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Essays in Philosophy

Gerry Stahl

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Copyright 2010 by Gerry Stahl

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To publish ones notes under the banner of “philosophy” requires one to adopt a balancing measure of modesty. The term “philosophy” itself has been kept on a pedestal for centuries. If it was ever attainable, it probably is not any longer. Even Heidegger, who was arguably the last great philosopher, once said he was only “aiming toward a star, nothing more.” He proclaimed that philosophy had come to its end with Nietzsche, who himself strayed from the academy and struggled to enter the mundane world. Certainly with Marx, the pursuit of philosophical issues led to empirical research in the sciences.

Looking over the essays gathered in this volume, it is particularly clear that my philosophic writings are student efforts. If I have approached philosophical insights, it has been in my writings within the disciplines of computer sciences, cognitive sciences, learning sciences and information sciences. As I have studied and worked in these fields, I have been guided and urged on by my philosophy studies. While I do not feel that I have yet articulated the philosophic perspective that has driven my research situated in disciplinary practices, I know that what I have had to say has been thoroughly colored and even shaped by that perspective.

My academic study falls into three distinct periods, and the writings in this collection have been grouped accordingly. The first period was my undergraduate years at MIT from 1963-1967. Representing this period is my bachelor’s thesis on Nietzsche. Having gone to MIT to study math and physics, I nevertheless spent a roughly equal amount of energy pursuing the study of philosophy, primarily German philosophy. My thesis on Nietzsche (1967) was my first extended writing. As a freshman at MIT reading Plato, I discovered that I did not know how to write. I took literature courses and worked on writing prose. At best, I developed a method of collecting quotations and stringing them together with sketchy narrative. That technique is quite visible in the Nietzsche thesis, particularly its first half. The approach to the thesis was rather stiff and formal—certainly in comparison to Nietzsche’s own flamboyancy—due largely to my advisor’s commitments. However, the second half of the thesis starts to develop an argument about how to interpret Nietzsche’s philosophy, itself very interpretation-centered.

The second period included my graduate study of continental philosophy at Northwestern University (see my dissertation on Marx and Heidegger in another volume). Before going to Northwestern, I spent a year at the University of Heidelberg, studying with Gadamer—Heidegger’s research assistant who developed the theory of philosophical hermeneutics (theory of interpretation). For my dissertation research, I returned to Germany for two years at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, where Adorno and Habermas had taught. While working on my dissertation, I taught courses on Marx, Heidegger and Adorno. During this period, I published my first journal articles: “The jargon of authenticity: An introduction to a Marxist critique of Heidegger,” (Boundary 2, 1975, III(2), 489-498) and “Attuned to Being: Heideggerian music in technological society” (Boundary 2, 1976, IV(2), 637-664. The first of these formed part of my dissertation. The second was related to two essays I wrote as part of my teaching: on “Sound and society” (1974) and “Utopian optics” (1974). These essays elaborated the implications of philosophical ideas from Marx, Heidegger and Adorno for electronic music and other cultural phenomena.

The German language—as practiced by Hegel, Heidegger, Adorno and Habermas—had a powerful impact on my writing style. I was enamored of the power of dialectical locutions and the flexibility of German syntax. The nature of the German language supports an astounding level of complexity within sentences, and the masters of German philosophy exploit this power with grace. This mode of thinking took over my mind, making some of my pronouncements impossible to follow. The writings from my second period reflect this.

Following my study of philosophy from 1968-1975, I returned to Philadelphia and worked as a computer systems analyst, community organizer, neighborhood planner and director of a computer-consulting firm for non-profit organizations. I taught occasional courses on Marx, producing the review of the new translation of Capital (1978) and the essay on democratic socialism (1976). One summer, I went on a tour of worker cooperatives in Europe and published an interview about the comprehensive coop system in Mondragon, Spain (1984). As a neighborhood planner, I wrote many successful funding proposals for community programs, helping to create a network of community development institutions. Grant writing forced me to develop a narrative style that was easily readable and a clear, persuasive argumentative sense. Also, working with neighborhood groups and teaching courses for the general public helped me to overcome the often dense and convoluted syntax that I had acquired from my contact with German philosophy.

