Nietzsche “Myths”, Was He a Proto-Postmodernist?

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 23rd, 2010

I heard an interesting podcast by Brian Leiter on four common myths in the perception of Nietzsche’s philosophy. I agree that Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, and I could not have said it better myself! But I disagree with this other points to a greater or lesser extent. I will address two points as one: are the concepts of the superman and the will to power central to Nietzsche’s philosophy? Leiter argues they are not significant because they are not present throughout his writing, particularly when compared to the transvaluation of all values. I disagree that they are not central because these three concepts are related and refer to Neizsche’s meta-ethical view. At the risk of oversimplification, the superman’s main (or only) attribute is to perform the transvaluation of all values using the will to power. I believe statements concerning one of these “the superman”, ToAV, WtP can be rewritten using either of the other two forms of terminology.

This point of view is supported by the ToAV not being directly mentioned in Thus Spake Zarathustra, but the superman is used exclusively in that book. The underlying message in Nietzsche’s works is broadly the same. He just chooses terminology to suit the style of the work but the development of thought and his themes is continued. These various terms refer to the same core idea. Academics probably prefer the ToAV over the superman because they rate his esoteric Zarathustra below his other, more academic friendly books. In conclusion, Nietzsche’s meta-ethics is a central theme, and these three forms of terminology are all facets of the same concept.

Incidentally, it is probably not appropriate to discuss what it and isn’t “central” to Neitzsche’s philosophy, because this assumes his philosophy is a system or unified in some way. This is the opposite of what he intended. “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” (Twilight) But we can ask which of his ideas have had the most impact.

Was Nietzsche a proto-postmodernist?

Leiter argues Nietzsche was not a proto-postmodernist and claims postmodernists have read too much into Nietzsche’s “man is the measure of reality”-type statements. I tend to disagree, and not just because of Nietzsche’s sustained attack on idealism and objective truth, which arguably opened the door to postmodernism. His views of language and some of his methods are not only compatible with postmodernism, they outline some of the foundations of postmodern thought. Unfortunately, this issue is complicated by the diverse views within postmodernism.

In “The Twilight of the Idols”, both the preface and the chapter “The Problem of Socrates” have an almost deconstructionist approach. He states that the author’s views on the subject were addressing a topic that was unknowable and therefore not to be taken literally.

“The consensus of the sages must show us the truth.” Shall we still talk like that today? May we? […] These wisest men of all ages — they should first be scrutinized closely.

Judgments, judgments of value about life, for it or against it, can in the end never be true: they have value only as symptoms, they are worthy of consideration only as symptoms; in themselves such judgments are meaningless.

Moral judgments are therefore never to be taken literally: so understood, they are always merely absurd. Semiotically, however, they remain invaluable[…] (The “Improvers” of Mankind)

Nietzsche then sets about uncovering psychological, historical and ideological assumptions in the texts. He does this by close analysis of two short sections that provide insight to the overall problem. The first is the physiognomist Zopyrus telling Socrates he was a moral monster and Socrates responded, “You know me, sir! But I overcame them all”. The second section is Socrates’s last words “To live — that means to be sick a long time: I owe Asclepius the Savior a rooster.”. Neither example is taken using the literal meaning, but are seeds that provides insight into the underlying contradictions in the text. This method of close reading of text to find the text’s framework is very much in agreement with deconstructionism.

Nietzsche’s view of the inevitable reinterpretation of history in the Gay Science, aph 34 (quoted below) is similar to the never ending postmodern reinterpretation of texts – this is what I think he refers to as “retroactive powers”. On the other hand, Nietzsche’s view that only great men, presumably those who participate in the ToAV, can revalue history. Would Nietzsche consider scholars as great men? mmm, probably not. I suspect Nietzsche considered history is only being reinterpreted by the creation of new values that provide a perspective to view existing texts.

Historia abscondita–Every great man has a power which operates backward; all history is again placed on the scales on his account, and a thousand secrets of the past crawl out of their lurking-places–into his sunlight. There is absolutely no knowing what history may be some day. The past is still perhaps undiscovered in its essence! There are yet so many retroactive powers needed!

