LessWrong opinion of Nietzsche?

post by TheatreAddict · 2011-11-25T16:08:50.632Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 36 comments

So, at the risk of starting controversy, I'm not exactly sure what the policy is about asking questions on philosophy..

But would you mind giving your opinion on Nietzsche? I just bought Human, All Too Human. It's a tough read for me, and I'm sort of plowing through it, though it's interesting and stuff.

So... what do you all think? :D

Edit: I changed it from "Rationalist opinion of Nietzsche". Better?

36 comments

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comment by RobertLumley · 2011-11-25T17:05:32.054Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The modifier "rationalist" is pretty unnecessary - I'd just ask for "Opinions on Nietzsche". There seems no good reason for putting it in and several good ones for leaving it out. As a semantic point, it sends off dark arts alarms when you ask for the "rationalist opinion" on Nietzsche. While I certainly think that, in this case, it's possible to rationally evaluate Nietzsche, asking for consensus of "rationalist opinions" is going to get very cultish - it implies that you're not a rationalist if you disagree. And there shouldn't necessarily be a "rationalist opinion" on everything. There are some things that aren't issues of rationality - like asking for the "rationalist opinion" on what the best flavor of ice cream is.

Replies from: None, Vladimir_Nesov, Emile
comment by [deleted] · 2011-11-25T18:09:26.932Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We slowly need to have a post entitled "Do not use the word "rationalist" in titles" so we can link to it instead of writing out the same post basically over and over again.

Replies from: RobertLumley, None, CarlShulman
comment by RobertLumley · 2011-11-25T18:16:26.221Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sounds like someone volunteering to write it. ;-)

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-11-25T23:00:43.238Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There really isn't anything like that already? If there isn't I may as well...

Replies from: RobertLumley
comment by RobertLumley · 2011-11-25T23:17:23.783Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't really know if there is or not. Could ask around, maybe make a discussion post?

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-11-26T09:27:03.779Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This I think implicitly covers some objections to using "rational" and "rationalist" in post titles.

comment by [deleted] · 2011-11-26T00:07:35.544Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree, although that particular title is a little self-undermining.

Perhaps "Concerning the use of the words 'rational' and 'rationalist' in post titles" would be better?

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2011-11-26T09:15:53.496Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is self-undermining on purpose. Though your title may work better.

comment by CarlShulman · 2011-11-25T23:39:20.028Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I will probably upvote this post if you write it.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-11-26T04:32:44.163Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are some things that aren't issues of rationality - like asking for the "rationalist opinion" on what the best flavor of ice cream is.

Nope. It's either an error in the question (not including "for whom"), or a matter on which one can be in error. Ice cream bias and so on. Very serious stuff.

comment by Emile · 2011-11-25T17:14:36.124Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seconded - I would have much prefered "LessWrong opinion on Nietzsche" or something (I'd prefer leaving some qualifier, to remind each other that we should try and maintain a certain standard of discourse and not just get "Nietzsche? tl; dr.").

comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-11-26T18:38:08.223Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Funny, this post just made me open "Human, All Too Human" for the first time after several years, and I was struck by many quotes that I now see in a different light thanks in part to the influence of Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong.

Some examples (all emphasis mine):

  • Just as the bones, flesh, intestines, and blood vessels are enclosed by skin, which makes the sight of a man bearable, so the stirrings and passions of the soul are covered up by vanity: it is the skin of the soul.

  • Man is very well defended against himself, against his own spying and sieges; usually he is able to make out no more of himself than his outer fortifications. The actual stronghold is inaccessible to him, even invisible, unless friends and enemies turn traitor and lead him there by a secret path.

  • We praise or find fault, depending on which of the two provides more opportunity for our powers of judgment to shine.

  • When a man tries earnestly to liberate his intellect, his passions and desires secretly hope to benefit from it also.

  • In interaction with people, a benevolent dissembling is often required, as if we did not see through the motives for their behavior.

  • Sometimes in conversation the sound of our own voice confuses us and misleads us to assertions that do not at all reflect our opinion.

  • It is much more common for a person to appear to have character because he always acts in accord with his temperament, rather than because he always acts in accord with his principles.

comment by lukeprog · 2011-11-26T01:09:25.229Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This month I had an interesting* conversation with Michael Vassar about Nietzsche.

Nietzsche (in one popular interpretation) thought that ripping Christianity out of the European value system would undermine it, leading to nihilism and the collapse of society. Of course, Christianity is false, but European morality is built upon the Christian worldview even when the Christian vocabulary is not used to describe it.

