What keeps a philosopher interested?

Christopher asked:

This is a personal question, but it refers to being a philosopher. From reading responses from posts on this site it appears to me that everyone on this panel has fairly concrete beliefs when it comes to philosophy. Everyone seems to know what they believe when it comes to epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, etc…

So my question is what keeps you interested? Are there other questions you search for, or try to answer yourself? I really doubt that it’s the money. I’m not a philosopher of course, but I ask because I got into philosophy because I wanted to form what I consider to be educated beliefs about questions that are meaningful to me, not to mention just out of curiosity. I now feel like most of these questions I had 10 years or so ago I know I have ‘my’ answers. There is much of philosophy that I do not have an interest in and find it hard to believe that all of you are interested in every aspect of philosophy, and wonder why it is you still are active in philosophy. I mean for what purpose, to what end. Is it simply the delight of helping others achieve enlightenment (joke).

Answer by Craig Skinner

Your question – what keeps us interested, and to what end? – is a scientific, not a philosophical one. A well-crafted, short questionnaire to panelists might answer it, as well as telling us whether others also reach settled views on big questions after a few years. Meantime here’s my thoughts:

Maintaining interest, preventing boredom or burnout, is likely to be more of a problem for professionals (e.g. academics) than for amateurs like me.

It’s a problem in all professions, as I know from 40-plus years as a medical doctor. The answer is to change tack, try something new, every few years. Of course not all jobs allow flexibility, but I would have thought philosophy did. Certainly philosophers write of changing focus e.g. Blackburn tells us that after years of neglecting philosophical logic he decided to write a book about it. Recent examples by others include a new book on Hume’s ideas on self, and a fresh detailed defence of Berkeley’s arguments for idealism. Furthermore, as society and science move on, new areas of philosophy begin or open up.

Thus, many older contemporary philosophers grew up with an emphasis on philosophy of language. This was succeeded by intense interest in philosophy of mind. Now philosophy of information is the field for young academics. And philosophy of religion has made something of a comeback. Of course there will always be some closed-minded time servers, content to teach the same old stuff year on year till retirement (and for these few we might say that money – their pension – is what motivates their low-level interest).

I would think common motivations for continued interest in philosophy include some or all of the following:

* truth seeking
* exercise for the mind
* guide to living
* teaching
* compulsion

A few words on each.

1. Truth seeking

Absolute certainty isn’t an option. I think Karl Popper got it right when he said that truth is hidden (not manifest, even to an open-minded, industrious seeker) and we progress not by reaching truth but by avoiding error. So the best we can do is reach a settled-for-now view while being open to new evidence or argument.

2. Exercise for the mind

Some prefer crossword puzzles, others pub quizzes, yet others duplicate bridge. And then there’s philosophy e.g. what are the flaws, if any, in Berkeley’s idealism, in Lewis’s modal realism, in Priest’s true contradictions; does Everettian quantum mechanics make probability incoherent.

3. Guide to living

For myself, I find Aristotle a better guide to ethics than Kant, Hume or Mill, and also intend to get to grips with Parfit’s recent attempt to reconcile these traditional views (his 2-volume ‘On What Matters’ is on my shelf).

I like MacMurray’s dictum – ‘all thought is for the sake of action, all action for the sake of love’.

4. Teaching

I don’t kid myself that I facilitate ‘enlightenment’, but I enjoyed teaching medicine, and am pleased if a questioner likes my answer on this website. It is well-said (I forget by whom), that the greatest joy as a teacher is to show how something seemingly complicated is really quite simple, and how something seemingly simple is really quite complicated.

5. Compulsion

Some answers on this site suggest that since philosophy is hard work (correct), don’t embark on it unless, in effect, you have no choice because of internal compulsion. I suspect there is something in this. Much as a compulsive gambler knows at an intellectual level that it’s just a matter of chance, but carries on because he feels tonight is his lucky day, so philosophers know they will go to their graves without the secrets of the universe being revealed, yet carry on, hoping that the next thing they read just might lead to that ‘aha!’ moment.

This is Craig Skinner’s 100th post for Ask a Philosopher.


