Nietzschean Flourishing

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Paul Katsafanas  works on ethics, moral psychology, and nineteenth-century philosophy. Here he discusses whether for Nietzsche  morality consists in or just requires we have knowledge about human nature, why he thought Kant and Bentham were worse than Plato, Aristotle and the British Sentimentalists, how contemporary philosophy typically handles ethics and why they ignore Nietzsche’s approach, the distinction between conscious and unconscious, whether the will has causal efficacy, the concept of the drive, how evaluative judgments manifest themselves and impact actions, the self, why the Nietzschean approach is so refreshing compared to Kant, Aristotle and Hume – and most of our contemporaries, freedom and autonomy,  normative claims, and culture and flourishing.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Paul Katsafanas: It was a series of accidents that seemed to have a clear direction only in retrospect.  First, I always loved to read; I spent so many hours as a child just reading, although then my tastes were geared more toward science fiction and fantasy.  What I liked, there, was the articulation of whole worlds, exploring their intricacies, dreaming of possible futures.  But I was also reading the more philosophical stuff, Borges and Calvino and Kafka and Rilke, and all of those works gripped me.  And at some point I began trying to write, mostly journals and bad poetry and the like.  So in a way I was already on the path that I would end up following.

Second, I went to a Jesuit middle and high school.  My parents were only nominally Catholic and religion played no real role in my childhood, but once every few years, on a major holiday, my family would go to church, and if you’d asked me at the time I probably would have identified as a Catholic.  In any case, the main reason that they sent me to this school was its academic strength.  But, given that it was a Jesuit school, we had classes in religion.  So religion came to be an object of explicit concern in a way that it hadn’t been before.  I remember sitting in one of these religion classes, sometime early in middle school, and hearing the teacher make some bizarre remark about divine intervention.  And suddenly it struck me as ridiculous—I actually remember muttering “what bullshit,” which didn’t go over well with the teacher.  The content of that moment wasn’t itself important, but what was important was that it both shook me and made me realize that I could question everything that was being drilled into me; that I could reject the whole apparatus.  And I was probably a bit obnoxious about my atheism, in retrospect (my high school newspaper voted me “most likely to sleep through ethics class”).  But my Jesuit teachers were, for the most part, good interlocutors: they obviously disagreed with my conclusions but fostered the spirit of inquiry. 

In high school I found the curriculum intensely boring.  I was a bad student; I wouldn’t put any effort into studying.  I was devouring books on my own but would only read what interested me.  So I came out with mediocre grades.  But for whatever reason Vassar College accepted me. 

When I got to Vassar I didn’t really know what to take.  But I signed up for a freshman great books course that was taught jointly by a philosopher, a classicist, and an English professor.  It was wonderful—the three professors took turns presenting their strikingly different takes on the works we’d read, so that the contestability and optionality of different perspectives was made clear to me.  The philosopher who taught this course, Mitch Miller, was a force of nature.  If you picture the devoted liberal arts professor, working on Plato’s Parmenides in the evenings and spending hours meeting with students during the days, that’s him.  His kindness and generosity, together with the absolute delight that radiated from him during every intellectual encounter, his incessant curiosity and passion for philosophical discovery—all of this has long served for me as a picture of the ideal life.  I think as soon as I met him I was hooked.

What was equally decisive, I think, were my friends in college.  Only two of my close friends were philosophy majors, but the whole group of them were intellectually critical, interested in everything, always arguing and discussing.  I remember so many late-night arguments and discussions, often delirious and rambling but full of passion. 

With all of that in place, by the time college was nearing its close, I really couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  I had no idea what area of philosophy I wanted to work on, but I did know that I wanted to go on with it.  And, although I came very close to going somewhere else, I chose Harvard.  I didn’t know it then—though maybe I sensed it when I visited—but that was the perfect place for me, an environment in which we were encouraged not just to make moves within existing debates but to rethink them, to ask real questions, to get at the foundations.  And it was a place where we were left largely on our own, given some guidance but really just encouraged to think, to produce philosophy, to absorb the atmosphere.  As far as I can tell in the entire history of Harvard’s philosophy department only one other person had ever worked on Nietzsche, but my teachers—Dick Moran, Chris Korsgaard, Alison Simmons, and others—never batted an eye about it, took it as the most natural thing in the world when I wanted to get at foundational ethical questions by mining Nietzsche’s works.  And I think that says quite a lot about the spirit of that department, the intellectual breadth and range that was encouraged.

So that’s a long story, but I suppose that’s how I got where I am.

3:AM: You’re a Nietzsche expert. One thing you say about Nietzsche is that he fits in with a tradition of philosophy that understands human flourishing and ethics in terms of human nature. In this sense then, he’s a naturalist. Can you sketch for us what this idea consists of and how strong the claim is in Nietzsche – for Nietzsche does morality consist in or just requires we have knowledge about human nature? 

PK: Yes, he’s certainly a naturalist in that sense.  The general idea is that ethics aspires to provide a specification of what it is to live well, to flourish.  Now, that claim is complex and contestable in several ways.  For example, it’s possible to deny that ethics aims at a specification of human flourishing.  As Nietzsche points out, theistic ethical views typically deny this, taking service to God or some other end to be a higher and worthier pursuit than flourishing.  But suppose, like Nietzsche, we take these theistic views to be discredited.  And suppose, like Nietzsche, we look at ourselves and others, we look at culture, at history, and we wonder whether we could be in some way better than we are.  For Nietzsche I think these problems arose when he contrasted the urgency and vitality of Greek life with the bovine mediocrity of contemporary life.  They arose also when he contrasted the perceived meaningfulness and the stringent devotion that arose in religious contexts (think of the peasants laboring to construct cathedrals that wouldn’t be completed in their lifetime) with the anomie and open-endedness of contemporary life, the lack of overriding goals, the perceived inability to justify devotion to any particular goal.  All of this leads Nietzsche to want to make claims about human flourishing.  His texts are brimming with claims about health, power, flourishing, splendor, vitality, growth, and so forth. 

