Making meaning


I’ve been thinking about Michael Drake’s post over at Strange Doctrines on Nihilistic Meaning. As anyone who knows me would suspect, I’m very skeptical of a human life being meaningful in virtue of playing some role in a deity’s big plan. (Indeed, that seems to me a recipe for absurdity.) So I usually fall back on the idea that (as one respondent puts it) life’s value comes from within a life, not in relation to some other person’s plans. So finding happiness, enjoying art, blah blah blah, makes a life meaningful to the person living it.

But then I think about Apollo and Achilles. Apollo, as in the above picture. I know that homo sapiens are merely a gnat’s fart in the big scheme of things, but — pardon me — fuckin’ A! We walked on the moon! In a time when computers used punch-cards! That commands my respect. And I also think of when Achilles was deciding about whether to join the battle at Troy, and Athena (his mom) tells him, basically: you can stay home, and you’ll have a great life loving your children and eating grapes and everything, and you’ll be remembered for a generation or two, and then forgotten entirely; or you can go, die young, and men will sing your song for thousands of years. He decides to go (and Athena was right. Well: she never existed, but Homer was right. Well: Achilles was fictional too, but, bloody hell, it’s the idea I’m after.)

Anyhow, I wonder if my little recipe for micro-meaning (happiness, art, books, friends) is really just a confession that I’m not big enough for Apollo- or Achilles-sized meaning. What if this is the truth: a meaningful life is one that commands species-wide respect, and you ain’t got it in you, bub.

Man, to cosmos: “Do you know who I am?”
Cosmos: “No. Should I?”

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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30 Responses to Making meaning

  1. Kleiner says:

    So the Nzian can’t make room for magnanimity? Ironic. Might it be that the lesson to be learned from Achilles is that greatness of soul arises not out of self-made projects but out of a response to the Other?


  2. Rob says:

    I’ve never read much Homer, but in GM 2.7 Nietzsche indicates a cosmic context of divine spectatorship without which it’s not clear to me what sense for us can be made of Achilles’ decision. That context, Nietzsche claims, spared its denizens the problem of meaning ( –of meaningless suffering, as well as of the development of “bad conscience” [cf. GM 2.23]); it was an invention, no long available to us, with the help of which “life back then was expert at the trick at which it has always been expert, of justifying itself”… So, I guess it’s unclear to me why occupying Mars would be any less meaningless than landing on the Moon… For me, the problem is crystallized in final days of Proust: how, in the face of impending personal death, could it have mattered so intensely to him, up to the very end, that he finish the novel? How was he able to remain so defiant of oblivion when he apprehended so acutely that, after overtaking him, it would eventually consume the work?


  3. Kleiner says:

    I always wonder who the “us” is when Nz/Nzians claim that these alleged “inventions” are no longer “available to us”. Billions of people around the world still hear the call of the Other in some form or another. Might it be that the “us” to whom Nz refers are “small souled people with broken antenna who are hence incapable of hearing a voice other than their own”?


  4. Huenemann says:

    Would someone please explain to me just what this “Other” is? I’m not pretending to be stupid; I really am. I’ve heard the phrase used so much, and so far have not attached any meaning to it other than a nonspecific term pointing toward someone who’s not me.


  5. Huenemann says:

    Also: I hadn’t really thought about what Nz would say about this. I was only wondering whether “meaningful/significant life,” in my own head, was bound up with “having a huge impact on human history.” I like to pretend it doesn’t, but examples like Achilles (or Plato or Beethoven or Newton) make me wonder if I’m just being soft. I’m not sure about Proust, since I’m poorly read. I guess my unsureness, by itself, points toward the negative.


  6. Rob says:

    Hey, it’s the Other. (Reminds me of how uncool I was, when living in LA, to be constantly reminded by a cool girlfriend that it’s “the 405″…)


  7. Huenemann says:

    Can we be sure there aren’t other Others? Only the Other? Isn’t there some rule like “no entity without identity” to worry about here?


  8. Rob says:

    I would guess the crypto-polytheistic implications of other Others wouldn’t sit will with the crypto-monotheism that presumably underlies the appeal, for Kleiner, of the singular noun usage. Perhaps he will explain.


  9. Kleiner says:

    A very brief review of the use of the term “Other”:

    The term is one of those marvelously ambiguous terms that make people either love or hate postmodernity. It is most identified with Levinas, also Derrida (see also the “Thou” in Buber, which a take to be basically equivalent). In Levinas the term has principally ethical connotations, but it also has obviously theological applications.

