Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Georg Picht on the history of the concept of Nature (2 of 2)

German philosopher Georg Picht (1913-1982) in his book, Der Begriff der Natur und seine Geschichte (1989) based on lectures he gave in the early 1970s refers several times to the following quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, taken from "Ueber Wahrheit und Lüge im aussermoralischen Sinne" (Nachgelassene Schriften 1870-1873, III 2, 369; hg. von Giorgio Colli und Mazzino Montinari, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1967-1977.)

In irgend einem abgelegenen Winkel des in zahllosen Sonnensystemen flimmernd ausgegossenen Weltalls gab es einmal ein Gestirn, auf dem kluge Thiere das Erkennen erfanden. Es war die hochmüthigste und verlogenste Minute der ٬Weltgeschichte': aber doch nur eine Minute. Nach wenigen Athemzügen der Natur erstarrte das Gestirn, und die klugen Thiere mussten sterben. - So könnte Jemand eine Fabel erfinden und würde doch nicht genügend illustrirt haben, wie kläglich, wie schattenhaft und flüchtig, wie zwecklos und beliebig sich der menschliche Intellekt innerhalb der Natur ausnimmt; es gab Ewigkeiten, in denen er nicht war; wenn es wieder mit ihm vorbei ist, wird sich nichts begeben haben.

[In some castaway corner of one of the countless shimmering solar systems spilled out across the universe, there was once a heavenly body on which clever animals invented knowledge. It was the proudest and most mendacious minute of "world history": but only just a minute. After a few breaths of air, nature froze the heavenly body, and the clever animals had to die. - So someone could invent a fable but never be able to have enough illustrations of how pitiful, how shadow-like and fleeting, how pointless and arbitrary was the effect of the human intellect within nature; there were eternities in which it didn't exist; if its time again passes, nothing will have come of it.]

Nietzsche (1844-1900)

No doubt many readers would take this as evidence of Nietzsche's "nihilism." Probably not without reasons.

But it also reflects the change in scientific and philosophical perspective that developments in biology, geology and physics had forced on the scientific world and more and more on the general public.

But like much of Nietzsche's writing, that passage suggests more than a simplistic reading. Picht finds in it an important recognition that the improving and increasing knowledge of nature in Nietzsche's time was forcing people to develop "a new concept of 'world history'." One that recognized more accurately humanity's role in an external nature that also had a history. He argues that those lines from Nietzsche "depict the deepest ground of the crisis of metaphysics." (p. 25; emphasis in original)

And if there is less cosmic grandiosity in humanity's position in the universe than people previously assumed, there is also a kind of Icarian heroism in Nietzsche's depiction of the general insignificance of the "clever animals" of Earth.

William Cuthbert Faulkner (1897-1962)
William Faulkner's famous conclusion to his Nobel Prize address in 1950 is more explicit in his spiritual optimism than the quote of Nietzsche's above. But there is also a great kinship between the two:

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
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