briefly noted


finding philosophical equilibrium

“The proper amount of wealth is that which neither descends to poverty 

nor is far distant from it” – Seneca

In the current issue of New Philosopher, Alex Hinds interviews Elizabeth Anderson, Professor of Philosophy and Women’s’ Studies at the University of Michigan and chair of their Philosophy Department. Anderson put into perspective debates, and indeed current theorists’ preoccupation with, balance and equality. Far from a merely theoretical approach to the topic, however, Anderson cited Anthropological work on hunter-gatherer societies that seem to show, universally, their egalitarian nature. She notes a concept called ‘reflective equilibrium:’

In trying to figure out what is right, we seek an equilibrium between intuitive, general propositions or principles about right and wrong and our intuitions about particular cases. We move back and forth; we refine principles against our intuitions about particular cases and try and find principles that will fit all the particular cases; and then we also seek new cases and try to get them in equilibrium with our principles.

In this case, it is income equality and inequality about which balance is being sought. The discussion made me begin the formulation of a historical question: has inequality generally increased over time? If hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian, and monarchical societies very unequal, both were positively classless compared with today’s disparities in wealth, in which a smaller and smaller number of people have as much wealth as the bottom half – a couple of years ago it was reported at 88 and now it’s in the single digits.

Another article examines the balance of time. How do people adjust their use of time when a new activity, such as an exercise regimen, is introduced? The study found how time spent sleeping, watching TV and cleaning house are adjusted (or neglected), and then resumed after the new activity is stopped. I did about a quarter of my dissertation reading on an elliptical trainer in order to keep such a balance. My dissertation advisor used to ask me if I was exercising, which I thought was a strange question, but she said “it keeps you sharp.” The study reports what the “Goldilocks Day” – the perfectly balanced day in terms of time spent in each activity – would look like. This is an important template for intellectuals, who are expected to balance; reading everything, keeping fairly fit, making enough money to exhibit highbrow tastes and husbanding the next generation (whether students or offspring) to mental perspicacity. 




Hiking with Nietzsche

On Becoming Who You Are

John Kaag

Strauss, Farrar, Giroux

“God is dead.” – Nietzsche, 1888

“Nietzsche is dead.” – God, 1900

Quotes on a T-shirt

 Nietzsche is supposed to be the philosopher of a certain demographic. Like Jordan Peterson’s brand of bootstrapping self-reliance (Philosopher John Kaag’s previous book was about – who else? – Emerson), Nietzsche demands of us crucibles in which we may just succeed if we’re privileged enough to be cared for, probably by a woman as he was for a large portion of his life.

When reading the enthusiastic advocates of Nietzsche’s thought (or watching – for example, the BBC’s Human, All too Human, or Netflix’s Genius of the Modern World), one can easily forget that this is the thought of a very young man. Like a mathematician who does their best work by 30 and so has to be a child prodigy, graduating college at 18, Nietzsche had tobe one of the youngest professors ever appointed because his productive life was over by age 45. So, it has the ring of a young libertarian. Kaag is too old for this, surely? But the book jacket reveals a philosopher who meets two and a half of the three criteria for a Nietzschean disciple: an open, lily-white shirt mirroring youthful, alabaster skin. He himself points to one flaw – a frostbitten ear – as proof that he was made stronger by hiking with Nietzsche.

The book is certainly ponderous, but sometimes this works. While we’re subjected to his trek through Logan airport:

 I glanced across the terminal to the flickering screens of a generic sports bar. The Tour de France was in full swing, and the riders, each of them powered by their own two legs, were in the Alps. Crashes, dehydration, torn tendons, broken bones: they were killing themselves on these mountains. And it was a thing of beauty. At Logan, a crowd of beer-drinking Americans had gathered to watch. There are still traces of the [Nietzschean] tragic struggle in our culture, but they are faint. High stakes competition is regarded as mere spectacle rather than as a vital part of everyday life.

Just because a UMass Lowell prof in his late thirties goes for a thirteen-day trek in the Alps, does that mean we have to read about it in every detail? The only reason there’s much hiking in the book is that he went through this trial twice, once at age nineteen and again pushing 40. Kaag pulls no punches: he candidly describes his suicidal ideation caused by extreme fasting during his first hike with Nietzsche. He habitually pokes himself in the ribs to assure himself that he is still there, but also that there’s not too much of him.

Nevertheless, Kaag is a genuine philosopher and this is somewhat more than travel writing with occasional philosophizing. He weaves in another thinker The New Yorker tells us is for adolescents: Hermann Hesse. Along with Theodor Adorno and others, Hesse seemed to pine for a taste of Nietzsche by retracing his Sils-Maria hikes, evoking David Caspar Freidrich’s “A Wanderer over a Field of Clouds.” Kaag reminds us that philosophy began, and perhaps remains, a peripateticpractice. His book reminded me of this and I once again found that ideas come to me while walking my dog.

Kaag skillfully and subtly weaves in his own father-complex with Nietzsche’s. Kaag’s father, who he calls by his first name, was largely absent, like a flying fish darting beautifully, if fleetingly, in and out of Kaag’s life. Nietzsche’s was the imposing, pious father whose early grave left Nietzsche surrounded by women, with whom he would never form fully functional relationships, and with an impossibly idealized chimera for a father figure. Nietzsche also had a surrogate father, the German musical luminary Richard Wagner, with whom he had a close, but increasingly frayed relationship. Kaag paints this duo in its love-hate splendor and excavates some telltale details. Nietzsche apparently was used by Wagner and his wife (Franz Liszt’s daughter) as an errand boy. He even fetched Wagner’s undergarments – Nietzsche, who later claimed “I am no man.  I am dynamite!”

Nietzsche became famous for saying “God is dead.” (This even inspired a recent Christian film God’s Not Dead.) But the statement itself implies that God was once alive, and so is not atheist per se, but instead is prescient of the mood of our time, the first non-religious society in history. Nietzsche’s project was, like Hegel’s, a grand one, he was “preparing a moment of the highest self-reflection for humanity. A great noon when it looks back and far forward, when it emerges from the dominion of accidents and priests and for the first time poses as a whole the question of Why? And For What?” These are questions I have been asking myself lately – when I go to the mall and see all the fine clothes, to wear “For What?” I see the Herculean struggle for riches – “Why?” Despite Nietzsche’s being a young man’s philosopher, it is for these reasons that his project continues to be germane.