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Many Happy Returns

by Rick Lewis

“Be a shade vague. (Or if you have the balls, unrepentantly obscure). It allows others to insert their ideas and preoccupations into your work; this is a biz where people love to pull rabbits out of your hat. If you’re too clear it makes it a take it or leave it proposition. Be interpretation-friendly.” Tibor Fischer The Thought Gang

This issue we are celebrating Philosophy Now’s 21st birthday. Ever since it launched in 1991, this magazine has advocated clarity. We have tried to banish jargon, eschew obfuscation, avoid Academese, call a spade a bloody shovel and generally encourage an everyday, unfussy and transparent approach to writing philosophy. Not every article has been as clear as I would have liked, but by goodness we’ve tried. Where manuscripts have been ambiguous, we’ve pressed contributors to say exactly what they mean, and no messing around. Another Lewis (Hywel David) once wrote a philosophy book called Clarity Is Not Enough, and no doubt that is true, but clarity is at least a good start!

However, I’ve tended to assume that good writing necessarily means clear writing, on the grounds that the whole point of writing something is to communicate ideas. Perhaps this may not always be the case after all. The late great Friedrich Nietzsche was a fantastic writer, whose vivid imagery and compellingly dramatic prose style was put at the service of some truly profound insights into the world and human culture and values. However, he wasn’t always utterly unambiguous. On the contrary, he was very ‘interpretation-friendly’ (as Tibor Fischer puts it). Nietzsche confronts us with the dark side of clarity: while clarity is good, it is at the same time something to be treated with suspicion. A smooth and clear account is often not a full account. Philosophers must always question what seems seductively clear.

Nietzsche wrote that “God is dead!” He prophesied the coming of the Übermensch, or Over-man. He proposed his famous doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence. He said that all existing values would have to be thrown out and promised a ‘re-valuation of all values’. Then he suffered a complete mental collapse and wrote nothing further until he died. What on earth did he mean? Hopefully some of our contributors in this issue will be able to elucidate for you.

Did Nietzsche mean it literally when he claimed God was dead? Was this an expression of his atheism? Or did he mean that religion is no longer an overwhelmingly powerful force in our culture? What did he mean by the Übermensch? A spandex-suited Superman, courageously leaping tall buildings on his mission to save the world? A coldhearted aristocrat, sneering at the plebs? Eva Cybulska examines the birth of a legend, and explains clearly what Nietzsche’s Übermensch is, might be and is definitely not. To take another example, Nietzsche’s astonishing concept of Eternal Recurrence. Standing by a lake in Switzerland, Nietzsche had a vivid vision of a kind of circularity. He asks us to suppose that we will live this night – and our whole lives – over again and again, exactly the same down to the smallest detail. What does he mean? Does he intend this as a metaphysical claim, a theory about the universe – that in an infinity of time everything must eventually repeat? Or is it – as Kathleen O’Dwyer argues in her article – a moral idea, a challenge: “Live your life so well that you could happily live it again, over and over?”

Nietzsche was ambiguous deliberately (and occasionally even self-contradictory), and wrote in an aphoristic style for a reason – because as a strict individualist he wanted to provoke us to think for ourselves. He worried that there can be a kind of tyranny to straightforward rational argumentation – that it can give the impression that there is only one, inescapable way to tackle a problem. Instead he wanted to encourage his readers to try out different philosophical positions, different perspectives on a problem to see which works best. In this sense, he thought that philosophy should be experimental.

His idea of Eternal Recurrence might remind a few of you that we have had two issues devoted to Friedrich Nietzsche already; but the most recent of them (Issue 29) was twelve long years ago and Crazy Freddy continues to exert his wicked fascination. ‘Nietzsche Reloaded’ seems a reasonable cover headline given that Freddy, like Neo in The Matrix and like many of the greatest philosophers, found a way to peek beneath the surface appearances of our world at what he believed to be the way things truly are.

I’ve now been editing Philosophy Now for twenty-one years, but though the Eternal Recurrence of the publishing deadline every two months drives me half to distraction, the magazine’s amazing contributors, and readers, and the philosophical ideas themselves, continue to fill the eternally circling seasons with meaning. So thank you for that, and happy birthday to all of us. Many Happy Returns, in fact!

Against Stupidity!

We are delighted to announce that Philosophy Now’s second annual Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity will be given to Dr Ben Goldacre in recognition of his book, blog and long-running newspaper column on Bad Science.

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