U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thinking through Nietzsche’s Uses and Abuses, Part Two

Today I continue with my commentary on Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay, “On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life.” As I wrote this up, it became longer than reasonable for a blog post, so I’ll have to finish up with a part three. I’m banking on the extraordinary patience for ideas in our community. Maybe this is a neat theoretical companion piece for our other post today.

 Last time out, I set up Nietzsche’s basic framework. Three essential kinds of historical consciousness, monumental, antiquarian, and critical, in proper measure, were needed for a history for life. Unfortunately, moderns suffered from an excess of history. Nietzsche devoted most of the essay to that problem. On its face anyway, his thinking appeared uneven. Nietzsche made countless essential observations before appearing to tip over into the excessive tendencies of monumental historical consciousness. But Nietzsche could only go with the horse that brought him. He caricatured monumentalism to encourage a better sort of monumentalism. He himself was hardly immune from the modern sickness:

Going out in search of the dangers of history, we found ourselves exposed to all of them in the most acute manner; we ourselves bear the marks of those sufferings that afflict human beings of the modern age as a consequence of an excess of history, and this very treatise exhibits, as I freely admit, in the immoderation of its criticism, in the immaturity of its humaneness, in its frequent shifts from irony to cynicism, from pride to skepticism, its thoroughly modern character, the character of the weak personality.[i]

Nietzsche cited five interrelated reasons that made an excess of history dangerous. First, it weakened the personality by creating a bad contrast between the inner and the outer, the content and the form. Second, an excess of history made a particular age believe it possessed a rare virtue better than those who came before. Third, it undermined the instincts of a people, hindering the “maturation of the individual no less than that of the totality” (115). Fourth, it cast people in the role of latecomers or epigones. Finally, excesses like these could make people and a culture susceptible to cynicism or self-irony. I’ll move back and forth between these considerations rather than treat them consecutively.

Nietzsche attacked the raison d’etre of the modern, professional academic industry, its paradigmatic way of thinking, wondering whether its embrace of Hegelianism, historical process, and with it science doomed even the scant possibility of greatness, creativity, or originality from the start. Shrewdly, he never contended the outcomes of the new, scientific history were necessarily inaccurate. He dealt instead with the deeper problem of the industry’s fundamental assumptions. The modern academy only too blithely disenchanted the world, destroying the capacity of younger generations to judge, forestalling the development of a unified German culture.

The closer we got to the present, the historical industry proliferated, generating more and more books and articles. Historical accounts became so numerous that one could scarcely keep up with many possible explanations of even one event. Modern human beings carried around what Nietzsche called “a huge number of indigestible stones of knowledge” (109). At the same time, interpretations grew relatively static because people, now so knowledgeable, believed nothing under the sun appeared new anymore. This made deeds impossible. On occasion, my own students ponder this problem when they wonder how, with so many other accounts out there of the person or event they want to interpret, they could possibly contribute anything new to the conversation.

The outcome, among Nietzsche’s Germans, was a “weak personality” where inner and outer lives didn’t match, where the content and the form could never agree, where human beings were anxious, insecure creatures. By “indigestible stones of knowledge” Nietzsche meant that moderns consumed more knowledge than could be effectively processed. Overloaded with knowledge, the dialogue people had with themselves (thinking) became chaotic, because they constantly tried to make sense of the overload. Moderns perversely celebrated the presumed richness of this inner life, thinking it a sign of cultivation. But by spending so much time consuming historical knowledge without ever digesting it fully, taking in more and more without adequately processing, Germans forgot to cultivate the world they shared with one another, allowing it instead to become ugly or alienating. With so much effort expended upon confused inner lives, it was easier copy other things like dress or architecture from other places. For example, in manner or style, German people outwardly resembled French people. Like thinkers who made a similar move, Nietzsche thought the Greek polis a good example of a more unified culture, where, what Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition called “the space-between,” or the world held in common better matched the amount of knowledge available for processing. If thrown back in time, moderns would find the Greeks remarkably ignorant of the world of facts around them. While the Greeks didn’t lack for epics or civic rituals commemorating great deeds, they didn’t, strictly speaking, have what moderns would call “history.”[ii]

