R. Kevin Hill is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Pre-Law Advisor at Portland State University. He is the author of Nietzsche: A Guide for the Perplexed, and Nietzsche's Critiques: The Kantian Foundations of His Thought; this latter is one of the very few in Nietzsche scholarship to really look at Nietzsche in terms of the philosophical air he breathed. His recent translation of The Will to Power came out from Penguin last year; his translation of The Joyous Science is due immanently.
I first met Hill online via his blog, Among the Poseidonians. His posts seemed at times to bespeak a deep pessimism on current affairs, but the notion of simply shrugging off politics never occurs to him; he is both a pragmatist and an idealist (though I don't know if he'll agree to either of those terms) -- politics matters to Hill; it therefore matters that it be done realistically. As it happened, I was at this time just embarking on a programme of trying to re-evaluate my previous political cynicism, without denying the genuine (and, I still think) well-grounded sense of disenfranchisement that cynicism was rooted in. I have found Hill to be a consistently intelligent and unpredictable challenge as this re-evaluation continues. I just never quite know where he is going to land on any question; it would be hard to overstate just how refreshing this is. Later, we compared notes on Nietzsche, the tenability of classic-liberal centrism, and David Bowie, among other things.
I should say, however, the first post of Hill's I read was not political; it was the almost terrifying account of the death of his son, a piece of writing I am still shaken by. When, some years later, I found myself in the wake of my brother's suicide, Hill was the first person I turned to who I knew had personal experience with it. It would be atrocious to speak of such experience as one would an item on a résumé; but Hill knows what he is talking about when he talks about the intertwining of the personal and the philosophical.
This interview, like all of mine, is a composite of a spoken conversation (which in this case happened in Portland in late July, 2018), and some follow-up written exchange. All of this I have edited together and sculpted, with an eye to smoothing the transitions -- some of which may still show. In the first half, we talk about Hill's translations of Nietzsche, his re-evaluation of Peter Gast's work as Nietzsche's editor, and the strong and weak points of Nietzsche's thinking and its current reception. (Some of what Hill describes about Peter Gast's work reminded me of my own as I carefully worked on the interview; I hasten to add that I have, of course, received Hill's imprimatur before clicking "publish.") In the second half, we discuss, among other things, contemporary academic and political discourse in the United States, and the plausibility or lack thereof of any reinvigorated civic republicanism. In both, the interweaving of the personal and the general are a continual subtext and sometimes the explicit matter. Despite this emphasis on the personal, there are many things I wish we had had time to touch on, including: the state of contemporary Nietzsche scholarship; religion, especially Bahá'í; local politics; and pop culture. I commend Among the Poseidonians to you. You could do worse than start here or here -- posts which are seven or so years old but give in my opinion a good (though rough) in-the-round impression of RKH as a person.
This is Part 1 of the interview. Part 2 is here.
* * *
Skholiast.: Now that you have finished the Nietzsche translations – in retrospect, did you set out to do this, or did you back into it? Did you think to yourself early on: Nietzsche translations – that’s what I want to do?
R. Kevin Hill: I had never considered the idea of doing Nietzsche translations; frankly, I hadn’t thought that my skills in the language were sufficient. My original intentions early in my career were to work on secondary sources – scholarship on Nietzsche – then get tenure, and commence writing in my own voice; I had the rudiments of some projects in mind for when that time came.
Then the death of my son Tristan happened shortly after I received tenure. And I found – I didn’t want to speak in my own voice for a while. It derailed that idea – for a time.
But – after a while – I felt that I had to do something; I couldn’t just sit around.
S.: And I gather that it wound up taking a tremendous amount of time and energy – especially when beginning under those circumstances. May I ask: did this work run parallel to your experience of grieving, or did it entwine itself more deeply, as, say, an expression of grief?
R.K.H.: The grief was what occasioned the projects, as a means of distraction. And for a time they did provide me with a distraction. I think that by the time I was mostly recovered, the projects had become interesting to me in a way that they weren’t at first, and ultimately, even transformative.