Vassar pointed out that this collapse into nihilistic anti-productivity in general had not occurred with the spread of atheism, but was, he felt, unusually common in the LessWrong community. (Perhaps this is one reason Eliezer tried to give his metaethics sequence a 'moral realist' flavor even though his actual claims would be described by most moral philosophers as a variety of moral anti-realism.) Vassar suggested this may be because LessWrong does an unusually thorough job of eviscerating the phantoms of the Christian worldview that still exist in most atheists' implicit world model.

When you know as much cognitive science as a veteran LessWronger does, you understand that (1) we don't have libertarian free will, (2) we don't know our own desires and kinda don't have "desires" at all, (3) we can be wrong about our own subjective experience, and so on with much greater certainty and in much greater detail than most atheists do.

So maybe pop-atheism isn't enough to rip out ones values and general motivation, but a master's degree's worth of reductionist-grade cutting-edge cognitive science (on Less Wrong) is, at least for many people.

Or maybe both Nietzsche and Vassar are just wrong. Maybe the Less Wrong community doesn't display an unusual degree of nihilism and akrasia at all, or maybe it does but cogsci education has little to do with it.

*Oops. The word "interesting" in this sentence is redundant with "conversation with Michael Vassar."

Replies from: Vladimir_M, Nornagest, Protagoras
comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-11-26T04:39:52.263Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe the Less Wrong community doesn't display an unusual degree of nihilism and akrasia at all, or maybe it does but cogsci education has little to do with it.

I don't think it has anything to do with cogsci education. My own theory is that there are two basic reasons. First, nihilism and akrasia, often fueled by strong feelings of purposelessness and the impostor syndrome, are rampant among knowledge workers nowadays, especially in the academia. LW simply gathers together lots of such people who are unusually willing to talk about their situation openly here. Second, there is the selection effect for people who like to argue on the internet. It seems clear that this propensity is strongly correlated with all kinds of traits that tend to cause low achievement for smart people.

As for the causes of the widespread nihilism and akrasia among knowledge workers, I think it's a consequence of the general social trends of increasing bureaucratization, organizational decay, and institutionalized mendacity. Many people whose work should in principle be intellectually stimulating and providing a rich sense of accomplishment are instead trapped in a hell of pointless makework, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, Dilbertian chaos, and staggering mendacity and hypocrisy that one must endure and even actively participate in. (One can read much speculation on why the impostor syndrome is so rampant, but to me it seems that it often represents nothing but a realistic assessment of one's own situation, possibly coupled with an unrealistically favorable opinion about the situation of others.)

A deeper inquiry into these phenomena and their causes would unfortunately quickly lead to thorny ideological issues.

Replies from: Vladimir_M
comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-11-26T05:08:46.025Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Many people whose work should in principle be intellectually stimulating and providing a rich sense of accomplishment are instead trapped in a hell of pointless makework, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, Dilbertian chaos, and staggering mendacity and hypocrisy that one must endure and even actively participate in.

To give one mild and uncontroversial example, here is Scott Aaronson's account about the amount of bureaucratic makework he is forced to do:

Scientific papers are a waste of time. Therefore, we should stop writing them, and find a better way to communicate our research. [...] I’ll estimate that I spend at least two months on writing for every week on research. I write, and rewrite, and rewrite. Then I compress to 10 pages for the STOC/FOCS/CCC abstract. Then I revise again for the camera-ready version. Then I decompress the paper for the journal version. Then I improve the results, and end up rewriting the entire paper to incorporate the improvements (which takes much more time than it would to just write up the improved results from scratch). Then, after several years, I get back the referee reports, which (for sound and justifiable reasons, of course) tell me to change all my notation, and redo the proofs of Theorems 6 through 12, and identify exactly which result I’m invoking from [GGLZ94], and make everything more detailed and rigorous. But by this point I’ve forgotten the results and have to re-learn them. And all this for a paper that maybe five people will ever read.

If this is the job of a top-class researcher who works in some of the academia's most sound and exciting areas, one can only imagine what it looks like in less healthy fields and at less elite levels.

Replies from: Eugine_Nier
comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-11-27T22:02:17.098Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not convinced what you describe is actually useless make work. After all, having a better written paper means other researchers will waste less time struggling with it. Spending two months improving a paper so that each of 200 other researchers spends half a day less struggling with it is a net win.

Replies from: Vladimir_M
comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-11-27T23:31:43.578Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Spending two months improving a paper so that each of 200 other researchers spends half a day less struggling with it is a net win.

