A Pyrrhonian Nietzschean stakeout



Jessica Berryinterviewed by Richard Marshall.

Jessica Berry stays cool calm and collected as she pronounces Nietzsche a Pyrrhonian skeptic. She says Nietzsche sees Homer as a counterexample to all our dominant ascetic values rather than an alternative role model but who like himself regarded many of his central questions as psychological questions and was preoccupied with nihilism. She doesn't think Nietzsche thought reality was a flux nor that knowledge is impossible and takes issue with those who say he's some kind of anti-realist about morals because that saddles him with metaphysical views. Everything she says is mind-bombingly, brain-teasingly provocative which makes her an inspirational carpet of philosophical groovaciousness.

3:AM:What made you become a philosopher? Was it Nietzsche?

Jessica Berry:No, actually I had no exposure to philosophy at all, much less to Nietzsche, until I went off to college. But somehow I was intrigued by philosophy even before I knew properly what it was. In the summer before I left for university, I was asked to select, from a menu of courses, one class where the instructor would act as a kind of academic advisor during the coming years. The premise wasn’t that we were selecting a major, of course, and that isn’t how I thought about it; it was more of an academic “homeroom” of sorts. I picked ‘Philosophy 101’ without any hesitation at all. It sounded completely exotic and challenging to me, and in that sense a nice change of pace after a pretty mediocre secondary school education. I remember distinctly spending weeks on Descartes’ Meditations, which I confess I found baffling at the time, and reading some Mill and Kant; I was immediately drawn in. Until then, I had always thought I would study psychology as a college student, but I quickly came to realise that the questions that attracted me to the idea of studying psychology (to which I’d had no real exposure either before college) were not questions that could sustain my interest in the discipline of psychology. In that respect, a philosophy of mind course I took was a real eye-opener for me. The problem of consciousness, the nature of mental states, the relationship between objects of perception and our representations of them, and worries about whether we have the sort of self-transparency that psychology (clinical psychology, at any rate) seemed to presuppose I just found totally absorbing. The questions about perception and self-knowledge led me to think about problems of knowledge more generally, and ultimately to an interest in epistemology and an openness to philosophical skepticism that still guides a lot of my work.

I wasn’t introduced to Nietzsche until late in my undergraduate career, and though I thoroughly enjoyed his writing, I never thought about doing any serious work on his philosophy until years later - really, when I’d finished my graduate coursework and started thinking about a dissertation. It was about that time - in light of some work I’d been doing on skepticism and its history - that Nietzsche’s thought began to make sense to me in a way it hadn’t before and that my reading of Nietzsche began to take real shape. When I reflect a little on what attracts me to Nietzsche’s work, though, I think it’s no accident that Nietzsche regards many of his central questions as psychological questions, and even that the Greek skeptics, whose practice suggested to me a framework for understanding Nietzsche’s project, regard themselves as psychologists (or therapists) of a sort. Nietzsche’s questions about the psychological springs of our actions were the very questions that had interested me from the beginning.

3:AM:One of the things you are interested in is the relationship between Nietzsche and the Greeks. The way you present it, Homer seems to be a fully fledged Nietzschean. Can you say something about the role of Homer in Nietzsche’sthought?

JB:Sure. The central preoccupation of Nietzsche’s philosophy is of course a cultural problem - the problem of nihilism. He conceives of it as a genuine threat, and when he attacks “ascetic” ideals (ideals that encourage self-denial and deflate the value of human life and our worldly existence), it’s because he thinks these lead inevitably to nihilism. Now, one thing all ascetic value systems, of which Christianity is perhaps the most striking but by no means the only example, have in common is their promotion of the view that the values to which they subscribe are universal, necessary, categorical. Christianity presents itself as the ultimate truth about the world and its values as “the only game in town.” And the triumph of these values and moral prescriptions in the modern world has been so complete - they’ve been made to seem so obvious and inevitable - that any real challenge to them seems impossible and any criticism of them seems outrageous. As Nietzsche observes in the Genealogy of Morality, even to raise the question of the value of these values is sufficient to make someone a pariah. “Even doubt,” as he says in the Antichrist, “is a sin.”

