Thursday, May 14, 2009

Understanding Nietzsche on Truth

Dr. David Deane, Asst. Prof. of Systematic Theology at the Atlantic School of Theology, recently published a very interesting book entitled: Nietzsche and Theology: Nietzschean Thought in Christological Anthropology (Ashgate, 2006). This book is interesting for a number of reasons, chief among them is the uniqueness of some of its interpretations of Nietzsche's thought.

Deane wrestles with a perennial problem in N. interpratation, namely, the contradiction between N's affirmation of the will-to-power as true and his "consistently stressed dismissal of all claims to truth." (7) N. is a radical perspectivist, even calling mathematics an illusion. Deane rejects Kaufmann's contention that the contradiction is not real because what N. attacks is metaphysical truth (i.e. Platonism), rather than truth per se. For Kaufmann, it is just a denial of essences, not emipirical truth. But Deane follows Gilles Deluze, rather than Ted Sadler, in arguing that N. attacked the possibility of knowing truth itself, not just certain kinds of truth. All human consciousness falsifies the real, for N. (15) The self is oriented (and preserved) by its instincts, not by its reason, which is untrustworthy.

Now, the interesting thing is that in attacking the possibility of truth, N. is "identifying a real, the material, the organic, which is opposed to the falsified status of truth claims." (15) As Heidegger saw, this made N. a metaphysican in the sense that he presumes to say "how things really are." The real world for N. is becoming, which is why all stable linguistic models are inadequate (untrue). Truth is perspectival - and this is not just one perspective.

Kaufmann tries to rescue N. by saying that N's truth only refers to the "thing in itself" or "essences," but this does not do justice to N's meaning. For Heidegger, N. is making metaphysical claims and thus involves himself in contradiction. Sadler denies that N. is critical of all metaphysical thought and thus resolves the contradiction. Deane, however, is not convinced by any of these interpretations and quotes N. extensively, concluding: "The Nietzschean world of radical relativism is incompatible with any concept of truth." (19)

Deane considers one other interpretation of N. on this question, that of Arthur C. Danto, who suggests that N. is operating with a pragmatist understanding of truth when he affirms the will-to-power as true. It is true because it works, i.e. it best facilitates existence. Deane is not convinced, however, although he takes quite a bit of time expounding and discussing Danto's proposal. Deane quotes N. addressing this very question:

"We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we are able to live - with the postulation of bodies, lines, surfaces, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content: without these articles of faith nobody could now endure to live! But that does not mean they are something proved and demonstrated. Life is not argument; among the conditions of life could be error." (The Gay Science, 121)

Since N. lacks a concept of the telos of a concept, how can he interpret the usefulness of a concept? We need to know, useful for what, in order to decide if a concept is true. But there is no "what." He writes:

"While N. holds that the establishment of a conceptual framework which seems to 'be useful in the interest of the human herd' (Gay Science, 354) is an activity central to the human organism he never, despite Danto's claims, allows that the categories of true and false be interchangeable with the supposed success or failure of such conceptual frameworks. For N. . . . a perspective is never attained wherein such a judgment can be made. There are no grounds to make it as he explicitly refuses all teleological goals to history." (22)

N., as Deane will show in chapters 2 and 3 refuses all teleology, even Darwinian teleology! Success and failure are value judgments without a basis. Things just are the way they are. A species does not have a goal. (24) Life is. Life is the will-to-power, but it is is nothing more: "every living thing does everything it can, not to preserve itself but to become more." (Will-to-Power, 1067)

For Deane, "the contradiction in N's philosophy cannot be straightened." (25) Rather than trying to do what so many others have attempted and failed to do, Deane instead seeks to describe the semiotic and ontological framework in which N's contradiction functions. N. does not assume a unified self or non-contradictory semiotic framework. N's understanding of the ontological situation allows for the existence of contradictions that most of his interpreters cannot allow.

In the rest of this chapter, Deane discusses N's nihilism and the contrast between his semiotics and those of his interpreters. Space does not permit me to continue describing the back and forth between Deane and those he is in conversation with, but I trust the reader by now realizes that Deane is engaging the major N. interpreters adequately. Let me just summarize Deanes' intepretation of N.