But what are those notions?  What is health, or power, or flourishing?  To figure that out, we need to examine human psychology.  We need to ask what our deepest aims are, what we’re driven toward, what’s changeable in us and what’s fixed, what’s reinterpretable and what’s past our reach.  We need to examine how our conscious lives relate to what’s non-conscious, how our social and cultural judgments about value impact us, how our conceptual repertories and our languages affect what we see and do.  We need an accurate and unprejudiced moral psychology.  And that’s what Nietzsche aspires to give us.  He thinks other philosophers have attempted that task but failed, typically because they weren’t willing to go far enough: they let moral presuppositions control their thinking, or they experienced a need to justify structures that were in fact contingent and optional.  Or they made other errors: for example, he thinks many of them were ahistorical, projecting contemporary human beings or social structures back into the distant past, taking what’s local and changeable as timeless.  And he thinks he escapes that, or at least escapes it to a greater extent than others.  I think he’s right.

3:AM: Which other philosophers are in this tradition and if psychology then is the way to understanding the fundamental problems of philosophy – the ethical problems around flourishing – why did he think Kant and Bentham were worse than Plato, Aristotle and the British Sentimentalists in respect of their approach to the fundamental problems?

PK: There are very few philosophers who would describe themselves as doing ethics in complete independence of philosophical psychology, so we have to be careful here.  For example, you could present the medieval theologians as doing philosophical psychology; at the very least, some of them are incredibly acute psychological observers.  But they obviously aren’t doing what Nietzsche does.  Why not?  Because they have some independent way of specifying the goal of ethics: devotion to God, for instance.  Human psychology might constrain the way in which the ethical goals can be pursued or realized, but that’s it.  Psychology doesn’t determine the content or nature of that ethical goal.

So suppose we make this narrower.  Roughly, we could say that ethical naturalists use facts about human psychology to specify the nature of flourishing, and then enjoin us to realize flourishing.  If we use that kind of definition, I think many of the ancient Greek philosophers are in that tradition.  So, too, are the sentimentalists.  Kant, by contrast, isn’t—he’s more like the theologians I mention above, thinking that we have an independent grip on the content of ethics. 

In any case, Nietzsche thinks that all of the philosophers in this tradition fall short in various ways. He has different objections to each of them.  He thinks Plato, Aristotle, and the British Sentimentalists erred because they tried to ground moral claims in mistaken accounts of human nature.  In particular, Nietzsche thought that the accounts of human nature that these philosophers employed were already morality-laden, already presupposed the validity of the norms they sought to validate.  Aside from that, they had no real understanding of the historicity and sociality of human thought.  I’ll say more about this in response to another question below, but I think Nietzsche would view Hume, for example, as laudable in his goals, but as hampered by a crudely reductive and ahistorical account of human nature (which is odd for someone who wrote actual histories!).  For example, when Hume says that “mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange,” that history reveals only the “constant and universal principles of human nature” (Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding), he’s just so laughably wrong that it’s difficult to envision Nietzsche taking him seriously.  Of course Hume was a lovely person and a skilled philosopher in other ways, and of course his disciples will point out other passages in which his remarks on history are more nuanced, but my point is simply that a comparison with Nietzsche on history and philosophical psychology does him no favors.

With regard to Bentham, the problem is somewhat different.  Nietzsche’s primary objection to Bentham is that he’s superficial.  Nietzsche reads him (and utilitarians more generally) as assuming that human beings are driven by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  But, Nietzsche claims, this ignores the way in which sensations and affects are reinterpretable.  I’ll say more about this below, but anyone who runs or plays sports or hikes knows that pain is not aversive as such: we seek out certain kinds of pain, we welcome it and regard the overcoming of it as an important component of certain activities.  Part of the point of running, for example, is that it offers you pains and challenges to overcome; absent that, it would lose some of its appeal.  The very idea that we have psychological states with stable motivational propensities, states that mandate a particular kind of response, is denied by Nietzsche.  But he sees that assumption as required for theories of Bentham’s sort to get off the ground.  Aside from that, the general aspiration of utilitarian theories is to maximize aggregate utility, without attention to the way in which that utility is dispersed in particular persons.  Nietzsche thinks this is quite wrongheaded: for complicated reasons, he denies the aspiration for universality that drives this theorizing.

In any case, Nietzsche thinks that the sentimentalists and some of the ancient Greeks were at least attempting to let philosophical psychology inform their conception of flourishing; it’s just that they erred in various ways.  Kant, he thinks, was far worse—he abandoned the very aspiration to let accounts of human nature guide his ethical reflections.  Kant thinks he can offer a “pure moral philosophy, completely cleansed of everything that might be only empirical and that belongs to anthropology” (Groundwork 4:389).  Contemporary Kantians often downplay this aspiration or focus on other elements of Kant’s account, but Nietzsche takes the professed independence from the empirical very seriously indeed.  He finds it utterly misguided.

3:AM: You claim that most contemporary philosophers have not heeded Nietzsche in this – can you say how contemporary philosophy typically handles ethics and why they ignore Nietzsche’s approach?

PK: I think there are at least two problems here.  First, a great deal of contemporary moral philosophy is conducted in independence from philosophical psychology.  It’s certainly gotten much better in the last decade or so, and we now do have subtle investigations of a range of topics in philosophical psychology.  To mention just a few recent examples, Jay Wallace’s The View from Here, Agnes Callard’s Aspiration, and Rahel Jaeggi’s Alienation are wonderful exercises in philosophical psychology.  It’s still the case, though, that the bulk of ethical theorizing proceeds without attention to this material.  If you page through the last few years of the top ethics journals, you’ll find a great deal of interesting work on topics such as moral realism, reasons, rational requirements, promising, and so forth. And you’ll occasionally see an article investigating some particular emotion or making some moral-psychological claim.  But the articles on moral psychology are swamped by the papers on other topics, and the papers on other topics tend not to incorporate anything from the papers on moral psychology. 

This brings me to the second and more important point.  Contemporary moral philosophy tends to concern itself with intensely local phenomena.  This marks an obvious but significant difference between Nietzsche and contemporary philosophers.  Consider Nietzsche’s philosophical aspirations: he wants to defend an account of human flourishing, investigate the way in which flourishing is undermined by historical, social, cultural, religious, conceptual, and linguistic phenomena, tie these reflections to claims about philosophical psychology, couple those claims with remarks on epistemology and metaphysics, and so on.  This is what all of the great philosophers used to do.  Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Hegel and others strove to offer grand systematic responses to these sorts of concerns; they weren’t interested merely in solving a philosophical puzzle here and there, but tried to comprehend something like the whole of human experience. 