S.: After my brother's suicide, you wrote to me that we experience deaths, and especially these deaths, as wrong in some way and can thus respond to them in contradictory ways letting go, and holding on. But let go too easily, and it's as if the life that is gone didn't matter; and hang on too long/too tightly, and one risks becoming mired in endless cycles of sorrow. The advice you gave me was: Just know that both of those responses come from our own love of life. Stay attuned to that love, and one can come out all right.
This advice (which spoke to an extremely real and raw aspect of my own experience) turned out to be very important for me as I navigating my own mourning – I have repeated it since to others; and one reason it helped was that it did not attempt to discursively address either side of the apparent dilemma. It attributed both of them to something deeper, let me see them as both valid and to trust them in their apparent contradiction. Now, in the retrospective light of this conversation and its occasion with the completion of your translations, some of this advice seems Nietzschean: affirm life, even with the suffering it contains. Do you trace it to that source in part, or at all?
R.K.H.: Absolutely. And also not! In Nietzsche there is this recurring celebration of tragedy, and I’ve always assumed that on some level he would have us interpret ourselves as tragic heroes. But there is a danger in that as well, because the image of oneself as a tragic hero can become a covert form of self-pity and a becoming enamored with death. Adolescents often experience something like this (which is one reason why people unfamiliar with him sometimes think Nietzsche adolescent). But the reality of death is not a beautiful work of art. On the blog I once said “Death is brutal and stupid and against everything.” What I took from Nietzsche and applied to my own grief was the determination to become a person with a life that I could affirm, in part because of Tristan’s death, and thus in some small way, to redeem it. To hang on too tightly may feel like a form of loyalty to the dead, but it is also to stand in judgment against life as it actually is, a life which included this loss. If I had a primary teacher though, it was Tristan, for I think he stood in judgment against his own life. And I got to see what that judgment produces: death, and tremendous pain in those who survive. To stand against that, I had to stand against my grief to some extent.
S.: So – so much (for now) for the personal genesis of the project. And the project itself?
R.K.H.: I had long thought that it would be an interesting project to dismantle the book The Will to Power, which is this notoriously constructed text, and try to understand what that process had been -- how had it been constructed, and was it really misleading (as many think) or not? I knew of many people, myself included, who relied on The Will to Power to a surprising extent in their own research.
S.: I’ve always considered it a sort of short-cut to or through the Nachlass .
R.K.H.: Exactly. So the way I decided to proceed was that I would justify all this textual archaeology by presenting it as a translation project.
S.: You mean, when pitching the idea.
R.K.H.: Right. But I didn’t think I would be able to do the translation myself. I enlisted the help of another translator, and we worked together for awhile. The original deal with Penguin was for three books – The Will to Power, The Genealogy of Morals, and The Joyous Science – and when the other scholar and I went our separate ways, Penguin divided up the tasks, and I got the task of finishing The Will to Power and of doing The Joyous Science, entirely on my own. So I took over the translation, in addition to all the textual research. It completely rewired my brain. I am infinitely more sensitive to language than I was before, and I have become much more of a critic and a historian than the philosopher I started as. But now that it is finished, I feel it’s time to speak as a philosopher again.
S.: Do you feel it has made you able to speak in your own voice?
R.K.H.: I do. Ironically, it’s because I have been so intimately entwined for so long with Nietzsche's voice that I’ve come to understand what it is to have a voice of your own. How one could operate in a way analogous to how Nietzsche operated, without imitating Nietzsche.
S.: Not how to be a poor Nietzschean – of which there have been many, but –
R.K.H.: How to do for oneself what Nietzsche did for himself. This is something that seems to have emerged from all of this textual research. Dealing with raw text, notebook material, much of it heavily reworked by Nietzsche – lots of crossing-out, interlineation, and so on –
S.: He wasn’t a first-thought-best-thought kind of writer?
R.K.H.: Very much the opposite. Any appearance of spontaneity in Nietzsche's prose is an absolute illusion.
S.: A studied and intentional illusion, it sounds like. And on the textual archaeology – did you find that Peter Gast was true to what you can discern of Nietzsche’s intentions?
R.K.H.: I have certainly come out of this project with a much higher opinion of Peter Gast’s work than I had when I embarked on it. Because The Will to Power does have this stigma attached to it, there is a tendency to blame those who were most closely associated with it – Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, and Peter Gast.