The debate over whether N. is a nihilist or not cannot be settled so long as it is assumed that for N. the self is unitary and that signs are an extension of the self that produce them. (36) "Language, for N., rather, functions independently in the space between the self and the world, the self and the other and as we will significantly see in chapter 2, the self and its selves. The sign can never function as the representation of the self . . . " (36) Once something is written, the author is dead. (37) N. makes even Derrida look conservative by explicitly deconstructing the stability of semiotic functioning by understanding every attempt to re-present as "an actual mutation of the real." (37)

Language, for N., is an attempt to establish a separate world according to the particular needs of the organism at that time and always serves the needs of the self - a self that is always in flux. Language, for N., is not the mirror of nature, but "the encrypting of experience in a moment that is always past." (38) Therefore, language cannot represent reality to the self for it is static and reality is in flux. For N.: "Truths are illusions we have forgotten are illusions" (39) The law of non-contradiction is "crude and false" and simply a "subjective empirical law." (39, cf. The Will-to-Power, 516) Deane writes:

"in this light, N.'s self contradiction serves to call into question the very logic of non-contradiction that he himself consistently assails. This point has been made well by Derrida, for whom N's writing on truth is best understood in terms of undecideability. An undecidable for Derrida is something which disrupts the oppositional play of the logic of non-contradiction. It plays on both sides of the opposition but doesn't fit there either. By virtue of this it questions the very principle of opposition. When N. asserts, as a truth, that there is no truth, these categories, these oppositions are, for Derrida, called into question. It is an undecideable, the ghostly presence, for Derrida, that N's writing explicitly strives for." (40)

Deane contends that attempts to "straighten out" N's conception of langauge are based on presuppositions held by his interpreters, but which N. himself does not hold. The concept of contradiction is rooted in a metaphysics N. does not affirm. He does not hold to a metaphysical concept of essences and he is radical enough to apply this even to the self, which he does not believe exists as a mind in a body. Rather, we are oganisms which think. This is a radical rejection of both Platonism and Christianity and it means that, for N., there can be no truth. This will lead Deane in later chapters to critique Milbank's critique of N's geneological method and his attempt to "out-narrate" N. as good so far as it goes, but as not really engaging N's alternate metaphysical claims.

He also shows how N's claims are close to those contained in contemporary neo-Darwinism and therefore widespread in the contemporary world. The challenge of N. for Christian thought is greater than the challenge of the Neo-Nietzscheans such as Foucault, who rely mostly on his geneological critique but fail to engage N's alternative metaphysics. Although in this book, Deane utilizes the Christological theology of Karl Barth to engage Nietzsche, as a Catholic theologian he also recognizes the need for a renewed doctrine of creation designed to meet the Nietzschean metaphysical challenge. There are promising signs that this challenge is being taken up and we eagerly await from Deane his contribution to this task.


David said...

Craig it’s so kind of you read my book. Especially as it really has nothing to say that you don’t already know! Its goal is to show that any rejection of the doctrine of the Original Sin is made on the basis of, not just a rejection of scripture and tradition, but a refusal to acknowledge the human condition as contemporary philosophical and natural scientific accounts understand it. Properly formed Christians don’t need Nietzsche to show them that humans are as the doctrine of Original Sin tells them they are (and living with the epistemological and ontological consequences every day of their lives) they know because Scripture tells them. With reference to your recent post on creeds it’s good to note that the creeds tell them too. If Jesus Christ is not simply true God but true man then we must acknowledge that we are not as we are intended to be by God (humanity as revealed in and as Jesus), we are broken, flawed, fallen.

While having nothing to say to properly formed Christians such as yourself, Nietzsche and Theology, hopefully, says to liberal Christians (in whose department I was taught and wrote the book from my doctoral dissertation), “If this Nietzschean account of knowledge and human nature makes sense (and the contemporary philosophers and natural scientists I engage agree it does) then surely, at least, we must accept that we are desperately in need of salvation?”

Barth’s doctrine of election offers a coherent Christological alternative to the Nietzschean vision which is (I argue) the only coherent alternative to Christianity (modern liberalism, despite its hegemony, is just silly). Nietzsche surely has it right when he writes, “am I understood? - Dionysius versus the crucified”, for these are the only coherent alternatives. Relativism and agonistic violence or the election of humanity into life with God in and as Jesus the Christ. Nietzsche and Theology is a juxtaposition of these two visions as articulated by Nietzsche and Barth. So while I’m so grateful to you for reading it and even discussing it, I must apologize for having nothing to say to you which you don’t already know and can say far better than I can!

