Philosophy Comprehensive

Bill Honsberger

Philosophy Comprehensive

(a) Explain and discuss in what ways Kant’s ethical theory represented a dramatic departure from traditional philosophical thought about ethics? In particular, how did Kant come to reject any form of “consequentialism” (including “happiness” as an end) in ethics and what did he offer in its place? (b) Explain and discuss what you take to be the general lines of Nietzsche’s response to Kant’s reorientation of ethical theory.

The understanding of ethics had taken many diverse paths prior to Kant. Outside of different variations of “divine command” theorists like Augustine and other Christian writers, individuals like Aristotle had dominated the field. In Aristotle’s understanding of ethics, the theory of virtue is explored and he comes up with many arguments which we will later see Kant react to. For Aristotle, as seen in the Nichomachean Ethics, virtue in essence is known by watching what a virtuous person does. In his mind, virtues are first taught in early age at home or at school. These virtues are learned by rote and discipline, and only later in life are they intellectually thought through. In the adult process of ruminating over ethical virtues, Aristotle does not offer a distinct methodology for making ethical decisions. A formula or methodology would be too limiting for the virtuous person, although I think he does offer some sense of a formula which we will look at later. Necessary to this process for Aristotle is the owning or having of various comforts and wealth, which he saw the lack of as somehow limiting the virtuous life. Virtue is that which actions can be measured by the virtuous person. Some virtues are intellectual and some are moral. Being rational is a type of intellectual virtue. The intellectually virtuous person can reason through a moral decision and operate with both the inherent goodness of an activity, (as seen by the other virtuous people!) and see the consequences of an act, which results in happiness for the individual. Aristotle does not have a list of all the possibly virtuous or non-virtuous acts. This would take too long and could never possibly ascribe or proscribe all potential actions in the world. The virtuous person however will look to the mean of an activity, between the two extremes of excess and want. Much like a plumber sizes up the gap between two pipe openings, the virtuous person watches for the extreme in her options and carefully judges between them, arriving at a safe ground up which to operate. To eat too little food is a different kind of the same mistake as eating too much food. (Goldilocks as Virtue theorist!) For Aristotle then, Virtue is found to be the highest good, over all others. To properly qualify for that role, it has to be the object for which all lesser goods are heading for. Happiness, inherently seen as normal and acceptable by Aristotle for human beings, cannot be the highest good, because it is subservient to other goods, namely thoughtful contemplation. Much like his mentor Plato, Aristotle saw the philosopher’s life as the happiest leading to the most virtuous of all possible lives. In this sense, he saw thoughtful contemplation to be a divine life. The god/gods spent their time in this activity, and therefore the highest good for human beings is being in imitation of the divine.

In some ways Aristotle’s virtues seem problematic. He doesn’t really give you a reason for the skeptical outsider to consider the virtues, in particular that the ancient Greeks valued, and come to think that they are the correct ones. In this sense they seem very arbitrary. Some activities are just “deemed” virtuous and others non-, but this is up to the virtuous person. In this little vicious circle, virtue is approved by the practitioners thereof, but no outside or transcendent element can confer approval upon them. However, there are some things which Aristotle knows to be wrong, such as adultery, murder, etc, but his arguments for this are rather weak. Either the name itself tells you that it is wrong, which is simply incredulous or he otherwise argues that it is bad for the fabric of society to do these activities.

Other versions of ethics have emphasized or overemphasized the role of consequences of choices. Much like the later Utilitarians’ or pragmatists, people like Hume had argued that ethical choices are arbitrarily deemed good or bad solely dependent on their impact on a given individual or society, depending on the philosopher. A consequence which enhances an individual’s happiness or pleasure is therefore approved, likewise with a culture. Any disputes between an individuals particular desire for a particular happiness and the larger societies desires, are to be worked out by the king or legislator, etc. The only principle involved here would be that of extending maximal happiness to more people.