S.: But Elisabeth gets blamed for different things, and different reasons.
R.K.H.: That’s right. But one of the things I found is that there is next to no evidence that Elisabeth actually dealt with the text itself in any significant way. She was a promoter. I also had a real question concerning the nature of Peter Gast’s work. I went into the project expecting to discover all sorts of outrageous manipulations of the text. And that’s really not what I found.
S.: So where does the assumption come from? Do we just think, Well, Elisabeth was an anti-semite, so therefore she must have – ?
R.K.H.: I think it’s a motivated myth. We have to go back to what she actually did which was problematic. She presented the text – not as a lost Nietzsche manuscript which had been discovered and only needed to be tidied up to be published – but she had suggested in various places that there might very well be such a manuscript, and that it was lost. She never denied, however, that The Will to Power was a constructed text. That said, she encouraged people to believe that what they had succeeded in doing was re-creating a book by Nietzsche. She never denied that they had done the creating, using Nietzsche’s texts, so it wasn’t entirely dishonest; but she appealed to a certain kind of wishful thinking that one could have about a missing Nietzsche book.
Significantly, Peter Gast had intended the work to begin with a philological introduction explaining his methods and the text’s origin, and to have the book be called something like “Notes from the Revaluation Period.” Elisabeth scrapped this and replaced it with a much more grandiose Introduction, essentially claiming – “this is the essence of Nietzsche’s thought”.
Now we’ve known in the English-speaking world at least since Kaufman’s work in the 1960s that this is nothing more than an anthology of Nietzsche's notes. If you take it as such, it need not be misleading, assuming that the texts are sound. But there has been a motivated attempt to stigmatize the text, and this arises because there is a side to Nietzsche's thought that is very problematic –
S.: – for modern and postmodern liberal readers.
R.K.H.: In brief, I’d describe it as the vitalist side and the colonialist side. These are real aspects of Nietzsche’s thought, and – nobody wants that.
S.: It is true that no one seems willing to mount a full-blown apologia for colonialism, at least in polite company. But vitalism, in the wake of Deleuze's creative use of Nietzsche and Bergson, seems to be making inroads. Why do you call this is an “unwanted” aspect to Nietzsche?
R.K.H.: Well, it doesn’t have much to tell us that is consilient with how contemporary biology understands the world. And I get the impression that awareness of science is sufficient in the analytic philosophy community to sense that there is something intellectually disreputable there. Of course lurking in the background, we have a certain kind of disgusting fetishization of “health” and “vigor” which is linked to irrationalism, eugenics, “biopolitics” – the Nazis, ultimately. I don’t doubt that Nietzsche scholars are sensitive enough to this connection to want very much for it to go away. But nobody is willing, anymore, to say, “to hell with Nietzsche;” so an effort must be made to drive the demons of vitalism and colonialism out of Nietzsche, and into Elisabeth – and then drive Elisabeth off a cliff. Then your Nietzsche is purified; and the suppression of The Will to Power has been the instrument by which this is done.
S.: Even granting that Elisabeth acted questionably, is there an element of misogyny in this reconstruction?
R.K.H.: Hmm. Well, it is interesting that the “swine” that the demon has to be sent into is ultimately a woman. I tend to view Elisabeth’s enterprise charitably, as an attempt to preserve the memory of her brother’s thought, and this effort was ultimately successful, so one can’t help but be grateful for it. That said, she doesn’t strike me as having been a very nice person. Then again, it’s not clear that a task like the one she undertook is best undertaken by nice people.
S.: It's not as if there's no colonialism or vitalism in the books Nietzsche published in his lifetime, and – if The Will to Power does the notebooks justice (even if the topics addressed are often different) – I'd guess the notebooks are about equally problematic by those standards.
R.K.H.: That's right. And in my judgment, if you look at the text that Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari produced, in their historical critical edition of the Nachlass, and the text that Peter Gast produced, and compare them to the actual notebooks, both of these attempts to transform the notebooks into something readable strike me as being about equally problematic as well.
