Friday, May 15, 2009

Nietzsche on the Self

In David Deane's excellent new book on Nietzsche (see previous post), he spends a chapter on Nietzsche's view of the self. The chapter title is: "Nietzsche and the Self: The Will-to-Power as an Ontology of Violence."

To begin, Deane explores the difficulty that we all have in taking N. seriously enough. He should neither be dismissed (because of his wide influence) nor should he be "pacified violently" by assimilating his thought to categories that academic philosophy and theology cannot conceive of abandoning, but which N. himself rejects. He rejects the law of non-contradiction, the notion of truth and the idea of a "self" which exists in a static sense independently of the texts and about which the texts can inform us. Deane's strategy is to use the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett as containing certain ideas about the self that illustrate certain of N's concepts of the self. All of these writers operate much more within the boundaries of Western philosophy and cannot be said to follow N's epistemology all the way, but they do have similarities in their views of the self that can shed light on N's position.

Deane writes: "They also serve to highlight a strand of Nietzshean thought that I am keen to expose, a progression toward a mechanistic, behaviourist and often reductionist analysis of the self." (46) Deane elaborates on N's view in a footnote: "The self is understood entirely mechanically by N. as a collectivity of biological processes. These processes determine the behaviour of the organism, although in a very different way from the form of behaviourism associated with Skinner. . . It is also reductionist to the point of being a concept of self wholly in terms of one basic principle 'The world is will-to-power and nothing else besides. And you are will-to-power and nothing else besides.'"

What Deane does in this chapter is to show that N's influence on contemporary thought is not limited to the post-structuralists (eg. Derrida), which has been well-documented, but extends to a different trajectory found in the work of Dawkins and Dennett. N. broke from the Kantian tradition into which Schophenhauer was still was locked. Schopenhauer tried to have both a Kantian transcendental subject as the condition of experience and also a materialist understanding of the human being. Deane explains:

"The perennial problem in enquiries into the self since Kant is thus initiated as 'when the knower tries to turn itself inwards, in order to know itself, it looks into a total darkness, falls into a complete void." (51) If there is no substantial "I" then how can we talk of knowledge as the relationship between the empirical data and the subject's a priori categories? When Kantianism is considered from the perspective of a thorough-going materialistic philosophy, the result is a loss of how to conceive knowledge or even consciousness. Schopenhauer, like Plato, Descartes and Kant, sees the self as the conscious subject of the intellect and gives the will primacy over the intellect, since even our cognitive functions are merely manifestations of the will. Schopenhauer's reluctance to give up either Kantianism or materialism leaves his philosophy in contradiction, but although N. is not bothered by contradiction in principle, he nevertheless resolves this one by rejecting the philosophy of consciousness including Kant's transcendental a priori. N. abandons the subject-object distinction and understands the self in completely physiological terms. N. writes:

"In the case of an animal it is possible to trace all its drives to the will-to-power, likewise all the function of an organic life to this one source.' (Will to Power, 619 as quoted by Deane, 56)

N. understands truth as the adjustment of the world for utilitarian ends but it is a utilitarianism without a telos and therefore reducible to physiological explanation. Whereas Kant strove to reconcile virtue and happiness, N. sees that as a sickness akin to the pathology of Christianity. To fight one's instincts is depravity for N.

(As as aside, I've never understood the widespread practice of handing out contraceptives to children in Jr. High and then having sex ed. classes consisting of nothing more than how to utilize the technology. But it does make perfect sense from a Nietzschean point of view.)

Anyway, back to Deane. Unlike Schopenhauer, aesthetic judgment for N. is also nothing but a manifestation of the will-to-power. All knowledge is interpretation for N. and the deepest instincts of self-preservation and self-aggrandisement are the deepest source of all cognitive actions and moral values.

Deane hews frustratingly to N's own way of thinking (frustration because it is so hard to follow) in saying that for N. the concept of the will-to-power is not stable. It has various meanings, often contradictory. The contradiction is between N's contention that the will-to-power is metaphysical truth, i.e. the truth about how things are, and N's contention that there is no truth. He says there is no moral order, yet says that the only morality worth caring about is being true to our own will-to-power. (58) What N. is saying is that all truth and goodness is nothing but will.

At this point, if David Bentley Hart were listening in, he would say that N. sounds like a good liberal at this point because modern Western liberalism reduces all questions of value to simple will. Choice itself is good - not the choice to do the Good (as in Aristotle) or the choice to obey God's Law (as in Aquinas) but just choice: the sheer self-assertion of the individual for its own sake. And, he would say that both liberals and N. are nihilists. This raises the question of whether N. is the great philosopher of modern liberalism and whether Kant (the Great Delayer) and other modern philosophers who tried to retain morality after giving up God were anything more than roadblocks on the highway to N. This seems to be how N. saw himself, i.e. as the logical outcome of the fundamental choice of modernity to reject Christianity.