Explaining the differentiation of the universe

Adam asked:

Recently, just this past month, I’ve thought about existence, but I ran into a problem. I couldn’t find any explanation for the ‘differentiation’ of the universe, such as why each object in my room isn’t one foot to the left of where it is… or why gold bullion bars don’t suddenly appear on the side of the road when I go out for a walk, or why China has large deposits of rare earth minerals.

My College astronomy (taken during my previous semester) book said that it was due to quantum mechanics at the big bang, but then I asked myself: What says that quantum mechanics is certainly existing among all other options that can, such as non-differentiation or simply just the nonexistence of quantum mechanics.

Maybe things I/we am/are not watching are uncertain and not certain! Could there be like Schrodinger gold mines’, ‘Schrodinger business ideas’, or ‘Schrodinger forests’ then?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The reason why you have this problem is because you are taking for granted (as most of us do, especially scientists) that the material universe is the default state of the world. But even if you accept (as we all do nowadays) that matter and energy are interconvertible, you still have no avenue to differentiation. This is where the ultimate human naivety comes from, when on analogy with human invention we suppose a prior ‘plan’, also known as the argument from design.

When you really think deeply about it, you will sooner or later come upon the realisation that something is missing from these preconceptions. If you don’t accept a designer universe, you have basically two options:

Either, the differentiation (or order) which we make and perceive is not per se, but an outcome of the survival strategy of conscious creatures, which in our mind-endowed estate leads us to recognise a relation between those features and characteristics and ourselves. This is a bit like saying: The Chinese deposits are not differentiated ‘in themselves’ and independently of any mind, but in virtue of our mind doing the differentiation – which could then be explained as an evolved differentiation capacity in the service of survival. Some of the things Schrodinger writes lend themselves to such an interpretation.

The other option is to accept that every item in the universe stands in some relation to every other item. Such an idea is at the back of the appropriately named relativity theory. The difficulty for us is that we can only cope with this idea is a very limited way. We tend to mathematise those relations, which leads to an ambiguity in the sense that, on one hand, we reify time and space in accordance with our formulas, or else we insist that these are also creatures of the mind and that the mathematical understanding is all we can have. Arguments of this ilk cut across quantum mechanics in the pronouncements of such as Wigner (‘the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’) and Wheeler (‘the participating universe’), or of Feynman (‘don’t worry, it’s all in the equations’), and of course Schrodinger again (his ‘Cat’). Yet as far as differentiation is concerned, the notion of the collapse of a wave front is not a bad approximation to a possible real state of the perceivable universe.

I don’t think we need to consider the big bang. Textbooks tend to lag far behind current doctrines and your textbook on physics is evidently unaware that the ‘inventors’ of the big bang hypothesis have long ago abandoned it.

We might come closer, therefore, with a third option, which involves the recognition that the differentiation is an adjunct of existence as such – or put another way, that existence IS differentiation. Undifferentiated existence is inconceivable. But then we need an element or process or feature, i.e. some kind of trigger and a default condition to effect the differentiating and engender existence. This has at least the virtue of being conceivable, namely in the conception of a residual force with differentiable charges. The force does not exist per se. It represents a potential; and being such, it can be actualised. E.g. given any event such as a single flutter by the superposition of positive and negative charge, a ripple effect would propagate itself with the twofold capacity of bonding opposing charges and catapulting them into existence; and, consequent upon this state change, cascading into a whirl of ‘birthing relations’. The meaning of ‘residual’ and ‘potential’ in this context implies a dividing line between existence and non-existence which is defined by the ‘actualisation’ that results from the default state of this condition being changed. It is an idea that began its life with Anaximander and Anaxagoras (always the Greeks there first!), went through an elaborate doctrine of force in Leibniz’s philosophy and can be found resurfacing in Prigogine’s book ‘The End of Certainty’.

It does not, I will admit at once, terminally banished infinite regress (in fact Anaxagoras needed a ‘nous’ giving a single kick to start this ball rolling). Moreover, it suggests an autophagous universe. But Leibniz dealt with this problem very well (drawing the sting from the issue of infinite regress) and Barrow & Tipler in their book on the Anthropic Principle theorise that that consciousness in fact ‘consumes’ matter en route to total consummation. You can see from this, that there is a slender thread of tradition in philosophy where your worries were sounded and struggled with, and you might find it worth your while to pursue this further on your own bat.


