Wednesday Philosophical Query #5

Today’s proposition courtesy of the eternally-recurring(ly)-misinterpreted Friedrich Nietzsche:

“But everything has become: there are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths. Consequently what is needed from now on is historical philosophizing, and with it the virtue of modesty.”

Discuss, historically and modestly.

Or absolutely truthfully, if you dare.


Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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26 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    It’s true that there are no eternal *facts* because facts are derived from the observation of that which exists and can be perceived or measured. But nothing in existence can boast of more than longevity in its future. Everything temporal will cease to be. If there is anything eternal, it would have to be pure being, which is transcendent, uncreated, ultimately unknowable, and therefore not factual.

  2. GordonHide says:

    Did Nietzsche mean by modesty merely caution in making assertions about reality or something else?

    What is historical philosophizing?

  3. Jaybird says:

    This is what happens when you come down from the sugar-high of killing God.

    Now what?

    Well… now we get to deal with how there aren’t any eternal facts, or absolute truths. We sit and smile remembering those bigots who opposed this or that or this other cause and used their relationship with God as justification for believing the bigoted thing they did. That’s why he wrote the second part.

    • Rodak says:

      Nietzsche didn’t kill God, he only reported the death (based on historical philosophizing…)

    • Chris says:

      Nietzsche’s saying something much less grand in that passage, which is in one of my favorite books (I have worn through three copies of it; I might be a bit of a Nietzsche fan). He’s criticizing philosophers for looking at humans as we are now, and assuming that the evidence from our behavior today says something about what humans are, about what it means to be human. This is the transitional book for Nietzsche, the one that first breaks from Wagner and Schopenhauer, and the one where he starts to take naturalism much more seriously. It’s also the one where he begins to think genealogically. In a sense, what he’s calling for is a genealogical approach to human nature. It was written about 6 years before he tells us God is dead.

      He says in the aphorism just before this one,

      All we need, something which can be given us only now, with the various sciences at their present level of achievement, is a chemistry of moral, religious, aesthetic ideas and feelings, a chemistry of all those impulses that we ourselves experience in the great and small interactions of culture and society, indeed even in solitude. What if this chemistry might end with the conclusion that, even here, the most glorious colors are extracted from base, even despised substances? Are there many who will want to pursue such investigations? Mankind loves to put the questions of origin and beginnings out of mind: must one not be almost inhuman to feel in himself the opposite inclination?

  4. Rodak says:

    I don’t believe that it was that, either. Nietzsche’s message (it seems to me) was that, having killed God, man was now tasked with transcending himself, in order to live up to that monumental deed. To kill God and then to sink back into the mud as a result of the slaying is the great danger. So Nietzsche is not crowing in triumph, he is rather voicing a strong series of exhortations. This is where humility is needed and creativity is prescribed.

    • Kimmi says:

      Nietzche said that Christians killed G-d, by making him into a merciful little sap. He called on us to embrace the Ubermensch, and a G-d of strength not of weakness.
      He wasn’t glad that Christians killed G-d, and was trying to make a rhetorical point.

  5. BlaiseP says:

    While it’s a great starting point, this quote really must be seen in context. Rodak’s provided a link.

    All Too Human is describing something sorta like the Sci-Fi problem of Unobtanium or all those old-timey predictions of what sort of technology the future holds. In Ubik, there’s some idea of a worldwide news service, but you have to print off the pages. Which is pretty cool, considering when PKDick wrote the story, but only a few oldsters still print things up and read them. We’re now reading news on our phones. A long while back, in the late 80s, I predicted the Computer would disappear into the telephone or the television. It seems to have done both. Not even I could have predicted 4G back then and I consider myself a forward-thinking kinda guy.

    There’s also the problem of long-term political predictions. A week is a long time in Washington and by extension, it’s a long time in the world. We’re always making assertions on the basis of The Way Things Are, doing our best to stretch our minds around the possibilities of the future. Trouble is, the only thing that stretches that far when we talk about the future is our mouths as we stick our feet in ’em.

    What Nietzsche’s trying to say about Aeterna Veritas is truer now than it was in his time. It took millenia to get to writing. The printing press has been with us since 1439. There’s all that talk about the Singularity afoot, which I don’t believe, but what with Moore’s Law still holding on despite even the best minds saying we’ve reached the limit of silicon, I’m going to hedge my bet on the Singularity.

    The problem with Nietzsche, he doesn’t really understand man is evolving almost as rapidly as the technology. Perhaps not /as/ fast, but biology doesn’t subsume to the Alterable/Unalterable paradigm. It’s more like a palimpsest, where the scribe reuses the vellum. Big project going on at St. Catherine’s at Mt. Horeb: they’re digitising ancient documents, finding amazing things in the palimpsest texts. That’s how humans evolve to cope with the changes.