One crucial move, therefore, in the struggle to loosen the stranglehold of ascetic morality on the world is to make alternatives to it salient. And this, among other things, is what makes the Homeric epics so valuable for Nietzsche. Homer, whom Nietzsche mentions more than any other Greek thinker or writer, paints a vivid picture of an exuberant, if sometimes brutal, civilisation with a wholly different scheme of values. And that functions as an important counterexample to the claim that our contemporary values are the only possible values. It’s really important to note here, I think, that this in no way implies that Nietzsche is encouraging us to “return” to those values or that such values are either possible or desirable for us to adopt. The Homeric warrior-heroes are not models for us - I mean, how absurd a suggestion is that? - but counterexamples. They reveal possibilities precisely where, say, Christianity has a stake in having us believe that none exist.

3:AM:Heraclitus is another Greek Nietzsche found impressive. But you worry that too many interpretations of Niezsche’s interest in Heraclitus take him as being interested in his ‘all is flux’ ontology as support for perspectivism. You say that Nietzsche wasn’t interested in that aspect of the Greek primarily but rather it was his character that drew him, as a cultural force and representative of the tragic world view. Is this right?

JB:Nietzsche mentions Heraclitus often - not quite as often as Homer, but often - and throughout his career. And when he mentions Heraclitus, he does so in consistently positive, even glowing, terms - terms like kinship and reverence. And this is understandable: if you’re into wise, curmudgeonly hermit-types with an oracular style and a healthy disdain for the common run of humanity - and Nietzsche pretty clearly is — there’s a lot to love about Heraclitus. Nietzsche’s early writings focus explicitly on Heraclitus’s “personality”; an early manifestation of the psychologist Nietzsche’s interest in thinkers as “types.” A surprising number of commentators, though, have managed to reduce Heraclitus’s thought to an ontological position he’s alleged to have held — a doctrine of radical flux - according to which there are no stable entities at all, and have taken Nietzsche’s enthusiasm for Heraclitus as sufficient to attribute to him some pretty wild views. For instance, if all reality is just a chaotic flux, and if there are no enduring objects, then to the extent that they represent the world as having some stability, all our beliefs are nothing but hopeless distortions. There is no truth. Knowledge is impossible. All we have are “mere” interpretations or our own idiosyncratic “perspectives” on the world, and there can be no way to ground a preference for one over any other. Arthur Dantoonce aptly described this view as “epistemic nihilism.”

I’m not sure such a view is even coherent, but I’m sure it’s not interesting. On this account, there is exactly one rejoinder to any claim whatsoever: we just imagine Jeff Bridgesas The Dudemuttering, "Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man". Philosophically, I think this view is just a non-starter; interpretively, as an understanding of Nietzsche’s texts, it seems to me to be both unappealing and unwarranted. It’s definitely the “nuclear option.” If all our beliefs are equally hopeless distortions, then it cannot matter what we believe. And if it can’t matter what we believe, then it cannot matter to Nietzsche that, say, Christians believe as they do. Even if it does matter to him, it’s not available to us to ask why, because there can be no reason that could be binding on us, and therefore, it shouldn’t matter to us what Nietzsche thinks about Christian morality or anything else. And so we simply have no reason to read Nietzsche.

3:AM:Do you actually think Heraclitus didn’t endorse a flux ontology to the extent that we might have believed?

JB:That Heraclitus endorsed an ontology of “radical flux” is a crucial premise in an argument that I think is bad, but that nevertheless continues to be advanced in more and less sophisticated versions: Nietzsche really likes Heraclitus; Heraclitus taught a doctrine of radical flux; therefore, Nietzsche endorsed an ontological doctrine of radical flux. No matter how much Nietzsche admires Heraclitus, it clearly doesn’t follow that he would have to endorse everything Heraclitus endorses. Nietzsche is a selective admirer, to be sure, but he likes sufficiently many thinkers that if we were to attribute to him all of their views, the result could only be a real philosophical muddle. So we have to begin with the question what it is about this or that thinker that would draw Nietzsche’s admiration in the first place, and as I’ve said, with Heraclitus, there’s a lot to admire completely independently of his cosmological or ontological theories, which themselves are pretty murky. On that issue, I think there are a lot of open questions: did Heraclitus really subscribe to a “flux doctrine”? Did Nietzsche think Heraclitus subscribed to such a doctrine? What’s the content of the flux doctrine, anyway?

