Tag Archives: Walter Kaufmann

Nietzsche, Darwin, and man’s Sonderstellung

The following passages are from Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche (4th ed.), but they neatly summarize some very common (and, I think, wrong) ideas about the worth of man and the ramifications of evolution. I often encounter similar thinking from people whose thought is otherwise very far from Nietzsche’s.

If the teaching of evolution is correct and man is not essentially different from the apes; if he is, as all appearances seem to indicate, more similar to the monkeys than these are to the “lower” animals; if he is just another of the primates; then it would follow, Nietzsche thinks, that the mass of mankind lack any essential dignity or worth.

No quantitative addition, either of more and more human beings or of more and more intelligence (which man is supposed to share with the chimpanzee, though he has more of it), can give man the unique dignity which the Western tradition has generally conceded him. What is worthless to start with, cannot acquire value by multiplication. [p. 150]

Nietzsche agrees with the Christian tradition and such thinkers as Kant and Hegel that the worth of man must consist in a feature he does not share with any other animal. He believes that the worth of man , and thus the value of his life, his creations, and his acts, depends on his Sonderstellung, his unique position, in the cosmos. Darwinism, however, instead of infusing him with optimism, convinces him that empirical facts do not bear out the prevalent view that all men, as such, occupy a unique position in the cosmos. [pp. 151-152]

He accepted Darwin’s doctrine concerning the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animals as incontrovertible empirical fact and tried to counter this “deadly” gospel with the new, Nietzschean, assertion that man can rise above the beasts. He granted that the factor of intelligence does not distinguish man from all other animals and that most men’s behavior is not essentially different from animal behavior — notions which are basic in much recent psychology. Our skills, crafts, and techniques can only raise us to the level of super-chimpanzees. Nietzsche, however, defied Darwin, as it were, to find even traces of art — which he distinguished from the crafts — or of religion or philosophy among the animals. If a technician is only a super-ape, the same cannot be said of Plato. Some pursuits are supra-animalic, and the man who engages in them is a truly human being and has unique worth. The artist, saint, and philosopher are representatives of true humanity and culture. [p. 175]

This line of reasoning goes wrong from the very beginning, when it assumes that the theory of evolution implies some special similarity between man and the apes — a similarity which we would not have to accept if evolution were not true. Actually, Linnaeus had already classified man as “just another primate” over a century before the Origin of Species. Man’s similarity to the apes is not a conclusion which follows from Darwinism, but rather one of the observable facts for which Darwinism offers an explanation. The striking similarities — and equally striking differences — between man and chimp remain what they have always been: empirical questions of comparative anatomy and psychology, to which the answers are no different after Darwin than they had been before. Disraeli, mistaking an explicandum of a theory for the conclusion of an argument (an error we will revisit below), thought that Darwinism posed the question, “Is man an ape or an angel?” and that creationists were on the side of the angels — but man remains what he is, ape-like in some ways, angelic in others, regardless of what theory we put forth to explain how he got to be that way.

There is a tendency (a fallacious one) to assume that two things which came into being by the same kind of process must therefore have the same basic nature — as Isaiah implies in his mocking description of a carpenter who cuts down a tree, burns some of the wood to cook his dinner, and then makes himself a “god” from the remainder. How absurd to think that the same sort of creative process could yield both firewood and a god! Yet one finds a ready parallel in the opening chapters of Genesis, where a single Creator uses the same raw material (dirt) to create cattle, creeping things, and a man in his own image. In a way Genesis even seems to anticipate Linnaeus, portraying the division between man and beast as less fundamental than that between fish and fowl on the one hand and land animals (including man) on the other. Darwinism doesn’t really change the fundamental picture of man — the highest of animals, but an animal nonetheless — as much as we sometimes like to think it does.

