The Philosopher of the ‘Dangerous Maybe’

by Vered Arnon

In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche discusses his vision of philosophers of the future who will overcome the prejudices of modern philosophers. He calls these philosophers of the future the ‘philosophers of the dangerous maybe’. Current philosophers, he thinks, are prejudiced towards dichotomies and absolutes. They have also been seduced by grammar into putting agents together with thoughts and actions. Philosophers of the future, according to Nietzsche’s vision, will recognise and be aware of dichotomies, but they will know that they are not absolutes. They will also be free of the ‘seduction by grammar’. Instead of presupposing that there is a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to every question, the philosophers of the future will explore the answer ‘maybe’.

According to Nietzsche, the anti-maybe, pro-absolute stance of current philosophers rests on the fundamental belief in exclusive opposites. This limits philosophers to one side, since every answer must be ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘true’ or ‘false’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘evil’, and so on. Yet in their claim to be objectively seeking knowledge, philosophers are dishonest. Their system requires them to advocate one thing over another, although they claim that they do not do so. And not only are they limited to one side, but they have pre-selected the side that they will advocate, assigning a higher value to ‘true’ than to ‘false’, and a higher value to ‘good’ than to ‘bad’. But the value they assign is arbitrary. The origin of the value of ‘good’ is obscure to them, and their system is so rigid that they don’t dare to question whether or not ‘bad’ things can have a higher value than ‘good’ things. Nietzsche writes, “One may doubt, first, whether there are any opposites at all, and secondly whether these popular valuations and opposite values… are not perhaps merely foreground estimates, only provisional perspectives.”1 This pro-absolute stance limits philosophers and confines them to running circles within their own pre-supposed constructs, without ever really getting closer to the ‘knowledge’ that they seek. Nietzsche compares this to a person hiding something behind a bush, and then claiming to have discovered something new when finding it later.

Nietzsche identifies the seduction by grammar as another source of the prejudices of philosophers. The basic grammatical structure of language misleads philosophers into putting agents together with thoughts and actions. The presumption that verbs require a subject leads philosophers to mischaracterise philosophical problems. Nietzsche gives an example of the popular philosophic position concerning the assertion ‘I think’. While this assertion is considered immediately certain and absolute, Nietzsche holds that when he analyses it, he finds,

“… a whole series of daring assertions that would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to prove; for example, that it is I who think, that there must necessarily be something that thinks, that thinking is an activity and operation on the part of a being who is thought of as a cause, that there is an ‘ego,’ and, finally, that it is already determined what is to be designated by thinking – that I know what thinking is…”(2)

The seduction by grammar is just a function of language, however, and Nietzsche recognises that western language differs from eastern language; thus in regards to this issue, eastern philosophers are less prejudiced than western philosophers. Perhaps eastern philosophers are already well on their way to becoming what Nietzsche envisions as the philosophers of the future.

Free of prejudices, the ‘philosopher of the dangerous maybe’ will not flat out reject dichotomies. Rather, he will be fully aware of them, but he will look beyond them, and use them as tools to probe his questions deeper. Instead of confining himself to assigning questions an answer on one side of the dichotomy or the other, he will explore the origins and values of the dichotomies themselves. And most importantly, he will recognise that dichotomies are not absolutes. Instead of asking what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, desiring to find the ‘good’ and the ‘true’, he will dare to ask if ‘right’ is ‘good’, and instead of being biased towards what is ‘right’ he will ask whether it is even necessary to make this arbitrary evaluation.

Breaking free from the notion of exclusive opposites, the philosophers of the future will no longer be dishonest. They will no longer advocate one thing over another under the guise of objectivity. They will be perspectivists, willing to explore and challenge and say ‘maybe’ to all different possibilities. Nietzsche writes, 

“…It would still be possible that a higher and more fundamental value for life might have to be ascribed to deception, selfishness, and lust. It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things – maybe even one with them in essence. Maybe!”(3)

Free of the seduction of grammar, the philosophers of the future will be able to ask deeper, more significant questions. Nietzsche gives examples of these questions. “From where do I get the concept of thinking? Why do I believe in cause and effect? What gives me the right to speak of an ego, and even of an ego as cause, and finally of an ego as the cause of thought?”(4) Instead of looking for the answers that seem intuitive and self-evident, the philosophers of the future will use ‘maybe’ as a springboard towards something deeper than an appearance of ‘truth’, because ‘truth’ limits one to arbitrary absolutes and misconceptions.
1 Beyond Good and Evil, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers”, section 2.
2 Ibid. section 16.
3 Ibid. section 2.
4 Ibid. section 16.

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