Interview by Richard Marshall.
'In the arts we always admire new and different ways of representing the world and expressing ourselves: we admire the artists whose work differs significantly from the work of those around them. It is on such values that Nietzsche wants to model the values of the rest of life.'
'The text denies simply that there is a neutral substratum, a “being” (note the scare-quotes, which indicate that this is a concept of being Nietzsche rejects) behind doing—that is, a distinct subject that is independent of all its features, capable of deciding at any point to behave in a way fundamentally opposed to its behavior so far. That would be a subject unconditioned by context, free “in the superlative metaphysical sense,” having a causal and therefore contingent relationship to its behavior. Nietzsche denies that such a thing exists.'
'What can’t be taught, however, is how to paint a good history painting, how to compose a good sonata, how to write a good novel. Here, all we can say is “Write like Proust,” advice which, if—paradoxically—you succeed in following will result in your writing something that is significantly unlike Proust, just as we saw Nietzsche write above.'
'Foucault’s last lectures at the Collège de France show clearly that he saw himself as part of the Socratic tradition, especially as he identifies his own voice what that of Socrates exhorting his contemporaries to a life of virtue. Whether Foucault was as fully an individualist as Nietzsche or Montaigne is a complicated question. But all three of them took Socrates as a kind of model (and, consonant with our earlier discussion) produced pictures of life fundamentally, and importantly, different from his.'
'It is clear that friendship is by and large crucial to human life. And I believe, in contrast with most of the philosophical tradition deriving from Aristotle, that it is not limited to a very few perfect individuals.'
'To find something beautiful is to hope that your life will be better if that is a part of it. Unfortunately, the promise of a better life that beauty makes and the hope that it will be fulfilled are not always realized: beauty, like friendship, is also double-edged.'
'Plato, though, introduced a specific relation—“participation”—that connects the sensible world with the world of Forms and gives it a much more robust foundation in reality than Parmenides had ever imagined possible.'
Alexander Nehamasis Professor of Philosophy and Edmund N. Carpenter, II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1990, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. His interests include Greek philosophy, philosophy of art, European philosophy and literary theory. Here he discusses Nietzsche and art, his unpopular views about Socrates, the art of friendship, beauty in art, authenticity and why philosophy is not redundant.
3:AM:What made you become a philosopher?
Alexander Nehamas:This has always been a difficult question for me. What I remember is borrowing a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics from my high-school library in order, I told myself, to learn modern Latin, and then failing to understand either Spinoza’s Latin or the facing Greek translation. Somehow—I am not at all sure why—that made me want to get to know both Spinoza and philosophy better. My original plan was to study philosophy for a while and then become, like many Greeks at that time, a ship-owner. As you can see, that plan didn’t quite work out. Thankfully.
For years, I used to think that I became a philosopher by accident, because of a series of external events but I gradually realized that, whether I knew it or not at the time, I can now say that all the turns and maneuvers I engaged in in my rather tortuous route were intentional. And that, in fact, has prompted me to consider whether intention, as we commonly understand it, needs to precede the actions we engage in and cause them. I don’t think so any longer.
3:AM:Nietzscheis a key figure in your philosophical work isn’t he? Would it be fair to say that you’re on the existentialist wing of his interpreters? You wrote your famous book ‘Nietzsche: Life as Literature’ quite some time ago and Nietzsche scholarship has moved on. Do you still think your approach is the correct one, or perhaps in light of his perspectivism I should ask whether you still find it the most fruitful from your perspective?
AN:It would necessarily have to be from my perspective—where else? And although I am not sure that my approach to Nietzscheis clearly existentialist, his aestheticism, which was the central topic of my book, is still a serious topic of discussion, both among Nietzsche specialists and among a more general audience. Naturally, I believe that my interpretation (which I would adjust and revise in view of many of the developments you allude to) is still holding its ground, although I don’t think that a thinker as complex and elusive as Nietzsche can be fully captured on the basis of a single approach. Still, although Nietzsche has many sides (not all of them clearly compatible with every other) his aestheticism is one strand that colors much that he writes and explains a variety of his views. .
