Someone once described Michael Vassar to me as paying attention not to the conclusions but to the intellectual processes of people he’s talking to, not in order to conform to them, but out of curiosity, in case they are using some valuable heuristic he should add to his toolbox. I often find that I get something different than usual from philosophers because I read them this way. I find it jarring when people casually refer to Nietzsche’s philosophy (to name one example) to reference some proposition or other he's famous for asserting. It seems natural to me to be referring to his methods, but his specific conclusions seem like almost a weird irrelevancy. I think this is one of the most valuable things I got out of my St. John’s education - the ability to read thinkers to figure out what their project was, rather than a bunch of specific propositions they were advancing. This is my attempt to share this way of reading, by working through an example.
- 1 Immanuel of Modern Philosophy: A Treatise of Hume and Nietzsche
Immanuel of Modern Philosophy: A Treatise of Hume and Nietzsche
It can be difficult to break into reading old philosophers because of how much of what they’re saying is part of a conversation with each other, unfolding over time. So I’m excited when I find a way to let people skip to the end, getting into one sub-conversation while losing minimal context from only slightly overlapping prerequisites. One such reading program I can recommend is:
- A Treatise of Human Nature, by David Hume
- Critique of Pure Reason and Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, by Immanuel Kant
- Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals, by Friedrich Nietzsche
It helps if you’ve read a good translation of some Plato first, but it’s not necessary. These three books can almost stand alone as a new thread of the Great Conversation, a new colony of the Republic of Letters.
I claim that Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche all agree on how people behave and do moral reasoning in practice, they're just proposing different ways of conceptualize them based on what kind of world they would like to live in. What follows are very rough sketches of their work. I recommend reading the originals, especially of Hume and Nietzsche, as they’re considerably more careful, persuasive, and insightful, than these extremely abbreviated summaries can communicate. When you finish this post, you will know what Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche are like, as filtered by my mind first, and then yours. You won’t have fully engaged with their thought - to do so, you’ll have to go read their own words. Unless, of course, you think I’m sufficiently smarter than all three that I can say in just a few words what it took them many thousands of words to say.
Treatise of Human Nature: a groundwork for skeptical empiricism
Philosophers sure seem to keep arguing about the same things for a long time! Hume finds this unacceptable. He wanted to put philosophy on a firmer footing, one where we can actually answer questions and be done with them.
In the world as Hume found it, philosophers revered the Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian tradition of trying to find absolute truth, the things that are true outside of and prior to our experiences, the eternal unchanging things that our constantly changing perceptible world is continually trying to instantiate and our senses are trying to perceive with limited success. Hume points out that - contrary to the idea that the only sure things are the eternal Forms of things, the Ideas, the truth-in-itself, True Being and The Good In Itself - the only things we actually have sure direct knowledge of are the contents of our sensations. The past, the future, the existence of objects, causation, space and time, moral rightness - these are only ever encountered as patterns our minds form in response to a succession of experiences. To understand these things, first we need to understand the manner in which we perceive them, the way those patterns are generated. To understand right and wrong, first we need to understand human nature.
Hume’s epistemology is built up from the idea that everything we think originates from sensations. When we observe something, the sensations make an impression on our minds. Sometimes we recollect these sensations, especially when something else reminds us of them. This again makes a similar impression on our minds to the initial sensation. We also notice patterns, and experience X is more likely to remind us of experience Y if they either resemble each other, or tend to occur close together. From this, he builds up a plausible account of how we would come to have the notion of objects, geometric space, time, and causation. The faculty of abstraction turns out to just be the same kind of pattern-recognition we run on our sensations, run on our own patterns of thought.
Hume then constructs an explanatory model of morality along the same lines. We are constantly making judgments about and responding emotionally to the behavior of others. When we have a direct stake in an interaction or some other person history or sympathy with one party, these judgments are idiosyncratic, but they tend to be more consistent and uniform when we are less personally involved. We also imagine and sympathize with the responses of others, which are again less idiosyncratic and more consistent and predictable when we’re modeling a disinterested observer. The accumulated effect of these responses is that we build a generalized behavior-judger that generates sentiments based on the most generic model we have. These feelings are our moral sentiments. This explains things like why we think it’s generally wrong to hurt others (since it’s easier to sympathize with victims whose desire to be left alone we share, than with aggressors whose grievance we don’t know or share), and wrong to lie (because we’re rarely helped by strangers lying, and often harmed by it). This explains why our moral feelings map well onto principles we’d like everyone to follow.
