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.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

RS encore: Breuer vs Nietzsche and the meaning of what we do

by Massimo Pigliucci

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. One of the problems with which we must struggle is our self-absorbtion. Our conceit is somewhat laughable given our tiny place in the universe, but it has unfortunately served as the basis for much of philosophy and other things.

    1. Compared to a masssive supernova we are tiny, but it is just dead matter. Life may be very tiny, but may be very special compared with the rest of dead matter.

  2. Good article. But I believe that Nietzsche is a poor character choice and Schopenhauer would have been a much better one.
    Because Nietzsche not only is a lover of repetition but is a well known secret that Nietzsche's bitterness is the result of his enormous love and kindness. Till the very end he loved cosima wagner and poeticized her. How heartbreaking is his fragment from his turinese isolation where he laments "Ariadne always chooses Theseus over Dionysus."
    The truth is that Nietzsche is a third position between cynical resentment and quietist acceptation of our finitude.The Nietzschean position is that of claiming that the uniqueness is not to be found in the actions of the other, but in one's own love, in his passion. He would say that what is important is not the other, but that obsession, that intoxication that in the novel he tried to cure as pathological.The fire is thus more important than the other, the dance more important than the partner.
    The conclusion for Nietzsche would be that if one is certainly lucky to be love, it is much more tragic to be the one who is loved but not loving.

    1. I would agree that as individuals we create our relationships: they are 'our' relationships driven by whatever drives 'us' to maintain them, sometimes despite the other. So in that fairly basic way we might be the source of the love that maintains it, whether or not it is reciprocated by the other. It is realistic, and maybe even Germanic (Kant, Einstein) to take a relative view from the perspective of the individualnal. The problem is that he did seem bitter, and so whilst the analysis could hold, the reality does not seem to equate to 'love' in his case, but I will read more.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.