Steven Pinker Should Read Some Nietzsche For Himself

Steven Pinker does not like Nietzsche. The following exchange–in an interview with the Times Literary Supplement makes this clear:

Question: Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?

Pinker: Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s easy to see why his sociopathic ravings would have inspired so many repugnant movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism, the Ayn Randian fringe of libertarianism, and the American alt-Right and neo-Nazi movements today. Less easy to see is why he continues to be a darling of the academic humanities. True, he was a punchy stylist, and, as his apologists note, he extolled the individual superman rather than a master race. But as Bertrand Russell pointed out in A History of Western Philosophy, the intellectual content is slim: it “might be stated more simply and honestly in the one sentence: ‘I wish I had lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici’.”

The answers that Pinker seeks–in response to his plaintive query–are staring him right in the face. To wit, ‘we’ study Nietzsche with great interest because:

1. If indeed it is true that Nietzsche’s ‘ravings…inspired so many repugnant movements’–and these ‘movements’ have not been without considerable import, then surely we owe it to ourselves to read him and find out why they did so. Pinker thinks it ‘It’s easy to see why’ but surely he would not begrudge students reading Nietzsche for themselves to find out why? Moreover, Nietzsche served as the inspiration for a great deal of twentieth-century literature too–Thomas Mann is but one of the many authors to be so influenced. These connections are worth exploring as well.

2. As Pinker notes with some understatement, Nietzsche was a ‘punchy stylist.’ (I mean, that is like saying Mohammad Ali was a decent boxer, but let’s let that pass for a second.) Well, folks in the humanities–in departments like philosophy, comparative literature, and others–often study things like style, rhetoric, and argumentation; they might be interested in seeing how these are employed to produce the ‘sociopathic ravings’ that have had such impact on our times. Moreover, Nietzsche’s writings employ many different literary styles; the study of those is also of interest.

3. Again, as Pinker notes, Nietzsche ‘extolled the individual superman rather than a master race,’ which then prompts the question of why the Nazis were able to co-opt him in some measure. This is a question of historical, philosophical, and cultural interest; the kinds of things folks in humanities departments like to study. And if Nietzsche did develop some theory of the “individual superman,” what was it? The humanities are surely interested in this topic too.

4. Lastly, for Pinker’s credibility, he should find a more serious history of philosophy than Bertrand Russell‘s A History of Western Philosophy, which is good as a light read–it was written very quickly as a popular work for purely commercial purposes and widely reviled in its time for its sloppy history. There is some good entertainment in there; but a serious introduction to the philosophers noted in there can only begin with their own texts. If Pinker wants to concentrate on secondary texts, he can read Frederick Copleston‘s Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosopher of Culture; this work, written by a man largely unsympathetic to Nietzsche’s views and who indeed finds him morally repugnant, still finds them worthy of serious consideration and analysis. So much so that Copleston thought it worthwhile to write a book about them. Maybe Pinker should confront some primary texts himself. He might understand the twentieth century better.

Gide’s Immoralist And The Existential Necessity Of The Colony

The immoralist at the heart of André Gide‘s The Immoralist, Michel, does not travel just anywhere; he travels to French colonies like Algeria and Tunisia; the boys who he meets, is attracted to, and falls in love with, are not just any boys; they are Muslim Arab boys. He is old; they are young. He is white; they are brown. He is sick and tubercular; they are young and exuberant, bursting to the seams with health and vitality. Their blood is redder, and flows more freely; Michel’s blood is black, and hideous, and disgusting. He is diseased, but as he spends time among his new companions, whose bodies and nakedness underneath their clothes he cannot take his eyes off of, his health improves and he begins to describe the arc of a journey to greater health and well-being, away from disease; he begins a journey from flirting with death to welcoming life in all its fullness. The language that Gide uses to describe Michel’s journey or passage is richly symbolic and metaphorical, and invites multiple interpretations, mingling as it does, these descriptions of the physical with those of the mental, so that we are tempted to see Michel’s journey from bad to good health as his journey from being ‘a lost soul’ to being ‘a found self’; that much is straightforward.