But back to Deane. Deane shows how for N. the will-to-power is actually identical with the self. (59) But we already said that the will-to-power is not stable; what does this mean for the self? Obviously, the self is not a stable entity either. It is for N. simply the organism's self-assertion in whatever form that takes (and there is no telos determininig what form it either will take or should take.) Then Deane, in an attempt to shed light on what N. means turns to the work of Richard Dawkins, who understands the genetic functioning of an organism (its DNA) in such a way as to shed light on N's understanding of the will-to-power. Deane sees Dawkins' work as part of the post Niezschean ontologies of violence. (59) Deane writes:

"Like N's will-to-power, Dawkins writes of the Selfish Gene as a force which comprises the self and yet transcends it. Unlike his forebear Darwin he does not see its functioning as teleological. N. scorns Darwin's inability to break free of the teleological way of speaking inherited from his Christian past, saying "Species do not grow more perfect!" (60)

Deane sees three similarities between N. and D. (1) N's will-to-power/D's DNA do not seek the preservation and perfection of an organism, but simply more power. (2) Both view consciousness as "surface phenomena" but not the real motivator of organisms. (3) Both place the behaviour of organisms (including humans) beyond morality. For both N. and D. there is no morality in nature, no progress and no way to differentiate "better" organisms from "worse" ones. Things just are the way they are and the way they are is that they constantly strive to become more and assert their will-to-power as much as possible, even at the cost of their lives. As D. puts it: ". . . this is not a recipe for happiness. As long as DNA is passed on, it does not matter who or what gets hurt in the process." (65) Deane summarizes:

"We can see then that for both N. and D. the guiding principle of life is a biological functioning which orientates each embodiment of it to 'an uncoordinated scramble for selfish gain. Such functioning transcends morality . . . DNA neither knows or cares. DNA just is.'" (65)

In passing, I note the grammatical from "DNA just is" as similar to what Christians say God says about Himself "I Am That I Am." To be is the most fundamental characteristic of God. Both Christianity and materialism speak of their starting points using the verb "to be."

In the rest of the chapter, Deane discusses Dennett in order to show that N. rejects all dualisms and teaches that the body is the self. The self does not inhabit the body or hover above the body; it is the manifestation of the physiological drives animating the body. Deane brilliantly shows how the roots of N's anthropology are in Descartes. He writes: "Descartes represents that philosophical evolution which grounds the facticity of being in the facticity of each being's self consciousness." (67) This is the shift from the philosophy of being to the philosophy of mind, from ontology to epistemology. From now on the self is the beginning point of discussions of reality, not God. What happens when we begin with the human mind (self) rather than with God? The short answer is that we eventually get a Kant and then after that we eventually get a N. Deane comments:

"To understand the nature and functioning of the self within Cartesian anthropology is to understand the nature and functioning of the self which is not identifiable with an isness which binds this self to the whole through participation in being itself. Rather this self is pursued through an understanding of it vis-a-vis the processes which orientate it, the cognitive functionings of a self-conscious mind." (67-8)

This means that the analogia entis is now grounded in the human mind, not in God's being and the human creature created and held in being by God. Once Kant has reduced the mind (self) to an a priori transcendental condition, about which nothing can be known or said, it falls to N. to dismiss what Ryle called "the ghost in the machine." If man is the will-to-power, then we have an agonistic and violent ontology and we also have no "man" left in the sense of a person. All we have is instinct and assertion - the will. Deane says: "The self articulated in the thought of Descartes and Kant as a series of perceptions unified in a single mind is rejected by N. So too is the "I" identified with the will which seeks to preserve the life of its embodiment. " (70) What is left is the "subject as multiplicity," (Will to Power, 490, Deane, 70), (what I can imagine David Bentley Hart might well term "the pagan, polytheistic self.")

To those who jumped me over my post on Rowan Williams, this is what is at stake in liberalism - the reduction of the self to nothing but the will-to-power. I did not call RW a liberal, exactly for I think the jury is still out. He may yet disavow what I see him as teetering on the edge of avering. But he certainly is taking a post-modern, Nietzschean, liberal approach to trying to reconcile pro and contra homosexuality positions in one church - if that is really what he is doing. As I say, the more straight-forwardly cyncial view sees him as just keeping the Communion safe for liberalism until the conservative tire of the game and force the issue.

It is interesting that homosexuality involves a very strong manifestation of the sex drive even to the point of the self-destruction of the organism. Studies show that the male who embraces the promiscuious homosexual lifestyle on offer in every large city today lives on average 8-20 years less than others. What does it say about a lifestyle that leads to premature death? For N. the will-to-power has no purpose concerning the welfare of the organism; it just is. The question Deane's study raises is what we should make of a behaviour (which the Bible calls sin) that destroys its subject? Are we entitled to see this as a manifestation of the drive to sin in all of us that theologians traditionally have understood to be the result of our fallenness? Is it not merely an extreme example of the will-to-power that we all struggle with? Confronted with the same data as N. should not the Christian theologian see the will-to-power as sin to be repented of and turned away from, rather than as the life instinct to be celebrated? And what do we make of pleasant, middle-aged professors at Oxford and Tufts cheerfully writing books to inform the general public that "science" has now discovered that will-to-power/DNA is everything and that morality is just a epiphenomenon of biological drives? Has not something fundamental gone off the rails in modern philosophy and science? Is it not time to revist the philosophy of being and the Christian doctrine of the Triune God in search of a context in which the human person can be and find peace, rather than being reduced to nothing more than the will driven by instinct, i.e. a DNA machine?

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