That is not a recognizable goal for contemporary philosophers.  Today, most philosophers are far more modest.  They ask much more restricted questions: one spends one’s career defending an account of promising, or analyzing rational requirements, or defending a particular reading of a particular fragment of Kant’s ethical theory, or applying a claim from Rawls, or whatever.  And in some ways this is wonderful: the clarity and precision of these works is beyond anything we find in the past centuries, some of the work is superb, and we do make progress. 

But the days when philosophers attempted systematic, comprehensive theories of everything are long gone.  Like all areas of scholarly work, philosophy has become increasingly specialized.  We’re probably very far past the point at which any single individual can comprehend the whole of philosophy without lapsing into dilettantism and superficiality. 

So now the standard format for philosophy in general, and ethics in particular, is the move within a debate.  We take various things for granted and show what follows from them.  So, someone will assume that various ethical convictions are true, and work up some theory of them; or assume that Kantian ethics is true, and tease out implications.  Or not even that: the Kantian will work not with Kant’s entire corpus but with one text; and not with, say, all of the Groundwork but merely with a few sections of it; and not with all of the claims about the Categorical Imperative contained therein, but only with some of them, for example working with the Formula of Humanity but not the Formula of Universal Law or the metaphysical apparatus allegedly underwriting it.  And that will be the person’s career.  And it can be a good one: it can clarify, produce insights, avoid obfuscations and superficialities and so forth.  It’s admirable and I don’t want to suggest that I’m demeaning it. 

But this approach risks systematically excluding certain questions from philosophical ethics.  If your attention is focused on some intensely local phenomenon then you typically don’t step back and examine the vast range of presuppositions that make this phenomenon what it is.  Nietzsche thinks that the deepest philosophical problems arise only when we consider whole perspectives: ways of conceptualizing human experience, which come along with associated norms, social structures, characteristic affects, and so on.  This requires a global view which is, to put it mildly, very difficult to attain.  

So here’s why many contemporary philosophers ignore the problems that grip Nietzsche: they can’t even see these problems.  The problems in which Nietzsche is interested don’t show up for those who focus on intensely local phenomena.  And this comes out in numerous ways, some of which I try to chart in my books.  Let me mention just one of them.  One thing that I deplore in contemporary philosophy is the excessive and uncritical reliance on our sense of what’s plausible.  It’s extremely common, in contemporary work, to defend some position by citing what’s plausible, to object to a theory or premise on the grounds that it’s implausible, to consult intuitions about cases, and so forth.  But any reader of Nietzsche knows that our sense of what’s plausible is shaped by background assumptions that may require modification or abandonment.  This isn’t entirely surprising or novel: most philosophers will admit it if you press them on this point.  But it doesn’t inform their philosophical approaches: they may acknowledge the problem when they’re at their most reflective about their methodology, but they don’t do anything with this recognition.  It doesn’t inform their philosophical work.  Things go on as before.  This is yet another way in which the moves within debates format risks excluding revisionary approaches and obscuring its own presuppositions.

3:AM: He makes the distinction between conscious and unconscious very important – can you sketch how he understands the distinction and why he thinks conscious states are superficial, falsifying versions of unconscious ones?

 PK: Yes, this is crucial for him.  We usually think of the conscious/unconscious distinction in terms of inner awareness: the conscious is introspectively accessible, the unconscious isn’t.  Nietzsche thinks that isn’t the best way of characterizing the distinction.  The conscious/unconscious distinction is a difference in structure.  Specifically, Nietzsche claims that conscious thinking is conceptual or linguistic in form, whereas unconscious thought is nonconceptual and nonlinguistic.  To render a mental state conscious is to force something nonlinguistic or nonconceptual into words or concepts.  And that works to varying degrees, but it’s never complete.  There’s no one uniquely correct way of bringing an unconscious state to consciousness; something is always left behind, rendered superficial, falsified to some extent. 

So his picture is that we have two types of mental activity: the conscious, which has a conceptual articulation, and the unconscious, which is nonconceptually articulated.  He pictures these types of mental activity causally interacting with one another, so that distortions are introduced and magnified, sometimes with surprising consequences. 

There are a number of philosophical difficulties in trying to make these claims precise and defensible, but I think there’s something deeply right about Nietzsche’s picture.  The labels “conscious” and “unconscious” don’t really matter, though.  What’s important, for Nietzsche, is just the idea that a great deal of mental life is ineffable or is effable only when distorted and generalized, and that recognition of this point complicates our theories of agency.  Self-opacity is a matter not just of lack of inner awareness, but of failures of conceptual articulation.  Anyone who has had a thought or an affect that they struggle to put into words, but which they see carrying them along, has some sense of what Nietzsche is after here. 

3:AM: So how does Nietzsche characterise the distinctions between reflective and unreflective action, and another distinction between action and mere behaviour? Is self-conscious willing possible for Nietzsche – after all, it has seemed to some commentators that conscious choices are inert, epiphenomenal or mere symptoms of underlying processes? I guess the question is: does the will have causal efficacy?

 PK: Well, the first thing he’d say is that no human action is going to be wholly reflective or wholly unreflective.  Everything we do is impacted by both conscious and non-conscious factors.  Aside from that, the conscious and unconscious interact with one another, so Nietzsche would regard it as misleading to treat one of these in isolation from the other.

I think this is actually a common problem in Nietzsche scholarship: Nietzsche will inveigh against our ignoring A and emphasizing B; commentators will read this as an invitation to emphasize A and ignore B; when really what Nietzsche wants to do is examine both A and B.  So, when Nietzsche tells us that past philosophers have focused exclusively on conscious phenomena and ignored unconscious phenomena, commentators tend to respond by ignoring self-consciousness and focusing solely on unconscious determinants of behavior; whereas what Nietzsche actually wants is an analysis of the way in which the conscious and unconscious relate and interact. 

