• Psychological Facts Beyond Our Control: Talking to Brian Leiter

    What might Friedrich Nietzsche’s speculative musings have to teach today’s empirical psychologists? What might a Nietzschean speculative practice look like for contemporary discipline-bound philosophers? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Brian Leiter. The present conversation focuses on Leiter’s book Moral Psychology with Nietzsche. Leiter teaches at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Law School’s Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values. Leiter’s books include Nietzsche on Morality, Naturalizing Jurisprudence, and Why Tolerate Religion?, as well as the edited collection Objectivity in Law and Morals. Recently Leiter has worked on realism as a theme in political and legal theory, on meta-ethical and metaphysical questions in general jurisprudence, and on philosophical issues about free speech, in both the liberal and Marxian traditions. Leiter’s writing has been translated into Chinese, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Slovak, and Spanish. He was the long-time editor for the journal Legal Theory, is founding editor of the Routledge Philosophers book series and of Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Law (with Leslie Green), and also serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Moral Philosophy, Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, The Philosopher’s Annual, Anilisi e Diritto (Italy), Indian Journal of Legal Theory, Problema: Anuario de Filosofia y Teoría (Mexico), Revista de Teoría Jurídica (Argentina), and Theoria (Sweden), among others.


    ANDY FITCH: Your book (and your ongoing work) outlines a broader case for why “If Nietzsche were more widely read by academic psychologists — too many years of Heideggerian and Derridean misreadings appear, alas, to have put them off Nietzsche — then he would be recognized as a truly prescient figure in the history of empirical psychology.” How have such “misreadings” misled academic psychologists about Nietzsche’s potential contribution to the field? What might such psychologists be distinctly positioned to appreciate about Nietzsche’s contribution if they could move beyond this interpretive impediment in the secondary literature? And what might contemporary empirical psychology still stand to gain by assimilating Nietzsche’s 19th-century corpus today?

    BRIAN LEITER: Heidegger and Derrida were careless readers quite generally of earlier figures in philosophy, as is well known among scholars of any thinker they mangled. In the case of Nietzsche, Heidegger presents him as an extravagant, and utterly implausible, metaphysical philosopher theorizing about the “essence” of all reality, and Heidegger does so based on cherry-picking from work Nietzsche never published. Derrida, again relying on unpublished work, presents Nietzsche as, unsurprisingly, anticipating Derrida’s confused skepticism about meaning and truth. It bears emphasizing that Nietzsche kept extensive notebooks, from which he culled the material that was worthy of publication. Heidegger and Derrida essentially take the refuse, the material Nietzsche left behind, and treat it as the “real” philosophy. Both manage to obscure Nietzsche’s extensive interest in human nature and human psychology.

    As I try to show in this book, Nietzsche anticipates many of the major themes of post-behaviorist psychology of the past 50 years: about the superficiality of consciousness and conscious deliberation when it comes to explaining human behavior; about the powerful role of affects or emotions in our moral attitudes; and about the role of powerful emotions in anesthetizing pain. Nietzsche called himself the “first psychologist,” and while he wasn’t, he was the first really good one. His corpus is a rich repository of hypotheses that psychologists still could investigate, beyond the ones they have already confirmed.

    So to what extent does Nietzsche’s distinct psychological contribution take on significance by being a speculative mode of inquiry? For example, if a speculative naturalist like Nietzsche “does not claim that the explanatory mechanisms essential to his theory of why humans think and act as they do are supported by existing scientific results,” and if “what Nietzsche does do is appeal to psychological mechanisms — such as the seething hatred mixed with envy characteristic of ressentiment,” when should we think of Nietzsche’s writing as explaining human psychology, and when as revealing or enacting or provoking human psychology? What else to make of Nietzsche so often foregrounding a call for readers of “the future” to unpack his most transformational claims? And what might it mean, say, for contemporary psychology or philosophy to embrace the fact that some of today’s most crucial speculations likewise might only receive confirmation following unfathomable socio-techno-epistemological developments still to come generations from now?