    Why talk about the “Other”?
    One way of looking at it is to approach the question as a response to Kant’s legacy. The argument would go something like this: with Kant, you never really encounter any Others. Other people (or God/s), in Kant’s system, are always already understood within the enframent of the field of experience, which is always already reduced to the self in virtue of being experienced according to immanent transcendental categories of intuition and understanding.
    This is the problem of modernity – how to get from an “in-here” to an “out-there” world and bring back what really exists out-there? From this notion of the subject arises what an old prof of mine (Fred Lawrence) called the problem of the “bridge” – it is necessary to build a bridge from the interior to the exterior. This act of bridge-building is usually considered to be an act of the imagination. (German imagination is literally the-power-to-build or Einbildungskraft). So our ability to known is ultimately a kind of production or re-production (representation).
    Long story short, even when Kant encounters other people, he encounters them on his own terms. This is what Levinas calls “egology” (it is what Heidegger calls technological thinking). The task for Levinas is to try to encounter the Other in the Other’s own otherness.

    Why “the” Other?
    In using the “the” in my post, I had no intention of importing a monotheistic theology. In fact, I had no intention of importing anything. To import something would be to already not encounter the Other as other (see above). To encounter the Other as other we must learn to “think against thinking” (Heidegger). To encounter the Other will require that we LISTEN rather than demand (produce).
    Still, why “the” Other? Because the Other is not a vacuous and abstract category – in fact it is not a category at all. Levinas insists that it is concrete, it has a face. It is similar to what Kierkegaard has to say about the “neighbor”. The “neighbor” is not a nameless and faceless abstract concept. It is this woman here who is in pain. It is that man there who needs help. It is that child there who skinned his knee. It is “the” other in this sense – particular rather than universal.

    How many Others are there. Are there other Others?
    Since the term “the Other” has both ethical and theological significance, this point is in ambiguity. There are certainly other people. Are they all “absolutely Other”? Derrida wants to suggest as much. See his exegesis of Fear and Trembling and the Abraham story in Gift of Death. There, in classic Derridean fashion, Derrida takes the apparent tautology “Tout autre est tout autre” (every other is every other) and spins it about until he gets it to say “Every other is every [bit] Other.” In other words, every other person is just as transcendent to you – just as BEYOND – as god(s) would be. In Derrida we have the collapse of ethics and theology into one, and they both become absolutely negative.
    Some don’t want to go that far (myself included). See Marion, and I think Levinas (who sometimes might refer to God as “otherwise that otherness”). But still, the question of multiple Others raises the question of justice for Levinas. Since Levinas thinks (this is a phenomenological argument) that our response to the face of the Other is guilt and absolute responsibility, how to I work out my absolute responsibility to every Other when there are more than one? Derrida runs with this, suggesting that every ethical act to an Other is always already an act of violence to every other Other.
    Point is, I did not intend to import any particular view about how many Others there might be by using the “the”, I leave the question about other Others open.
    It is worth adding that Huenemann is quite right that you have an “entity without identity” problem here, at least if we think of identity in the usual sense of thinking. This is why one of the fundamental discussions in Heidegger and everyone that follows is the play between identity and difference. (That said, is God an “entity”? Is a person an “entity”? What is an entity? Heidegger asks it in terms of “what is a thing?” If man is not a thing, does that yet mean that he is nothing?)

    To sum up:
    That was meant to give a brief background to how the term is often used these days. (Huenemann asked for it, and that is the best I can do during my short afternoon break while both girls are napping!).
    What is the point in the context of this stream? Again, I am not meaning to import a theology here. Theology is ultimately LISTENING. All theology is rightly reduced to praise and wonder, not importing categories or a metaphysics. Of course I have views – beliefs – about Who the Other (or Absolute Other) is, but I don’t care to argue for them. Just listen, see what you hear. (This is Pascal’s advice, he remarks that the primary cause of modern man’s unhappiness is his inability to sit quietly in his room).
    My point in raising the Other is this: it seems to me that persons are naturally oriented toward the Beyond. Whether this Beyond is understood horizontally (other human persons that are not me) or vertically (a God-person or indeed God-persons) is a detail that is worth hashing out, but that is for later. My point here is an anthropological one as much as it is a theological one. An adequate metaphysical anthropology must be relational. Man is most himself when he is oriented away from himself in a response to the call of the Other (whoever, Whoever, whoevers, Whoevers that ends up being).
    But it is telling that Athena is both immanent and transcendent. Achilles can hear her even though she is Beyond (divine, Other). And it is in his proper orientation to that Beyond that Achilles finds his true self. (By the way, one can find all of this in Kierkegaard).