3:AM:His aestheticism is a central strand of that work. Can you say why it’s so important to Nietzsche and how it helps understand so many aspects of his work?
AN:Nietzsche believes that moral values depend on our similarities with one another and require us to adjust our actions to universal norms. Being universal, these norms should therefore apply equally to every member of society (or every human being or every rational agent) and, since “ought” implies “can,” they should require behavior that the least capable members of society are still capable of engaging in. That is, Nietzsche’s view is that morality is directed at the lowest common denominator of every group it is addressed to (he rejects the idea that there is a core common to everyone that makes moral behavior accessibe to all). Given that operating outside of such norms—acting immorally—is forbidden, he infers that morality prevents individuals whose abilities can distinguish them from the rest of the world from acting according to them and so prevents them from living well.
Moral values, however, Nietzsche insists, are not the only values there are (in fact, he often writes as if moral values are not values at all). There are also values that depend not on our similarities but on our differences, values that bear a close relationship to the values of aesthetics and the arts. In the arts we always admire new and different ways of representing the world and expressing ourselves: we admire the artists whose work differs significantly from the work of those around them. It is on such values that Nietzsche wants to model the values of the rest of life.
The arts have another advantage, which fits very well with his perspectivism. Perspectivism consists in part in the view that there is no privileged representation of the world, no theory that can explain once and for all every worldly phenomenon. Many of its critics infer from this that perspectivism reduces to a relativism according to which every view is as true as any other. There are several answers to this charge. But the connection with the arts provides one of the strongest. For, although it makes no sense to think of “the greatest” artist or “the greatest” work, we are still perfectly capable of distinguishing between the quality of different artists and different works. Why, then, should that be impossible in the rest of life as well?
3:AM:What does Nietzsche mean by taking the world as a text? Does understanding the world as text or literature help understand his metaphysical claim that there are effects without things, properties without substances, activities without agents and so on?
AN:The point of thinking of the world as a text is not to be taken literally: it is a model, which brings out the importance of the interrelations among everything that exists in the world. Every text is (means) what it is (means) because of its parts. But these parts are not independent of one one another. Take, for example, a sentence out of the text and put it in a different context and that sentence will no longer be (mean) the same thing.
Here, though, I need to revise the view of Life as Literature. My argument there was that there is absolutely nothing to an object over and above the sum-total of its features—that objects don’t exist as a distinct category (though I did try to temper that thesis). In Section 13 of the First Essay of On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche writes that “popular morality . . . separates strength from expressions of strength, as if there were a neutral substratum behind the strong man, which was free to express strength or not to do so. But there is no such substratum; there is no “being” behind doing, effecting, becoming; “the doer” is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything.” I took that to mean that Nietzsche does away with the idea of “the subject” altogether. I now think that’s wrong. The text denies simply that there is a neutral substratum, a “being” (note the scare-quotes, which indicate that this is a concept of being Nietzsche rejects) behind doing—that is, a distinct subject that is independent of all its features, capable of deciding at any point to behave in a way fundamentally opposed to its behavior so far. That would be a subject unconditioned by context, free “in the superlative metaphysical sense,” having a causal and therefore contingent relationship to its behavior. Nietzsche denies that such a thing exists. But that doesn’t imply that no subject, bearing a different relationship to its features, is possible. On the contrary, there is such a subject. But rather than the cause of its features, the subjent is expressed in them. That gives a completely different way of understanding the nature of subjects and properties. The relationship between them is no longer causal but hermeneutic and much stronger than the causal account envisages. What we actually do and not what we consider possible for us to is what defines what we are.
3:AM:Why do you think that any attempt to attribute to Nietzsche a positive view of human conduct is going to fail and again how does that link to his idea of life as literature? Isn’t saying that we should create an artwork out of ourselves attributing such a positive view of human conduct? And isn’t this view too reliant on The Will To Power to be generalised?
