Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Unbelievable


Occasionally, for my sins, I spend a bit of time with some work to which I am fundamentally unsympathetic. This paper, "The Unbelievable Truth About Morality" by Bart Streumer, has been my most recent act of atonement.

Streumer's site mentions that it is "written for students", and indeed it is lacking a certain tediousness (or fastidiousness, if I'm feeling generous) that often characterizes the hair-splitting gotchas one often finds among the analytic clan. It is a very short precis of a book called Unbelievable Errors, which (to give my own gloss*) defends the claim that all (!!!) normative claims are effectively false (I would have said "meaningless," if I were playing the author's game, and this may or may not be important) because there are no "normative properties" and therefore normative claims cannot ever truly ascribe such properties to any acts. This claim is literally unbelievable (he says), because among normative claims one finds not only such sentences as "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" or "Act such that the maxim upon which you act could be willed to be a universal maxim," but also things like "You should believe this because...". Streumer engages, in short, in cheerfully sawing off his branch; but then he goes on to argue (!!!!!) that this unbelievability should count as evidence for his account being true. And he thinks this unbelievability is a good thing (no, I'm not kidding, he says "we should welcome it", which is a normative claim on (arguably) two counts) because it prevents the theory -- wait for it -- from undermining morality.

Yes, those are normative words in that last clause -- "should," "count", "evidence".... and oh yes, "true" and "good" as well. Yes, this is also my summary, but it is effectively what he writes.

In short, the paper irritated me. But the damndest thing kept happening, as I sat with my irritation. I kept thinking about it. I couldn't just set it aside, or (better) crumple it up. Nor was it just that I needed to nail down every last bit of what was irritating, in a sort of someone-is-wrong-on-the-internet bout of can't-let-it-go. For all that it made me scribble "No!" and "What?!" and "Is this coherent?" in the margins (and I am very sparing with accusations of "incoherence" -- one of the most over-used critiques in the business), I couldn't help but feel the paper was doing something right -- in the very moves that were irritating me, but more in the very esprit of the thing. (Yes, even analytic philosophy has esprit.) To be sure, one can pick apart the moves like "moral claims ascribe 'properties' (e.g., "wrongness")...", or say that these already miss the point, so that once you've begun this game, you are bound to wind up saying something perverse. I think that's true too -- but that's also not really the issue I was getting at. Perhaps a bit perversely myself, I felt as if Streumer has actually come weirdly close to something apt.

This is not just because of certain moves he makes along the way with which I am in agreement (e.g., he argues against non-congnitivism in morals -- he insists that a claim like "theft is wrong" means more than just a hearty and insistent emotional disapproval of theft -- as if it was thoroughly paraphrasable by something like "Theft -- ugh! how could one?!") I do agree with such moves, but that is just as incidental as my disagreement with others. He says something close to what Wittgenstein says in the Lecture on Ethics -- effectively, that ethics can't state meaningful propositions -- but he seems to say this in a blithely blasé way, as unlike the spirit of Wittgenstein -- the most morally serious of 20th c thinkers -- as I can imagine. I'm maddened by this but also feel driven to keep looking at it. Streumer in effect shows how -- on his premises -- the entire space of reasons implodes, leaving one with an inarticulate shrug -- and then he says, "huh!" And goes back to.... spinning reasons. I'm down with pressing philosophy to the point of the unsayable -- Wittgenstein again -- but the spectacle of Streumer whistling past the graveyard makes me crazy -- and yet, again, sort of fascinated. It's a remarkable instance of philosophy going wrong. There's something I admire about it, even -- the way I admired Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. A hugely ambitious project of showing how ones project need not be undertaken, and yet everything just keeps going along.

Obviously, I do not think things can be left here; but, sophistry or not, there is something about the strong counter-intuitiveness that I like, even if I feel the conclusions (including that there can be no "conclusions") clearly cannot stand. You don't have to agree -- Streumer after all says you cannot -- but when paradox gets this spelled out, there's something fascinating going on. ("Since we must admit that philosophy is at odds with common sense," Ralph Barton Perry wrote, "let us make the most of it.") Streumer concludes -- again, in my own gloss, which he might take issue with -- that we hold whatever conclusions we hold for no reason, because there can be no "reasons". This "for no reason" conclusion of Streumer is an epistemological cousin of more than one ontological claim. Meillassoux holds the same thing about "why is there something rather than nothing," and one recalls as well Heidegger's citation (in The Principle of Reason) of Angelus Silesius -- "the rose blooms without a why". This is also what the SS guard told Primo Levi at Auschwitz -- "here, there is no why" (Survival in Auschwitz p 29). I am not the first to note this parallel, but it ought to give us pause -- the fact that the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao should not lead us into embracing just any absence of names. Philosophy must strive to rightly apportion our articulation and our inarticulateness -- which means, also, our struggle with the question of "right apportionment."

* Obviously my depiction of Streumer's project is, let us say, tendentious. And obviously I'm not walking anyone through the actual steps of his argument here. You want that, you'll have to read the book, or at least the paper. But while I have not worried much about giving every little nuance, I hope that I am not misrepresenting anything.

Friday, October 5, 2018

What I hope I would say


After enduring the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing last Thursday and Friday, with its ghastly and endless train of grandstanding, bluster, frothing indignation, tawdry scrounging and manipulation, all following one of the most painful and obviously heartfelt accounts of trauma I'd ever heard (and I used to volunteer on the Rape Crisis Line), I tried to shake it off -- it was one of those awful feelings for which the phrase I feel like I need a shower was made -- and headed to work at school. In the hallway, heading to the classroom, I bumped into a coworker. I always like talking with J. She's wise and deep and is very well apprised of the costs of trying to do your best. A veteran of many personal and political struggles for a decent society and a better deal for people who are left out, she has seen her share of setbacks and small victories, and knows what the long haul looks like. "How's it going?" I asked her as we passed in the hall. J. takes her time with most questions, but it seemed to me she was extra deliberate about answering this one. "Well...," she said at last. "I'm OK. Considering." There was no question what was being considered. But I was unprepared for what happened when she asked me, "And how are you?"

I said, "I'm -- ". That was all that could come out of my mouth. Suddenly my throat clenched, my eyes stung. I stammered and tried to form words, and then just looked at her helplessly, tears coming down my cheeks. Until that moment, I had had no idea those tears were even there. I was so grateful to her for being a person who I knew intuitively, without ever having thought about it, that I could show that to -- so that I could feel it myself. I'd known I was appalled. I hadn't known I was so sad.

This is what hasn't lifted in the days since -- an unremitting sorrow for the whole wretched mess. What Christine Blasey Ford showed us is just how broken and tangled and sharp and many are the pieces of what had been a working system of governance. How? By stepping in front of a committee that was one-half hostile, one-half eager to have her story for its own purposes, and saying:
"It is not my responsibility to determine whether Mr. Kavanaugh deserves to sit on the Supreme Court. My responsibility is to tell the truth."
In other words: I'm not going to do your job for you; I'm just going say what happened.