Nietzsche’s view of language is at least sometimes in agreement with postmodernism. He claims words are often “error and arbitrariness” that obscures what things are (Gay Science, aph. 58). The name of a thing can finally eclipse the thing, making a name what actually “operates as the essence”. This replacement of reality by a sign code is referred to as hyperreality by postmodernists. This arbitrariness of words is also mentioned in Thus Spake Zarathustra: “Are not all words made for the heavy? Do not all words lie to the light ones?”

I do not claim that Nietzsche was a postmodernist, and he probably would have objected to the movement and labelled it as “decadent”, because of its assumption that all authority is to be held in suspicion merely because it is in authority. This attitude is effectively ressentiment and is therefore not life affirming. He states in Ecce Homo:

I do not refute ideals, I merely draw on gloves in their presence.

Postmodernism is an attempt to uncover assumptions and frameworks in ideologies – with the tacit assumption that this destroys all ideologies. Unlike postmodernists, Nietzsche doesn’t claim he knows the ideals are false a-priori, but he proceeds to test them using many of the same methods that were adopted by postmodernism.

Anti Citizen One

PS I feel slightly intimidated by Brian Leiter’s obvious knowledge of this topic and professional status… I wonder if I will be shot down one day…

I ♥ Huckabees, The Wire (Series 2 and 3)

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 20th, 2010

I have been watching the idiot box (the TV) recently. I saw “I ♥ Huckabees” (aka I Heart Huckabees), a comedy film about characters trying to find existential answers in their lives. I probably need to watch it again because it covers many topics in existentialism, almost too many – it discusses them without dwelling on them. And although many ideas are discussed, the characters barely have time to act on their situation based these ideas. Still, it has many funny moments. This film is philosophically self-conscious and tries very hard to be very existential (jargon is sometimes used to blind and confuse the audience) – this is almost the opposite of movie “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, which does not try hard enough to capture the philosophy of the original work!

Vivian Jaffe: What do you think would happen if you didn’t tell the stories? Are you being yourself?
Brad Stand: How am I not myself?
Bernard Jaffe: [musing on the question] How am I not myself?
Vivian Jaffe: [musing] How am I not myself?
Bernard Jaffe: [musing] How… am I not… myself?

Two main existential interpretations are presented: “everything is interconnected” optimism and “the world is full of pain” pessimism. The film doesn’t come to any firm conclusion on existentialism, which as appropriate for the topic, except to hint a middle way between the two extremes is a solution (rather like Aristotle’s golden mean, or Hegel’s synthesis). The topics discussed in the film tend to be late existential ideas (Sartre, Camus), while I have a personal preference for the early existential period (you know: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, etc.). “I ♥ Huckabees” is jargon heavy (almost it enjoys the sounds of the words rather than the just the concepts), while understanding the jargon is actually irrelevant to having an existential approach to life – although I guess the audience probably would not notice unless it was made explicitly clear. “Are not all words made for the heavy? Do not all words lie to the light ones?”

I recently finished “The Wire” series 2 and 3. It is a TV drama revolving around police work and organised crime in contemporary Baltimore – rather like LA Confidential meets Traffic. It is hard to overstate the quality of the series – intellectually and as a story. As William Julius Wilson said:

“[a]lthough The Wire is fiction, not a documentary, its depiction of systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the urban poor is more poignant and compelling [than] that of any published study, including [my] own.” Slate

Series 2 was notable in having multiple tragic characters that are worthy of a Shakespeare play. Tragedy as entertainment is a very interesting philosophical area – how does an audience derive pleasure from watching a sympathetic character’s downfall? and what does that tell us about the world? And after all the hard work of the police, are peoples lives any better? is the actual crime rate significantly changed? The Wire can be bleak on occasion! (“Listen carefully”)

Series 3 is more preachy than previous series, but it happens to be advancing an idea I agree with: drug legalisation (or pseudo-legalisation in this case). A senior police officer, approaching retirement with nothing to lose (or so he thinks), attempts a social experiment by tolerating drug dealing within certain limits. In the series, this reduces overall crime in his district, since the police have more time to solve other socially harmful crime while drug dealing is relocated outside occupied neighbourhoods. When the top level police and politicians find out, there is trouble… (If people think this wouldn’t work, remember the end of prohibition.)

