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Posts tagged ‘Nietzsche’

Wabash Chapel Talk: Nasty Snake-Filled Heads and the Workings of Ideology

(A group of student leaders on campus at Wabash organize a weekly talk by a member of the Wabash community.  This is a transcript of the talk I gave this morning.)

As a philosopher, one thing I like to think about is how our ideas about the world affect the way we live in the world.  Today I want to talk about how our ways of thinking about how things are variously affect the ability of different people from different groups to thrive. I want to talk specifically about how we use the concept of “natural” to describe the ways we experience the world.  We tend to describe things as natural, as “just being that way,” as the way things just happen to be with no input or interference from human beings, when we are unaware of the history of how they came to be that way.  That move whereby what was formed for political and social reasons appears as natural is what we call ideology.

As a philosopher, I want to own some responsibility for this, since, as Nietzsche says, “Lack of a historical sense is the original error of all philosophers.”

To correct this error, I want to first back up a little bit and think historically about how the turn to nature has been used as a justification for ways of organizing the world.  Leo Strauss explains the historical turn to a concept of nature as a turn to philosophizing.  As he puts it, as long as everyone seems to do what you do, you do not prompt the question, is that right?  It’s right because it seems like the only way.  It is right because it has always been done that way.  It is right because it is what everyone you know does.  But when you leave your people and you encounter other people who do things differently, you begin to ask whether what your people do is right.  Like when you are a kid like I was in a big family where we always sat down together for dinner every night and you think every family sits down for dinner every night until you go to your friends’ house and they have dinner in front of the television and you go home and ask why you have to eat dinner together and your mother tells you it’s because you don’t have a television.  Not having a television also seemed right because it was what my family did.  Like taking vacations in the mountains instead of at the beach. Read more

Day 18: Grace without Debt

Grace: it’s not about life after death, it’s life after debt.

By some lucky happenstance (grace?) I finished reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel Lila in the same week.  In his book, which is discussed at length in this seminar at Crooked Timber, Graeber attempts to establish that human relationships are not reducible to and do not originate in economies of credit and debt.  Graeber argues, as I have long thought, that Nietzsche’s exercise in taking the calculability of all human relations to its logical conclusions in his Second Essay in On the Genealogy of Morals is not meant to defend but to mock such a schema.  Graeber points out that there is something insulting about considering your relationships with others in terms of debt.  To consider a relationship one of debt suggests a calculability to it, a way of measuring what is owed, a way of holding one another responsible because of the IOU between you.  When I was in junior high and high school, my mother did not like us getting rides from our friends’ parents because she felt like that obligated her to give rides to our friends.  She didn’t like giving rides.  Fine.*  I think about Aristotle talking about how friendship is the opportunity to exhibit virtue to others, to have someone to be generous to.  But still, human relationships are always in excess of debt, irreducible to what is owed, made obscene by the sense that it is merely the keeping of obligations and demanding that they be met (this is likely why I’m not a Kantian).**  It is this element of human relationships that Graeber calls communistic. Read more