Nietzsche: Genius of the Heart by Charlie Huenemann

6572902

Charlie Huenemann, a philosophy professor at Utah State, self-published this book in 2009. I don’t know why, because it’s an excellent introduction to Friedrich Nietzsche’s life and thought. Did Prof. Huenemann have trouble finding a publisher? Did he see it as a money-making opportunity? He has a sense of humor (that’s him in the picture when he was younger). Maybe he thought it would be an interesting thing to do.

Huenemann’s thesis is that Nietzsche’s philosophy was an attempt to make his miserable life livable:

I said it two times . . . and now this will make three: Nietzsche’s philosophy was the means by which he reconciled himself to his life. It was an  unfortunate life, beginning in tragedy [two deaths in the family], enduring through sickness and loneliness, ending in insanity [possibly due to a brain tumor, not syphilis], and then being twisted [by his anti-Semitic but apparently well-meaning sister] into abetting humanity’s worst atrocities.

Nietzsche’s task, as he saw it, was  to develop in himself the right attitude, so that no matter how unfortunate this life turned out to be . . . he would be able to surmount it, accept it, and embrace it. All of the magnificent monsters he pressed into his service — the Apollonian and Dionysian forces, his thoroughly skeptical neo-Kantian naturalism, Zarathustra, the eternal return, the will to power, the revaluation of all values — were, in the final analysis, devices, heuristics, visions and touchstones he needed in to order to accomplish this most extraordinary feat. If readers turn to his books in search of arguments for believing in these monsters, or reasons for taking them to be real, they have missed the entire point. The point was not truth. The point was triumph [204-5].

Academic philosophers tend to shy away from analyzing the personal reasons other philosophers have for adopting certain views. The ideas and arguments are what matter. Nietzsche didn’t agree. He believed philosophical positions (and religious beliefs) are explainable by individual psychology — which is partly what Huenemann is doing in this book. Huenemann considers whether Nietzsche would apply that same formula to his own views and decides he wouldn’t.

[Nietzsche] has a lot to say — indeed, many volumes! — about what is good and noble for human beings, and what is sick, weak and despicable. There are indeed facts about these values. His claim is only that the traditional assignment of values — particularly over what is “good or “evil” — is a huge mistake, grounded in a hopelessly inadequate understanding of reality.

This immediately raises a question about Nietzsche’s own consistency with the gospel he preaches. . . . Consider this comic tirade from a later work, Twilight of the Idols: “Finally, let’s consider how naive it is in general to say, ‘Human beings should be such and such!’ Reality shows us a captivating treasury of types . . . and some pathetic bystander of a moralist says to all this, “No! Human beings should be different‘? . . . He even knows how human beings should be, this sanctimonious sniveler”.

Nietzsche grants himself exemption . . . He thinks what what he is doing is significantly different from what other moralists do. . . .Whereas other moralists act as if they have just been handed the tablets of moral commandments from the sky, Nietzsche believes he is digging up his “commandments” from the earth — indeed, from the forces of life itself. His values are not dreamed up or invented, but wrested through bitter experience from genuine confrontations with a hard and unforgiving world [162-3].

Huenemann says “the supreme Nietzschean value is living power. What leads to the flourishing of living power . . . is good; what stifles or diminishes it is bad [167]“. Nietzsche: Genius of the Heart certainly has living power. It’s a lively, informative, sometimes critical account of one of philosophy’s most distinctive thinkers (and not expensive at all).

Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English by Jonathan Rée

This is a big book on a big subject. It’s 600 pages about the history of philosophy, mainly dealing with philosophy as it was practiced in English. But as the author says:

Philosophy in English is as multi-lingual as philosophy in any other language. It has always been fascinated — repelled as well as attracted — by foreign philosophy, and philosophical terms such as idea, logic, nature, politics, virtue, science and spirit, which now pass as linguistic natives, used to be seen as exotic outsiders [8].

The book’s eight chapters roughly concern the philosophical landscape in 50-year increments.There are chapters devoted to 1601, 1651, 1701, 1751 and finally 1951. But Rée never limits himself to those years. They’re merely labels for different eras. So the principal figure in the last chapter is Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose major works were published in 1913 and 1953 (and composed in German).

Witcraft was written for the general reader, although I don’t think it’s superficial. And it’s not the kind of treatment that the poet Stephen Spender complained about:

In the first lesson we were taught that J. S. Mill’s Utilitarianism meant the greatest happiness of the greatest number . . . in the next tutorial we were taught that Mill was wrong . . . The next philosopher was Locke. We were told what he thought and then why he was wrong. Next please. Hume. Hume was wrong also. Then Kant. Kant was wrong, but he was so difficult that no one could be sure of  catching him out [4].

The author hopes that his stories will bring out “the ordinariness of philosophy, as well as its magnificence and its power to change people’s lives”. He sees it as “a carnival rather than a museum: an unruly parade of free spirits, inviting you to join in and make something new” [9].

In that regard, I especially recommend the chapters that revolve around Adam Smith and David Hume (1751), John Stuart Mill and Mary Ann Evans, better known as the novelist George Eliot (1851), the pragmatic philosopher and psychologist William James (1901) and the intense and enigmatic Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein (1951). They are all thinkers worth knowing about.

