Monday, November 2, 2009
Nietzsche, Truth and Meaning
I just listened to this extremely interesting interview with Brian Leiter over at Philosophy Bites about "Nietzsche Myths." The "Nietzsche wasn't actually an anti-Semite whose philosophy was all about the notion of the Overman" part was pretty much stuff that I knew, although it was explained nicely, in a concise, entertaining and well-reasoned way. The interesting part to me was the last bit, about the way that folks like Derrida and Foucault tried to claim Nietzsche as a proto-post-modern skeptic about truth and meaning. Leiter argues that this doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense. The one essay in which Nietzsche says post-modern-sounding things about truth was one that he never gave anyone permission to publish, whose themes he never returned to in his later work, and which flatly contradicts and makes nonsense of a great number of the views that he implicitly assumed or even explicitly endorsed in the work that he did think enough of to publish.
Thinking about this point, it kinda occurred to me that...uh....
...come to think of it....
....if one of the main themes of post-modern skepticism about truth and meaning is that texts don't really have any kind of fixed meaning having to do with anything as banal as context or consistency or authorial intent, but that they can be legitimately interpreted in a more or less infinite number of incompatible ways...and the argument between advocates of this view who see Nietzsche as an early-co-thinker and boring "analytic" Nietzsche scholars like Leiter is about what the textually-best-supported reading of Nietzsche's views is...it shouldn't exactly be shocking that they come to different conclusions. In fact, it's amazing that the differences aren't a lot greater.
You'd sort of expect to have a lot of discussions between Post-modern Nietzsche Enthusiasts (PNEs) and Normal Nietzsche Scholars (NNSs) along the lines of:
PNE: In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche makes the bold assertion that President Obama is actually a lizard-like alien creature, a la the classic science fiction television series V.
NNS: What? How is that possible? Nietzche died in 1900, and Barack Obama wasn't even born until 1961.
PNE: Here we see the typical obtuseness of the analytic philosopher who cannot think outside of the arbitrary and culturally-determined narratives of "temporal causation" and...
NNS: Yeah, OK. Whatever. But where are you even getting this?
PNE: From the passage where Zarathustra talks about his admiration for tight-rope-walkers.
NNS: Wait. The passage about tight-rope-walkers was a metaphor for Obama being an alien lizard creature?
PNE: Why privilege that interpretation of what I just said? My statement "From the passage where Zarathustra talks about his admiration for tight-rope-walkers" could just as easily be read as a statement about about the war in Afghanistan, in which the signifiers "Zarathustra" and "tight-rope-walkers" were used to dialogue with Vice President Biden's support for a strategy of relying on Predator drone attacks rather than more troops on the ground.
NNS: OK...uh...is that what you meant? Because it seemed more like we were talking about....
PNE: Are you honestly assuming some restrictive narrative of authorial intent whereby my reading of my statement at the time I said it is privileged over any other?
NNS: Never mind.