How to Philosophize with a Hammer and a Blue Guitar: Quietism, Activism, and the Mind-Body Politic, #1.

By Robert Hanna


1. Introduction

2. What I Mean By “Philosophy,” “Politics,” and “Rational”

3. Philosophical Quietism and Philosophical Activism

4. Seven Varieties of Philosophical Quietism

5. How and Why All Seven Varieties of Philosophical Quietism are Rationally Unjustified and Morally Unacceptable

6. Eight Varieties of Philosophical Activism

7. How and Why the First Eight Varieties of Philosophical Activism are Rationally Unjustifiable and Morally Unacceptable

8. The Ninth Variety of Philosophical Activism, the Mind-Body Politic, and How and Why It is Rationally Justifiable and Morally Acceptable

9. Philosophizing with a Blue Guitar

10. Conclusion


[Nietzsche’s] books [published in 1888] are sometimes dismissed as mere products of insanity, and they certainly manifest a breakdown of the author’s inhibitions. In some passages of The Antichrist, Nietzsche’s fury breaks all dams; and the madness of his conceit in Ecce Homo is harnessed only by his matchless irony, though much of this is lost on readers who do not know Nietzsche’s earlier works. Compared to such fireworks, Twilight of the Idols is relatively calm and sane, except for its title.[i]

The man bent over his guitar,

A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,

A tune beyond us, yet ourselves.

A tune upon the blue guitar

Of things exactly as they are.”[ii]

1. Introduction

One of the exceptionally attractive qualities of Nietzsche’s brilliantly original style of philosophical writing, for better or worse, is that it’s the Rorschach blot of philosophy: everyone who takes it seriously finds their own philosophical obsessions written there.

And this is true, with a bang!, of the subtitle of Twilight of the Idols: “How To Philosophize With A Hammer.”

Nevertheless, bracketting the obsessional component for a moment, I do think that by using that subtitle, Nietzsche intended to convey not only the radical destruction of the classical philosophical distinction between theory and practice, as well as the radical destruction of the classical metaphilosophical distinction between philosophy and the arts, especially poetry — e.g., Wallace Stevens’s truly amazing modernist philosophico-poetic masterpiece, “The Man with the Blue Guitar” — but also radically to blur any sharp metaphilosophical distinction between philosophy and politics.

Yet whatever Nietzsche actually intended, the Nazis certainly found their philosophical obsessions written in Nietzsche’s work; and notoriously, Heidegger was not only deeply interested in Nietzsche but also, for a time, in the 1930s, threw all the weight of his heavy philosophical reputation behind the Nazis.[iii]

For the purposes of this essay, I’m deeply interested in the larger question that’s raised by Nietzsche’s subtitle and also by what Hans Sluga not inaccurately calls “Heidegger’s crisis,”[iv] i.e., Heidegger’s philosophical collaborationism with the Nazis:

what should be the relationship between philosophy and politics?

And I’m also equally deeply interested in what the philosophy of the future will look like, if we radically break down the dichotomous distinctions between theory and practice, philosophy and the arts, and philosophy and politics.

I’ll call that philosophizing with a hammer and a blue guitar.

2. What I Mean By “Philosophy,” “Politics,” and “Rational”

In order to be as clear and distinct as possible in what follows, in this section I’ll provide working definitions of some important terminology I’ll be using, and also briefly spell out some relevant background notions I’ll be presupposing.

By “philosophy” I mean

either (i) the human social institution of professional academic philosophy,

or (ii) the human social institution of authentic, serious, synoptic, systematic reflection on the individual and collective human condition, and on the natural and social world in which human and other conscious animals live, move, and have their being — especially as it’s found in the Western European cultural tradition going back to the pre-Socratics, Socrates, and Plato, but also in various non-Western, non-European traditions.

Obviously, since philosophy in sense (ii) has existed for 3000+ years, but philosophy in sense (i) has existed only since the second half of the 18th century, and since truly important philosophers like Hume, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche, Peirce, and three of the Nobel Prize winners who’ve been philosophers (Bergson is the fourth) — Camus, Russell, and Sartre — all worked outside the professional academy (or at least Russell did after 1918 and for the rest of his life), then philosophy in sense (i) and philosophy in sense (ii) are quite different things.