But why place this journey in colonized lands, why make the vehicles of Michel’s transformation and self-discovery be the colonized, the subjugated, the colonial subject? For one, we can see the colonizer use both the land and the peoples of the colony as his experiential space for self-discovery; it becomes one more of the services or functions that the colonized provides; besides markets, it provides an avenue and domain for self-construction; it becomes one more of the means by which the colonizer comes to realize himself. Because the colonized inhabits a world in which the colonizer has been, as it were, ‘marketed’, Michel finds in the colonies and in the gaze of the colonial subject, one component of his identity: how a Frenchman is understood by those he has colonized. If the colonial identity is an indissoluble part of what it meant to be a Frenchman in the twentieth century then Michel has done the right thing by traveling to a French colony; it is there that he will find out what a Frenchman truly is.

But this salvation need not be individual; all of French culture and Western civilization may be redeemed in the colonies; it is where a decadent, dying civilization looks to being revitalized; to literally being brought back to life. French and Western civilization has become old and tubercular, its blood is polluted. But the Muslim Arab world is younger, even if immature, it promises a new vision of life to a culture on its death-bed and drags it back from its flirtation with death.

The colony is a material and spiritual and existential necessity; it extends the life of the colonizer; the journey to a new form of life for the colonizer begins there.

Studying Ancient Law In Philosophy Of Law

This semester in my philosophy of law class, I’ve begun the semester with a pair of class sessions devoted to ancient law: Mesopotamian, Biblical, and Roman. (My class is reading excerpts from a standard law school textbook: Jurisprudence Cases and Materials: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law and Its Applications by Stephen E. Gottlieb,  Brian H. Bix, Timothy D. Lytton, & Robin L. West.) I chose these sections for class reading and discussion because as the authors put it, “First, it is useful to know about the origins of law….Second, the legal documents from the Ancient Near East offer you a comparative perspective…you will find illuminating points of similarity and difference with our own system of laws, and that will help you to identify seemingly universal features of law and to spot particular characteristics that distinguish our own legal system, characteristics that you may have assumed were universal. Third…studying the earliest attempts to impose law gives us an opportunity to examine the reasons for using law as a means of governing….we will find…hints about the original reasons for choosing law, as opposed to other methods of ruling.” Moreover, these excerpts offer us some of the “earliest attempts to reflect on the rule of law…[they] pose a set of questions that have defined the field of jurisprudence ever since….In contrast to contemporary jurisprudence these ancient writings offer clear distinctions between the different approaches: they present arguments about positivism and natural law in purer form.”

These considerations offer a series of compelling arguments for why the study of ancient law should be included in a philosophy of law course; the description of law as a historically evolving and contingent technology of governance is one that every student of law–philosophical or otherwise–should be familiar with. (I regret never having including these sorts of materials in my previous iterations of this class; philosophy of law anthologies for their part, do not include material on ancient law.) If today’s vigorous class discussion–on a preliminary reading of the laws of Ur-Namma, Lipit-Ishtar, Hammurabi, and Yahdun-Lim was any indication, this syllabus selection has been a hit with my students as well. My students were particularly enthused by an introductory exercise that asked them to write a prologue, a few laws, and a conclusion in the style of these legislators; we then discussed why they picked the prologue and the laws that they did; this discussion allowed me to introduce the concept of the ‘expressive impact of law’ and also the so-called four-fold model of behavioral modification, which shows that law is but one modality by which behavior can be modified (the others are social norms, market pressures, and architectural constraints.) Moreover, these legislative excerpts are written in a very distinctive style, which permitted a preliminary discussion of legal rhetoric as well.

I often get syllabi wrong; and much remains to be done in this semester, but for the time being I’m reasonably pleased that this class–which sputtered so spectacularly last year–is off to a bright start in this new year. Hope springs eternal.