At any rate, it is a fact — irrespective of the truth of Darwin’s theory — that man is one animal species among others and that most of the faculties we think of as distinctly human can also be found, in less developed form, in other species — particularly in our closest relatives, the great apes. For Nietzsche (as interpreted by Kaufmann, anyway; assume this disclaimer throughout), it follows that those faculties — including, most importantly, intelligence — have no value, since “what is worthless to start with, cannot acquire value by multiplication.” But this only makes sense if we start with the assumption that the intelligence of lower animals is literally worthless — not just of little or even negligible value (since small numbers can acquire value by multiplication), but of no value whatsoever. It may be that some people hold this opinion, considering the mind of a dog or horse to be of no more worth than an insensate chunk of stone, but it is, to put it mildly, not exactly self-evident.

A deeper problem with this line of reasoning is its sloppy reification of intelligence, which is treated as a sort of homogeneous stuff which can be increased by “quantitative addition.” To say that the key difference between Descartes’s mind and that of a Jack Russell terrier is that one has a greater quantity of something than the other, is shallow to the point of meaninglessness. “Intelligence” is a high-order abstraction concealing fundamental qualitative differences in the ways different minds are structured and in the kinds of cognitive tasks they are able to perform. At a sufficiently high level of abstraction — employing terms like “intelligence,” “complexity,” “value” — virtually any difference can be made to seem merely quantitative. And underlying the whole issue is the unspoken assumption that “merely” quantitative differences are unimportant and really hardly qualify as differences at all — that if man differs from a chimp only quantitatively, then man essentially is a chimp. In fact, the distinction between quantitative differences (which include, let us not forget, the difference between day and night) and qualitative ones is itself quantitative, as should be clear to anyone who is familiar with the periodic table or who has observed that oceans tend to behave rather differently from drops of water.

Nietzsche’s list of what is unique to man — art, religion, and philosophy (but not intelligence or technology) — is arbitrary, an artifact of a decision to classify human activities at one particular level of abstraction rather than another. Kaufmann feels the need for a parenthesis explaining that Nietzsche distinguished the arts from the crafts, an implicit admission that such a distinction is not objectively obvious or inevitable, that others may see a “quantitative” continuum where Nietzsche saw a bright line. Similarly, philosophy could easily be seen as a special case or particularly advanced form of the kind of thinking or reasoning of which many other animals are capable. Even religion seems less qualitatively unique when we consider that other animals are certainly capable of superstition, selfless devotion, and so on.

Every action, considered in its totality, is unique. It can be considered non-unique only if some of the details are abstracted away and it is viewed as a member of a category. Since infinitely many levels of abstractions are possible, and since at a high enough level of abstraction nothing is unique, any binary classification of human activities as “unique” or “not unique” will be arbitrary. Considered in its totality, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin is unique. Considered more abstractly as an example of representational art, it belongs to a category which includes such non-human productions as Stink Gorilla More. Classed broadly as an artifact, it is not even uniquely mammalian.

But the irrelevance of this whole line of thinking is beginning to become all too obvious. Are we really supposed to believe that the existence of a still life painted by a gorilla has any bearing on the value of the art of Titian? As I wrote in my post on Aristotle, absurd conclusions follow from the assumption (the amazingly common assumption!) that whatever is unique to man is more valuable than what is not. Nietzsche denigrates technology as the domain of mere “super-chimpanzees” — but if we exterminated all the chimps and crows and other tool-making species, or if those species had never evolved in the first place, would the technician then take his place with the artist, saint, and philosopher as a model of true humanitas? To spell the reductio out: Is the existence of chimpanzees the only thing that prevents us from considering Edison the equal of Plato?


If the insistence on human uniqueness — Sonderstellung — is so obviously absurd, though, why have so many first-class thinkers (Kaufmann mentions Kant, Hegel, and the Christian tradition, and of course there is also Aristotle) taken it for granted? A full answer to that question would require a deeper familiarity with each of those individual thinkers than I can pretend to — but, in broad terms, I can imagine two different ways such an idea could come about.

