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  • More Modesty, Less Charity
  • Christopher Janaway

Suppose someone asks, “Where does Nietzsche stand in the debate between today’s error theorists and non-cognitivists?” Wouldn’t that be rather like asking what Bismarck’s policy is on the European Union or whether Mahler thinks MP3 streaming is killing live music? We could certainly pose a more careful, speculative kind of question, and ask what these figures from the late nineteenth century “would have thought” about today’s issues (in the Bismarck case, people do ask this), and that exercise might be illuminating. But caveats apply: first, we should enter such an exercise in a hypothetical, exploratory frame of mind, using our imagination, but prepared to find no clear answer; second, any answer we produce can be illuminating about the historical figures only if we already have some independent grasp on where they stood on issues they addressed. But to think that the issues Nietzsche addresses are ours by default, and that our job is to look for his take on our issues, is to stray beyond what he “would have thought” into dubious questions of the former type, and ask what is his position, what does he think—in effect—about us?

Nietzsche diagnosed the problem in advance: “Lack of historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers.” He offered a corrective: “what is needed from now on is historical philosophizing, and with it the virtue of modesty” (HH I:2). Sometimes philosophers maintain that the chief virtue required in interpreting Nietzsche is not modesty, but charity. I want to question this. (As others have done. See esp. Tom Stern, “‘Some Third Thing’: Nietzsche’s Words and the Principle of Charity,” The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 47 [2016]: 287–302; R. Lanier Anderson, “Overcoming Charity: The [End Page 240] Case of Maudemarie Clark’s Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy,” Nietzsche-Studien 25 [1996]: 307–41; and Paul S. Loeb, “Eternal Recurrence” in The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche, ed. Ken Gemes and John Richardson [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013], 663.) I shall be arguing for more critical reflection on how we conceive our practice, and ultimately in favor of cultivating open-mindedness and pluralism about aims and methods.

Nadeem Hussain has recently targeted an extreme version of interpretive charity for criticism. After a rigorous search through various recent interpretations, Hussain reaches the conclusion: “one may well think . . . that we do not have adequate textual grounds for ascribing any particular metaethical view or stance to Nietzsche” (“Nietzsche’s Metaethical Stance,” in Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche, 412; see also J. Wilcox, Truth and Value in Nietzsche: A Study of his Metaethics and Epistemology [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974], 5; Brian Leiter, “Nietzsche’s Metaethics: Against the Privilege Readings,” European Journal of Philosophy 8 [2000]: 278–79; Andrew Huddleston, “Nietzsche’s Meta-axiology: Against the Sceptical Readings,” British Journal of the History of Philosophy 22 [2014]: 339). He then reflects that attempts to ascribe various such views may have been influenced by a “‘principle of hyper-charity’: if p, then Nietzsche believes that p.” That hyperbolic principle is clearly a nonstarter once made explicit, and Hussain’s point is not that anyone holds it, but that people sometimes write as though they did. We may wonder whether people sometimes stray close to implicit affirmation of other principles such as: “If not-p, then Nietzsche does not believe that p”; “If recent empirical evidence suggests that not-p, then Nietzsche does not believe that p”; “If p is implausible (to us), then Nietzsche does not believe that p”; “If p is more interesting (to us) than q, then Nietzsche believes that p.” Some of these may seem less blatantly wrongheaded than Hussain’s “hyper-charity,” but they are all questionable. They all represent constraints on our being able to believe what Nietzsche appears to say—on our finding Nietzsche to believe something true, plausible, supported by later evidence, and more interesting than something else he could have believed.

It is no surprise—nor indeed a criticism—that philosophers should be concerned with finding things true, plausible, supported by evidence, and more interesting than alternative beliefs. But if that is your exclusive concern...


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