    Nietzsche’s all fine and good, I’ve recommended him to many Christians, just to see what they’re up against, intellectually and philosophically. I use the metaphor of a broken arm in a plaster cast. The Church saved much of the wisdom of the ancients. It put the broken arm of the West in a cast, and we ought to be grateful for it. The Church preserved much that was good through many dark centuries. But the cast stayed on much too long and began to stink: anyone who’s endured the misery of a plaster cast knows what it smells like coming off.

    If the Church was the kindly doctor who put on that cast, Nietzche was the physical therapist who tore it off and made Europe do the PT. How Europe howled! PT is painful. It’s also necessary. But I think we’ve outgrown the need for Nietzsche’s physical therapy. A few things do remain true in human nature on a constant basis. They’re just expressed in different ways. Nietzsche was wrong. It’s not history which tells us the truth about human nature. That’s the role of the Humanities, topics upon which ol’ FN was woefully ignorant.

  6. hazemyth says:

    How can you expect us to have a serious philosophical discussion in the sight of that moustache?!

  7. Rodak says:

    “…the Humanities, topics upon which ol’ FN was woefully ignorant.”

    @BlaiseP — Well, Nietzsche was by training a philologist…

  8. Rodak says:

    “A few things do remain true in human nature on a constant basis.”

    @BlaiseP —

    You might do well to list a few of these constants and see if we can agree on them.
    In any case, as a philologist, Nietzsche would have been most interested in the fact that these constants are “just expressed in different ways.” Those developments in expression would factor greatly into his field of study. As Kimmi pointed out above, much of Nietzsche’s thought is based on the concept that the old ways of talking about God had become irrelevant, or nonsensical, in his time.

  9. GordonHide says:

    “Consequently what is needed from now on is historical philosophizing”

    I say it’s a pity he didn’t go further and establish the clear link between morality and evolution. I’d have liked to see him use the evidence in ‘Origin’ to produce some insights concerning human nature.

    As far as modesty is concerned I think today’s established view of the scientific method allows a clearer idea of what can be said with confidence about reality and what can’t, but caution and introspection on this front will always be a good thing.

  10. Rodak says:

    “I say it’s a pity he didn’t go further and establish the clear link between morality and evolution.”

    • GordonHide says:

      I don’t see any evidence that Nietzsche read “Origins” but he can hardly have avoided being aware of the ideas of natural selection and I think Darwin’s influence can be seen in his later work. Whatever he read on the subject I don’t think he drew valid lessons from it. If anything he is possibly a contributor to pseudo Darwinism.

      • Rodak says:

        I didn’t think that you were talking about biological evolution. I thought you meant the evoluation of ideas and culture–the development of civilization. Biology evoluation, imo, has nothing to do with morality, and I would imagine that Nietzsche felt the same.
        Our nearest evolutionary ancestors–the chimps–are known to form gangs and to go out, beyond the frontiers of their own territory–to find lone chimps from another clan and to beat that individual to death, apparently just for the hell of it. Humans are still doing that.
        Most of the positive behaviors of humans–care for the young, defense of territorial rights, etc.–are shared by mammals in general. Morality is embedded in language, and there has been no major evolutionary change in the species since language was developed.

        • GordonHide says:

          @Rodak –
          “Biology evoluation, imo, has nothing to do with morality”

          Morality stems from the human mental characteristic to co-operate as social animals. Like all other human characteristics it evolved under the pressure of natural selection.

        • GordonHide says:

          @Rodak –
          Even assuming your characterisation of chimpanzees is fair, I think you’ll find they kill far fewer of their own kind than human proportionately. Does that mean humans are not moral creatures either?

          Perhaps our disagreement here stems from a different view of what morality is? In my view morality is a code of conduct towards other members of a group which shares the same code. Your example of chimpanzees attacking members of other groups demonstrates that they do have a code of conduct which prevents them operating in such a manner against group members.

      • Chris says:

        He didn’t read Darwin, but he’d read a great deal about Darwinism, mostly from sources critical of Darwin. He was, like most Germans of that time, a Lamarkian. He was also very critical of social Darwinism (in the works of Strauss and Spencer particularly).

  11. Chris says:

    One of my favorite cognitive science books that’s accessible to people who aren’t cognitive scientists is by Michael Tomasello, called The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. The argument he presents there, and that he’s studied empirically for several years since he wrote it (he does work with both humans and nonhuman primates) is that, in essence, our minds (we’ll leave aside ontological problems with the word “mind” for the moment) are the product of years and years of cultural evolution. For example, there’s the “ratchet effect, which essentially means that human cultural evolution is hard to reverse, but it also implies that it builds on a particular course, and once we’re on that course, it’s difficult to leave it and start on another one. This is pretty close to what Nietzsche is saying here, only he’s focusing on the fact that we don’t focus on that course to figure out not only why we are the way we are, but what possible paths we might have taken had we not gotten here. We are contingent beings, in essence. I’ve always seen Tomasello’s work as a sort of empirical confirmation of some of Nietzsche’s psychology.