As I thought back on her testimony -- what even those who would most like her to just go away have been forced to accept as transparently credible -- and on Judge Kavanaugh's statement of denial and his subsequent answers to questions, I found myself coming back to variations on this phrase of Kavanaugh's:
"Dr. Ford may have been sexually assaulted by some person in some place at some time, but I have never done this to her or to anyone."
This is certainly what Republican leadership is retreating to: casting it all as a case of mistaken identity. And it is astonishing how quickly it took hold. For the first short while after Dr. Ford testified, it was evident from the reactions of even the pundits on Fox News that everyone had felt the force of her quiet self-possession and honesty. Within a day or so, though, this “we-believe-something-happened-but-just-not-like-that” narrative had taken root and driven out the emotional connection. To find this line even remotely believable, you have to dismiss the calm “One hundred percent” certainty with which Dr. Ford identified her assaulter. To reject it, you just have to ask yourself: what are the chances of a woman forgetting who attacked her? Really?

But the scenario kept worrying me -- as clearly it is meant to. It sows the seeds of "plausible deniability" for those who need to look (to voters? To themselves?) like they are listening to women and care, no really they care, while still getting the confirmation they want. To work, it doesn't need to be believable: it just needs to insinuate doubt, to provide cover. This supposed plausible deniability is what I want to seriously interrogate, by a thought-experiment.

Many think that Kavanaugh's obvious indignation and anger have disqualified him by showing him to be somehow not judicially impartial enough. I'm less sympathetic to this argument (on its own), because innocence has a right to indignation -- the argument casts Kavanaugh in an unwinnable situation -- but one hopes, in anyone of maturity, for a capacity to measure their real anger with real responsibility. Much stronger, but also much less spelled-out, is the argument that what we saw and heard in that statement and in those answers just did not look or sound like the stance of someone innocent. "Stronger," because it relies on what everyone can experience for themselves in re-watching the testimony; but also, obviously, subjective, and fraught with danger. Neither such judgment, nor any evidence that has been publicly produced, is sufficient to convict in a court of law. That's a good thing; and of course we need not be trying here to establish guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." Still, a growing chorus is saying, Look, the man just sounds guilty. I can and do share this judgment; but I'm also troubled by it. (Almost without exception it correlates with ideological opposition to Kavanaugh, which just overthrows any possibility of impartiality.) How do I know what guilt "looks like"? And what am I comparing it to? What would someone who was innocent actually sound like? What could such a statement be? I kept wondering.

So I tried to write one.

I've tried to imagine the raw and frightened but still responsible maturity that could say, This is false, but it must mean something that it has been said, and tries to engage, without reactivity, in light of that. It is a frankly Utopian exercise. But if Judge Kavanaugh had said something like this, things might feel differently now -- less broken, less vicious, less sad.

False accusations of assault are rare. I am entertaining a counterfactual, but not because I consider the scenario plausible. It beggars the imagination to try to come up with what could motivate Dr. Ford to lie, and the line that Republicans have retreated to -- “she's got the wrong guy” -- is a last, desperate, disingenuous defense. But concluding this implies that I can answer the question, OK, but what would count as a plausible statement from a wrongly-accused defendant? If you can hear Judge Kavanaugh's answers and say, That just doesn't sound innocent, there must be something you have in mind that those answers are not doing. That's what I have tried to imagine.

I wrote the first draft of this at white heat, and it's still not perfect. Probably it is not perfectible. I thank the women who have been my sounding-board and sometimes strongly cautioning editors as I thought out some revisions. A lot wound up, well-lost, on the cutting room floor. I should acknowledge that for some, including for three of the friends I asked, the very idea of someone "falsely accused" is itself just plain wrong as a hypothesis for this moment. Worries about this and other possible objections made an earlier draft of this introduction three times as long, but I'm trying not to be preemptively defensive.

The piece is also counterfactual in other senses -- in particular, as one friend who read it said, the speaker seems impossible. "There is no such person,” she said; “you've written a kind of woke saint." That may be; but if this post has any relevance beyond its occasion, it's in this picture. For the record: I am in no way as "woke," or as "saintly" (if those are the right words), as the speaker in this piece. Probably I share his faults, though.

*

Mr./ Madam Chairman, members of the committee,

With your permission I would like to address the bulk of my remarks primarily to N., who has named me as her assailant.

N.,

What happened to you was awful and unacceptable. You may not believe this coming from me, but it has to be said and cannot be said enough. You should not have had to endure that -- the fear, the shame (completely unwarranted yet real), the ongoing effects of trauma. You should not have to be reliving it now. No one should. You may not feel that I have the right to say this to you, but I feel it so strongly: I am so sorry that that happened.

I am not the person who assaulted you. I don't know who was. I so badly wish I did.

If I were that person, I don't know if I would have the courage to face you. I would be ashamed, and afraid. Even as it is, I am afraid, and confused, and, strangely, I also feel a kind of shame, for the ways in which I am implicated in a world where this happens. I don't know exactly what to do.

I am not your assailant. But I know that I'm part of the society where you were assaulted. It's a society that says -- and believes it means -- that this is not OK; and yet churns out a continuous stream of stories and pictures and songs that objectify women, glorify male sexual prowess, and eroticize violence, on scales large and small; that rewards men with sexual access to and dominance over women, and punishes women for complaint. And like that wider culture, I myself have both criticized this message, and yet benefited from it; there are ways in which I've even worked with it. Many people know on some level that it is wrong, and yet we feel somehow powerless to reverse it.

I do not believe that we can make our society perfect, or perfectly safe; but we have been woefully negligent, in part because we lack the courage or imagination to try to change it; in part because its arrangements profit some people (and I am such a person in some ways); and in part because we've looked away from the costs. The costs are real, and borne by real people. You are one of them. The assault you endured is an unacceptable cost.

I never imagined that the sexual violence of our culture, both real and sublimated, would one day put me in this position. It is a rude awakening; and to be sure, this sort of thing happens rarely enough. But what happened to you is different. Although it could not have been precisely predicted, its general likelihood could have been foreseen. It is part of a pattern that has gone on for generations and is reinforced by media, social and cultural mores, and convenient selective ignorance. This is what makes assaults like what you endured inevitable; why they are continuing; why they will happen today, this same day I am talking.

I know that you understand the gravity of the charge you've made; that you aren't gratuitously attacking me or trying to ruin my life. You are as sure as you can be that you are telling the truth, and doing the right thing.

You should not have to be quiet about being assaulted; and you shouldn't have to apologize for coming forward now. And if it is hard for you to believe what I am saying -- or maybe even frightening for you to hear it, or impossible for you to take it in -- I hope that you will be able to later. In the same way that you have to say, "This happened to me and he did it," I have to say, "I did not do it." Not "I'm not that kind of person," just, I didn't do that. I do have to say this -- even though it won't make a difference to many, many people.

After this, my name is going to be under a cloud, likely for the rest of my life, and possibly after my death. A few people will stand by me unquestioningly, to my astounded and infinite gratitude. But most people, even people who know me and respect me, are going to wonder,
Did he do that to her? Some of them will never say this aloud to me and I won't know, but I will wonder too. Others will cut me off forever, politely or not. I am likely to be denied many opportunities, starting with this job; and I'll be turned away from things I have hitherto enjoyed. I don't think you are bringing this about maliciously, casually, or unthinkingly, but it is true.

I don't think that this is fair, but it doesn't have to be fair. What happened to you was not fair. You've lived with it every day since then, and it must have had an incalculable effect on you -- I suspect that it's wrenched the way you could trust other people, what you say and don't say, how you hear songs and see movies and laugh or don't, at jokes. It's affected your decisions about what to wear, where to go, how late to stay out, what to eat or drink, how you feel when you are alone. You must have been blindsided by the memory of it over and over again.