By the way, Wikipedia says that Jonathan Rée is “a British freelance historian and philosopher”. Educated at Oxford, he was “previously a Professor of Philosophy at Middlesex University, but gave up a teaching career in order to have more time to think“.

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz

After reading Eve Babitz’s semi-autobiographical novel Eve’s Hollywood last year, I wrote:

I’m glad her books are being reprinted. I’m looking forward to reading her second novel, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., and a collection of her journalism, I Used To Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz. There are much worse ways a person could spend their time.

Slow Days, Fast Company, like her first novel, is a series of vignettes written in the first-person. “Eve” visits Bakersfield, Palm Springs and Laguna Beach. She is taken to a Dodgers game. She writes about Los Angeles when it’s windy and when it’s rainy. She hangs out with friends and lovers, none of whom are as interesting as “Eve” says they are.

The impression I got was that Eve or “Eve” exaggerates a lot. If Babitz used elements from her life, I bet she made them sound more glamorous or exciting than they were. If she made things up, she laid on too much glamour and excitement.

Slow Days was first published in 1977. This is from the back cover of the 2016 paperback edition:

Slow Days, Fast Compay is a full-fledged and full-bodied evocation of a bygone Southern California…. In ten sun-baked, Santa Ana wind-swept sketches, [Babitz] seduces us.

I Used To Be Charming, the collection of her journalism, might be better than Slow Days, but I bet she exaggerated there too. This time around, Eve failed to seduce.

City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis

I lived in and around Los Angeles for more than 30 years. After moving “back East”, I’ve seen occasional references to this book. People say you should read it if you really want to understand Los Angeles and Southern California. Here’s what Library Journal said:

Eschewing the character study that comprises most Los Angeles history, Davis concentrates on the ongoing and ignored ethnic and class struggles, formerly manifested by booster (pro-growth) exploitation, now replaced by exclusionary (no-growth) neighborhood incorporation, and by police control of Afro-American and Latino neighborhoods. His analysis of recent Los Angeles history is often chilling and–sad to say–more true than false.

I’d say the book’s general topic is power. We learn about real estate developers, the owners of The Los Angeles Times, the repressive Los Angeles Police Department, suburban homeowner associations, overseas investors and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. We also learn about the ways neighborhoods were kept all-white and the economics of the drug trade. Hollywood doesn’t get a chapter; the blue-collar town of Fontana, with the worst smog in the region, does.

The two most remarkable aspects of the book are the tremendous level of detail on certain topics (probably more than you want to know) and the pessimistic tone. City of Quartz was first published in 1990. When you read passages like the following, it’s hard to believe the city and the rest of the metropolitan area (now home to more than 13 million people) function at all thirty years later:

In Los Angeles, there are too many signs of approaching helter-skelter: everywhere in the inner city, even in the forgotten poor-white boondocks with their zombie populations of speed freaks, gangs are multiplying at a terrifying rate, cops are becoming more arrogant and trigger-happy, and a whole generation is being shunted toward some impossible Armageddon [288].

But I guess things weren’t all bad in 1990:

Setting aside an apocalyptic awakening of the neighboring San Andreas Fault, it is all too easy to envision Los Angeles reproducing itself endlessly across the desert with the assistance of pilfered water, cheap immigrant labor, Asian capital and desperate homeowners willing to trade lifetimes on the freeway in exchange for $500,000 “dream homes” in the middle of Death Valley [10].

That’s what passes for optimism in City of Quartz.

Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology — edited by Michael Krausz

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says relativism “has been, in its various guises, both one of the most popular and most reviled philosophical doctrines of our time”. I’d say of all time, at least since the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras said “man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not”. Plato strongly disagreed.

The encyclopedia offers this by way of introduction:

Relativism, roughly put, is the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning, and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that their authority is confined to the context giving rise to them. More precisely, “relativism” covers views which maintain that—at a high level of abstraction—at least some class of things have the properties they have (e.g., beautiful, morally good, … justified) not simpliciter [or simply, in themselves], but only relative to a given framework of assessment (e.g., local cultural norms, individual standards), and correspondingly, that the truth of claims attributing these properties holds only once the relevant framework of assessment is specified or supplied. Relativists characteristically insist, furthermore, that if something is only relatively so, then there can be no framework-independent vantage point from which the matter of whether the thing in question is so can be established.

So we might ask whether helium atoms have two protons. Physicists and chemists would say yes, absolutely. A simple-minded relativist might say it depends on our way of thinking or our conception of the world.

Or we might ask if human sacrifice is and has always been morally wrong. Many of us would say yes, absolutely. A relativist, not being simple-minded at all, might say it depends on what culture we’re talking about. It wasn’t morally wrong for the Aztecs 500 years ago. They thought it was necessary to stop the world from ending. It should go without saying that we’re totally against it now.

Trying to understand relativism better, I read this 500-page collection of articles on the subject. More than thirty philosophy professors and a few scholars from other disciplines weigh in. The articles were mostly interesting and not too technical. However, the only conclusions I reached are that there are many kinds of relativism, some more plausible than others, and that I need to take some time and think about which kinds, if any, are plausible to me.