So, to come back to your question: self-conscious willing is possible, if we just take that to mean that I can sometimes do something because I’ve consciously decided to do it.  On the one hand this is obvious: if I go to a restaurant and the waiter asks me what I want, I can just pick something, and I do this self-consciously, and then I get what I’ve chosen.  There’s no general problem about self-conscious willing here. 

Problems arise when we try to make these claims about willing more grandiose.  There are countless factors that influenced my choice of what to order: my desires, my thoughts, my associations, the menu’s font and the arrangement of its options, the prices, the waiter’s suggestions, perhaps my mood and the climate and who knows what else.  So, if we try to present self-conscious willing as the sole determinant of what we do, or even as determinant that is in some way privileged, we run into problems.

So the question is really what work we want the notion of self-conscious willing to do.  The maximal interpretation would be libertarian freedom: we imagine that punctual moments of self-conscious choice are both causally undetermined by anything prior and causally determinative of what comes after.  Nietzsche thinks this is nonsense.  

The minimal interpretation would be total epiphenomenalism: we imagine that moments of self-conscious choice, or perhaps conscious thoughts generally, have no causal impact on what comes after.  Although some people try to read Nietzsche this way, I think there’s no way to reconcile this reading with Nietzsche’s texts.  He’s constantly assessing the effects of conscious, interpretive structures on human agency, worrying that the way we consciously interpret some phenomenon leads to ill health or pathology or some other failing.   And he's constantly inviting us to reinterpret phenomena consciously, which would be an odd thing to do if you thought that conscious interpretations were inert.  Simply put, Nietzsche thinks that consciousness is dangerous, and an epiphenomenon can’t be dangerous. 

So the correct answer is that Nietzsche denies both of the extreme positions and adopts something more nuanced.  Here’s his view, as I understand it: a person’s conscious choices are not uniquely determined by her motives, because she can consciously reinterpret her motives, and in so doing she will in some cases alter their intensity and their direction.  Consider, for example, Nietzsche’s discussions of suffering in the Genealogy: he claims that suffering as such doesn’t have any stable motivational tendency, but rather acquires such tendencies when it is interpreted.  If we interpret it in one way, its aversive; in another, we’re indifferent to it; in another, we seek it out.  Thus Nietzsche allows that conscious thought can modify both the force and the direction of the agent’s motives.  Of course, these conscious interpretations are themselves influenced by the agent’s prior psychological states, including the unconscious ones, and are influenced as well by circumstantial factors, so Nietzsche isn’t imagining some free-floating, causally independent capacity for reinterpretation.  Moreover, these interpretations are only in rare cases things that people produce deliberately and explicitly in moments of self-conscious choice; it’s much more common for them to arise slowly and aggregatively, pieced together from habitual ways of classifying, describing, and evaluating things.

3:AM: The concept of the drive is, for you, one of the deepest differences between his claims and those of Aristotle, Hume and Kant. What are they and how does he think human motivations – such as drives, desires, urges, whims, emotions and so on – are structured so they can impact on what we do?

PK: Yes, I think drives play a key role in Nietzsche’s philosophical psychology.  Let me begin by contrasting drives with ordinary desires.  Here’s the most basic way of putting the point: to have a desire is to seek to change things in the world; to have a drive is to seek to manifest some characteristic form of activity. 

I’ll explain this in more detail.  Typical desires are directed at some specific object and are extinguished once that object is attained.  So, I want a drink of water; I take it; and then the desire is gone.  Or: I want to go to New York; I do so; and then the desire is fulfilled. 

Drives are different in several ways.  First, drives have both an aim and an object.  The drive aims at some characteristic type of activity, and takes objects merely as chance occasions for expression.  Consider the sex drive.  Its aim is sexual activity; its objects are highly variable, and could include particular persons, episodes of flirting, sex, a pair of shoes, or whatever.  But when you attain those objects the drive doesn’t disappear; it may be put into abeyance for a while, but it will return.  In fact, the attainment of the drive’s temporary objects often reinforces rather than extinguishes the drive: sexualized activity sparks desires for more sexual activity.  

Nietzsche’s idea is that drives seek the expression of their characteristic form of activity, rather than the attainment of their objects.  In other words, a person in the grip of the sex drive primarily wants to manifest sexualized activity; she’ll look for opportunities to do so, taking particular objects as occasions for expression, but her goal is not the attainment of these objects.  It is, simply, the expression of the sexualized activity. 

Moreover, Nietzsche emphasizes that drives don’t typically arise in response to external stimuli.  A desire might be sparked by seeing or experiencing something, as when I notice the ice cream shop and suddenly have a hankering for something sweet.  Drives typically arise independently of external stimuli.  Again, take the sex drive: it can be induced by something external, of course, but it can also arise on its own.  And it is often reinforced rather than extinguished or sated by the attainment of its objects.

What happens when a drive is active?  Drives operate not just by generating behavioral propensities but also by inducing an affective orientation, where this orientation then leads the agent to engage in a characteristic set of actions and to perceive herself as warranted in doing so.  So, the person in the grip of the sex drive will see the world in a sexualized way, finding certain persons or behaviors or things alluring, others as indifferent.  Consider simpler examples like anger: when you’re angry, stimuli and experiences that would normally be neutral are often experienced as occasions for anger: so, the cashier’s slow work becomes aggravating when it would usually go unnoticed; the passerby’s glance is seen as hostile.  These experiences, if taken as accurate, give us reason for being angry, but of course the experiences are themselves generated by the anger.  That’s what drives do.  When I’ in the grip of the aggressive drive, I’ll find occasions for aggression everywhere, and those occasions will seem to justify the very aggression that is in fact partially productive of them.  So the agent becomes inclined to act in ways that give the drive expression, and to perceive herself as warranted in doing so.

But it’s really the point about aims and objects that plays a key role for Nietzsche.  If our deepest and most enduring motivational propensities are drives, and if drives seek expression of their aims rather than attainment of their objects, then it follows that human activity is processual: we seek the process of attaining, rather than the attainments.  We seek to manifest activity, rather than to attain the ends of those activities.  This is part of what Nietzsche means when he speaks of will to power, insatiable willing, perpetual self-overcoming, and so forth: there is no state the attainment of which can satisfy us, because what we seek is the process of attaining rather than the objects attained.

