written not with James’ gaze of a sympathetic observer or with James’ ambivalence, but written by a true “believer” (as in James’ “Will to Believe”) who finds the strength to say yes without turning away from the pain of existence. To be sure, it is not a spirituality of serenity or equanimity, but more like that of a frenzied artist high on breaking through his own limits. This spiritual Nietzsche is not one that contemporary analytic philosophers usually highlight, but it is the Nietzsche I admire.

All this is great. But the problem – for me – arises when Nietzsche himself gives into wanton generalizing and abstractions – which he does constantly. The metaphysical impulse of turning away from life and of essentializing resentiment, it turns out, is what everyone from the past did who Nietzsche disagrees with. It is the fatal sin not just of Paul or the Church fathers, but also of Plato and Kant, of the Buddha and Hindu Vedanta, and also what is ultimately wrong with Schopenhauer and Wagner. Turns out all these people, across time and culture, are all implicated in the same mistake of denying life and the multiplicity of perspectives, and covering it over with a deceitful, resentful will.

Why does Nietzsche run all these different thinkers together? To understand that we need to turn to Kant.

***

Just as there is an important difference between pre-modern and modern Western philosophy in terms of racism, so too there is an important difference between pre-Kantian and post-Kantian modern philosophy in terms of racism. (The outlines of the following historical story I get from Peter Park here, and Bryan Van Norden here and here.)

Before Kant it was still common in Europe – even as it was pursuing colonialism – to think that philosophy began not with the ancient Greeks, but in Asia or in Africa. Pre-Kantian European philosophers were still living in a world with ties to the medieval world when the Islamic and the Chinese empires dominated – and so where a sense that other civilizations developed their own traditions of philosophy was natural.

With Kant this changes radically. Kant, along with Hegel after him, merges the history of philosophy with the developing pseudo-scientific racial hierarchy to suggest the new story that only Europeans are – and have been- capable of philosophy. Now the narrative takes hold that philosophy began in ancient Greece and only there. Not in Egypt or Mesopotamia, not in India or China, nor any place else. The story now goes that until the pre-Socratics abstract thought didn’t arise at all, but people were only mired in mytho-religious symbolism. Some of the ancient cultures – as with the Jews and perhaps the Hindus and a few others – were more advanced as religions (though not as advanced as what Christianity would become), but they couldn’t achieve the kind of self-conscious, conceptual inquiry which is philosophy.

Due to Kant and Hegel’s influence in the 19th century, this story of the uniqueness of Western philosophy spread and is now fossilized in the curriculum and practices of contemporary philosophy departments. So much so that the idea that philosophy began in ancient Greece is treated as common knowledge. But it is striking that this story is really no more than 250 years old, initiated in the later half of the 1700s, well after Descartes and well into the modern period.

Perhaps this story is only 250 years old because only then were Kant and Hegel, and their contemporaries, able to analyze all the world’s traditions and see that actually philosophy only began in Europe? If this were true, even if they got the story wrong, it would have right form of a justification. But that’s not what happened.

For Kant philosophy concerns the a priori conditions for experience and thought. Therefore philosophy cannot be empirical. It follows that an understanding of the nature of philosophy also cannot be empirical. But the origins of philosophy is part of the nature of philosophy. Therefore an a priori understanding of philosophy must include an a priori understanding of the origins of philosophy.

So in the Kantian framework, “Philosophy began in Europe” becomes a kind of synthethic, a priori truth. As far as I know, Kant never explicitly says this. But when I imagine why the idea that philosophy began only in Europe really takes hold with Kant, this starts to make sense. The claim is synthethic because the concept of began in Europe isn’t contained in the concept of philosophy; hence people can entertain the idea that philosophy began elsewhere. But it is also not an empirical truth, so Kant doesn’t have to go read other traditions to see if possibly philosophy began there. To the contrary, the a priori nature of philosophy means precisely that he doesn’t have to read other traditions to know how philosophy began.

On Kant’s view, space and time, and categories such as substance and causation are the lens through which we have to see the world to have experience at all. Kant pulled the history of philosophy into the realm of the lens as well, so that as Europeans were discovering more about other cultures’ intellectual traditions, none of those discoveries had to be engaged with alongside the texts of Plato, Hume and Kant

The Kantian framework of critical philosophy provided an a priori justification for why philosophy professors only had to read Western philosophy. Kant, beyond his great work in epistemology and ethics, thus had the greatest impact on the institution of modern academic philosophy. The “critical” philosophy was the foundation stone for a Eurocentric lens on the history of philosophy. “Philosophy began in ancient Greece” is not only treated as a truth, but as a foundational truth which justifies one in not engaging with other traditions so as to keep philosophy within the realm of “pure reason”. 

Hegel filled out this a priori history of philosophy beyond the basic “scientific” racial framework embraced by Kant. And this Eurocentric framing of the history of philosophy spread along with German idealism. Institutional foundation stones being what they are, even as later thinkers started to disagree deeply with Kant or with Hegel, the “Philosophy began in ancient Greece” framing became more and more enmeshed in the background practices of academic philosophy.

