Saturday, August 02, 2008

Philosophical Being

There’s an odd contradiction in a recent book about Nietzsche. In Michael Ure’s Nietzsche’s Therapy we learn about the works of Nietzsche’s middle period. Ure contends that Nietzsche’s main interest was to create a philosophical therapy along the lines of the ancient Greeks who saw philosophy not as a detached search for knowledge but as a practice for becoming a person who lived rightly. The works of Nietzsche’s middle period are filled with acute psychological insights that presciently anticipate Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. Nietzsche is presented as a man with a path to real adult maturity. And it is a fine vision. But in reading the book I remember the biographies I’ve read of Nietzsche and remember how miserable he was in his daily life; suffering from both physical and mental torment. It’s a familiar occurrence. Thinkers who write about a vision of living yet give little indication about the actual living out of that vision. How is it accomplished? Do people who practice that vision actually embody the goal? What happens when they try it? Does it work?

Psychoanalysis certainly has a well described practice of change, but the results of that practice are highly variable. If we think of philosophy in the ancient way – as a practice of the self – then we should be interested in the nuts and bolts of making ourselves into the kind of person that our philosophy describes. I’ve found it very difficult to become the kind of person I envision and have employed, over the last 20 years, a variety of powerful practices of self-development. What we should want to know is: what happens in given cases when particular practices and philosophies are used day-to-day to effect self-change? But generally people are content to remain on the level of theory, describing interesting and attractive visions of the good life. This is where a philosophical autobiography would be useful; but not a person’s story of how their thinking changed over time, but a story of how their being changed over time.


thomas martin said...

Thanks for the posting. Perhaps the tendency to theorize (psychologically) is in many cases a symptom of being unable to relate simply to our own and others actuality.
Maybe devising means of self-change is an activity of self separation based on impatience and acquisitiveness taking us away from what needs to be integrated through acceptance.
The fruit of this ancient escapism is the self we try to present to the world and highly creative people like Nietzsche do this with flourish. The more energy put into this presentation the greater the conflict, tension and contradiction.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Yes, it can be the way you say, but it varies from case to case. Some may use theorizing as a defense or escape, but others may be following out a healthy desire and producing useful results. And those using it as a defense could also, despite that, do useful things with their psychological research.

A typical problem with "devising means of self-change" is that the means usually were successful for the deviser and may or may not be right for others. That's okay except that people have a tendency to think that there means of self-change is the right way and is based on human nature, so that other means are seen as going against our natures.

But you're right the creation of a false self - and especially one marketed as the true self - is very common and typically creates those bad, hidden side effects.