I also think there is something strange about a situation in which a major thinker has left behind notebooks and journals which are militantly dismissed as lacking the author’s imprimatur. No other figure is treated this way. If you go down the street into Powell’s Bookstore and look at the philosophy section, you will find in the Wittgenstein portion a dozen or more volumes that are all notebooks, manuscripts, lectures – and nobody says, well, you can’t treat this as the “real” Wittgenstein, because he never finished them or authorized them for publication. Aside from the Tractatus, this is the only Wittgenstein we’ve got.
S.: Heidegger, of course, is being trawled now for every last scrap, as though we fear we may be cheated of anything, no matter now negligible or tawdry. Maybe tawdry is even the point. Which makes a curious counter-point to your account of Nietzsche reception. Heidegger is tainted by Nazism and anti-semitism, and in the publication of the Black Notebooks, for instance, there’s a sort of need to know just how far the rot goes, and sometimes a sort of resentment that is eager to see it go very far indeed. But you are saying that in the case of Nietzsche, there’s a sort of bad-faith reluctance to look too closely; it’s easier to dismiss the unpalatable as just half-baked residua, or something we could easily excise.
R.K.H.: The treatment of Nietzsche in this respect is, I think, both motivated and suspect. I think the reason why people have avoided tangling with these texts is that it makes it harder to sanitize Nietzsche, if you have a full picture of all the different aspects of his thought.
S.: And of how they are interlinked. So then, do you conclude that Peter Gast did give us an apt, accurate, and complete portrait of this thinking – the gist? Did he really select the cream, so to speak?
R.K.H.: Ironically, Peter Gast’s intentions were very close to those of Colli and Montinari, in their critical edition. This is something that is very often not realized: the Colli-Montinari edition of the Nachlass is radically incomplete. The reason for this is that they worked with a selection principle which said; if a text bore a sufficient similarity to a published text of Nietzsche’s, they would eliminate it. Now this seems to me an extremely questionable methodology – though it may have certain practical advantages – but in any case it guarantees that the Colli-Montinari edition of the notebooks is maximally different from Nietzsche's published work, because everything similar to the published work is excluded. Peter Gast has become the symbol of the manipulated text, and Colli-Montinari the symbol of the pure and unalloyed text; but neither of these judgments is quite right. What Gast tried to do was to mine the Nachlass for the things Nietzsche didn’t say in his published writings, that Gast thought were worth hearing. Nietzsche had been trying to pull this material together as late as the summer before his final breakdown; but he was unable to successfully do so. He had set aside most of it, and produced a small number of very short books, and then collapsed. Peter Gast, who probably knew Nietzsche better than anyone else, made the judgement that had Nietzsche not collapsed, had he been given more time, he would have done something with this material – in other words, this was not writing that Nietzsche had rejected, but work he had not had time to polish and pull together. Over time, I came to view the project of The Will to Power in much the same way. This is a treasure-house of interesting suggestions, many of which do not find parallels in Nietzsche’s published work; they are worth reading and should be accessible –
S.: – and engaged: evaluated, weighed, wrestled with.
R.K.H.: But in terms of the selection and editing, for fairness and completeness’ sake I should mention that Peter Gast does two things, both of which I initially found questionable; only one of which I still consider that way. There are bits of text in the notebooks, where you don’t see a clear break on the page, but Gast has cut out a smaller chunk of text and turned that into a Will to Power section; so, in a sense, it has been taken out of context. Over time, I came to find that less problematic than I did initially. It is really not clear in the notebooks where discussions begin and end. The notebooks are chaotic and their arguments are somewhat amorphous in that respect; and I did not see a lot of indication of material being misleading because it had been taken “out of context” in this way.
S.: It didn’t seem to mean one thing in the notebooks and something else in The Will to Power.
R.K.H.: Right. But the other thing, and this I do consider very problematic, is that there are places where he will take two or more fragments, from radically disparate sources, and put them in proximity to each other so that you get the impression that there is a continuous discussion, when there never was.
S.: Do you mean he puts them on the same page, with different dates, or do you mean he puts them into the same paragraph?
R.K.H.: Oftentimes it’s a new paragraph, but the look on the page gives the impression that it is a single passage.
