In my early years I associated Nietzsche’s name with the phrase “God is dead,” but I didn’t know if he was supposed to be celebrating this assertion or decrying it, or something else entirely. In the early 1980s, when having a philosophical conversation with my late, former father-in-law, Joseph Patrick Cogan, Sr., he declared I was speaking like Nietzsche! This both flummoxed and intrigued me, but I didn’t immediately follow through, being so deep into my former career.
About a year ago, I happened across a little book: Nietzsche and Postmodernism by Dave Robinson, published by “Icon Books.” As I continue to re-read it I am brought back, by Nietzsche’s assertions, to the lessons of Alan Watts, a one-time Anglican priest and great teacher of Eastern ways, especially The Tao, Buddhism and Buddhism’s evolution to Zen. According to the author, Dave Robinson, Nietzsche said:
Human language has no coherent correspondence with the ‘real’ world. Language can never be ‘literal’ in the sense that it can describe the reality of the world to us. All language is inevitably metaphorical. Social and intellectual life depends on common consent, and this gives birth to a shared consensual reality in which concepts such as “knowledge” and “truth” inevitably emerge. These concepts are then reinforced by language. Such limited human ‘truths’ make social life possible. Unfortunately, they can also lead to a futile hunt for spurious and illusory metaphysical ‘truths’ that don’t exist.
- Logic and classification both originate from our need to control and dominate the world. The undoubted usefulness of logic hypnotizes human beings into believing they can use it to obtain transcendent or scientific truths. Logic is a very useful survival tool, but that is all it is.
- Words are useful to us because (they can) simplify and ‘freeze’ the chaos and complexities of our surroundings, but that is all they can do.
“Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.”—Joseph Conrad
“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”—Rudyard Kipling
“Words are dwarfs, but examples are giants.”—Swiss-German Proverb.
As an aspiring writer I have bemoaned the inability of words to describe the totality and essence of the reality I perceive. I reckon this is why we need art, poetry and music—none is necessarily “logical.” Back to Dave Robinson’s translated and interpreted words of Nietzsche:
Not only will our grammar control the ways in which our thoughts are organized but, more drastically, it will determine what sorts of thoughts it is possible for us to have. So the subject-predicate grammar we think with (causes us to) impose a subject-object framework onto the world and this encourages us to believe, for example, that there is an ‘ego’ or and ‘I’ that exists as a transcendent Cartesian entity somehow inside us, separate from our physical existence.
Here is Alan Watts on this very topic:
- Ego is a social institution with no physical reality. The ego is simply your symbol of yourself.
- The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego. (Emphasis added).
- Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth, or see the back of your head.
Another author who address this “subject-object” problem is Robert Pirsig, in his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature, which are inevitably dualistic, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do. I think that kind of approach starts at the end and presumes the end is the beginning. Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first within one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.
Where both Nietzsche and Watts also coincide is in showing that human faculties such as rationality and logic cannot take us out of our human state in order that we may view ourselves ‘outside of ourselves’, that is, ‘objectively.’ Therefore the ‘truth’ we perceive is a human truth, not a universal truth. (The words in this paragraph are mine; I welcome argument). Finally, I commend his succinct and well-documented summary for your reading. Here are just some headings of his many very brief chapters to give you the flavor:
- Nietzsche the Prophet
- Nietzsche and the Collapse of Christianity
- The Problem of Logic
- The Demolition of Science
- Belief in the Self
- The Genealogy of Morals
- Christian Values and Nihilism
- Eternal Return
- Nietzsche and Postmodernist FeminismIs this enough for you to chew on?
>> rationality and logic cannot take us out of our human state in order that we may view ourselves ‘outside of ourselves’, that is, ‘objectively.’ Therefore the ‘truth’ we perceive is a human truth, not a universal truth. (The words in this paragraph are mine; I welcome argument).
I would just add that both Watts and Pirsig (I haven’t read any Nietzsche) don’t want you to engage much in this logic/wordplay.
Both make arguments against defining things. Pirsig says that “quality exists before definitions” (paraphrase) and Watts says that to try to define something means to separate yourself from it, when in fact you and your thoughts (including your definitions) have no boundries (Watts says your reality is your experience, so to try to step outside your experience is to try to “bite your own teeth”).
Thanks for your elucidation.