Kant responds to both of these types of ethical thought with a broad renunciation of both perspectives. While ethical principles cannot be known in the same sense of scientific certainty that perhaps Aristotle nee Socrates was searching for, they could be intuited by a distinct formulation. Unlike Aristotle, Kant devises a very precise methodology for making ethical distinctions. Known as the Categorical Imperative, Kant states that you should only act if you can will that your maxim can be universally instantiated. Presented in at least four different ways, Kant reasons that morals, such as the virtue theory presented by Aristotle, lacks any sense or foundation to give you an “ought” from the “is”. Only rationality can produce necessity, and therefore Kant’s process can provide the necessity missing in other theories. This rationality produced in the CI provides for a universal moral theory, again something missing for the most part in Aristotle’s thought. One very important way of seeing this work out is how Kant relates to people. One version of the CI says that you must always see people as an end and never as a means to any particular end. Someone like Hume would argue that all we have is “is”, and since that is all we have, there is no way to ascertain what is right or wrong in any empirical fashion. All we have therefore is the sense datum. Kant argues (perhaps a foreshadowing of Levinas here???) that we can arrive at the CI in its various forms through an intuitive synthetic a-priori method. Our moral sensibilities, coming from God (at least as seen through the Konigsbergian prism) come to us and we know that we should treat people as ends in themselves and not as means. This is then justified or given rational support by using the CI as a buttress. If I can use you as a means to my happiness, and this to the denigration of the other individual, then I cannot universalize this maxim, because someone else could deem me as the means to their happiness, which may then lead to my denigration. Ethical theories which only look at consequences are by definition blind and/or open to all means by which one can attain the desired consequences. In effect the CI demands that an individual act upon the ultimate maxim of duty. You must act in certain ways. (Alles in ordnung hier Ja?)

There are many responses to Kant’s theory here available, but Nietzsche’s is most interesting of all. Kant’s methodology of knowledge had safely separated reason from faith, “protecting” faith from the ravages of the mad Scotsman. But in so doing he had separated also the metaphysical grounding for his ethics that he so desired. We can’t “know” anything about God in the same way that we know things about the world, because God is not in the phenomenal world but rather in the noumenal. However somehow we can know how God would have us live, and that with rational and necessary unction! Upon this weakness Nietzsche pounces. In the Gay Science and Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche formulates this basic response to western Christianity in general and I think Kant in specific.
God is dead.

We (European Christians) have killed him.

There is no good and evil.

Just as Kant had seen the weakness in Aristotle’s virtue theory and all versions of consequentialism, in that they had no transcendental foundation, so Nietzsche notes that without the transcendental foundation supplied by traditional views of God’s existence and demands, etc, that Kant is waving his hands vigorously, but has no metaphysical foundation for his own system. If there is no transcendental element to morality, and more importantly for Nietzsche, if all we see is all there is, then old fashioned Konigsbergian virtues, which are ultimately based upon Judeo-Christian values or “slave” morality, are banished from the world of knowledge or what be rationally measured and certain as well. In the moral arena, God is out of a job. Kant had relegated him, “wiped clean the sky” as Nietzsche puts it, to moral janitor of the universe, but Nietzsche pulls the mop and broom away and consistently applies Kant to Kant’s own epistemology and metaphysic. There can be no ought – only a will to power (to be discussed later in this exam) The morality of the slaves (Jews) is exactly what you would expect slaves to say, “Be nice to us and to each other”. The morality of Kant is exactly what you would expect a proper Konigsbergian to say “Obey the rules for the good of the community and the individual” You can’t have it both ways for Nietzsche, if there is no god or transcendent action which can be known in the Kantian sense, then you can have no absolute ethical commands from on high either. A further dig comes when Nietzsche points out that if Kant is to be consistent within his own epistemological framework, that all we know is the phenomena and that we cannot know the noumena, then moral certainty (as well as other certainties in philosophical playgrounds) are mere perspectives or representations in Schopenhauer’s system. Since morality is not inherent within the realm of what can be known, but only our interpretation of morality, then all attempts at transcendental moralities based upon things like synthetic a-priori statements are more hand wavings.

(a) Drawing upon some of the more important and/or representative thinkers preceding Nietzsche, explain and discuss the emergence of the concept of “will” in modern philosophy. (b) Explain and discuss in what ways Nietzsche’s idea of “the will to power” represents an outcome or culmination of this line of reflection. Indicate what novel elements Nietzsche adds to the reflections about the will that precede his own.

