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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Blake's sweet bird

LI’s friend and neverfailing antipode, Paul Craddick, recently threw himself into a defense of Nietzsche on the Maverick Philosopher site. While Paul and Mr. MP disagreed, they both exhibited a dislike for perspectivism. At least, Paul seems to think that emphasizing perspectivism in the body of Nietzsche’s work exaggerates a feature of it:

“I'm sure we'll have occasion to clash again when you write on "perspectivism," because I'm not convinced that the weight of N's work supports the radically perspectival interpretation; or, at least, I'm not sure if one can make an ultimately satisfying case for him definitively holding to either perspectivism or some perspective-centric realism.”

Here at LI, we are ardent perspectivists. So we thought we’d wile away a Saturday post making a few comments.


We aren’t going to make an exhaustive survey of perspectivisms past and present. Leibniz is, famously, the inventor of the most ingenious reconciliation of rationalism and perspectivism, in the course of which he invented a sort of modal philosophy. However, this is perspectivism at the baroque end of the Christian apologetic – proving, at least, that there is nothing inherently revolutionary about all varieties of perspectivism. Or even nihilistic.

Enlightenment thinkers were almost all, by an instinctive bias, relativists. Montesquieu’s emphasis on the differences geography and climate make to fundamental features of subjectivity – and the sort of playdo subject favored by the Empiricists – were all derived from the Enlightenment project of reconciling the system of the world as they supposed it conceived by Newton with the political project of justifying the organization of liberties in the commonwealth. It was an immense straddle. One can look at its liberating effects insofar as it created, in Europe, a tolerant sensibility and a lively bourgeois public sphere – or one can look at how easily that relativism could generate apologies for slaveholding, and the attendant and ultimately poisonous pseudo-sciences of race that Lichtenberg percipiently mocked in his letter on physiognomy, when he attacks Lavater’s claim that a Newton could never be born among the “hideous” looking blacks and Moors: "What! exclaims the Physiognomist--could the soul of Newton inhabit the skull of a Negro? an angelic mind dwell in a hideous form?-Unmeaning jargon! the declamation of a child.” Interestingly, the 'science' of race tended towards an absolute pole, abjuring the materialist inclination to relativism that gave it birth. From Lavater there is only a small step towards Gobineau’s remark that the white European is “objectively” the most beautiful racial subgroup. Gobineau, like any editor of the Weekly Standard, then pours scorn on the relativists who claim that there is no objective standard of beauty.

So much for background. LI’s perspectivism is a descendent of the line that goes from Blake to Nietzsche.

In the age of Bush, the Christian right is busy trying to keep Darwin out of the hot little hands of the youth. They should, instead, concentrate on Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Once your fourteen year old reads that, he is gone – soon he’s wearing leather pants and learning to play an electric guitar. As for the abstinence pledge – forget it.

No discussion of perspectivism should neglect Blakes’ couplet:

“How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense World of Delight, clos'd by your senses five?”

We already know that Delight is a special word for Blake. In The Voice of the Devil section, Blake writes:

“All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors:--
1. That Man has two real existing principles, viz. a Body and a Soul.
2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body; and that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
But the following Contraries to these are True:--
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.”

Reason, in Blake’s terms, has a positional essence – it is a formal thing, rather as it is in Kant -- although Kant comes to that formalism much more reluctantly. As the bound of energy, or eternal delight, Reason both participates in and negates life. This, at least, in its proper place. But in the Bibles or sacred codes, Reason is set up as something more than a bound – it is set up as a separate essence, independent of energy. This is the great fiction of oppression – that Reason is life. Since it is, in fact, the bound set on energy, according to Blake, the Life of Reason is death in life, and the God that torments those who follow their energies is the God that lives off death.

Blake, of course, did not see this as the opposite of Jesus’ teachings – quite the opposite. The great renewal, the life more abundant, the life without the law (that fulfilled the law), was what Jesus was striving for. And of course, before his eyes he saw the Kingdom of Heaven in full revolt -- he saw Jesus' successors in the Jacobins, and the dance around the liberty tree.

This is the vocabulary in which Blake’s couplet is couched.

Let’s not extend this post for pages about Blake. LI wants to cite one other passage – this from the preface to Beyond Good and Evil – and then, tomorrow, we will construct our sense of perspectivism.

