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Understanding Nietzsche’s Free Spirit Works

April 30, 2018

Recently, Matthew Meyer, Ph.D., gave a talk to his fellow faculty members at the Faculty Research Seminar Series. We caught up with him to find out about his recent work.

Dr. Meyer has been a professor in the Philosophy Department since 2010. Most of his research to date has been on the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. He recently published a book, Reading Nietzsche Through the Ancients: An Analysis of Becoming, Perspectivism, and the Principle of Non-Contradiction, with the Berlin-based publisher Walter de Gruyter. At Scranton, he serves as the moderator of the philosophy honors society Phi Sigma Tau, and he is also the pre-law advisor.

Tell me about your specialty.

In addition to doing some occasional work on the ancient Greek philosophers — Plato is my favorite — I write about Friedrich Nietzsche, a 19th-century German philosopher. My goal is to understand what he’s trying to do in his works. And it’s really not all that clear!

 Can you give us some background?

Sure! To step back a little, in the last 100 years, Nietzsche has been interpreted as anything from a proponent of national socialism to the founding father of postmodernism. So, he’s been all over the political and academic spectrum.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a book called Nietzsche’s Free Spirit Works: A Dialectical Reading that will be published — hopefully soon — with Cambridge University Press.

There’s a concept of what Nietzsche calls to be a “free spirit” and he has these books that detail his path toward becoming a free spirit. These books are made up of aphorisms — short sayings or paragraphs loosely construed — and there are more than 2,000 of them!

Some people think they are just Nietzsche’s random thoughts that he jotted down for about four years, so they think there is no order or coherence to them. I say, “No, that’s not the case at all.” You have to read these aphorisms much more carefully and in conjunction with the notes and letters he writes about them during this time. In so doing, one begins to see that these books, read together, constitute a novel of self-education that tell how Nietzsche becomes a free spirit and what it means to become a free spirit.

What does it mean to become a free spirit?

In part, it means to be liberated from false beliefs. So, freedom comes through truth-seeking, and in this sense, Nietzsche’s project is continuous with Enlightenment philosophy from the 17th and 18th centuries. However, Nietzsche takes this Enlightenment project a step further, and this is where his project becomes more controversial. Specifically, he begins to argue that morality is just another false belief, and ultimately, he doesn’t think that there is anything in nature that grounds our responsibility to the truth. The reason that there’s nothing that compels us morally to be truthful is because science presents a picture without a god — a world devoid of values.

Nietzsche thinks science tells us the true world, but once you see what the world is like, there’s nothing that compels us to be scientific in our thinking . . .  or truthful. 

How can we relate?

Nietzsche’s attack on the value of truth and his related critique of science is done in service of revitalizing art, and he looks back to ancient Greek tragedy and comedy as models. He thinks that art, unlike science, is the stuff that helps us cope with and even embrace an otherwise meaningless existence. Today we see inchoate versions of this. Think Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or Harry Potter. This stuff is all made up. But we see how it can be important for people’s lives and their self-understanding.

In this way, Nietzsche’s free spirit contrasts sharply with the story Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist and popular science author, tells in his recently released book, Enlightenment Now. There, Pinker calls on us to re-embrace things like truth, reason, science. He’s in a crew of atheists that says that religion is false and demands that we adhere to rationality and truth-seeking by means of science. Nietzsche challenges this by appealing to scientific discoveries showing that the world is not all that rational and that we are not all that rational either. Common sense gets us to think we operate in this way, but science shows us a much different picture, and so Nietzsche thinks that science itself actually undermines the Enlightenment project Pinker wants us to embrace.  

Who is right in this debate or whether some third alternative is right (theists will reject both options) is not something I tackle directly, at least not for now. In this project, I’m just trying to make a claim about how we should understand Nietzsche’s works. And that, in itself, is controversial.

 

 

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