Quantum theory and the free will problem

Eddie asked:

Newtonian mechanics tells us that the physical world at any particular moment can in principle be formulated as a differential equation with respect to time. By solving the differential equation and knowing the time of concern, one can find out or predict exactly how the world was in the past or how it will be in the future. Since we human beings are members of the physical world, our behaviours are necessarily governed by the laws of physics and thus fully predictable by the very same differential equation also. It follows that there is no such thing as free will.

However, quantum mechanics suggests by contrast that the physical world (the subatomic world be exact) is probabilistic with uncertainties.

Should mind-body dualism be rejected, will quantum mechanics be an essential clue for explaining the existence of free will?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Let me first state something obvious. The ‘equation’ which you talk about ‘solving’ may indeed have a solution in principle, but it is not one that we can ever discover because all measurement in science has a degree of imprecision. To actually solve the equation one would need to have precise values, for even the smallest deviation will be magnified over time (the ‘butterfly effect’).

However, this leads to a second obvious point. There is a crucial difference for us, as human beings facing an uncertain future, between a universe in which the future is all laid out, determinately, even if we cannot know or predict it – where every event happens because of, say, the precise way that the Big Bang banged – and a universe where some events can occur without a determining cause. The second universe is ‘open’ not ‘closed’. This seems to matter to us, it makes a difference to the way we strive. But, even so, this would have nothing to do with free will as such.

There are two, in some sense diametrically opposed situations where one talks of an agent ‘exercising free will’.

One type of example, which is easily neglected in discussions such as these, is where you perform an action which everyone knew you would do. Let’s say I have a passion for the free will problem so that if any question about free will comes up on Ask a Philosopher I will always try to answer it. A colleague remarks, ‘I’m surprised you bothered to answer Eddie’s question.’ ‘You should have known be better than that!’ I reply. I’m a bit annoyed that my colleague didn’t know I was so keen on the free will problem. But that didn’t make my decision to answer Eddie’s question any less of a ‘free’ decision.

The other kind of example is where a decision is finely balanced. It is at least conceivable that a quantum event in the brain could be the thing that makes you go one way, or the other. Schopenhauer, writing long before quantum theory in his ‘Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will’, argued that the ‘freedom of indifference’, where the tiniest impulse can tip the balance one way or the other, is not true ‘freedom’, because you weren’t involved. Your character, your desires, passions, ideals, none of these were sufficient to decide the question.

And, yet, what is interesting about this example – which is very common – is that after the event when you made your decision, albeit on the flimsiest or even non-existent grounds, you will seek to rationalize it, talk about it in a way which gives the decision a meaningful place in your ongoing ‘life story’. You make the decision yours by the things you do and say subsequently.

Clearly, on this scenario, it wouldn’t make any difference whether quantum theory was true or false. Even in a determinist universe, finely balanced decisions can happen. From a subjective point of view, we wouldn’t know the difference.

The pessimistic view is that free will is impossible either way. In a deterministic universe, we are like wind-up clockwork toys. In a quantum universe we are like roulette wheels. But these are just pictures. If you allow the picture to take hold of your mind you will lose the thing you have now, which arguably is all we could want from a concept of ‘free will’.

There is a deep sense of mystery in the incompatibility between our picture of ‘how the universe works’ and our sense of our own subjective reality. We don’t know our own selves, as we are ‘objectively’, and in a sense cannot know. The free will problem is the classic expression of this.


What is the mind-body problem and why is it important?

Kelly asked:

Hi there, I have an argumentative essay for my philosophy class, it is ‘Why is the mind/ body problem within Philosophy of Mind and Consciousness studies indeed a problem? Argumentatively discuss.’ Could you please help me with this? Im really struggling!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

It is quite easy, although you may have to do a little work on your own to follow up what I’m about to tell you.

The problem surfaced with Descartes, who postulated that there are two substances in the world. In philosophy, a substance is so basic, it cannot be explained by anything else, but must be defined once and for all. In other words, a substance is not a composite. So the first, which is mind, is not made up of anything other than itself. Descartes calls it ‘res cogitans’, which is Latin for ‘a thinking thing’. Because thoughts are not material, a mind cannot be divided, it is whole. But because it is immaterial, it also has no physical presence in space, and cannot be weighed or measured or registered on an instrument.

