Jul 15, 2023
“Value-based judgments assume a transcendent point of view and sooner or later, that way of thinking leads to God-talk and any such talk is strictly verboten.”
In the course of Western philosophy, one occasionally encounters a thinker whose work is so original that it is a stretch to locate it within any specific school or tradition. I have 3 such thinkers in mind (but of course there are others):
Nicholas of Cusa (c. 1450), Friedrich Nietzsche (c. 1885), and Ludwig Wittgenstein (c. 1940) – three gentlemen with different backgrounds, writing in different epochs, utter a common admonition, best expressed by Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
These are the meaning police. 20th century Analytic Philosophy rejected most of the Western philosophical tradition as being ‘meaningless nonsense’. Wittgenstein softened this assessment, relabeling it “important nonsense”, but nonsense nonetheless.
Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas? All nonsense, most of the time. Oh philosophers, how painful it must be to learn that you’ve spent your lives studying the equivalent of Edward Lear literature! It’s so, but take heart, what may be ‘nonsense’ is at least ‘important nonsense’, and that modification makes all the difference. After all, the same could be said of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti – ‘nuff said!
People have successfully poked holes in Cusa, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, but no one to my knowledge has successfully prosecuted a full-frontal assault on any one of them. Nor are they ever likely to. Their core positions are congruent with one another…and for my money, at least, virtually incontestable!
Have you heard this one yet? A 15th century priest, a 19th century atheist, and a 20th century academic walked into a bar… and they spent all afternoon together, drinking, laughing, and sharing ideas.
From their relatively solitary perches, these three non-conformists are part of what I call ‘the conscience of Western philosophy’. They impose standards that every philosophical system should have to meet in order to be taken seriously. Think of them and their ilk as the ‘Greek chorus’ that accompanies Intellectual History. But like other such choruses, their warnings often go unheeded.
“How dare you require my Truth to be meaningful!” So, moderns that we are, we ignore the warnings of conscience and go right ahead doing whatever it is that we wanted to do, or think, in the first place. We’ll talk nonsense if we want to, when we want to, and as much as we want to, and you can’t do anything to stop us! So there!
Nicholas of Cusa instructs us that the most we can say about God is… absolutely nothing. Any declarative statement about God merely takes us deeper into error. The highest number on Cusa’s Truth Scale is zero. Wittgenstein instructs us that the most we can say about Metaphysics is… absolutely nothing. But we’re here to talk about Nietzsche!
Nietzsche instructs us that the most we can say about Ethics is… (no surprise twist here) absolutely nothing. Value-based judgments assume a transcendent point of view, and sooner or later, that way of thinking leads to God-talk and any such talk is strictly verboten, but let Nietzsche speak for himself:
“What alone can our teaching be? – That no one gives a human being his qualities: not God, not society, not his parents or ancestors, not he himself…The fatality of his nature cannot be disentangled from the fatality of all that which has been and will be…it is absurd to want to hand over his nature to some purpose or other. We invented the concept ‘purpose’: in reality, purpose is lacking…
“One is necessary, one is a piece of fate, one belongs to the whole, one is in the whole – there exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole… But nothing exists apart from the whole!” (Twilight of the Idols)
In this work, one of his last and written in the final year of his sanity (1888), Nietzsche ventures a summation of the views he articulated over the previous 16 years. In contrast to dualism, determinism, and materialism, Nietzsche offers a refreshing ontology based on the concept of “the whole”. In that sense, he anticipates by 50 years Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism and by 100 years the New Age concept of Gaia.
All values are qualities, but not all qualities are values. According to Augustine et al., all qualities are good. To the extent that anything is not good, it is just deficient in some good quality. Criminals are not ‘bad’, they are just ‘insufficiently good’.
All qualities are good, but most are not normative. To the extent that a quality is normative, it is a value. Take painting, for example. Red and blue are qualities. They are not normative; the artist may use either freely. Beauty is the operative value…and it is normative. The artist must strive for ‘beauty’ however she conceives it. Color is a choice (quality); beauty is a norm (value)!
As Picasso once famously said, “If I don’t have red, I use blue;” the results speak for themselves.
The Old Testament Book of Job, one of the earliest examples of philosophical literature in the West, is a 40 chapter exposition (in dramatic form) of the concept of values. In Job, values are normative…even for God!
