Nietzsche suggests that part of what it is to experience something as beautiful is to experience it as beneficial in the highest degree. He defends this claim by suggesting that it alone captures the experience of beauty typical of artists. I argue that this is best understood as pointing to an explanatory argument: Nietzsche takes his view to make sense of an effect beautiful objects have on artists. This effect is, I suggest, gratitude. Beautiful objects inspire feelings of gratitude within artists, moving them to create works of art celebrating those objects as a form of thanksgiving. Insofar as gratitude is typically generated by objects viewed as beneficial, Nietzsche’s view of beauty is well-positioned to explain this effect.
In the Euthydemus, Socrates is presented as an eager student of seemingly trivial arts, earning derision both for desiring to master the peculiar art of Euthydemus and Dionysodorus and for studying the harp in his old age. I explain Socrates’ interest in these apparently trivial arts by way of a novel reading of the first protreptic argument, suggesting that the wisdom Socrates praises is complex in nature, securing the happiness of its possessor only insofar as it is composed of both ordinary productive knowledge and ethically productive knowledge. This reading of the first protreptic makes sense of the otherwise perplexing second protreptic, explaining why Socrates is so keen to identify an art which makes what it uses. Wisdom acts as a reliable source of benefit only insofar as it is a complex composed of multiple different arts and types of knowledge. These arts, however, can only be acquired one at a time. If no single art is capable of combining the powers of both ordinary productive knowledge and ethically productive knowledge in the way that wisdom as a whole does, then the pursuit of wisdom will fail to offer reliable benefit despite the reliably beneficial nature of its possession. It is thus appropriate for the Euthydemus to conclude with Socrates telling Crito to take courage and pursue philosophy despite the seemingly harmful effects its pursuit has had on others. Euthydemus and Dionysodorus represent the danger facing the aspiring philosopher, the possibility of being ruined by independent possession of the particular kind of ordinary productive knowledge on which philosophical activity depends: verbal mastery, the grasp of subtle conceptual distinctions needed both to argumentatively reveal reality and to argumentatively obscure it, to reliably equivocate and to reliably avoid equivocation.
Mill defines utilitarianism as the combination of a “theory of life” and a moral claim: only pleasure and freedom from pain are desirable as ends, and the promotion of happiness is the sole goal of moral action. So defined, utilitarianism is open to ad hominem pessimistic objection: a “theory of life” which entails the impossibility of happiness fits poorly with a morality centered on its promotion. The first two challenges Mill confronts in Utilitarianism share this pessimistic structure. Interestingly, however, these challenges paint inverted pictures of the best utilitarian life: one suggests this life is satisfying but ignoble, the other that it is noble but unsatisfying. I explain Mill’s treatment of both challenges as genuinely pessimistic interpretations of utilitarianism’s “theory of life.” Read through the lens of Mill’s engagement with pessimism, these challenges point to distinctive conceptions of dignity and satisfaction that play a significant role in Mill’s ethics.
Amartya Sen has suggested that the moral significance of freedom undermines the view that well-being alone possesses fundamental moral worth. Sen’s efforts to establish this claim, however, seem to fall short: he attempts to establish freedom’s independent moral significance by pointing to the value of autonomy, but explains the value of autonomy in terms of its role as an element of well-being. Nonetheless, I take it that Sen is very much on the right track: well-being is not the only fundamental moral value, and an examination of freedom’s moral significance really will bring this out. I thus offer my own version of the freedom-based critique of well-being’s exclusive moral claim, focusing not on autonomy but what Sen has called “well-being freedom.” The value of this variety of freedom derives, I will suggest, not from the value of well-being itself but the value of well-being potential. Well-being freedom matters not only because promoting it is a way of promoting human well-being, but also because respecting it is a way of respecting the dignity of human nature. The freedom-based critique of well-being’s moral uniqueness succeeds even if Sen’s particular version of it does not.
Existential Pessimism and Aesthetic Experience: Mill, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche on Life’s Value
Open Access Version
I examine how three major 19th-century philosophers – Mill, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche – confronted the problem of pessimism: the worry that life might not be worth living. I demonstrate how all three took this problem to stem from concerns about the structure of human desires and interests, concerns Mill and Nietzsche both took specifically aesthetic value to play an essential role in answering. Taken together, these thinkers’ engagement with pessimism highlights two different aspects of aesthetic value’s importance to human well-being: human beings need to value things in an aesthetic manner, and they also need to view themselves as possessing a particularly aesthetic kind of dignity. In the absence of aesthetic valuing, human beings are unable to maintain non-aversive desires: that is, desires directed towards the good rather than merely away from the bad. In the absence of aesthetic dignity, the same aesthetic valuing needed to get our desires in shape would subject us to debilitating forms of self-contempt and self-disgust.
Papers in Progress
“Pessimism, Aversion, and Tragic Psychology”
Nietzsche identifies humanity’s capacity to appreciate tragic art as the chief counter to Schopenhauer’s pessimism. I examine Nietzsche’s view of tragic psychology as a way of understanding this claim. I argue that Nietzsche takes the essential feature of tragic psychology to be delight in passion itself. In appreciating tragedy and similar works of art, we come to value and enjoy our passions. In coming to value our passions, we are protected against a danger Schopenhauer thought human beings could not avoid: domination by purely aversive desires, desires aimed away from states experienced as bad rather than towards ones experienced as good.
“Schopenhauer on Boredom”
On the dominant interpretation, Schopenhauer possesses a will to will view of boredom: boredom consists in the dissatisfaction of a second-order desire to pursue objects of first-order desire. I challenge this account, arguing that it misconstrues one of boredom’s effects for its essence. Instead, I suggest that Schopenhauer possesses a will to cognition view of boredom: boredom consists in the dissatisfaction of a desire for specifically mental occupation. That boredom finds frequent expression in a will to will is simply a consequence of desire’s role in generating mental activity.