Culture

An Actual Philosopher Analyzes Kanye West's Philosophical Tweets

Apparently, Yeezy's Got a Real Nietzschean Vibe

By Sam Eichner ·
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Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Since returning to Twitter a little over a week ago, Kanye West has announced the release of new music with Kid Cudi and Nas, angering many fans by claiming his adoration for a right-wing pundit, defended Trump as his "brother," grandiosely declared himself this generation's "Ford Hughes Jobs Disney," spouted off numerous pseudo-intellectual aphorisms, repeatedly (mis?)referenced the sunken place, announced he's writing a philosophy book in real-time on social media and basically set the internet on fire. It's been both wildly surprising and weirdly matter-of-fact: this is exactly the kind of inciting egomania we've come to expect from a man who called an album Yeezus.

Naturally, Yeezy's Twitter deluge has spurred understandably circuitous analyses from the cultural cognoscenti. So rather than add our own, admittedly amateurish insights on the artist's wide-ranging musings, we decided to consult an expert: H. Peter Steeves, the author of a book on aesthetics, professor of philosophy at DePaul University, in Chicago, the director of The DePaul Humanities Center and a general pop culture enthusiast.

"Yeah, so most of what he says is, as one might imagine, just a bunch of fluffy nothing. It's important to know what philosophy actually is before calling oneself a philosopher," Professor Steeves says, when I first broach the subject. "That being said, we could stretch things a bit in a couple of ways. Kanye's interested in the nature of time (metaphysics), fashion and photography (aesthetics), and questions concerning power and culture (political philosophy). These are all legitimate philosophical areas of inquiry."

I probed Steeves for more on the philosophical aspects of Kanye's tweets in a series of questions over email, the thorough responses of which—ranging from Kanye's Nietzschean vibe, the history of the aphorism and relevant Socratic notions—I've excerpted below. 

On Kanye’s relation to Nietzche...

Like Kanye, Nietzsche has a complicated relationship to history. For the latter, history’s power over us is huge; it’s cyclical; it imparts meaning; but it can weigh us down. Animals are ahistorical for Nietzsche, living in the moment. Humans tend to worry about the future and rehash the past. The Superman is one who has a “plastic power” to overcome these problems. In short, as Kanye seems to say when he’s talking about artists of the past and especially photographs, the past has the ability to weigh us down and make us drown. (See, for instance, the tweet: “Constantly bringing up the past keeps you stuck there.”) According to Nietzsche, we “brace [ourselves] against the great and ever greater pressure of what is past: it pushes [us] down or bends [us] sideways, it encumbers [our] steps as a dark, invisible burden”; and as a result we feel as if we are powerless in the face of the past and its ability to determine us and judge us. As creative beings we begin to fear that all we can do is shuffle around past great ideas. I suppose in some ways this is particularly haunting for a hip-hop artist who literally samples the past, shuffling it all around in an attempt to create something new. (Cf. the Tweet: “Too much emphasis is put on originality. Feel free to take ideas and update them at your will all great artist take and update.”) But in other posts he also seems to feel the weight of history in general as an artist, as if it’s too much to bear unless he just rejects it. (April 21: “get past the past.”) 

Nietzsche would understand this, though he would say that this is not the final conclusion for the Übermensch, who must use history to fashion his own future in a more thoughtful and balanced way. Perhaps Kanye’s posts about Prince are suggesting this Nietzschean way of using the past: Kanye puts up an old photo of Prince’s backstage pass when he was just an opening act. The photo necessarily puts us into the past in our thinking, but the point is to keep Prince as an exemplary hero, I assume—a hero who doesn’t just follow, doesn’t remain mired in the past himself, but instead takes up the past and does something that is his own with it.

The Übermensch never follows the “herd instinct” according to Nietzsche—something that Kanye apparently affirms as well. Herd mentality is what makes humans want to do what everyone else is doing.  Although Nietzsche’s biggest worry is that we will just mindlessly follow the morality we inherit instead of making our own values (accepting, for instance, Christian conceptions of morality rather than moving “beyond good and evil”), this can also be applied to aesthetics such that we don’t just accept what everyone else (and the past) claim is beautiful.  We can see this at work in such Tweets as:

“Don't follow crowds. Follow the innate feelings inside of you. Do what you feel not what you think. Thoughts have been placed in our heads to make everyone assimilate. Follow what you feel.”