Anti Citizen One

Chomsky: Perilous Power, Media Control

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 19th, 2010

I reread Chomsky and Achcar’s Perious Power. The format of the book is a dialogue between these two intellectuals, which was subsequently polished and with addition of references to sources. It is a wide reaching examination of the middle east situation and international policy. Chomsky’s usual method is applied: examine a leaders rhetoric and then their actual actions to see if there is any discrepancy. He argues that the stated goals of western powers to bring democracy and human rights to the middle east is contradicted by a long history of hypocrisy in that regard. Of course, this continues today with various countries bullying Iran. Chomsky returns to a recurring topic: the most obvious definition of terrorism implies that the US and allies are the worst terrorist states. For example, Iran might have significant human rights problems and possibly threatening to use military power (although this was probably political grandstanding, not actual policy) but compare that to the US, UK, Israel who go far beyond threats and actually are militarily aggressive and have an overall appalling human rights record. The list of specific instances is too long for me to detail – just read this book! (or The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein). Until the US cleans up its act in human rights and military aggression, and its allies stop being accomplices to this acts, I place very little stock in the current US/UK military adventures.

Here are a few general ideas, they might want to consider to actually get back on track:

  • Military forces should be used as the last resort. The democratic route should be preferred. The rhetoric states this is policy, but clearly it isn’t.
  • Don’t perform military actions in other countries or kidnap people across boarders (“rendition”) – this undermines the rule of law. Drone bombings are extra-judicial killings. (US 14th Amendment – due process and all that)
  • Highlight human rights abuses then they are conducted by our “allies” (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia, Pakistan) and not just by our “enemies” (Cuba, Iran, China). (Remember when Canada listed the US as a country that practices torture? The truth hurts.)
  • Replace military forces in occupied countries, particularly if against the popular will, (Iraq, Afghanistan, Tibet) with a UN force or withdraw completely.
  • Stop support (military, economic, diplomatic) to countries that occupy territory by force or use disproportionate force (Israel by US, North Korea by China)
  • Prosecute people who order or perform torture. (This applies to all countries, and it is where Obama’s credibility evaporated from my perspective.)
  • Encourage resolution of occupied territories – this could be achieved in Palestine by the US if they had the will. (See the US record on UN resolutions with respect to Israel)
  • Pay reparations to countries that you messed up with military action, supporting coups, etc. (Most colonial powers and the US would have a long list of candidates here.)
  • Don’t use collective punishment on countries using sanctions or military action (did someone say “war crime”?). (US on Cuba, US on Iran, US on just about everyone, Israel on Palestine.) This is taken to an extreme when countries elect the “wrong” government and are punished in consequence. Don’t ignore governments with popular support just because they are distasteful. (Hamas)
  • Prisoners are to have fair trials in civilian courts or the Geneva Conventions apply. Also the UDHR applies. In all cases, coercion should not be used.
  • Ban nukes.
  • In short, cut the double think and hypocrisy.

Oddly, most of these are already law or have been discussed many times at the UN. Unfortunately very little will be done until other issues are resolved: dependence on oil, the influence of businesses on politics and reduction of propaganda. I also read Media Control, which is more of an introduction to all of the above. It is very short – more pamphlet length than book length and not hard to read (in fact a bit too light compared to his other works).

Anti Citizen One

PS Chomsky always gets me in the mood for Rage Against the Machine: “I am the Nina, The Pinta, The Santa Maria”!

Museums, McCausland, Creationism, Truth and All That

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 14th, 2010

I certain news item prompted me to think about the role of institutions with respect to knowledge. The Northen-Irish Culture minister privately wrote to the Ulster Museum, calling for minority opinions to be represented in exhibits. This letter was leaked. The letter’s intent is fairly questionable: what does the minister know about running a museum? On the other hand, the minister claims it is a “human rights” issue. I am not sure that representation of public opinion, even of minority groups, in museums is a human right. Human rights protect individuals, not groups. However, cultural rights protect groups, but this concept is half baked IMHO. The minister included creationism as one of the minority views that should be represented. For many people, this makes his intellectual credibility self destruct. He has called for “reasonable discussion” of the issue, but refused to personally enter into further debate on creationism – which seems contradictory to me. But this raises an interesting question, who determines what is called “truth” at museums and institutions?