Nietzsche’s work, since Nehamas’s book in the eighties, has been viewed as the great exemplar of perspectival thinking. That sense of Nietzsche makes its stand on passages like the following:

Let’s not be ungrateful to them [Platonism and the Vedanta philosophy], even as it must also certainly be confessed, that the worst, most boring and dangerous of all mistakes up to now has been a Dogmatic mistake, namely, Plato’s invention of the pure mind [Geiste] and of the good in itself. But now, where it has been overcome, where Europe breathes out from this nightmare and at least enjoys a healthier … sleep – here we are, whose task is the awaking itself, the inheritance of all the force which the struggle against this error has bred [grossgezüchtet]. This meant standing Truth on its head and denying the perspectival, the fundamental condition of all life, in order to speak of minds and of the good as Plato has done; yes, one might ask, as a doctor would, how did this disease attack the most gorgeous animal [Gewächse] of antiquity, Plato? was he really corrupted by the evil Socrates? Was Socrates, in fact, a corruptor of the youth? and did he deserve his hemlock? But the struggle against Plato, or, in order to say it more intelligibly, and vulgarly, the struggle against the force of the Christian-churchly for millennia – because Christianity is Platonism for the people – has created in Europe a splendid tension of the intellect [Spannung des Geistes] as there has never before been on Earth; with such a taut bow, one can now shoot the furthest goal.”

Gratitude and struggle are the things we will be picking out of that quotation, in order to show that the mistake often made by critics of perspectivism is to presuppose that the perspective is stable, that it is pre-given, that it is perfectly defined. In fact, quantifying over perspectives is tremendously difficult – it is the same kind of difficulty encountered when quantifying over events. In our opinion, the mistake is shared by those who claim to be perspectivists, when they come out with the moral rule that one cannot judge another perspective or -- perspective's stand in - culture. They take that rule right out of their ... non-thinking quarters. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what Blake's bird knows.

But more on this tomorrow. It is time to get to work around here.


Paul craddick said...


Like a bird on the wing, I'm swooping in to make a minor point - for now.

You wrote, "Paul seems to think that emphasizing perspectivism in the body of Nietzsche’s work exaggerates a feature of it." If you meant to say that I don't think that "perspectivism" is an important facet of Nietzsche's thought, then I have been misunderstood. Rather, it's the meaning of Nietzsche's perspectivism which to me is very much a live issue.

To wit, I am not convinced that Nietzsche's and your perspectivism are of a piece. This would entail you and the Maverick agreeing about the character of Nietzsche's perspectvism, but differing as to its value and coherence. I, on the other hand, am blowing a bugle from the sidelines.

While there are all kinds of ambiguities in Nietzsche, it seems to me that the key to understanding his perspectivism can be expressed in a felicitious three-word locution which is relevant to both feathered and featherless bipeds alike: will to power. And that needn't entail a rejection of realism. To paraphrase a conclusion from Leo Strauss' singular reading of Beyond Good and Evil, the will to power "in a way vindicates God."

roger said...

Paul, Strauss' is, indeed, a singular reading.
You are right that I am not simply construing Nietzsche's own sense of perspectivism, but defending a version of it that I think is related. So, instead of the will to power, I use a vocabulary about conflicts among perspectives, and within perspectives. And try to locate the "medical" metaphors N. uses to discuss the decadent form of perspectivism.

You are also right that I took you to be trying to de-emphasize perspectivism in Nietzsche. So you aren't. I'm mistaken, then. Which takes the argument out of my post, Mr. Bugler from the sidelines. So, the controversy here, if there is one, is reduced to Nietzsche and realism. While I think N. is no foundationalist, I could see various ways of making him out to be a sort of realist -- as I said, I could see claiming that there are invariant features across perspectives, and out of that one could create a pared down realism. If this is what you mean, then, again, darn it, the teeth are taken out of the argument, because I wouldn't have any complaint. If you mean something else, then we could engage in a philosopher's feud.

Paul craddick said...


We can - and should - feud about your perspectivism. I simply wanted to say that I'm far from convinced that Nietzsche's is yours (and vice versa).

What Nietzsche meant is largely a scholarly/exegetical question, the resolution of which (I'm starting to conclude) isn't likely to occur in the give-and-take of blogospheric mêlée.

roger said...

Paul, "resolution" is an awful big demand. I would go for "concensus." But, in the case of my posts -- I am using certain Nietzschian insights without committing myself to a systematic reading of the Master's texts. I think that is fair use. And, given my own construction of perspectivism, I think I can read back into the texts certain connections that would be latent or obscure to a non-perspectivist -- especially the relation with Leibniz. It seems to me that Nietzsche's sense that truth-talk should be embedded in talk about life is going to puzzle your average logician, for whom truth talk is merely about a certain machinery connecting language and object. And for your foundationalist, it is the relativizing gesture that begins the decline of civilization.

perezoso said...