The great breaks from German Idealism in the late 1800s and early 1900s – Analytic philosophy, Phenomenology and Pragmatism – still embraced the Eurocentric framing of the history of philosophy. The disagreements between, say, Russell and Moore and their Idealist teachers were certainly enormously important and productive. But with regard to the Eurocentrism of philosophy, they were still essentially Kantian.

This is one way I find reading Russell or Heidegger alienating. If you take their texts at face value, they speak of the “revolution” in philosophy they are enacting – obviously very different revolutions for Russell and Heidegger. The sense of revolution speaks to a new beginning, a radical breaka starting fresh, standing apart from Kant and Hegel. As a student I was captivated by Russell or Wittgenstein, Husserl or Heidegger precisely because of their push for a radical transformation of philosophy.

And yet, what I felt over and over again was that their revolution in philosophy was never a revolution in rethinking the contours of – and the history of – philosophy departments. Of rethinking the curriculum, or even just trying to understand why the curriculum or the pantheon looks the way it does. Strangely, it seemed as if the very nature of philosophy was being rethought even as the way philosophy is taught and who is taught never changes much at all.

My alienation from the texts of Russell and Heidegger then are at root a cultivated cautiousness on my part. Developed over years of running head long into their texts with the excitement I shared in their projects, only to find – time and again – that at a crucial point, where I start to relate their revolution to my lived situation, I am met with the disappointing fact of a blank stare from them as an author. Which raises for me the question of the ways in which their revolutions left unearthed the Eurocentric foundation stone laid by Kant.

***

Nietzsche of course was not a philosophy professor. Along with Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, he was part of an alternate, anti-academic trajectory in 19th century European philosophy that separated itself from the tradition of Kant and Hegel. Whereas Russell and Heidegger sought to revolutionize philosophy from within the academic structures influenced by Kant, Nietzsche stood apart from academia lobbing grenades at the entire edifice. Surely this is something I can identify with and appreciate?

Certainly it is, and I do. Yet my alienation persists when reading Nietzsche because his grenades never hit – nor even seek – the Kantian foundation stone which is the overall cause of my alienation.

Nietzsche is like an author in the 1850s in America who criticizes the American South for succumbing to metaphysical thinking and for embracing the “slave morality” of Christianity, while never mentioning in his criticisms the actual slavery in the South. What jumps out to me when I pick up Nietzsche is not only the fascinating stuff about morality and moral psychology, but the gaping hole of the things which even he – the great reevaluator of values and the great psychologist, who is “a destiny” unto human kind and who affirms the eternal recurrence of even the most painful experiences – passes over in silence and never mentions, let alone analyzes. 

As Nietzsche might say, surely that tells us something about the man and his thinking – and about the structure of thought and society – beyond what he says about himself!

It’s not just that when reading Nietzsche I have to set aside a few of the annoying mannerisms or some of the outdated ideas. Nietzsche’s entire tone as an author is as a renegade, as someone who is alone, and who alone sees the depths of the motivations of philosophers. The incessant self-affirmation of his genius is like a siren call, which if I am not on my guard I find myself nodding along to – especially because the affirmation of his misunderstood genius is now affirmed even in analytic philosophy departments.

And yet his very stance of questioning all values covers over so much that is of paramount and urgent importance, personally, culturally and philosophically to myself and to so many people that a part of me even says: Given how little we are thinking about the issues that have been covered over even by Nietzsche, I endorse feeling alienated when reading him.

The alienation I now feel is a marker of the end of my reading him subserviently – as if at every turn I have to accept that he is a genius and I am a mere reader and so I have to continue to learn my way into his framework. Being aware of my alienation and not feeling ashamed of it is my own will to power that Nietzsche – along with Kant and Hegel and Wittgenstein and Heidegger – are idols whose turn it is now to be smashed while I philosophize with a hammer. Not smashed as in tossed aside, for I still benefit from reading them. Nor smashed as in smashing their statues, for that is not of interest to me. But smashed in terms of stepping out beyond the one sided gaze of recognition, and for me to look back at them as an equal. 

For years the alienation was painful – something I felt ashamed of – because it felt like a defeat on my part. That it shows I will never experience the mutual gaze of recognition with the authors I admired. Nietzsche was right that mutual recognition doesn’t have to take the form of two people engaged in polite, gentle conversation. Sometimes people recognize each other only in parting, only when a break happens, when one pushes through the structures limiting the interaction and wills a new mode of being. 

That will to power can not only be a will to change things and to stand up as an equal, but it can also be – which Nietzsche usually didn’t recognize – a will to love. A will to move from a position of pain to a position of strength while being mindful to try not to pass the pain onto others.

This is the opportunity afforded by truly shedding light on the Kantian foundation stone of Eurocentrism in philosophy. Not simply to push back against Kant and Nietzsche or to push them down. Nor to take over the building in the name of the oppressed. But to unearth the Kantian foundation stone in order to replace it with a better, more healing, more loving foundation which reflects our shared humanity.

One thought on “Kant, Nietzsche and Alienation”

  1. “Developing a relationship with a great thinker is like developing a lifelong friendship.”

    That is so true and so well put. Thanks for the explanation. And there are so many factors that go into whether two people can develop a friendship.

    Liked by 1 person

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