On Being Both ‘Bad’ And ‘Great’

Recently, in response to Richard Seymour‘s essay on Winston Churchill in Jacobin–one whose tagline read “Churchill was no hero — he was a vile racist fanatical about violence and fiercely supportive of imperialism,” I wrote the following on my Facebook status page:

Indians have known this and said this forever. Hopefully, now that a white Englishman has said the same thing, we won’t be subjected to any more nauseating Churchill hagiography.

In response, a friend wrote:

The very idea that someone might be both terrible and great. Sounds like another century.

To which yet another friend responded:

Can we from India remember the terrible part? Or should we dilute the gaze full of genocidal hatred he fixed upon us, and remember that he was great to some other people, just not us? I think (and I admit I am entirely biased) he has blotted enough of his record via-a-vis India for us in India not to worry about his greatness.

This little exchange encapsulates quite neatly a recurring aspect of post-colonial discourse and debate–the historical evaluation of colonialists and imperialists. Here, I make note of a revisionist take on Churchill–such revisionism is not new with respect to Churchill though my embittered status makes it seem so–and express the hope that such revisionism will lead to a continuing revaluation of Churchill’s ‘legacy’ and ‘achievements,’ which thus far, have included the persistent and continual reminders of how ‘he saved the world from Nazism.’  In response, I am admonished for my blinkered view, for my insistence that Churchill’s racism and imperialism sully his ‘legacy’ and am urged to take on a more catholic and stereoscopic view. In return, a post-colonial subject–whose nationality is identified–says that as far as Indians were concerned, this dimension overpowers other aspects of his life and work. It was, you see, the dimension ‘we’ were exposed to; those other aspects of his ‘greatness’ were often experienced by others.

This debate is destined to continue and recur. It is therefore incumbent on me to make note of a fallacy that underwrites it: the insistence that the ‘greatness’ and ‘badness’ of colonial leaders–or perhaps just colonialism in general–be universally recognized and acknowledged by the very same people. It is not enough that Churchill be described as ‘great’ by some and ‘bad’ by yet others, and that in some supposedly ‘final analysis’ a complicated, variegated, synoptic of the man and his work might emerge; no, rather, it is necessary that Churchill’s ‘badness’ and ‘greatness’ both be acknowledged by the same demographic: the post-colonial subject, who otherwise stands accused of a lack of historical perspective and perhaps even ingratitude. The post-colonial subject cannot, for instance, just add his contribution assessing the colonialist as ‘bad’ to the mix; he must too, contribute a shade of gray. No unequivocal assessments or opinions for him and her.

This does not sound like an invitation to a more complex view of the world; it is merely a push back down the slope to a familiar position where the manner and form of the post-colonial subject’s action and speech is to be regulated by a set of normative criteria that diffuse its force and power–whether rhetorical or  material. Old habits die hard.

Ramachandra Guha On The Lack Of Modern Indian Histories

In India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (HarperCollins, New York, 2007), Ramachandra Guha writes:

Of his recent history of postwar Europe, Tony Judt writes that ‘a book of this kind rests, in the first instance, on the shoulders of other books’. He notes that ‘for the brief sixty-year period of Europe’s history since the end of the Second World War – indeed, for this period above all – the secondary literature in English is inexhaustible’. The situation in India is all too different. Here the gaps in our knowledge are colossal. The Republic of India is a union of twenty-eight states, some larger than France. Yet not even the bigger or more important of these states have had their histories written. In the 1950s and 60s India pioneered a new approach to foreign policy, and to economic policy and planning as well. Authoritative or even adequate accounts of these experiments remain to be written. India has produced entrepreneurs of great vision and dynamism – but the stories of the institutions they built and the wealth they created are mostly unwritten. Again, there are no proper biographies of some of the key figures in our modern history: such as Sheikh Abdullah or Master Tara Singh or M. G. Ramachandran, ‘provincial’ leaders each of whose province is the size of a large European country. [p. 13; links added]