This overload of knowledge also meant no one felt very comfortable living intentionally, for/or with a philosophical position. For example, an Epicurean should live like an Epicurean atomist, read Lucretius all of the time, get down with “the swerve,” build a world around its principles. Moderns kept ambitions like that to themselves—if they thought about them at all. They didn’t build worlds with consistent philosophical scope or unity. One does think of the utopian plans and projects among the generation immediately preceding Nietzsche, phalansteries or the like, but their visions set them apart; they gave up the attempt to transform or shape the totality where they found it. Much closer to the present, Nietzsche’s concerns make me think of the revelation, late in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, that Alfred Lambert, the paterfamilias in the story, kept secret a much thumbed-over volume of Schopenhauer. In good, tragi-comic, modern fashion, Alfred kept it all to himself, wracked with inner turmoil, struggling vainly to order his world only to lose his marbles, fighting mightily down in his suburban basement against the willing self that might have afforded him a little comfort.[iii] He became a hopeless parody of his inner life.

Weak and unsure of ourselves, we ransacked the past for examples of how to feel, thinking any historical information as good as any other, having no skills of taste or measurement to judge seriously other than “objectivity.” Nietzsche dredged up some unfortunate metaphors to bring the point home: “we are dealing with a race of eunuchs; and for a eunuch one woman is just like any other woman, woman-in-herself, the eternally unapproachable—and hence it makes no difference what you do, as long as history itself remains neatly ‘objective’ and is preserved by those who themselves can never make history” (120).

Thinking we had reached an accumulated knowledge greater than those before us, we found it inappropriate to stand in genuine judgment. Being late to the show made us collectively confident and individually cautious. Everyone knew better today, so why challenge current thinking? Detached, scientific historians served a kind of truth, but too often without hard-won justice. Objectivity made things easy, because it was hard to tell when the urge for justice appeared as colossal unfairness or fanaticism. To truly stand in judgment was rare and even beautiful among human virtues for just this reason. It took courage, exposing those who acted in its name to the judgment of posterity. I remember being taught several times never to judge those in the past by the standards of the present. “Detachment” as I understood it then meant the attempt to stay above the fray of contemporary events. Otherwise one can never truly understand or fully appreciate the strange world of those who came before us.

Nietzsche had no fundamental problem with thinking like that, provided we did it in the name of truth and justice in the broadest sense, as a stern challenge to the present age. If we did it for other reasons—blind devotion to method itself, or “objectivity”—then it posed serious problems. His moves here may seem a little strange, because they run deeper than a simplistic debate between “presentism” and “detachment.” He thought the “detached” view became vanity when it reinforced the conventional thinking of the dominant institutions in our own time and place. “Objectivity” in that case, amounted to what some historians today call “presentism.” Detachment indulged the scientific standards of the present age when, with our greater accumulation of facts, we assumed we always already knew more than those in the past, as if that were a better thing. It meant we could reconstruct a past somehow truer or more empirically satisfying than the one experienced by historical actors themselves. This “frightful” position was “competent, rigorous…honest” but “narrow-minded” (125). We ignored the historical contingency of our own science, or for that matter the concept of history itself. Our interventions banished the ahistorical mystery or creative spark that had moved the artist or thinker in the first place.

But always thinking our present age better than the previous ones made things even worse if cloaked under the banner of “objectivity.” In that case we assumed justice meant current day, popular beliefs. In either case, the rigorous or duplicitous, assuming we always knew more now only reinforced the “canonical” thinking of our own time and place. We should instead use history to stand against the popular opinions of the present day (125).