3:AM: Is it by putting together his ideas about the conscious/ unconscious and drives that he explains where our values come from? How does he think evaluative judgments manifest themselves and impact actions for Nietzsche? 

PK: Yes, he thinks that non-conscious drives explain the agent’s self-conscious judgments about what is valuable.  In particular, he thinks that drives structure the agent’s perceptions and affects, thereby strongly inclining the agent to regard pursuit of the drive’s aim as valuable.  The basic idea is that if I have an affective orientation toward something, this affective orientation will typically incline me to experience that thing in ways that justify that very affective orientation.  Take hatred, for example.  If I hate someone, I’ll typically experience him as having objectionable qualities, and the perception of him as having these qualities would justify the hatred.  But of course the perception of him as having these qualities can itself be a product of the hatred: I see the person as objectionable because I hate him.  So hatred generates an affective orientation which then inclines the agent to see the hated person as meriting hatred.  When we’re talking about drives, which are persistent and recurrent motivational tendencies, this sort of thing can go on for quite a while, indeed for a whole life.  And that’s why Nietzsche thinks we typically value the ends of our drives: the drives generate an affective orientation toward that end, and the orientation then leads us to perceive our pursuit of that end as warranted.

Of course, people sometimes disavow the motivational propensities of their drives, and in some of those cases we won’t want to identify the person’s values with the drive’s aim.  So I think the best way to read Nietzsche on value is this: valuing X is having a drive-induced positive affective orientation toward X and not disapproving of that affective orientation.  The default state is valuing the ends of one’s drives, but conscious reflection can introduce discrepancies between what you’re driven toward and what you value.

And let me mention one more thing.  What I’ve been discussing is how an individual’s values relate to her drives.  But there’s another way we can approach these questions, and that’s through studying the social and historical structures that reinforce certain values and ways of valuing.  So, in addition to asking how a given person’s drives relate to her values, we can also ask how a whole culture or epoch values.  And then the story will require genealogy.

3:AM: So what does Nietzsche say the self is? He thinks we can lack a self and then gain it – so how do we make the transition – and who makes the transition given that at the start I am not there (If ‘I’ am a self).

PK: Nietzsche typically uses the term “self” as an honorific: we are not selves merely in virtue of being human.  Certain people attain selfhood, others don’t.  So what’s involved in the transition from lacking to having a self?  Most commentators agree that Nietzsche tells us that you become a self by becoming unified.  But there’s disagreement about what Nietzsche means by unified: what parts of the person need to be unified and what does unity consist in?  Most commentators think that Nietzsche is interested in individuals who have harmonious, coherently directed sets of drives.  I think that’s only part of the picture, and not an especially important part.  What Nietzsche really wants is not just a drive-to-drive harmony but a drive-to-reflection harmony.  An agent manifests unity when she acts in a way that she would not disavow were she to learn more about the etiology of the motives prompting the action. 

In favor of this view, notice that Nietzsche frequently praises agents who have massively contradictory drives, so I doubt that he thinks drive-to-drive harmony has final value or is necessary for selfhood.  But he condemns people who perform actions and take themselves to be content with them, but who’d disavow or condemn them if they saw what really motivated them.  Take the characters in the Genealogy: part of what makes the ascetic priest disunified, in Nietzsche’s sense, is that his actions are reflectively unstable.  If he saw what was really motivating him—a suppressed desire for power—then he’d be committed, in light of his own values, to disavowing his actions.  Or, in a simpler case: imagine a person who votes for some immigration policy while taking himself to be motivated by a desire for security.  Suppose he learns, upon further self-examination, that a more accurate description of his action would present it as driven principally by racist motivations, such as a desire to exclude people of other races.  This person would count as unified if he’d still endorse this action upon learning of these motives, and disunified if he wouldn’t. 

3:AM: Does he think we have freedom and autonomy? This is murky ground, but didn’t he think that freedom and autonomy were invented so we could justify revenge and weren’t real, in some sense. Are we no more responsible for our actions than a squirrel, according to Nietzsche?

PK: Nietzsche does think that some conceptions of freedom and autonomy were designed to justify certain kinds of moral responsibility.  Briefly, some people think that I can only be responsible for what’s under my control.  So Nietzsche imagines a resentful, politically oppressed underclass seizing on a moral perspective that legitimates their condemnation of the ruling nobility by treating that nobility as fully in control of, and hence responsible for, the characteristics that render them dominant; and he imagines, too, that the oppressed and downtrodden will, by embracing a libertarian conception of freedom, be able to see their inability to manifest power as a deliberate abstention from power, and hence as praiseworthy.

So that’s one conception of freedom, which is tied very tightly to a need for revenge and condemnation.  But Nietzsche famously says that only that which has no history can be defined.  So there’s no one thing that we mean by freedom; it plays different roles, it has different functions, it can always be repurposed and redefined. 

Nietzsche thinks there is a way of rehabilitating the notion of freedom.  Specifically, Nietzsche develops a conception of freedom as self-determination.  He thinks that most people are buffeted about by forces that they neither discern nor understand: I’m driven not only by circumstantial and unconscious factors, but also by values and customs that I accept uncritically, by conceptual distinctions that I take up without noticing their optionality, and so forth.  For Nietzsche, a person counts as free to the extent that she can root out these influences, critically assess them, and determine which ones she’ll accept and which she’ll reject.  This requires great psychological acuity and historical sense, because the relevant influences are often opaque, difficult to detect, and above all difficult to move past. 

The free individual, then, would be modelled on Nietzsche himself: Nietzsche spends his life trying to detect and root out influences he regards as pernicious, to diagnose ways in which he’s succumbed to formerly hidden pressures, and to redirect all of this toward some new end that he can affirm.  That’s what freedom is.  It doesn’t require some causally undetermined capacity for choice or an exaggerated conception of what’s under our control; it requires only the difficult, protracted, piecemeal exercise of our critical capacities. 

3:AM: Does adopting a dual-process model of cognition – slow and fast – help understand Nietzsche’s model and show why Kantian approaches, for example, which seem to have everything happening via reflective thinking, to be , in your term, ‘flat-footed’? Why do you find the Nietzschean approach so refreshing compared to Kant, Aristotle and Hume – and most of our contemporaries?