Indeed, but notice that Aaronson himself says that the people who will actually end up reading the paper can be counted on one hand. And even that's unusually good -- except for the tiny percentage of blockbusters and citation classics, most published research papers and theses are never read by anyone except for the authors and reviewers/committee members (if even the latter). Unless you're in the ultra-elite in your field, and perhaps even then, there is no way that thousands of man-hours will be invested in reading your work.

Moreover, academic writing is usually not at all aimed at improving the paper, in the sense of optimizing it for easy conveyance of accurate information. It is optimized for jumping through the bureaucratic hoops of the review and editorial process (and perhaps also the subsequent citation impact). This process should theoretically be highly correlated with actual improvements, but in reality, this correlation is very low -- or even negative, since the "publish or perish" pressures often force one to employ every possible spin short of outright data falsification to make the work look better. This is further exacerbated by the ossified bureaucratic rules from the days when printed journals and proceedings were crucial for dissemination of results, which make no good sense in the age of the internet.

All this is even without getting into the issue of how much sense the work itself makes when evaluated in an honest, no-nonsense way, and how much it is fundamentally pointless, with zero or even negative contribution to human knowledge, and aimed only at padding one's resume, essentially a peculiar species of bureaucratic makework. (This is usually not a problem for people working in healthy fields and at sufficiently elite levels, but it certainly is a problem for a very considerable percentage of people doing academic research and scholarship.) All things considered, I am not at all surprised to see rampant akrasia, nihilism, and impostor syndrome.

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2011-11-28T15:39:47.892Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

And even that's unusually good -- except for the tiny percentage of blockbusters and citation classics, most published research papers and theses are never read by anyone except for the authors and reviewers/committee members (if even the latter).

I have made a stab at collecting some citations on citations in one of my footnotes: http://www.gwern.net/Culture%20is%20not%20about%20esthetics#fn48 If anyone wants to suggest more...

comment by Nornagest · 2011-11-26T06:11:25.258Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting theory, but I suspect, and the survey results seem to suggest, that the akrastic anti-productivity seemingly common to LW is a feature of its demographic rather than of its content. Motivational problems seem more common on LW than outside, but if reading LW makes them worse it happens either all at once and so quickly that a poll here can't tease out the progression, or by some mechanism that self-reporting doesn't reflect and that we haven't otherwise been able to measure yet.

That doesn't necessarily screen off some close relatives of Vassar's hypothesis, though; perhaps the damage has already been done by the time a worldview receptive to LW's content is created.

Replies from: Eugine_Nier
comment by Eugine_Nier · 2011-11-27T22:05:23.956Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think there are certainly people on LW without akrasia problems. It's just that the people who spend the most time posting are the ones with the akraisia problems.

Replies from: Karmakaiser
comment by Karmakaiser · 2011-11-29T17:26:32.933Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree. It is analogous to the oft posted question on AskReddit "How do I Stop Browsing Reddit?" Those who have the ability to tell an akrasia ridden redditor how to stop browsing are not on the site to begin with.

comment by Protagoras · 2011-11-26T17:51:16.300Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Others have already pointed out the probable selection effects at work here, so I'll comment on the side issue of Nietzsche interpretation. Nietzsche didn't think atheism led to nihilism. Nietzsche thought that Christianity had stopped working in the modern world, so that trying to rely on Christianity led to nihilism. In people who were at least marginally reflective, Nietzsche thought atheism could be an effect of nihilism; he didn't think it was the cause of nihilism.

comment by Protagoras · 2011-11-25T17:22:51.930Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nietzsche was like a lot of those who are regarded as great thinkers; he was able to somehow get a lot of things right, without benefit of the additional information and techniques which make it easy for us now to recognize that they were right. Also like many of the great thinkers, he was overconfident and of course he also made mistakes. I think it is a defect in his work that he was not more systematic, as being more systematic makes it easier to test for conflicts and errors. Still, he was much more alert to problems than most; he was good at criticizing himself, which is surely an important trait in the effort to be less wrong. His views certainly changed over time as a result; he revises a lot of his opinions from Human, All To Human in Beyond Good and Evil, even though the latter was written within ten years of the former.

comment by djcb · 2011-11-25T16:27:22.381Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

IMHO, Nietzsche is a great source of aphorisms, and may be able to trigger some Deep Thoughts in readers, but a lot of his writing seems more like a sort of performance art to me. At least on a superficial level, he's much easier to read than Kant or Hegel, but that also means he does not even try to argue his point in a rigorous way.

