Upcoming Ethics Review Forum: Alfano’s “Nietzsche’s Moral Psychology”, Reviewed by Sinhababu

We’re pleased to announce our next Ethics review forum on Mark Alfano’s Nietzsche’s Moral Psychology (CUP 2019), reviewed by Neil Sinhababu. The forum will start on Thursday, October 29th. Save your comments until then—we’ll be posting a new thread once it gets started.

Click here to read more about the book, and click here to read Sinhababu’s review (both are also excerpted below). Of course, you’re welcome to participate in the forum even if you haven’t read either.

Book Blurb:

Nietzsche, a trained philologist, frequently urges his readers to interpret him carefully. In this book, Mark Alfano combines detailed close reading with digital methods (corpus analysis and semantic network visualization) to reframe our understanding of this major figure. He argues that virtue is a neglected concept in Nietzsche’s writings, and sets out a fresh interpretation of Nietzschean virtues as well-calibrated drives. […] This innovative and original book will be invaluable for historians of philosophy, contemporary researchers in moral psychology and virtue theory, and philosophers interested in the fast-growing methodologies of the digital humanities.

Excerpt from Sinhababu’s Review:

While Nietzsche’s interpreters come from impressively diverse intellectual perspectives, very few of them are cyborgs. Mark Alfano has done a valuable service to the field by becoming one to write Nietzsche’s Moral Psychology.

Alfano digitally searches Nietzsche’s corpus to count which words appear most frequently in Nietzsche’s finished works, and which appear most closely with which others. His cyborg implants tell him that “What Nietzsche actually talks about when he engages with moral psychology are constructs like life, virtue, value, instinct, fear, doubt, emotion, contempt, courage, nobility, disgust, laughter, solitude, drive, forgetting, and conscience” (27). So that’s what the book focuses on.

The book’s structure is mostly determined by the search results above. Alfano describes the relations between instincts, drives, types, and virtues in the early chapters of the book, and investigates curiosity, courage, pathos of distance, sense of humor, solitude, conscience, and integrity as virtues in the later chapters. Surprisingly left out are “life” and “value”, which the computer treats as the two “most prominent constructs in Nietzsche’s corpus” (25), but which don’t get [a] detailed treatment. This is partly because Nietzsche’s use of these terms is genuinely hard to interpret, but it’s also a consequence of a damaging error concerning the nature of drives that I’ll discuss shortly. […] After discussing the substance of Alfano’s interpretation, I’ll conclude by assessing his methodology.

The first topic is the relationship between what Nietzsche calls “types”, such as the noble type or the philosophical type, and the motivational states of drive and instinct. […] Alfano follows Paul Katsafanas’ recently influential view that drives are act-directed so that they motivate agents to “perform an action of the relevant type”, rather than John Richardson’s view that they’re outcome-directed so that they motivate agents to “accomplish some goal” (58). Alfano thinks the act-directed view will help to explain Nietzsche’s idea that a single drive can express itself through different actions depending on the social context: “Forbidden expression through carnal intercourse, the sex drive did not disappear or dissipate, but instead found a new way to express itself as passionate love” (59). As I see Alfano’s acceptance of the act-directed view as the most damaging error in the book, I’ll explain […] why the outcome-directed view is superior.

The act-directed view makes it harder, not easier, to explain how drives can express themselves through new types of actions. If drives essentially aim at actions of a particular type, the physical actions of intercourse will be among the central types the sex drive aims at. Why would a drive essentially directed towards those types of actions find satisfaction in expressions of love like having a nice dinner with the beloved? The outcome-directed view can explain all these actions as aiming at outcomes that intercourse and dinner will produce, like having pleasure together. […]

A more formal advantage of the outcome-directed view is that all actions can be treated as outcomes, but not all outcomes can be treated as actions. Any drive seeming to aim at an action can be treated at aiming at the outcome in which the action is performed. For example, a drive to dance aims at the outcome in which one is dancing. The outcome-directed view therefore is guaranteed to successfully deal with every case that the act-directed view can. There is no similar trick by which all outcomes can be converted into actions […]. The act-directed view could come out better only if each drive aimed inflexibly at one specific type of action, with no drives aiming at non-action outcomes. Then the act-directed view could claim to explain why drives are this way. But as we’ve seen, drives are flexible in the actions they aim at, and some drives don’t aim at actions at all. So the act-directed view fails to explain phenomena that the outcome-directed view explains, and can’t have any offsetting explanatory advantages. There is no reason for action theorists to accept the act-directed view or for interpreters to attribute it to Nietzsche. […]

Alfano then investigates Nietzsche’s account of virtue. Nietzsche evaluates types in terms of the drives that are their instincts, so one might expect his theory of virtue to specify conditions for when a drive is a virtue. And that’s exactly how Alfano presents it. On his interpretation, “a drive is a virtue to the extent that it respects three constraints:”

