“If we could first know WHERE we are, and WHITHER we are tending, we could then better judge WHAT to do and HOW to do it.”
— Abraham Lincoln
June 16, 1858
Of relatively recent thinkers, perhaps no clash of ideas has been greater than that between Francis Bacon and Friedrich Nietzsche. And perhaps no clash better explains where we are today, intellectually, how we arrived here, and where we are tending.
Bacon famously identified what he considered four main errors in the human attempt to gain knowledge of the world in which human beings find themselves. He called these errors “idols,” suggesting that these are ideas held, affirmed, praised and celebrated without being thoroughly investigated — which is why so many minds hold so many false ideas for long periods of time, sometimes spanning generations, centuries, even millennia.
This was key to Bacon’s project: establishing a method that would lead to the discovery of objective knowledge. Objectivity was both his goal and his assumption, even though he did not use that particular phrase. He believed objective knowledge was possible — that was his assumption. And he believed the human mind could train itself to follow a “new method,” a novum organum, that would aid in discovering objective knowledge — that was his goal.
Bacon, of course, was not the first to try and figure out how a mind might understand objective truth. Similar efforts stretch all the way back to Aristotle, and even Socrates. Whatever might be said about the “novum organum” that Bacon designed, which became the basis of what later was referred to as the “scientific method” — and which has been scrutinized, criticized, and challenged by many — still, we are free to inquire about the ASSUMPTION held by Bacon and many before him: Is objectivity possible?
NIETZSCHE CONTRA BACON
Arguably, no one questioned, no one challenged, no one rejected Bacon’s assumptions AND goals more than Friedrich Nietzsche, a man Sigmund Freud respected so much that he once remarked that no person had more self-understanding than Nietzsche.
For Nietzsche, objectivity is an illusion, a hopeful, unreal dream. In an ironic twist, Nietzsche argued that objectivity was THE idol among scientific and philosophic thinkers — that objectivity was nothing more than an unfounded assumption held, affirmed, praised and pursued by scientists and philosophers who never bothered to investigate whether their assumption was true, or real, or even possible.
For Nietzsche, ALL science and ALL philosophy is mere perspective. And where Bacon never used the particular term “objectivity,” Nietzsche DID use the term “perspective,” often. It’s not inaccurate to sum up Nietzsche’s life work as “perspectivism.” No objectivity. No truth. No knowledge. Only perspectives.
For Nietzsche, the dialectic, philosophic clash of competing ideas in the hope of identifying errors and discovering what is true…is futile, impossible. What others call philosophic “dialectic,” or the “clash of ideas,” was for Nietzsche merely the assertions of differing perspectives, each as unconnected to “truth” or “objectivity” as the others. And thus where all perspectives are, effectively, fantasies or illusions or “idols,” testing one arbitrary perspective by the standard of some other arbitrary perspective certainly will not lead to any objective understanding of any objective truth — because there is no objective truth to be objectively understood! This is the foundation of PHILOSOPHIC NIHILISM that Nietzsche illuminated for the world to see.
When ideas or perspectives do clash, the result is not truth. Rather, it is a contest of power. And the ideas held by those with the most power — whether that power be sheer physical might, as in war, or the power of a voting majority, as in a democracy — are the ideas that dominate the minds of a given time and place. What matters most, then, in Nietzsche’s perspective (oh, the irony!), is not the truth or objectivity of ideas, but power.
This is the foundation of the WILL TO POWER that Nietzsche illuminated and that would inform much of the world’s activities after Nietzsche. (Is it mere coincidence that one of the most popular Nazi propaganda films was titled Triumph Of The Will INSTEAD of Triumph of Truth or Triumph of Knowledge?)
THE VICTORY OF NIETZSCHE
In the intellectual clash between Bacon and Nietzsche, it’s hard to deny that Nietzsche emerged as victor.
Oh, sure, there are some pockets of scientists here and there who still have faith that the methods that guide their research can lead to objective knowledge, or at least fairly stable, predictable, reliable hypotheses. In this regard, some scientists today continue to be Baconians, of sorts. But that faith in objectivity is very limited to a very narrow range of subjects related to matter and motion. And even among physicists and chemists, those on the cutting edge will likely argue that reality is chaotic, unpredictable, and impossible to measure or observe or know objectively, if one reduces the scale of investigation to the smallest particles and waves of matter.