The third period covers my graduate study of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder from 1989-1998. (See my dissertation on computer-supported cooperative design in another volume on Tacit and Explicit Understanding.) From this period, a number of brief notes are included in this volume. Some were little more than emails sent out to members of a research group or a course. They cover my time as a graduate student and a post-doctoral researcher: “Evolution of knowledge” (1992), “Rapid evolution” (1992), “The future now” (1996), “Neural correlates” (1997), “LSA Chinese room” (1997), “Software as art” (1998) and “Software semiotics” (1998). These were often written light-heartedly, to try out a thought or to spark a controversy.

In 1999, I became a Research Professor with my own projects funded by grants, and I started to become active at academic conferences. That is another story, involving many more publications.




Truth as Value: Nietzsche’s Escape from Nihilism

The Jargon of Authenticity: An Introduction to a Marxist Critique of Heidegger

Attuned to Being: Heideggerian Music in Technological Society

Sound and Society: an Essay on Electronic Music

Utopian Optics: Theodor W. Adorno’s Prisms: Cultural Criticism and Society

A Modern Voice for Marx

The Theory and Practice of Democratic Socialism

Education for Democracy at Mondragon

The Evolutionary Analysis of Knowledge

The Rapid Evolution of Knowledge

We Have to Work in the Future Now. (In Fact, We are Already Late.)

Consciousness Without Neural Correlates

LSA Visits the Chinese Room: A Guided Tour

Software as a New Art Form

Software Semiotics

Truth as Value: Nietzsche’s Escape from Nihilism


Gerry Stahl

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment

of the Requirements for the

Degree of Bachelor of Science

at the

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

June 1967

Signature of Author: Gerald M.Stahl

Department of Humanities, May 10, 1967

Certified by: Mark Levensky

Thesis Supervisor

Accepted by: Roy Lamson

Chairman, Departmental Committee on Thesis


Nietzsche’s conception of truth provides the foundation for his entire philosophy. To clarify his view of what it means for a proposition to be “true,” this thesis considers Nietzsche’s attacks (in his writings from 1885 on) on three previous conceptions of truth. Nietzsche’s own view then appears as an attempt to satisfy the needs out of which the belief in the truth of the various propositions arose. “Will to power” is viewed as men’s need to fulfill their basic human needs and Nietzsche’s conception of truth as value is seen as making human life the basis of valuations. Thereby avoiding what Nietzsche considers “Nihilism.”


The suggestion of writing a thesis on Nietzsche came from Professor Samuel J. Todes, to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude. Although unable to advise me in the actual work of the thesis, Prof. Todes left a pervasive influence on my philosophic thinking, which is clear throughout my “original” ideas in the thesis. A background in phenomenology, which proved extremely useful in interpreting Nietzsche’s writings and the emphasis on understanding the role of human needs, are results of several courses and a number of private conversations with Prof. Todes.

The general structure of the thesis as well as numerous technical improvements are due to the conscientious assistance of my thesis advisor. Credit is also due my typist, Doris Whiteman, for providing moral support throughout and her diligent labors in the last stages.

With topic, structure and typing supplied by others, the pleasure (and frustration) of reading and contemplating Nietzsche’s philosophy remained mine.

Note on references

With the exception of Nietzsche’s own works, references are cited throughout the thesis by their author’s name. Works quoted and those useful in the preparation of the thesis are listed in the Bibliography with their publishing information.

The following abbreviations are used in referring to Nietzsche’s writings:

BG&E: Beyond Good and Evil (Jenseits von Gut und Bose, 1886)

GM: Genealogy of Morals (Zur Genealogie der Moral, 1887)

HAH: Human, All-Too Human (Menschliches, Allzu Menschliches, 1882)

JW: Joyful Wisdom (Die Frohliche Wissenschaft, 1882)

Twil.: Twilight of the Idols (Die Gotzen-Dammerung, 1889)

WP: The Will to Power (Der Wille zur Macht, posthumous)

Zar.: Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Also Sprach Zarathustra, 1885)

PN: The Portable Nietzsche, W. Kaufmann (ed.) (incl. Twil. and Zar.)