“Life finds a way” Dr. Malcolm – Jurassic Park

In most ancient and medieval philosophers, the concept of the will was that it was subservient to the reasoning faculties of the human being. With both Plato and Aristotle, the will was sometimes seen as the animalistic urging in human beings, which must be mastered upon reflection and the rational moral person was one who placed reason above the will. After Kant, the will comes to a different understanding. For someone like Fichte, the will is sometimes used as a synonym for the Absolute Self in its desiring to create, but for him the will is subservient to the ultimate matching of the monistic reality with the Ethical identity, resulting in Freedom. For Hegel, the will is something that the Weltgeist uses to further its reasoning action throughout the world. In this sense all of these thinkers have a more traditional understanding of the will as simple volition, although sometimes they clouded the issue in the way they talked about it, especially the German Idealists. But with Arthur Schopenhauer, there is a tremendous restructuring of the understanding of the role of the will. For him, the will is over reason, in that reason is only one instantiation of the universal will. Schopenhauer believes that he has correctly identified the unknown “thing in itself” which Kant says we cannot know. Not that he knows it in it’s entirely but Schopenhauer identifies the thing in itself as the will. There are only two things out there, one is the will and the other is the representations of the will as seen in the phenomena of the world. Each little bit of the space/time universe is itself an instantiation of the primordial, unthinking, uncaring will. The phenomena itself has higher and lower categories or “ideas” which are more or less complex varieties of the will in action. More than that, this will is a specific will, in that it is a will to life. This will to life can be seen in every possible observance of the phenomena. Again for Schopenhauer, this does not mean that the phenomena exhaust the reality of the will, it merely represents a variety of the will to life, and so this is only a modification of Kant as opposed to a denial. This will to life as observed in the phenomena is in constant process, in a “feeding upon itself” type of frenzy. Each form of life from higher to lower attempts to survive and therefore must feed off other forms of itself in order to do so. Sadly for Schopenhauer though, the will to live is frustrated by the fact that all the varieties, all instantiations of the will to live, are feeding upon each other and death, not life, is the ultimate end for all the varieties. Rather than seeing an increase or progress in the process, Schopenhauer only sees a desolate repeating cycle of the will to live in its constant frustration of its primal desire. This leads to utter pessimism and despair. Gaining an understanding of the will then does not uplift one, as commonly thought by many philosophers that a “true” understanding of the way things really are would, rather it depresses one to see the utter meaningless of this existence with all its brutality and suffering. Because the will to live is an unthinking, uncaring state of being, it makes no judgments or preferences about which actions are right, or have meaning. One can only have a sense of wonder at the different varieties as they strive to exist, to live, only to fail over and over again. Whether Schopenhauer was depressed by this theory or the fact that he was already a depressed individual before he formulated his line of reasoning here is an interesting question. But it is clearly prima facie one of the more depressing systems of thought ever written. Schopenhauer despised Hegel (I guess we do have some common ground here after all! J )because he saw in Hegel, and also in Schelling and Fichte and others an attempt to smuggle the divine into being, into the thing in itself, and that all the talk of the “Absolute” or the “Weltgeist” was attempts to smuggle the noumena back into the phenomena. For him Arthur saw the will not as individual wills to life, but literally the thing in itself was one will to life and revealed or represented in many diverse ways. (In the next question I will bring in the issue of how important eastern religions were to Schopenhauer).

