Who Needs Summary?

To Brief or Not To Brief?

Two weeks ago I was asked to explain what Friedrich Nietzsche writes about. I’m a little leery of this kind of task — providing a second-hand summary of a major philosopher’s views — because the tacit assumption of such summaries is that they in some way allow the person who “has read Nietzsche” and “is familiar with” his views (that would be me) to provide some kind of useful service to those who have not yet read him. For example, they might make it easier to understand Nietzsche, the way a road atlas makes it easier to drive around an unfamiliar territory; or they might make it easier to start reading Nietzsche, the way it’s hard to start a conversation with a stranger before you’ve been formally introduced; or maybe this kind of summary could actually replace the original, saving the audience from ever having to read it!

Sadly, my experience is that this is not the case. Second-hand summaries of philosophical works (or any really serious thinking or literature, for that matter) don’t accomplish much of anything. The trouble of writing up the summary is onerous for me but will not benefit the putative audience, the non-readers — in fact, if anything, a “summary of Nietzsche” is more likely to harm your understanding of Nietzsche and your intellectual development than to help.

(Why? I’ll tell you when you’re older.)

Anyway, I’m honoring the request despite my misgivings and will post an overview of Nietzsche’s work, to the best of my ability, sometime soon. I attribute this decision 1/3 to stupidity, 1/3 to gallantry, and 1/3 to the hope that cobbling together a non-harmful summary of Nietzsche will be challenging and productive for me and will provoke useful objections from friends who are already deep in their study of his work.

Summary vs. Advocacy

Don’t look for an argument that you ought to read Nietzsche in this précis. I’m not sure that arguments-that-you-ought-to-read-X are, as a genre, very productive (for the reader or for the writer). Trust your friends. Which writers do the friends you respect, respect? Those are the people you should read. And you don’t even have to force yourself to read them — your desire to win your friends’ respect and participate in the debates they consider important will, almost unconsciously, lead you to view the writers in question as interesting and important.

Could your friends be wrong? Of course. Some of their literary judgments are almost certainly skewed. Maybe most of them are. But that’s all right.

Different people have different friends. You will explore the authors who become authoritative for you in light of the authorities you recognize, and they will explore theirs, and on the whole lots of people will explore lots of important ideas. It will all come out all right in the end… or at any rate, if it doesn’t, it has nothing to do with your failures. Your job isn’t to draw up The One True Syllabus, it’s to find peers whom you admire, from whom you can learn. Once you choose a community, its literary and philosophical canon is a corollary.

(You can think of this as an extension of the same principle, applied to civilizations. Maybe all the wisdom that is truly worth knowing is contained in sixteenth-century Burmese commentaries on the Pali Canon, I dunno. But do you speak Early Modern Burmese? Or any of its close relatives? Do any of your friends speak it? How many Theravada Buddhists do you know, exactly? Even if those sixteenth-centuries Burmese commentaries are the cat’s meow, your chances of ever understanding them at a profound level and incorporating their lessons into your life are minimal, because you are part of the tradition of Western civilization. So accept your own finitude, and let the Burmese make the case for their own commentaries.)

So it’s perfectly fine to ignore Nietzsche (zum Beispiel!) because other people to whom you are closer, or whom you admire more, tell you to ignore Nietzsche. It’s also fine to make random rules for yourself, like “I don’t read anything published after 1453” or “I don’t read Germans” or “I don’t read mustachioed linguists”. It’s even okay not to read a book because of some vague presentiment: it makes you uncomfortable, it seems icky, it’s hard, it’s not fun. Actually, it’s admirable not to read what you don’t find fun, because if you only read what makes you want to read more, you’ll quickly learn a great deal.

These sorts of little quirks, whether they are well-grounded or not, make our salons richer in the same way our contrasting and overlapping circles of friends do. If you read nothing from Germany and I read nothing else, we have effectively partitioned the search for truth between us! One of our friends can come to us and ask “Has anyone ever written about kelp from a Scotist perspective?” and, with our complementary knowledge of two different bodies of work, we can confidently answer yes or no. These sorts of contrasting approaches can’t serve as the basis for a cohesive intellectual network, but where cohesion already exists, specialists can certainly enrich its ecology.

Sed Contra…

But when you choose to avoid an author, do try to be either self-aware or uninvested in your choice.

If you are afraid of intellectual challenges and you know it and you decide to run with it because you have other gifts and don’t want the distraction of a grueling training in how to think, then you won’t pretend your choice is meaningful to other people.