Given the persistence of a certain caricature of Heraclitus, there’s actually less evidence than you might think for the attribution to him of a doctrine of radical flux. There are about 120 fragments attributed to Heraclitus, and textual support for this doctrine rests almost entirely on three or four fragments about rivers: “Upon those who step into the same rivers different and [still] different waters flow,” for instance. And, again as Nietzsche was well aware, both the authenticity and the translation and interpretation of these fragments were matters of vigorous debate. Moreover, of the participants in the debate, those on whom Nietzsche relied most heavily (for instance, as sources for a lot of his lecture material) seemed to favour interpretations far more conservative than we would need to support the radical reading. At most, some of Nietzsche’s contemporaries suggested that Heraclitus thought objects of our experience have a kind of “ship of Theseus” existence, such that their identity over time is questionable. But that view of course presupposes that there are objects we can individuate from one another and talk about perfectly sensibly, so it’s incompatible with the claim about chaotic flux that’s alleged to render linguistic representation impotent and truth and knowledge chimerical.

Readers who persist in attributing those positions to Heraclitus and Nietzsche also seem to me almost willfully to neglect Heraclitus’s insistence on the order, measure, regularity and necessity he finds in the cosmos and the eternal, law-like principles that govern it. Those themes are far more prevalent than the tantalising bits that earned Heraclitus the dubious honor of being, according to some, the forerunner of post-modernism. I discuss all this at greater length in an articlefor the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on Nietzsche. Here, I’ll just say that, at a bare minimum, I think that if the claim is that Nietzsche’s appreciation of Heraclitus somehow constitutes evidence that Nietzsche maintained an ontology of “radical” flux, then the claim just needs to be rethought.

3:AM:There are those who argue that Nietzsche was a skeptic about both knowledge and truth. But you say we need to know what is meant by ‘skeptic’ and it’s in respect of this question that Nietzsche’s relationship to Pyrrho is important isn’t it? So who was Pyrrhoand what kind of skepticism does he bring to the table?

JB:Absolutely. The view I just described — the one according to which truth and knowledge are impossible - often travels (misleadingly, in my view) under the name of ‘skepticism’, when it’s really a very strident, very metaphysically ambitious set of views. There’s nothing cautious about this position at all, and I don’t think Nietzsche was an “epistemic nihilist” of this kind. There’s also a growing interpretive orthodoxy according to which Nietzsche is a ‘skeptic’ in the sense associated with what J. L. Mackiecalled moral skepticism, but which is really an anti-realism. Some interpreters have taken this as a semantic theory about moral language (i.e., it all fails to refer), others as a theory about the metaphysical status of values (i.e., there are none), but either way, it saddles Nietzsche with a lot of systematic, theoretical views I just don’t think he develops. Among other things, I have trouble seeing how any of these readings are reconcilable with Nietzsche’s consistent and undeniable rejection of metaphysics and systematic, theoretical philosophy, with his warnings about dogmatism and its consequences, or with his self-identification as a critic, challenger, debunker and destroyer, rather than a “system-builder.”

Pyrrhonian skeptics are those who adopt a certain practice with a nod to Pyrrho of Elis, a Greek figure of the mid-fourth to mid-third century BCE, who actually left no writings but with whom the practice is said to have originated. Our best knowledge of this variety of skepticism in fact comes from a second century CE physician named Sextus Empiricus. What makes the Pyrrhonists unique among other sorts of skeptics is that on all speculative, “philosophical” questions, they suspend judgment. This ephectic attitude is in fact the hallmark of Pyrrhonism. From their point of view, other skeptics turn out to be nothing more than negative dogmatists. And that’s a crucial observation, because it’s what gives the Pyrrhonist his claim to being a real skeptic - a word that originally means “inquirer.” If I’ve suspended judgment on an issue, it makes sense for me to continue investigating. If, on the hand, I’ve made up my mind that, say, there is no God or that values don’t exist or that knowledge is impossible, then I’ve closed off that avenue of investigation and come to rest with a position I have to defend no less vigorously than my dogmatic opponents.

A Pyrrhonian skeptic, then, is essentially someone with a peculiar talent for countering any argument with an opposing argument. It’s crucial to see that the Pyrrhonist is not a stubborn sort of person, unwilling to be convinced; it just happens to be devilishly hard to convince him, such is his talent for opposing one argument to another. In the face of his keen awareness of arguments on both sides of every issue, he suspends judgment, and a state of well-being — psychological equanimity - is said to follow this suspension “like a shadow follows a body.” And this is the end at which Pyrrhonian skepticism aims: psychological well-being and health.

The aim of these thinkers (or, more precisely, these practitioners) was not to advance theories, but was instead to cure, where they could, what they called the “conceit and rashness” of dogmatic philosophers. I read Nietzsche’s perennial concern with health as expressing fundamentally the same aim.

