For my honours thesis in philosophy, I wrote on the topic of axiology and the philosophy of culture in Nietzsche’s thoughts. All students with real majors at Yale-NUS were required to have a presentation on their capstone, though the philosophy major goes a step extra and have us have a “defence” for our honours thesis. We were to give a 20-minute presentation followed by a 15-minute defence, where nice professors will try to attack the core of your argument.
The meaning of life
“Culture can be said to be the meaning of life.” These words by T.S. Eliot, in his Notes towards a Definition of Culture, struck me as a really curious proposition, especially during a time when I was deeply thinking about—like all young people in their twenties— the meaning of life. I was then quite assured that the meaning of life is chasing after the eternal things in this universe—truth, for example. And a meaningful life could be one where we become, to borrow Plato’s words from the Republic, “the lovers of the vision of the true.” Eliot’s words left an impression on my mind, and the importance of culture in one’s life lingered in my head, but I never gave it any serious thought once I matriculated to college.
Soon, of course, as many in college would attest, this little illusion of mine—that eternal things are the meaning of life—is quite quickly broken with studying some Nietzsche and postmodern philosophy. What then should be the meaning of life? I took Eliot’s advice and turned back to culture. Coincidentally, at the point of life where I was immensely disillusioned with my scientific endeavours, I came across Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, a book of four essays written from 1873 to 1876. The first of the essays was written directly on the topic of culture.
The first essay, “David Strauss: the confessor and the writer”, opens with what I thought to be an incredibly hilarious invective against the German culture in Nietzsche’s time: the Germans have no culture whatsoever of their own, and merely copied everything from the French. (What does that even mean—to copy a culture?)
A definition of culture
To critique culture, Nietzsche bravely provides a definition of culture himself: “Culture is, above all, unity of artistic style in all expressions of the life of a people”. He goes on, “Much knowledge and learning is neither an essential means to culture nor a sign of it, and if needs be can get along very well with the opposite of culture, barbarism, which is lack of style or a chaotic jumble of all styles.” Because of the density of ideas in this one paragraph, a third of my capstone went to exegesising what he means by that peculiar definition for culture, and the rest discusses about how Nietzsche comes to have this view in the first place.
When I first read the Untimely Meditations, like all bad students, I didn’t read it in sufficient depth, and had originally intended this capstone to be a somewhat small project, to be done quickly and well enough for an undergraduate and without much ambition. The project turned out to be much more complicated than I have anticipated, and I ended up dealing with issues concerning German intellectual thought, such as on the topic of genius, of being human, of art and aesthetics, truth and falsehood—topics that I deeply enjoy and find myself most concerned about.
”And how can we attain that goal? you will ask. At the beginning of a journey towards that goal, the god of Delphi cries to you his oracle: 'Know yourself.' It is a hard saying: for that god 'conceals nothing and says nothing, but only indicates,' as Heraclitus has said. What does he indicate to you?Freddy "the stache" NietzscheOn the uses and disadvantages of history for life
Below are the slides I used for my Capstone Defence.