If you are afraid, but would rather not think about it too much because being too self-critical would undermine your determination nearly as much as the grueling training, then you will treat the whole matter lightly and won’t even think about whether your choice would be meaningful for other people or not (much less argue about it).

Some people want to read this or that less out of an interest in knowing what the book says, than because they fear that they will look ignorant if they do not. But you don’t need to read much to avoid looking ignorant; just follow those two rules. If you can consistently navigate conversations where topics that you know little about come up without getting defensive about the gaps in your knowledge, you will look more sophisticated than 99% of the human race.

When I say “…pretend X is meaningful”, I’m talking about the implicit logic of a conversation. If you say “I just visited New York City,” the sentence is meaningful because in the English language New York City refers to an entity (specifically: a location) which can be the object of the verb to visit.

If you say “I just visited Bgref!xepn”, then I am at a loss; I assume you must be referring to someplace you can visit, but I can’t possibly figure out which place, because the word in question is meaningless (indeed, phonologically impossible) in the English language. If you say “I just visited linguine with clam sauce”, the problem is instead that linguine with clam sauce is not a suitable object for the verb: it is not a location. So I will scrape around for an explanation:

  • Perhaps there is a restaurant named Linguine With Clam Sauce?
  • Perhaps you visited a friend named Linguine, and brought him a jar of clam cause?
  • Perhaps you are not a native speaker, and mean something like “went out for”?
  • Perhaps you are referring to the topic of linguine and clam sauce, by extension from “to revisit [an issue]”?

Perhaps you have goofed and in my elaborate attempts to supply your intended meaning, I will correct you and our conversation will get back on track. Perhaps I have goofed and you will explain the proper name of the restaurant/friend/whatever to which you were referring. Or perhaps you aren’t sufficiently high-status for me to bother to initiate the conversation-repair sequence, and I will smile warmly while waiting for a polite opening to excuse myself from the conversation.

Here is an example of a failed conversation:

  • A: I guess if we want to avoid traffic our best bet is to get up early and take the 405, Bob says that’s the fastest route.
  • B: Bob is wrong.
  • A: Wrong? What? He does this drive more than anyone I know.
  • B: Bob is wrong because he’s a liar.
  • A: Bob is a liar? What do you mean?
  • B: I mean he tells lies.
  • A: I’ve never heard him lie about anything. What are you talking about? When did he lie to you?
  • B: He has never lied to me. I’ve never met him.
  • A: Um, why don’t you come meet Bob with me sometime? Then you can point out to me how he’s lying.
  • B: Why would I want to meet a liar?

What we have here is B replying to A as though he were making a contribution to the practical issue at stake (deciding how to get to their destination). B is talking just as confidently as if he had said “Well, they just started construction on the outbound lanes of the 405 so we should check whether that is causing delays”.

A is (very kindly and submissively) replying to B as though B is certainly trying to make some kind of contribution, and it is just a matter of figuring out how. Very few intelligible statements are unconditionally irrelevant to the topic of a conversation. For example, Bob could be wrong because Bob always used to do this drive before they started construction on the outbound lanes of the 405. Or Bob could be wrong because Bob is a notoriously slow driver and would have no idea how to get anywhere fast in the first place. There is always some condition, however odd, which could rescue a conditionally valuable contribution to the discussion from irrelevance.

Soft-hearted and low-status members of groups will go to great lengths to find a fig-leaf for irrelevant contributions, to avoid treating them as irrelevant (i.e., with contempt). It’s useful to recognize this, whether to understand what status signals you are sending yourself and to be on guard when you are suddenly surrounded by a pack of wild Brahmin.

Now, at each stage where A is looking for some clarification that will unconditionally determine how B’s previous statement is relevant to their driving plans, B instead veers further off course with another mysterious statement. A keeps fishing for an answer that would help B reframe the previous answer as obviously relevant; but as this goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that B isn’t talking about their driving plans at all. A mentioned Bob, and B doesn’t like Bob, so B wanted to change the topic of the conversation to how much he dislikes Bob, even though A doesn’t give a damn.

If B was aware that he had a quirky dislike of Bob, he would know not to sperg out about it. And if he wasn’t thinking directly about Bob at all, he would reflexively present his aversion to Bob (and Bob’s advice) as some pragmatic concern about driving on the 405. The problem is when B is sufficiently self-aware to know he doesn’t like Bob, but is insufficiently self-aware to realize that this aversion is an idiosyncratic personal orientation – in effect, a choice – and not a universal response that other people share and care about.

