PEA Soup on Mark Alfano's Computerized Nietzsche Book

Technology can be a lens.

Over the three year or so I’ve been reading and studying Friedrich Nietzsche (sort of — not precisely systematically). I’m not sure I could tell you a lot more about Nietzsche after reading two books about him and 2.5 of his actual books than I could tell you before.

The legend of Nietzsche is very much in the water.

But this has become clear: people fixate on specific imagery woven up by Nietzsche more than they do his scope.

I can’t really blame readers for that. Nietzsche was a critic. He doesn’t create much in the way of a system. He is not, like Hegel, pursuing a grand coherent theme.

And you can’t read more than 20 pages about Nietzsche from serious students without encountering two observations:

  1. The whole ubermensch thing is way over indexed and
  2. His sister really screwed with his legacy, especially as it relates to #1.

And yet you can’t help but think that there must be recurring themes in Nietzsche’s work, right? He must have had a few problems that really bugged him. What were those?

So I was interested to encounter this review of a new book called Nietzsche’s Moral Psychology by Mark Alfano.

TL;DR — Alfano forces himself to lock in on the themes that most interested Nietzsche by using computers to analyze the text and evaluate which words and combinations he used the most often. This way, he would not be focusing in on whatever most emotionally resonated with him. Instead, he would be using something at least somewhat detached to force him to focus in on topics that seemed to come up a lot.

This does feel like a critical innovation to me. I’m sure it needs to be refined, but it’s one of the more interesting ways I’ve seen of using computers to enhance critical assessment.

As I understand it, Alfano doesn’t use computers to do the criticism, so much as he uses computers to force him to focus on the right topics.

This is interesting and it could be a fruitful approach. I hope someone comes along and makes it easier for less technical scholars to try.