Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Science and tragedy

In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche characterises "science" as "a subtle form of self-defence against -- the truth". The learned Nietzscheans remind us that he means Wissenschaft here, not "what we generally understand by the word science" ... as if there's any general understanding of the word science!

So what is Nietzsche getting at here? For him, "the tuth" is the glimpse into the abyss, the glimpse that kills action; and actually by "science" he doesn't mean anything other than keeping busy (inquiring and experimenting and looking through telescopes and so on) as a means of distracting us from that glimpse. But I can't help feeling that science is a bad word for this sort of busy-ness; and that Wissenschaft is no better. Sometimes science busies you, true; but by no means always. A better word for 'busy-ness' is capitalism; and few inventions of man have been better at distraction than the consumerist production-consumption merry-go-round. Perhaps it would be better to rephrase Nietzsche, replacing "science" with "consumer capitalism"? That would at least invoke one pleasing irony, since many thinkers see capitalism precisely as contemporary tragedy ...

As for those who object to the paradox in Nietzsche's phrase ("science is a subtle form of self-defence against the truth") on the grounds that science and the truth are actually versions of the same thing ... well, "self-defence" records what happens when one power invades and overtakes another so as to render it identical. Science is a form of immune-system response; or it is the French Resistance trying to prevent the Nazis making Germany and France the same thing.

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