Friday, January 21, 2011

Something to think about

Friedrich Nietzsche

Original Error of the philosopher.

All philosophers share this common error: they proceed from contemporary man and think they can reach their goal through an analysis of this man. Automatically they think of "man" as an eternal verity, as something abiding in the whirlpool, as a sure measure of things. Everything that the philosopher says about man, however, is at bottom no more than a testimony about the man of a very limited period. Lack of a historical sense is the original error of all philosophers . . .

Several questions here-

Is this a common error? Is this even an error? Has human nature remained constant over the tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of years?

Do all philosophers share this error? Are there exceptions?

If not philosophers, then one might consider anthropologists and archeologists. They have found burials from 20 or 30 thousand years ago with flowers and other items along with the body. Are they wrong in assuming this showed something significant about the way they felt about the death of this person because we sometimes bury important items with our loved ones?

Or the significance of the cave paintings . . .?

Or in literature? Can we really understand Gilgamesh's behavior or that of the Greeks and Trojans in The Iliad and The Odyssey?


  1. Here I think N is probably referring to the tendency to regard men and women and the tablets of values they hold dear, i.e., their morality, as something that's fixed and unchanging. For instance, the notion of a "human right" is a relatively recent phenomenon. It hasn't always been accepted as a matter of course. Because N hails from the tradition of Heraclitus, he is eager to highlight what's changed instead of what's remained the same. Of course, he could be referring to human nature as such, which has a much longer horizon of change than does the horizon of habits, manners, and customs, changing as they do from generation to generation, and epoch to epoch. Cheers, K

  2. Fred,

    You mention cave paintings. I was just reading something like this in another blog:

    It concerned Egyptian paintings containing what could've been a then-extinct pygmy mammoth. Some comments on the article mention, however, that Egyptian painters of that time often took artistic license in their art. They'd often depict things that were lesser in importance as being smaller in size. Also, the one commissioning the painting would dictate how things were to be portrayed. ( i.e. "Put large tusks on that hairy baby elephant!") So you really couldn't be sure of what those paintings meant, elephant-wise.

  3. Interpolations,

    I got the feeling he was talking about human nature and not about those short-lived cultural artifacts such as habits, manners, and customs.

    Philosophers try to reach the central core of things and presumably would not consider habits,manners, and customs as being an integral part of human nature, except in so far as all cultures do have various forms of them.

    Has human nature changed, say, over the past 10,000 years?

  4. Cheryl,

    Yes, I've seen that in Egyptian paintings. The king or god is frequently depicted as being considerably larger than the other humans in the paintings. So, I would agree that the size may or may not represent the actual relative size of the animal being depicted.

    One is always free to theorize, but one shouldn't take the theory as fact.

    I watched a DVD of a lecture by Joseph Campbell on mythology last week, and Nietzsche would certainly point at him as an example of what he was talking about, especially when Campbell was "explaining" the significance of small fetishes and also, coincidentally, cave paintings.

    Hmmm, perhaps that's what triggered my comment in the post about cave paintings.

  5. "Has human nature changed, say, over the past 10,000 years?"

    Hi Fred, it's a great question. I don't know. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if there have been tiny discreet changes in the genome, which might be refleced in some very small physical structures. I wonder what evolutionary biologists say? It's a good question.


  6. Kevin,

    Yes, it's possible that small changes in the genome have occurred. I wonder if these have produced changes in behavior though, which is what Nietzsche seems to be arguing for. I don't think attitudes are inheritable and, therefore, are a product of learning, so they no doubt have changed.

    Perhaps emotions have changed or types of emotions have changed?

    Interesting question to speculate about--which is the reason it caught my eye and prompted this post.