    Nietzsche shares with David Hume, the great 18th-century Scottish philosopher, a desire to understand and explain human beings, and a recognition that the triumphs of the sciences (for Hume, Newtonian mechanics; for Nietzsche, 19th-century developments in physiology and biology) have not yet caught up with phenomena related to human moral attitudes and human behavior. Speculative naturalists like Hume and Nietzsche look to extend these fruitful explanatory methodologies beyond their original domains — in particular, to the domain of the human.

    As speculative naturalists, they are hostage to empirical fortune: their proposed naturalistic accounts may or may not be borne out by the best evidence going forward. Hume, I think, fares less well on this score, given his optimistic assumptions about human nature. But what interests me, and what is really quite extraordinary, is the extent to which Nietzsche’s views about the causal inefficacy of conscious deliberation, the role of heritable traits in behavior, and the ability of strong emotions to deaden pain (to take just three examples) have been borne out by empirical psychology since. Speculative hypotheses play a huge role in all the sciences, but Nietzsche is remarkable in his capacity for psychological insight that has been vindicated by subsequent systematic empirical research.

    The proposition “that readers will only change their most basic moral commitments if their underlying affective states are aroused and altered is, itself,” you write, “a philosophical position that can be stated unemotionally.” But again I wonder why Nietzsche himself can’t state this proposition unemotionally. Or when your book makes the case that one can separate the Humean and the Therapeutic Nietzsches, I wonder why Nietzsche himself can’t seem to do so. Or when Moral Psychology with Nietzsche arrives at incisive self-questioning such as “If the naturalist is right, how does it help her…. The answer has to be that it does not,” I can agree with these stark conclusions, but still sense that they had served as something of an epistemic baseline for Nietzsche — raising urgent follow-up questions about how one could/should respond to such potentially dislocating and self-deflating insights. Here I wonder whether a Therapeutic Nietzsche prioritizes not only critical reevaluation (“therapy” in the curative sense), but also some more pressing emotional register (a softer, vernacular notion of “therapy” as consolation) that no longer seems relevant to your own project.

    Scholarly exposition of poetry is no substitute for reading poetry, and scholarly exposition of Nietzsche is no substitute for reading him. In both cases, scholars try to increase the understanding of readers. And although Nietzsche’s primary mode of exposition is not poetic, the analogy remains apt, for Nietzsche’s mode of expression is distinctive in the canon of great philosophers. Nietzsche does not offer systematic arguments, with premises and conclusions, because he knows that, as he puts it in Twilight of the Idols, “nothing is easier to erase than a dialectical effect.” Nietzsche takes himself to confront a cultural and existential crisis: the collapse of the possibility for genius in a world overrun with capitalism, nationalism, democracy, and egalitarian blather. He chooses a mode of writing that suits the urgency of the situation and that reflects his underlying theory of how people are motivated to do what they do. My task as a scholar of Nietzsche is to help students and other scholars understand better what Nietzsche himself is doing.

    I do think readers need to understand that Nietzsche’s scathing diagnosis of our lack of agency, of the extent to which we are determined by psychological facts beyond our control, would, from the first-person point of view, seem unintelligible. But that is no objection for Nietzsche, who thinks that illusion is an essential condition of life — so too, I might add, the illusion that we are autonomous agents, that we can determine and shape our lives, and so on.

    Could we pivot then, in Nietzschean and proto-existentialist fashion, from fraught/decadent/moral questions of “Why live?” to the more procedural, prescriptive question of how to live — perhaps here specifically how to live/work/play as Nietzsche might? How, for instance, have you seen your own approach to Nietzsche usefully resist what you describe as the revival of moral realism in Anglophone philosophy since the 1980s? Or on a more personal experiential level, how might living with (or through) one’s psycho-physical type-facts correspond to living an intellectual life? And if we, like Nietzsche, consistently value “treating oneself as an object for causal manipulation,” and if even our inquiry’s most compelling discoveries never will “answer to objective standards of correctness,” and if the viewpoint produced by our type-facts will simply collide with other viewpoints produced by other type-facts, why (or how to) offer written interpretations? Why (or how to) publicly argue over texts? Why (or how to) teach?