A solution, in his mind, was a different, more vigorous, and elitist kind of “presentism.” (I’ll discuss this issue is in more detail next time out.) Those best equipped to shape the present and future, the superior and experienced among us, could best judge those in the past. Presumably most of us historians were hewers of wood and drawers of water, working patiently in the vineyard so the genuine actors could effectively synthesize those small insights into greater insights useful for the present. But doesn’t this sound roughly like a Hegelian notion? The reader undoubtedly feels in Nietzsche’s essay what the literary critic Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence.” Undoing his forebears again (Bloom’s “kenosis”), Nietzsche condemned the quasi-Hegelian excess of history because it would eventually make all of us hewers of wood and drawers of water. By teaching historical scholarship or historiography, or what we call “secondary literature,” academics made young people bite off more than they could chew, setting them up for mediocrity. We surrendered the possibility of something new to what had become something already. We set young people on the road to becoming scholars before they were prepared for it, before they had a chance to create for themselves. In the process, the academic industry stunted the growth of its young people because they didn’t have enough experience under their collective belts to actually make judgments useful for their present needs. Instead, historians taught methods (again, detachment or objectivity), training budding historians to contribute to an industry and to the vastness of our accumulated knowledge rather than to life itself. He put it this way:

Believe me, when human beings are forced to work in the factory of scholarship and become useful before they are mature, then in a short time scholarship itself is just as ruined as the slaves who are exploited in this factory from an early age. I regret that it is already necessary to make use of the jargon of slave owners and employers in order to describe such conditions, which in principle should be conceived free of utility and freed of the necessities of life. But the words “factory,” “labor market,” “supply,” “utilization,”—along with all the other auxiliary verbs that egotism now employs—involuntarily cross one’s lips when one seeks to depict the youngest generation of scholars. Solid mediocrity is becoming more and more mediocre, and scholarship more and more useful in the economic sense. (136)

Nietzsche’s “labor market” encouraged a “congenital grayness” in a culture, where we instinctively believed humanity had reached old age. He wondered whether this stemmed from a larger misunderstanding of a Christian world view, an adaptation of the medieval take on the idea of Last Judgment. History acted like a “disguised theology” because the accumulated weight of the past showed us the end was always nigh. Modern scholarship institutionalized in a destructive way, one of the inspired insights from the Middle Ages, the memento mori, the reminders that we all died, that this world, being fleeting, only anticipated another. The academic industry had replaced the Church though, giving meaning to a larger world process culminating in our own late age, as if it were complete. Rather than a history for life, we indulged in the moment of death, the end of knowledge. Here Nietzsche lobbed some criticism at Hegel and his disciples. Going back to a previous point, a scientific, quasi-Hegelian notion of history enshrined the accumulation of factual knowledge–without mystery or enchantment–in the cold light of a rationality continuously reaching toward its object in the present.

I use a concrete example of this tendency with my students all of the time. I pick up a dry erase marker from the board, hold it up like a holy talisman and say something like, “can you imagine the incredible accumulation of civilization and human knowledge necessary to create this marker?” Of course, this is a joke because it reduces the world-historical to the trivial, but this is Nietzsche’s point. When I hold that marker up, I’m thinking about it under conditions of its sheer facticity, as an object in the world created by vast historical processes that given enough time and effort, I could certainly describe in a whole lot of fruitless detail.

How can anyone believe in making anything new when thinking about a historical process like that? A wondrous world chock-full of objects like my marker seems immovable. Today seems too vast and too complex to be any other way. So reverent for the accumulated past and for what historical scholarship reveals about it, we can’t help but live ironically. Is anything possible now? What’s the point?  I’ll stop with that cliffhanger ending and expand the critique next time out.

[i] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, “On the Utilities and Liabilities of History for Life,” in Unfashionable Observations, Richard T. Gray, trans. The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, vol. 2, (Stanford University Press, 1995), 158. Succeeding references in quotations.