It is so strange and saddening to me to think that in all of those memories of yours, my name and my face has been mixed up.

I did not do this thing to you, but I am angry that someone did, and I want to help you if I can. Since I am possibly the last person you want help from or could accept help from now, I have to put my efforts to work at bettering myself, and society at large, and leave any offer to you open without expectations. But even though I didn't ask for this to happen, chance has put me in your way, and this brings me a responsibility, as surely as if I happened past a frozen lake where you had fallen in. I don't know just how to face this duty to you carefully and responsibly, but I know that just being indignant is useless and will make things worse for both of us.

I want to understand why you think the person who assaulted you was me. I am not perfect -- I have sometimes treated others badly, and I have sometimes been selfish, and sexually selfish, in my treatment of women. To them I apologize, again, right now. But I still have to ask myself whether something I have done has made it possible for
you to see me as the likely culprit. I ought to learn from that if I can. It's very frightening to think about. I don't like looking at it; but it's part of the work that is ahead of me.

If you ever think you can face me in person, I will agree to meet you under circumstances of your choosing, with whatever other parties. If you just need me to hear you speak and not answer, I'll do that. I hope that you can also hear me speak to you but I won't assume that. This is a standing offer -- and request -- freely made.

Now I want also to address the person who did this to N. You may not know who you are; but if you are watching these hearings, I think you might be wondering, and able to guess. Maybe you know very well. Whoever you are, I know that, unless you have no feelings at all, you are experiencing something complicated, confusing, and frightening. Probably you are feeling stunned right now, like me, but also very, very differently from me -- a mixture of terror and relief, guilt and disbelief, and terrible shame.

You know that what's going on now is not right; that I ought not to be standing here accused of this. But much, much more, you know that what happened then, so many years ago, was not right. On some level, even if you have successfully "forgotten" it, it's been burdening you ever since.

You didn't mean for this to happen. But something can still be saved from it all. I promise you that if you reach out to me, the first thing I will say is
Thank you for being brave. No one else needs to be publicly shamed. We can work out the truth away from political agendas and media scrutiny. It will take a lot of hard work and good will. N. has been doing that work for years and years now. Don't you think it's time you got to it? I know you know what is the right thing to do.

To everyone else: About the job. Yes, I really, really wanted that job. Yes, I am sorry, frustrated, shocked, and at a loss. If you were hoping to see me appointed to this position, if you are disappointed too, I assure you, you are not as disappointed as me. I ask you, please, find some other outlet for your disappointment than belittling of those who report sexual assault; something other than spouting venom at your political opponents. If you want to make sure this doesn't happen again, please put your efforts towards addressing the cultural premises that make sexual assault so common. Our culture is deeply dysfunctional. None of us are entirely blameless. But sometimes there are victims whose experience is out of all proportion, and in this situation, I am
by definition not the first of these. There are other ways and other roles in which I can do my best. In any case, the job is very far from the most important thing here, for me. It was a great honor to be considered; but there are other good people for the job; I'm the only person who can do this.

To those of you who remain by my side not out of political affiliation but just because you believe me and love me -- or are with me regardless, or even have decided to forgive me for what you think I might have done -- Thank you. I don't blame you if you wonder, if you have your moments of doubt. But I am so grateful for your loyalty, beyond my expectations or deserving. Thank you -- an inadequate-sounding response for an impossible-to-ask support. Probably you do not know how much I depend upon you in this hour and beyond.

N., I hope you hear me; I hope in time you will believe me. I did not do the thing you say I did, but I hope you will keep healing from the trauma you've undergone. I hope we can reconcile, and I hope we can find out the truth; but I know I cannot make that happen by myself. Above all, I hope that we -- all of us -- can keep doing the difficult and real and crucial work, work that is hard but ultimately rewarding and repairing, of overcoming the conditions of culture that make sexual violence so common. As a nation, we can do better than that. Human beings can do better than that. I'm going to do my best to look to what I
can do.

Friday, September 28, 2018

"We cannot answer the questions if there is no longer a We to ask them" : Interview with R. Kevin Hill, part 2


This is Part 2 of my interview with R. Kevin Hill. See here for Part 1.

*

Skholiast: Speaking about the risks undertaken in folding the personal into philosophy, or philosophy out of the personal – as you say, this raises questions about the professionalization of philosophy – a recent thing, and arguably one that (to put it gently) has not helped. The idea and institution of tenure, for instance, was supposed to enable someone to think and say whatever, which could then be rejected or not; but the risk you speak of, the cost of being rejected, would in theory not be a cost to one’s livelihood, given one’s academic vocation. Philosophy has a particular interest in this because of its roots in being a gadfly, an inherently unpopular position. But do you think tenure is functioning that way?

R. Kevin Hill: I’ve never thought that tenure functions that way. First – a vanishingly small number of tenured academics have anything to say that would get them in trouble with anyone. Academic freedom is a wonderful thing, but I don’t see many people taking much advantage of it – let’s put it that way.

S.: Is this because academics just “all think alike,” – or, they’re all timid? – or – ?

R.K.H.: No. This is, again, a very personal observation, so all due caveats apply – the most important thing about tenure as an institution is not that if you get it, you cannot be fired, but that if you don’t get it, you have to be fired. Many non-academics are unaware of this, but it is standard practice in academia that you must be given tenure if you have been with an institution for a certain amount of time, so if they do not want you to receive tenure, you have to be let go. In principle, the rationale for this was to force the institution’s hand, to make it give tenure instead of working someone forever with no job security. But in practice, it creates an up-or-out rule: if you do not receive tenure, you get your one year and then you are gone. The nature of the job market is such that if you are denied tenure, the odds are very good that you will never get another tenure-track job again. So the lived experience of the institution of tenure for most academics is that it is a threat. You have spent much of your professional life leading up to the moment you receive tenure – speaking personally, this was twenty years from the time I entered graduate school – not thinking, Someday I will be able to say what I think, but rather, Someday my career may come to a complete end, because I failed to receive tenure. What might cause this? You don’t really know. Failure to live up to professional standards, yes, but of course there are going to be other factors that influence people’s perceptions, and you want to be well-behaved so that people want to be helpful to you, and so on – so the shadow of the tenure decision looming in the future has an enormously repressive and normalizing effect on junior faculty. To put it crudely, that pressure guarantees that almost anyone coming out the other side will have nothing harmful to say; they will have been so cowed during the years in graduate school, trying to obtain a tenure-track job, preparing for the ultimate tenure review – by the time you get tenure, they’ve beaten you.

S.: You’re saying, by that time, you’ve been conditioned.

R.K.H.: You have adapted to your saddle. I cannot help but think that this experience, which is very common, sheds light on why there is so little truly challenging speech coming from tenured academics. For me, it has kind of worked out that I can say what I want. But it’s very easy for me to imagine why it would not have worked out that way for many people. I certainly don’t feel I’ve taken to the saddle; but even for me, the whole process took some sharp edges off me.