But, more relevant for most ordinary, non-scientific people, Nietzsche’s victory is virtually complete. Ask anyone their opinion about, well, most anything, and they will offer their “perspective.” Often they will phrase it in terms of their “values.” And just as quickly, they will insist that their perspective, their values, are no less valid than any other perspectives or values, regardless of whether they’ve investigated or tested or challenged their own or competing perspectives at all. This is the dogmatic confidence in relativism that Allan Bloom described in his best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind.
In this way, many people in our modern world are students of Nietzsche, even though most have never read a page of what he wrote or maybe never even heard of him. Honestly, given the tremendous success of Nietzsche, I find it surprising and a little amusing that schools of any kind even exist any more. After all, if there is no truth, then what might it mean to be “educated?” What is there to “learn?” If no perspectives are “wrong,” and none are “right,” then how can ANYONE claim to “teach” anyone anything that might possibly be true?
If we are serious about our relativism, our nihilism, our perspectivism, shouldn’t we abandon the old model of “schools,” which assumed there was some truth to be learned, and replace them with perspective cheerleading camps? Find others who agree with your perspective, organize, and cheer and chant with each other while never questioning one’s self — THAT is what “education” looks like in a post-Nietzschean world. (And, in fact, that is what passes for education on many college and university campuses today. One need only spend a little time in academia to witness it firsthand, where those of opposing views frequently are shouted down, booed, and bullied off campus. So much for the robust testing of competing ideas and the pursuit of truth!)
PERSPECTIVISM: OUR IDOL TODAY?
Nietzsche is famous, or infamous depending on your view, for his attacks on religion. Save a few words of praise for Moses — mainly because Moses commanded a successful, powerful army — Nietzsche ridiculed and scorned Jesus, Buddha, and almost every religious sect of the ancient and modern worlds.
But one is mistaken if one assumes that the teachings of Nietzsche must be incompatible with the spirit of religion. In some respects, the opposite is true. Many religious thinkers and believers EMBRACE the Nietzschean emphasis on perspective, emphasizing that THEIR OWN religion is but THEIR OWN perspective, no less valid than any other. And as a “perspective,” religion has no burden to demonstrate or prove that any of its tenets are objectively true. Stated differently: Nietzschean perspectivism mixed with the spirit of religion easily fuels irrational religious fanaticism. This is not to say that all religion MUST be fanaticism. It is to suggest that religion infused with Nietzschean perspectivism, and divorced from any notion of objective reason, is a dangerous thing.
The fanaticism that springs from nihilistic perspectivism is, arguably, THE IDOL OF OUR CAVE today. It extends to subjects far beyond what most today would consider “religious.” Many modern people ASSUME that their comprehensive views about how they should live, how others should live, what power some should have over others, etc, is simply their “perspective” and as such is beyond any question or challenge or rational investigation. After all, is this not what fanaticism is — believing something while demanding that no one else question or challenge it?
Many people today, the students of Nietzsche, care not a whit if they cannot explain or defend intellectually the causes or beliefs they champion – nor do they care a whit if they cannot refute competing causes or beliefs – because in the end, all are mere perspectives, none more or less legitimate, true, or objective than any other. They care only to advocate and gain power for more of what they already believe. Advocacy and learning can sometimes go together, but certainly they are not the same things.
PERSPECTIVISM ADOPTED FOR POLITICS
Is this not a fairly accurate description of American politics today? Is this not why many people look LESS for intellectual, philosophic, or scientific explanations of the causes and beliefs they challenge? Is this not why many people look MORE for fellow cheerleaders and those who will increase the power behind the causes and beliefs and perspectives they champion? Is this not why people look MORE for anyone who can diminish, ridicule, and mock those with whom they disagree?
To be a political rock star today, one need provide no erudite argument or thesis. One needs no syllogisms, no principles, no historical evidence. One can simply call those of opposing views “idiot,” “ugly,” “loser,” or “asshat,” and one is deemed by one’s own choir to be courageous, maybe even genius. And let us be clear: Such juvenile name-calling goes on, daily, on both sides of the political aisle. If ever there was such a thing as philosophic statesmanship, it is dead and gone today.
