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.

Geertz, Trilling and Fussell on the Transformation of the Moral Imagination

In ‘Found in Translation: Social History of Moral Imagination’, (from Local Knowledge: Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, Basic Books, New York, 1983, pp 44-45), Clifford Geertz writes,

Whatever use the imagination productions of other peoples–predecessors, ancestors, or distant cousins–can have for our moral lives, then, it cannot be to simplify them. The image of the past (or the primitive, or the classic, or the exotic) as a source of material wisdom, a prosthetic corrective for a damaged spiritual life–an image that has governed a great deal of humanist thought and education–is mischievous because it leads us to expect our uncertainties will be reduced by access to thought worlds constructed along lines alternative to our own, when in fact they will be multiplied….the growth in range a powerful sensibility gains from an encounter with another one, as powerful or more, comes only at the expense of its inward ease.

Geertz wrote this in response to not just anthropological theorizing and speculation, both amateur and professional–about ‘other peoples’–but to the worries expressed by Lionel Trilling about ‘the basic assumption of humanistic literary pedagogy’  (in ”Why We Read Jane Austen’ Times Literary Supplement, 5 March 1976, pp 250-252) that no matter how great the distance in place, period and sensibility between us and those that inhabit the pages of literature, the author could  bring us closer, illuminate our lives, and make us aware of who we ‘already were.’ Trilling’s discomfort with this assumption arose from his feeling–as Geertz notes–that

[T]he significant works of the human imagination…speak with equal power to the consoling piety that we are all alike to one another and to the worrying suspicion that we are not.

So the ‘social history of the moral imagination’ is a task of considerable hermeneutic difficulty, one that must confront the difficulties it poses in the ‘instabilities’ it creates, all in an effort to make them relevant to the ‘social frame’ we inhabit.

The working example of such an engagement that Geertz provides is the recently departed Paul Fussell‘s The Great War and Modern Memory, which took on the archaic literary frameworks that were first utilized in perceiving and recollecting the First World War, and then later, were extensively reconfigured to amend–and give shape to–the modern imagination. Fussell’s ambitious conclusion was that the predominance of the ‘ironic’ in the modern was a painful reaction to the Great War, that what we call the ‘modern understanding’  is a sensibility that had found pre-existing literary, poetic and imaginative resources inadequate to do justice to the physical and emotional realities of the Great War’s torn and foul landscapes, soaked by the blood of millions of young men, sent to their deaths by incompetent war pigs.  This imagination was ‘shattered into thousand pieces of sour irony’ by this encounter; the modern imagination was the result of putting these pieces back together, over an extended period of time, painfully and slowly, by those who were present, and those who were not.

Geertz uses this history to suggest that,

[T]his is how anything imaginational grows in our minds, is transformed, socially transformed, from something we merely know to exist or have existed, somewhere or the other, to something which is properly ours, a working force in our common consciousness.

In remembering Paul Fussell, we should thank him for having documented such a transformation as vividly and powerfully as he did.

Note: I intend to write a few more notes here in response to Geertz’s collection.