Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cavell and Nietzsche

"The great teacher invariably claims not to want followers, i.e., imitators. His problem is that he is never more seductive than at those moments of rejection."

-Must We Mean What We Say?

This passage in the Foreword to Must We Mean What We Say? struck me, and I mean provoked in me a cascade of connected thoughts. I have a strong affinity for it because of its similarity to a passage in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which I romantically want to believe inspired Cavell. At the end of Book I of Zarathustra, which, according to popular conception, Nietzsche wrote in a feverish state of inspiration in less than ten days, Zarathustra implores his followers to repudiate him. He says "One repays a teacher poorly by always remaining a student." For anyone inspired by Nietzsche to philosophy, this is a critical passage. Nietzsche expects those who would follow him to reject him.

This is a deeply disturbing prospect, and on the surface, paradoxical. How can one best show fidelity to a vision by rejecting it? But that is what Nietzsche urges. There is more to what he says than the sentimental pap of "find your own way." While there is certainly some truth to that statement, it obfuscates more than it reveals. It sounds clear enough, but what does it really mean?

I cannot claim to have a fully fleshed out answer to the question of how one philosophizes with a hammer, to use a particularly bombastic Nietzschean locution. I think the key might lie in the idea of an attitude towards philosophy, instead of particular philosophical positions. It is fashionable in contemporary Anglo-American philosophy to delineate philosophers by their substantive philosophical claims. People are divided into naturalists and theists, incompatibilists and compatibilists, externalists and internalists. One wonders what the point of all such categorization is. It certainly does not seem to be the main thrust of Nietzsche's philosophizing. Is the metaphysical status of the will to power an interesting question? What about Nietzsche's substantive ethical positions? Is that why we read Nietzsche?

I don't think it is. We read Nietzsche to watch him in action, to see what it is like for a sensitive person to come to grips with the pressure of existence. I don't have all the answers as to what Nietzsche is doing. All I know is what I want to do is more of whatever that is, and the first step is to figure out how to do that in a manner congruent with his Zarathustran maxim.

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