Family Failing of Philosophy

Lack of historical sense is the family failing of all philosophers.

Nietzsche “Human, All Too Human”

It’s interesting to me that of all the groups, cultures, religions and people that Nietzsche criticized over the years, that he attacks philosophers first. I’d love to be able to ask him if that was because he wanted to clean his own house (did he consider himself a philosopher at this point?) or if it was because he still saw himself as a philologist and because of his particular area of expertise felt so strongly that this needed to be said. I doubt that he was unaware of his own potential biases showing up in his work, he seemed well aware that whenever a person puts their thoughts on a page their own viewpoint is going to come out. His willing embrace of that fact is what elevates his writing from simple philosophy to true art.

The point he makes is a good one. We could pick a time frame of any length, say a hundred years, and when we speak of what happened during the early twentieth century we would take our view point now and use that as the starting point of trying to understand how people thought then. This tendency is what drives the re-evaluation of movies, books and artwork from before our time. What was considered beautiful then can suddenly shift into something offensive and shameful now. Philosophy has always carried with it an arrogance from the implied idea that it deals in “eternal” truths, and being human has always meant that we approach the world from our own perspective instinctively. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s how we are built, but it is a tendency that we have to be aware of.

Everything essential in the development of mankind took place in primeval times.

Nietzsche, “Human, All Too Human”

We can dig and search and put together an idea of what humanity may have looked like before written history began, but we will never be able with any certainty be able to say what our thought processes looked like, how was the world viewed by primeval humans, what detritus is left from that time that still inhabits our unconscious thinking and how many actions were taken to secure the species continuance that would make us violently ill in modern times. We simply have no good way to put ourselves into the place of our primeval ancestors and I doubt we would find their mindset or perspective comforting.

I believe this is also true of even written history. We read about Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Jesus, Abraham and a host of others and interpret what they wrote, said or did using a viewpoint so alien as to make it impossible to make any REAL value judgments on their lives or philosophies. As technology evolves faster and faster, as we adapt to these changes at a faster and faster rate as well, we may well find that in 10 or 15 years that how we think now is incomprehensible from that viewpoint.

But everything has become: there are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths.

Nietzsche, “Human, All Too Human”

This is not said as if it is a bad thing. I love the idea of “becoming” which is really to say that not only are individuals (healthy ones anyway) constantly changing and hopefully evolving but that humanity itself is not a fixed point. The current rush by certain fearful portions of society to try and stop change is driven by animal fear, an instinctive reaction to the knowledge that the world of tomorrow is going to be different from yesterday. Attacks on the “other”, whether its aimed at a culture, a skin color, or sexual identity are all fueled by an irrational fear of becoming irrelevant, obsolete and ultimately unnecessary.

It’s why those who bleat about “strength” and what it takes to be a “man” and the rush to hide behind “this is how God wants it” come across as so weak. It’s because they are, their conception of strength is the same as when a five year old sees their father pick up something heavy that they could never lift. But having power in a real way has nothing to do with physical strength, it’s the ability to adapt as needed and to adapt the world to your own needs as the situation demands. All real power, all real strength flows from the ability to understand and then adapt to the constantly shifting reality that surrounds us. Those who cling to the past do so because they lack the capability and will to adapt.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human, Translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1986

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