Sunday, October 21, 2012

Nietzsche III: A Sense of History

Scott Bradley


In his critique of metaphysics as essentially a denial of reality as it actually is, Nietzsche points out the vital importance of a sense of history in our philosophizing. This goes way beyond mere human history, of course; to begin there would be to ascribe to the human a value that history itself does not give it.

One thing of which we become aware if we allow ourselves to be informed by history is that it is largely accidental. Our mores are accidental, not written on stone tablets by the hand of God. Chances are that if you are a Muslim or a Hindu it is because you were born into a family and a culture that was Muslim or Hindu. Religious belief is, on the whole, accidental.

But perhaps more importantly, an historical sense relativizes humanity itself by understanding that it too is accidental and unnecessary. A major point in my "Tao in the Age of Dinosaurs" post of long ago was to make this observation. Dao, if understood in the limited sense of 'happening', was ever much as present in the Jurassic as in the present age. Indeed, it is the lack of the human and every consideration of morality in that age which brings into bold relief the folly of our present self-absorbed anthropocentrism.

One criticism I have of Nietzsche's critique as I have so far come to understand it, however, is his repeated assertion that humanity has "degenerated"; there was, at least in a comparative sense, a previous Golden Age. This is, of course, a significant theme throughout most religious philosophizing and is found, speaking only of traditions related to the special interests of this blog, in Confucianism, the 'Daoism' of Laozi, and in a more limited sense, in Zhuangzi. This is, I think, a failure on Nietzsche's part to fully apply his own sense of history to the human. "Lack of historical sense," he writes, "is the family failing of all philosophers; many . . . even take the recent manifestation of man . . . as the fixed form from which one has to start out." It is equally mistaken to take some past manifestation of man as the place from which to start out.

Reality, as human experience, whatever else it may or may not be, is emergent, an arising. Humanity, irrespective of what it was or presently is, has no golden past, nothing to which it needs to return. This is the lesson of an historical sense. Our only measure is against what we presently are in the context of what we might presently be. And that, in the context of an historical sense, is ultimately of no import at all.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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