Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Leiter on Nietzsche's Skepticism

Brian Leiter has written a piece about Nietzsche's moral skepticism (and thanks to Unabgeschlossenheit for putting us onto it). It is an odd combination of some very conscientious Nietzsche scholarship, and a lot of theorizing which causes this particular sympathetic reader of Nietzsche to take offense. With some philosophers (I would cite Heidegger or Derrida, since my sympathies are not with them) one tires of reading secondary texts which teeter on the edge of parody as they parrot the pseudo-poeticisms about the clearing, for instance, in order (supposedly) to clear up what Heidegger was on about. One wants someone - someone like Leiter perhaps - to come along and make it plain for us unpoetic types what the hell Heidegger was on about and whether there is actually anything substantial at the core of his thinking or whether it is all just a cry of pain at the absence of God. What one doesn't want, however, is a long academic thesis about whether Heidegger or Nietzsche were skeptics about the existence of moral facts. Rather than clear anything up, that just obscures things further by forcing one set of ideas into a theoretical framework in which they just don't belong.

But let us be scholarly for a moment (despite the unpleasant sensation that that arouses). What is wrong with the talk of moral facts that Leiter uses (and it is not just his discourse, of course)? Perhaps we are not sufficiently familiar with this discourse, and perhaps that is why it strikes us as odd that Leiter can talk so bluntly about moral facts when so much about that talk seems questionable. Leiter does not say that there are moral facts, but the discourse assumes that there might be, and Leiter goes on to reconstruct one possible argument for being skeptical about their existence: the argument from the universal disagreement in the field of moral philosophy.

What would a moral fact be? But that question only makes sense within a larger attempt to understand the phenomenon of morality. What is morality? Leiter's talk of moral facts implies that morality is either a cognition of something objective or simply a projection of the speaker's feelings. This either/or seems to imply that if morality isn't objective then moral talk is just a lot of hot air (with perhaps the further consequence that any moral critique of existing power structures is a priori untenable, which is definitely not what Nietzsche believed).

Let's take objectivity first. Here and there Leiter seems to suggest that objectivity is (or ought to be) as objective as it was for Plato for whom the Ideas are “pure, clear, unmixed—not infected withhuman flesh and color, and a lot of other mortal nonsense”. What we seem to have lost sight of here is the history of our discourse. Unlike Plato we are only too aware of how historical and therefore how opaque our discourse is. We are only too aware that our language is (as it was for Nietzsche) human, all too human. And so there is no way back to a Platonic concept of objectivity (for which language would have to be a perfectly transparent window on the world). Some kind of historical relativism is inevitable. And it's inevitability is evident in Leiter's article, for the way he sets up the problem only makes sense if you begin from an acceptance that the world is what it is for science: either there are facts to be known by one kind of science or there are feelings to be explained by another branch of science, and philosophy presumably decides which phenomena belong in which scientific pigeon hole.

What about feelings? There is something terribly unsubtle in the talk of the projection/expression of feelings that Leiter buys into. Nietzsche has an interesting history of how the bad conscience comes into being. It is a long and tortuous process. This historical and psychological complexity is completely glossed over by the reduction of morality to a projection of feelings. That kind of reductive talk implies (it seems to me) a kind of shrug of the shoulders: I feel this way, but, heck, I guess you feel differently and I guess that's just moral relativism, so let's live and let live. There is a phenomenon here in serious need of a diagnosis, when morality can be talked about with such a shrug of the shoulders; as there is when talk of morality can centre on idle chatter about flaming pussies.

So what of the either/or? For an old Hegelian-Marxist it is tempting to criticize this for being a tad undialiectical. Morality cannot just be feelings, but it cannot just be the stuff Leiter wants to call facts. Instead of the flaming pussy let's take a more pertinent phenomenon: sin. There is no sin without a historically evolved religious discourse maintained by a community that talks of sin and judges the immoral actions of its members, and judges them harshly. But that discourse will cease to have any currency if people do not feel that their actions and those of other are sinful. There is a unity here of history, language, thought and feeling which cannot come into view if we insist at the outset that morality must either be facts or feelings. Those of us who see in theocracy nothing but a dead hand know by its absence how important feeling must be to morality.

Enough on the either/or. Let me comment on why I prefer to read Nietzsche than Mr Leiter. Nietzsche has a burning sense of what is timely. I may disagree with his interpretation of what the epoch needs, but I appreciate that keeness to respond to the historical situation, and respond to it morally (leaving aside for now the difficulty with the word "morality"). We, too, live at a time when there is much of a moral nature to think about. In the West morality is excluded from so much of the public sphere as culture is handed over to commerce. It is almost tempting to talk about this as a form of repression, and then to see the Taliban as the return of the repressed, to whom the response is naked aggression. When thinking about morality, don't we have to begin from some understanding of what morality has become historically - from some understanding of how we (and that is a very historical we) are to narrate that history - and from some response to the present crisis? Philosophy, on this reading, does not begin from wonder (and certainly not from idle academic curiosity) but from a sense of unease - a sense that society is not a whole of which we are contented parts, but rather that it is fragmented. Philosophy should at least help us to delineate the lines of that fragmentation insofar as this touches on the most basic categories of our thinking, even if it cannot come up with a blueprint for a happier whole. However much I disagree with the details, I appreciate that this what Nietzsche addresses. He does criticize a Platonic theory of value, but not because it is a nice topic for an academic paper, but because it is a necessary prelude to a critique of a social self-delusion - a delusion bound up with a negation of what we feel (of what we FEEL) ought to be affirmed.

To put it another way. I like moral thinking to be not just thinking about morality but thinking that is itself moral - thinking that aims to be an intervention with moral purport in a situation (like ours) that cries out for a moral response. In such a context it strikes me that idle talk of flaming pussies is reprehensible.

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