    To conclude, I don’t think Nz has any room for any of this, and it is why Nz is simply wrong (brilliant in his diagnosis, terribly wrong all the same) — he gets his anthropology just wrong. Huenemann pointed out that he was not simply thinking Nz, though, in his post. So I should add that I think Huememann is playing with an inadequate anthropology too.


  10. Kleiner says:

    By the way, I have hardly been checking the blogs this summer – my life is more Elmo than Aquinas these days. I don’t know if others have actually missed me, but I feel like I have been missed since a quick review of the USU blog shows far too much agreement (actually, it is turning into a Nz circle jerk).
    Point is – don’t take offense or think I am chickening out if I don’t keep up with this discussion — I’ve got diapers to change and kids to raise!


  11. Huenemann says:

    Thanks for trying to explain “the Other” to me. But, as you probably guessed, I’m too nominalistic/materialistic/analytic/thick-headed to go very far with the notion. I can get this much: there are other people, some of whom have very different ways of looking at things, and I can learn a lot, sometimes, by trying hard to see things their way. I know this is very superficial, but the other “Other” stuff I just don’t get. (Did Levinas seriously believe that Kant was encountering others on his own terms, but Levinas wasn’t when he was encountering “the Other in the Other’s own otherness”? Hmm.) I’ll try to muddle along in my inadequate anthropology, I guess, and I’ll keep trying now and then to see things in “the Other” way.

    No, I think it’s wrong to say that Achilles gets his bearings from Athena as some radically different and divine being. It’s a pretty immanent thing — fame, heroic legacy — that he’s after, and Athena is simply someone who can see what’s likely to happen. One can read the other stuff into it, but that would be reading stuff into it. If anything, the Greek gods are entities most mortals are better off avoiding; it’s best to be beneath their notice.

    By the way, I think the tree is maybe a better representation of religion shorn of its practical imports — abstract theology, in other words. But your point still remains — the shorn limbs probably can’t support themselves. That’s the conundrum as I see it: in order to keep the benefits produced by baloney, you have to keep the baloney. So either give up the benefits (Nz), or live with the baloney (??? – who among us is so brave as to put his name to that?!).


  12. Kleiner says:

    Yes, you are much too nominalistic/materialistic/analytic/thick-headed! No room for mystery in your view, and the “Other” is certainly draped in it.

    In defense of Levinas (really a defense of Heidegger and what follows): Instead of framing it in this way: “Did Levinas seriously believe that Kant was encountering others on his own terms, but Levinas wasn’t when he was encountering “the Other in the Other’s own otherness”? Hmm.”
    What if we frame it in this way:
    Heidegger and his offspring see the failure, or at least the limitations, of metaphysical thinking and the philosophy of consciousness. (Kant, despite his own move away from metaphysics, is something of a culmination of some of these tendencies. So, in different ways, is Nz). Heidegger is interested in exploring other ways of disclosing the world, the self, others. Against the philosophy of consciousness, can poetry, art, boredom, attentive attunement, conversational hearkening (the list could go on) open up new horizons?

    Putting it that way appears, at least to me, to be a less prideful and absurd project. In fact, it seems like a pretty damn good project to me.

    In defense of my reading of Achilles (and I’ll play the pomo card here) — aren’t we always “reading stuff into” texts? 🙂
    As a more serious defense of my reading: Athena is awfully immanent, you are right. But she is not merely immanent. There is something of the divine in her. The question of the Other concerns intersections, intersections of the transcendent and the immanent. I quite agree that the Greek gods tilt excessively to the immanent. Other gods (I might include Allah) tilt too far to transcendence. The question of the Other makes us ask where and how we encounter the Other in an authentic way. What kind of thought or comportment is required? Is it active or passive, or neither or both? Errors abound, pushing the other too far away (gnosticism, etc) or bringing the Other too near (reductionism).
    This is precisely what Kierkegaard thinks is so simply brilliant (and paradoxical) about Christianity – it says YES equally to the immanent and the transcendent. In this sense, it is not just one story among others.

    Regarding the tree. Yes, the image I drew of it could just as well be turned to your view. And I would not disagree with that at all. This is, in part, the attraction of theology-talk as Other-talk — it forces you to the question of personal encounter (and ultimately love, sacrifice, responsibility) in the way that hollow metaphysical talk about God just doesn’t. No one is moved by Aquinas’s 3rd way, they are moved by the Cross.