S.: I listened recently to a panel discussion sponsored by Heterodox Academy; Samuel Abrams (of Sarah Lawrence College) told an anecdote about being called a racist on his second day of teaching, upon which he made up his mind to keep his head down and get tenure – and use it. One of the co-panelists – Nadine Strossen of the New York Law School and a former president of the ACLU – expressed dismay that so many tenured academics are “squandering” their opportunity. Your account here offers one theory of why this may be the case. And the fact that Heterodox Academy looks like a strange outlier, can get so much attention, and has as much work to do as it seems to have, suggests that something like what you say may be at play.

R.K.H.: I’m a supporter of Heterodox Academy; but the dynamics play out differently in philosophy. The experiences Jonathan Haidt had which led to his founding of Heterodox Academy were colored by the fact that his discipline is social psychology. What social psychologists do and what philosophers do is so different, that ideological bias and the repression of diversity plays out differently. In philosophy – and this is sad in a way – I think that most philosophers just don’t have anything particularly controversial to say. They don’t need to be repressed. If you spend your life becoming a Hume scholar, you aren’t going to suddenly explode with some controversial professional perspective on the passing show – your head is back in the eighteenth century.

S.: But I can’t help wanting to ask – for God’s sake, why not? Isn't our great exemplar Socrates? And Hume, for that matter, was indeed a controversialist. Sure, maybe if Hume were to publish today his work would fall just as stillborn from the press as it did in the eighteenth century; and there’s a kind of Straussian argument that might say, actually this is a good thing – philosophers ought to fly under the radar, and write “uncontroversial” work for other reasons. But might there not be something wrong with philosophy, if it never raises any eyebrows – or ire? Of course, there’s also a difference between Hume scholarship, and Humeanism. Or Nietzsche scholarship and Nietzscheanism, for that matter.

R.K.H.: Well, ultimately, this all has to do with the professionalization of philosophy. This goes back, in analytic philosophy, at least to Bertand Russell, and arguably to neo-Kantianism in the nineteenth century. Once you conceive of philosophy as something that belongs in a research university, because you can “do research” in it, (rolls eyes) – in which there is a division of labor and agreement about canonical methods, and then proceed to “research” various problems, this – I don’t want to say it kills the philosophical impulse, but it gives it a certain tendency, and limits it in specific ways.

S.: A scholastic tendency, in the worst sense.

R.K.H.: Now we also have this other community in philosophy – “Continental” philosophy as it is called – which oftentimes seems to position itself as an eternal critic of our society; but the criticism is all rather homogenous. So it turns out that there really is very little ideological diversity in academic philosophy in the U.S., and those who are asking the “forbidden questions” are mainly outsiders. There are a few who are academic philosophers, but those whose work has precipitated the so-called Free Speech Crisis, are largely not philosophers, and the things they want to talk about are not what most philosophers want to discuss, I think. Moreover, if philosophers do decide to talk about them, they may discover that there are powerful disincentives to do so; but those disincentives are not necessarily coming from tenure committees; they’re coming from Twitter. I’m thinking, for instance, about what happened recently to Rebecca Tuvel.

S.: She is the assistant professor at Rhodes University whose article in Hypatia comparing arguments about transgender and transracial experience generated such controversy. And what do you think those “forbidden questions” are?

R.K.H.: Well, the impression one has is that they are all related to what is called “Diversity.” Or, in other communities, “Identity Politics.” A fairly narrow band of concerns, but they are all topics we cannot, in the current environment, speak freely about. For various reasons, academia has been committed to affirmative action in admissions and hiring for a long time, and this has always been a tricky topic for the larger community. This practice is under more pressure now than it has been at any other time in my lifetime. Academia has to contend not only with its own internal norms, but with various legal requirements: anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action executive orders, judicial opinions. To understand the recent Free Speech controversies, you must go back to the Civil Rights era. The Civil Rights Act itself included a prohibition on discrimination in employment based on race, gender, religion, national origin, and so on. At the time the Civil Rights Act was passed, I imagine that people’s understanding of discrimination was fairly crude; an African-American applies for a job, and the employer says, I’m sorry, we don’t hire black people.

S.: Perhaps they didn’t say that out loud to their face, but that’s what they were saying, and what they understood themselves to be saying.

R.K.H.: But in the 1970s – and this was initially more the case with sex discrimination than other kinds – a new, additional, conception of how one could experience discrimination began to be broached by the courts: hostile environment discrimination. And our culture’s whole conception of harassment, for example, is a product of this. There was no concept of sexual harassment such as we have it today, before the courts articulated this idea of discrimination via hostile environment.

In an employment setting, this notion generated a variety of new norms about how people must behave there. On balance, I would say, this was a good thing; people behave better in the workplace as a result. But most workplaces are not primarily operating to develop, exchange, and debate ideas. On a factory floor, if you stand on a soapbox and begin spouting a political or social opinion, however well- or ill-founded, you are probably not doing your job. The factory floor is not the place for expressing those opinions; and so your speech values are not likely to collide with anti-discrimination values.


S.: Though they may collide with the interests of your employer, if, say, they don’t want workers to organize. But it would take quite a stretch to construe this as a case grounded in anti-discrimination law.

R.K.H.: In a normal employment setting. But as soon as you import the notion of hostile environment into an academic setting, you open the door to a real conflict. Because the notion becomes that certain ideas, in and of themselves, can be interpreted as contributing to a hostile environment, and are thus discriminatory. The thought that we need to establish non-hostile environments in academia, basically for legal reasons, is a fairly recent one, and we have very little experience so far in nuancing, finessing, mediating, compromising, between the competing values of academia as a place where a wide range of ideas can be discussed and debated, and academia as a setting which should and must be non-discriminatory. We don’t know how to do it yet.

Most people don’t realize the full extent to which our current challenges in academia in this respect are driven by legal necessity. Conservatives, for instance, have this picture of academia as this hotbed of radicalism, anxious to suppress all dissenting opinions. It’s vastly exaggerated. But what is unappreciated is that academia doesn’t do what it wants to do, it does what it has to do.


S.: And that “has to,” that constraint, you are saying, is of a legal nature.

R.K.H.: It is. And one of the reasons that the climate in academia has changed so dramatically is that the legal climate has changed so dramatically. It was during the Obama administration when we got that notorious “Dear Colleague” letter. So Title IX prohibits discrimination in academic settings receiving federal funds. For decades, this mandate went almost entirely unenforced, so you would have never heard anyone say, Oh, we can’t do that – we might lose our federal finding. But the Obama administration decided to put the fear of God into people, and told them, Yes, you might indeed lose funding, if you are not doing what you’re supposed to do to assure that your setting is a non-discriminatory environment.

S.: This most famously involved lowering the standard of proof in cases of alleged sexual assault.

R.K.H.: One of the harshest ways, obviously, your setting can be hostile is if you actually experience sexual assault, and this is especially frequently the case for women. This legitimate concern for safety, to curb sexual violence on campuses, led to a new posture: you are not going to just keep getting federal funds no matter what you do as long as you assure us you are doing good things; we are going to make sure you try harder to do good things. This awakened people to the possibility that academia could be a locus of hostile environment discrimination, and that it urgently needs to avoid being so; and this resolve was hurriedly made, with the implicit assumption that we’ll figure out later how this impacts the free exchange of ideas. And we have not figured it out yet.