The pattern here is one of explaining away philosophical ideas. Absolute truth, absolute right and wrong, are replaced with mere observed patterns. Reason alone does not dictate right action - it can merely analyze our existing sense of rightness, and abstract interesting patterns from this. Hume doesn’t want to create a new school of philosophy. He wants to cure us of compulsive abstraction and systemization, so that we can go back to our earthly concerns, untroubled by philosophical paradoxes:
Since therefore ‘tis almost impossible for the mind of man to rest, like those of beasts, in that narrow circle of objects, which are the subject of daily conversation and action, we ought only to deliberate concerning the choice of our guide, and ought to prefer that which is safest and most agreeable. And in this respect I make bold to recommend philosophy, and shall not scruple to give it the preference to superstition of every kind or denomination. For as superstition arises naturally and easily from the popular opinions of mankind, it seizes more strongly on the mind, and is often able to disturb us in the conduct of our lives and actions. Philosophy on the contrary, if just, can present us only with mild and moderate sentiments; and if false and extravagant, its opinions are merely the objects of a cold and general speculation, and seldom go so far as to interrupt the course of our natural propensities. [… T]here are in England, in particular, many honest gentlemen, who being always employ’d in their domestic affairs […] have carried their thoughts very little beyond those objects, which are every day expos’d to their senses. […] They do well to keep themselves in their present situation; and instead of refining them into philosophers, I wish we cou’d communicate to our founders of systems, a share of this gross earthy mixture […] to temper those fiery particles, of which they are compos’d.
Kant’s Copernican revolution
Kant was unhappy with Hume’s world. It seemed like a world where you couldn’t possibly know anything for sure. But he found Hume’s arguments compelling. So compelling, that to restore the possibility of absolute knowledge, he had to come up with a model that was consistent with Hume’s in its predictions. Kant is very explicit on this point in the Critique of Pure Reason - Hume awoke him from his dogmatic slumbers, and he is responding with a Copernican revolution.
(Copernicus, as you may remember, was the astronomer who took no issue with the Geocentric astronomers’ data, in fact was willing to grant that their description of the observable world was completely accurate, but proposed a Heliocentric model as a more elegant interpretation of that same data.)
Kant wants to save the ability to say that some things are absolutely knowable, to set a firm theoretical foundation for interpreting our observations of the world. He wants causation to be knowable. He wants moral truths that any rational being would assent to - and the ability to say that some actions really are right, and others really are wrong.
So how does Kant pull off this Copernican Revolution? He has two different tactics - one for metaphysics and epistemics (what truly is and what we can know about it), and another for morality (what ought to be).
The Copernican revolution in epistemics
In epistemics, instead of starting with our empirical observations of the external world, and figuring out a causal explanation for them, Kant begins by looking at with our manner of knowing. For instance, Kant points out that generally every experience is located in time. We can be uncertain how far apart they are, we can forget what happened when, some people even have processing disorders that cause time-tags to get flipped close to the moment of the experience - but every experience comes with some sense that it occurs as a point along a continuum, or an item in a series. Every experience feels like it’s “after” the experiences you remember happening and “before” the experiences you anticipate might happen. (Note: I am unsure whether this claim is empirically true.) So while we may be mistaken about particular judgments around the timing of observed events, we can know with certainty that time exists, and our experience can never contradict this, because time is a necessary precondition for any observation.
Similarly for space - we may be mistaken about how objects are arranged in space, but our experiences of objects all locate them in space, we can’t imagine objects not in space as we know it, it wouldn’t be possible to have a perception that could contradict our sense of space, so while we may be mistaken about the shapes and locations of things, we can’t at all be mistaken about the existence and nature of space itself.
Put in general terms, our perception always takes some form, is always processed in some way, that we can articulate by talking about things like space, time, and causality. While any judgment about the particular things we are perceiving can be false, while we can be mistaken about matters of contingent fact, our perceptions will never tell us that our conceptions of time, space, and causality are wrong - because they only reach us through such media. Hume’s argument for radical skepticism, that at any moment we only have access to content of our perceptions, rather than to the things themselves, is stood on its head as an argument that some firm ground for true knowledge exists. We can have absolute certainty that the preconditions for our awareness are true, since everything else we know, we know only through that medium. We know it absolutely, logically prior to any experience, although we may only know how to articulate that knowledge much later.
The Copernican revolution in morality
I'm less sure of my interpretation of Kant on morality, since I’ve read less of his stuff there, but I think he similarly is trying to set up an universal moral meta-maxim that has to be true of any moral statement. This meta-maxim is the Categorical Imperative: act according to that maxim that you would wish to be implemented by all rational beings.
This Copernican revolution is less explicit, but the underlying logic can work the same way. Whenever we say an admonition is moral, rather than practical, we have some sense that everyone ought to be able to endorse it, that it applies to everyone, not out of the expediencies of the moment, but because it’s intrinsically true. We may not be able to prove much from first principles about the content of what’s really intrinsically moral, but we know that morality, to be morality, must be universal - so we can at least know the universalizability condition, as the first axiom of morality. No experience can contradict this, because it’s not dependent on any particular experience - instead, it’s a precondition for any kind of moral knowing, it’s what it means for a sentiment to be moral.