3:AM:So is it through the lens of Pyrrho that we should understand Nietzsche’s attitude to knowledge and truth?

JB:I do. And I think the metaphor of a “lens” is particularly helpful here. I want to be clear about the nature of the relationship between the Pyrrhonists and Nietzsche, because I think that philosophers often aren’t perspicuous enough about the nature of historical “influence.” I’ve in fact deliberately avoided, or at least have highly qualified, the claim that Nietzsche is “influenced” by Pyrrho or by Sextus. You won’t find in Nietzsche’s published work any reference at all to Sextus Empiricus, and you’ll find only a couple of allusions to Pyrrho himself. And Nietzsche certainly doesn’t identify himself as a Pyrrhonist. My own view is that if we really take the time to familiarise ourselves with this variety of skepticism, if we come to appreciate its motivations and recognize the moves standardly made by Pyrrhonian skeptics, then we cannot fail to see these motivations and many of the same moves in Nietzsche’s writing, and we’ll come to see Nietzsche’s work in a new light, one in which it becomes less opaque, more coherent, and even more subtle and interesting. So the best description of my interpretation of Nietzsche would be that I read him on the model of Greek skepticism.

I think there are a number of clear advantages to this approach. Instead of treating Nietzsche’s views on truth or knowledge in isolation, which misleadingly suggests that he has a worked-out theory of truth or an epistemology, it allows us to see more precisely how Nietzsche’s pronouncements about truth and knowledge are directly relevant to his concerns about health and sickness, as I suggested above, and to his critique of ascetic ideals. It also recovers a picture of Nietzsche as a psychologist— a physician, even - and makes sense of claims like the one he makes in Ecce Homoto be both “the destroyer par excellence” and also a benefactor of sorts. Nietzsche is not out to “prove” that there is no truth or knowledge (supposing such an objective to be coherent in the first place); rather, he’s interested in what it is about us that makes us so determined to have those things, apparently at any cost.

I believe most human beings — in antiquity, in Nietzsche’s era, and today - simply presuppose that uncertainty or lack of knowledge is incompatible with well being, and they exhibit what Nietzsche identifies as the “metaphysical need” to believe just about anything rather than nothing at all. But that’s a pathology, on his account, and on the Skeptics’ account. And finally, on this reading, he can, as the Skeptics do, continue to value truth, consistently describe himself as a seeker of knowledge, and still regard inquiry as a goal-directed enterprise — it aims at truth; and, at the same time, he can raise the question of the value of truth and ask, “Why not falsehood instead?” I think many readers take Nietzsche’s questions as rhetorical, as advancing positions of his own, or as endorsements or recommendations. I read them more straightforwardly; they’re questions.


3:AM:What you show in your analysis of Nietzscheand the Greeks is how his philosophical concerns are directly entwined with his philological ones, don’t you? And it seems that many of his ideas, which seem original and scandalous, were lifted from his reading of the Greeks. His complaint about his fellow scholars is that they didn’t think philosophically about the material they were reading isn’t it, not that they were scholars? Is this a problem even today, that we need philosophers to analyse these texts philosophically in order to avoid making assumptions about interpretation that might miss the point of these Ancients? Is that how you see your own role?

JB:Well, Nietzschehad plenty of complaints about the academics and pedants that he calls “scholarly oxen”; I’m pretty sure that would be most of us today. In his era, though, the disciplinary boundaries we take for granted were just being solidified, and in some fields, like Nietzsche’sown Classical philology, the very identity of the discipline was still being shaped by a lot of internal struggles. In his early essay 'On the Use and Abuse of History for Life'laments the adoption by his contemporaries in history of objectives and methods that he argues will render history useless to us — and perhaps even harmful. (The same themes can be found in his remarks for an ‘Untimely Meditation’ he planned but never wrote, to be called something like, 'We Philologists'.) His worry, I think, was that scholars in what we might call the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften) were idealising and patterning their own disciplinary practices after those of the physical sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and, in particular, embracing the notion that the ideal investigator is thoroughly objective; that is, that his own idiosyncratic, peculiarly subjective point of view should never be allowed to show through or to colour his work. That’s an ideal that Nietzschethinks vaguely ridiculous, and surely illusory. And he questions its desirability, both in his early and in his latest works. Under such a rubric, the historian becomes just a kind of collector and curator of cold, dead facts — on the relative value of which he either can’t or won’t pronounce. He’s more like a taxidermist than a passionate inquirer — more interested in what’s dead than what’s alive.