S.: But it’s very hard to wrestle with these questions and do this figuring-out; the very asking of the questions and figuring-it-out is easily construed as part of the problem; it raises the specter of hostility. The truth is, of course, academia can be a hostile environment, as this phrase is used. There is (or can be) a lot of especially egregious kinds of behavior; and, to make sure I avoid that, avoid contributing to the climate and culture where it can happen, avoid giving cover to those who do it, I have to query myself. I want, in short, to treat people decently, and to not just avoid being “part of the problem,” but to actively help build a context where the right thing happens more and more, more and more naturally. At the same time, thinking out loud about questions like this can all by itself feel dicey, or gives you the look of devil’s advocate, or a little too much like the devil. So this figuring-it-out-later – is it really working?

R.K.H.: We have no choice but to figure it out. Academia does not exist in a political vacuum; it’s a part of the larger society, and at the very least it depends on the good will of many people who are not part of it. It cannot be completely aloof to the desires, interests, values, beliefs, of that society. If society finds, or believes, that academia claims out of one side of its mouth to be the idea-generator, the place where knowledge happens, and out of the other side of its mouth that only certain ideas will be permitted, you will lose at least half of the community’s support. This has already started to happen.

It is a mischaracterizaton of Heterodox Academy, I think, to call it a stalking-horse for conservativism. I don’t think Haidt is a conservative at all. But he, and others like him, are recognizing that the academy is sawing at the branch it – they – are sitting on. They run the risk, if they create the impression of favoring only some parts of the ideological spectrum, that the larger society will say, You are not in the business of generating knowledge or ideas, or an environment of generating free discussion; you are just indoctrinating people, and maintaining an ideologically pure community. If academia were able to support itself, this might not be a problem; but it isn’t. It’s massively dependent upon federal funds, and thus indirectly dependent upon the people whose government it is. So we have to figure it out, because the other option, which would be to say, Better safe than sorry, and to avoid forever any idea that could ever possibly be construed as contributing to a hostile environment – that is not sustainable, unless the whole society is on the same page ideologically, which currently it clearly is not.


S.: And is not likely to be.

R.K.H.: But how we figure it out is unclear. I’m going to punt, and say: eventually the courts will have to figure it out, the same way that in earlier decades the courts had to figure out sexual harassment. And they will.

S.: Your own background is in law, as well as in philosophy. So of course, Hill would say this, yes?

R.K.H.: Well, the legal background may give me some awareness of features or issues which others may not be as aware of, but the real source of my stance is my belief that people respond to carrots and sticks. And in academia there are both.

S.: The courts are one venue in which carrots and sticks are applied; but so too is the court of public opinion.

R.K.H.: When universities woke up to the possibility of losing federal funds, that was one sort of stick. But when they did that, some conservatives began circulating this narrative of academia being an arena of thought-control rather than free exchange of ideas, and universities then have to contend with that.

S.: So, a question to you as both legal scholar and philosopher. As with most arguments about the “construction of concepts,” one would not want to say, for instance, that there was no such thing as a hostile environment before the courts articulated this phrase; or that there was no such thing as sexual discrimination or sexual harassment. But these legal formulae do get into our personal experience, construing it and causing us to construe it, in new ways. Sometimes one can say, they named the elephant in the room; and instead of saying “that strange gray shape I can see out of the corner of my eye,” we can say “Dumbo.” But it’s not always like that.

R.K.H.: The way I think of this is: there is a real world out there, a bedrock of real bodies moving around doing real things. But how we classify what we see is to a very large extent up to us. There is no doubt, for instance, that men were hitting on women in the workplace before Title VII, before the courts got involved in the 1970’s and minted the idea of hostile environment. There’s no question, stuff was happening, and it was bad stuff, and it was also “accepted” in a certain sense because of the balance of power of men and women in the workplace. But the concept of sexual harassment is a certain way of conceptualizing these tableaux. The tableaux are real. But our conceptualizations are really modes that were created by the law, and thus by the power of the state. Employers didn’t just decide out of the goodness of their hearts to ensure that people didn’t engage in sexual harassment. It was the prospect of legal liability and the need to protect themselves from it, which hits their bottom line and costs them money, that made employers make sure they inform employees of their duty with regard to sexual harassment. And since almost everyone is employed, at least in some fashion, some of the time, a federal law that does that is going to touch individual lives on a grand scale. It has transformed the culture; and I do believe it is the law itself that did the transforming, and not some sort of cultural shift reflected in the law.

S.: The old argument that one can’t “legislate morality” seems, on the face of it, to have been falsified many times. To the extent that we have a racially integrated society – a limited extent, clearly – this seems obviously (by now) the result of legislation and judicial decision. But aside from the fact that the “bottom line” is an economic reality and not just a legal one, I want to ask: surely, the pressure to enact a law comes from somewhere – from “we the people,” yes? – or some portion of the people; so in that sense there must also be a “cultural shift.”

R.K.H.: Well, yes in some sense. The courts didn’t start to think of sexual harassment until feminists started talking about it first. However, I would insist that flouting federal law has rather more serious consequences than merely ignoring what feminists say. Ultimately the genealogy here is going to be complicated, and go back in part to the entry of greater numbers of women into the workforce mid-century.

S.: One could speculate that whatever "legislation of morality" has transpired has been enacted not primarily by lawmakers but by universities, which have trained up the next generation of students to expect and accept certain premises. (Poor Shelley! the unacknowledged legislators would turn out not to be poets, but underpaid college instructors – at least this is clearly what they aspire to be.)

R.K.H.: No, I would deny that. Take the sexual assault on campus issue. People have been talking about that on campus since I started graduate school in 1987, if not longer. Nobody did a thing. President Obama has an advisory letter issued emphasizing that noncompliance with the requested standards can result in the loss of federal funding. Immediately everyone scrambles to comply. One thing that Marxist critique and Foucauldian critique alike emphasize far too little is that who holds the guns and what they want has an awful lot to do with what ultimately occurs.

S.: The guns, or the money, or the courts. And we can ask questions about this, as well as about the extent to which we agree that litigation is the best way to act upon these shifts. Do we want “the stick” of legal liability to shape us in this way? Another question: If we decide that the tableaux are real but our vocabularies for the tableaux are to a large degree up to us, and that there are different possible vocabularies, then we can also ask, how do we evaluate these vocabularies? But even to ask about different possible ways of speaking, is to call into question how we are speaking, which can make some people very uncomfortable. You mentioned Rebecca Tuvel earlier; I take her to have raised the question of how we deploy this notion of “social construction,” which is one element in such a vocabulary; and she seems to have discovered, in the aftermath, that there was an agreement – a tacit agreement – among the people she was addressing – that it could be deployed in one way, but that to deploy it in a different way was not just going to be questioned, but would be seen as a hostile act.

R.K.H.: I think what happened there had something to do with what I alluded to earlier: these two, largely non-overlapping, philosophical communities – so-called analytic philosophy, so-called Continental philosophy – a distinction people routinely deny exists, more or less proving that it does by the vigor with which they deny it. While I don’t know Professor Tuvel at all well, the impression I got from reading her paper was she was trained in the analytic tradition, in which thought experiments are the bread and butter – “suppose such and such; what would the consequences be? How does that challenge our intuitions about cases like these, or these?” And so on. By contrast, the Continental philosophical community has tended to be one of advocacy. It’s interested in critical inquiry, but inquiry guided by certain goals. There is less freedom to say, Well, let’s think this thought and see where that takes us; because the over-arching concern is: let’s make society better in the light of our understanding of these problems. I don’t think Professor Tuvel ever imagined that anyone would read the kind of prose she’s producing as offensive. It’s a shame; her questions are very interesting; and I see no hostility behind them. She was thinking through a line of thought; and asking, so why is it that we treat these two kinds of cases differently? If I recall, she doesn’t answer the question, but she certainly gives the reader the question. Meanwhile, though, these communities of advocacy are shocked and offended that their experiences of oppression are not being acknowledged or honored in the right way.