  13. Kleiner says:

    I must admit, though, that I have come to see the question of the Other (or alternatively the question of intersection) in almost everything I read now, no less in Homer than anything else. I thank (you can blame) Heidegger, Levinas, and John Paul II (particularly the Theology of the Body). In defense of this tendency: since I think man is a fundamentally relational being (not individuals but inter-dividuals as Girard calls us), it is not surprising that great works raise the question of relation (more or less adequately and more or less accurately). The question of relation, though, is always already the question of the Other. If great works ask about man, then this is THE question since it gets to the heart of who man is and that to which he is called.


  14. Mike says:

    So how does this “other” talk help people to love one another and understand each other better than something like Nz’s perspectivalism (or “argonauts of the ideal”)? Or even how does it stand up to something as simple as working alongside someone else?


  15. BTW, I would distinguish “meaning” and “mattering.” (Think of any book. The book, unless it’s just nonsense, will have meaning; but it won’t necessarily matter.)

    Tentatively, I think my life is full of all kinds of meaning – but it’s all meaning that (all things considered) doesn’t much matter.


  16. Kleiner says:

    Mike – I would think you would have sympathy for Levinas, Buber and others like them in that they are trying to correct the excessively abstract and speculative tendency of philosophy. Phenomenology is useful in this regard. Levinas’ phenomenology, I take it, is an attempt to call us back to a fundamental human experience – the experience of responsibility in the face of the Other. That encounter has been busily covered up by layers and layers of metaphysical and ethico-metaphysical jargon and overlays, not to mention a society dominated by technological approaches to others that seem to hide the faces of others rather than disclose them.
    The point is that when we work alongside someone else we often do not encounter them as a person. You can be around people all day long without encountering them as persons/Others. Their is a tendency in man to “fall away”, to encounter others as things, already circumscribed by our own aims (see Being and Time for the root of this analysis). This is why Levinas thinks the face of the Other says “Guilty!” and “Thou shall not kill!”. But his ethics do not get any more concrete in this sense that do not give us any prescriptions or tidy laundry lists of duties, it does not tell us what to do or how to love. What you do when you face up to your responsibility – if you face up to your responsibility – is your affair. But, for whatever it is worth, Levinas takes his work to be extremely concrete and action oriented. Again, this seems to be right up your alley.

    Regarding whether or not the meaning in our lives matters: it is a useful distinction, but I don’t agree with Michael’s conclusion. Taking care of my children full-time has made me all the more incarnational in my philosophy and theology – I am collapsing the apparent divide between the ordinary and the extraordinary. The intersection of transcendence and immanence is everywhere around us, and is incarnated in our everyday actions. The extraordinary does not occupy some special space, it is here and now and lived. Does changing my infant’s diaper matter? Does giving my 2 year old a hug when she falls matter? Well, I want to say ‘hell yes it matters!’ It matters because love matters. I don’t have an argument for that, but I pity those who don’t intuitively grasp that most humanizing part of our lives. Every person matters. It is the defense of that most basic proposition that continues to show forth the Catholic Church as a light for this world. Those that deny that basic claim frankly scare the hell out of me. It is the technological and scientistic reduction of man into tool, instrument, body, etc that scares me. Those modes of disclosure, to borrow Heidegger’s language, get something correct but not true. The danger grows that man “will no longer encounter himself” (QCT, Heidegger).


  17. Mike says:

    I do have sympathy for those “trying to correct the excessively abstract and speculative tendency of philosophy”. And I probably jive with Levinas more than the others but I’m not sure any of them have been successful in correcting those tendencies. I definitely question whether “phenomenology is useful in that regard”. I guess they think the phenomenological-speak helps break them from enframing and poor ways of seeing the world but I think it just creates more confusion (not that there aren’t things to be learned from phenomenology). I can’t justify the language those types use since it further distances them from non-philosophers. I prefer phils like Camus– clear, accessible, beautiful writing.


  18. Huenemann says:

    Well put, I think, Michael. Perhaps “mattering” is contextual — in the context of one’s own experience, of one’s community, of one’s species, etc. Hugging my kids matters in my life and theirs, maybe indirectly and slightly in the lives of others, and not at all in any larger contexts.

    I guess I’ll have to try reading Levinas. I read his article on Wikipedia. From that, it sounds like he was just writing abstractly about the evils of writing abstractly.