Guha’s analysis here is, sadly enough, almost wholly correct. Guha’s own ‘opus,’ cited above, runs to over 800 pages, and yet it is barely more than a sampler, an appetizer, a pointer to the many corners of modern Indian history that remain unexplored: in the face of a historical project as imposing as that of modern India’s, even such large works can do little more than gesture at their own insignificance. I’m not a historian by trade (and professional historians have accused me of being an amateur) but even my ‘casual’ efforts have resulted in my encountering the lacunae in historical scholarship that Guha writes about. In the realm of military history, for instance, my co-author Jagan Mohan and I found–while working on our books on the 1965 and 1971 air wars  between India and Pakistan–few to none published works on Indian military history, and had to rely largely on personal accounts–autobiographical and biographical–with all of their inherent frailties as sources of information. Official archival stores were hard to access, their points of entry blocked sometimes by official legal strictures, sometimes by bureaucratic inflexibility. Moreover, to add final insult to injury, there simply wasn’t the readership–the all-critical market for publishers–for such historical works as ours. Quite simply, the failure that Guha speaks of was manifest at every level of the historical enterprise: actual histories were hard come by; historical sources were meager; interest in histories and antiquities was only marginal.  Under these conditions, the production of written history seemed intractable at best.

This state of affairs is especially peculiar in the context of the Indian popular imagination–one which finds its national pride grounded in tremendous antiquity of India’s civilizations and cultures. It offers a stark reminder that the nationalist imagination all too often outruns the actual national enterprise.

Toppling Confederate Statues Does Not ‘Erase’ The Confederacy From ‘History’

News from Baltimore and Durham suggests a long-overdue of cleaning American towns and cities of various pieces of masonry known as ‘Confederate statues’; young folks have apparently taken it upon themselves to go ahead and tear down these statues which pay homage to those who were handed a rather spectacular defeat in the American Civil War. News of these evictions has been greeted with a familiar chorus of pearl-clutching, teeth-gnashing, and chest-beating: that such acts ‘erase history’ and contribute to an unwillingness to ‘move on,’ ‘let go,’ or otherwise ‘move on,’ all the while keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the rearview mirror, bowing and scraping our heads to those who laid their arms on the ground and accepted unconditional terms of surrender. This offence against memory and history should not be allowed to stand; but those statues sure should be. It’s the way we get to be are truly grown up, mature, adult Americans.

This is an idiotic argument from start to finish; no amendment will redeem it.

Toppling the statues of Confederate leaders–the ones who prosecuted and fought the Civil War on the wrong side, who stood up for a racist regime that enslaved, tortured, and killed African-Americans–does not erase those leaders from American history; it merely grants them their rightful place in it. The stories of John C. Calhoun and Robert E. Lee–to name just two worthies whose names have been in name-changing and statue-toppling news recently–will continue to live on in history books, television documentaries, biographies, movies, Civil War reenactments, autobiographies, and battlefield monuments. Generations of American schoolchildren will continue to learn that the former was a segregationist, a racist, an ideologue; they will learn that the latter, a ‘noble Virginian,’ was a traitor who fought, not for the national army that granted him his station and rank, but for his own ‘home state,’ a slave-owning one. The toppling of their statues will not prevent their stories being told, their faults and strengths being documented.

What the toppling of their statues will achieve is bring closer the day when these men will no longer be treated as heroes of any kind, tragic or otherwise. The toppling of statues will make it harder for young schoolchildren in the South and elsewhere to think that those memorials in their town serve to recognize courage or praiseworthy moral principles; it will prevent racists in the US from using them as rallying points, as faux mementos of a faux glorious past.

History is far more capacious than the defenders of the Confederacy might imagine; it holds many stories all at once, and it lets us sort them a;; out. The defenders of the Confederacy are not afraid that their heroes will be erased from history; they are afraid that a history which has no room for their statues will have considerably increased room for alternative historical accounts of the men who were once so commemorated.

Let’s take out the trash and replace the statues of racists with statues, instead, of those who fought to emancipate the slaves–in any way–and to erase the terrible blot of slavery from America.