S.: Well, in part because the very assumption that raising the question would not be problematic is itself seen as – problematic!

R.K.H.: There have been attempts – I am the product of some of these – to adjudicate or navigate between Continental and analytic camps; but for the most part, they remain non-intersecting.

S.: How you characterize them makes me think that perhaps one of the things so puzzling – or worrisome to some – about the crowd that is loosely called “Straussians,” is that Straussians deploy Continental language that advocates in a very different direction from the left consensus of most continental philosophers; it’s a set of crossed signals that many find unsettling.

R.K.H.: Well, there have also been, for instance the conservative Catholic Heideggerians; clearly in the Continental tradition, but, like Heidegger himself, their sympathies and agendas are conservative. Straussians are a strange group though, partly because Strauss’ own teaching and influence was so mediated by political science departments.

S.: They are outside the philosophical academic mainstream, for sure. But they are not alone in getting into philosophy via subterranean paths. Strauss certainly laid claim to philosophy (even though he called himself a “scholar”); and so too did Derrida, whose influence in America was (and still is) strongest in English and literature departments. But the reason Strauss comes to mind here is a broader and more pertinent question. In that very interesting and problematic book The Closing of the American Mind, Strauss’ student Allan Bloom has a chapter called “The Nietzscheanization of the Left, or Vice-Versa,” pointing out how strange a development it was. You alluded earlier to the fact that there are valences of Nietzsche’s thinking that “nobody wants.” But nobody feels willing to throw Nietzsche overboard either.

R.K.H.: Yes. Nietzsche has rendered himself indispensable to us, somehow.

S.: This happened before Foucault, though I think Foucault was hugely instrumental in shaping the form our dependence takes now. If I had to make a very elementary crayon-scrawl of what I think that indispensability involves, I’d say it has to do with the link between power and morality, or ostensible morality, raising the question of law, and putting at the service of that link a rough-and-ready moral skepticism or relativism. Certain people very much want to have recourse to these tools; but they don’t like the tools being turned upon them. This is, for instance, what Tuvel discovered, though she wasn’t deploying (I don’t think) a Nietzschean argument; she was asking, if anti-essentialism is an admissible argument in the case of gender, why is it not in the case of ethnicity? Her mode of thinking was much more like Philippa Foot’s trolley problem. You pose a thought experiment, and no one gets bent out of shape –

R.K.H.: Right. No one thinks you are getting ready to run anyone over.

S.: – though I have encountered occasional criticism of the way the trolley problem is posed, for instance in terms of body-shaming. And I think those critiques have a point. Moreover, Elizabeth Anscombe – surely an analytic philosopher! – says someplace that certain moral hypotheticals are monstrous, and we make ourselves culpable when we “consider” them so breezily. But to say that is to posit some kind of access to something else, some standard of morality that is available -- maybe intuitively? – by which we would determine that something is beyond the pale. Now the opponents of this table-turning – the ones who deploy some vaguely Nietzschean arguments, or more likely just depend upon some vaguely lite-Nietzschean assumptions, in contesting some forms of power, but when they are asked to answer parallel critiques speak of “false equivalencies,” and say or imply: Just because your standards are relative does not mean mine are! – though it is never put so crudely, that’s what they’re claiming – are insisting: in the name of diversity, in the name of some kind of intuition of inclusivity or fairness, these things, these principles, we will declare beyond question. I often don’t know how to even point this out – let alone to query or evaluate it – without colliding with righteousness.

R.K.H.: Well, when I say “we need to figure this out,” and I refer to the courts, part of what I mean is that it isn’t any of these specific sub-groups or sub-cultures that will do the figuring –

S.: Not analytic or continental philosophers, not particular minorities or vested interests –

R.K.H.: – I mean: We, America, the larger collective – the political community we are – is going to have to figure these things out. And one of the nice things about this political community is that it is ideologically diverse. And there are all kinds of avenues by which people express themselves in this larger community – vastly more now, because of the internet, than even a few decades ago. And that makes it possible for all kinds of voices to enter the discussion, even if things do look fairly homogenous within a subculture (which is undeniable).

This leads me to a different set of concerns. To me, the most important thing, despite what I said in defense of Heterodox Academy, is not that there be a huge ideological spectrum represented within these settings – say, within a particular university. And we already have a huge amount of diversity in the larger community, so diversity there is not a concern. What I do worry about is our eroding sense that the larger community is a community.


S.: Yes. Not everyone agrees that the courts' decisions are “ours;” and not everyone finds “ideological diversity” “nice.” And what happens seems to be that all of these sub-communities can wind up excommunicating the others.

R.K.H.: We cannot answer the questions if there is no longer a We to ask them. That probably concerns me more than anything else; it looms in the background every time I discuss a political question. We have to be able to recognize that we stand on common ground in our very disagreement; that we occupy common political space; that we’re not in a war, we’re in a conversation. And the goal is not to annihilate each other but to discuss, from our respective and divergent vantage points, our common concerns. The scariest thing about our period historically, is that the sense of commonality across the spectrum seems to me to be at an all-time low.

S.: Well, there are those who seem to think it is a war, and to blame – though this is always the case in a war – the so-called “other side” for starting it. Marxism will say: in a class struggle, to call it a “conversation” is to be a tool of the oppressor. There are trans people who insist that their very “right to exist” is at issue. A while ago students at Evergreen College screamed at professors and administrators, We are not having a conversation with White Privilege. This objection is aimed at right and left alike, if indeed those terms mean anything now.

R.K.H.: There is a slogan – attributed to Voltaire, though likely incorrectly, at least in its most popular form: I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Articulating a principle like that presupposes that both parties referred to are and understand themselves to be “on the same side” in some sense. Otherwise why would I defend to the death your right to anything? If you are in the trenches shooting at me, I’m not going to defend to the death anything about you.

S.: I’m going to defend myself!

R.K.H.: But if I say, I disagree with you but I defend your right to say what you say, that presupposes that in some deep sense we are on the same side, we share a community, and that disagreement as a part of discussion is a possibility within that community.

S.: Perhaps even a crucial part of the shared project of that community.

R.K.H.: That’s what is eroding now – that sense of shared community across divergent perspectives.

S.: And a sense of humility, a sense that no one knows everything. So then – what do you make of the alleged need to permit free speech for everyone, in (almost) every case? The argument against this says that “Free speech for Nazis” hands the enemy the license and means to advocate for your own destruction. And perhaps it’s all very well, until it becomes plausible that they might win. In other words, you can afford to tolerate certain things, but when the risk becomes real, stop affording it! Whereas the other argument might be, that’s when – and maybe only when – we see what your actual principles are.

