On Nietzsche and changing your mind

Social media is a space where we are often encouraged to ‘change our mind’ about beliefs that we may have had for some time. This can be through the exposure to new ways of thinking, new perspectives or evidence that we had not seen before, sadly it can all too often be encouragement through ridicule or the strange pile-on effect of a virtual tribalism. ‘Changing your mind’ has, it seems, become something of a virtue, I daresay we respond favourably to those who change their mind where that change agrees with what we think, and unfavourably to those who used to agree with us. Such is the nature of tribalism I guess, and if social media has been good at anything it has certainly been good at allowing people to find a tribe, and through that tribe to find or accentuate their voice. Of course the flipside to this tribalism is that honest conversations appear to be getting increasingly difficult, perhaps as is changing your mind, the dialectical exchange seems to be most difficult on platforms like Twitter. Where divergent views are shared and discussed, a conversation that doesn’t descend into vitriol elicits a congratulatory affirmation these days, so unusual it has become. But I digress, this isn’t a blog about Twitter, it is actually a blog about PISA.

Currently, online conversations about changing our mind are predicated on a theory of rationale choice. Opinion/evidence is presented, rumination and perhaps discussion ensues, we make a rationale choice to change our opinions and step towards the light as Plato would have it (even if it required a little coercion). I’ve seen a lot of this on edu-twitter, and no doubt been a part of it, the motivation seems to be that wrong thinking (being irrational from a particular viewpoint) requires a bit of tough love to turn us away from the shadows projected in the cave to see the real world waiting for us outside. Which is OK as long as we are the ones giving and not receiving the tough love I guess.

So I’ve been wondering about this phenomena for some time, and wondering why this perspectival rationality bugs me so much. It may be because it appears that the loudest, rather then the most reflective, voices win the day. Or it could be because I keep looking at a world that I clearly don’t understand, and remain worried about disaster.

Importantly, while we often define disaster as calamity or devastation, etymologically speaking it conceals another meaning. Disaster = no star to guide us. Now, while there may be many ways to think through what the absence of a star to guide us might mean, I think the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche is particularly useful.

disaster

Nietzsche (for those who don’t know) was a German philosopher who lived from 1844-1900. He infamously died bereft of his mental faculties, allegedly as a result of tertiary syphilis, although there is a view that this could have been a complete mental breakdown. While there is so much written about Nietzsche and his work that it is pointless trying to represent it, for this blog the important move of Nietzsche was his famous pronouncement of the death of God in his book The Gay Science. While this has often been taking to be a triumphant announcement in that Enlightenment tradition of an end of mythology and superstition, I think for Nietzsche this recognition called forth a deep mourning for the loss of that certainty that a celestial creator provides as the foundation for a sense of identity and the coherence of the world. Perhaps this explains Nietzsche’s famous quote “there are no facts, only interpretations” (Notebooks Summer 1886 – Fall 1887). This has been taken to mean many things, but I like the argument that it isn’t as important to understand how the world works, or to be rational as measured against a series of pre-existing norms as much as it is to find an interpretation that works for us. Of course this necessarily causes us some problems that I confess I don’t have the answers too, not least what we do about morality?

To return to the point about changing our minds (and in this section I am heavily indebted to the work of Daniel Smith, particularly his essay Klossowski’s Reading of Nietzsche: Impulses, Phantasms, Simulacra, Stereotypes) the death of God destroys the link to individuality as a rational expresser of that which is atemporal, in other words, that sits outside of time and/or experience. For Nietzsche, it is our impulses or drives that interpret the world, what we consider to be the soul is no more than “a vast confusion of contradictory desires”. This is what Nietzsche means when he says we are not individuals but multiplicities. (As a side-note I remain fascinated at the similarities and differences in Nietzsche’s philosophy and recent work in psychology and AI around free will, consciousness and reality. I hope to investigate this one day.)

As Smith outlines, “within ourselves we can be egoistic or altruistic, hard-hearted, magnanimous, just, lenient, insincere, can cause pain or give pleasure”. Each of these impulses is, for Nietzsche, motivated by an internal will to power.

Every drive is a kind of lust to rule, each one has its own perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm (Will to Power, 267).

When we are talking about the ‘I’, the rational self or our self-identity, we are really indicating which drive is in the ascendant within that multiplicity contained within us, that particular drive which is “strongest and sovereign” within us at that time. What we call our reason is, for Nietzsche, the system of relations of our passions or drives. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:

Something that you formally loved as a truth or probability now strikes you as an error, so you cast it off and fancy that it represents a victory for your reason… Perhaps this error was necessary for you then, when you were a different person – you always are a different person – as are all your present ‘truths’… What killed that opinion for you was your new life [that is, a new impulse] and not your reason: you no longer need it, and now it collapses and unreason crawls out of it into the light like a worm, When we criticize something, this is no arbitrary and impersonal event; it is, at least very often, evidence of vital energies in us that are growing and shedding a skin. We negate and must negate because something in us wants to live and affirm – something that we perhaps do not know or see as yet. (pp.245-6)

So, dear reader, what is the point of this blog? It is certainly not to throw scorn at people who change their mind. I do suspect that there is a drive within me to present alternate views that describe what this thing called the human condition may mean at this point in time that have no recourse to religion or rationality. I also suspect that I have become troubled by my stance on testing, its usefulness, what could be done. For those of you who don’t know, PISA results were released last night and Australia’s results have declined yet again. I find I have no stomach for the polarised debates that fill my time line. Something is going on, but I fear that we are no closer to finding out what it is, indeed even understanding how it is that this continues. In Australia, student results have declined in each test domain (reading, mathematics and science) in each test since 2000. It seems to me that with each iteration of the test the public responses that we read, that inform our opinions, have become either stultifyingly formulaic or dare I say it, stupider. We still don’t know why Australia did well in 2000 and 2003, yet find ourselves wanting to recreate a past that we’ve never understood! Such is the way of idiocy I suspect. I find myself angry, and frustrated, and wonder if I am casting off something that I formally loved, and felt was necessary, and am perhaps mourning what it is that has been killed.

What is this new life? And this feeling of being adrift, dear reader? I cannot tell…

If the point of this blog is about staring into the abyss, I hope you’ll forgive me what might appear to be a self-indulgent contribution. Thanks for playing along.

 

2 thoughts on “On Nietzsche and changing your mind”

  1. Thanks for this fascinating post, Greg. I see the same conversations and confrontations being rehearsed here in the UK as our disappointing performance makes news. I don’t pretend to have any answers; but what I do see – and this connects to your and Nietzsche’s words – is a will to deliver ‘education’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘learning’ more efficiently and effectively. Yet this ignores the possibility that education might be one of those things, like love and happiness, which we can only approach obliquely, and which withers and thereby eludes us when we try and grasp it directly.

    1. Thanks Matthew. In a previous post I touched on the morality of efficiency, it does seem to be How value is being defined in education these days.

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