Nietzsche is going to borrow some of Schopenhauer’s’ thought process here but radically depart from it in his famous formulation of the will to power. As seen before Nietzsche had no use for a noumenal thing in itself, which was unknown and unknowable. Much like Aristotle rejected Plato’s world of Ideals/Forms and instead stuck with the world as we perceive it, Nietzsche rejects the formal Kantian structure and argues that all we can know is what we perceive, but unlike Kant, we can’t really even know it in that it is all perception or representation. There is no thing it itself, and we have is our perceptions of this world. This is not necessarily to deny the world, but he does argue that we can’t talk about knowledge in even scientific arenas, so Kant’s system breaks down here for him. Since then we do know have a universal being or thing in itself permeating the world in the Schopenhauer Ian sense, all that we really have is our perceptions of the will as it appears to us in brute form – the will to power. Believing that “superstitious” Schopenhauer was trying to hide from the real response necessary to the brutal facts as is the world in our perceptions, Nietzsche sees that all our motivations, choices, interests, actions, etc, etc are instantiations of our own will to power, This means that we as little bits of the universe, whether atoms or human beings are driven inexorably towards the desire to master all that we perceive and encounter. There is an active question as to whether one should read Nietzsche ontologically at this point. At some points he refers to all this as merely a theory, another interpretation in the big soup of other interpretations. But at other points he waxes quite essentially or ontologically. It is quite unclear what the preferred reading is. Either way, the philosopher’s desire for knowledge it naught but the desire to “conquer” some understanding and harness it for our use. For him, the will to live only expresses part of the picture seen in the phenomena. The real reason for the conflicts that so depressed Schopenhauer, was that the will of each piece of the picture was to subdue all that it encountered in such a way as to consume and own it. Even pain and pleasure as the Utilitarian schools expressed it, were mere temporary way stations on the way to the will to power. In the will to power and ones response to it, there is another major difference between the two men, and obviously all the previous understandings of the will as well. For Nietzsche, the will to power was something that was to be joyously embraced, not despised. Silly Schopenhauer could never see his way past his own weakness and depression, but the better response to the phenomena of the universal struggle was not to despair, but to embrace what we are and what we do and seek to do it better. To be stronger, one must accept and even revel in the constant occurrence of suffering and conquest. To embrace the world as is, is the key to life. This desire to dominate, to conquest, as seen in the admired Bonaparte, is not a terrible thing, but rather the will to power in one of its more powerful and expressive instantiations. The will to power then, is all there is, and the strong man embraces it, revels or dances with the knowledge. In this conception the overman or ubermensch is the one who rightly sees the will to power in all its forms, transvalues all other values and imposes its own will to power upon the rest. This superman then is a goal for all varieties of the will to power. This cross between Caesar and Christ, will take what is evil and make it good, because both good and evil are mere perceptions of the will to power instantiated in certain ways. Because there is hope in this sense of Tran valuation of values, Nietzsche is optimistic about the heroic struggle seen in the will to power as instantiated in the world. Where Schopenhauer emphasized the Greek tragedies that pointed to the utter despair and hopelessness in this life, Nietzsche saw in both the Greek tragedies and the comedies a more complete and therefore honest way of seeing the will to power. Both the Dionysian and Apollonarian impulses are present and must be celebrated. Both creative and destructive aspects are just individual wills’ to power and must be affirmed. The strong man, in the face of all this apparent suffering, does not cheat and run to God (at least in the Christian sense) and in this Nietzsche is in agreement with Schopenhauer. But neither does he despair, but he takes up the challenge as is, “girds up his loins” as it were, and affirms all that he sees and perceives, the will to power in all its glory and despair.

Explain and discuss as specifically as possible what conception(s) of non-European (or more specifically, Asian) thought emerged in the course of the 19th century. Indicate to what degree and in what respects you regard Nietzsche as being influenced by or appropriating these views. (If you want, feel free, as well, to suggest what limitation the views prevailing at the time of Nietzsche may have imposed upon his understanding of Asian thought- as opposed, for instance, to what is available to us today.)

“Judaism and Christianity brought nothing to us and much poorer in its understanding, then what the whole of India had already given to the world.” Arthur Schopenhauer. (possible slight misquote here but the sentiment is correctly given!)

