Monday, November 27, 2006

Why We Need Nietzsche to Deconstruct Analytic Philosophy

Tomorrow night, author and philosopher, Rebecca Goldstein will be speaking on campus. We are bringing her to Gettysburg College as part of a book club series on Jewish literature. I must admit that I haven't read any of the other books on the list, but I did read Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem, and I wish I had read it a decade ago while I was still in graduate school. Damn! It's as if the powers that be kept me from this book, that had I found it, I would've made wiser choices in my career and made sense of a lot of the needless hostility of my fellow students and professors.

The protagonist, Renee Feuer, is a graduate student at Princeton. She is finding herself totally alienated from her professors:

The field had made the 'linguistic turn' and I . . . had not. The questions were now all of language. Instead of wrestling with the large messy questions that have occupied previous centuries of ethicisits, for example, one should examine the rules that govern words like 'good' and 'ought.' My very first seminar, given by a prominent visitor from England whose field, they told me, was metaphysics, was on adverbs. The metaphysics of adverbs? From Reality to . . .adverbs?

As someone wholly mired in the messy metaphysical questions I found myself delighted by her penetrating descriptions of the wanna-be-mathematician Analytic philosophers at Princeton. The book gets even better, when we are introduced to Renee's soon-to-be husband, Noam Himmel. Noam is a "minor diety" in the mathematical world, because of his discovery of "supernaturals." He is convinced that reality is not coincident with the material world, but to be found in the a priori truths that only mathematics can capture. We eavesdrop on debates between Noam and Renee's physicist friend, Eva, on the nature of reality. Eva considers reality to be coincident with materiality, while Noam steadfastly defends his idealist stance.

Throughout the novel, we watch Renee move back and forth between her own body (and its sensual needs, cravings and pleasures) and her mind (the philosophical question of what "mind" is). She is trapped in this paradox and her relationship to Noam only worsens her philosophical angst. He is ruthless with her. He considers her questions to be fuzzy, not well thought out. She is trivial in her interests. In fact, her life is to be subordinate to his genius. There is a great scene at the beginning of the book where Noam melts down because he cannot find his pen, and it is, of course, the kind of trivial matter that Renee is supposed to tend to.

The book also explores the conservative Orthodox home Renee escapes from to Philosophy. But, I will leave that analysis for a more astute commenter.

I just wanted to share this wonderful book with my readers because, well, the gender politics of the book are what really captivated me. After all, Renee's mediocrity as a thinker is traced, precisely, to her obsession with bodily existence. Perhaps she is, after all, a living example of how the "wandering womb" corrupts the otherwise rational thoughts of human beings. The female body is a drag on true genius; to be a genius, to be an intellectual giant, is to contemplate the pure forms. However, even geniuses need to eat, need to sleep, and need to find their pens. That is where the usefulness of women come in, and Renee, poisoned by the girlhood fairy tales on knights on white horses, steps in to tend to Noam's obvious genius. He grows to hate her precisely because she tends to his body, the mere trivialities of his existence.

We also see how utterly violent academic debate is. The mathematicians shred each other to pieces, but, Noam and Eva assure us, this is not "personal." If one is willing to shred your ideas, they are doing you a service by showing you how much time you will waste if you pursue it. In such an atmosphere, it is hard to imagine that very many would dare put a word on page. Renee tries to escape the critical eye of her professors by amalgamating herself with a great man; if she finds her worth in his valuation of her, then she is real. And, yet, this sort of move poses a real metaphysical threat to her identity. If he hates her, scorns her, she is nothing but a mere body. She is replaceable and insignificant.

What I couldn't help but think as I worked my way through this novel was how apt Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals is for deconstructing the inverted values of old school Analytic Philosophy. All that is life-affirming, all that is the body, all that is messy and contradictory are dismissed, and what is ethereal, abstract, outside of space and time, and only tamed through logic, is exhalted. And, let's not forget, that what is life-affirming and messy are inextricably tied up with the female body.

When I was younger, my professor asked me: "why aren't there any women in Philosophy? Perhaps they just don't have the aptitude for it?" I am going to send him, anonymously, Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem for Christmas.