- Nietzsche, Psychology, and First Philosophy
It has not been easy to accommodate what the philosopher Bernard Williams once called the "insistent continuities" between Nietzsche's concerns and our own while also acknowledging, as Williams certainly did, his challenge to the now-canonical understanding of philosophy in anglophone (and, increasingly, not only anglophone) countries. In line with such an understanding, Nietzsche has been read as a philosopher in the tradition of David Hume, an empirically minded thinker whose deep respect for science inspired him to try to explain all human behavior in the same causal, deterministic terms that explain the movements of inanimate objects. On this reading, when Nietzsche praises psychology as "the queen of the sciences," he is, if not actually thinking of, then at least anticipating the empirical science of today; and his extraordinary attacks on morality are squarely located within the terms of contemporary ethical debate. The trouble is that in this way Nietzsche's views turn out to be not just insistently but seamlessly continuous with ours. And so, little is made of his disdain for what passes as "reason" in philosophy, his startling charge that science (all science, including the humanities) is not the liberator of the spirit but the last stronghold of religious prejudice, and most everything else that makes reading him as disturbing as it is exhilarating. Impressed by the disturbing aspects of his thought, another approach—often influenced by the French "thought of '68"—finds in Nietzsche a wholesale rejection of traditional philosophy. This "first of the last metaphysicians" (in Ronald Hayman's apt phrase) breaks completely with everything "the West" has thought about Man, Nature, and God, and calls for a radically new language whose arrival is supposed to be as imminent as its nature is unpredictable.
Robert Pippin situates himself between these two extremes, and it is no accident that he dedicates his book to Williams's memory. Psychology is for [End Page 361] Pippin not today's empirical science but the thought of the French moralists, especially Montaigne. He takes Nietzsche's fundamental questions regarding the grounding of values in modernity to be continuous—but his answers in fundamental tension—with our own concerns. The norms that govern human behavior change through history and, with them, so does what counts as "the human soul." We can neither decide to adopt these norms through a purely rational process nor is that something that merely happens to us through a causal mechanism over which we have no control: the two alternatives in play in contemporary philosophy, "the exclusive categories of 'event or action,' do not help us understand the phenomenon."
For Nietzsche, our most basic commitments depend on our historical position and have an affective component, which Pippin connects (not quite convincingly, in my opinion) with Platonic erôs. But his focus on the question of commitment directs him toward an understanding of human action, self-knowledge, and self-formation that does not fit easily within current philosophical orthodoxy. Pippin's is one of a small but growing number of works that, working through Nietzsche, recognize that orthodoxy is often little more than a heresy that has, for the moment, won the day.
Alexander Nehamas, Carpenter Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award. His books, which have appeared in ten languages, include Nietzsche: Life as Literature; The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault; Virtues of Authenticity: Essays on Plato and Socrates; and Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art.