It is though a book that is to my mind insufficiently Roman Catholic. While I believe that Milbank and co don’t take human sinfulness seriously enough (and so consistently overestimate the power of human reason) the book fails to acknowledge the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and it’s this I’m working on now and should, God willing, be finished by Christmas. This current book is a lot more readable and less jargony so hopefully will be a less painful read than Nietzsche and Theology!

But again Craig, I’m very honoured that you have read it, thank you so much!

Craig Carter said...

I am not finished blogging on the book - I haven't even gotten to the really good stuff yet! Your explanation of why you wrote it, though, may be of interest to readers of this blog.

It is really the best thing I have read yet on Nietzsche. (And just a few weeks ago I thought the the first 80 pp. of The Beauty of the Infinite was the best thing I had read yet on N. Turns out it was the best thing I had read yet on the Neo-Nietzscheans. Your work uncovers a N. who makes a lot more sense to me.

Interesting that you say that it an insufficiently Catholic book. As an Evangelical Protestant, I think it has an insufficient doctrine of creation; but you acknowledge that already in the text. I am really interested to see what a robust post-Barthian, Christocentric doctrine of creation looks like. The other day, Kevin Vanhoozer said in an interview on his upcoming book that he is taking a "post-Barthian Thomist" position in response to open theism, panentheism etc. That struck me as the kind of label that might fit your project. It is to be Catholic it will have to be Thomist in some way, but clearly you are on a post-Barthian trajectory.

But I see that your current book is on ecclesiology. Why not creation (which you mention somewhere in a footnote in this book)?

Craig Carter said...

Another thought, what we really need is an anthropology that compares N and the Christian perspective. I will be making a little, brief beginning in this direction in my current book, but we really need a full-fledged anthropology that addresses the modern self in its Nietzschean version.

Andrew Fulford said...

"...among the conditions of life could be error."

Wow. He's probably the one person in the world for which a kick to the head by a horse would not at all affect his sanity.

Thom Stark said...

David or Craig, I'd like to know how "any rejection of the doctrine of the Original Sin is made on the basis of . . . a rejection of scripture."

Because it's precisely the scriptures themselves that cause people who like to do real exegesis to reject the doctrine of Original Sin. (Augustine has a reputation among biblical scholars, by the way, as being one of the worst exegetes in Church history.)

So I can agree that the rejection of Original Sin is a rejection of (at least dominant strands) of tradition, but I'd like to see your scriptural argument for it. I guess that would be a little out of place in a book on Nietzsche. That's fair enough.

David said...

Hi Thom,
A Philosopher friend of mine at Colorado State was teaching a general introduction to the "classics" for the honors program and told me that in it he came to the realization that the the "expulsion" narrative in Genesis, despite fascinating so many great thinkers, was overwhelmingly dull. After all it seems to reach a crescendo in such shocking revelations as (1) eventually we all die (2) if we want to eat we have to work (3) child birth is painful and (4) stepping on the heads of snakes might not be the best idea.
Over conversation though he came to appreciate something of the hold it has had when he saw that the account was actually refusing the tyranny of the banal it seems to conclude in. It, rather, suggests the outrageous hope that God did not establish the tyranny of the now as the case and wills for humanity something far more than that "reality" we mistakenly hold to be "natural".
Of course for the Fathers, including Augustine, the New Testament is the driving force behind the Doctrine. Christ is anthropologically normative for the Fathers and so they cannot fail to see that we are not as we should be. This understanding is then layered through a comprehensive engagement with scripture and the doctrine begins to form clearly. Paul laments that he does not do as he wills, it is sin, which dwells within him, that orients his action.
Scripture forces the perspective that we are not as we should be and this is manifest in the constant will to self assertion over and against God that we see throughout scripture.
Genesis is the primary focus as Adam/Christ and Babel/Pentecost begin to frame the economy of salvation for Augustine. We know Christ and then, knowing we can be saved, we know that we are fallen. We know the meaningfulness of language in Pentecost, meaning through and as the Holy Spirit and then we know the reality testified to in the Babel narrative. We have life in Christ and the Holy Spirit, and, knowing this, we know the sinfulness and meaninglessness, Eden and Babel, which are its other.
I must admit that your mention of "real exegesis" coupled with the condemnation of Augustine's exegetical methods give me the impression that we may be working for very different assumptions about how to read scripture.
I've never read a good book on Augustine's account of Original Sin and how it relates to his exegetical practices. He famously says that wondering about the "What" that led to human fallenness is a waste of time. Also he's too Platonically sophisticated not to see a tension in the text that the action that inaugurates the Fall (humanity's disobedience to God) is already an example of precisely that it brings into being. The effect precedes the cause in a sense.
My point is that Augustine does not read Genesis 1-3 and is then forced by the text to proclaim the doctrine of Original Sin. Rather, he knows Christ as true human and then, knowing himself, knows the reality of human fallenness. Knowing and living this reality he then reads Genesis through relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit and so Genesis too articulates, of course, this same soteriological reality. What Barth says of Paul could also be said of Augustine, "there can be no doubt that for Paul, Jesus Christ takes the first place as original, and Adam the second place as “the figure of him that was to come”(v.14), the prophetic type of Jesus Christ. He knew Jesus Christ first and then Adam" (CD: 4:1 p.513).