R.K.H.: Well, I think the former characterization is in some sense disingenuous. Why is it that, until quite recently, the champions of free speech were all liberals and progressives? The short answer is, those people experienced their speech acts as the ones that needed protection, because they were “speaking truth to power,” or they were articulating unpopular perspectives and they needed to extort from those who had the power the concession that they could speak anyway -- despite not having the power. (This is of course a very Nietzschean way of characterizing all of this.) I think that what has happened is not that free speech has become so dangerous and threatening that liberals and progressives are rethinking their commitment to free speech, but rather that they won. Now they are in power. And those in the positions of power have very little interest in tolerating dissent. So I think that the characterization of certain kinds of speech as too dangerous to be borne is somewhat in bad faith. Is education about to sink under the waves of a vast number of Nazis in academia? No, of course not. There’s perhaps, say, one Nazi in academia. Out of thousands and thousands of academics.

S.: But we need not just be speaking of academia, as you said a bit ago. We’re speaking, in some sense, of the whole body politic. Or we could be talking about visiting speakers to universities, or people standing on corners distributing pamphlets, or people with websites or facebook pages. But – I’m not sure I’d want to go to the wall for this, but there’s a possible figure/ground switch here, which is: you could say, the liberal culture that champions free expression actually has been ascendant, since at least the 70’s, maybe all the way back to FDR. This sort of tolerance-while-it’s-convenient is the position of the so-called coastal elites, the presuppositions of liberal culture fomented by the Ivy League and a few other universities, which have absolutely been entwined with state and economic power. It didn’t matter which party was in office – there was a natural systolic-diastolic rhythm between think-tanks and the halls of power – but they all knew what side their bread was buttered on. Now, if one accepts this scenario, the question arises: what could make the powers that be start to worry? I have believed since the mid-90s, that all meaningful protest has essentially evaporated, but the problem is doubtless much older. The huge Seattle WTO protests in 1999 meant nothing; worldwide protests against the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq were completely ineffectual, if measured by their stated aim. All dissent has been commodified. So: is there a crisis of free speech? Go ahead, speak away! The scenario you sketch is of a beleaguered vanguard of progressivism which eventually won, and after winning betrayed its noble origins. My alternative scenario suggests that progressivism was always ascendant, at least since the power feedback loop between the Ivy League and Washington; so its change of tune must have been due to something else. I don’t know what that might be -- assuming we accept this scenario.

R.K.H.: Well, your mention of the ’90s brings up something else significant. For a long time, the narrative of freedom said that something called “liberalism,” or “democracy,” was defined and celebrated in the 20th century by contrast with two different forms of totalitarianism. What made our struggles sacred ones was that we were struggling on behalf of liberalism against these. But take the adversary away, and you have American power triumphant; we don’t need to define ourselves in contrast to anything else. One of the ideological functions of liberal values is no longer with us. Then there is the slowly-increasing influence of anti-discrimination laws, and their migration into academic settings. Between these two things, free speech isn’t of much use to anyone anymore –

S.: In the short term!

R.K.H.: – except for conservatives who are trying to stick it to the so-called liberal elite.

S.: Your take on both society and philosophy, informed in some ways by Foucault, is still much more suspicious of or cautious with critique. In some of your personal writings, you describe for instance your experience with ordinary politics, and politicians who obviously struck you as decent people, not cowed by any conspiracy to make everyone think narrowly, nor swamped by unconsciously-held ideology. So, your own skepticism about power-structures still does not give critique the last word (at least by default), which I often experience with the Foucauldian left.

R.K.H.: The reason for this is that the vision of the world as a battlefield is not my basic vision. My basic vision of the world is much closer to Plato’s. Yes, there are battles, but they are battles between cities. My deepest commitment is to a kind of civic republicanism, to the question: what are the necessary conditions for a community to be free, in the sense that it governs itself? To answer these questions you must talk about culture and about institutions. But if everything is dissolved in the acid bath of critique, then there are no institutions, there is no culture, there is no city; there is no us. I don’t see a conflict between the liberalism that holds that the most important thing is the self-actualization of the individual, and the civic republicanism that holds that we are all in this together and must learn how to live so, with a shared culture and a shared set of institutions. I don’t see these as at odds with one another. Where the Nietzschean and Foucaultian tools are most useful is where something is not right, not functioning the way it ideally ought; but I have never abandoned the notion that there is a way that things should ideally function. So there is, looming in the background of my thinking, the idea – though not with Plato’s specific details or even his outline – that the first political question is, how should the city be governed? Which implies that there is a city, and governments. To characterize the city itself as a battlefield may be a useful tool for understanding certain processes. But people do not live on battlefields. Battlefields are places where people die.

S.: Deploying Nietzsche and Foucault in the service of a kind of Platonism – the platonizing of Nietzsche, or vice-versa – first of all makes me think you are closer to Strauss than you let on --

R.K.H.: And Heidegger, yes …

S.: -- and use these giants of the moderns, in what seems a characteristically ancient project.

R.K.H.: I think that is a fair characterization. When I think of any philosophical question, any concept, I try always to ask, what does this concept mean in concrete terms? What real material thing, perceptible in the world, are we speaking of in using this concept? When I think of politics, I find myself adverting to this image of a city, and all the things that must happen in it. This has been in the back of my mind for decades. I cannot, of course, justify the claim that the way human beings should live is in small cities; I don’t know how I would justify it. All I know is that, when I ask myself how should political institutions function, what are they for? – I view this through the lens of a free and self-governing city. And most of my contemporary concerns are seen through this lens. But –and I have truly come to believe this – part of the reason why our communities are so divided right now, is that our institutions have been captured, by people who do not reflect the interests and values of the larger community. We do not have a free and self-governing city called America; we have a bunch of disenfranchised people who don’t believe in their institutions and are being herded into highly polarized ideological conflicts as a form of distraction from this capture. Nietzschean-Foucaultian means can be useful, for understanding how did this capture happen, and what are its effects? But this is preliminary to and guided by a larger vision that asks, how are things supposed to be? And the answer is that we experience ourselves as a community, we have common institutions, and we conduct our differences and our discussions in the context of these.

I was starting to think this way before 2016, but the election in 2016 gave it a big boost. Government has largely migrated from discussions in the legislative branch to decisions in the executive, a development I find extremely troubling; and the two parties who effectively share a monopoly on politics in this country gave us in 2016 two candidates who pretty much nobody wanted. How did that happen? There is a recent study made by two political scientists, Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, showing that the popularity of any proposed piece of legislation, and its likelihood of enactment, have zero correlation. Zero! If 100 percent of Americans think that a measure should become law, that is no reason at all to expect that it will; if zero percent of Americans think that a measure should become law, that is no reason to expect that it will not. What does, however, correlate with such likelihood is popularity among lobbyists. We do not control our government anymore. I have gradually, reluctantly, concluded this is the case, that it is a crisis, and that it explains the divisiveness and polarization of discourse – as instruments of distraction from that disenfranchisement, forms of substitute gratification. Parties cannot offer the American people governance; that is no longer what they are about. So they must offer emotional gratifications instead, and thus we must have culture wars that entertain and distract.


S.: So then, is governance happening? Or is all we have left a sort of blind blundering-forward by way of distraction and entertainment? Aside from citing critiques of the Gilens-Page study (critiques with which I don't necessarily concur), I can think of at least two ways to go to query the scenario you propose. One is to ask: So who are the bastards? By what steps, and with what malice aforethought, did they pull of this de facto coup? Or did it just kinda happen willy-nilly?

