Commentary on Ecce Homo

My “big” project of the moment is writing a commentary on Nietzsche's “autobiography,” Ecce Homo.

History of the polyp in philosophy

In 1744, Abraham Trembley discovered that the polyp or hydra (chlorohydra viridissima) was not a plant as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and others had thought, but an animal. This in itself is quite an interesting discovery as it suggests that the division between plants and animals might not be as crisp as we have believed since Aristotle. Even more remarkable and philosophically important was that polyps regenerate in plant-like ways. A polyp cut into multiple segments soon becomes multiple polyps. This reproductive trick had enormous theological and philosophical implications. It had been thought that when, for example, an animal looses a limb, the limb dies but the animal survives because the animal’s soul is not located in the limb. Similarly, those who favored locating the soul in the brain could point to the dire consequences of beheading to support their contention. The polyp, though, seemed to have a soul everywhere and nowhere. Thinkers has diverse as La Mettrie, Darwin, Locke, and Nietzsche all were influenced by this little creature. To the best of my knowledge, no single article or book has traced the influence of the polyp over its bicentennial heyday.

Why do we feel sadness?

Recent research has been drawing interesting connections between evolutionary theory, ethics, and the emotions. To take an obvious example, some theorists contend that the emotion of lust is an evolutionary adaptation aimed at ensuring reproduction. Far from reigning in lust, moral edicts increase its vehemence, and thereby serve an evolutionary role themselves. To take another example, recent studies suggest that most ethical decision making occurs after the individual has been prompted to view something as immoral because of a feeling of disgust. Similar accounts can be given about the other emotions but not sadness. To be sure, there have been attempts to give evolutionary explanations of the related emotion of grief and the psychological condition of depression, but no one addresses sadness per se.

The issue of sadness is not a philosophical curiosity but gets at the very core of philosophy. Until the late 20th century, most philosophers would have described at least part of the task of philosophy as improving the lot humanity, which would include, it would seem, getting rid of sadness. If sadness has some evolutionary function, would this be wise? Alternatively, could this knowledge help us minimize the often crippling effects of sadness? Whether sadness has an evolutionary role, is it part of the human condition? Would we, in other words, not want to eliminate sadness even if we could?