First, there is Disraeli’s error, that of taking an explanation for an argument and an explicandum for a conclusion. (The ambiguity of the word “therefore” is evidence of how naturally this particular error comes to us.) Philosophers may have begun by assuming that man’s life has far more value and meaning than a beast’s, and the search for an explanation of that unique value — where it comes from and in what it consists — would naturally have led them to the question of which of man’s traits are unique to man — just as someone seeking to understand, say, why the Industrial Revolution began when and where it did, would naturally begin by considering what was distinctive about 18th-century England. Of course, if nothing specially (or “qualitatively”) distinctive were found, no historian would conclude that therefore the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen in England! — but somewhere along the line, the philosophers may have made a corresponding error. Nietzsche, at any rate, certainly seems to have done so. Having already fallen for Disraeli’s error in the original sense, as it applies to evolution, it is perhaps no surprise that when it comes to the question of man’s Sonderstellung, he goes on to make the same mistake.

Second, there is a sense in which purpose and value really do presuppose uniqueness: Anything which does not perform a unique function is dispensable. If anything X can do, Y can also do — if, that is, every purpose which X serves could be served just as well even if X didn’t exist — then doesn’t it follow that X has no value and no reason for existing? Well . . . an affirmative answer is possible, but it requires so many qualifications and asterisks that one should be very careful about treating it as a generally valid law and applying to recklessly to any situation that comes along. Here are a few of the many caveats to keep in mind:

  • Even the tiniest “quantitative” differences can still be relevant. Precious little distinguishes an HB pencil from an F pencil, for example, or an AA battery from a triple-A  (to say nothing of Thomas Edison and a chimpanzee!), but the two are still not always interchangeable.
  • A non-unique thing can be an essential part of a larger system. For example, neither my left eye nor my right eye is unique, but together they perform a function (binocular vision) which neither could do alone.
  • A non-unique thing can add value in a simple quantitative way. The more bricks you have, the more things you can build.
  • Two things with precisely the same range of  potential functions can still distinguish themselves by performing different actual functions. The fact that I could do any number of different jobs doesn’t make the people who actually do those jobs redundant.
  • Even something which is redundant in every possible way can still have potential value and therefore purpose. The world changes, and what is redundant and useless now may become unique and indispensable in the future. Backup CDs, for example, are created with such contingencies in mind.
  • A corresponding function shouldn’t be mistaken for a redundant one. My eyes don’t make your eyes redundant.

But perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is that uniqueness is a property of individuals. Unique means unique, not shared with six billion other people. The concept that “all men, as such [emphasis added!], occupy a unique position in the cosmos” — well, it sounds like something out of Life of Brian. Either uniqueness is important or it is not; the emphasis so many philosophers place on what is “unique to man as such” — that is, that which is common to all the billions of human beings in the world but (and this is deemed important!) not shared by a few thousand chimps — seems completely arbitrary.


Filed under Evolution, Philosophy

The Mormon idea of a corporeal God

I’ve been rereading Walter Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy, one section of which presents a “Dialogue Between Satan and a Christian” (§59, pp. 243-55). Satan begins by reciting a long catalogue of psychological needs which God satisfies and asks, “Is any further explanation needed why men cling to him?” — to which the Christian protests, “But God exists.”

“What do you mean?” says Satan. “What does ‘God’ mean? and what ‘exist’? Surely you do not believe that there is an old man with a long white beard up in the sky?” After a few unsuccessful attempts by the Christian to explain what he means, Satan restates the question:

Satan: I still do not understand what it is that, you think, exists, or in what way it exists. Does God take up space as you do?

Christian: Of course not.

Satan: Why, then, do you say that he exists?

Christian: Surely, many things exist that do not take up space.

Satan: Name three.

Christian: Does a dream take up space? Or a feeling? Or a thought?

Satan: Is God a dream, a feeling, or a thought?

Christian: Certainly not.

Satan: Try again.

Christian: What of justice?

Satan: What of justice indeed? Does it exist? Is it not an idea, or if you prefer, an ideal? Something toward which men aspire? Injustice exists, but justice is a name for what does not exist.

Christian: You admit that injustice exists. Does that take up space?

Satan: Injustice is a word that sums up a complex state of affairs together with the speaker’s reaction to it. It is not an entity.

Christian: Love exists.

Satan: Love is another word that does not designate an entity but a highly complicated pattern of feeling, thought, and behavior.

Christian: I never said that God was an entity.