We might choose institutional gatekeeper based on our intended outcome of the institution’s functioning. This raises a new problem: who determines what role institutions have? But the choices include: experts (meritocracy), central institutions (propaganda), tradition, the institution’s members (democratic) or public opinion (widely democratic). I guess that history, being written “by the winners”, has a measure of political influence, this is probably unavoidable. But when taken too far, reality is rejected in an Orwellian fashion to suite the ruling party. This occurs in many places in the world, from Texas removing inconvenient topics in text books to North Korea in cloud cuckoo land and Turkey brushing genocide under the carpet. For museums, we also don’t particularly want democratic or public opinion deciding what is historical knowledge; a history based on public opinion would be similar to mythology. I hope that experts would do better. That last statement is a bit of a tautology: I am defining “expert” as someone who can arrive at correct historical knowledge. An obvious objection is “who decides who is an expert?”. This is particularly a problem since non-experts generally don’t have the capability to evaluate who is in expert.

This question is slightly easier in science. Although the peer review system generally works, it is not the fundamental consideration in determining what is scientific knowledge, rather it is falsificationism (if we allow Popper’s view). But other domains of knowledge of networks of peer review. But just because a school of knowledge has peer review, does not necessarily imply it is not quackery. (Of course, post-modernists might claim it is all just different points of view – well they should know all about “hot air”.) What is historical knowledge? Anyway, there is probably no point in getting as pedantic as Popper can be on the answer here. I don’t think there is a philosophically satisfactory answer, beyond existentially deciding it should be X, Y or Z. Anyway, moving on from these abstract considerations…

In my view, expert historians should determine what appears in museums – not politicians or public opinion! One necessary (but not sufficient) requirement for expects is intellectual integrity. “…and what is that?” No definitive answer again. But it might include: critical thinking and not over estimating what is currently known (personally and collectively, see also “Socratic ignorance”), as well as the limitations on what is knowable. Creationism fails spectacularly on these criteria. I guess my crude definition of intellectual integrity is scepticism (remember this is just my view). Of course, believers have their own criteria – but they fail my criteria. I have less objections to fideism compared to flawed arguments from evidence. Evidence based creationists and people with intellectual integrity are two non-overlapping groups. (Sorry to friends who might be offended, but it’s my sincere view). For more information, see Hume’s good ol’ Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Finally, if we admit creationism into museums, any interpretation however ridiculous could be included in museums. To put it another way, if we include the Christian creation, why exclude the Norse creation myth? or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? If we do allow public opinion to determine historical knowledge, absurdity results. What the minister is tacitly calling for is only “serious” myths to be called history – the ones deemed “worthy” are decided by an outside force, religion and politics in this case. In other words, it is a call for propaganda to replace history.

Anti Citizen One

PS. A quote that I like, with debatable relevance:

And can you blame me, CLEANTHES, if I here imitate the prudent reserve of SIMONIDES, who, according to the noted story, being asked by HIERO, What God was? desired a day to think of it, and then two days more; and after that manner continually prolonged the term, without ever bringing in his definition or description? Could you even blame me, if I had answered at first, that I did not know, and was sensible that this subject lay vastly beyond the reach of my faculties?


This Site is Banned in China

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 8th, 2010

This site is banned in China (except for Hong Kong). I guess that is recognition of sorts… Test was done on (thanks). Sooo, Tibet: what’s all that about?

Anti Citizen One

The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 6th, 2010

I finished Popper’s book The Logic of Scientific Discovery. I learned more than I expected, even considering I try to keep up with discussions concerning science. He is not concerned with how scientists actually work; this is what he calls the naturalistic approach. Popper addresses the logical and epistemological aspects, for example is a scientific theory true or false? how do we know what we know? and what is the difference between scientific and non-scientific knowledge? This last one is the fundamental question for Popper and is what he calls the “demarcation problem”. All these issues hardly matter to mainstream scientists since they mostly grasp the issues intuitively, at least well enough for practical use. To them, the philosophy of science is as much use as ornithology is to birds. But these issues are useful for distinguishing between science, proto-science, pseudo-science and metaphysics. One common theme I noticed between this book and Open Society (part 1) is Popper’s revisiting many well established areas of knowledge (democracy and science), and after finding their traditional ideas lead to logical problems, he attempts to formulate new definitions or concepts that captures the essence of an idea but makes it more satisfactory to logicians. For example he rejects the argument that democracy attempts to promote freedom by inherently anti-freedom methods and formulates a more satisfactory alternative. I will try to convey some of the ideas about science but I don’t claim to be an expert in this area!

