Nietzschean perspectivism again, with a skeptical twist

by Dave Maier

An earlier post of mine in this space divides readings of Nietzsche's views on truth and knowledge into three kinds: a) relativist rejection of truth and knowledge; b) empiricist/naturalist restriction of Nietzsche's criticism to specifically transcendent truth and knowledge of same, leaving empirical knowledge untouched, if tentative; and c) my preferred option, a more forceful criticism of the Platonic picture of metaphysical objectivity, applicable as well to the Cartesian aspects of modernity, including those still present in naturalism.

I recently read about a most interesting variation on the naturalist view – a turn to ancient skepticism. Jessica Berry is the author of Nietzsche and the Ancient Skeptical Tradition, which I have not read, as it costs sixty-five dollars. However, Richard Marshall of 3AM magazine has kindly interviewed her for us, and she gives there an admirably clear and forceful summary of her main points. If I misrepresent her views here due to my ignorance, then I humbly apologize in advance.

Berry bookAccording to Berry, the “central preoccupation” of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the problem of nihilism. Values Nietzsche calls “ascetic” are self-denying and will result in nihilism if unchecked. The particular problem with ascetic value systems is the pernicious interaction of a) their self-denying content, and b) the view that “the values to which they subscribe are universal, necessary, categorical.” I emphasize the interaction of these elements, of which more below, because at first it might seem that the problem with the latter aspect of these systems is simply that if they are thought to be universal and necessary, then we can never come up with any alternative to them. And if it's their way or the highway, then nihilism is inevitable: their way squeezes all life from our valuations, eventually resulting in nihilism; and the “highway” is pure nihilism itself. This is what gives Nietzsche's writing its characteristic urgency: the death of God is like an anchor thrown overboard with a rapidly uncoiling rope tied to our feet. If we don't remove it, it will drag us under; but we are afraid to remove it, as we have been conditioned to believe that to do so is to sin against our very essence as rational creatures.

The DudeOr something like that. Sorry, that was me; let's get back to Berry. Like most Nietzsche scholars, Berry rejects the popular idea that Nietzsche's remarks on “perspectivism” mark him as a radical relativist. She acknowledges Nietzsche's documented admiration of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, but denies that it means that Nietzsche “endorsed an ontological doctrine of radical flux.” First, that doctrine seems to imply that “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.” And that, she rightly says, is nuts: nuts on its own terms, and nuts as a reading of Nietzsche, who seems very concerned indeed that we believe this and not that – which makes no sense if beliefs are necessarily distorted and truth a fantasy. Indeed, on this view “there is exactly one rejoinder to any claim whatsoever: we just imagine Jeff Bridges as The Dude muttering 'Well, that's just, like, your opinion, man'” [see original for links]. Although as I recall it was not the Dude, who here seems simply to be disputing another's claim in the ordinary way, but instead actual self-professed nihilists, who “believe in nossink.” But I digress.

Instead, says Berry, we should view Nietzsche's views on knowledge and truth, as the interviewer puts it, “through the lens of Pyrrho”: “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 … 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.” Berry ties this to Nietzsche's concern with psychological and indeed biological health, which is entirely appropriate, especially on a naturalist reading.

Pyrrhonian skepticism, while undergoing a bit of a revival, still isn't an obviously attractive option for contemporary philosophers. Why should we see it as that much of an improvement over nihilistic or relativistic readings of Nietzsche? (One forceful advocate of a contemporary Pyrrhonism is Robert Fogelin, who interestingly enough reads Wittgenstein through a Pyrrhonian lens in much the same way as Berry reads Nietzsche; but that's another post).

Berry's basic answer is that the reason “skepticism” has gotten a bad rap (in philosophy anyway) is that most views which have gone by this name over the years have been dogmatic or even “very metaphysically ambitious,” which is totally at odds with skepticism's actual virtues. Properly speaking, skeptics simply reject dogmatic hubris of any kind, instead scrupulously suspending their judgment at all times:

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.

