Thursday, September 30, 2010

I review Robert Pippin's new Nietzsche book in NDPR

It's a harsh review. I'm going to step back and say some things about why it came out this way.

In retrospect, being a reviewer rather than just an ordinary reader made reading the book an especially painful experience. The book is very unclear, often with very different directions in which each bit of unclarity could be resolved. If there are 2 ways to read each unclear bit, and n unclear bits, you end up with 2n possible interpretations. (A lot of the unclear bits admit of many more than two possible interpretations, so really it's more.) Trying to live up to your obligations of charity as a reviewer and figure out which of this huge array of different interpretations is the best one is exhausting. An ordinary reader can just shrug, say it's unclear, remember the bits he liked, and forget the rest. But a reviewer has to correctly describe the view to everybody.

Usually things wouldn't be this bad. The organization of the book, perhaps, would enable one to slice down 2n to a manageable number, perhaps by isolating separate elements of the position. But the book is very disorganized. As far as I can tell, the clearest expressions of the positive view are scattered throughout middle parts of late chapters.

It wouldn't be so bad either if the differing interpretations had substantial and distinctive virtues. If you're a connoisseur of philosophical positions, which is a good thing to be in our profession, you might enjoy savoring each one. Instead, I spent hours and hours figuring out which of a large range of yucky views I had to attribute to Pippin. It was a miserable, frustrating experience.

I met Pippin at a conference a few months ago. He's a nice man, and he was nice to me and one of my graduate students. I think of him without any negative emotion, and I don't want my review to cause him anguish. (I don't expect it will -- I'm sure he's doing well enough for himself to shrug off a harsh review written by some guy on the other side of the world).

But insofar as this makes any sense, I'm angry and resentful towards his book for the misery it inflicted on me. As I wrote I wanted to avenge myself against it, and rescue readers from it, by making its faults clear so it would be avoided by all and honored by none. If there are points in the review where you're wondering what emotion drove me to write as I did -- well, that's the feeling.


breakerslion said...

Viagra! Sorry. Couldn't resist. Damn blog spammers!

I have not read Nietzsche, nor Pippin, but your review made me think of free will in a way I never have before. To wit: free will is defined within a narrow range of parameters within the individual. Nature in the form of brain chemistry, hormones, etc. and nurture in terms of learning (including transmitted prejudices, indoctrination, etc.) makes us who we are. Combinations of past and present experiences influence our decisions and subsequent behavior. The wild card is, that we can willfully or through circumstantial manipulation subvert our own programming. All of this would be predictable given enough information about a given individual, however there are too many variables. All of these social, instinctive, and behaviorally acquired constraints leave free will as an overgeneralized abstraction. That, in turn, renders the old biblical argument as a false dichotomy.

I'm betting none of this is new to you, but it's new to me. Thanks.

J Swenson said...

In one sense, I think your review largely misses the point of Pippin's book. I take Pippin to be following Bernard Williams' worry that Nietzsche is not in any standard sense a source of philosophical theories. If Nietzsche is not just doing standard philosophical theory (a claim that can, of course, be disputed) then the question becomes just what Nietzsche is trying to do through his texts.

I thought the practical interpretive problem Pippin tries to address in the book (and not mentioned in your review) is the question of what we are to do when traditional ways of sustaining our commitments to practices and values have failed--both historically and also by their own internal logic. Nietzsche clearly envisions some kind of replacement for the 'first philosophy' of traditional philosophical discourse. We need some sort of goal or fundamental orientating commitment to guide lives. But Nietzsche is also highly elusive about what that replacement will entail--what the supersession of first philosophy might look like.

Pippin, to my mind rightly, argues that this replacement is not simply going to be accomplished through an adoption or continuation of a standard philosophical theory--that is reading Nietzsche as a fictionalist, a quasi-realist, or some other contemporary ethical theory. Rather, psychology as a new 'first philosophy' involves a much more fundamental erotic reorientation of our basic commitments to values now shorn of the sorts of assurances traditional theories gave them.

No doubt there are features of Pippin's book that are somewhat opaque. But I guess what you see as Pippin's inability to translate Nietzsche into contemporary theory could just as easily or more charitably be read as an attempt to show how hard it really is to translate Nietzsche into contemporary theory if one engages in a close and honest reading of his texts.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Indeed, at the beginning of his book, Pippin cites the Williams view you mention -- that Nietzsche isn't a source of philosophical theories.

The trouble is that Pippin ends up extracting substantial philosophical theories from Nietzsche's text. See the extended quotations in the review -- the first blockquote from p.3, the first one from p.101, and the one from p.112-113. These are a theory of the relation between norms and psychology, a non-causal theory of action-explanations, and a theory of freedom. They aren't developed at length, but they're theories nonetheless.

Similarly, if you hold that "psychology as a new 'first philosophy' involves a much more fundamental erotic reorientation of our basic commitments to values now shorn of the sorts of assurances traditional theories gave them," you're going to have to say something about the form our commitments to values take and have taken, and the way that traditional theories fit into this. When you do so, you'll end up committed to some theory in ethics or metaethics. Perhaps it'll be a brand-new theory, not currently existing within the metaethical canon, that Pippin will lay out for us. That would be neat! I like exciting new theories! But they have to be laid out clearly enough that I can tell what they are. And that's absent from Pippin's text.

Again, I think you're right that Pippin doesn't clarify or defend theories at length because of his sympathy to the anti-theoretical reading from Williams. But this leaves him with the worst of both worlds. He ends up committing Nietzsche to various views without making clear what they are or why it's at all attractive to accept them. That makes for a book that isn't worth reading.