[ii] For an interesting comparison to the idea of deeds, history and the Greeks, see Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1998), esp. 184-207

[iii] For those of us who have read The Corrections, this could partly explain that memorable sequence where Chip, as a young child, refuses to eat the revenge meal his mother made for his father after he returned home from work on the road and acted like a jerk. Alfred insists that Chip eat the awful plate before leaving the table, and so Chip sits there for hours in refusal until he falls asleep at the table. It’s the best part of the novel. It’s hard to know, after the revelation of the Schopenhauer later on, whether it was a battle of willing selves, or a mutual refusal of will and an embrace of suffering. Alfred embraces suffering because he refuses his fatherly will to release the child from the obligation to eat the meal? Chip suffers because he refuses to his will to eat the awful food and be done with it?

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Nice job of connecting this to K.L. Merritt’s post (wrote my comment on that one before reading this one).

    Don’t really have much else to say, except so far it’s not 100 percent clear to me to what extent you share (or don’t) N’s view that you are laying out. Presumably you wouldn’t do this at such length if you didn’t think the essay said important things, but the exact relation of your views to N’s is not completely clear to me. You seem to be mostly agreeing w him, but I’m not sure exactly where exegesis ends and your own views begin (if I can put it that way).

    Btw, do you have your students read any other philosophical or methodological reflections about the ‘uses’/practice of history etc., or is N. it?

    • I guess I’m what Nietzsche would call “a weak personality” in that I’m still turning over lots of what he has to say in my own mind. I want to be fair to him before doing more with my own position, so I thought readers might appreciate a good close reading, sort of classroom notes. I plan to do more with my position in the final installment, so I hope you stay tuned for that one. The sum total of the three should add up to something like an extended commentary on Nietzsche’s essay.

      That said, there’s lots to like in Uses and Abuses. I assign it and go back to it over and over again because I think much of it is essential. I think he’s mostly right about how the academic industry works; I like his sophisticated take on the problem of “presentism;” I think his three categories of historical consciousness are immensely useful, just to name a few things.

      As for things I assign, when I feel frisky we do Gadamer’s “The Problem of Historical Consciousness.” I also like this very accessible book by Sam Wineburg for students, _Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts_. Both of those dovetail pretty nicely with Nietzsche.

      • Something that might complement what you’re assigning, and possibly also interest your students, is P.T. Jackson, “The Present as History,” in R. Goodin and C. Tilly, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis (2006).

        The author is a political scientist but one whose interests place him fairly far outside any mainstream, notional or otherwise, of U.S. political science. The piece discusses how the contours and meanings of an ‘event’, contemporary or in the past, get constructed or ‘negotiated’, taking as its example Howard Dean’s now-notorious speech to his supporters after the Iowa caucuses in 2004.

        Your students may, in the words of your post, “wonder how, with so many other accounts out there of the person or event they want to interpret, they could possibly contribute anything new to the conversation,” but how many of them have thought about the question of what makes an occurrence ‘an event’ in the first place? This piece would get them to do that.

        An ancillary benefit of assigning work by a contemporary non-historian (doesn’t have to be this piece, could be other things) is that it would underscore that historians don’t have a monopoly on the discussion about ‘what it means to think historically’ and related questions, which is something, IMO, that it’s good for undergraduates — perhaps especially undergraduates sitting in a history class — to realize.

  2. Thanks for that suggestion. I’ll give that piece a read. And yes, I completely agree. Some of the most interesting thinking about historical thinking is often done by people other than historians. For example, philosophers have been writing about “events” for a while. There tends to be a certain hostility to theorizing among some of our number, not to mention some natural feeling for guarding turf, which sometimes gets in the way of possibilities. I think this is why some of us are drawn to intellectual history.

    All of this makes me think of one of my favorite lines from Henry Adams’ Education, “Historians undertake to arrange sequences, — called stories, or histories — assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably reply, with one voice, that they had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about.”

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