This attitude strikes Berry as remarkably similar to Nietzsche's own practice and aims; the former in that it is performative rather than scholarly/dogmatic, and the latter in its concern with health. (Similarly, Fogelin identifies Wittgenstein's anti-dogmatic “quietism” with the Pyrrhonist image of purgatives which expel themselves along with the bad humors we ingest them in order to purge, leaving us – to beat the metaphor to death – with an empty stomach and no desire to fill it with anything else ever again; yet it never lasts, as the need to eat is an ineliminable part of our human condition.)

As I've said, this works pretty well as a reading, especially the part about health. But with respect to skepticism and knowledge, I would take another tack. (Here's another relevant post on skepticism you may remember.) Pyrrhonian skepticism arose in response to a particular irritant: the Platonic tradition and its conception of transcendent reality. On that view, philosophy and reason (logos) are essentially devoted to piercing the veil (or escaping the cave) and grasping reality directly. Nothing else counts as knowing, not even that which is directly evident to our senses, like that there is a cup on the table in plain sight. (Or that there is an “external” world at all – the traditional target of the modern skeptic – an idea which the Pyrrhonists would certainly have suspended judgment on should it have been presented as a philosophical dogma, but which they were typically not otherwise concened to discuss.)

The most workable version of the Pyrrhonist position (as Fogelin argues, following Michael Frede) is one which restricts its criticism to dogmatic belief, or as they tended to put it, “insofar as it is a matter of reason” (epechomen hoson epi to logo). They specifically exempted belief in the sense of “what is evident”, or that which seems right to one in ordinary practice. They were willing to let “knowledge” go, qua dogma, but that doesn't mean they didn't believe things in any sense. This is why Hume's famous characterization of the Pyrrhonist, as the guy who distrusts his senses so much that he needs a disciple to keep him from walking off of cliffs, is not to the point. It's perfectly consistent for the skeptic to deny that the senses give us knowledge, and yet still react appropriately when it is evident that a yawning chasm is directly in front of him.

This fits nicely with Berry's apt characterization of the skeptic as an investigator (as opposed to the dogmatist, who has already made up his mind) – although of course one of the selling points of Pyrrhonism is also supposed to be the peace of mind (ataraxia) one obtains after giving up one's futile investigations into essentially undecidable matters. It also makes a good deal of sense on its own terms. However, our contemporary situation, post Descartes, is importantly different from that of ancient Greece.

Specifically, the Platonic target has shifted. Also note: it's still there. In its virtuous refusal to engage in dialectical combat (i.e. over and above the essentially negative “tropes of skepticism”), it fails to deal Platonism any significant blows. It's basically counting on the attractions of ataraxia as a welcome cure for endless dialectical headaches to starve Platonism of its followers, leaving it to wither and die. But it hasn't.

In fact, as Nietzsche notes with alarm, Platonism regrouped and even picked up steam when it appropriated the Judaic tradition and morphed into Christianity – which then turned around and condemned the (Platonic) “philosophers” as unsaved heathens, almost as if covering its tracks. Nietzsche's hatred of Christianity can often be helpfully read as directed at its Platonistic aspects, or indeed, in some contexts, at Platonism generally. In other words, his concerns are just as much metaphysical as epistemological, and we should be ready to see this even, or perhaps especially, in his attitude toward truth and knowledge.

If you're a contemporary naturalist, as some Nietzsche scholars are (most notably Brian Leiter, who I believe was at UT Austin when Berry got her degree there), you will naturally (heh heh) feel like assimilating the ancient skeptical rejection of Platonism with the modern/Enlightenment rejection of supernaturalism, where the analogous form of virtuous skepticism is scientific empiricism – especially in the context of Nietzsche's passionate denunciation of Christianity. It's no surprise, then, to find Leiter's Nietzsche coming out somewhere near Quine, whose embrace of empirical science as “our best guess as to how things really are” Leiter endorses on Nietzsche's behalf as “the true or correct” perspective.