R.K.H.: The view I propose is a kind of structural view, about an arrangement that emerged not by design, but as the result of certain incentives that have long been in play. As any Marxist will tell you, you can have very dire circumstances on your hands as the result of structural features that nobody intends, dire enough to warrant extreme action.

S.: The other possible account I can improvise, then, touches on what you refer to when you said we’d been captured by those who do not share the interests of the community.

R.K.H.: Or may not even understand the community.

S.: Perhaps, though, we don’t know what community is. When people talk about the coastal elites, this is a cliche, but it gets at a disconnect between different centers of population and different centers of culture. And a non-conspiratorial explanation of this might be, or at least include, the observation that we’re simply too big. Perhaps the notion of “the United States of America” is one that was bound to founder, once you got beyond a certain critical mass.

R.K.H.: You are homing in on the quintessential Madisonian question. Can you have civic republicanism on this scale? And it’s a real question. Maybe you can’t.

S.: Deploying late-modern thinkers in an ancient project – this also seems in a sense like what the American founders attempted. The United States may be a unique attempt to do something that feels ancient, in a modern way. So it is unsurprising that the loci of your political thinking are with the founders, and with Reconstruction – the two eras when that had to happen as if from scratch: during and after the Revolution, and the Civil War, when much unfinished business of the founding came due. Are we now in a third crisis, which dawned more gradually, brought on by burgeoning populations and migrations? Perhaps the last time when anyone would have seen it as a crisis was during the Civil Rights era when the legacy of Reconstruction came to a boil. And now we see the question: whether it in fact is tenable. I don’t know the answer either.

R.K.H.: Well, federalist systems are always tricky; the Europeans are discovering this too. How do you honor the integrity of the local, while maintaining stable institutions that can coordinate on a large scale, and not have those institutions get so powerful that they suppress the diversity of the communities that comprise them? There’s a tendency in conservative thought, both in Europe and in the US, that stigmatizes the EU project as a terrible betrayal of the member nations, and so on; yet, if you were to analogize the member states of the EU with the member states of the US, the American system is infinitely more repressive. They have far more autonomy at the level of member-state than the US does. I don’t know yet what this tells us, but --

S.: Perhaps we see the United States as fait accompli, but the European Union as an agenda.

R.K.H.: It’s a project, yes; of ever-closer integration. But a project carried out with one eye on concerns for the autonomy of member-states, and that’s a difficult value to articulate in this country, because of the tragic way that it became entwined with issues of race.

S.: And later with many other “social justice” questions: marriage equality; abortion; and so on.

R.K.H.: So rediscovering the virtues of loose federations, semi-autonomous communities, while disentangling those issues, is also tricky. But ultimately desirable – if it’s possible. Because this capture to which I referred, clearly results from an excessive concentration of power in the federal government, and within the government, in the executive branch. And the way things are structured now, I believe, is not what anyone intended.

S.: On the blog Unqualified Reservations, which Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. “Mencius Moldbug,” wrote from 2007 to 2014, he too champions a sort of small-city-state vision, more or less on the model of companies "ruled" by CEOs. I don’t want to give Yarvin more than his due – being very smart is not everything – but his critique of democracy ought not to be just waved away. People forget, or ignore, just how critical of democracy Plato (and Nietzsche!) were – and Badiou and Zizek are, for reasons pretty much opposed to Yarvin. Yarvin is right that democracy is fragile – fatally so, he believes. But you point out, Madison and the other American founders knew it was fragile too. Yarvin’s imagined small city-states would not always be “republics” of course – in fact, he prefers autocracies, and likes to point to Singapore or Dubai – but really, he’d be satisfied to “let shareholders decide;” in other words to have a kind of democracy within certain bounds.

R.K.H.: I’ve read long stretches of Moldbug. It’s a frustrating experience because there is such an interweaving of insights with absurdities.

S.: Not unlike Nietzsche, some might say. The difference– well, one difference – being that Yarvin has not made himself indispensable. (He’d probably argue that “indispensability” on those terms is not something he would covet. And of course there’s the argument that many of those who regard Nietzsche in this way misread him in very disfiguring ways.)

R.K.H.: To your question though: we used to have such things as company towns. I’m sure there’s a reason why we don’t anymore! Bear in mind too that I use the concept of a small city-state as a heuristic, much the way Wittgenstein uses his “language games.”

S.: The way you describe the disintegration of American polity and the “capture” of US politics by forces inimical to it, seems to be a kind of centrifugal reaction (the fragmentation of our sense of "We") to a huge centripetal force (the concentration of Executive power). Is that too simple?

R.K.H.: The concentration of executive power greatly incentivizes special interests to seek control over it; and they are remarkably successful. The main reason is that the parties need their money to wage a modern campaign. I wouldn’t describe the result as centripetal or centrifugal; rather, as a bifurcation of the body politic brought about by a corrupt, competitive two party system which no longer can deliver anything substantial.

S.: To return to a Nietzschean prognosis: I take it you don’t expect the immanent arrival of the Übermensch to deliver us (and why would the Übermenschen be deliverers?). But what if – to come back to the question of decadence I raised earlier – we are just living in the twilight of the Zarathustra’s Last Men, the “inventors of happiness,” for – well, for a long time? Possibly even the last men – without happiness?

R.K.H.: One of the most striking experiences I had recently was returning to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and finding all sorts of parallels between Mill and Nietzsche with regard to individual development, eccentricity, social pressure, modernity, et cetera.

S.: A provocative pairing, Mill and Nietzsche. The Nietzscheanization of liberalism, or vice-versa!

R.K.H.: Such parallels are probably due to Mill being directly influenced by German thinkers. Implicit in Mill is this notion that a flourishing culture requires conditions necessary to the development of individuals. These conditions are what we call “liberalism” both in connection with institutions and with attitudes. Nietzsche’s concept of the superhuman is his somewhat grandiose way of talking about a flourishing culture and the culturally productive people who compose it. This suggests to me a kind of rapprochement between the two thinkers, and the way out of our current condition. And yet I think the way out is ultimately political.

S.: On how to discuss questions academically, balancing this with legal concerns about hostile environment, you said, we must and will figure it out. But on our larger political crisis, you sound less sure.

R.K.H.: No, I’m not particularly confident. Centralization is very hard to reverse, and doing so often requires either violence or profound systemic failure, like the Soviets experienced in the late 1980s. Neither of those are good options!

S.: Well, systemic failure – economic, ecological, or both – looks increasingly possible. And even this may not bring decentralization. In the short term it could easily occasion the opposite.

R.K.H.: I still hold out hope that we can figure things out as a political community, recognizing ideological differences, working through things, debating honestly and civilly – but we must address something that we have not satisfactorily addressed so far: the self-serving role of special interests in steering legislation and regulation. It used to be a lively topic among Democrats, and seems not to be anymore. One wonders why.

S.: Well, the powerful there know what is, and is not, to their immediate advantage. And as you say – they have, like their Republican counterparts, exchanged a role in governance for a role in public entertainment and a seat at the table power-brokering behind closed doors.

R.K.H.: But you can’t have civic republicanism if the city is for sale to the highest bidder.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

"Recapitulating not just the thought, but the hand" : Interview with R. Kevin Hill, part 1


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 tenaciously religious 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.


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(The second half of this interview can be read here.)