Hume’s argument is again stood on its head. The very argument that threatened to explain away morality - that it’s just what we call our sentiments in the limit as they get more abstract and generalizable - becomes an argument for the reality of moral law. That very universalizability is the one firm unshakable foundation for all our moral knowledge.
Digression: non-Newtonian time and non-Euclidean geometry
Kant does stick his neck out a bit farther than Hume in making some testable predictions about our experience. While Hume is only willing to point to our observed patterns of thoughts as observations, Kant wants to use them as the foundation of absolute knowledge, so he has to imagine that they are universal, eternal, and unchanging. This raises some practical problems.
The biggest one is that, in fact, our perceptions have led us to question the intuitive notions of space and time that seemed obvious in Kant’s time.
In his discussion of geometry, Hume points out that our intuition for the parallel postulate (for each line A, for each point B not on that line, one and only one line can be drawn through B that doesn’t cut A if extended in either direction) is based on our finite imagination. We can’t imagine two lines orthogonal to the same line meeting. When we try, we have to imagine them as bendy, or imagine the initial angles as not quite orthogonal, or imagine a projection instead of a scale model.
But we also can’t imagine lines infinitely extended. Our imagination has finite resolution, and if we keep “zooming out” it’s not obvious that this extension is valid - we’re just guessing. So it’s not obvious, based on intuition alone, that the parallel postulate is true, or even that its negation is unimaginable. It’s only obvious that we can’t imagine situations where it’s a poor local approximation.
Consistent non-Euclidean geometries have been worked out, and it’s quite plausible that we really do live in an universe where our Euclidean intuitions are only locally valid. Similarly, relativity implies that our intuitive notion of time as something where simultaneity and sequence have some absolute meaning is only a good local approximation. In both cases, our observations of the world and reasoning about them caused us to question, and eventually abandon, our intuitions about space and time.
This is not completely fatal to Kant. I can imagine Kant being untroubled by this. But it does make his revolution somewhat less appealing to me. Whatever absolute knowledge he is able to save is very, very little, compared with the amount of contingent truth out there.
Nietzschean philosophy as world-building
At the beginning of a few of Nietzsche’s books, notably Beyond Good and Evil and Genealogy of Morals, there’s a section where he talks about other people who have done work in this area and make some conjectures about their motives, talking about how their philosophical work was just really an outgrowth of their personal preferences. There’s a temptation, as a modern used to argumentation that follows highly formalized rules of discourse, to look at this as a kind of disgraceful ad hominem attack, to be ignored in search of the real substance of Nietzsche’s argument. But this would be a mistake. This is the substance of Nietzsche’s argument.
Nietzsche doesn’t spend time thinking about whose argument is more persuasive, more logical, more borne out by the facts - because both sides have good command of the facts, and if they don’t, some cleverer or more conscientious arguer could construct an improved version that did. Instead of asking what propositions they endorse, he cares about what their project is.
Here’s Nietzsche on Kant, from Beyond Good and Evil:
He was proud of having discovered a new faculty in man, the faculty for synthetic judgments, a priori. Suppose he deceived himself in this matter; the development and rapid flourishing of German philosophy depended nevertheless on his pride, and on the eager rivalry of the younger generation to discover, if possible, something still prouder— at all events “new faculties”! But let us reflect; it is high time to do so. “How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” Kant asked himself— and what really is his answer? “By virtue of a faculty” — but unfortunately not in five words, but so circumstantially, venerably, and with such a display of German profundity and curlicues that people simply failed to note the comical niaiserie allemande involved in such an answer. People were actually beside themselves with delight over this new faculty, and the jubilation reached its climax when Kant further discovered a moral faculty in man— for at that time the Germans were still moral and not yet addicted to Realpolitik. The honeymoon of German philosophy arrived. All the young theologians of the Tübingen seminary went into the bushes— all looking for “faculties.” And what did they not find— in that innocent, rich, and still youthful period of the German spirit, to which romanticism, the malignant fairy, piped and sang, when one could not yet distinguish between “finding” and “inventing”! Above all, a faculty for the “surprasensible”: Schelling christened it intellectual intuition, and thus gratified the most heartfelt cravings of the Germans, whose cravings were at bottom pious. One can do no greater wrong to the whole of this exuberant and enthusiastic movement, which was really youthfulness, however boldly it disguised itself in hoary and senile concepts, than to take it seriously, or worse, to treat it with moral indignation. Enough, one grew older and the dream vanished. A time came when people scratched their heads, and they still scratch them today. One had been dreaming, and first and foremost— old Kant. “By virtue of a faculty”— he had said, or at least meant. But is that— an answer? An explanation? Or is it not rather merely a repetition of the question? How does opium induce sleep? “By virtue of a faculty,” namely the virtus dormitiva, replies the doctor in Molière,
Quia est in eo virtus dormitiva,
Cujus est natura sensus assoupire.