AN:A “positive view of human conduct” is a theory that provides a general understanding of human behavior and general rules that are to be followed by everyone. Nietzsche certainly offers no such theory. There is one already—traditional morality—and, he believes, it is appropriate to those who can’t live without it. But he is interested in the few people who can become—one of his favorite terms of praise, not only in The Will to Power but also throughout his work—“individuals.” He also describes them (and himself) as “poets of our lives,” people who “create themselves.” But it is impossible to offer a general theory of behavior for such a project. “Rules” for becoming an individual are self-undermining: they can be followed by more than one person and those who follow them will be significantly similar to one another—and, therefore, not individuals. At this point, art comes into the picture again: it is as impossible to give rules for producing a great work of art—any such work will have to break some existing rules and introduce new ones—which rules will be broken and which introduced for the first time, can’t possibly be determined in advance of actually producing such a work and still result into something genuinely new. In short, it is only after the fact that we can formulate the principles that an innovative work or, for Nietzsche, an individual mode of life will have to follow. The only positive advice Nietzsche can give to his readers is captured in Section 255 of The Gay Science: “Imitators.— A: ‘What? You want no imitators?’ B: ‘I do not want to have people imitate my example; I wish that everybody would fashion his own example, as I do.’ A: ‘So?’”
3:AM:All this helps us get to your philosophy of living, which is an aspect of philosophy that raises questions ancient texts in both western and non-Western philosophical traditions used to ask a lot – and was very prevalent even in the nineteenth century when Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were asking how we should live and whether it was worth it. So what are we to understand by your phrase ‘the art of living?’
AN:I use the expression “the art of living” (a free, perhaps inaccurate translation of the Greek technê tou biou) to suggest that we model life on the making of art. That means, first, that there is no single type of life that is good for all, just as there is, as we just saw, no single best artist or work of art. Second, it means that some lives are admirable because of their differences from the lives of those around them, just as significant artworks differ significantly (although what counts as significant can’t be specified in general terms) from others in their genre or style. Third, it means that creating an admirable life is less a matter of choice than a matter of ability.
Nietzsche was fond of dividing people into “individuals” and “the herd.” I disagree. The distinction is not nearly as absolute as he thinks and there are many different levels of ability or “strength” (as Nietzsche would put it). There is a great continuum in life, just as there is a great continuum in art, for example in the novel: Proust is at one end, Thomas Mann, Jane Austen and Ian McKewan in-between, Danielle Steel below and many, many others below her as well.
3:AM:Is living an art that can be taught?
Yes, it can be taught—like any art. One can learn how to paint a history painting, how to compose a sonata, how to write a novel: that’s the easy part.
What can’t be taught, however, is how to paint a good history painting, how to compose a good sonata, how to write a good novel. Here, all we can say is “Write like Proust,” advice which, if—paradoxically—you succeed in following will result in your writing something that is significantly unlike Proust, just as we saw Nietzsche write above.
What counts as “significance”? As I suggested, there is no way to specify that in terms that are both general and informative. If we could give such a specification (“To produce something significant, do such-and-such and so-and-so”) we would, again, be providing concrete rules for achieving it. And these “rules” would be exactly like those we discussed earlier in regard to becoming an individual: they would be equally self-undermining. We do know that both outstanding individuals and significant works must differ in important ways from those around them: what we don’t know (before one comes into being) is which differences are important and which are not.
3:AM:How are we to understand the notion you find in Nietzsche of fashioning or creating a self? Is it through philosophy that the self is disclosed? Is it only through philosophy – don’t Proust, Rimbaud, Wilde create selves in the relevant sense?
AN:It is not only philosophy that, as you put it, discloses the self—and not all philosophy either: only good (significant) philosophy. Artists, scientists, and others can do the same. What distinguishes philosophy from these other versions of the art of living is that philosophy aims at creating a good life mostly by asking in what such a life consists. It is importantly self-referential.
3:AM:Is it your view that Foucault (as well as Nietzsche and Montaigne) was returning to a notion of Socratic irony and drawing conclusions about the art of life? Does your approach ask us to re-evaluate Socrates or Foucault – or both, in terms of what they were doing?
