Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Desert Island Philosopher

Recently, and after a long interval, I renewed my acquaintance with Friedrich Nietzsche. I was instantly reminded why he was my favorite philosopher when I was eighteen -- he probably is still so today.

During my freshman year in college, like a lot of other freshman, I wore out my paperback copy of the Viking Portable Nietzsche. I had already been pretty well snagged by philosophy already, through reading Plato, Pascal, Hobbes, and David Hume, among others, but Nietzsche was (and remains) different -- not just for the famous conclusions, although they're formidable: the death of God, the emptiness of liberal morality, a growing distrust in reason, science, and progress, and consequently wariness of an encroaching nihilism against which some new, positive affirmation must be made. It's the ethos with which those conclusions are reached: a probably self-contradictory scientific drive to eliminate anything resembling predetermined conclusions or received wisdom: mind-shattering blasphemy as experiment. It's what makes Nietzsche still probably the only avant-garde philosopher.

It's nevertheless surprising just how often Nietzsche refers to experiment and its counterconcept, habit. This is especially noteworthy in Nietzsche's critique of truth, less a postmodern break than the most brilliant and sustained reprisal of the argument Hume had advanced more than a century before -- that what most people (including virtually all philosophers) take to be metaphysical truths are really just our lazy, habitual prejudices and errors of perception, rephrased by way of a linguistic mistake into scholarly-philosophical terms. Hence Nietzsche's practice as the counterconcept to philosophy as practiced hitherto: philosophy as experiment, coupling an abhorrence of systems with a polemic wit designed both to discomfort others (and oneself) and explore intriguing and explosive alternatives, wherever they might lead.

If there's anything that distinguishes the use or misuse of philosophy in the study of literature from its use in mainstream philosophy departments, it's this desire/willingness to experiment, to (with all due d/reference to Kant) reason outside the limits of reason alone. Often in the study of literary texts, scholarship is nonempirical, if not antiempirical altogether: it's pure argument, with innovative interpretation as the stakes. Just as Kierkegaard argued with respect to faith in God, you have to leap. Which is why Nietzsche, with his light feet and dancing wit, is the philosopher who just may still have the most to offer -- even seven years after I left home, renounced religion, and dreamed of becoming the √úbermensch.

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