But such replies belong in comedy, and it is high time to replace the Kantian question, “How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” by another question, “Why is belief in such judgments necessary?”— and to comprehend that such judgments must be believed to be true, for the sake of the preservation of creatures like ourselves; though they might, of course, be false judgments for all that! Or to speak more clearly and coarsely: synthetic judgments a priori should not “be possible” at all; we have no right to them; in our mouths they are nothing but false judgments. Only, of course, the belief in their truth is necessary, as a foreground belief and visual evidence belonging to the perspective optics of life. Finally, to call to mind the enormous influence that “German philosophy”— I hope you understand its right to quotation marks— has exercised throughout the whole of Europe, there is no doubt that a certain virtus dormitiva had a share in it: it was a delight to the noble idlers, the virtuous, the mystics, artists, three-quarter Christians, and political obscurantists of all nations, to find, thanks to German philosophy, an antidote to the still predominant sensualism which overflowed from the last century into this, in short— “sensus assoupire.”
And here he is on British moral philosophers, in Genealogy of Morals:
These English psychologists, whom one has also to thank for the only attempts hitherto to arrive at a history of the origin of morality— they themselves are no easy riddle; I confess that, as living riddles, they even possess one essential advantage over their books— they are interesting! These English psychologists— what do they really want? One always discovers them voluntarily or involuntarily at the same task, namely at dragging the partie honteuse of our inner world into the foreground and seeking the truly effective and directing agent, that which has been decisive in its evolution, in just that place where the intellectual pride of man would least desire to find it (in the vis inertiae of habit, for example, or in forgetfulness, or in a blind and chance mechanistic hooking-together of ideas, or in something purely passive, automatic, reflexive, molecular, and thoroughly stupid)— what is it really that always drives these psychologists in just this direction? Is it a secret, malicious, vulgar, perhaps self-deceiving instinct for belittling man? Or possibly a pessimistic suspicion, the mistrustfulness of disappointed idealists grown spiteful and gloomy? Or a petty subterranean hostility and rancor toward Christianity (and Plato) that has perhaps not even crossed the threshold of consciousness? Or even a lascivious taste for the grotesque, the painfully paradoxical, the questionable and absurd in existence? Or finally— something of each of them, a little vulgarity, a little gloominess, a little anti-Christianity, a little itching and need for spice? But I am told they are simply old, cold, and tedious frogs, creeping around men and into men as if in their own proper element, that is, in a swamp. I rebel at that idea; more, I do not believe it; and if one may be allowed to hope where one does not know, then I hope from my heart they may be the reverse of this— that these investigators and microscopists of the soul may be fundamentally brave, proud, and magnanimous animals, who know how to keep their hearts as well as their sufferings in bounds and have trained themselves to sacrifice all desirability to truth, every truth, even plain, harsh, ugly, repellent, unchristian, immoral truth.— For such truths do exist.—
My descriptions of Hume and Kant above are in a sense deeply Nietzschean descriptions. Hume wants to explain away philosophy. Kant wants to save the possibility of absolute knowledge available to pure reason. Hume wants a world of embedded earthy people untroubled by philosophical paradoxes. Kant wants a world of free intellectual spirits to spend their time apprehending the noblest truths and pursuing the most morally pure of actions.
Nietzsche doesn't care so much about whether a bunch of philosophical followers live in Hume-world (healthy but stupid) or Kant-world (rigorous but sterile). But he does care, very much, about preserving the possibility of people who can do what Kant and Hume did. People who can make worlds, through sheer force of thought, will, and argument, for the rest of humanity to live in. Make worlds that are stable and more aesthetically pleasing than the ones they found before. Make worlds that allow nobility and freedom and the doing of great deeds, with grief and joy and love and hate and pride and the whole range of human feelings - or at least, whichever ones we want to keep.
And he sees this future as threatened, especially by the project of people who want to make everyone reasonable, well-behaved, holding up as their ideal, as Hume puts it “for the mind of man to rest, like those of beasts, in that narrow circle of objects, which are the subject of daily conversation and action”. He sees the job of philosophers - or at least his sort of philosopher - as fundamentally to keep those they can awake to the true potential of human nature, to the fact that this way of life is a choice and we might choose something else:
The over-all degeneration of man down to what appears to the socialist dolts and flatheads as their “man of the future” – as their ideal – this degeneration and diminution of man into the perfect herd animal (or, as they say, to the man of the “free society”), this animalization of man into the dwarf animal of equal rights and claims, is possible, there is no doubt of it. Anyone who has once thought through this possibility to the end knows one kind of nausea that other men don’t know – but perhaps also a new task!