AN:My approach to Socrates, I fear, is not very popular among scholars of ancient philosophy because I think of him as primarily an individualist—someone who was interested in finding out how he could live a good life (though the good life included, for him, companions who would join him in asking how to live well and who, perhaps, might also live well in the process). Accordingly, I take his “profession of ignorance” quite literally. Socratesgenuinely doesn’t know what “virtue” (aretê, the quality that constitutes the good life and produces happiness) is and his questions to his interlocutors are genuine (contemporary use of “the Socratic Method” is law schools is a travesty of its original).
Yet although Socrates’profession of ignorance is not ironic, Socrates remains an ironist, and his irony is many-faced But one of its most powerful expressions consists in the fact that Socrates (a) believes that knowledge of the nature of virtue is necessary for living well, (b) believes that he genuine lacks that knowledge, and (c) manages to live, at least in Plato’s eyes, as well as anyone had lived at the time (Plato says so, in so many words, at the end of the Phaedo). Not only is this a paradox to others, as it was to Plato, but also, I believe, Socrates himself. Plato, in any case, tried various ways around it. Sometimes, as in the Meno, he considers the possibility that knowledge is not after all necessary for living well. Sometimes, also in the Meno but in the Phaedoand the Phaedrusas well, he thinks that Socrates, whe-ther he was aware of it or not, did after all have the necessary knowledge through “recollection.” And sometimes, once he arrived at his own view of the good life in the Republic, he suggests that perhaps Socrates was not so virtuous after all.
Foucault’s last lectures at the Collège de France show clearly that he saw himself as part of the Socratic tradition, especially as he identifies his own voice what that of Socrates exhorting his contemporaries to a life of virtue. Whether Foucault was as fully an individualist as Nietzsche or Montaigne is a complicated question. But all three of them took Socrates as a kind of model (and, consonant with our earlier discussion) produced pictures of life fundamentally, and importantly, different from his.
3:AM:You find friendshipis common (and therefore you disagree with many who write about it as if it is rare) and difficult to represent in art – you say because it carries no clear sign – unlike erotic love or anger, say – it needs to be represented as drama. Is that right? Can you say why friendship is important, why many philosophers have thought it rare and how you think we should characterise it?
AN:It is clear that friendship is by and large crucial to human life. And I believe, in contrast with most of the philosophical tradition deriving from Aristotle, that it is not limited to a very few perfect individuals. That, I think, is plain to see and requires no argument: the question, rather, is why so many writers on friendship have believed that it is so rare. This is a difficult question to answer. A partial answer may be that we often think that only a perfect relationship constitutes a “real” friendship, which implies that less than perfect friendships are not really genuine. Aristotle’s distinction between three kinds of philia (which we have assumed is equivalent to “friendship”) has helped cement that positioin. The perfect, rare kind of philia is limited to “the virtuous”; the other two “lower” kinds, which are based on the advantage or the pleasure they provide, are neither as genuine nor as valuable. And if philia is indeed the same as friendship, then there are three kinds of friendship as well, and it is not only to be found among the virtuous individuals, who, on Aristotle’s own account, are themselves very rare.
The trouble is that philia and friendship are not equivalent. First, philia applies to many relationships other than friendship, for example, to contratual obligations or to the bonds among members of a political organization. Second, the fact is that relationships that depend on advantage of pleasure are purely instrumental. We enter into them not because of the person involved but because of what that person can provide us with: Aristotle writes explicitly that in such relationships, in contrast to the philia of the virtuous, one is not attracted to the other person but to the pleasure or advantage involved. Moreover, once we obtain what we want from such relationships (or if it fails to materialize) the relationship is immediately over. But that is not how friends treat from one another. Once we realize that the two lesser kinds of philia are not lesser friendships, we are left only with the relationship of the virtuous and nothing else. And the rarity of friendship is, wrongly, confirmed.