  19. Rob says:

    I really appreciate Kleiner’s elaboration of “the Other”, but it still seems to me like just the latest smattering of “fawning colors and painted surfaces” to be ruthlessly scraped away from the “terrible basic text of homo natura“; the latest whistling of “metaphysical bird catchers” (“You are more! You are higher! You have a different origin!”) that the vanguards of the contemporary intellectual conscience must, “with courageous Oedipus eyes and sealed up Odysseus ears”, deafen ourselves to in pursuit of “translating humanity back into nature” (cf. BGE 230)… f I must choose mythologies, “transcendence”, I think, should be replaced by the depth psychological vocabulary of “sublimation”, “reaction formation”, aim-inhibited drives”, etc., through which all that talk about our being “oriented to the Beyond”, etc, (i.e. all that “flown-away virtue and spirit” [TSZ, “Bestowing Virtue, sec. 2]) is brought back to it sources in “the body and earth”…


  20. Kleiner says:

    Like I said, I don’t have an argument for the claim that every act of love matters in some cosmic sense. I simply believe it. More accurately, I have been moved to believe it. But it is a matter of faith and I won’t pretend it is anything else – though it is an act of faith that is deeply rooted in my experience as a person with other persons/Persons, and it is an act of faith that reflexively has enormous explanatory power.
    Anyway, I think you all know I am not interested in reducing our orientation for transcendence to some earthly drive. I must confess the constant citing of Nz as if he were gospel continues to trouble me. Do any of you REALLY want to walk with Nz? Rob obviously knows his Nz extremely well (you are really quite impressive, Rob, and I mean that very sincerely), the question is does he really want to defend it? Does he think Nz’s prescription as well as diagnosis is true/good/beautiful? Huenemann, thankfully, at the end of the day does not.
    Back to my kids … and my delusions about the significance of my little acts of love. 🙂


  21. Kleiner says:

    If anyone wants to read some Levinas without making too big of a reading commitment, get his Collected Philosophical papers. Read two articles, “God and Philosophy” and “The Ego and the Totality”. If you want more, “Totality and Infinity” is his best known early work, “Otherwise that Being or Beyond Essence” his other really important work. You might find some interviews with him online. There is a book that collects some interviews called (I think) “Ethics and Infinity”. Many of my students in past years have found the interviews to be much easier to understand. You might find some interviews online too.


  22. Rob says:

    I don’t understand the explanatory power you claim for your act of faith. To me, malignant theism or polytheism — a mean and nasty god or gods — is, as I get older, an ever more plausible hypotheis than outright atheism. (There’s just too much awfulness and horror, even for the rest of the known animal kingdom, for it all to be a heap of random sweepings.) And I can’t help but suspect your rosy view is somehow a function of parenthood (if not, more specifically, fatherhood), and of the horrible thought a thoughtful parent must, if only dimly, have now and then that in their progeny they’ve gratuitously brought into being fresh loci of suffering and contributed to the sum total of suffering sentience. As a corrective, I would recommend outsourcing the childcare for a day and set aside nine hours or so for Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, with special attention to the interviews with the camp guard, and the way he describes the state of the folks before their gassing, then consider that terror and suffering of such a sort (and many others) is happening somewhere every moment.

    As for my constant invocations of Nietzsche, I do it not because I take him as gospel but because I think he either (1) has it right about a lot of important stuff, and that this is finally enjoying independent confirmation (in ExPhilo, psychology, etc.) or (2) has provocative suggestions about how to think about things that merits consideration, based on how brilliantly right he seems to be on other matters.

    Huenemann’s book does a good job, I think, of sorting out what the scope of Nietzsche’s prescriptions are, which is hardly a transparent matter. (I particularly liked his explication of “culture”, pp. 37-9 or so…)


  23. Kleiner says:

    Rob, I am going to sound snappy here, but it is absurd for the atheist to constantly play this “if you only appreciated human suffering in the way I do you’d give up your theism” card. You are very eloquent in your description of suffering, but isn’t it rather self-righteous to think you have some special attunement to this that I must not have since I am a believer? You seem to think I am ignorant or hiding from the suffering of the world. Believe it or not, you are not the only one attuned to the problem of evil. I take it quite seriously, and reject the claim that I have a “rosy view” (that term itself implies some sort of naivete). Rather, I think there is room for faith, hope and love. You don’t. Fair enough.