More than that, however, not only is philosophy in sense (i) quite different from philosophy in sense (ii), but it’s also arguable that philosophy in sense (i) is inherently inimical to philosophy in sense (ii).[v]

In any case, by “politics” I mean

either (i) what specifically concerns States,

or (ii) what specifically concerns human social institutions, which include States but are by no means restricted to States, since human social institutions existed at least 4000 years prior to the existence of States.[vi]

And by “rational” I mean that which specifically concerns the human capacity for rationality, aka reason, which consists in a power for self-conscious thinking, choosing, and acting according to normative principles, especially logical principles or moral principles.

3. Philosophical Quietism and Philosophical Activism

Here are two sharply opposed, and indeed contradictory (in the strict sense that they can’t both be true and they can’t both be false, hence they bivalently exhaust the range of relevant alternatives), answers to the question of the relationship between philosophy and politics:

(i) Philosophical Quietism (PQ): philosophy should be disengaged from (i.e., not engaged with) politics.

(ii) Philosophical Activism (PA): philosophy should be engaged with politics.

It’s very important to note, however, that philosophically engaging with politics is not the same as writing about political philosophy.

Indeed, most contemporary political philosophers are professional academic specialists who live, move, and have their being entirely enclosed within the well-patrolled intellectual, affective/emotional, and moral borders of the post-World War II, early 21st century neoliberal university, and uncritically presuppose the truth of some or another version of liberalism.

But they are otherwise quietistically disengaged from contemporary politics.

— Even to the point of repressively silencing any would-be dissenting non-liberal political voices inside the academy itself, as the contemporary British feminist political philosopher Lorna Finlayson has rightly pointed out.[vii]

So I think that when the contemporary American feminist philosopher Kate Manne tweets that “political philosophy is currently relentlessly apolitical,” as per the screen shot I’ve displayed directly below, then she’s absolutely right about this, provided that we also understand “relentlessly apolitical” to imply, as per Finlayson, a version of philosophical quietism that also uncritically presupposes a hegemonically ideological commitment to some or another version of liberal politics inside the contemporary neoliberal professional academy.

Granting that, then the question of the relationship between philosophy and politics arises when we ask whether Manne is right (philosophical activism) or wrong (philosophical quietism) that “politicizing an area of philosophy [is] a way to gain insights, and, often, valuable, underrepresented perspectives.”

But as it turns out, there are several different kinds of philosophical quietism and philosophical activism; hence it might well be that even if some or another version of philosophical activism is correct, nevertheless Manne’s own preferred version of philosophical activism could still be incorrect.

Correspondingly, in what follows I’m going to distinguish and describe, very briefly, seven different kinds of philosophical quietism and nine different kinds of philosophical activism; then just as briefly, I’ll criticize and reject all seven kinds of quietism (PQ1-PQ7) and also eight of the nine kinds of activism (PA1-PA8); and then finally, I’ll describe and defend the ninth kind of philosophical activism, based on what Michelle Maiese and I have called the mind-body politic.[viii]


[i] W. Kaufmann, “Editor’s Preface,” in F. Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, trans. W. Kaufmann (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1983), p. 463, underlining added.

[ii] W. Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Poetry 50 (May 1937), verse I.

[iii] See, e.g., H. Sluga, Heidegger’s Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995).

[iii] See note 3 above.

[v] See, e.g., A. Schopenhauer, “On University Philosophy,” in A. Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, trans. S. Roehr and C. Janaway (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014), pp. 125–176; and also the contemporary independent philosophy blog, edited by Z, aka R. Hanna, Against Professional Philosophy, available online at URL = <>.

[vi] See, e.g., J.C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2017.

[vii] See L. Finlayson, The Political is Political: Conformity and the Illusion of Dissent in Contemporary Political Philosophy (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

[viii] M. Maiese and R. Hanna, The Mind-Body Politic (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), also available online in preview, HERE.


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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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