This leads to the second substance, matter, which is the opposite. It is in space and occupies some portion of space, and it can be discerned by the fact that it appears to sensory instruments like your nerves (touch, vision etc). Descartes accordingly called this ‘res extensa’, or ‘extended things’ – in other words, things that have a physical dimension.

Now this is where the problem enters. If mind is immaterial, it has no surface or any other physical means of contact where material things could attach themselves. So we are now confronted with the problem that my body motions, which we suppose are generated by thought (my will) must somehow be communicated from the mind to my flesh and muscles and bones. But how is this possible?

From Descartes onward (he lived in the 17th century) to this day, philosophers and scientists have struggled with different ideas on how these two substances can be brought together and work harmoniously, as we believe they do. Somehow, mind (will, desires etc) can make their way into the flesh, we just don’t know how. This has led many thinkers to try and find a way around the problem by various alternative ideas.

E.g. Malebranche supposed that God acts an intermediary between the two substances, effectively coordinating them, but very few people go along with this any more. Spinoza taught that there is no material substance at all, that the whole world is a kind of mind. Basically this spells out as God=The World. We are simply a conscious part of this mind world and generate the idea of physical things in our minds as impressions. They don’t actually exist independently. Leibniz reasoned that the two substances are actually two forms of existence for one ultimate substance. This one substance is force, although he calls it ‘monad’. Many monads forming a cluster of force which can be expansive (ethereal) and then be mind-like, or they contract and become matter-like. And this idea removes the problem, because the one substance in two forms of existence has no problem communicating with something other that is still like itself.

These ideas from Malebranche to Leibniz solve the problem of how mind and matter can communicate, but hardly to everyone’s conviction. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the whole issue got turned around and matter was supposed to be primary. Then you have to find a way of explaining how matter can become so thin and virtually vanish, so that it can make a mind. We tried this for nearly 200 years now (and still keep trying), but the results are again so ambiguous that they can hardly be called real solutions.

In the end, many thinkers cave in and propose that the whole issue is no issue at all. There are no substances, there is no mind, and matter is simply a word to denote various states of energy. Well, one can get by denying everything, but it doesn’t help to explain consciousness. And we really want to know what it is, why it is and how it came to be!

In the end, therefore, despite nearly 400 years of effort, not much progress has been achieved. So the problem boils down to this: That we humans have bodies as well as consciousness. When the body dies, it is no longer conscious. So there must be some element that made it (the body matter being built up from birth) conscious. But I think maybe the reason why we’ve never solved it properly, is because the question I have just mentioned is guided by presuppositions that cannot be traced back to any origin at all. What I mean by this is: We presuppose that a living body is made of matter and that somehow consciousness is added to the matter. But what if conscious life is a particular state of existence which we can’t examine because we are that state of existence? Just a thought, but it hasn’t been seriously looked at.

That’s the outline of the problem. How to fill it in, is another problem! So many books and articles have been written, and there is so much contention in this industry that a beginner would be well advised to stay away from it.

I would recommend that you read Descartes’ ‘Discourse on Method’, the book that started the ball rolling. It’s only about 70 pages and you can read it in 2 hours (and you can skip Chapter 5). This will at least give an authentic source from which you can quote. Then there is a short paper by Leibniz called ‘The New System’, which is very illuminating about the mind-body problem and also a classic with good quotes in it. Another good source is Gilbert Ryle, ‘The Concept of Mind’: it is probably enough for you to read Chapter 1 to get the gist of the problem from a modern perspective. If you can spare the time and have a genuine interest, you might also look into John Searle’s ‘The rediscovery of the Mind’, Gerald Edelman’s ‘Consciousness: How Matter becomes Imagination’, and Gregory Bateson’s ‘Mind and Nature’. However these books are probably Honours grade material and you didn’t state at which level you’re studying. Anyway, I hope you got something from my answer to help you along your way.


Wittgenstein on the definition of a ‘game’

Christopher asked:

Wittgenstein asked about what is it that all games have in common. Could the answer be that they all are competitive? Or that they all are fun? What makes us call games games is that they all make us feel the same way, they all serve the same purpose(s), relieving boredom, entertainment, to improve certain skills, etc…

Answer by Shaun Williamson

You have completely misunderstood this as people always do when they try to understand one of Wittgenstein’s remarks in isolation. Wittgenstein did not ask this question hoping that one day you would answer it and your answer is incorrect.

