Sunday, August 25, 2013


Today, August 25, is the anniversary of the death of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900.  He had been insane for eleven years, but during the previous two decades he produced an astonishing sequence of books which continue to fascinate and challenge countless readers to this day.

I first encountered the German philosopher when I was in high school in 1950 or so.  Something of a misfit and a rebel, I was drawn to his work because it seemed subversive and countercultural.  At one point I even sought to emulate Zarathustra by retiring to a remote mountain cabin to commune with nature; I lasted about five days.

Not long after, the Nietzsche franchise, as it were, was taken over by a Princeton professor, Walter Kaufmann, who rightly dismissed the then-common notion that the philosopher was some sort of precursor of Nazism. However, Kaufmann produced a sort of sanitized version in which Nietzsche became a kind of common-sense purveyor of acceptable, but boring truths. 

This notion was upset by the rise of the Death of God movement among such theologians as Thomas J. J. Altizer in the 1960s.  Subsequently, Nietzsche was adopted by Foucault and other postmodernists.  Meanwhile scholars in Germany have published a great deal of additional primary material, which is gradually being translated.

The best place to start, in my view, is “The Birth of Tragedy through the Spirit of Music,” which introduced the fundamental Apollonian-Dionysian contrast.  Then one should proceed to the critical works, such as “Beyond Good and Evil.”  I do not recommend “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” at all.  The best account of Nietzsche’s thought is by Rüdiger Safranski.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The necessity of symbolsim

These days, the Anglican bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) is mainly remembered for his seeming truism "Every thing is what it is, and not another thing."  In my youth I encountered this notion, as revived by G. E. Moore in his Principia Ethica of 1903, as it circulated approvingly among the logical positivists at UCLA.

Despite its seeming plausibility, the precept is false.  Any adequate understanding of the world in which we exist depends crucially upon one’s ability to make connections.  Historically, and today as well, such connections are embodied in such procedures as symbolism, allegory, and metaphor, whereby each thing is both itself and one or more other things.
A familiar example appears in William Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”: "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances.”  Of course, the world is not literally a stage. Shakespeare uses the points of comparison between the world and a stage to convey an understanding about the mechanics of the world and the lives of the people within it.  To deny oneself the resources of such ways of thinking represents a serious intellectual impoverishment.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Shifting sands of politics

Ready for a little speculation? Well, here goes. The unexpected may be about to happen, that is the splitting in two of that incredible Neanderthal monolith, today's Republican Party.

 Experiencing an "All about Eve" moment, John McCain is incensed by the rise of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Among other things, they threaten the advancement of McCain's insatiable longing for remaking the world through perpetual warfare. For other reasons, Governor Christie is upset with Rand Paul. They have just had a public spat. For some time now Christie has been sending love calls to Obama. For his part Obama is dispatching McCain and his acolyte (Lindsey Graham) to Egypt. 

These changes may be opening the way for the emergence of a new "Centrist" political combine based on the continuing enhancement of the National Security state with all of its apparatus of repression. 

Relegated to the sidelines will be the left wing of the Democratic Party, on the one hand, and the Paul-Cruz Republicans, on the other. Both of these remnants will be impotent--except for instances like the Conyers-Amash alliance where they can combine for some special purpose. 

Can Obama pull off this Grosse Koalition? Time will tell.