My view is that friendship permeates human life and is involved in almost everything we think, feel, and do. For that very reason, there is no behavior that is characteristic of friendship. Two people can engage in the very same behavior—visiting someone in hospital, for example—and yet only one of them might be doing so out of friendship; moreover, friends can be doing absolutely anything together, even quarrel or fight. That means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to recognize a friendship simply on the basis of what people do. But that makes it impossible to produce, say, a painting of friendship that can be recognized as such without a title that connects it to friendship, depicts, or without an allusion to a known historical or mythological relationship, or without some other independent reference. And there are similar problems with other media, in particular and perhaps surprisingly with the novel.
The best medium for representing friendship is drama—theater, cinema, television, and video. That is because friendship is an essentially embodied relationship. The look, posture, bodily attitude, tone of voice, and physical interactions of dramatic characters, all of which occur over time, like friendship itself, provide important information that other media have trouble communicating.
Finally, in contrast to, say, the epic, where lives are always at stake and friends sacrifice themselves for each other, friendship in everyday life is usually manifested in mundane, commonplace activities—activities that, in addition, appear trivial and boring to an outside observer. Most of us are never called upon to perform such heroic actions. We can’t therefore say that friendship is valuable simply because of the behavior it engenders. Moreover, friendship is double-edged. Since not only the virtuous, but also the average and even the wicked can be friends, a good relationship may well have terrible consequences for one or more of the friends. In most situtions, friends deal with the trivial; in some, they are harmed by their relationship; and in others, their friendship results in immoral activities (I often used the film Thelma and Louise to support this claim). We can’t therefore praise friendship for always being beneficial to those it ties to one another. Where, then, is its good?
My own view is that friendship is essential to our becoming who we are. It provides a context within which we can, more or less safely, try different ways of being, different approaches to life, and our friends, to whom we open ourselves and by whom we are willing to be influenced and directed, play a central role in what becomes of us. In contrast to the values of morality, which depend on and encourage our similarities to each other, values like friendship (or beauty) depend on and encourage our differences. Ultimately, friendship is essential to our fashioning ourselves in ways that don’t simply repeat the fashions of our surroundings: it is a mechanism of individuality.
3:AM:Why do you seek to restore beauty in artsfrom its critics. Is it because beauty brings hope that life would be better if beauty would be part of it?
AN:Most modern thought about art has assumed that we should approach it in a “disinterested” manner, bracketing each work from its practical, moral, or personal dimensions and appreciating it just “for itself.” But that is a very impoverished view of art. To emphasize the importance of beauty is to connect art again to emotion and desire. To find something (or someone: this approach brings the beauty in art and the beauty in the rest of life together) beautiful is not simply to appreciate what you now see or know about them. It also involves the desire to get to know them better, in the hope that what you will discover will, in some way that you can’t know at the time, make your life better, just as your relationship with it so far has also made it better.
You are right: to find something beautiful is to hope that your life will be better if that is a part of it. Unfortunately, the promise of a better life that beauty makes and the hope that it will be fulfilled are not always realized: beauty, like friendship, is also double-edged. And that brings me to your next question.
3:AM: Why do you think it is a pressing human concern – after all, it can be seen as something shallow – to look only on beautiful people, for example, seems the sign of superficiality – an overdependence on ‘mere’ appearance that overlooks hidden depths? And surely evil can be beautiful etc etc?
AN:Suppose (a common philosophical thought-experiment) that you enter a crowded room and the face of a stranger stands out among all the rest, overwhelming you with its beauty. Is it the “mere” appearance of the face that attracts you? (Note the word: it attracts you, pulling you toward it, promising more than you have seen already.) Apart from not knowing exactly what “mere” appearance is supposed to be, I believe that what attracts you is not simply the shape of a face, its coloration, the size of its nose, or the position of its eyes. A face is not an inert object, not just an object with color, size, and shape. In seeing a face, we see a whole person, partly expressed in that face. It is that whole person, whose soul (if you want) we see partly reflected in their face that is the object of attraction. There is no clear, systematic distinction between what belongs to “mere” appearance and what does not.
