Jessica Berry graduated from Puget Sound in 1994. She went on to get a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and is currently an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgia State University. She is the author of Nietzsche and the Ancient Skeptical Tradition. Here is the start of the interview, read the rest at 3am Magazine.
A Pyrrhonian Nietzschean stakeout
Jessica Berry interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Jessica Berry stays cool calm and collected as she pronounces Nietzsche a Pyrrhonian skeptic. She says Nietzsche sees Homer as a counterexample to all our dominant ascetic values rather than an alternative role model but who like himself regarded many of his central questions as psychological questions and was preoccupied with nihilism. She doesn’t think Nietzsche thought reality was a flux nor that knowledge is impossible and takes issue with those who say he’s some kind of anti-realist about morals because that saddles him with metaphysical views. Everything she says is mind-bombingly, brain-teasingly provocative which makes her an inspirational carpet of philosophical groovaciousness.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Was it Nietzsche?
Jessica Berry: No, actually I had no exposure to philosophy at all, much less to Nietzsche, until I went off to college. But somehow I was intrigued by philosophy even before I knew properly what it was. In the summer before I left for university, I was asked to select, from a menu of courses, one class where the instructor would act as a kind of academic advisor during the coming years. The premise wasn’t that we were selecting a major, of course, and that isn’t how I thought about it; it was more of an academic “homeroom” of sorts. I picked ‘Philosophy 101’ without any hesitation at all. It sounded completely exotic and challenging to me, and in that sense a nice change of pace after a pretty mediocre secondary school education. I remember distinctly spending weeks on Descartes’ Meditations, which I confess I found baffling at the time, and reading some Mill and Kant; I was immediately drawn in. Until then, I had always thought I would study psychology as a college student, but I quickly came to realise that the questions that attracted me to the idea of studying psychology (to which I’d had no real exposure either before college) were not questions that could sustain my interest in the discipline of psychology. In that respect, a philosophy of mind course I took was a real eye-opener for me. The problem of consciousness, the nature of mental states, the relationship between objects of perception and our representations of them, and worries about whether we have the sort of self-transparency that psychology (clinical psychology, at any rate) seemed to presuppose I just found totally absorbing. The questions about perception and self-knowledge led me to think about problems of knowledge more generally, and ultimately to an interest in epistemology and an openness to philosophical skepticism that still guides a lot of my work. I wasn’t introduced to Nietzsche until late in my undergraduate career, and though I thoroughly enjoyed his writing, I never thought about doing any serious work on his philosophy until years later – really, when I’d finished my graduate coursework and started thinking about a dissertation. It was about that time – in light of some work I’d been doing on skepticism and its history – that Nietzsche’s thought began to make sense to me in a way it hadn’t before and that my reading of Nietzsche began to take real shape. When I reflect a little on what attracts me to Nietzsche’s work, though, I think it’s no accident that Nietzsche regards many of his central questions as psychological questions, and even that the Greek skeptics, whose practice suggested to me a framework for understanding Nietzsche’s project, regard themselves as psychologists (or therapists) of a sort. Nietzsche’s questions about the psychological springs of our actions were the very questions that had interested me from the beginning…