PK: Great philosophers can always avoid refutation; their disciples can find hints of views in them, passages that seem to acknowledge whatever point the critic wishes to raise against them.  But let me just state the point polemically: Kant, Aristotle, and Hume have no account of unconscious mental activity and have no real understanding of the historicity of the normative structures that they purport to analyze.  The Kantian or Aristotelian or Humean can, of course, acknowledge the existence of unconscious mental activity.  Kant does this, he’s explicit about it, claiming that “only a few places on the vast map of our mind are illuminated” (Anthropology 7:135).  So Kant knows, as any moderately introspective individual would, that immense stretches of our own minds are opaque to us.  And of course Kant can talk about history, as in his charmingly Whiggish “Conjectural Beginning of Human History.”  So you can always find hints, in a great philosopher, of passages that seem to rebut whatever charge the critic levies against him.

But there’s a difference between what a philosopher will say when you press him to be at his most explicit and what actually drives his theorizing.  Kant or the Kantian can say that he acknowledges unconscious thought and that he admits historical change in concepts, but do these notions play any real role in his theorizing?  They clearly don’t.  They are peripheral, afterthoughts, adornments tacked onto the grand edifice; they aren’t structures worked into the theory’s core.  And in many cases once these points are elaborated they undermine the philosopher’s central contentions. 

So in my work I try to show that this is so.  An ethical theory aimed at self-conscious agents engaged in punctual acts of deliberative choice is going to be different than a theory aimed at benighted individuals buffeted about by pressures they neither discern nor understand, moved indeed by normative structures but aggregatively rather than punctually, individuals whose self-opacity consists not in failing to discern isolate motives but in thinking that isolate motives are of any importance.  The whole thrust of the theory is different. 

So really I think that most philosophers working in ethics and moral psychology write as if Nietzsche and the other great skeptical theorists of human nature and culture had never existed.   This is manifest in too many ways to explain here, but let me mention a few: the reliance on intuitions; the pursuit of reflective equilibrium, which relies on allegedly provisional fixed points which as a matter of practice are very far from being treated as provisional; the uncritical assumption that increasing normative coherence, pursued for example via reflective equilibrium, has more than instrumental value; the idea, implicit in many approaches, that morality has some unified source or forms a reasonably coherent set of interconnected propositions, rather than being an amalgamation of disparate and often conflicting sources; the idea that what’s of chief moral import is the isolated individual’s stepping back from consciously entertained motives or intentions; the idea that our ordinary thoughts about the structure of human motivation correspond to the reality; and I could go on and on.  Each of these points requires elaboration and defense, but here I can only mention them; I point the interested reader to my books.

3:AM: Commentators assume that all ethical systems have seven commitments – what are they and why do you say they’re a product of just the Enlightenment and not ethical theories as such?

PK: Let me say a bit to set the stage for this question.  I have an article on Nietzsche’s Antichrist (one of his very best books, but rarely discussed) in which I mull over a question that troubles me.  It seems to me that a great deal of the commentary on Nietzsche is confused by its reliance on conventional philosophical distinction, the very distinctions and assumptions that Nietzsche is trying to discredit.  We have commentators claiming, for example, that Nietzsche isn’t interested in justifying normative claims.  And yet on almost every page of Nietzsche texts there leap out claims about the justificatory status of normative claims, as when Nietzsche asks whether the unconditional valuation of truth can be justified, or whether our commitments to equality or compassion or other central norms are justifiable!  Or we have commentators claiming that Nietzsche is an epiphenomenalist or that he isn’t interested in conscious thought, when almost everything that occupies his attention is an interpretive, conscious, normatively characterized phenomenon, when he frequently worries that conscious interpretation is dangerous!

I think what’s happening in these disputes is that one side is, sometimes without realizing it, holding on to conventional philosophical understandings of, say, what it would be to justify normative claims.  Nietzsche isn’t doing that, so, this side concludes, it follows that he’s not interested in the justificatory status of normative claims.  But this leaves out another possibility: that Nietzsche is reconceptualizing what it would be to inquire into the justificatory status of a norm. 

So, what I try to do in that article (“The Antichrist as a Guide to Nietzsche’s Mature Ethical Theory”) is list seven commitments that are widely shared by Enlightenment philosophers (and contemporary ones, for that matter).  Briefly, Enlightenment philosophers were committed to: (1) treating normative claims as acceptable only if they can be rationally justified; (2) striving for clear, precise definitions of central terms, perspicuous arguments, and systematic, internally consistent sets of claims; (3) converging on a central set of values including equality, dignity, freedom, compassion, happiness, and altruism; (4) conservativism, or the belief that non-religious ethics can justify something like Judeo-Christian values; (5) the aspiration to universalism; (6) taking morality as practically binding; (7) focusing on deliberative, self-conscious actions.  

Now what’s interesting about Nietzsche is that he rejects all seven of those commitments.  He’s (1’) more interested in whether norms can be affirmed (by being shown to be consistent with will to power) than whether they can be justified; (2’) he rejects the aspiration to systematicity, preferring to offer a piecemeal yet still interconnected set of claims; (3’) he rejects many of the central Enlightenment values, claiming that they undermine human flourishing; (4’) he sees Judeo-Christian values as expressive of what he calls the “ascetic ideal” and as hindering flourishing; (5’) he rejects universalism, thinking that different normative claims are appropriate for different types of people; (6’) he rejects the aspiration to show that morality is binding; (7’) and he evinces little concern with the principles that guide the individual actions of individual agents, instead examining the broad features of moral systems which manifest themselves only over long stretches of time

So what I argue, in the paper, is that you can reject all of those assumptions (1-7) and yet still be engaged in a project properly described as ethical theory.  Those commitments are distinctive of a particular type of ethical theory, not ethical theory as such.  In a way that’s obvious—the Greeks also rejected most of those seven commitments.  But it’s often forgotten.  And the forgetfulness about these points is what leads many commentators astray.  When I say that Nietzsche is interested in the justificatory status of normative claims, for example, some commentators think I must be claiming that Nietzsche is deriving a normative claim from some theory-independent premise and showing that it applies to all human beings in the same way.  And of course that’s nonsense, of course Nietzsche doesn’t do that.  But what I mean is that Nietzsche is interested in doing something more than vocalizing arbitrary tastes.  He’s interested in showing that some normative claims are incompatible with central features of human psychology (such as will to power), whereas others are not; and the latter count as justified in a way that the former do not.