Popper identifies two main views of science: inductivism and falsificationism. Imagine a repeated coin toss which represents a simple repeatable experiment. Let us allow the coin to be special: it can be a fair coin with equal chance with heads or tails, or it could be a trick coin with both sides as heads (or tails), or even a coin which is governed by a mathematical law (say alternate heads and tails). We can look at a historic sequence of coin tosses and try to inductively reason the pattern. I will abbreviate heads as H and tails as T. Here are a few finite length examples:


Using inductive logic, we can reason that pattern 1 uses a coin having both sides as heads. Pattern 2 seems to be an alternating heads and tails. Pattern 3 seems to be random and might be consistent with a fair coin toss. But these cannot be said to be true without some doubt (being the problem with inductive reasoning). The larger problem with inductive logic is there are an infinite number of hypothesises that fit the observations. We cannot easily distinguish between these possible hypothesis but people tend to invent heuristic rules, such as “simpler theories are preferred”, but this rule cannot be scientifically justified. Popper observes that inductive reasoning prefers to not go beyond the observed data to make predictions, and asks why bother trying to use inductive reasoning when it is preferable to not make unsubstantiated conjectures at all? “silence is better”. The danger of an infinite number of possible explanations is a theory can be defended by addition of ad-hoc hypothesis. (This is like defending the proposition “there is a dragon in my garage” by adding “it’s an invisible dragon” and “the dragon is silent”.)

Falsificationism is the view advanced by Popper. He claims that only theories that are falsifiable are scientific. He uses the concept “basic statements”, that are inter-subjectively repeatable experimental observations. Basic statements may falsify scientific theories. However if a theory has no possible basic statements that could lead to falsification, it is labelled metaphysical and not scientific. In consequence, a theory can never be “proven” or called “true”. If a theory makes no inter-subjectively testable predictions, it is not scientific. This interestingly allows some physical phenomena to exist but to be non-scientific, as long as they remain untestable. To continue with my “dragon in garage” example, this hypothesis would be disallowed if there we no empirical predictions (even if there really was an invisible dragon). Philosophical naturalists claim that only detectable phenomena are worth consideration (but of course this is not a scientific claim).

One issue for falsificationism is that all three patterns (above) are compatible with the hypothesis of a fair coin toss, because we occasionally get unusual patterns in a random sequence. Getting ten heads in a row has a relatively large probability of 1 in 1024. How can we falsify a statistical prediction? This would take an infinite series of coin tosses to provide falsification, which is impractical. This is discussed in depth by Popper but he uses the fact that repeatable empirical tests have an associated measurement error. He is content to say a statistical prediction can be falsified as long as the difference between prediction and an observation is well below the measurement error. (At least as far as I understand the author.) With both the “verification” and “falsification” being knotty problems, it puts science on a very tentative footing. This is the way it should be.

A side note, not contained in this book, is the falsifiability of evolution and intelligent design (ID). Some have claimed that evolution is not falsifiable, which indicates the speaker is either profoundly uninformed, without a grasp of logic or lacking in intellectual integrity. If people doubt evolution is falsifiable, several explicit possible “basic facts” are listed in Darwin’s Origin of Species that would fatally undermine his idea (more here). The falsification of ID depends on its exact formulation, but in most cases the GLARING logical flaws in the argument make falsification a moot point. (But most versions of ID are un-falsifiable.) These particular issues would be unworthy of consideration in Popper’s book, but he is often mentioned in the modern discussions of ID.

Anyway, I have only scratched the surface here. This book is quite dense, including mathematical proofs and the like. There is an interesting discussion on the issue of corroboration of theory, but again, Popper rules out theories being “true”, we can only go as far as saying “they are consistent with experimental observations”. The concept “truth” is almost a distraction in the epistemology of science, but ironically it is what scientists aim to find.

Anti Citizen One

PS See the Gay Science aph 344