Monday, August 9, 2010

Attachments and Commitments

In Nietzsche, Psychology, & First Philosophy, Robert B. Pippin gives us a new take on Nietzsche, considering him as a French rather than a German thinker, and framing him less as a philosopher in any technical sense than an essayist, a moralist, and a prophet. The basic question Nietzsche asks, according to Pippin, is this:

“How … did Montaigne manage to exhibit such a thoroughgoing skepticism and clarity about human frailties and failings without Pascal’s despair and eventual surrender or La Rochefoucauld’s icy contempt for the ‘human all too human’?

Nietzsche arrived at the conclusion that there is no theory underlying Montaigne’s worldview. Yet Nietzsche himself developed a number of theories to explain why European civilization seemed to be in such a funk, and Pippin wants to go as far as he can toward clarifying those positions.

We might well question whether these two endeavors will really be taking us in the same direction. For the differences between Nietzsche and Montaigne go far beyond the fact that only one of them had a theory. Montaigne luxuriated in the differing and contradictory approaches to life he met up with. He enjoyed nothing better than to muse on the variety, not to mention illogicality, of the many habits men and women have developed and grown committed to in the course of time. Perhaps his watchword might be found in the remark, “All other knowledge is harmful to him who has not the knowledge of goodness.” (On Pedantry) This approach to “philosophy” differs radically from Nietzsche’s, of course. Nietzsche took little interest in the particulars of personal or social life. His efforts were directed toward diagnosis and reform on the social level, if not utter “transformation,” and his writing often carries a cantankerous, hectoring, admonitory tone as a result.

At one point Montaigne writes:

“It is a mistake to describe [philosophy] as inaccessible to children and of a lowering and frowning and terrifying aspect. Who has disguised her with this wan and hideous mask? There is nothing gayer, more jocund, more blithe, and I might almost say, sportive. She exhorts always to holidaying and merry-making; a sad and spiritless air shows that not there is her abode.”
(On the Education of Children)

Pippin’s finds the “key” to Nietzsche’s work in his desire to assume this sportive attitude toward philosophy himself, and he suggests that Nietzsche arrives at a mature exposition of this position, if not a genuinely sportive tone, in The Gay Science.

Though he structures his argument methodically, Pippin’s prose is far from scintillating, and as we soldier on through the early chapters, there are many points at which we feel things are being made more complicated than they need to be, and other places at which Pippin loses the point entirely.

Let me give you an example. At one point early on in the book, Pippin takes up the issue of commitment as a grounding force in the search for meaning. Where do commitments come from?

“ No one faces a world of neutral objects and possibilities and ‘decides’ with what sort of importance to invest some, any more than one faces an array of persons and decides whom to invest with love.”

What Pippin is trying to say, I guess, is that things (and people) have valences that attract or repel us—they aren’t neutral. Nevertheless, we do make decisions all the time about which things appeal to us and which don’t, based on our personal experience as well as our predilections; at the highest (or deepest) level, the things we value—things like friendship, loyalty, honor, kindness—aren’t things at all in any material sense.

Pippin goes on to differentiate between “deep” commitments and “thin” commitments, and in several places uses the word “commitment” and “erotic attachment” interchangeably. Here again he seems to be muddling the issue. A commitment is not the same thing as an attachment, erotic or otherwise. A child may be attached to his or her poodle, for example, but not fully committed to caring for it. A soldier may be committed to carrying out an order, out of a sense of duty, without being in any way attached to it.

The presence of the word “erotic” is also troubling. We are being asked to draw upon a long history of associations extending back to Plato, though in his efforts to elevate “erotic attachment” above mere “felt desire” Pippin offers a circular definition that includes the thing defined: “[Erotic attachment] involves a wholehearted, passionate commitment to and identification with a desired end.”

Wrong again. An attachment is not a commitment, and the phrase “desired end” threatens to pitch Pippin’s analysis off the rails entirely. Why? Because a commitment—and especially a deep one—is less often to an end than to a way. I might be committed to completing a crossword puzzle, but such a commitment isn’t terribly deep. A commitment to eating free-range chicken, on the other hand, or to reading the Times faithfully, gives slightly greater weight to the concept. But such commitments are open-ended. They lack a desired end, as do more serious commitments, such as to dealing honestly with others, being faithful to one’s spouse, obeying the law, or tithing.

Pippin’s argument, here and elsewhere, would have benefited immensely from a few examples. Yet we follow the imprecise and sometimes muddled reasoning, stimulated by the counter-thoughts they generate and hopeful that he’ll turn the corner when he finally begins to discuss the specifics Nietzsche puts forth in The Gay Science. Montaigne is nowhere in sight by this point, but according to Pippin, the problem that Nietzsche himself is addressing (and here is where the “erotic attachment” comes into play) is, to put it in the simplest and least philosophical terms possible, that as the nineteenth century drew to a close, Western civilization was losing its mojo.

In chapter three Pippin takes up the most famous (but still not well understood) tenet in Neitzsche’s corpus—the death of God. The passage in question is more complex, not to say ambivalent, than a simple pronouncement that God is dead, and Pippin’s analysis here is both nuanced and sound. In the end, it brings him around again to the issue of commitment.

“…we have been investigating how Nietzsche understands the psychological conditions of value, the possibility of an action-guiding depth commitment. He treats the current context as hostile to this possibility both because of the death of God and even more because of how that news has been understood.”

Nietzsche felt that his contemporaries were no longer capable of sacrifice or commitment, and found their reaction to such a condition no less distressing—either a melancholic and theatrical guilt or a self-satisfied pose of enlightened free-thinking.

But it’s important to note (Pippin devotes a good deal of time to the issue) that in Nietzsche’s view this cultural malaise is historically conditioned. As Pippin puts it: “The psyche amounts to a historically achieved and quite variable way of holding ourselves and others to account.” Yet this view doesn’t square very well with Pippin’s own rhetoric, in which he often uses the pronoun “we,” as if the situation he and his twenty-first-century readers face were identical to the one Nietzsche and his late-nineteenth-century European contemporaries found themselves in. Can it really be said that Tea Party advocates, Al-Qaeda operatives, North Korean generals or Japanese auto workers lack commitment? Pippin is in danger of undermining the relevance of his entire project when he writes: “This image of the passionless, bored bourgeois has by now become a rather banal cliché.” Not only banal, but inaccurate.

In the end, what saves the book are the footnotes and asides, which draw our attention to various minor points explored by Nietzsche, Montaigne, Pascal and other thinkers. Certainly there is food for thought on every page, though we may leave the book with the impression that Montaigne is, indeed, a vital and engaging writer … while Nietzsche remains an aphorist for disgruntled adolescents who have not yet come to grips with the wider, deeper streams of modern thought and history.

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