Perhaps in some regimes this might be no serious concern. But it IS a concern in the United States. At least, it is a concern for me. Why? First and foremost because the United States is a self-governing regime, and therefore the opinions of citizens MATTER. Also, the United States has been the greatest experiment in freedom, the greatest anti-poverty program, the greatest anti-slavery movement, the greatest laboratory for anti-disease and anti-sickness innovation, the greatest regime of human progress, in ALL of human history. When we tinker with the United States, the stakes are very high for the simple reason that we Americans have much to lose.
Consider: When the very first colonists arrived on the shores of North America in the early 1600s, they lived not much differently than people had lived a thousand or even two thousand years earlier. They lived in abject poverty, by any definition of the term. They arrived with few clothes, no shelter, no medicines, no hospitals, no schools, no food, no reliable transportation, no efficient means of communication. But look at us today! The poorest American today lives in a way the greatest of kings, pharaohs, and caesars could not have dreamt a millennia or two or three ago.
All of this was the result of certain conditions that we Americans created, the conditions of freedom. Yet today we stand and blink, seemingly unaware of all we might lose as we naively go about changing the very conditions that helped lift so many out of the miseries that were so common in all earlier periods of human history.
THE RISK OF PERSPECTIVISM
Here’s the rub: The United States was founded by enshrining into public law and public consciousness certain moral and political and economic self-evident TRUTHS or PRINCIPLES.
- Americans believed that individual freedom, individual choice, and the right to use freely one’s own mind, body, and property however one wants in order to improve one’s life — and the freedom to protect one’s self effectively! — were ideas objectively true and right, rooted in the very fabric of human nature, observable, testable, knowable by all minds who took the time to investigate such things.
- Americans understood the relationship between supply, demand, and price, to be real and constantly changing as human needs and preferences change, not variables to be adjusted arbitrarily by bureaucratic fiat or government policy.
- They knew that when freedom and property are protected for ALL, then the productive creation of new wealth by SOME in no way prevents OTHERS from producing and creating new wealth for THEMSELVES. Just the opposite: They knew that as some invented and innovated, others would want some of those goods for themselves, and in order to trade for those goods the others would have to be inventive and innovative — and in that way, the creative production of wealth by SOME fuels the creative production of wealth by OTHERS.
- They embraced as moral truth the idea that no human being has any rightful claim to the labor of another human being, including the products and services that another invents or develops or offers, which is why the Americans abolished slavery shortly after founding a new regime. The needs of one person does not give that person a rightful claim to the mind or property of another. We know this principle to be true because we each know that NO ONE has a rightful claim to OUR mind or property. (If you think it wrong for a master to claim ownership of the labor of a slave, then so too you ought to think it wrong for one citizen to claim a “right” to the property, wealth, or technology invented by another.)
- They saw that competition breeds excellence, always, while monopoly breeds cruel injustice, which is why they were especially concerned about the only true monopoly in their presence, the only true monopoly that NEVER has competition: government.
- They rejected as utterly and objectively false all claims that some men have been appointed by God to rule others and control the thoughts, ideas, activities, and worship of others, which is why they created a government that rests upon CONSENT rather than on the dictates of an elite few, and why that government would have ONLY the few powers that THE PEOPLE granted to it through THEIR Constitution and that THOSE FEW POWERS should be used ONLY for the purposes of protecting the freedom, property, and person of each citizen — not violating the rights of and taking from some in order to give to others.
THIS is the foundation upon which ALL that we view as GOOD in America today was protected, built, invented, designed, produced, marketed, and sold. NOTHING is more threatening to these goods and that foundation than the view that there is NO TRUTH, that there are MERELY PERSPECTIVES. If one cares about the problem of poverty, the injustice of tyranny, the plight of the sick and diseased who can be helped with new medicines and new technologies, and the many goods that flow from freedom, then one ought to care about the great clash between Messrs. Bacon and Nietzsche. And if one is not familiar with that clash, one might consider brushing up on it.