Monday, December 22, 2008

Leiter on Shaw on Nietzsche

Brian Leiter's review of Tamsin Shaw's Nietzsche's Political Skepticism is excerpted here and posted here.

I rolled my eyes at the fact that, even in the few paragraphs excerpted on his blog, Leiter couldn't resist the following: "Most books by political theorists on Nietzsche are unreadable for philosophers; this book is the exception that proves the rule." Heaven forbid that a thoughtful and serious engagement with a political theorist not be accompanied by a sideswipe at the rest of the field! But it's a very thoughtful review of a very good book; both recommended.


Brian Leiter said...

Jacob, to be fair, it was not a swipe at political theorists per se, but at political theorists who write on Nietzsche. And I've read a lot of their books, and they are just appallingly bad, with two exceptions (Detwiler and Thiele are both readable, not philosophically ambitious or sophisticated, though). There are lots of other figures of interest to philosophers where self-identified 'political theorists' do very good work, at least in my limited experience. But Nietzsche is not one of them.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Distinction duly noted. I'll freely admit to not knowing the Nietzsche literature to any meaningful degree (Shaw's is probably only the second book on Nietzsche I've ever read), so I can't comment on the merits of the claim.

Will Roberts said...

Another point is in order. When Prof. Leiter writes "Most books by political theorists on Nietzsche are unreadable for philosophers," he actually means "Most books by political theorists on Nietzsche are unreadable for me." Some of us who at least fancy ourselves philosophers have actually found a number of books on Nietzsche by political theorists to be quite readable. I think philosophers are wont to disagree more with one another about what is or is nor readable or sensible than Prof. Leiter lets on.

Brian Leiter said...

My "actual" meaning was most certainly not the one suggested by Mr. Roberts, though, to be sure, I would not have inserted the modifier "fancy themselves to be" in front of "philosophers" either. Perhaps "good" or "serious" would be apt. The point is uncontroversial and widely remarked on by philosophers interested in Nietzsche, and not only with respect to books by political theorists on Nietzsche. The situation has gotten better over the last 15 years, and now there is a substantialy secondary literature on Nietzsche that is not philosophically embarrassing.

Will Roberts said...

With all due respect, Prof. Leiter, I think you’ve proven my point. I didn’t mean to suggest that your perspective was merely idiosyncratic or singular, only that it was a perspective, and not so universal as the terms in which it was put. You take your own judgment to be representative of the judgments of good or serious philosophers, and this community of good or serious philosophers is secured by a sort of mutual recognition among its parties. You can speak for the community in an unproblematic way because you know the other members and they know you, you attend the same conferences, you read and comment on one another’s work, etc. Regardless, you take yourself to be one of the good and serious philosophers, and therefore to be able to sort out what is useful for such creatures from that which is embarrassing for such creatures. I think that such a community and such a judgment, based as they are on mutual reputation, are quite precisely things of fancy.

Undoubtedly, the community of fancy you represent is dominant within professional philosophy in the States right now, much the way neoclassical economists are dominant within that profession. But just as there are all sorts of heterodox economists who have as much claim to say what is of interest to them as economists as do the neoclassicals, so too there are other communities of philosophers who are perfectly capable of determining what is of interest or use to them as philosophers, without recognizing or seeking the approval of the good and serious philosophers.

Brian Leiter said...

Mr. Roberts, I appreciate your succinct articulation of a form of self-deception that afflicts many of those in the SPEP (Stony Brook/Penn State) circles. We may perhaps join the issue more effectively by noting what precisely is in dispute, namely, that the "community" I represent is sustained by "mutual reputation" as opposed to the intellectual merits.

So let us be explicit about the intellectual grounds of my judgment, which is, indeed, the judgment of good and serious philosophers: for what I value in a work of scholarship on Nietzsche is its clarity, its being well-informed by other pertinent scholarship, its ability to state and evaluate philosophical positions and to do so in a way that can avail itself of other pertinent philosophical developments, and its attention to the dialectical structure of a position. (This is why I liked Professor Shaw's book, even though I found it unpersuasive.) I would be astonished to learn that these intellectual virtues are the property of some "community," and if they are, then the commnities that eschew them are not, as far as I can see, intellectual or scholarly communities, but something else: cults perhaps (e.g., the Straussian).

And let us make this all more concrete: explain, precisely, how it is that books on Nietzsche by Peter Berkowitz, Michael Gillespie, and Keith Ansell-Pearson are books that are "readable" by philosophers, where "readable" means books that have the intellectual virtues noted above?

Neoclassical economists differ from, e.g., Marxist economists in a variety of substantive assumptions about human motivation and what constitutes explanatorily relevant facts about human societies. But what "substantive" assumptions are at issue in the intellectual virtues of scholarship I noted above? You would need to specify those in order to make good on your analogy.

Anonymous said...

What about books by Tracy Strong and Mark Warren on Nietzsche?

Will Roberts said...

I am pleased to know that I succeeded in articulating something, at least. But did I articulate it clearly…?

I would not deny that the intellectual virtues you list are indeed virtues. However, I don’t think your list is at all exhaustive, and I think that a few members of your pantheon are, while certainly not subjective, at least intersubjective.

Some other intellectual virtues:
*attentiveness of observation, with regard both to microscopic details of the text and to macroscopic patterns within and among texts and authors;
*sympathy, by which I mean the ability to get inside an author’s position and animate it such as to make what was alien and inhospitable seem attractive and reasonable;
*imagination, in the sense of taking leaps that, while less than faithful to the letter of the text studied, nonetheless prove to be productive by making you consider things again from a very different perspective;
*and, finally (for now), the ability to make the question or text under consideration speak not only to academic or scholarly disputes but to ethical, political, or intellectual matters of immediate and vital interest.

