Friday, December 18, 2009

A critique of Nietzschean anti-humanism

Nietzsche's philosophy can be read in many different ways, but one of the strongest features present in it is his opposition to what he considered to be traditional humanistic values. Human nature comes in as being a concept manufactured by Christianity and tied to mediocrity, but more significantly the fix that Nietzsche prescribes is to go beyond all categories of humanistic thought, beyond the very concept of a good and an evil, in order to remedy the situation. This is like invoking the nuclear option to deal with a minor annoyance, however it forms the more substantive part of Nietzsche's anti-humanist philosophy. It also somewhat undercuts his argument against Christianity, unless you want to believe that categories of thought are radically socially determined and not just partially socially determined by historical forces. In either case, what Nietzsche is trying to do is to get at a concept of increasing truth or validity by negating the conventional in a radical way.

This would be all right both culturally and philosophically if his negation were not so complete and total. The things that he labels culturally determined, like the very concepts of a good and an evil (not just good and evil as abstract ideas), are likely categories of thought that strike to the heart of the human experience even though they ultimately take different forms depending on the culture that they exist within. It's not as simple as condemning someone who has ideas that you might not agree with either since these constants relating to morality are just one of a package of constants relating to our perception of the world and to how we as humans interface with the world around us that comes undone if one thread is seriously frayed.

Kant's ideas relating to moral sense and other kinds of perception point to our human nature and our inborn humanistic sensibility as the best tools that we have for understanding the universe at large. We may be flawed creatures but somehow despite our limited self knowledge of the world outside our window we manage to interface with and interact with the world in a way that basically works. Science manages to use math to great effect even though we can't demonstrate that math as we perceive it flows from a purely logical basis, which suggests that some of those inborn categories are responsible for its connection to reality, for example. Hegel made a substantial advancement to the whole scheme by suggesting that human nature in a limited way does adapt the categories to culture, even though his progressive scheme of evolution may not be valid. But to throw the categories overboard entirely puts us into territory where none of those rough correspondences work anymore. It puts us into a sort of radical skepticism where to make any sort of valid judgment about the universe is increasingly hard to do. Our humanism may have flaws from one perspective, yet we're locked into it if we want to perceive and interact with the world in any sort of a halfway valid way. And so we have the prototypical existential condition.

All this doesn't exclude having a cynical perspective, being a curmudgeon, or in most cases radically rejecting the cultural context around you. I perceive all of that as only modifying cultural standards that are mostly accepted as being valid, and not as attempts to totally replace them completely. Think of a ripple on the top of the ocean, where the surface changes but the undercurrents mostly stay the same. What it does exclude is taking that cynical critique all the way and effectively losing the forest for the trees.

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