It is quite arguable as to which culture was conquered by the British Colonial occupation of India in the mid 1700’s. In a day when allegedly Christian England has less than 2% of its population going to any kind of church, and when there are innumerable temples and gurus calling England and much of Europe “home”, then it is clear that the influence of the occupation went at least both ways. By the late 1700s many Hindu and Buddhist documents had made their way into Europe and been translated in English, French and German. When one reads the Romantics and their American counterparts the Transcendentalists, and then compares their writings to the Bhagavad-Gita for example, one is struck by the parallel themes. It is not surprising to know then that Goethe and Emerson and others in fact were reading the Gita, and were inspired by it. Many scholars in Germany were finding new avenues in research in the opening field and were off to study Sanskrit and Pali, in order to read the new documents in their original forms. Schopenhauer was first introduced to eastern philosophy through Professor Maier (sp?) who gave him a German translation of a Persian copy of the Puranas. Schopenhauer was transfixed by what he had read, and saw many parallels to his own understanding of philosophy, especially in the Idealist tradition from Plato to Kant. Schopenhauer talked about the veil of Maya (the dream or illusion) that the eastern thinkers referred to, as that which kept the thing in itself, the ultimate being or noumena, from being known. The monism of Fichte possibly reflects some of the eastern influence as well. Although Spinoza most likely built off what he saw in the Kabbalah tradition of Judaism (Kabbalah also perhaps being influenced by eastern thought), it is likely that many of the German Idealists were influenced by the new stream of material being introduced into the University setting. To read some portions of Schiller is to read the Gita; not that he plagiarized but rather said what the Gurus had said many years before, but now with a German accent! Nietzsche’s own introduction to eastern thought came while he was still in high school in Pforte, and in his German class at the university he read both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Schopenhauer read from the Gita every night and sings the praise of it and the rest of the Upanishads in numerous passages in his writings. He sees the world-denying aspects of much of eastern thought as a valid response to the suffering and despair that the observance of the will to life was giving him. Maya or the dream allowed him to see the will to life as masking the actual primordial being (Brahman for the Hindu philosopher) and causing us to not see the actual thing, only its mirroring or representation.

Nietzsche will both embrace and reject what he finds coming from his own studies in oriental thought. He has several common areas which in their own way show interaction, both positive and negative with eastern philosophers. For example Nietzsche saw in Buddhism a form of nihilism. There are two types of Nihilism for him. First is the recognition that what we thought gave meaning in fact offers us none. This is passive Buddhism. The second is to destroy that we formerly thought we got meaning form. This is active Buddhism. The first is a necessary step towards the second, which for him was critical in overcoming. In this sense Nietzsche saw pre-Buddha India in the same decadent stage as his own western Europe. Both were rejecting the traditional god/gods and morays and were in danger of nihilism. The Buddha altered the course of thought and proceeded on a path which gave a different meaning to the life situation. But there was no Buddha present in 19th century Europe and therefore Nietzsche longed for one who could play that role. Nihilism in that sense was a purely negative sense, and Nietzsche now fears that European Nihilism will set in such a way as to lend itself to apathy and world denying, a point which he drastically wanted to avoid. Although sympathetic to these certain aspects of Buddhism as he saw it, one needed to go beyond passive to active nihilism to create the strong man, and he worried that Buddhism could not offer that, at least in the Theravada school known in Europe at the time. Theravada or “Way of the Elders” by its adherents (and the pejorative “lesser vehicle” by its opponents!) emphasized a rejection of the world for Nirvana, which is a state of non-suffering. Its teachings stressed a constant mental rejection of what is perceived, as non-real or void, as masked by Maya. One never has a “true” picture of “reality” for reality is itself part of this illusion. Our perceptions then are seen as a dream perhaps, or Lila the dance (especially for Schopenhauer!) Since the world of phenomena is not real in the ordinary sense of understanding that word, then one must perceive the true emptiness or void ness of the phenomena. For Nietzsche, this loss of meaning in the world was parallel to his own thought, but he arrived there from a different stream of thought. The lack of meaning for him was caused by the death of God, or the absolute, or the transcendent, both in Philosophy and in Religion, in particular Judeo-Christianity. Without any transcendent factor, there is only perception, and these perceptions have no reality in themselves.

Another way that the parallel comes is that of the Ubermensch or Superman, as compared to the Bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism. It is not quite clear if Nietzsche had access to Mahayana texts, as he doesn’t explicitly quote them as he does often the Theravada ones, but many Mahayanists see the parallel quite clearly. Both the Bodhisattva and the Ubermensch rise above the herd of human ignorance, and yet both do not abandon the herd but rather try and teach the herd the correct understanding of reality. For Nietzsche this can be seen in the madman of Thus Spake Zarathustra, who comes down from the mountain into the valley to teach that God is dead. The Bodhisattva uses skillful means (upaya) to teach the unenlightened the proper dharma or truth. So both of these notions include the possibility of progression, something not seen in Schopenhauer’s version.