“You have the best ideas. Other people's opinions are usually more  distractive than informative. Follow your own vision. base your actions on love. Do things you love and if you don't absolutely love something stop doing it as soon as you can.”

It seems pretty obvious that Kanye’s on a Nietzschean vibe here—not only in terms of his rejection of herd mentality, but on his insistence that cold rationality is not the best way to move forward in our thinking. Still, his conception of individuality and community, though, seems…complicated if not somewhat contradictory. He seems to indicate that we have to move forward together, but also claims a kind of radical individualism is necessary. Consider the Tweets about “moving together” toward a global consciousness:

“You will be a drop of water with the ocean as your army. If you move out of fear than your on your own. Then it's just you and the money and the countless people you have to lie to and manipulate to build a man made path that will never lead to true happiness.”

It all seems to be another demand that we avoid the herd mentality, but that we end up part of the herd…part of the ocean composed of other drops of water?

On Kanye’s tweets-qua-aphorisms, and the difference between aphorism and argument...

Kanye's philosophy seems to be a series of aphorisms.  Maybe that's due to the nature of Twitter.  

Around 1876 Nietzsche started reading what is for us today a completely obscure and relatively unknown thinker, Duc Francois de la Rochefoucauld, a French aristocrat from the seventeenth-century. Even in Nietzsche’s time, La Rochefoucauld was considered to be “pop philosophy” and a trivial intellectual not worthy of study.  This is due, in part, to the fact that he wrote in aphorisms. And this is one reason that Nietzsche, too, adopted the style: he admired La Rochefoucauld and he enjoyed the challenge of the restriction to his writing style. Also, Nietzsche hated the “great systematizer” philosophers who had a central philosophic theory that tied together all questions, striving for homogenous answers to everything. 

It’s hard(er) to have a full-blown system when one is writing in aphorisms. If you open a book by Kant and point to a single sentence, odds are that you’ll have no idea what he’s talking about without reading the whole book—and perhaps Kant’s whole corpus. Nietzsche’s anti-systematic tendencies, then, led him to like the idea of finding a clear and succinct truth in a single sentence in isolation. You still have to dig deep, perhaps, to get its full meaning, but it’s not merely one tiny cog in a vast machine system. So in 1878, Nietzsche published his first book in his newly adopted style of aphorisms: Human, All Too Human. I think it’s also important to remember that Nietzsche is a poet as well as philosopher. How something is said imparts meaning to what is said.  So we read a book of aphorisms in a way that is different from how we read straightforward philosophical argument.

On Kanye’s mixed messages re: capitalism...

Kanye also has a somewhat convoluted message about capitalism. His own lyrics typically brag about his private property and wealth. And his Twitter account is half images of things he is designing and planning on selling. On April 15 he tells us, essentially, that money is not worth more than time and friends. On April 18 he declares that competition is just something we’re conditioned to believe is real. Yet he unfailingly speaks like someone who is exceedingly rich. When he says, “let's be less concerned with ownership of ideas. It is important that ideas see the light of day even if you don't get the credit for them,” this is something that only a member of the bourgeoisie can really say, someone who already has power and wealth and doesn’t have to worry about surviving anymore and thus getting paid and getting recognition. Ditto for the April 20 tweet about the ladder where he claims that hierarchies are most dangerous for people at the top. 