  1. The drive is consistent with or supportive of what Nietzsche calls life and health
  2. The drive does not systematically or reliably induce negative self-directed emotions (e.g., guilt, shame, disgust, contempt) that respond to fixed or essential aspects of the self
  3. The drive does not systematically or reliably induce reactions from the agent’s community that are liable to be internalized as negative self-directed emotions that respond to fixed or essential aspects of the self (86).
[…] I can’t see how the first and third constraints add anything significant to the account, as both collapse (or threaten to collapse) into the second constraint. […] The problem with the first constraint arises in trying to understand what “life” and “health” are. The most Alfano can do in explicating these terms is to say that “interrelations among drives have the potential both to enhance life or health and to thwart life or health. Drives can relate to one another in a mutually destructive way, or they can relate to one another by supporting, recruiting, or at least ignoring or neglecting one another” (96). So life and health are harmed when drives interact destructively. These destructive interactions cause negative self-directed emotions […]. So the first criterion isn’t adding much to the second. […]

There is a better way to account for value, life, and health, but the act-directed view of drives prevents Alfano from pursuing it. Since life and health clearly are things that Nietzsche regards as valuable, a good strategy would be to understand Nietzsche’s account of value, locate life and health within it, and use this to illuminate his account of virtue. Alfano’s cyborg implants suggest this strategy, informing him that “the connection between value and virtue” is “the strongest connection in Nietzsche’s entire corpus” (91). Alfano recognizes that Nietzsche understands value as grounded in drives. So a natural way to understand “life” and “health” would be to treat values as “the target outcomes of drives”, following Richardson (91). But Alfano knows he can’t do this, because he rejected Richardson’s outcome-directed view in favor of Katsafanas’ act-directed view. Life and health can’t merely be acts, so Katsafanas’ view won’t help him account for their value. This leaves Alfano with no way to account for the concepts of life, health, and more generally, value. I sympathize with Alfano’s point that “It’s not easy to say what Nietzsche means when he employs them” (97), which is true on any view, but the act-directed view makes it impossible. Here we see how destructive the act-directed view is to Alfano’s project. It prevents him from giving any serious account of the two concepts most central to the semantic network. The problems radiate outward through the network, leaving him with an impoverished account of virtue.

We can understand the third constraint either as saying that a virtuous person must not be the target of community disapproval, or that a virtuous person must avoid internalizing disapproval. If avoiding community disapproval is necessary for virtue, someone can fail to have virtue simply because of scornful responses from […] the community. But Nietzsche rejects the idea of community disapproval indicating a lack of virtue, let alone constituting it. […] So the best way to read the third constraint seems to be that the virtuous person must avoid internalizing community disapproval. This collapses the third constraint into the second, as internalizing community disapproval is acquiring negative self-directed emotions. […]

Chapters 6-11 deal with Nietzschean virtues […]. Alfano focuses more on virtues that express themselves in thought and inquiry than in direct actions that affect the world. This seems to me properly reflective of Nietzsche’s central concerns. He writes mostly about intellectual figures like Wagner, Kant, Socrates, Schopenhauer, and Goethe, and less about people of action like Napoleon. Alfano’s digital methodology does a good job of picking up on this. While I found each of these chapters somewhat scattered[…], there were many interesting things there, and I’ll note some of [them] before concluding.

First up is curiosity, which has been of interest in recent discussions of epistemic virtue for its role in creating knowledge. One section of this chapter addresses the idea of perspectivism. […] Alfano’s methodology reveals that “for Nietzsche, perspectives are deeply enmeshed with affects, emotions, values, and virtues” (149). On his view, the idea of perspectivism is “to reveal, through the controlled cycling-through of various emotional and evaluative points of view, properties that would otherwise be invisible and to rectify inquiry by pitting the biases of perspectives against each other” (155). […]

Alfano is right that solitude has been unduly neglected in the literature. Nietzsche discusses solitude unusually often, especially in Zarathustra, and lived a solitary life. So understanding what solitude means to him may help us understand something pervasive about his greatest work and himself. Alfano treats solitude as virtuous in conferring distance from negative social influences on one’s thinking, and allowing fuller development of one’s distinctive thoughts including cultural criticism[…] Nietzsche himself didn’t find permanent intellectual companions worth staying close to, and this is a helpful picture of what solitude might have meant to him.

I conclude with an evaluation of Alfano’s digital methodology: it’s good! It focuses the book on topics in proportion to how much Nietzsche discusses them. The chapters on curiosity, solitude, and courage display the advantages of this balanced approach. Alfano rightly takes pride in how his methodology relegates over-discussed concepts like the will to power and the sovereign individual to a lesser role, as these concepts are only discussed sporadically in the finished works[…]. The book is weakest when Alfano departs from his methodology, especially when the act-directed view prevents him from giving a better account of evaluative concepts central to Nietzsche’s philosophy. But these weaknesses only redound to the credit of the methodology, as its optimal implementation would avoid these problems. […]In view of his novel and impressively balanced contribution, we should welcome him and any of his fellow cyborgs to the community of Nietzsche scholars.

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