S.: I suppose this need not be philosophically misleading. If it doesn’t falsify the content --
R.K.H.: It is philologically misleading. There are of course always reasons why the texts are brought together, thematically. One of the advantages I was able to provide in the Penguin edition is that every time Peter Gast did this, when there was a gap (in the source material) between portions of the text, I put a centered asterisk on the page to indicate where one part ends and another begins, so although the notes still have the same Will to Power number as Gast assigned, the reader is aware that sometimes we’ve moved from one source to another.
Having said this – Peter Gast did not do this very often. It happens a handful of times, and I was able to flag it. And aside from it, I found no evidence of his having been willfully misleading; as I say, if anyone misled anyone it was Elisabeth in selling the idea of the book as Nietzsche’s masterwork. In the end I concluded that Peter Gast on the one hand, and Colli-Montinari on the other, had simply accomplished alternate selections of a fairly chaotic archive, and I no longer think of the Colli-Montinari published Nachlass as the “real” text. For one thing it is riddled with transcription errors, which amusingly enough get corrected later in light of Gast’s own transcriptions. Thus, you’ll find passages where Colli and Montinari change the wording because they think Gast got it wrong, and then much later in corrigenda, they change it back. Ultimately, Gast’s transcription is more reliable than theirs, and theirs has what reliability it has by deferring to Peter Gast’s ability to read Nietzsche’s very difficult handwriting. That’s my judgement anyway.
On the whole, however, once you accept the notion of the project as a legitimate project – a selection from Nietzsche’s unpublished work focusing on the things he had not fully or adequately addressed elsewhere – I think Peter Gast arguably did as good a job at editing such a project as anyone could have done – or better. I now have tremendous respect for what he accomplished.
S.: It must have been an enormous labor of love of his part. You are right, he perhaps did know Nietzsche as well as or better than anyone, and moreover he really loved him. Also, they shared among other things, music – he is the musician in Nietzsche’s circle (after Wagner is rejected); which I think must have given him a strong intuitive sympathy for what Nietzsche was about. You cannot read Nietzsche without sensing just how crucial music is to his way of thinking.
Did you ever feel, in treating the notebooks, with Nietzsche’s handwriting, that you were dealing with relics? A sense of awe or animistic charge in handling his manuscripts?
R.K.H.: For the most part I worked with what is called the Alternate Transcription, which is currently being produced for De Gruyter; it’s not a photographic reproduction of the pages, but a typeset transcription that attempts to reproduce the style -- the lettering size, the strikethroughs, the interlineations, the scribbles along the side in the margin. I have a high degree of confidence in the Alternate Transcription’s accuracy, but in that sense, I was still relying on this mediation. It does spare you the difficulty of struggling with Nietzsche’s handwriting, which as mentioned is very challenging. I did try to wrestle with that handwriting, once –
S.: – I would imagine that, especially in the later part of his life, it would indeed be hard to decipher. Not only have manuscript styles changed in the century and a quarter since Nietzsche wrote, but of course Nietzsche was under increasingly intense psychological pressure. Maybe it is not surprising that, as you say, Colli and Martinari don’t always get it right.
R.K.H.: It is indeed tremendously difficult. But what I would say, answering your question, is that, when you are engaging with a page of writing that presents you with something that is not finished text, so that you can’t “see through” the text to the “thoughts themselves,” but rather a text with words crossed out, other words written in above, sometimes those words crossed out in turn –
S.: – a set of thoughts in medias res.
R.K.H.: – and all those traces of writerly activity that require you to think about which parts were written first, which later. In order to figure out what words are closest to the final text, on the basis of the page in front of you, you must speculate successfully on the order in which the actual words were written. Sometimes that’s easy; a word written above a crossed-out word is the later word. But other times it’s less clear. There were times when I had to think very carefully about how the page I was looking at ended up the way that it was, and thus what a finished text based on it should look like. In order to do that, I had to imaginatively re-create Nietzsche’s thinking and handwriting, in real time. Which did he write first? When did he cross this out? Why did he cross it out?
S.: Really recapitulating the thought.