It’s hard to know what to say here other than…no.  Especially with the class hierarchy we have in our country, it is far more dangerous to live every day for those at the bottom. Perhaps he means that those at the top have “farther to fall,” but that would be a horribly elitist position. Rich people have more to lose. But it’s the people who have nothing—and therefore nothing to lose—that live in the worst, and most dangerous, conditions. After all, what is so dangerous for those at the top? That they will fall to the level of everyone else?  We cannot simply “Aman Giri the world.” Very few of us can afford to spend thousands of dollars a night on a vacation rental. The idea of an architecture that takes the local environment seriously (as does Amangiri, the luxury hotel to which Kanye seems to be referring) is a great idea. But the choice of examples here is telling. It’s the nature of capitalism to exploit, to have losers. We can’t all live in 5-star luxury: that is a necessary implication of capitalism—without the exploitation and the suffering of the worker, capitalism doesn’t run. One wishes to have Kanye enrolled in a philosophy seminar on Marx; there would be a lot to talk about, for sure, and it would be great to have him in such a seminar—he’s welcome to stop by DePaul!

On the “in life, we’re all trained actors” tweet...

This is a very Enlightenment sort of notion: we are true beings who are then forced to bend to society’s will later. It’s not just a political claim but an ontological claim—that is, it is making a claim about what we really are as a self. This is completely false. We are always acting because we are always in a context in which our identity must be performed. From birth this is the case. There is never a contextless moment. We wear different masks for different occasions that require different ways of acting and being, but the masks do not obscure a real face. Behind one mask is just another mask.

On whether Kanye is a legitimate philosopher, and whether that even matters...

I did say that "it's important to know what philosophy actually is before calling oneself a philosopher," but I didn’t say this because I wish to be some sort of gatekeeper or to say that fluff being passed off as philosophy is bad or destructive for philosophy. Not at all. In fact, I’m basically an anarchist in pretty much every way. I think that a great deal of what academic philosophers are doing these days is, in the end, meaningless anti-philosophy. So before considering calling Kanye’s writing fluff, let’s point to the academic fluff first. There is far too much commenting-on-commentators-who-have-commented-on-someone-else’s-commentary-on-the-canon. And I have no stake in making sure that only someone with a philosophy degree gets to count as a philosopher. In general, all of the institutions of our neoliberal culture tend only to get in the way of living a good life. It’s not up to me to decide who counts as a real “philosopher.”  

That being said, it often helps to know what some of the basic questions (and answers) have been in a discipline. “Philosophy [philo-sophistry]” literally just means “love of wisdom,” so that covers a lot. But it’s helpful sometimes not to have to reinvent the wheel, even if in the end one will argue that the wheel must be smashed. When Kanye decided he wanted to design clothing, he actually spent some time learning, apprenticing and training. It wasn’t a traditional education, but he learned some nuts and bolts. Part of the problem with philosophy is that it can seem as if it’s just a bunch of abstract talk—like the conversation college friends have at 3:00 a.m. over a microwaved burrito about how we might all really be living in someone else’s dream. But it is not that at all. It’s a systematic investigation of the biggest questions that can possibly be posed. And as such, it’s a conversation. I noticed, for instance, a couple of Tweets about the nature of time. By all means Kanye should be thinking about this and coming up with his own questions and theories—everyone should. “What is time?” is one of those big questions that should interest us all. I would just add that it helps to take a look at some of the ways in which some pretty smart people have tried to parse out such a question over the past 2,500 years. Not to study them for a degree, or learn those theories so as to adhere to them necessarily. But because they can help us think together about such an important question. (Nietzsche and Kanye both, by the way, seem to wonder if there’s something cyclical about time.)  

On whether there’s a unifying thread to Kanye’s philosophy...

I don’t know that there is any overarching or unifying thread to Kanye’s thinking so far, but that isn’t really the most important question. After all, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” One wants to think carefully and critically, but even without a unifying thesis at this point, it’s just good to think. The few trends toward which I could point in philosophy have very little to do with Kanye’s tweets, but he would probably be glad about that. If there is anything close to a central message in his school of philosophy so far it’s: be true to yourself and stay away from trends. 

“Question everything,” Kanye tweeted on April 22. Two-thousand-and-five-hundred years ago, Socrates said the same thing: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates gathered the youth of Athens around him in the agora and told them to question their elders, question their traditions, question everything they hadn’t thought through for themselves. The city eventually put him to death for it. Let’s hope Yeezy stays true to the motto but stays away from the hemlock.

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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