Another point of contact is the similarity between Nietzsche’s conception of good and evil with that of ancient Daoism. The Dao or way, as seen in the Yin/Yang illustration, shows that our perceptions of dualities are temporary and therefore wrong. The black fish becomes the white fish and vice versa. Good becomes evil and evil becomes good, and any attempt to fix them down, to take becoming and make it being, or to tame Dionysius, was mistaken. Nietzsche often speaks of the need to take our “evil” and pronounce it good. All moralities are without foundation for they all lack any transcendental support and therefore the Overman creates his own values for himself, as an instantiation of will to power, which is all he really is.

Perhaps the most important parallel is what Nietzsche calls the “eternal recurrence”. By this he means that in order to conserve energy, the universe is engaged in a repeating process. Each little bit of the universe, each action, each instantiation of the will to power is in repetitive mode. The strong man must will it to be so. He must be like a child, in that he offers a “Yes” saying to what he perceives now and the eternal recurrence and ones acceptance of the possibility, is the strongest affirmation of what is now. To want everything repeated is to affirm all that actually is, and this of course for him makes one stronger. The “plant” man will grow stronger in the acceptance and joyous affirmation of all that one perceives. This reminds one of the commands of Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita when Krishna tells Arjuna to “slay with glee” (Whistle while you work/slaughter!!!) knowing that you don’t actually kill because all perception is Maya, and the true reality (the thing behind the mask) is actually Brahman (god) and Brahman is neither slayer nor slain. The eternal recurrence is called Samsara by the eastern philosopher. The wheel of birth, death, and rebirth. One major distinction between the two streams here is that the eastern view usually sees the world or perception as a prison of suffering and therefore the goal is to get off the wheel, to escape the world of becoming and suffering. This fits well with Schopenhauer’s thought, but Nietzsche will tolerate no abandonment of the world or denial of the will to power in all its variations. The meaning of the eternal recurrence for Nietzsche was the need to affirm all of the phenomena, and there is transcendental good or duty from which to judge. All again is perception. Again with Schopenhauer, many of the Vedas teach that ones placement in the next recurrence or turn of the wheel is dependent upon ones karma or action. Immature understandings of karma give themselves over to words like good and evil or positive and negative karma. Therefore for many, Samsara is a very precise form of justice, with each instantiation of Brahman receiving exactly what they had given in a previous turn. So Schopenhauer might be chided here for his negative description of the phenomenal world, with all this talk of “suffering” and “despair”. But by contrast the mature individual understands that what we perceive has no transcendent or ultimate value or reality, and is merely illus ional. Thus for him, good and evil are children’s word, used in our infancy but outgrown in the light of greater understanding. Nietzsche sees himself in this place. Rather than affirm the weakness of either world denying system (in this case Christianity and Buddhism) Nietzsche wants to affirm all that he sees, so that his progression is not dependent on just pure understanding, but affirmation of that understanding. There is no meaning, so I will create my own meaning. There are no values, so I will create my own values. The creative process then is a construction within the will to power of the individual variation of it, conquering both what he/she now perceives, and all repetitions of it in the future. The “yes” saying is eternal for him. He will never deny whatever he perceives.

There are some current eastern thinkers who are arguing that Nietzsche’s understanding (and for that matter much of European thought in the 19th century) was very limited. This is possible and in some cases clear, but I think overall that the parallels they made were quite coherent. Nietzsche argued that it made sense that his own version of perception, recurrence, nihilism, moral relativity and so on was parallel to what one saw in India, because of the parallel development of thought and especially language. What many talk about today as “Indo-Aryan” or “Indo-Greek” , Nietzsche referred to as Indo-German-Greek. The parallel was to him quite natural given the development over time, and dealing with the rude interruption of Hebrew thought into the western mix.

Love at the end of the rainbow