LI's graceful syntactic pirouettes notwithstanding, I think reading Nietzsche as anything other than realist in Aristotelian, if not Darwinian, sense is a mistake-- or, if you will, romantic empiricism is the proper taxonomic category for Herr FN. Like Aristotle FN has something of the physician (or failed physician) about him does he not. Or that's how I read him: a conservative german doctor who has spent far too much time among his beloved greeks (at least pre-Plato). Marcus Aurelius another Nietzschean precursor, though FN has a bit more disdain for "civitas," duties to the state and so forth.

And forgive me for further cyber-conjectures but some of FN's anti-liberalism and anti-social views do not seem incompatible with more Bakuninian types of perspectives....

Mr. MP ( is that Vallicelli or whatever) is "un pedazo de mierda y un mentiroso"..........

flojo said...

Who but a fraud and closet-cased brownshirt such as Vellicello (Mr. MP is one of Right Reason's cadre of frat-boy seminarian phonies as well) would take the time to try to point out that a Nietzsche proverb is not a tautology. And yet along with his philistine-like analysis he most likely doesn't know what a tautology is either.

roger said...

I really don't think MP is a closet brown shirt. He's a very extroverted conservative.

Perezosa, in my second post I did mention Nietzsche's medical terminology. It is interesting to consider that medicine, in Nietzsche's lifetime, was much more of an art than a science. Germ theory with Koch and Pasteur was emerging about the time of the Gay Science, and there was more rigor in diagnosis than there was in, say, 1830. But it was still mostly bedside manner and traditional remedies. I think Lewis Thomas talks about how his father's work as a doctor, in 1920, and how much of it was sheer mystification. Thus, it is easy to see how attractive the metaphor of diagnosis would be for Nietzsche -- that expert feeling of what is happening under the surface of the skin, that reading of symptoms. But I think the metaphor itself casts some doubt on the realism claim -- the truth about sickness being all in the body's organization, its inheritance, its environment.

My own sense is that Nietzsche develops different lines of reasoning in the course of his work -- and that, to use Bakhtin's phrase, they are meant to operate dialogically, one theme crossing and sometimes contradicting another. There are times that Nietzsche has overtly nominalistic sympathies -- think of the 'deconstruction' of will, and self, and even fundamental elements of the scientific world picture, such as atoms, in the middle period works. And then there are realistic themes -- I think that Nietzsche has a certain paradoxical realism about value.
But, as I say, I was more concerned to defend a way of looking at perspectivism than anything else.

perezoso said...

OK, sir, I admit I was not sure if you meant realism in literary sense or metaphysical sense: obviously you meant in that latter, more scholastic sense. I do not think FN was in any conceivable form a metaphysical realist, as I understand it: his attack on Platonic realism that you quote is evidence of that. So risking reductionism I assert that his core thought is nominalistic and at least vaguely empirical: though human will exists and may, if suitably forceful, reshape the world. So a materialist but not deterministic. Or is he determinist? Perhaps that implies he is a social darwinist or psychologist-- not very appealing to philosopher types--but he's certainly neither metaphysician nor logician. Most of my reading has been later stuff though--Twilight of the Idols, Antichrist, and some of "Genealogy," which seems quite in the Aristotelian, and if you will, cavalier mode. Anyways, I am not sure that "perspectivism" is the right term.

btw that's an O, mate

roger said...

Sorry about the misspelling, Perezoso. I am an inveterate misspeller. Perhaps this is perspectivism in the spelling world?

N. is very much not a darwinist (unfortunately). So I would say, he couldn't be a social darwinist, except that social darwinism, a la Herbert Spenser, misunderstands darwinian evolution from top to bottomus. But even given the misunderstanding of darwinism as a naturalization of bourgeois vanity that was so common in the late 19th century, N. can't really be shoeholed in that niche. N. thought that nature was a continual revolt against entropy. That sounds a little too facile, but hey, this is a blog.
Anyway, the late stuff is great, as far as I am concerned. One thing I have tried to do on this blog is not talk too much about Nietzsche, who was the subject of all too many cogitations when I was a grad student in philosophy. Unless you are good enough -- and I wasn't -- it is best to talk about Nietzsche indirectly, was what I concluded. Otherwise, there is no end to be drawn in.

perezoso said...

Yea, it's the mark of the dilettante (which I admit I am) simply to spout generalizations about Nietzsche (or any philosophe), yet his writing seems to invite that. But for some rightwing yahoo such as Mr. MP to take a single apothegm and subject it to lightweight logical analysis seems more mistaken if not ridiculous. Nietzsche is perhaps more poet than philosophe--tho I do not think the pious Blake is the right comparison but perhaps Ezra Pound or Yeats (sort of a low rent, mick Nietzsche)-- Billy O' Nietzsche