    I should say that anyone who thinks the bright eyes of a two year old are merely “fresh loci of suffering” has a very small soul indeed.

    Actually, being a father has made me more rather than less attuned to suffering. This might sound lame, but I was crushed the first time a young girl was mean to my daughter at the park. My daughter simply didn’t understand but was obviously hurt. Sure, there are graver evils out there, but these are the sorts of evils – evils that it is really hard to show how not having these would somehow compromise this being the best possible world – are very difficult for me. My daughters lack of words to express her pain made me think of this poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins, called Spring and Fall. I think all parents mourn for their children and experience very deep pain along with the very deep joy.

    Spring and Fall

    to a young child

    MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
    Over Goldengrove unleaving?
    Leáves, líke the things of man, you
    With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
    Áh! ás the heart grows older 5
    It will come to such sights colder
    By and by, nor spare a sigh
    Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
    And yet you wíll weep and know why.
    Now no matter, child, the name: 10
    Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
    Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
    What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
    It ís the blight man was born for,
    It is Margaret you mourn for.


  24. Rob says:

    It’s still, ultimately, a rosy view of the world because, ultimately, everything winds up in a proper place, the good finds reward, the bad punishment, losses are made good (perhaps in the form of eventually being recognized as never having really been losses at all: what kind of loss, is it, after all, for someone assured, in the end, of reunion?).

    What deep joy can parents experience in regard to the loss of a child? I can understand joy while immersed in recollection, but the only way I would think it could obtain in a single vision which included the fact of the child being gone is with the help of belief in eventual reunion. But, again, it seems to me that as long as one has belief in eventual reunion in mind, one can’t simultaneously be truly appreciating the loss. So, in a sense, one reason to both deplore and encourage the contagion of piety is that being godless frees one up for greater fidelity to one’s losses. (Though, of course, I’d never wish godlessness on someone in mourning, which could be lethal.)


  25. Rob says:

    In the case of spouses, by contrast, godlessness might not be so harmful a thing since Mother Nature apparently assures, generally speaking, remarkably rapid recovery:

    (I wonder if there’s a marked gender difference.)


  26. Kleiner says:

    While joy and grief can co-exist (there is no Easter joy without the heartbreak of Good Friday), you are right that it can be hard to hold both grief and joy simultaneously in one’s heart. This is one reason for the liturgical calendar year. It provides an emotional pace and gives a time to reflect on all aspects of our experience. I wonder if your view of the human experience has the same variegation. Human suffering is ever so real, you are attuned to that. But you do know, don’t you, that human joy is equally real. You hardly ever speak of joy. And I am the one with a “contagion”? For all of your rhetorical flourishes, you seem quite blind to basic aspects of the human experience (perhaps it is rather that your fixation on one is blinding you from others). Of course, Nz was blind in this regard too (my point above, he has an inadequate anthropology).
    Anyway, I’ve been blowing off my kids for this conversation. It has been fun, but ta ta.


  27. Reslience says:

    Well, very little of Shoah is in English, and there’s nothing graphic, so unless your daughters can read subtitles, you could probably swing childcare and a descent into the Human Condition stripped bare simultaneously.


  28. Rob says:

    Whoops. The above is authored by me.


  29. Rob says:

    This conclusion to a review of a recent collection of essays on moral psychology is a delicious example of (what I referred to above) independent empirical confirmation of Nietzsche’s moral psychology — and why, therefore, behooves us to pay serious attention to other areas of his thought that may seem, on first blush, outrageous, why one should probably try to make some sense of my quotations or citations of Nietzsche before dismissing them as some kind of displaced fundamentalism comparable to pious folks’ Biblical invocations, and why it is cause for instant suspicion about a person’s views in other areas when they hold views and attitudes at variance with Nietzsche’s on human nature:

    The overall picture we get is of moral intuitions and judgments that are usually only post-hoc rationalized (Haidt and Bjorklund), are subject to unreliable framing effects in many circumstances (Sinnott-Armstrong), involve a significant role for affective responses that have had important impacts on the cultural evolution of norms over time (Nichols), are subject to fundamental moral disagreements even in significantly improved epistemic conditions (Doris and Plakias), and involve conflicting elements that render them in some sense incoherent (Loeb). More optimistic accounts of the role of moral reasoning and reflective deliberation were few and far between (e.g., Narvaez). While this focus might just reflect the way things really are, it likely will not foster a very uplifting outlook either in philosophers working in this area or in people in general who are interested in better understanding how our moral psychologies operate.


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