R.K.H.: And recapitulating not just the thought, but the hand movements, in a very bodily and material sense. When it becomes necessary to do this, his presence as a material body, as a material thinker, becomes very palpable; you have to imagine his hand moving over the page, and ask yourself, where did it move first? Where did it move later? The pages are a mess – this is what you have to understand – they are a complete mess; sometimes just figuring out where a comment in the margin is supposed to go is a challenge. Sometimes Nietzsche draws a little arrow, and you know just where; but other times it’s less clear, so you have to be able to reconstruct what the final text in Nietzsche’s mind was, based on the content and layout of the page. Doing that made Nietzsche come to life for me, not just as a system of ideas or a kind of intellectual tendency, but as an embodied human being.
S.: There’s a passage – it’s Human All Too Human, 188 – where Nietzsche seems impatient with thinkers parading their own compositional itinerary:
Thinkers as stylists. Most thinkers write badly because they communicate to us not only their thoughts, but the thinking of their thoughts.When I read this, I wonder if you are not reading Nietzsche in a way he would have raised his eyebrows at. It seems to me that here, he’s irritated with thinkers who expect you to think alongside with them.
R.K.H.: On the other hand, there’s this from Beyond Good & Evil Section 5:
Or consider the hocus-pocus of mathematical form with which Spinoza clad his philosophy—really “the love of his wisdom,” to render that word fairly and squarely—in mail and mask, to strike terror at the very outset into the heart of any assailant who should dare to glance at that invincible maiden and Pallas Athena: how much personal timidity and vulnerability this masquerade of a sick hermit betrays!Section 6 then begins,
It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy has consisted of -- namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of unconscious and involuntary autobiography.Here the complaint is about philosophers concealing the very human path by which they arrive at their results, but instead present the results as if they had descended from heaven. Spinoza’s more geometrica is an illustration of this.
S.: My thinking is – sometimes it’s a case of Nietzsche contra Nietzsche. Certainly he did want thinking to look and be presented as “personal” – but he also was irritated by the sense that thinkers of a certain stripe presented their process as stylistically interesting in and of itself.
R.K.H.: I don’t think the two passages need to be read as in conflict. I take it that the first passage is about writers who try to figure out what they think in the course of the writing, and that this weakens the writing. Two good examples of this are Kant and Hegel.
S.: And Kant is indeed a target in the Beyond Good and Evil passage, just before Nietzsche trains his sights on Spinoza.
R.K.H.: In Hegel’s case, we know that he wrote the Phenomenology literally as fast as his hand could move, and only made the most trivial of corrections much later. And it shows! Nietzsche is insisting, in the passage you cite, on carefully thinking and rethinking, carefully editing one’s own texts, polishing them to perfection.
S.: And as you mention, he clearly did this with his own texts – all those cross-outs and insertions.
R.K.H.: I don’t think that’s the same thing as constructing a false impression of scientificality. Nietzsche did want philosophers to present their thoughts in a more personal, more honest, way. This of course conflicts with a certain conception of what a rigorous, “scientific” text is supposed to look like. But – switching to The Joyous Science for a moment – one part of what Nietzsche is trying to do is give us a new conception of what a rigorous inquiry can be. It doesn’t need to emulate physics. It doesn’t have to be a treatise on metaphysics. It can be more personal. I’m interested in trying to work in that way. I’m not yet sure what it will look like.
S.: The Joyous Science is my favorite of all of Nietzsche's works. This book includes two of what are arguably Nietzsche’s most famous passages: the madman's announcement of the death of God, and the query about the demon's intimation of the Eternal Return. Needless to say, these are also passages with a good deal of controversy about them – not philological controversy, but philosophical. What did Nietzsche mean by The Death of God? Did he intend Eternal Recurrence as a positive doctrine, a thought experiment, or what? I have my own tentative interpretations of these, but I'd like to know yours – also, whether you think the notoriety of these two passages is especially warranted.
R.K.H.: I think that the only problem I have with the reception of the idea of the death of God is the tendency some have (not primarily Nietzsche scholars, to be fair) to read it as arguing that no normativity is possible without religion. This interpretation is especially congenial to a certain sort of conservative Christian, and it’s a significant misunderstanding. In terms of its applicability, I think Nietzsche would be surprised at how tenacious religion – at least the United States, the pre-eminent power of the West – still is, and how much blood and treasure we’ve been forced to expend on a fight against a form of religious extremism.