Nietzschedecries these antiquarian types not because they’re scholars, but because they lack a certain kind of vision, for which is required a strong sense of self and a willingness to allow one’s values to inform one’s interpretation. So it isn’t that his contemporaries didn’t think philosophically about the texts they were analysing. Instead, it’s that they have the wrong idea about what that means, insofar as they think the superior epistemic position is always that of a “disinterested” spectator — something Nietzschecalls “an absurdity and a non-concept.” Nietzscheis known to have said that philosophy needs to be practiced as an art, to employ the kind of vision I mentioned before, and I think that’s been often misconstrued as an exhortation for us just to abandon the canons of logical argumentation and embark on some sort of free-form, speculative philosophical magical mystery tour. Instead, it seems to me that for Nietzschean artist is someone with a talent for imposing meaningful form on some material —even the material of history. Not everyone can do that, but certainly it’s what ‘scholars’ in his pejorative sense are by and large failing to do.

3:AM:You have an interesting take on Nietzschean perspectivism. It’s usually an issue that is thought of as arising as a consequence or expression of his ontology or theory of truth but you doubt this, don’t you? You kind of want to question whether Nietzschereally has a doctrine of perspectivism, or at least, whether it’s anything like what it is often taken to be. So what are your reasons for being a little revisionary here?

JB:It’s a little-appreciated fact, and one obscured especially in Walter Kaufmann’stranslations of Nietzsche’s works, that Nietzschedoesn’t employ “perspective” (e.g., der Perspektivismusor even die Perspektive) talk all that often. You’d think that if he had a “doctrine” to offer under this heading, one that was central to his entire philosophical project, he’d have more to say about it. The same is true, I think, of those other Nietzschean “doctrines,” the “will to power” and the Übermensch: In the published corpus, taken as a whole, there’s simply not enough textual material there to fill out anything like a “doctrine” answering to any of these names. That’s not to say, however, that when Nietzsche does talk about perspective, he doesn’t have an interesting and important point to make. The classic passage from the third essay of the Genealogy(§12), in which he asserts that there is “only a perspective seeing, only a perspective knowing” basically reinforces the point I raised earlier, about the absurdity of “objectivity” as an ideal for us. We’re embodied creatures; every view is from some point of view or other. There’s simply no getting around that fact, and so, to continue to idealise the “view from nowhere” — as we effectively do when we strive for “objectivity” — is nothing other than to idealise what we are not (that is, disembodied and disinterested spectators) and to reject what we are. That’s what makes the failure to see that knowing is perspectival fundamentally ascetic and, literally, sick. Nietzsche, not unreasonably, in my view, regards self-loathing as indicative of psychopathology.

The other remarkable feature of this passage is the extent to which Nietzsche’s point about the “perspectival” character of knowing and seeing reiterates a standard argument, familiar to Nietzsche from his work on Book IX of Diogenes Laertius’s Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophersand employed frequently by the Pyrrhonists to bring about suspension of judgment. The Greek doxographer Diogenes lists this argument as the seventh of ten skeptical “tropes”: that, since it is not possible to observe any object except from some particular position or place, we cannot know what any of them is like “in itself.” If we bear in mind, then, that our knowledge is perspectival, we’ll simply cease making pronouncements about the way things are “in reality.” It’s important to realise here that the point is not that there is a reality behind the appearances but that it’s unavailable to us. (How could we know that, after all?) That would be the anti-realist or negatively dogmatic view. Instead, the point is quite like the one with which Wittgenstein closes the Tractatus: that of which one cannot speak, one must be silent.

3:AM:There’s been a great deal of focus on the influence of the Ancient Greeks on Nietzsche, especially those pre-Socratics and Homer (and not Plato and Aristotle except as negative forces that repel him) but some write about the influence of the Romans and their ‘frivolity.’ This is Richard Bett’sthesis, isn’t it? Can you say how far you think Nietzsche was also influenced by some aspects of the Romans too?