So, in a nutshell: Nietzsche rejects Enlightenment ethical theory.  But it’s a mistake to assume that the only alternatives are Enlightenment ethical theory and the vocalization of arbitrary tastes.  There’s a range of views in between. 

3:AM: So Nietzsche rejects the commitments but for you that doesn’t mean he rejects ethical theories per se. So taking all this in, how would a Nietzschean answer the question: how is the authority of normative claims to be justified? Can she answer what makes murder wrong? What’s her positive theory?

PK: If I were writing my book again I’d emphasize that Nietzsche is addressing large-scale eudaimonistic questions about human flourishing rather than specific, first-order questions about the rightness and wrongness of particular actions.  Let’s distinguish two levels of ethical thinking: (A) the high-level, abstract principles (such as Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the Principle of Utility, an Aristotelian specification of eudaimonia, etc.), and (B) the lower-level, more particular principles that pertain to specific action types and tokens.  Nietzsche is concerned almost exclusively with (A).  Of course, accounts at level (A) will have implications for questions at level (B), so Nietzsche does have a derivative interest in (B).  But it’s not his focus.

I’ll sketch his theory.  Nietzsche claims that will to power is the standard of evaluation.  Modern morality is to be rejected because it conflicts with or undermines will to power.  But what’s will to power?  According to an interpretation originally defended by Bernard Reginster, Nietzsche identifies willing power with the activity of perpetually seeking and overcoming resistance to one’s ends.  Will to power is manifest in the pursuit of goals other than power: an agent wills power by seeking to encounter and overcome resistance in the pursuit of painting, or writing, or in athletic endeavors, or some other substantive end.  So Nietzsche’s basic claim is that modern morality undermines our capacity to set and overcome challenges.  As he puts it in the Antichrist: “It is my contention that all the supreme values of mankind lack this will [will to power]—that the values which are symptomatic of decline, nihilistic values, are lording it under the holiest names” (Antichrist 6)

So this raises a couple of questions.  First, why should we care about will to power?  Suppose Nietzsche can show that some cherished value undermines will to power—why not reject power instead of rejecting the other value?  To answer this question, Nietzsche needs to show that power has a privileged normative status: when power and some other value conflict, we ought to reject the other value rather than rejecting power or living with the conflict.

The second question, then, is this: how might Nietzsche justify the privileging of power?  I claim that he does so by employing a constitutivist argument.  In particular, he tries to show that each instance of human agency aims at power; that power therefore serves as an inescapable standard of success for action; and that power thus has a privileged normative status. 

The argument for the claim that all human agency aims at power is complex.  It hinges on certain claims about the nature of motivation by drives.  Consider: the claim action A aims at power simply means that A aims not only at the attainment of some determinant end, but also at encountering challenges or obstacles; and the claim action A is drive-motivated simply means that A aims not only at the attainment of determinant objects, but at continuous expression of its characteristic form of activity.  I think we can already see that these are very close, and in my book Agency and the Foundations of Ethics I try to show that the latter claim entails the former claim.  Simply put, the will to power thesis is a description of the form that drive-motivated action takes.  Nietzsche thinks that all actions are, at root, motivated by drives.  So, if we can establish that all human action is drive-motivated, it will follow that all human action aims at power.

For now, let’s just assume that Nietzsche’s claim that all human action aims at power is defensible. Our concern is what would follow from this. Suppose we accept a roughly Humean claim concerning the relationship between motivational states and reasons: namely, that aims generate standards of success. More precisely, assume that when I aim at X, I have a prima facie reason for doing what promotes the realization of X. (E.g., if I aim to eat ice cream and Sally doesn’t, then I have a prima facie reason to eat ice cream and Sally doesn’t have such a reason.) Then, in each instance of action, we’ll have prima facie reason to do what promotes the realization of power. And, conversely, we’ll have a prima facie reason to avoid what undermines or threatens the realization of power.

If Nietzsche is right that all drive-motivated actions aim at power, and if we can’t change the fact that we’re motivated by drives, then it will follow that power has a privileged normative status. It is the one aim that we cannot even in principle shed; so it is the one source of reasons that we cannot even in principle shed. So the only way to avoid conflicts with our aiming at power is to eliminate or mitigate other aims that conflict with it. If we find, for example, that valuing compassion somehow undermines power, we’d have reason to reject compassion. If we find that valuing critical inquiry somehow promotes power, we’d have reason to promote critical inquiry. And so on.

Of course, Nietzsche doesn’t think that these facts about power are obvious.  The theory is supposed to be counterintuitive and surprising: Nietzsche thinks these facts about how we’re motivated have been obscured (in some cases deliberately) by our moral, religious, and political theories.  Additionally, conflicts between will to power and particular values or normative principles are often very difficult to trace.  Nietzsche doesn’t imagine individuals pausing in the midst of action and asking themselves how their actions comport with will to power.  Rather, we are supposed to apply this theory in the same way that Nietzsche himself does: we step back from the details of particular cases and, through historical and genealogical observations, studies of human psychology, and careful attention to our evaluative perspectives, we uncover certain pathologies that are fostered by normative claims. 

So, to go back to your question: at the end of all of this investigation we might find that a normative claim such as “murder is wrong” produces no interesting conflicts with will to power.  In that case it will be justifiable: there will be no power-based objection to our holding it.  If, on the other hand, we find that a claim such as “compassion is good” does in fact produce conflicts with will to power, we’d need to modify or reject it.  In this way, we use the will to power criterion to assess disparate normative claims, rejecting some and holding on to others. 

3:AM: How does all this fit with his ideas about culture and flourishing? He seems to want to say that psychological pathologies and cultural ones are the same and that aesthetics is the answer. Is that right? And do you agree with him – or has the culture shifted so much since his day that his remedies are no longer applicable?