Berry doesn't say anything about Quinean naturalism in the interview, but when she discusses “perspectivism” in Nietzsche, she does give it a characteristically epistemic spin. On her reading, the problem Nietzsche has with “objectivity” is as an epistemic ideal for us: we cannot eliminate our subjectivity (as the ascetic would have us do) to view the world from nowhere; so we should stop trying. This is quite right, and it clearly ties Nietzsche to the ancients in just the way Berry says. But there's more to it than that.

As I see it, the modern manifestation of Platonism lies not in “supernaturalism” but instead in Cartesianism, and in particular, the metaphysical dualism of subject and object, of which mind/body substance dualism is simply the most superficial form. If all we get out of a turn to skepticism is the idea that things like old-school metaphysics (and theology) are unacceptably “transcendent” and “dogmatic”, while scientific inquiry is okay because it's empirical and fallibilistic, then that's no help. It leaves the ancient enemy unslain; in fact in some senses (the Cartesian ones) it IS the ancient enemy, covering its tracks in acting toward its Cartesian progenitors as Augustine did toward the Platonists of his day.

Instead, we can use the skeptics to keep our focus on the rejection of dogmatism in all its forms, while preserving a role for ordinary (non-dogmatic) belief – which we may then reidentify (when true) with “knowledge,” leaving us just where we want to be. But we shouldn't think of the distinction between ordinary and dogmatic belief as one between distinct realms of being (the ordinary empirical world and a transcendent world supposedly accessible only to dogmatic metaphysics), such that in recognizing the former as the proper realm of human inquiry (which we thus identify with empirical science), we have safely and permanently deposited the latter into the dustbin of history.

Instead, that distinction concerns an attitude toward the nature of our inquiry into whatever we're talking about, be it cups on the table, protons, propositions, moral or aesthetic values. Is its result an accurate (or not) mapping of an “independent” reality, or will its (successful) result depend just as much on our own “subjective” contribution? In Essay III of the Genealogy of Morality (where he points as well to the fifth book of his earlier work The Gay Science, where he makes similar points), Nietzsche himself identifies the scientific “will to truth” with dogmatism, undergirded by the same “metaphysical faith” (i.e. Platonism) responsible for the ascetic ideal. Thus, “a depreciation of the ascetic ideal unavoidably involves a depreciation of science: one must always keep one's eyes and ears open to that fact!” Naturally postmodern critics of science as “logocentrism” or whatever jump on this passage in order to enlist Nietzsche to their cause; but we should see it instead as warning us not to settle for easy answers.

The same dogmatic metaphysics underlies both our target (ascetic valuation) and its apparently victorious opponent (science). The problem is not simply that the new boss is the same as the old, suggesting that we need to get rid of it as well; instead, it's that we must dig deeper to root out the real target – carefully, because empirical science is something we want to keep around, not simply for its own sake, but also because it has an important role to play in our continuing investigation – as Nietzsche affirms in his discussion of psychological and biological health. However, we can't let the its value blind us to the fact that science itself manifests the same disease. This ties in (finally) with what I mentioned before: the interaction between the self-denying nature of ascetic valuation and its dogmatic insistence on its own necessity. It's not just that the latter forces us to choose between ascetic value and no value at all; it's that dogmatism and necessity are a vital component of the ascetic scheme itself.

That science is “skeptical” in the sense it is must not blind us to its dogmatism. Its rigorously objective empirical and experimental method, along with its mathematization, are ironically both the source of its fantastic success and the manifestation of its underlying Platonism, now in the modern Cartesian form of essentially subject-denying inquiry into the “objective” (albeit now empirical) world. The modesty of its epistemic fallibilism, supposedly a cure for dogmatism, in fact reinforces the Platonistic realism of its metaphysics. And yet it is an essential part of our being, like the will to truth itself. Ultimately, and paradoxically, no version of “skepticism” can perform its own characteristic task.