To some extent I liked Also Sprach Zarathustra and Twilight of the Idols (IIRC), but I think it is quite far away from rationality. Then again, IANAPh, maybe I am missing something.

Replies from: TheatreAddict
comment by TheatreAddict · 2011-11-25T16:33:20.281Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not really sure if there's any actual link between Nietzsche and rationality, I was merely curious what a person who possesses rationality's opinion was on Nietzsche. If that makes sense.

Thanks, though. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is on my list to read after I finish Human, All Too Human. On my copy of Human, All Too Human, though, they messed up the formatting of the comma on the main page, it wasn't centered properly after "Human", making it look extremely awkward.

I loled. Ironic?

comment by multifoliaterose · 2011-11-25T20:30:00.774Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

See Vladimir_M's comment on Nietzsche (which I agree with).

Replies from: Vladimir_M
comment by Vladimir_M · 2011-11-26T04:26:17.798Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In this context, be sure to check out my comment about Max Stirner too. He was a much less prolific writer than Nietzsche, nowhere as good a stylist, and is nowadays far less known than him, but in my opinion, he is nevertheless the more interesting badass German philosopher.

comment by MixedNuts · 2011-11-25T18:46:25.068Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nietzsche writes pretty stuff for people who'd like the world to be awesomer, because he'd like it to be awesomer too. It's fun to read and arm-flailingly beautiful if you're into his style and motivating if you're on board with awesomification projects. It has a bunch of good quotes, from "hmm"-inducing ideas to zingers on Christianity to heartwarming observations to just plain cool bits.

A beanie doll of him also exists.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2011-11-25T19:20:21.484Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Nietzsche seems to have understood that morality and value are things that happen inside your head with a completeness that most "humanists" do not achieve.

comment by taelor · 2011-11-25T18:56:56.243Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm rather ambivalent towards Nietzsche; he had some interesting ideas, but he also had an utter contempt for anything resembling system or formality. Ultimately, I think that Max Stirner fills that specific niche a lot better, and would recommend his work over Nietzsche's for anyone interested in Ur-dissenting, skeptical-towards-everything, everything-about-modern-civilization-is-wrong philosophy.

Replies from: buybuydandavis
comment by buybuydandavis · 2011-11-25T20:29:11.276Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm partial to Stirner as well, and think he does a better job of the fundamentals of conceptual hygiene than Nietzsche.

But with Stirner, you're liberated from some conceptual errors, you're free to value without conceptual handicaps, but left with a "now what?" on how to do it. Nietzsche at least takes a stab at new values, though I maintain he creates some of his values for those he feels are inferior and allow values to be imposed on them in their conceptual confusion. A Will to Power, even in philosophy.

One other thing I'll say for Nietzsche. I find him quite funny. The Philososopher Comedian. Chapter titles: Why I write such good books, Why I am so wise, Why I am a destiny. Gives me the giggles every time.

comment by TimS · 2011-11-25T17:39:30.814Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

He writes with a substantial amount of hyperbole, which makes him much harder to understand that more straightforward philosophy writers. I think that understanding him is very important to understanding the nature of morality, especially "Genealogy of Morals"

comment by timtyler · 2011-11-26T12:23:27.967Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps see the recent Volume 21 Issue 1 of JET. It is called "Nietzsche and European Posthumanisms".

Replies from: gwern
comment by gwern · 2011-11-26T19:57:38.506Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No fulltext?

Replies from: timtyler
comment by timtyler · 2011-11-26T23:13:41.728Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Scroll down and click on the tiny "PDF-logo" links on the right.

comment by Emile · 2011-11-25T17:12:17.378Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I enjoyed what I read of him (Twilight of the Idols, the Gay Science and maybe Human, All Too Human, if I recall correctly, maybe the Genealogy of Morals too), and consider him still worth reading. He's not much into heavily formal thinking or even solid scholarship, but then, since a lot of philosophy that tries to be formal still ends up being totally wrong (like Pascal or Rousseau), I don't hold that against him.

I value him mostly for his way of thinking and attitude - "philosophy of life" if you want, he seemed good enough at thinking outside the box and changing his mind, even if he wasn't interested in "scientific" topics. When reading his stuff I would frequently take notes on clever ideas.

I'd say he's a good complement for a philosophy diet, he brings some good stuff you may not find in the main courses, though I wouldn't take him as a main course. Pascal and Rousseau, on the other hand, I would probably just ignore (unless you're interested in understanding the history of ideas of their period, in which case Rousseau is pretty darn important).