It is not true that all games make us feel the same way, or that all games exist to relieve boredom or that they all serve the same purpose or that they all improve certain skills. So your answer like all the other answers is based on an incorrect assumption i.e. that all games must have one thing or a set of things in common.

Wittgenstein said ‘Look, don’t think’. You need to look at the wide variety of games before you leap to conclusions.

Suppose all games relieve boredom, well reading a book or watching TV can also relieve boredom, entertain or improve certain skills. Now according to your answer this would mean that reading a book is a game, it isn’t. Also not all games are fun and not all games are competitive.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Wittgenstein’s remarks on defining a game in Philosophical Investigations have given rise to an impression that he believed that there is nothing determinate about the meaning of the concept ‘game’. This is true in one sense, in that any attempt to give a rigid definition of a ‘game’ in terms of necessary and sufficient is bound to fail.

This isn’t because anything can be a ‘game’, or because we can use word ‘game’ in any way we like. The quote I would emphasize occurs many pages after Wittgenstein’s main discussion, around Para 66, of the question of defining a game:

So I am inclined to distinguish between the essential and the inessential in a game too. The game, one would like to say, has not only rules but also a point. (Philosophical Investigations Para 564)

The ‘language game’ in using any concept – e.g. the concept of game – has a point. The concept of a ‘game’ must have a point, in some sense, otherwise what would be the point of talking so much about ‘language games’ as Wittgenstein does? The point of a concept can only be characterized in general terms. However, the fact that there is such a thing as ‘game theory’ in mathematics should at least hint at the possibility of the richness of the concept of a game.

Grasping the point of talk of a ‘game’, we are able to identify new things or activities as games which we would never have imagined if we had tried to delimit all the possible games by means of a verbal formula, or describe what all games ‘all have in common’.

‘Game’ is a concept with vague boundaries. Most of our concepts are like this. The concept of a ‘heap’ is a classic example. However, one can be misled by the obvious vagueness of ‘heap’ (as in the Paradox of a Heap) into thinking that there isn’t anything precise to say about heaps, or any point in calling something a heap. I will leave you with this example:

My father was a Mining Engineer. I remember him telling me that one of the topics in mining engineering is the behaviour of heaps and formulae for describing their shape. For example, the angle that the apex of a heap of a particular material will form, e.g. a heap of fine sand, or a heap of smooth pebbles, or rough rocks. A heap is different from a pile, not in a vague but in a precise way, in terms of the way the constituents hold together. A heap of books is different from a pile of books. Which still allows for indeterminate cases in between (as, e.g. books partly piled and partly heaped).

There is nothing vague about the point of talking of a ‘heap’ or a ‘pile’ — or indeed a ‘game’.


What’s the point of philosophy?

Christopher asked:

I’ve noticed from reading older posts that everyone who asks about what makes someone a philosopher, the answer is always go to school and get a degree, or study it yourself, intensely. I think those are both good points, but doesn’t there have to be a certain degree of creativity involved in being a philosopher? Just because you know what everybody else thinks about X doesn’t mean you know the ‘right’ answer, or that you can take that knowledge and apply it, manipulate it, perfect it, refute it, etc.

My view of philosophy is that it is a subjective way of establishing your own personal beliefs through which you can ‘know thyself.’ Maybe it is more beneficial to think about the questions you personally have and try to answer them yourself, rather than know everyone else’s answer and try to refute/agree with it. I’ll admit it is helpful to know what has already been said, quite often repeated, so that you can know why X is viewed as invalid or wrong or bad, but that only goes so far as establishing yourself as a philosopher. No one is remembered for knowing everything everybody else said, philosophers are remembered for their creative approach to solving a problem, for their ‘armchair theorizing.’ Right?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

No! Wrong! If you go to a web site called ‘Ask a Doctor’, you would probably expect that the questions would be answered by people who were qualified doctors. This does not mean that these doctors are great doctors or even good doctors but at least they have done the training course. They are not just amateurs.

In the same way people who ask questions on this web site expect that their questions will be answered by people who have academic qualifications in philosophy. They do not expect that their questions will be answered by self appointed deep thinkers who can’t even be bothered to read the books but still think they are philosophers.