The eternal recurrence is interesting because of how it appears in the notebooks, and I’m not merely talking about the attempted “proofs.” Nietzsche very clearly perceives it to be a kind of doctrine of immortality. I see no way to make sense of that unless we read him as believing that it was true that the world eternally recurs. In any event, it’s somewhat obvious that he must’ve thought it was true, because otherwise the drama he associates with it dissipates completely. Compare: imagine a demon were to tell you that if you do not accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, you will be tortured after death for all eternity. Of course it’s ultimately just a thought experiment: no one really believes that there is an afterlife. But we should act as if there were one! That suggestion would be equally ludicrous: transforming hell into something hypothetical, an ethical thought experiment, strips it of all its motivational force. Similarly with the eternal recurrence. After all, why not respond to Nietzsche’s demon by saying “well, thank goodness I don’t really have to answer your question, since the world doesn’t in fact eternally recur.”
S.: A similar critique can (and has) been made, mutatis mutandis, of Pascal’s wager, which seems to want to walk a line between thought-experiment and would-be existential dilemma. But Nietzsche would say that Pascal wants to terrorize us, whereas he, Nietzsche, wants to deliver us over to the possibility of joy. Speaking of joy: I first read this book, as I expect most English speakers did, in Kaufman’s translation as The Gay Science, and I note that you have gone a little bit more literal for the title (and let go the resonance with the troubadours). But that may not be the most significant translational decision.
R.K.H.: I don’t think that I have let go of the troubadours at all. I discuss them extensively in my introduction. And there is a long history in English of the phrases “Gay Science” and “Joyous Science” referring to the art of poetry, and more particularly the poetry of Provence.
S.: Probably my philological autodidacticism is showing. When I think of the gaya scienza, I think of the troubadours; when I think of “Joy” in German, I move from fröhliche to freude and think of Schiller and Beethoven, which may not be where Nietzsche was – music notwithstanding.
As to the intersection of the personal and the philosophical, my impression is that for some years now, on your blog, some of the strongest pieces of your own work have enacted a kind of shift back-and-forth between these – there are broader, more theoretically applicable assertions, framed and grounded in autobiographical reflection.
There is often a sense of grimness about the blog – you seem not especially sanguine about our political moment. Yet you also (it seems to me) reject any easy cynicism. I’m thinking, for instance, about a post in which you recount your own experience with local politicians you’ve known; and a rhetorical question you ask: suppose you ask the President of the United States (it was Obama at the time you were writing), we’ve got such-and-such a critical situation, what should we do? If the President responded, I don’t know, you know, politics is such bullshit anyway – you’d think this was just massively irresponsible. This particular moment in your blog made me re-evaluate and re-frame my own feelings of political impotence, and how I try to process this. So I want to ask: since one could be forgiven for seeing our political moment as a pretty bleak cul-de-sac – to what extent are we just mired in the sort of decadence Nietzsche describes and decries?
R.K.H.: There are definitely parallels between how Nietzsche viewed social and political life in his day, and how I view them, which is probably traceable to direct influence on my thinking. If anything, those parallels have grown stronger. But I never accepted Nietzsche’s seeming celebration of alienation from the political; ideally, civic engagement is a part of civic republicanism. Nietzsche seems to think that it is a natural condition for the better sort of person to be deeply alienated from politics, but that strikes me as wrong: wrong about his beloved Greeks, and wrong in general. Being deeply alienated from politics is the result of deep political pathologies that, ideally, are correctable. His haughty disdain is appropriate for the conditions we live under, but there’s nothing natural about those conditions.
There’s no doubt that there are substantive ideas, and substantive tendencies, in Nietzsche that have influenced me. His moral skepticism, however that may be ultimately characterized, for instance. But what has influenced me the most are not his views – many of which I do not agree with, or which do not speak to the concerns that I have in my own thinking.
S.: Aside from not sharing his stance of political alienation, how else do you characterize those disagreements?