Satan: But when you speak of God, you do not mean a mere concept or a pattern of human feeling, thought, and behavior. And I do not know what exactly you do mean. And I think you don’t know yourself.

Later, during a discussion of salvation and damnation, the conversation takes a similar turn:

Satan: What exactly do you mean when you say “saved” and “damned”?

Christian: Those who are saved see God.

Satan: Is God visible? I thought you said he did not take up space.

Christian: He doesn’t, and he is not visible.

Satan: Then those who are saved do not see him?

Christian: They are near him.

Satan: Near? But not in space?

Christian: You are being stupidly literal.

Satan: The fact is that I still don’t understand what you mean by saying that some are saved. And I think you don’t know yourself what you mean. You are repeating words that once designated very understandable superstitions. Now you denounce these superstitions but cling to the same words and believe that you are saying something. And the less sure you feel of yourself, the more you want others to agree with you, and the more you resent or pity those who don’t.

Having been raised a Mormon, I couldn’t help thinking how differently a dialogue between Satan and a Mormon would have gone. In fact, Kaufmann’s Christian bears more than a passing resemblance to the Protestant minister who used to appear in the Mormon temple drama as a figure of fun. Hired by Satan to teach Adam “a religion made of the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture” (a turn of phrase Kaufmann would have liked), the preacher discourses on “a God who is without body, parts, or passions,” only to have Adam dismiss it all with, “I cannot comprehend such a being. . . . To me, it is a mass of confusion.”

The Mormon God is not a being without body, parts, or passions; rather, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also” (D&C 130:22). Although “the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit” (ibid.), he, too, is in some sense a physical entity. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter . . . We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter” (D&C 131:7-8). Not only does the Mormon God have a physical body; he has the form of a man — and, though this doctrine is not emphasized much these days, Mormons generally believe that he once was a mortal man like us and progressed until he became a god.

There’s something very satisfying about this — about the chutzpah of taking a rhetorical question by the horns and saying that, yes, there jolly well is an old man with a beard who lives in the sky! And the Mormon concept of God has one big advantage over that of most Christians, in that it actually means something. When a Mormon says “God exists,” what he says may be false, but at least it’s not gobbledygook. There are many questions a critic might ask regarding Mormon beliefs, but “What do you mean by exist?” is not one of them.

But of course there are also problems with the idea that God is a corporeal being. These are the two big ones in my mind:

God as Creator

If God is a physical being, then he cannot have created the universe, since nothing physical can exist without a universe. He may have created this earth, or this galaxy, or millions of galaxies, but he cannot have created the basic framework of time and space, matter and energy, in terms of which his own existence is defined. In Mormon scripture, God says, “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell” (Abraham 3:24, emphasis added) — clearly not an ex nihilo creation as traditionally understood. The God of Mormonism is not an answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing; he is not the reason why the constants of the universe are “fine-tuned” so as to support life; even the origin of man as a species can hardly be explained by invoking a creator who started his own career as a man. Although many Mormons (including my father) support the idea of “intelligent design,” it is really inconsistent with Mormon doctrine, at least so far as man is concerned. The human body predates God and could not have been designed by him.

None of this is problematic in and of itself, but it does undermine what is probably the most common reason people give for believing in God.

Omnipotence, omniscience, and having a body

When I say of a particular body that it is my body, I mean that I see with its eyes, feel with its nerves, know what its brain is thinking, and can control some of its muscles at will. None of this is true of other bodies, which is why they, by contrast, are not mine.

But if God is omnipotent and omniscient, he sees through all eyes, knows the thoughts of all brains, and can control all muscles in the universe at will. Given that, it’s not clear what it can possibly mean to say that God “has” a particular body in a sense in which he does not “have” all the other bodies in the universe. To “have” a body in any meaningful sense is to be limited by that body, and God is not limited.


Filed under God, Mormonism

Walter Kaufmann’s “Epitaph”

Walter Kaufmann ends his book Critique of Religion and Philosophy with an untranslated poem in German, entitled “Epitaph”:

Alles starb in meinem Herzen
was nicht reines Feuer war:
in den Gluten meiner Qualen
bracht ich’s Gott im Himmel dar.

