Nietzsche & “Family Values”

When was the last time you heard a pastor or a conservative politician in America invoke the notion of “traditional family values”? Examples of this kind of rhetoric abound, and one quick example is this.

Question: if 19th century atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche could hear someone (a pastor, a politician, a “think tank”) invoke this rhetorical phrase, what would he say? I’m pretty sure he’d say: “I won!”

In his editorial introduction to Nietzsche’s _Beyond Good and Evil_, Rolf Peter Hortsmann provides the following summary of three Nietzschean bedrock convictions as expressed in this book (pp xvi – xvii):

  1. “Life is best conceived of as a chaotic dynamic process w/o any stability or direction.”
  2. We have no reason whatsoever to believe in any such thing as the “sense” or “value” of life, insofar as these terms imply the idea of an “objective” or “natural” purpose of life.
  3. Human life is “value-oriented” in its very essence – that is, w/o adherence to some set of values or other, human life would be virtually impossible.

Commenting on this summary, Hortsmann continues: “Where the first conviction is supposed to state an ontological fact, the second is meant to be an application of the ontological point to the normative aspects of human life in particular. The third conviction, though somewhat at odds with the first two, is taken by Nietzsche to reveal a psychological necessity.”

Values, then, are for Nietzsche a way of coping with the senselessness of life.

Now, as Allan Bloom states in this lecture, no-one in the United States talked about “values” before Nietzsche; he introduced this language and rhetoric into our culture. Why, then, do conservative, evangelical Christians adopt a category which has as its foundation atheistic nihilism? Why do they speak of “values,” as in “traditional, family values”?

The answer to that question is complicated, but for me the most penetrating analysis would have to deal with the fact that evangelicalism, in addition to its frequent historical ignorance, long ago jettisoned the Church’s traditional language of the objective Good which is mediated by and embodied in the formation of virtue. It has become a thinly-veiled secularism.

If you lose the language and tradition of virtue (and by the way “virtue” was totally absent from my senior-year ethics class at a prominent Evangelical seminary in the year 2000; instead we focused entirely on “what the Bible teaches”), then you lose any objective basis for morality. And if you lose that, then right-and-wrong devolve into something like preference.

“My tribe’s ‘preference’ over yours:” this is not far from today’s culture wars. That the partisans in this struggle often resort to bullying and might-makes-right tactics (on both sides, including the “Christian Right”) is yet another symptom of the underlying source of the illness: that modern American evangelicalism has “given away the farm” to secularism.




A Certain Distinction in Nietzsche

To introduce a certain way of thinking about Friedrich Nietzsche, one could consider, by way of analogy, the term “pluralism.” Pluralism can refer to either a cultural state of affairs (ie, that which is the case in a given culture) or to an ideology, or, for the purposes of this discussion, a philosophical doctrine.

Now, I want to raise the specter that something like this distinction b/t a state of affairs and a philosophical doctrine may well be operative in N’s thought. At the very least I’d argue that if one is not at least tempted at some point in his reading of N to entertain this possibility, then one is missing a crucial aspect of N.

In fact, I’d argue that something like this is the case for N’s notion of the “death of God.” I’d definitely argue that what is going on in this discourse of Nietzshe’s is more akin to a state of affairs than it is to a philosophical doctrine. To be clear, I don’t think that N is actually saying that God has died. He is saying that the philosophical and cultural currency of the reality of God (and all that it entails) is what has dies.

Further, this is a more radical reading of N than simply to hold that he is merely apsousing atheism. Why? Because is allows one to co-opt N for a very “Nietzschean” project: the critique of various reigning ideologies in our late capitalist culture which, while functionally “atheist,” are a least as bourgeois as form of “Christianity” which held sway in N’s day.

Now, I do think that N’s “God is dead” describes a certain state of affairs rather than an actual doctrine which N holds (a proposition dramatically strengthened if one holds that philosophical doctrines are by definition off-limits for N); however I do not necessarily think this is the case for his teaching on “values” as we find it in his genealogical works, and in particular Beyond Good and Evil.


Husserl & the Ideological Hegemony of “Science”

A friend recently pointed me to an article delivered by one Grant Franks at St. John’s College in the late 1990’s, which deals with the relationship between ancient thought and modern thought.

In the article, Franks discusses Edmund Husserl’s appraisal of the origins of modern science: “In the Crisis of the European Sciences, Husserl argues that Descartes and Galileo—or more accurately, the scientific enterprise they launched—are responsible for the “most portentous upheavels” of twentieth century European civilization. Franks continues:

This lamentable situation has come about because of a dual expansion and contraction of the domain of scientific knowledge. The realm of science has grown insofar as the new methodical natural science claims to be a mathesis universalis, encompassing all possible knowledge. On the other hand, since the scientific demand for rigor cannot be imposed on all fields of human interest, whole regions of thought and inquiry—specifically all metaphysics and ethics—have been jettisoned and regarded as being unknowable, unscientific, and consequently uninteresting.

I’d argue that this denigration of metaphysics results in part from the novelty of one aspect of Descartes’ method of study as opposed to that of Aristotle. For the ancient Stagirite, the recommended approach to knowledge is to begin with what is most knowable to the human thinker, and to proceed from there to what is most knowable in itself. In this manner Aristotle advocates beginning with realities that the human mind can lay hold of, even if those objects of study (physical objects, concepts, texts, syllogisms, whatever) are somewhat hazy and vague. Try to grasp hold of the object, Aristotle advocates, and see if you can make progress with it, see if you can gain some sort of clearer insight.

For Descartes, however, this approach already gets off on the wrong foot. For him, human reason cannot even countenance an object unless it is clear and distinct, unless it is amenable to “clear and distinct ideas.” What could possibly be more clear and distinct that the numbers and objects of mathematics, now (by the 16th century) stripped down to their bare, instrumental “essentials”? (By “instrumental” I mean a notion of number stripped of all premodern numerological theory as advocated by such diverse parties as the Pythagoreans, Plato, neoplatonists such as Boethius, and Renaissance thinkers of various stripes. Now, for Descartes, numbers have absolutely no concrete content on their own; they are mere instruments which serve the purpose of conducting operations on nature. They are mere tools.)

Husserl advocates a return, for the purposes of this specific discussion, to Aristotle’s method of mathesis. In so doing he proves himself an ally to anyone interested in undermining the ideological hegemony of the modern “science” of the (post)modern West in our time.