In general the word ‘philosophy’ can just mean the most fundamental set of ideas about something. So we can talk about the philosophy of train spotting or the philosophy of fly fishing. Of course everyone has their own philosophy of life but this isn’t how we use the word philosophy here. For us philosophy is the rational inquiry into the nature of truth, logic and the scope of human knowledge that started in ancient Greece. This rational philosophy has always been an academic subject. Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras all founded academies. People who are looking for a short cut i.e they want to become a philosopher without doing the hard work are unlikely to have the mental capacity for the really deep abstract thought that philosophy requires.

Now of course studying philosophy doesn’t guarantee that you will be a creative philosopher but not studying philosophy guarantees that you will only ever be a superficial uninteresting philosopher.


Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Let me recommend that you read some of the older posts again, because your question has been asked before and, speaking for myself, I distinctly remember writing words to the effect that ‘getting a degree’ and that sort of thing is an institutional issue that has only the most peripheral relevance to philosophy. It is important to a society where the majority holds the view that the public education system is responsible for manufacturing ‘experts’, and that in consequence only suitably trained experts should be consulted on issues belonging to their area of expertise. That’s fine, indeed indispensable, for plumbers and shipbuilders, meteorologists and graphic designers. But you might take note that ‘going fishing’ or ‘climbing Mt Everest’ is not an academic subject, so you consult someone who knows how to do it, without asking for their paper credentials, and then you’re on your own.

Philosophy has simply been integrated by society into its official teaching disciplines. The idea goes back a long way, to the middle ages, when monks had to study in order to learn how to think, if they wished to rise in the ranks. What they thought about is not the crucial issue here; simply that theology is a hard nut for anyone without appropriately attuned mental equipment; and because of the social responsibility that came with rising in the ranks, it was necessary to ensure that all monks had the same form of indoctrination. The early universities followed suit; and to some extent (despite the liberalisation of the curriculum) they still do.

The essence of it, you see, is that philosophy is a school for thinking; and the doctrines of philosophers serve very well for this purpose. Where things might come adrift, is when those doctrines are no longer taught and studied for their merit in sharpening the student’s intellect, but as crutches to excuse student from learning how to think. I have observed that students are very inventive when it comes to fudging exams, but extremely uninventive when it comes to doing real thinking. But that’s the risk of institutionalising philosophy. Exactly the same arguments apply in any case to all examinable subjects of study.

You are right in bringing up ‘creativity’. We talk about it endlessly, but evidently this is another issue where ‘experts’ are out of their depth. Creativity can’t be taught. Yet we slaves of institutionalisation and the media talk it up big, as if it was everyone’s birthright – as if, for example, doing a colourful ad on TV were ‘creative work’. Most of this fiddle faddle is nothing more than a misplaced subjectivism.

Your question is loaded with this impression. If you understand philosophy (in your words) as a ‘subjective way of establishing your own personal beliefs’, then you’re talking of beliefs, not of philosophy. Beliefs do not usually arise from thinking, applying reason, engaging in dialectical curiosity. Beliefs are easily acquired, easily changed and in most cases an altogether unreflective, unexamined residue of common fears and desires, or at most a ready response to the quotidian facts of life. Hence philosophy – creative philosophy – tends on the whole to be at war with beliefs, because sooner or later all beliefs are exposed to stand in conflict with reality. This is one reason why philosophy does not have ‘results’ like science. It must constantly be on the alert, for social situations change, necessitating a change in the approach of philosophers to its fundamental tenets and issues. E.g. although the issues animating Aristotle and Aquinas are superficially the same, in fact their thinking on those same issues is a million miles apart.

Philosophy is not ‘armchair theorising’ either. That’s a convenient way of holding philosophy in contempt. Most theoretical physicists are ‘armchair theorisers’, and they would certainly resent being called by that name! But to get back to the basic point: Philosophy is a school for thinking. We study the ‘great’ philosophers not primarily for what they contributed to knowledge, but for the example they gave us on how to think deeply, how to pick the subject you must think about, and how to impose meaning on a cosmos that is totally indifferent to our puny form of existence.

Most importantly, philosophy comprises the foundation of a liberal society. The freedom of speech and thought that we enjoy is the fruit of philosophy – a value system emerging from this school of thinking that we take so much for granted that we are in danger of forgetting its source. But it is extremely vulnerable; like philosophy, freedom it is a ready-made object of ridicule and easily polluted. There have been very few liberal eras in the history of mankind, all of them children of philosophical thought. You will not find a philosophy in any of the others.