Thom Stark said...


Thanks for your good response.

"I must admit that your mention of 'real exegesis' coupled with the condemnation of Augustine's exegetical methods give me the impression that we may be working for very different assumptions about how to read scripture."

This is probably true. When you said that the rejection of the doctrine of Original Sin is made on the basis of a rejection of, among other things, scripture, my point was that literary and historical contextual readings of scripture don't tend to formulate anything like Original Sin as formulated by Augustine.

You said, "My point is that Augustine does not read Genesis 1-3 and is then forced by the text to proclaim the doctrine of Original Sin. Rather, he knows Christ as true human and then, knowing himself, knows the reality of human fallenness. Knowing and living this reality he then reads Genesis through relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit and so Genesis too articulates, of course, this same soteriological reality."

Right. Although he did appeal to Paul's typology of the first and second Adam in his formulation of the doctrine, and exegetes tend to see Augustine's reading as a sort of violence to Paul's thought. What I mean by "real exegetes" as opposed to Augustine wasn't meant to be a reflection of any sort of elitism, but just pointing out precisely what you pointed out--that Augustine isn't about the business of asking what the text meant originally and then deriving his thought from the text, but has a much larger matrix which is imported into the text, then the "meaning" of the text is what Augustine brings to it. I don't think the distinction between exegesis and eisegesis would have been all that clear to him, and I believe he assumed his reading was the text's real meaning. I know this represents a big can of epistemological worms here. We don't have to solve all the philosophical problems. I trust you recognize what I'm talking about whether you think "author's intended meaning" exegesis is a legitimate venture or not. (I do, with obvious limitations granted.)

The doctrine of Original Sin is more involved, of course, than merely a statement of the general fallenness of humankind. It involves claims that are controversial and especially claims that are difficult to discern in the pages of Scripture, especially insomuch as Augustine related Original Sin to the issue of infant baptism, but that's far from the only issue at stake.

If you're using "Original Sin" to refer merely to the fallenness of humanity and nothing very much more specific than that, I suppose I have no quibbles with what you're saying, but that's not exactly Original Sin as Augustine articulated it, and I don't think that the acknowledgement of our fallenness is a serious enough objection to the tenets of humanism, since you'll find optimistic and idealistic strands in Scripture too.

However, I'm reticent to push scriptural support even for the idea of "fallenness" too far. Reading the Genesis 3 narrative against the backdrop of broader ancient Near Eastern myths and creation myths, it's difficult to conclude that what we have in Genesis 3 is the account of a "fall of humanity." Your philosopher friend perhaps would have been more excited by the text if he'd understood it as a coming of age narrative. Adam and Eve are depicted as children who embark upon a process of self-discovery and awareness of the nature of the world. The depiction of the utopian garden is more a reflection of the vantage point of the innocence of childhood. The serpent isn't a villain in the narrative. (The association of the serpent with Satan or an enemy wouldn't be made for another 700-1000 years or so.) The serpent often represents the folly of the hope for immortality in ANE myths, especially as seen in Gilgamesh. Genesis 3 attributes notions of immortality to the fancies of youth. "Growing up" is about accepting the hardness of life. Sure, the harsh realities of life on earth are presented aetiologically as products of human "disobedience," but the eating the fruit is "inevitable." Despite its consequences, it is also seen as a good thing in the narrative, because to "be like God" is to know the difference between good and evil, i.e., to grow up and become a responsible adult. The curses are aetiologies. It's a literary device with parallels rampant throughout ANE literature. Pick a myth and you'll get a different set of aetiologies "explaining" why things are the way they are. The point is not the particulars of the aetiologies but the broader coming of age theme of the narrative. The particular aetiologies could be swapped out for any other set and the message of the narrative would remain the same.

