His name is Brian Leiter. He’s a law professor at the University of Chicago. And he’s a big fan of Nietzsche. He writes a blog about it.
Odd that we had never run across the man before – we have our own interest in the subject – because clearly he’s been at it a while.
Somewhat recently we socialized with one of our friends from our undergraduate years who was also a philosophy major but never became a member of the legal profession, as we did. We were finally able to complain, to someone who would actually understand from outside, about the sheer horror of a real world practical profession in the grip of the Nietzschean insanity, inflicting its atrocities on the guilty and innocent alike, and preposterously dubbing itself a “justice” system. He commiserated.
Where to begin? Maybe with Xenophanes, who around the 6th century BC, and not long before Parmenides (whom we have discussed before) may have been the first western “thinker” to lend intellectual weight to what could be termed a “monotheistic” view of things. It’s an imprecise use of the term, though, because neither Xenophanes nor Parmenides was explicitly advocating a “one god” hypothesis in the religious sense. They were just thinking things through.
Reasoning, in other words.
So for Parmenides a thing cannot both “be” and “not be”; and since a thing changing necessarily entails going from one thing (that it presently is) to another, different thing (that it presently is not ) you’d have both being and non-being in the same thing at the same time, which is logically impossible. Or so the argument goes. And then it follows that whatever is truly real must be one thing only, entire and complete. And it must be unchanging and un-moving. Therefore eternal.
And it also follows from there that everything we see and experience changes and moves and must therefore not be real and true.
Of course this was all rejected by Heraclitus at the time, but western thought in turn rejected him and came to embrace a modified version of the Xenophanes/Parmenides outlook, which did not reject the empirically observed reality entirely but rather accorded it a lesser reality and lesser importance than the unobserved reality that was “known”, if at all, only through reason, which was regarded as a faculty higher than mere sensory perception.
And what the west also came to understand about all this was that this view of things – that is, an unobserved, unchanging and unitary reality underlying the sensory, multiplicitous and changing perceived reality – was not the same as religious ideas of one god, heaven and hell. But it was consonant with those religious ideas, and it was arrived at independently by respected thinkers who were not religiously inclined. Which is to say that there were at least two independent sources of intellectual support for monotheistic belief. And this in turn lends weight to such beliefs. And they became, as they remain today, reasonable to believe.
But professor Leiter and the followers of Nietzsche base their view of things on the opposite proposition – that traditional monotheistic belief is unreasonable and has been superseded in the age of “science”. They do not deny that there is an ostensibly valid process of reasoning that leads to monotheistic belief; rather, they deny that the process of reasoning itself is anything more than rationalization of a position taken out of psychological or emotional need or desire.
This is exactly the position of the legal profession and justice system in the United States circa 2019. It is as untenable and destructive for that system as it was for Nietzsche himself who, as we noted before, went literally mad and became an invalid. As it probably also is for Professor Leiter, who may have had a weird episode or two of his own.
The process of reasoning is mysterious and, it is true, a source of constant frustration for Nietzsche and his followers. Not least because it is the most inescapable fact of our existence, no matter how mysterious it may otherwise be. Nietzsche therefore affirmed reason even as he denied it because he had to use reason to attack reason, because reason is the only way we ever understand anything. Nietzsche’s entire mode of “thought” is immediately self-refuting. It’s idiotic.
The answer to that from the Nietzscheans, of course, is to deny that self-refutation matters. But this is obviously pathological. And then that objection is answered with psychological projection: the Nietzschean makes the “pathological” accusation preemptively, echoing Hume’s declaration that reason is just the servant of the passions. Thus, the argument goes, the well reasoned rejection of Nietzsche is just as pathological as the poorly reasoned “thought” of Nietzsche. According to the Nieszscheans, anyway.
Nietzsche’s philosophy has an attraction for an immature mind that seeks primarily to outwit an interlocutor, not to attain learning or insight or wisdom through our exchanges with others but rather to brow-beat them into what is seen as a “losing” position. So in addition to being idiotic it’s childish, too.
All of us philosophy majors encountered Nietzscheans along the way. A few of us actually became Nietzscheans (not us personally, of course) but usually even those few who experienced an attraction to Nietzsche abandoned the whole thing after a while. The solution with respect to anyone who didn’t would be to stop interacting with them. Interaction would be obviously pointless if not eventually destructive for all involved.
Professor Leiter loves the “trolley problem“, because it supposedly undermines the basic traditional moral proscription against killing human beings. You know, the trolley is rolling down the track and it’s going to kill five people but if you switch the track the five people will be saved but the trolley will still kill one person and that person is Beethoven, who has yet to write the 9th symphony.
But this supposed conundrum is both impossible and unintelligible for the radical empiricist a Nietzschean claims to be: it can’t possibly be known that Beethoven will write the 9th symphony if he hasn’t written it yet.
This is why we say it’s tedious dealing with these arguments. They are so poorly reasoned and so easily exposed, always exactly the same way: pointing out the glaring contradictions. We could have patience with youngsters sorting their way through their own thinking about things, who pass through a Nietzsche phase. But we can’t long abide such nonsense in adults, who we would ordinarily just treat dismissively. Or not at all.
But we’re not allowed to ignore a Nietzschean justice system. It comes after you meaning to jam Nietzsche’s pathology and corruption of thought down your throat. It has force at its disposal. It’s a toddler with a loaded revolver. It’s a nightmare. It would be a sizable accomplishment to bring even a scintilla of sanity to it.