Note on references



Chapter I. The truth of the statement, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor”

The view

Outline of a criticism of morality

Morality as the work of immorality

Morality as the work of error

Morality as contradictory

Morality as danger

Morality as useful

Critique of Nietzsche’s view of neighborly love

Chapter II. The truth of the statement, “X is the cause of Y”

The view

Cause as force

Cause as inference

Cause as given

Cause as a priori

Cause as nihilism

Critique of Nietzsche’s view of causality

Chapter III. The truth of the statement, “The world is composed of unities”

The view

The ego as divided

The ego as related

Things as related

Belief in things as a weakness of the will to power

Critique of Nietzsche’s view of unities

Chapter IV. Nietzsche’s conception of truth

The view


Critique of Nietzsche’s view of truth




Friedrich Nietzsche has been one of the most influential writers of recent times. He has also been one of the most misunderstood. This is partly due to the distortions by his sister on behalf of the Nazis. But it is due to other things as well. One problem is merely formal. Nietzsche seemed to hide his thoughts behind images and obscure references, which can only be understood after his ideas have been understood. He was aware of this problem in other writers and may have consciously adopted it for his own purposes. In his discussion of the “Free Spirit,” Nietzsche says, “Every profound spirit needs a mask, around every profound spirit a mask is growing” (BG&E 40). Luckily, Nietzsche’s personal notes, which are often quite clear, have been published in The Will to Power, although they have been very poorly translated. By seeing Nietzsche’s arguments for his views in his notes, we can then go back to his works and understand their meaning. The other problem with understanding Nietzsche is that he held a conception of truth that is in many ways different from the traditional view of truth and that is the foundation, or at least a corollary of nearly all of his philosophy. It is my purpose in this thesis to explore that conception of truth, which forms the basis for any understanding of Nietzsche’s writings.

In order to make Nietzsche’s conception of truth clear, I shall first consider his attack on three different ways of establishing the truth of a proposition, and in order to do this I will consider the way in which particular people have attempted to establish the truth of three propositions: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor,” “X is the cause of Y” and “The world is composed of unities.” After seeing Nietzsche’s objections to these three ways of thinking about the truth, I can show what Nietzsche’s own conception of truth is and how it arises from his criticisms.

A concluding section will show the relevance of Nietzsche’s conception of truth to wider issues.

Chapter I. The truth of the statement, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor”

The view

The principle that people should obey the Christian moral imperative to love one’s neighbors was supposed to be true by virtue of its foundation—the will of God. The imperative was supposed to be a necessary principle for a moral Christian society. Furthermore, it was thought that those who followed the principle of neighbor love could thereby attain a higher spiritual state than those who did not, and would continue to improve themselves by the continued practice of this principle. Because it was though to have been proclaimed by God, the principle of neighbor love was not considered to be open to rejection or modification on the basis of its actual results or the will of men.

Nietzsche argued that the statement, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor,” had an immoral origin in the hate or fear of neighbors. He thought that a society that truly believed in neighbor love would not make a virtue or morality out of it and that if neighbor love were completely accepted than its very raison d’etre would disappear and it would no longer be accepted as a rule. According to Nietzsche, those who investigated and preached the principle of neighbor love were of low or only average spiritedness; they feared the stronger instincts of their neighbors and were disinclined to self-improvement. Neighbor love, Nietzsche thought, leads to conformity and stagnation. Moreover, any moral judgment is susceptible to criticism and replacement if it proves unacceptable by empirical standards of the utility of its results. The fact that morality does not have a divine origin deprives it of any a priori superiority to any other possible system of how to lead one’s life.

Morality in Europe today is … merely one type of human morality beside which, before which, and after which many other types, above all higher moralities are, or ought to be possible. But this morality resists such a “possibility.” (BG&E 202)

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