PK: I don’t know if he’d say that psychological and cultural pathologies are always the same, but he certainly thinks they’re intimately related.  Cultural phenomena can induce and amplify psychological pathologies.  And the reverse is also true: individual pathologies can motivate the emergence of cultural phenomena that then reinforce the pathologies.  This is a main theme of the Genealogy. 

I think Nietzsche focuses a great deal of his attention on a particular pathology: the loss of higher values.  Although human beings are routinely portrayed as seeking happiness, there’s something else that we seek, something at once less tangible and more gripping.  We seek meaning.  We see this everywhere: the self-help section of bookstores is overflowing, books that offer nothing more than trite bromides about meaning and purpose fly off the shelves, people grasp at political leaders who conjure up some sense of direction, and so on. 

And this tendency takes dangerous forms.  Consider a famous excerpt from Orwell’s 1940 review of Mein Kampf: Orwell warns that Hitler “has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude toward life… human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice… Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”

What’s the attraction of struggle, danger, and death?  There’s a decidedly Nietzschean answer here: what individuals seek is not pleasure, but meaningful activity.  Nietzsche argued that philosophers were wrong to endorse the psychological generalization that human beings avoid pain and seek pleasure.  Rather, we avoid pain and pleasure that we see as meaningless, and we seek pleasure and pain that we regard as meaningful.  So it is facts about meaning, rather than the hedonic quality of outcomes, that determines what we do. Nietzsche likes to make this point by mocking the English utilitarians, who claimed that happiness is the only thing we value for its own sake.  Nietzsche’s rejoinder is simple: “Man does not pursue happiness – only the Englishman does that” (Twilight of the Idols, Section II.12).

 But at the same time, values seem trivial.  I value tea, good books, world peace, warm weather, human life.  The very talk of “values” suggests something that can be weighed, traded, exchanged.  We can ask how much value something has; we can find it more and less valuable than other things.  Values don’t compel, don’t grip, because they’re fungible.  Heidegger wrote, “No one dies for mere values” (“The Age of the World Picture”).  And Heidegger’s words are extremely ominous when we consider that they were delivered in a June 1938 lecture, a few months after Nazi Germany annexed Austria.  But he’s right.  If values are taken as fungible, they’re not all we want.  We want ideals that can inspire devotion, that can give us a sense of meaning and direction.  We want what Nietzsche calls “higher values”: ideals that aren’t fungible, ideals that mandate devotion and provide a sense of purpose and direction.

The problem is that the original sources of higher values are, Nietzsche thinks, discredited.  We won’t get a defensible religious justification of higher values; nor does any philosophical defense of them succeed.  But suppose we want to hold on to higher values despite the fact that they lack rational justification.  Nietzsche presents art as generating values and ideals that are not themselves justified and are not themselves deliverances of intellectual inquiry. Like religion, art can provide higher values. But unlike religion, the Nietzschean artist does not try to shield these higher values from questioning; she admits them as “illusions.” Thus art is “the good will to appearance” (Gay Science 107).  Although the details are complex, the gist is that aestheticized ideals neither require nor are responsive to demands for justification.  So at times Nietzsche entertains the idea that we could preserve ideals or higher values in an aestheticized manner.

I do think there are worries about this.  There’s no doubt that many individuals, and indeed many cultures, hold ideals that are primarily responsive to these sorts of aestheticized considerations, rather than to a quest for deep justification.  The problem, though, is that any ideal could be set up in this way.  Aestheticized approaches could sustain ascetic ideals, or Nazi ideals, or jihadist movements, or whatever.  Indeed, aestheticized approaches seem more likely to sustain ideals that Nietzsche would regard as defective rather than ideals that he’d endorse: the ideal needs to take hold in the “herd,” as Nietzsche likes to put it, and the herd is fickle and superficial.  So I think there are real questions about how this could have any hope of success.

But the broader question is whether we can hold on to higher values while recognizing them as in some sense optional, perspective-dependent, and lacking any theory-independent justification.  This question arises for many philosophers in Nietzsche’s period: Friedrich Schlegel, Søren Kierkegaard, and others grapple with versions of it.  They’re all interested in exploring whether we can see ideals or normative commitments as historically contingent and rationally optional while nonetheless retaining their status as ideals. 

Nietzsche is trying to find a way of sustaining ideals without lapsing into asceticism, without relying on discredited metaphysical or psychological claims, without deluding himself.  I don’t know if he succeeds.  But he deserves great credit for devoting his life to these questions. 

3:AM:  And finally, are there five books other than your own that you can recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?

PK: For me the best books are the ones that open new questions about the basic problems of human existence while resisting the temptation to succumb to simplistic solutions.  I won’t mention Nietzsche’s books because those works are obvious.  And I’m tempted to list novels rather than philosophical monographs, but I’ll confine myself to just one novel.

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time.  This is my favorite book.  There is nothing like it.  It is astoundingly beautiful at times and unspeakably boring at others, but above all it is the most informative and realistic study of a self that I’ve ever encountered.   Whenever I find myself in need of some point about emotions, about the structuring effects of our commitments, about the complexities and ambiguities of mental life, this is in my mind.  

Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self.  The specific claims in this work are less important to me than the general view that it conveys: the contingency of what we’d taken as central, the radical changes and reversals in our conceptions of the self, and the connections between these changes and historical and social events.

Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good.  Murdoch’s account of the way in which perception impacts judgment, and more generally her investigations of the complexity of moral psychology, are absolutely brilliant. 

Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope.  I love all of Lear’s books, but this one is amazing.  If I can also mention an article—read this alongside Cora Diamond’s “Losing Your Concepts.”  In a way Lear’s book is Nietzschean: just as Nietzsche’s Genealogy charted the collapse of one evaluative perspective and the emergence of another, so too Lear is examining, on a smaller scale, a form of cultural and conceptual collapse. 

Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity.  Williams is a brilliant philosopher and I’m tempted to list many of his works, but I think this one is my favorite.  It immerses us in a new perspective, a new way of conceptualizing the world, and thereby shows us the contingency of features of our perspective that we’re inclined to take as fixed and ineluctable.  


Richard Marshall is biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!