On Jessica Berry, Nietzsche and the Ancient Skeptical Tradition

This is an interesting and insightful book on Nietzsche’s philosophy and on ancient skepticism generally. I really admire Berry’s ability to adopt and clearly express judicious opinions, and her ability to anticipate readers’ questions and objections and she moves through her story. This is the best book on Nietzsche’s philosophy I’ve seen in quite a while.

First, it’s clear Nietzsche was thoroughly familiar with the ancient skeptics. As a student and early on as a professor, he was studying several topics that would have led him to Sextus Empiricus. Moreover, as Berry documents throughout, Nz often refers to the skeptics, and they seem to be one of the very few groups he does not heap scorn upon. (French novelists and Italian operatic composers areĀ  two others.) In many instances (as Berry documents), Nz frames problems and solutions in ways Sextus himself would appreciate. Plus, Nz is often engaged in the problem of balancing one perspective with another, so that the first ends up less appealing or discredited. When Nz attacks an ideology, he points out the other causal factors which might be leading the ideologues to their conclusions – psychological, societal, dietary, and so on. After we hear Nz’s alternative account, we’re supposed to feel not so sure about the ideologue’s defense of his own position. And as we treat ideas and hypotheses, he wants us to carefully line up considerations for and against, with finely-attuned noses, ears, and tongues for sensing when something is rotten. This “ideology management” technique is very Sexy. (As in “like Sextus,” of course.)

In fact, I think Berry is right to construe Nz as a skeptic on metaphysical and scientific matters. In metaphysics, he does trot out the will-to-power doctrine late in life in all apparent earnestness, but it seems to me he really employs it only as a splendid tool for talking himself and the rest of us out of “thingy” metaphysics. In accounts of humans and nature, he often seems to side with scientific naturalists, but again it’s only to discredit and deflate competing metaphysical views. For on occasion he also deflates naturalistic scientific views, like atomism and belief in universal laws of nature, as beliefs arising from scientists’ own biases. Nz is not so much interested in establishing any metaphysical or scientific truths as he is in establishing an experimental, skeptical attitude that we should take toward ourselves and our experience. We should always be second guessing (or triple guessing) our own psychologies and our own motivations, even when we are doing science, and especially when we are doing psychology or philosophy.

One question Berry must consider (and does) is whether Nz could share the skeptic’s expectation that tranquility will arise from the suspension of belief. The skeptic’s story is that when we successfully purge ourselves of ideologies, we will experience tranquility. Sextus’s own account in that this tranquility simply arises from the suspension of belief – he has no account why it should, and doesn’t laud it as a goal; it’s just a welcome accident. Nz certainly isn’t an advocate of spiritual tranquility – he wants perpetual struggle and strife – but he does think there is a welcome benefit attending to all the hard work. We gain health, and the joy of a free spirit. So one might view this as a Nietzschean variant upon Sextus’s skepticism, and Berry does.

Berry also argues that Nz was a moral skeptic, though here I am unsure. I read Nietzsche as playing back-and-forth with scientific naturalism, with the aim of undermining any confidence we have in any sort of metaphysics. But I don’t see him playing that game at all with morality. He’s straightforward: it’s all wrong, diseased, misguided. Berry’s strategy is to show that the ancient skeptics also committed themselves to the same, profoundly anti-realist conclusion, and maybe that is so; I cannot judge. But here is my thought: if we understand skepticism generally at undermining confidence with the result of not having any beliefs, then Nz wasn’t a skeptic about morality in that sense. He thinks we should end up with some beliefs: namely, that morality is bad, and health is good. Nz seems pretty dogmatic on that score; indeed, I think he can only be a realist about health. If the ancient skeptics were too, in some way or other, well then okay; then the skeptics weren’t skeptical, and were Nietzschean instead.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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4 Responses to On Jessica Berry, Nietzsche and the Ancient Skeptical Tradition

  1. Rob says:

    Thanks for this helpful review. Especially enjoy your gloss on “ideology management.”

    However, I do wonder if Nietzsche’s health-realism does not spring from, or commit him to, an experimental, skeptical naturalistic attitude. Daybreak 553 is one paradigmatic instance which suggests itself to me because of its acute reflexivity.


  2. Huenemann says:

    Thanks, Rob. It may come down to what naturalism is, and what skeptics mean by “appearances.” There is a long scholarly dispute about how the skeptic is supposed to live, if all they accept are appearances. Some take appearances very thinly, as just sense impressions. Others take them thickly, as all the affairs of everyday life. My own hunch is thick: skeptics distinguish what we’re able to sort out without the aid of any theory from what theories tell us. The passage from Daybreak follows this, since Nz is talking about very easy, ordinary observations. What you call it – “experimental, skeptical, naturalistic attitude” sounds exactly right. But I’m supposing that full-blown naturalism, certainly in its contemporary guise, embraces all kinds of theory — basically, every theory contemporary science now endorses.


  3. This description of skepticism is very compelling to me. I wish I had enough context to read the book and develop these thoughts further.

    What I am getting is that I could learn more about the role of skepticism in softening the firm dichotomies of science. I appreciate anything that makes us value context and a continuum in thinking about self and truth.

    I have a completely unrelated and incidental observation (I know; like that is unusual).

    The convention of using nz, is fascinating. I am sure that this is state-of-the-art, but it immediately brings up the idea of psychic costs in both writing the name Nietzsche, and reading it. Knee-Chee, is the most common reading I have heard, and that hardly does justice to the Ni-Cha pronunciation which is as close as I can get to the German. But this nz convention solves my psychic cost of evaluating that pronunciation. I wonder, incidentally, if his name were something which is less mispronounced (Freud, for example) if English native speakers would have less of a problem with his place in intellectual thought.

    A second observation is that because of the spelling of the name, there might be an aversion to referring to Nietzsche by name in print. Compared to other authors, does his name get referenced less often in text than other equally important authors. This convention then, allows the author the freedom to reference nz as often as fits the discussion, because it lowers the cost of typing it and interrupting the thought process.

    Anyhow — I don’t mean to over-analyze, but find myself burdened with these strange thoughts.


  4. Nice review, Charlie. Of course a big problem with reading Nietzsche’s view as health-realist (which seems apt enough to me) is that his idea of “health” is ineliminably evaluative and very term-of-art (if not downright idiosyncratic). He doesn’t mean to say, e.g., that the highest philosophers of the future will be those who manage never to have a headache or stomach complain. But that certainly is one sort of “health.”


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