JB:Richard Betthas done some brilliant work on Nietzsche and the Greek skeptics. More recently, he worked to flesh out what precisely Nietzsche owes to the Romans— a topic that hasn’t garnered much attention from commentators, in spite of Nietzsche’s high praise of them in the chapter of Twilight of the Idolson 'What I Owe to the Ancients'. In the end, he concludes that “no consistent picture” really emerges from Nietzsche’s rather scattered remarks, but along the way he sheds light on some very helpful themes. The most striking of them, I think, is precisely the one you’ve also hit upon — namely, Nietzsche’s praise of “Rome and its noble and frivolous tolerance.” The attitude Nietzsche focuses on here is another important counterpoint to Christianity and its “spirit of gravity.” Nietzsche frequently treats attitudes like frivolity or indifference or forgetfulness as measures of strength; the ones who never forget a slight or a debt are impoverished souls — those who cannot afford to forget.

I’m not sure how much I have to add to Bett’sstudy, but I think it’s worth noting that Nietzsche’s apparent celebration of Roman “frivolity” has an important epistemic upshot, too, and helps to shore up the skeptical reading of Nietzsche. According to Bett, what we see in Nietzsche’s praise of some Romans is, among other things, his rejection of the idea “that belief is a distinguishing feature of great human beings.” Here as elsewhere, Nietzsche in fact praises “thoughtlessness, skepticism, the permission to be able to shed a belief,” and in particular, moral beliefs and the dogmas that support them. Bett's attention to this point, I think, helps to connect his occasional remarks about Roman thinkers to broader themes in Nietzsche’s work.

3:AM:Brian Leitercomplains that several bad interpretations and postmodern readings of Nietzsche are derived from foregrounding material he didn’t publish. You discuss his unpublished ‘Truth Or Lie’ to put to bed the idea that he denied the possibility of truth, but doesn’t the fact that Nietzsche didn’t publish make it irrelevant what he said there?

JB:I’m really glad you asked this question. Like Leiter, I’m interested in what Nietzsche intended for us to read, and so I rarely dwell on his unpublished material. The one exception to this in my work has been 'On Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense'; that really has been the fragment that just wouldn’t die. Just recently, in fact, I was invited to discuss it again in an episode of the philosophy podcast the Partially Examined Life. The reason to keep returning to it, though, is that this essay (as well as a handful of later fragments that found their way into The Will to Power, the book Nietzsche didn’t write) has long been a cornerstone of the radical reading — the one according to which he denies the very possibility of truth. Honestly, I’m inclined to agree with your suggestion that it’s irrelevant what he says there, but in my discussions of that early draft of an essay I’ve argued that even if we think it relevant, it still sits very uneasily with the radical reading.

3:AM:Is it possible to read Nietzsche as a post-structuralist might do given your scholarship? Or should we now all agree that Foucaultand co are wrong to see him as they do?

JB:I certainly have nothing against Foucault, whose work I find provocative and whose critical theory I find very compelling. And I have no reason to doubt Foucault’s own claims that a good deal of what he’s up to is inspired by his reading of Nietzsche. On the issue of whether or not the “post-structuralists” get Nietzsche right, I’d have to say that it depends entirely on what their reading commits Nietzsche to. If it’s the sort of “epistemic nihilism” I described earlier, as it’s often taken to be, then yes, I think that reading is unsustainable on any genuinely sensitive engagement with Nietzsche’s texts. I’m not sure what could motivate one to adopt such a position, unless perhaps it’s just cynicism; Nietzsche is a lot of things, but I don’t think he’s that kind of a cynic.

3:AM:How does Nietzsche as an existentialist fare after we read him through your lens? It would seem that the idea of radical freedom and choice isn’t available in the way that some readings of Nietzsche suppose. Is this your view? And are you a Nietzschean in any way beyond the fact that he’s the object of much of your work? And what does being a Nietzschean entail from your perspective?

JB:How does Nietzsche fare as an existentialist? Not well, I’m afraid, if an existentialist is someone who’s committed to a kind of radical freedom we must exercise in order to live “authentically” or to “take responsibility” for ourselves and our lives. There isn’t much in Nietzsche’s philosophy that is transparent; but few things are clearer, it seems to me, than his rejection of the idea that we have a “will” that is metaphysically free. There are also few questions less appropriate to ask of Nietzsche’s philosophy than how we should go about being “Nietzscheans,” since he also gives quite a clear answer to those who wonder how they should follow him. That answer is, “Don’t.”

3:AM:You appeared in the Brian Leiter/Michael Rosenanthology of continental philosophy. So what’s your take on the so-called continental/analytic divide? Is it bogus, or does it have its uses?