But not for Nietzsche! In fact, the very concept of ‘norms’ has fared badly over the most recent 150 years. Norm appears to conflict with Will and like two-year-olds the world over, we are all about our Will.
The notion of ‘norms’ is incompatible with a ‘flat universe’ (speaking ontologically, not cosmologically). That’s a problem for us because a ‘flat universe’ is virtually synonymous with a ‘democratic universe’, and we are in love with the idea (if not the reality) of democracy.
Norms only have a home in hierarchical universes, and we hate hierarchies of any sort: nobility, aristocracy, clergy, bureaucracy, umpires, one-percenters…you name it. But A can only be normative for B if A exists apart from B; otherwise, A is just part of the structure of B (i.e., not a value, not a norm).
So, we can honor Cusa by remaining silent about God and we can honor Wittgenstein by remaining silent about Metaphysics. No problem, I’m more interested in football anyway! But to honor Nietzsche, we would need to remain silent about values…and that proves to be very difficult, if not impossible.
Take Albert Camus, an important 20th century author, for example. Camus begins his master philosophical reflection (1942), The Myth of Sisyphus, with a blistering attack on the concept of normative values. He is paying proper homage to Nietzsche; but then, about halfway through, he veers off:
“I cannot conceive that a skeptical metaphysics can be joined to an ethics of renunciation…”
He rejects the free choice of mystics the world over (Taoists and Dominicans alike) who prefer a contemplative life to the hurly burly of the daily grind. But what gives Camus the right to reject anything? Effectively, he is imposing his own normative values:
“…What counts is not the best living but the most living…value judgments are discarded…A man’s rule of conduct and his scale of values have no meaning except through the quantity and variety of experiences he has been in a position to accumulate…”
Jaw dropping! Value judgments are discarded…unless they have to do with the quantity and variety of experiences. In place of the traditional values of Beauty, Truth and Justice, Camus substitutes Quantity and Variety. Quantity may be the new quality, but as a ‘value’ it is still normative. The 2nd half of Sisyphus provides a litany of lifestyles that Camus judges to be consistent with a recognition of the Absurdity of Existence.
Working backwards, who made Camus the arbiter of consistency? On what does he base his assessments if not on transcendental values? Otherwise, we’re just dealing with his neurotic prejudices and bourgeoisie tastes. Sisyphus would then be reduced to a psychological monograph rather than a true work of philosophy.
And who made Quantity and Variety normative, or what makes them so? According to Nietzsche, the source of such norms, like any norms, if they are real and truly normative (not just options), must be transcendent. Somehow, Camus misses, or ignores, this.
Much as I admire Camus, and enjoy reading his work, it is clear to me that he is the very paradigm of Sartre’s bad faith. Camus himself sums it all up spectacularly: “For on the one hand, the absurd teaches that all experiences are unimportant, and on the other it urges toward the greatest quantity of experiences.” Really? Someone wrote this?
Do you ever suffer from insomnia? I find sometimes a good, heartfelt belly laugh helps me relax. So next time you’re tossing about, imagine Nietzsche’s reaction had he been able to read The Myth of Sisyphus. At first, he would have been ‘all puffed up’ – well, as puffed up as Nietzsche could ever get. “How gratifying to see that my work has had such an impact,” he might have thought. And then…OMG! (I can’t stop laughing just thinking about it. The expression on his face! Priceless.)
Nor is Camus an outlier. It seems that bad faith runs in the community of philosophers. The French Existentialist Camus sells out Nietzsche; but at the other end of the ideological see-saw, A.J. Ayer, the English Logical Positivist, follows the exact same trek. First, he denies the reality of transcendental values and then he proposes his own such values, e.g. kindness.
We appreciate kindness because we accept the reality of transcendental values, but what makes kindness normative for Ayer and his lot? Who says it’s better to be kind than not? Not everyone! Think Machiavelli, Sorel, even Stalin. So, what makes it so, Professor Ayer?
So we honor Cusa and Wittgenstein and Nietzsche, but then we systematically ignore them. Our attitude toward ‘the conscience of Western philosophy’ is similar to the attitude of many professed Christians toward the teachings of the Church. For you, good; for me, not so much!
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.