This does not mean I think a "fall" isn't a useful way of talking about the human condition. But reading the pertinent biblical texts in their cultural and literary contexts makes it difficult for me to affirm that a "fall" is present there. To be sure, that's the way the texts were read later on, the further removed from their original context of composition the reading community got. There is some inklings of that sort of reading in the NT. But it's not enshrined definitively until post-apostolic generations.

There is a sort of version of "the fall" in rabbinic and in modern Judaism, but it doesn't have near the same significance as it does in Christianity. It's "the world" that's broken and it's the good deeds of human beings that puts it back together.

Don't read me as denying that the NT sees Jesus as the definitive human being, or that it sees Jesus as a redeemer of humanity from a sinful state. But we shouldn't see a crystalized "doctrine of the fall" in the typologies of Genesis 3 and of 1 Corinthians 15. Remember that Adam was always a typological figure, both in Genesis 3 and in 1 Corinthians 15. He represents the state of man, but making the case that we should actually consider him the cause of the fall of humanity is I believe a violation of typological principles.

Anyway, forgive the digression. I only write it because it's a subject of interest to me. The point of my original response to you was just to point out that a rejection of the dotrine of Original Sin is emphatically not a rejection of the Bible, even if it's certainly a rejection of certain strands of church tradition. (It certainly wouldn't be a rejection of Anabaptist tradition, or the Stone-Campbell tradition, from which I hail.) So that's the only point I set out to make. I hope my reasons for it have been expressed clearly enough.

David said...

Thank you very much, Thom, for your comments, which are very clear and very helpful.
I think our differences can be distilled into two main interwoven areas. First, we understand the engagement with scripture very differently. Personally I think modernist approaches to scripture tend to see the reading of the text in terms of an engagement with the text rather than an engagement with the Word through the Spirit, an engagement that is established through the text. Literalists who refuse any other form of reading and most historical critics I know embody this between. Being influenced by Patristic approaches theologically and Post-structuralist approaches semiotically, this isn't something I agree with. The kind of questions you're asking about the text are, to me, a bit like asking about the kind of material on which they were originally inscribed - interesting factors and, with respect to Marshall MacLuhan, probably shaping of the form of the text, but not really all that important to the urgent matter at hand which is the relationship of the reader with the triune God.
The second main point, for me, is introduced when you write,
"The doctrine of Original Sin is more involved, of course, than merely a statement of the general fallenness of humankind. It involves claims that are controversial and especially claims that are difficult to discern in the pages of Scripture, especially insomuch as Augustine related Original Sin to the issue of infant baptism".
I agree with you Thom that it is more involved, the council of Trent (my appreciation for which will differ me from Craig as much as you!) tells us (well, me) that Original Sin is passed on by "propagation not by imitation". It is trying to say what Augustine articulated, that Original Sin is in us, it is (as I try to show all through Nietzsche and Theology) biological, and consists in a series of biological drives to self assertion over and against the other and God. Original sin speaks of a war within our members and Paul, for me, in Romans 7, does a very clear job of articulating the doctrine. Because it is biological Augustine knows that without the Holy Spirit and without the body being shaped within the context of the body that is the body of Christ (the Church) the hegemony of such biological drives will remain.
Anyway, I'm really just repeating myself in that tradition and scripture are cross pollinating here and I'm simply incapable of dichotomizing them due to my (insert "proper formation" or "vile brain washing" here as you see fit ;) )
Thanks again for your comments Thom, I think you've expressed your reasons for why you disagree with the position above very clearly and coherently and I do appreciate them.