JB:This is another great question. I was very pleased to be asked to contribute an essay to that volume, and there’s a lot to be said about the ways in which German philhellenism especially helped determine the trajectory of philosophical thought in modern Europe. But with respect to the alleged “divide” in the profession of academic philosophy, I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that the terms ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ do not name natural kinds; the alleged division is utterly an artifact of early twentieth-century academic politics. That’s not to say that the terms are utterly meaningless, but to say that what they refer to are political or ideological categories and not useful philosophical ones. Really, I think that the insistence on these categories has done more to preclude interesting philosophical conversation than it ever has to facilitate it; the sooner they’re retired, the better.

3:AM:Are there books, films, music that outside of your philosophical work you’ve found enlightening?

JB:I’m afraid I don’t read nearly as much fiction as I’d like (or as much as I did before I started graduate school in philosophy), and I don’t generally look to music or film for enlightenment. If there’s a word for the opposite of a “film buff,” then I’m that. Lately, I’m more likely to become engrossed in good serial dramas than in movies. I love the psychological complexity of characters with redeeming qualities or magnetic personalities who are drawn into immoral situations or activities; so, unsurprisingly, I’m a big fan of Dexterand Breaking Bad. I enjoy wondering to what extent we can be invested in the success of those characters’ projects, and whether and what kind of satisfaction we’re allowed to take in their successes. But the same is true of the obtuse-but-not-obviously-malicious characters you find in good, dark comedies like The Office. (I’m thinking of Ricky Gervais’ character in the original British series.) There’s a lot more to good comedic anti-heroes than simple emotional ignorance or narcissism. Whenever I see East Bound and Down, for instance, I’m always tempted to think that if you read Nietzsche through the eyes of Ayn Rand, you don’t get Howard Roark, you get Kenny Powers(though it’s a caricature of Nietzsche’s views either way, of course). At any rate, I find those sorts of characters really fascinating.

Otherwise, when I’m not directly engaged in philosophical work, what I find most enjoyable are manual tasks that get me out from behind a computer screen. The three books I’ve been most excited about recently are Dana Willard’s Fabrics: A to Z, Gretchen Hirsch’s Gertie’s New Book for Better Sewing, and The River Cottage Bread Handbookby Daniel Stevens. Making things you would ordinarily (and unreflectively) buy ready-made really does have a transformative effect on your relationship to everyday objects, just as I think Marx promises. And the process of making them is not only thoroughly absorbing, but it also allows you to lose yourself in your immediate environment in ways that make that environment salient to you in new, and I suppose enlightening, ways. I think that experience probably explains a lot about why I enjoy teaching Heidegger’s Being and Timenow and again; there are few philosophers who take “everydayness” seriously in a non-hokey way.

3:AM:And finally, for the budding Nietzschean classicists here at 3:AM, are there five books (excluding your own which we’ll be dashing away to read straight after this) that we should read to get further into your world?

JB:I would recommend to anyone at all to read Sextus Empiricus’s Outlines of Pyrrhonism. It’s very concise, and also the best account we have of the basic thrust of Pyrrhonian skepticism. An excellent recent essay (or short monograph) on Greek skepticism is Casey Perin’s The Demands of Reason. Lots of specialists in Ancient philosophy have taken issue with his presentation of Pyrrhonism, but I think he builds a very compelling defense of skepticism against the charge that the skeptic must lead an irrational (or at least arational) sort of existence. He argues for a claim I think is true, namely that the Pyrrhonist in fact succeeds better than his dogmatic opponents at fulfilling the demands of rationality. Happily, that lays a lot of the groundwork for Nietzsche’s internal critique of dogmatism. An indispensible text for anyone interested in skepticism is Richard Popkin’s classic The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. It’s highly readable and will make you think about the history of philosophy in the early modern period very differently. To anyone looking for a good overview of philosophical thought before Plato, I’d recommend Richard McKirahan’s Philosophy Before Socrates. It strikes a nice balance between presenting the fragmentary texts of the pre-Platonic philosophers in a sensible order and giving the reader enough of interpretive framework to appreciate the big advances of the period. When I teach the pre-Platonic philosophers, I often use this text as the backbone of the course. And finally, one of the best books I’ve read lately, which I liked enough to organize an entire undergraduate senior seminar around it, is Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s book Objectivity. It’s a study of the illustrations in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific atlases with a slightly Foucauldian twist; it builds a case for the claim that the notion of ‘objectivity’ “has a history,” and that its history and its dominance as an epistemic ideal are both more recent and more contingent than we might have thought.


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