Take a recent experiment, an effort to measure precisely how judgments made on the basis of people’s “physical attractiveness”— traits discernible “in photographs” or “from actually observing someone before forming a relationship—differ from those made once we come to “know and interact with them.” But, clearly, that is an intolerably broad view of the “physical,” as I hope my previous paragraph has suggested. The difference is not between the physical and the mental: It is simply a difference between judgments made on the basis of less and judgmentmade on the basis of more information about that person. In the end it is not beauty that is superficial but, rather, the knowledge we have of a person or object at the early stages of our interaction.
And, of course, beauty can be as dangerous as evil can be beautiful. But that is just another aspect of the double edge of non-moral values. Both beauty and friends can be dangerous. If you want to avoid them on these grounds, be my guest. But I wonder what your life will then be like.
3:AM:Is your reading of Plato one that detects a central question in his metaphysics, his ethics and his art: ‘What is authentic and what is fake?’ And was the life and death of Socrates itself a picture of this question – Socrates’s view on the good human being the genuine one and the jury’s idea being the fake?
AN:Earlier, I said that we often think that only a perfect friendship is real or genuine. But while it makes perfetion in friendship very rare, its generalized version—that nothing is real or genuine if it is not perfectly what it is—which is Plato’s assumption, makes it impossible, at least in the world around us. So Plato postulates a different domain, where everything, unlike the world around us, is perfectly what it is and identifies it with reality, which is accessible only to a few, like friendship for Aristotle, but, unlike friendship, never fully during our earthly life.
Many—Nietzsche especially—have criticized Plato for finding perfection only beyond our everyday world (all the world there is, according to Nietzsche). But there is another way of looking at Plato’s approach. We should recall that Plato (until he composes his late dialogues) is, like the rest of early Greek philosophers, profoundly influenced by Parmenides. Now Parmenides had argued that reality must be perfect just in the way Plato was to make his Forms perfect later on. But Parmenides also thought that the world of “appearance” bears absolutely no relation to reality, and that it was impossible to learn anything about reality by focusing in any way on appearance. Plato, though, introduced a specific relation—“participation”—that connects the sensible world with the world of Forms and gives it a much more robust foundation in reality than Parmenides had ever imagined possible. In that way, we can take Plato to be trying to give the sensible world a measure of reality at the same time that, being part of his tradition, he also felt obliged to deny its primacy.
3:AM: More generally, some scientists have recently being wondering whether there's any point to philosophy anymore - that science can do it all. What do you say to that sort of criticism?
AN:Can science do what philosophy does better than philosophy? Well, yes, some of it. I have long thought that part of philosophy has always been primitive science. The natural philosophy of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance gradually became physics and chemistry. Psychology, which for a long time was a branch of philosophy, gradually became a science in its own right (the journal Mind was until relatively recently entitled “A quartely journal of psychology and philosophy”). Logic has given ground to computer science, philosophy of language to linguistics (though only in part), and current philosophy of mind is coming close to psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience.
What happens is that philosophers begin to question a certain domain, often naively, but as their questions, and answers, become more sophisticated and more subject to concrete investigation, scientists (often the same people who might have thought of themselves as philosophers up to that point) take over the domain and proceed independently. This is not a process that is about to end soon.
But that is not the only thing philosophy does. There are also questions centering around the issue of how to live a good life, including asking whether our lives have a purpose or a meaning and how they acquire it, what constitutes goodness, how to treat others, and so on. I see no reason to think that science has any hope of providing answers to these problems. There is, for one thing, no systematic way to resolve them. What counts as a good life differs from time to time, from culture to culture, from one individual to another. And there are no general rules, no laws if you want, that can possibly establish how to live well, since no general rules can ever establish how to do anything well. Doing something well is always going to go at least a bit past whatever the rules that govern a field, a discipline, or any activity, including the arts, can lead you to do. Even if science can someday explain what life is, it won’t be able to explain how to live well. I am very happy to keep that question wholly for ourselves.
3:AM:And for the readers here at 3:AM are there five books you could recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?
1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment
2. Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity
3. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
4. Dave Hickey, Air Guitar
5. Marcel Proust,In Search of Lost Time
I don’t by any means endorse everything in these books but I have been influenced by them all. And I don’t include any works by Plato or Nietzsche, to whom I feel the closest.
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