Nur das flammenhafte Sehnen,
das sich grad am Brande nährt,
hat die Gluten überstanden
noch nachdem sie Gott verzehrt.

I’m sure I’m not the only reader of Kaufmann who has virtually no German but would like to know what this poem says. The only translation I’ve been able to find is a tentative first draft (“there’s a lot in this one I’m unsure of, it may change quite radically”) by the blogger Peter Saint-Andre:

All is dead inside my heart
that once was purest fire:
in the heat I offered up
my pain to heaven’s God.

Only the ardent passion
that once nourished the flame
has yet outlived the fire
that God alone devoured.

Something tells me that can’t possibly be right, especially the last line, so here’s my attempt. The reader is strongly warned that I know no German whatsoever and did this translation by looking up every word in a dictionary and skimming parts of a German grammar. Still, since no professional translation seems to exist, I offer this for whatever it’s worth. My hope is that someone who actually knows German will stumble upon this post and set me straight.

All died in my heart
which was not pure fire:
In the heat my pains
I brought to God in heaven.

Only the flame-like longings
Which fed the fire
Have survived the heat
Even after it consumed God.

There’s much here that I’m unsure of, too. The word bracht is confusing, so I read it as brachte or gebracht. I didn’t know what to do with dar or grad, either, so I just omitted them. The dictionary says Sehnen is a noun meaning “sinews,” but that didn’t make much sense in context, so I interpreted it as having something to do with the verb phrase sich sehnen, meaning “to long.”

My version differs from Saint-Andre’s on two crucial points: (1) his says the fire is dead, but mine says everything but the fire is dead; and (2) his says God devoured the fire, but mine says the fire consumed God. Although I don’t know a lick of German, I do know a bit about Walter Kaufmann, and I think my reading is more plausible.


Filed under Literature, Translation

Reading: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I’ve read the following works by Goethe:

  • The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writings, translated by Catherine Hutter (16 Jun 2007)
  • Faust, Part I, translated by Peter Salm (20 Jun 2007)
  • Goethe’s Faust, Part One and Selections from Part Two, translated by Walter Kaufmann (18 Nov 2007)
  • Faust (Part Two), translated by Philip Wayne (12 Apr 2009)

I’ve read three different translations of (parts of) Faust and can compare them. The following pivotal passage is from Part One, but it is quoted in the preface to Wayne’s translation of Part Two, so I have all three translators’ versions.


If ever I should tell the moment:
Oh, stay! You are so beautiful!
Then you may cast me into chains,
then I shall smile upon perdition!
Then may the hour toll for me,
then you are free to leave my service.
The clock may halt, the clock hand may fall,
and time come to an end for me!


If to the moment I should say:
Abide, you are so fair–
Put me in fetters on that day,
I wish to perish then, I swear.
Then let the death bell ever toll,
Your service done, you shall be free,
The clock may stop, the hand may fall,
As time comes to an end for me.


If to the fleeting hour I say
“Remain, so fair thou art, remain!”
Then bind me with your fatal chain,
For I will perish in that day.
‘Tis I for whom the bell shall toll,
Then you are free, your service done.
For me the clock shall fail, to ruin run,
And timeless night descend upon my soul.

Salm’s prose translation is presumably the most literal of the three, if a bit, well, prosaic. Of the two verse translations, Kaufmann’s is much closer to Salm’s than Wayne’s is. Based on that, and on what German I know (which is precious little, but even I know the difference between an hour and an Augenblick!), I’d say Kaufmann’s translation is the best of the three, retaining the poetry of the original (as Salm does not) without straying too far from the original meaning (as Wayne seems to). Unfortunately Kaufmann didn’t translate the entire play, and his “selections” from the second part are no substitute for the whole shebang. Although I’d consider it the worst of the three translations, Wayne’s Part Two was still a more intense aesthetic experience than either of the other two books, thanks to the content. Later I hope I can find an uncut translation as skilled as Kaufmann’s abridged one.

Other major works by Goethe that I want to read later:

  • Elective Affinities
  • Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship
  • Dichtung und Wahrheit

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Filed under Translation