R.K.H.: Three things come to mind; I'm sure there are others. First, Nietzsche makes a great deal of the contrast between master morality and slave morality, but when it comes to understanding modernity, he resorts to the idea that modern morality is a mixture of the two. I think that's basically wrong: I think that modernity is characterized by the emergence of a distinctive "bourgeois" moral code which cannot be reduced to either or to a combination of the two.
S.: I think I agree. I was pretty strongly impressed by Deirdre McCloskey’s trilogy on the bourgeouis era, where a very cogent case is made for the worldview of the bourgeois class, including the virtues it extols, being a coherent position in its own right.
R.K.H.: More, I think that Nietzsche's image of what masters and slaves themselves are like is subtly distorted by this, because he's unconsciously taking his prototypes of each from examples which are actually bourgeois (the "climbing" variety, and the "arrived" variety). This seems to be related to a general insensitivity to economics, the economic dimension of life.
Second, Nietzsche's conception of the mind, like Freud's, is "hydraulic," is a network of pressures, flows, and discharges, and I think that's completely misguided and at variance with everything we know about the mind.
Third, I think Nietzsche's critique of metaphysics is rooted in a number of misunderstandings of how language works. My own view is closer to Wittgenstein's: Nietzsche believed that at the heart of our linguistic conventions were metaphysical beliefs; Wittgenstein believed that at the heart of our metaphysical beliefs were linguistic conventions.
S.: And have your critiques – or your agreements for that matter – shifted as you worked through the recapitulation of thinking and composition you describe?
R.K.H.: No, not really. One large effect it did have on me was a renewed appreciation of how perceptive he is about various specific psychological topics (my remark above about the hydraulic conception of the mind notwithstanding).
S.: And the ways that Nietzsche has influenced you – if not in terms of substantive doctrines, then in what?
R.K.H.: It’s rather that, for me, philosophy done right is both of general interest and deeply personal, at the same time. I think very few people have done what Nietzsche tried to do, in that sense. Probably the only one before him, that I know well, is Kierkegaard, and in a very different way after Nietzsche, Foucault. Another is Wittgenstein. In fact, it occurs to me that probably all the figures who have been important to me wrote in this way, at an intersection where there is a deeply personal reaction that is motivating philosophical reflection.
S.: Did you have personal teachers who influenced you in this way? You’ve spoken before gratefully of Akhil Reed Amar, I remember – his work Constitutional law, and the history of the reception of the Bill of Rights in particular.
R.K.H.: I am deeply indebted to the people who taught me, both in graduate school and law school, but I don't think that any of them embodied this intersection of the philosophical and personal in the sense you mean.
But questions do always have a motivation. There isn’t a list of questions that descend from the sky and say, Answer Me! Questions arise from life experiences, and these are inevitably personal, even if the questions are also in some sense collective. In the blog, there’s always this interplay between very personal and often very emotional reactions to circumstances, oftentimes but not always political, and an attempt to make sense of what is going on in the larger world, and to ask what the philosophical implications are – precisely because the circumstances have elicited such a powerful response out of me as an individual human being. So unlike most writing in academic philosophy, I have always thought it was a good thing to keep it personal. Obviously, though, it’s difficult to publish intimate personal reflections in analytic philosophy journals, so there’s a kind of professional challenge there.
S.: One might say, so much the worse for analytic philosophy journals.
R.K.H.: Well, I’m glad they’re there, and I’m glad someone is doing that sort of work, but I don’t necessarily want to be in them.
S.: Personal doesn’t mean merely idiosyncratic.
R.K.H.: No. But – and this is part of Nietzsche’s point, I think – to the extent that my reactions are merely idiosyncratic, when I present them in a very personal way, I put my cards on the table, making it possible for someone to say, "Well, Hill is a mess – of course he’s going to say that." Whereas somebody else might try to conceal the role that personality and experience play, precisely to avoid that kind of judgment.
In philosophy, the issue of the personal and the impersonal raises questions, for instance, of professionalism, and of whether philosophy can be professionalized. But ultimately I would rather put my cards on the table, and say: these are my experiences, these are my reflections, these are my reasons for thinking these thoughts; and if you reject them, you reject me, and so much the worse for me. It’s taking a risk.
(The second half of this interview can be read here.)