About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Breuer vs Nietzsche and the meaning of what we do

I just finished reading Irvin Yalom’s novel When Nietzsche Wept, a psychoanalytical - philosophical account of a fictional encounter between Josef Breuer (one of the founders of psychoanalysis) and Friedrich Nietzsche (the philosopher who famously declared God dead). This is highly nerdy stuff, I’m afraid, but in fact well written and worth the time even for people who aren’t too much into either psychology or philosophy.

The reason I’m writing about it is because of a disagreement (in the book) between Breuer and Nietzsche on the meaning of certain actions we all perform, a disagreement that goes at the heart of the human condition, and may therefore be worth pondering for a bit.

To set the stage, imagine that Breuer and Nietzsche are both affected by a psychological condition, an obsession for a young woman (not the same one!) that has befriended them in the past and is now beyond reach. Both men – as it is typical in the case of obsessions – dwell on memories of very personal things the two women have done to them, romanticizing the whole relationship and elevating it to almost super-human levels. I’m not talking about sex here, but about intimate phrases and gestures that made Breuer and Nietzsche feel special, indeed unique, when relating to their respective women.

Breuer is trying to cure his own as well as Nietzsche’s obsession, and eventually hits on the solution to their problem: he finds a way to experience what each woman does with another man, paying particular attention to those “unique” and very personal gestures and phrases that fuel the obsession. Of course, they found that both women use the very same gestures and phrases with other people, and this realization shocks both Breuer and Nietzsche out of their obsession. Their romantic illusion of uniqueness in another human being’s eyes is suddenly shuttered.

And here is where things become interesting. The philosopher reacts very differently from the psychologist (and since the author, Yalom, is a psychologist, I guess it’s not too surprising that it is the psychologist’s reaction that is the most sensible...): Nietzsche feels cheapened by the whole experience, and wows never again to waste time with women, as they are clearly simply robots, condemned to use the same limited tools to get what they want. Breuer, however, points out that – disappointing as their discovery may be – we all in fact do the same, men and women, philosophers and psychologists alike. For all our pride, we as human beings possess a limited range of emotions, and a limited way to express them. While some of us are more creative than others, in the end we are bound to engage in similar behaviors with different people, if we live long enough and have the opportunity to forge more than one important relationship (friendship or otherwise) in our lives.

The point is that we all wish to be unique and treated accordingly. But the reality is that our uniqueness is often established on trivial variations of the human repertoire, and accordingly others behave towards us in a way similar to how they behave with other people in similar circumstances. And yet, Breuer argues in the novel, this should be a source of compassion for our fellow human beings, not one of frustration for the lack of what we think is our due appreciation. A fundamental key to friendship and love is the humility of getting over oneself and enjoy the incredible fortune of actually having someone who loves us.


  1. There is another side to this, I believe. It is not just the limited repertoire of expression, but also the limited repertoire of perception, or memory. Most of our significant memories are snapshots, which we go over, sometimes too much, again and again. Also, our memories of individuals are often memories of certain expressive gestures. If you woke up next to Angelina Jolie every day, you would see her differently, without the characteristic expressions. Of course the real Angelina would still be there, and ready to relate to. I am not sure how fair the characters in the novel were in becopming disillusioned with the other person over this.

    The subject of obsession is interesting. I have always felt strangely moved by Nietzsche's solitariness, his relations with Lou salome, etc.

    Nerdy stuff brings the nerds out of the woodwork.


  2. Hey! I am unique, just like everybody else! ;O)

    Well, at least I know with near absolute certainty (any lost identical twin?) that my genomic combination is unique...


  3. "and wows never again .."


    some men are like that.

    "For all our pride, we as human beings possess a limited range of emotions, and a limited way to express them."

    Not necessarily. Deep and intentional fidelity isn't so common. If one really doesn't mind being common, just follow feelings (obsessions) and instincts. If you want to be "un-common", flat-out keep your promises, even when it's not comfortable.


  4. Yikes! Just realized there's another paul. Sorry. I'll find another name.

    Paul --?

  5. MP wrote:
    "For all our pride, we as human beings possess a limited range of emotions, and a limited way to express them."

    Yes, but which part of the range we express toward different individuals is in part dependent on what they trigger in us.

  6. It would be interesting to bring up the matter of where the actions which Nietzsche & Breuer contemplated and commentated on have brought us to today.

    Excerpts from:
    The price of 'disrespecting' women

    ..."Tom Wolfe's newest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, chronicles the unbelievable scorn for women that permeates the American campus, and how women have lost all dignity, becoming complicit in their own degradation, as they stop at nothing to become the male plaything.

    The greatest cultural story since the 1960s is the decline and fall of the Western male, and how women have accommodated that fall by allowing themselves to be treated like garbage by men. It's now 60 years after feminism, and there has never been a better time to be a man.

    To be a guy today is to have your pick of hundreds of women who will sleep with you and expect not only no commitment, but not even courteous treatment. You can burp in their presence, break wind, and they will still go to bed with you. To be a guy is to have women move into your apartment and cook and clean for you, even as you endlessly push off the question of marriage, which you have no intention of addressing anyway. And to be a man today is to have women take off their clothes on TV to sell you everything from beer to cars to hamburgers.

    ONCE, WHEN I lectured at Yale, a female student perfectly identified for me how it is a man's world and how it all begins at university: "When it comes to love and relationships the men here sit and pick us out, like a man sifting through a jar of jellybeans for the colors and tastes that he likes, leaving behind all the ones that don't appeal to his taste buds at the moment."

    But in becoming boastful beasts of female prey and losing their sense of awe for women, men have guaranteed their own boredom. If you're a man, and a woman can no longer excite you, what will? A bunch of guys hitting a ball with a bat? Watching race cars go in a circle for 500 miles? Do men realize just how pathetic they have become as they endlessly pursue cheap substitutes for a lost sense of erotic excitement?"


  7. It's an interesting proposition that the range of human emotion can be considered "limited". As far as we know, the entire range of possible emotions is available to us. Even if it is bounded, that does not preclude infinite variation within those bounds.

  8. Seems to be a meditation on the old half joke defintion: Love is the delusion that one person differs from another.


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