I don’t think it is possible or even desirable that one book possess all of these virtues (including the ones you mention). But for this philosopher, and student of philosophers of the past, a book that possesses just a few of these virtues surpasses the threshold of readability.

Moreover, many of these virtues (including the ones you mention) are rather contextual. Clarity, for example, seems to be like pornography, in that no one can define it, but we’re all supposed to be able to recognize it when we see it. This is not to advocate some rather facile relativism. I’d like to think I’m just taking the long view of things, historically speaking. To Hobbes, Aristotle looked like nonsense. Hegel and Heidegger were both at the top of their respective academic food-chains, but were (and are) considered by many to be hopelessly obscure and even obscurantist. When Elster set out to “make sense of” Marx, he ended up discarding most everything.

“Clarity” frequently gets used to mean something like “explicitness.” (I’m not sure that’s how you’re using it, but…) Obviously, no text can be completely explicit, and so clarity frequently ends up being relative to a particular “community” in a very unproblematic sense, since it relies upon a shared background which can be left implicit. There is much in academia that comes to be dominated by “the state of the art” in various sub-disciplines, and this can easily obscure the pertinence of a work.

Furthermore—and this is a minor point, and I’m reluctant to bring it up at all—not everyone values explicitness to the same extent. To use one of your examples, I take it that Straussians are opposed to explicitness in principle (which is not to say it is a good principle…). Lack of explicitness is part of their pedagogical method. Of course this makes them maddening to any “post-analytic” mainstream philosopher, but even this does not always render their books unreadable as far as I am concerned, because they can still draw my attention to interesting details of the texts they read. A limited utility, to be sure, but…

I’m sceptical that any of this will have convinced you I’m anything but a hopelessly delusional SPEP-type. I am curious, however, how your commitment to the intellectual virtue you listed sits with your interest in Nietzsche, since it is far from obvious that he demonstrates or honours all or even most of those virtues.

Brian Leiter said...

9:45 am anon: Mark Warren's book is awful. Tracy Strong's 1975 book (which he updated more recently) was OK, but Detwiler and Thiele still, in my judgment are more interesting. Shaw, though unpersuasive to my mind, is better than all of these.

Mr. Roberts: Thank you for the reply. One final set of comments, and then I think it's time for me to stop cluttering up Jacob's blog.

1. Some of your "intellectual virtues" seem to me components of good scholarship, and some seem like excuses for bad interpretations. Obviously there can be philosophically interesting bad readers: Heidegger is a good example. But I was really just trying to characterize the virtues of good scholarship.

2. Your paragraph on clarity is, dare I say, not clear: I'm not sure what your point is. I do not recall that Hobbes thought Aristotle unclear, but rather wrong. Hegel and Heidegger are often (not always) obscure writers, and so are McDowell and Peacocke. Clarity is no longer the property of Anglophone philosophy. Elster is indeed an unfriendly reader of Marx, but I don't see what this has to do with clarity. In any case, to repeat, I was talking about the virtues of good scholarship on historical figures. G.A. Cohen on Marx is a better example of the model worth emulating it seems to me.

3. Straussians are opposed to 'explicitness' because they're running a cult, and its practitioners aren't too dialectically or analytically acute and so couldn't actually survive if they had to defend their arguments and positions in the light of day.

4. Nietzsche is both a brilliant and a clear writer, but he is mainly a philosopher and polemicist, not a scholar (though his scholarship on, for example, Diogenes Laertius certainly exemplifies most of the intellectual virtues I mentioned earlier--cf. the discussion in the 1986 Nietzsche-Studien of Nietzsche's dissertation by Jonathan Barnes, who is not esp. friendly to post-Kantian German philosophy). As I've noted for a long time, PhD programs aren't particularly good at training geniuses (attempts to emulate Nietzsche are generally embarrassing), but they can at least train people to be competent scholars and philosophical laborers.

Will Roberts said...

I guess it falls to my lot to get the last word. I’ll try not to abuse the privilege. By the numbers, then:

1. Most good qualities can be abused, or, more to the point, can be used subjectively as excuses for other faults. Thus, the pursuit of clarity can be an excuse for a recourse to distorting simplicity, and the desire to stay abreast of the state of the art can lead to a faddish and simple-minded faith in philosophical progress.

2. I dare say “clarity” is not a very clear concept. Hobbes thought that Aristotle used a bunch of words that had no meaning; that is, he thought that Aristotle’s terminology simply could not be explicated. That seems to be at least one way in which people use the accusation of “obscurity.” This accusation is part of what motivates many scholars to dismiss Hegel’s logic, or Marx’s theory of value. On this latter point, Cohen and Elster do exactly the same thing, and both do it in the name of clarity—opposition to “bullshit,” in Cohen’s terms. “That’s not clear” is a perfectly legitimate criticism. But making the criticism doesn’t make one the owner of clarity, able to recognize it or its absence without fail. What seems to me to be unclear may just be beyond my ken, in one way or another.

3. I have no interest in either attacking or defending Strauss or Straussians, but the belief that the light of day is a guarantor of dialectical and analytic acuity strikes me as a bit innocent.

4. I agree that grad programs don’t and shouldn’t train geniuses. However, I think the attempt to split “philosophers” off from “scholars and philosophical laborers” is bound to fail. Philosophy has a habit of troubling all methodologies, and any attempt to sequester a well-agreed upon and technically developed canon of scholarship from the corrosive acid of philosophical criticism and scepticism can only, at least in the long run, lead to parochialism and scholasticism.