Nietzsche on the will to power and the Ubermensch

Christopher asked:

My “philosophy 101” textbook states that Nietzsche’s conception of the supreme human is a passionate person who has his/her passions under control. This may be so, but this seems to me like pretty low standards for the most supreme people of the human race. Obviously this statement is a generalization as well, but I would imagine that his vision of the Ubermensch would have a lot to do with power. This leads to my question of what kind of power? Power over what/whom? Power over our passions has already been stated, but there has to be more than that, doesn’t there? My interpretation is that the Ubermensch would not be Christians, for example, but a Christian can be passionate and have their passions under control, so there is a contradiction.

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Christopher, Karl Jaspers noted that Nietzsche’s writings are full of contradictions. I think it is because he writes in a style that is a ‘flow of consciousness’, feeling now this, now that – echoing the flow of life itself.


Yes the Ubermensch is to do with power. Yet Power not in an instrumental sense of power to use, abuse, employ. Power is Macht in German. The root Mak is found in the English word ‘make’, as in to make something. So ‘Power’ could be interpreted a creative, affirmative ontology and not a reductive one of instrumental domination.

Power is immanent, it is present in all manifestations of life, human and non-human; it is present in all the drives which constitute life from the weakest and lowest, to the strongest and highest. [Beyond Good and Evil #36] The more Power Macht a drive has, the stronger it is. The greater the amount of intensive drives that constitute a human being, the greater the degree of Will to Power possessing a person.


Nietzsche proposes that the majority of human beings suffer from sickness. Their drives are in chaos, anarchy and this leaves then exhausted, depressed and so weary of life itself. [See also The Problem of Socrates in Twilight of the Idols]. Expedients are found which address this sickness. Nietzsche identifies one such expedient as Christianity. It gave the sick the beliefs by which they could order their drives, expressing some but repressing others. Subsuming themselves within the doctrines of what became Christianity, people engaged in Willing – the orientation, galvanising of drives in one direction which would otherwise be in chaos [BGE #188]. Willing appears to be the key for as Nietzsche writes in On the Genealogy of Morality at the end of the final Treatise: For man would even will nothingness than not will at all.

As described in BGE #200, there have generally been two solutions to give order to the chaos of drives in those that require it. The first is that of weakness. Escape from and an ending to the war that one is the panacea found in rest, lack of disturbance, a flight from the world of drives into another – a ‘Sabbath of Sabbaths’ as St Augustine termed this, which was his and Christianity’s solution.

The other is not to negate and suppress the raging drives, it is to value them as a stimulus to life; to control, outwit and incorporate them. Then ‘what emerges are those amazing, incomprehensible and unthinkable ones, those human riddles destined for victory and seduction.’ Alcibiades, Caesar, the Hohenstaufen Frederick II and Leonardo da Vinci are cited by Nietzsche as examples of this approach.

Nietzsche Contra Christianity

As you note Christopher, Christian’s can be passionate yet master such passions. So this is nothing exceptional. However, Nietzsche believed that this type of mastery was a symptom of decadence precluding more powerful types who would equally master their drives but – drives of a greater and higher magnitude and complexity.

Christianity was a response from the Priests – themselves sick – to the general sickness of humanity. Decadence as Christianity’s type of morphology – a shaping of the drives – cultivated a human being lesser than s/he otherwise could be. Ascending drives were condemned as ‘Evil’. Being for oneself, being the power that one is, is condemned as immoral. Meekness, humility, putting others always before oneself and the annihilation of human difference under equality before God, stunts humanity. A general levelling occurs which is contrary to life. For life is Will to Power and Will to Power manifests itself in varying degees in different people. To suppress this is to decapitate life itself.

So whereas mastery might be practiced, it is practiced at different levels. The Ubermensch/New Philosoper Creators are possessed by stronger, higher drives. By their very intensity, they will rise above and beyond restrictive the restrictive egalitarianism of Christianity and its secular descendents of Modern Ideas, which will conflict with their endeavours. For Nietzsche believed that a healthy society was an Aristocratic one.

So the contradiction you cite would hold only amongst equals. Nietzsche’s opposes equality between those who are unequal.