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.


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.


Christ Stopped at Eboli

In my youth I did many things. I expect this is true for all of us, I’ve no doubt that my many things are neither unique, original nor noteworthy.

However, one of the things that I did that I find myself increasingly returning to is my undergraduate studies, a bit of a surprise as they began 27 years ago at the University of Western Australia. To be honest after qualification I tended to put them to work in an applied way as a teacher of History and Literature and perhaps lost touch with the ideas and the concepts themselves. I suppose like many people, the transition from Year 12 to university was a bit of a shock. At school I’d done quite well studying Trigonometry and Calculus (Maths II), Probability and Statistics (Maths III), Physics, Chemistry, English Literature and History. When I went to university, my initial plan was to do 12 months of an Arts degree and then transfer into Law (back in those days at UWA there was no direct entrance to Law from Year 12, everyone had to do a year in another course and then apply for Law which used a competitive selection system based on 1st Year results). Of course, having this somewhat idealised view of what lawyers actually do which was more Perry Mason than contract paperwork, I found that I hated Law, loved Arts and returned to complete my BA.

When I returned, I had a decision to make about my ‘Major’ between three subjects that I really liked; History, English Literature and Philosophy. In the end I decided to pursue History with a focus on Europe from the Industrial Revolution to the present (sometimes called late modern European history) as I thought it would best integrate my love for Victorian Literature and Continental Philosophy as my Minor areas of study. Heidegger, Ford Maddox Ford and German unification. What a win! I graduated with an Honours in History from UWA. My thesis examined the suppression of the Catholic Church in Poland under Nazi occupation and how this was different to what happened in Italy under Mussolini.

The end result of my choices was a (somewhat forgotten) fascination with the history and philosophy of fascism, covering not just the German experience, but Spain, Italy, Hungary, England (the list could go on) and the abhorrent things that were done through the authorisation of a particular set of political philosophies. I was also amazed to discover that in 1930s Australia there was a proto-fascist group called the New Guard. Whilst fascist movements seizing political power might be relatively uncommon post-WWII, fascism itself is relatively common, and this continues to this day.

One debate that fascinated me was the distinction between Nazism and fascism. For example, if we were to compare Italian fascism and Nazism, we would find many similarities but marked differences in relation to theories of race, Anti-Semitism, corporatism and foreign policy. While Nazism is a particular version of fascism, not all fascisms are Nazisms. This is a distinction that is often lost in our contemporary debates, fascism and Nazism have become conflated in how we talk about political philosophy or various groups and movements. I would argue that it is possible to identify fascist movements, and call them such, without having to defend the point that they are versions of Hitler. At UWA the Head of School of History, Professor Richard Bosworth  argued that it was the Italian version of fascism as practiced by Mussolini that represented the purest form of the political philosophy.

One of the books we were asked to read was Christ Stopped at Eboli, a memoir written by Carlo Levi who was exiled to a remote part of Southern Italy by the fascists in the 1930s because of his political allegiances. The title refers to a common saying amongst the peasants that even Christ stopped before he got to Eboli. This area had been bypassed by Christianity, by modernity, even by politics to an extent. There is a scene where the narrator is astounded to find that there is almost no care, no positive or negative response, to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia because it did not matter to the villagers of Grassano and Gagliano. It was not a part of their world. However, at the end of the book, the narrator realises that 14 years of fascist rule had impacted how they thought about the world. As cut off as they were, they couldn’t avoid the logic of a fascist utopia in how they understood the future, and that this utopia was necessarily for and about them.

At bottom, as I now perceived, they were all unconscious worshipers of the State. Whether the State they worshiped was the Fascist State or the incarnation of quite another dream, they thought of it as something that transcended both its citizens and their lives. Whether it was tyrannical or paternalistic, dictatorial or democratic, it remained to them monolithic, centralized, and remote. This was why the political leaders and my peasants could never understand one another. The politicians oversimplified things, even while they clothed them in philosophical expressions. Their solutions were abstract and far removed from reality; they were schematic halfway measures, which were already out of date. Fifteen years of Fascism had erased the problem of the South from their minds and if now they thought of it again they saw it only as a part of some other difficulty, through the fictitious generalities of party and class and even race. Some saw it as a purely technical and economic matter. They spoke of public works, industrialization, and domestic absorption of the plethora of would-be emigrants, or else they resurrected the old Socialist slogan of “making Italy over.” Others saw the South burdened with an unfortunate historical heredity, a tradition of enslavement to the Bourbons which liberal democracy might little by little relieve. Some said that the question of the South was just one more case of capitalist oppression, which only rule by the proletariat could supplant. Others spoke of inherent racial inferiority, considering the South a dead weight on the economy of the North, and studied possible measures to be taken by the government to remedy this sad state of things. All of them agreed that the State should do something about it, something concretely useful, and beneficent, and legislative, and they were shocked when I told them that the State, as they conceived it, was the greatest obstacle to the accomplishment of anything. The State, I said, cannot solve the problem of the South, because the problem which we call by this name is none other than the problem of the State itself. There will always be an abyss between the State and the peasants, whether the State be Fascist, Liberal, Socialist or take on some new form in which the middle-class bureaucracy still survives.

What’s the point of all this? Probably two points. The first is that recently I’ve read so much about fascism/Nazism online in a series of debates about education that I think it is worthwhile contributing to this by adding a series of blogposts that carefully frame what fascism is to inform debate. I don’t agree with Godwin’s law that saying ‘fascism’ means that you’ve lost an argument so it should never happen (which is not what Godwin suggests but is certainly how it is applied in various social media forums). In our current political climate, I think it is more important that we can call out fascist thought and action where it can be justified (but I do acknowledge the point that it often used unwisely and indiscriminately as a form of ad hominem argument and this detracts from the ability to criticise what actually should be called out as fascism).

Second, with PISA results being released tomorrow, I wonder how we think about what the tests can do, why we rarely seem to direct acrimony and/or praise to the bureaucracies and the enabling conditions for education practice. I also wonder what is it that we think education policy can actually do, and whether or not the 15 years of PISA testing, to paraphrase Levy, have erased the problem of disadvantage so that we only see education as a technical and economic matter. Of course, the morality of efficiency, in regards to learning, achievement and a techno-rationalist belief in the purity of data remains hard to break. I wonder if we are really interested in taking this on, or whether being happy to vent on social media will forever be enough.

For my next post, I want to suggest Umberto Eco’s characteristics of ur-fascism as a heuristic for defining fascism. Thanks for playing along.