So B spergs out. No big deal. All he has to do is recognize what’s happening when A can’t figure out how B is contributing, and answer A’s questions in a way that eliminate Bob from the question, and instead reframe the point as somehow relevant, or try to translate A’s own point into a formula that B can accept without liking Bob.

(Or, he can keep sperging out and see how long A puts up with it. High-status people sperg out occasionally, just as one of the perks of the position. But this is also how you domesticate betas. They get acclimated to the local Brahmin listening sympathetically and nodding his head as they vent, and then become startled and disoriented whenever he shows anger or contempt at their deviation from the Brahmin’s code.)

Here is a second failed conversation:

  • A: I guess our best response to X and Y is Z: or, as Nietzsche put it, Z’.
  • B: Nietzsche is wrong.
  • A: Wrong? What? He has more to say about X and Y than any other philosopher.
  • B: Nietzsche is wrong because he’s a liar.
  • A: Nietzsche is a liar? What do you mean?
  • B: I mean he writes lies.
  • A: What are you talking about? Where did you find lies in Nietzsche’s work?
  • B: I didn’t find anything. I’ve never read him.
  • A: Um, why don’t we both leaf through one of Nietzsche’s books together? Then you can point out to me how he’s lying.
  • B: Why would I want to read a liar?

Mutatis mutandis.


3 thoughts on “Who Needs Summary?

  1. Nice little essay. I liked this:

    “Some people want to read this or that less out of an interest in knowing what the book says, than because they fear that they will look ignorant if they do not. But you don’t need to read much to avoid looking ignorant; just follow those two rules. If you can consistently navigate conversations where topics that you know little about come up without getting defensive about the gaps in your knowledge, you will look more sophisticated than 99% of the human race.”

    One thing about great conversationalists is that you can be ignorant of something but through the right body language and the right questions can come across as a man of judgement, wisdom and great learning. There was a blog post many years ago that talked about the different speaking styles of philosophers and how it helped them deal with their colleagues. For instance, A.J Ayer was fast, witty and cool – the epitome of an Analytic philosopher. Wittgenstein was frantic, biting and obsessed. Dan Dennett put’s on a slow, folksy tone etc.

    In C. Wright Mill’s book the Power Elite he describes the performance of the CEO – the men with “judgement.”

    From memory, some of the rules are things like 1: Dress, talk and be like your bosses. 2: Never say yes or no, at least not right away. 3. Even if you know the answer or have made a decision, tell your subordinates that you’re still considering the matter. 4. Speak with a deep voice.

    I did happen to spend some time with a CEO once (he was my boss) and I had many dinners and chats with two Chinese ones, and except for the one Chinese billionaire (who came across as just a jolly old man) the other two were very cool operators.

    So, anyway. One way to operate is to treat philosophical literature like battlefield reports (which is one of the reasons that makes reading Nietzsche frustrating. So, you can ask questions like:

    1: What is the main problem?
    2: What is the cause or causes of the problem?
    3: Tell me, in the shortest manner possible, what his answer is?
    4: How is his work organised? Structures, chapters, periods etc.
    5: What are his key concepts? Define them please?
    6: What are his key claims, assumptions, evidence; in short, his arguments?
    7: Are his arguments informed? (Are the premises or the evidence true, accurate etc?)
    8: Are his arguments misinformed? (Has he stated what is not the case? Has he straw-manned?)
    9: Are his arguments logical? Does he contradict himself?
    10: What’s missing?
    11: Did he solve the problem?
    12: True or not, correct or not, is his work significant and in what way?

    This book is quite useful:

    There is a chapter which covers philosophical interpretation. Rescher claims that there are three reasons to read philosophy (if you’re a philosopher) and each purpose dictates a different style of engagement.

    1: Read as a scholar. So you’re trying to understand what the philosopher meant. Also, you might be reading it in order to see if it is consistent with what a different scholar or philosopher says.
    2: You read it because you’re looking for “ammunition” or “weapons” or “tools” that can help you.
    3: You’re looking for help to shore up your own philosophical argument.

    This book is also very useful (see first chapter) for the different purposes of philosophy:


    As for Nietzsche, many people do not want to read him because they are scared of what they might find.

    Liked by 1 person

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