Monday, June 9, 2014

149. Nietzsche as a pragmatist

 There is an obvious connection, recognized by many, between Nietzsche and pragmatism. What they share is perspectivism and contribution to life as a criterion for validity. But how, in more detail, do they compare?

They both reject the separation of subject and object, of thought and world, as well as the separation of fact and value, of ‘is’ and ‘ought’. The subject develops its knowledge and ethics in interaction with the world, and truth is judged in relation to purposes of actions.

In mainstream pragmatism (of Peirce, James, Dewey), ideas are revised when they fail in their application. I add, and I am sure Nietzsche would have concurred, that ideas also arise to create or respond to novel opportunities.

Mainstream pragmatism assumes that in the end knowledge will converge, in the limit, to objective truth. Nietzsche, by contrast, thinks of an ongoing creative destruction without any guarantee or indication, or even sense, of such convergence, and I go along with that.

According to mainstream pragmatism truth, or adequacy, or validity, is judged on the basis of utility or success in practice. Of course, that depends on the perspective one takes. In a wider view of pragmatism not everything is focused on practical ends. For Nietzsche, merit of ideas lies not in their direct contribution to utility, indeed Nietzsche despised that criterion. The criterion of usefulness or success raises the question: useful for what?[1] Lies and cheating can be very useful. Usefulness should be related to views of the good life. For Nietzsche that is life which contributes to longer term, supra-individual flourishing of human life, in spiritual growth, and self-overcoming. Lies and cheating don’t offer that.

Earlier in this blog I adopted an Aristotelian virtue ethic, with multiple, often incommensurable values, including honesty, openmindedness, courage, integrity, and prudence, in finding a way between extremes, depending on conditions. One recognizes several of these values in Nietzsche.

I propose that one can debate dimensions of the good life across cultures and communities, often finding at least partial overlap, in some degree of family resemblance.

Some dimensions of the good life are incommensurable between cultures, and this is problematic but not necessarily insuperable. They can be incommensurable already within cultures and even within views of an individual. At least partial agreement need not be hopeless and there need not be surrender to power and force. The paradox is that while absolutes are supposed to provide the basis for adjudication between different perspectives, they doin fgact lead to struggles of power and force, since they do not allow for leniency, compromise or hybrid.

Nietzsche would have railed vehemently against Rorty’s brand of pragmatism, with consensus in a community as the criterion of validity. He would have denounced that as a vile manifestation of the ‘herd mentality’.

Nietzsche would be less sanguine than mainstream pragmatism concerning facts and empirical science, wary as he was of ‘scientism’. Here, I take a middle position, with the view that while in principle facts are theory laden they can nevertheless often serve to settle disputes between theories.

Pragmatism is sympathetic to democracy and religion, while Nietzsche is not[2], at least not to theistic religion. If, however, one adopts a wider view of religion, as I have done in this blog, as a striving for transcendence including transcendence that is immanent, in this life, and horizontal, towards something bigger than the self, in this world, then I propose that Nietzsche would qualify.

What most distinguishes Nietzsche from pragmatism is his notion of the will to power, the overcoming of resistance as a value in itself. And I share the doubts on that, as I argued earlier.

[1] Cf. Rossella Fabbrichesi, 2009, Nietzsche and James, A pragmatic hermeneutics, Economic Journal of pragmnatism and American philosophy.
[2] See Richard Rorty, 1998, Berthelot: pragmatism is romantic utilitarianism, in Morris Dickstein (ed), The revival of pragmatism, Duke University Press, p. 21-36.