    These are fair questions that cut to the core of how Nietzsche has influenced my own activities, but let me correct one misunderstanding at the start. For Nietzsche, there is a huge difference, in terms of “objective standards of correctness,” between claims about the physical world and human psychology and the causal order of nature more generally, and claims about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad. For Nietzsche, there are no objective standards of correctness for evaluative or normative claims, but there are clearly such standards for other claims, even if they are dependent on a convergence on epistemic norms among creatures like us (this is the argument of Chapter 4 of my book). But that still leaves the primary force of your question intact.

    Let me start with teaching, which is the easiest case. My duty as a teacher is to impart my knowledge and disciplinary competence to my students. Here I agree with Nietzsche’s aphorism in Beyond Good and Evil: “He who is a teacher through-and-through takes all things seriously — including himself — only in relation to his pupils.” But the much more radical consequences of the Nietzschean view become apparent elsewhere. If Nietzsche is correct, as I believe he is, that psycho-physical “type-facts” about persons determine their core values, then it follows that at a certain point my disagreement with some others will be nothing more than a brute conflict of differing types and fundamental normative attitudes. And when it comes to a fundamental conflict between psycho-physically determined attitudes, there is nothing for philosophy, as conceived by Socrates, to do. The only resolution of such a disagreement is through force, physical or rhetorical. Here is a place where Nietzsche and Marxists converge: there is a point at which discursive reasoning with your opponents has no place, where the only thing to do is defeat them.

    A different (but interesting) question you raise is how one is to think of one’s own writing if one takes Nietzsche’s view seriously. My own view is that I had no choice but to take Nietzsche seriously, at least once the happy accident of encountering him occurred. And I have no doubt that my reading of him has much to do with who I am — although, fortuitously (or so it seems to me!), my own orientation is reasonably close to Nietzsche’s: hence my ability to explain what he is really up to!

    That, of course, is a self-congratulatory story. But the skeptics are themselves vulnerable to diagnosis as well. Any reader of Nietzsche must acknowledge that he is a brilliant and seductive writer, hence the many different “Nietzsches” that have proliferated over the years. Even if some of these are obviously frauds and fabrications (for example, those of the Nazis or Heidegger or Derrida or Rorty), there remains a space of contested readings, of which I occupy one. How one responds to my reading, just as how one responds to Nietzsche, often has a lot to do with who one really is. This is true quite generally of course, even in intellectual or academic work.

    Nietzsche, a radical anti-realist about morality (he believes there are no objective standards of right and wrong), is especially useful in understanding the rather comical revival of moral realism among Anglophone professors of philosophy — who are overwhelmingly members of the same economic class, and who interact mostly with each other, in a society of mutual congratulation. In those circumstances, it is unsurprising that they all come to believe in the obvious correctness of their own moral prejudices. Nietzsche’s quip about George Eliot in Twilight of the Idols applies just as well to Peter Singer, Derek Parfit, or any other “star” of Anglophone philosophy (even if not English!): “When the English actually believe that they know ‘intuitively’ what is good and evil, when they therefore suppose that they no longer require Christianity as the guarantee of morality, we merely witness the effects of the dominion of the Christian value judgment and an expression of the strength and depth of this dominion.” A serious problem in “analytic” philosophy as it has evolved in the Anglophone countries is that it remains largely ahistorical, so that its practitioners have no perspective on how local and idiosyncratic their intuitions and judgments are. Nietzsche, as a classicist and a reader of Greek and Latin, among other languages, did not suffer from this parochialism.

    I do worry that, even if most Nietzsche scholars are now long past Derridean nonsense or Walter Kaufmann’s whitewash (Nietzsche was extremely illiberal and inegalitarian!), there is still a strong tendency even among the best philosophers to downplay the extent to which Nietzsche cared only about human excellence in the aesthetic domain, and the extent to which he was a radical anti-realist about value. I myself harbor more sympathy for Marx’s concern for human well-being, and for Marx’s diagnosis of the pathological logic of capitalism. But Nietzsche and Marx should be the two great intellectual lodestars for anyone thinking about fundamental questions of human values, psychology, and social order. Almost everything else is trivia.