This year’s Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association was held right here in the Bay Area, at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. I chaired a session in which Scott Jenkins, from the University of Kansas, presented his paper “What Does Recurrence Weigh On?” Commenting on Scott’s paper was Babette Babich from Fordam University, a world-renowned Nietzsche scholar who I was particularly excited to meet. The session was quite well attended, and the interaction between Scott and Babette gave everyone who was present a dramatic and spirited taste of the differing ways that analytic and continental thinkers approach the interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works.
What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your most solitary solitude and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
The passage goes on to ask if you would greet this possibility with joy or with horror. Would it be a comfort or a burden to you to think that every single event in your life – both wonderful and terrible – was destined to be repeated infinitely into the future?
To may contemporary Westerners, the idea of experiencing any sort of afterlife is commonly thought of as a comfort, and yet in Eastern philosophy, reincarnation is treated as a kind of punishment. Buddhists, for instance, think of reincarnation as a sign of spiritual failure. Consciousness is recycled for repeated rounds only because of residual karma that has not been worked through in one’s present life. The reward for spiritual success, on the other hand, is final extinction or nirvana. It is interesting that in Nietzsche’s works, the idea of repeating life again and again is characterized, following the Eastern example, as something potentially negative; hence the title of the particular section of Nietzsche’s book that Scott focused on: das grösste Schwergewicht (the heaviest weight). The thought that you may come back again and again, reliving life exactly as it has been lived in the past, is the “heaviest weight” precisely because, according to Nietzsche, it is difficult to bear.
The question is, why? Why is this thought such a heavy and burdensome weight?
One possible answer is suggested by those who think that RQ acts as a guide to decision-making and deliberation. In this view, asking yourself the recurrence question becomes a way to decide if you are capable of willing your very next action into eternity. Cast in this way, the recurrence question resembles something like the various formulations of the Categorical Imperative in the writings of Kant. It is a device for deciding how enthusiastic you are in embracing some proposed course of action. If you are joyful about the possible repetition of an action into eternity, then that is a sign the action is good or valuable. If, on the other hand, you are distressed about such a potential repetition, then that is a sign the action is bad or to be avoided. In this view, the “weight” of RQ is the result of how it guides and constrains our efforts of deliberation.
The problem with this interpretation, Jenkins argued, is that Nietzsche clearly states that we must consider every single one of our past actions – “everything unspeakably small or great” – when entertaining the thought of recurrence, and this would certainly not aid in decision-making, but would more likely undermine our ability to act. Considering every single event in our lives, both the important as well as the insignificant ones, is not only a practical impossibility, it would also reduce us to indecision and inaction. Therefore, Jenkins claimed, this can’t be the “weight” of RQ.
So what is the weight of RQ? Jenkins’ conclusion was that Nietzsche provides no adequate answer and that it remains unclear what purpose asking this question is supposed to serve.
Babette Babich replied to Jenkin’s analytical exegesis with an impressive response that called into question his entire approach to reading Nietzsche. Drawing on a wide and varied set of references (everything from Nietzsche’s other works to the Torah), Babich stressed the importance of thinking the question of recurrence within context, demanding that we avoid isolating RQ from the very thing that it is supposed to highlight: the issue of human finitude and the struggle with nihilism. “The point is the paradox!” she insisted, suggesting that it is not the answer that matters, but the vigor with which we confront the idea. RQ, in this way of thinking, forces us to face the reality of a life rooted in the here-and-now and which promises nothing more than what we make of it. For Nietzsche, since heaven and God have become untenable crutches in modern life, we modern humans must learn to live in this world as if this is all there is. In considering that all our actions will be repeated into eternity, we free ourselves from the thought that some force outside of ourselves can intervene to save or rescue us from our own decisions. How we react to the thought of eternal recurrence is an indication as to how well or how poorly we have come to terms with this reality. It is not a question that has or needs any particular answer.
Both presenters were fascinating to me in their own ways. I was impressed by Scott Jenkin’s clarity and his analytical rigor in trying to clarify the meaning of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Eternal Return while I was also impressed by Babette Babich’s wide-ranging scholarly erudition. Ultimately the difference between the two boiled down to the difference between analysis and synthesis. For Scott, the meaning of RQ needed to be sought in the analytical dissection of the idea while for Babette, its meaning was to be found by synthesizing an understanding of its place within Nietzsche’s entire body of work, his overarching philosophy and his worldview.
It was a pleasure to meet these philosophers. It was also a pleasure to see that the APA these days seems much more open to the inclusion of presenters advocating a continental perspective. Doing so makes for a much more lively, rich and intellectually stimulating environment.