Sunday, November 7, 2010

Nietzsche: Erudition vs. Wisdom


Back in April I wrote a post about the Great Books as a system of education, and argued that education should be about the formation of the individual within a tradition, and not just the amassing of knowledge.

Just the other day, though, I re-read a passage from Nietzsche's Schopenhauer as Educator and was struck by its relevance to the contemporary debate over the value of the Great Books. In section eight of the essay, Nietzsche denounces those philosophers, especially those in the Kantian tradition in Germany, who had let the state buy them off with cushy jobs as tenured university professors and thus became unwilling to question, much less criticize, the existing order. This easy accommodation with the state led to a grave danger:

This is actually the third, and the most dangerous, concession made by philosophy to the state, when it is compelled to appear in the form of erudition, as the knowledge (more specifically) of the history of philosophy. The genius looks purely and lovingly on existence, like a poet, and cannot dive too deep into it;—and nothing is more abhorrent to him than to burrow among the innumerable strange and wrong-headed opinions. The learned history of the past was never a true philosopher's business, in India or Greece; and a professor of philosophy who busies himself with such matters must be, at best, content to hear it said of him, "He is an able scholar, antiquary, philologist, historian,"—but never, "He is a philosopher."

The distinction Nietzsche draws between studying the history of philosophy and doing philosophy, between attaining erudition and wisdom, is what should guide the debate about the Great Books. Knowledge--or, as we say today, information--is of course necessary, but without a tradition to give form to that information, it will only become, as Nietzsche said On the Use and Abuse of History, "indigestible knowledge-stones." Without a coherent philosophy we will not be able to digest all the information and historical knowledge we already have and be nourished with wisdom.
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