Brian Leiter’s Sleight of Hand

Brian Leiter recently posted a take-down of my take-down of his (and Josh Knobe’s) Doctrine of Types interpretation of Nietzsche.  I’m pleased that, if nothing else, I have “Alfanoesque bravado.”  As he points out, in my initial attack, I don’t have time to get to the empirical evidence; instead, I focus only on the textual interpretation.  For those who are interested, my book, Character as Moral Fiction, makes the empirical case.

Leiter identifies two main objections to his view: 1) non-fixedness and 2) non-universality.  On the first, it might be that we have a merely verbal disagreement or even misunderstanding.  According to his “Doctrine of Types,” “Each person has a fixed psycho-physical constitution, which defines him as a particular type of person.”  What does it mean for something to be fixed?  When I read this Doctrine, I thought this was a pretty strong claim.  In his paper with Knobe, Leiter says that it means that one’s psycho-physical constitution is “largely immutable” (p. 88).  He also says that one’s constitution is fixed “at birth” (p. 92).  Since the personality psychologists Leiter and Knobe rely on think that there is no significant influence of environment on personality, I took such pronouncements in a strong sense.  I thought that Leiter was attributing to Nietzsche the claim that one’s constitution is determined at or before birth and that it rarely if ever changes, and that when it changes it doesn’t budge much.  But now Leiter seems to agree with me that types are “stable but nevertheless mutable.”  What’s more, Leiter invokes Freud (understandably, since Freud systematically ripped off Nietzsche), who made a point of tracking the etiology of his patients’ syndromes, not insisting that they were determined at or before birth.  In a way, this is now the unsurprising claim that personality doesn’t shift all that much all that quickly.  As they say in the movies…

The second point is a bit more niggling.  Leiter cites roughly a dozen passages in support of his interpretation of the Doctrine of Types.  In my paper, I point out that many of these passages aren’t clearly meant to apply to human animals as such, though they do apply to philosophers.  Leiter seems to think that the burden of proof is on me to explain why they apply only to philosophers.  I think that an interesting case for this could be made, but I don’t have time right now.  In the meantime, I’ll just suggest that the burden of proof actually lies on Leiter to explain why they apply to people other than philosophers.  After all, Nietzsche seems pretty fixed on the idea that philosophers are different from other people.  A section of Beyond Good and Evil is devoted to the prejudices of philosophers.  No section of any of his books is explicitly devoted to the prejudices of the folk.

Leave a Reply