What the watch community can learn from Nietzsche

“Books never produce revolutions. They become our allies only when we are ready to read them. They are masters of freedom, true, but only for those who are sufficiently free already.”

– Patrick Boucheron, Machiavelli

Nietzsche and the watch community – it’s an unusual pairing, I know.

While many think of him as a nihilist, much of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy actually advocates for creating new meaning for life to escape cynical and fatalistic cultural tendencies. As a self-proclaimed “cultural physician”, he offers great insight into the ways history and language impact culture.

Yes, even watch collecting culture.

In the watch community, there are some deep cultural tensions – between nostalgia and progress, cynicism and optimism – that can be understood through Nietzsche’s essay, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. The text is a meditation on the impact history has on the present and the future, and how best to make use of history as a means toward different, if not better, ends.

In On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, Nietzsche identifies three general attitudes people have toward history – the monumental, antiquarian, and critical. As per the essay title, each attitude toward history has its own uses and disadvantages:

  • The Monumental Attitude views the past as inspirational, something to aspire to. This attitude often appears in modern politics (“Make X Great Again”). While it can be productive, Nietzsche observes how it frequently generates extremists.
  • The Antiquarian Attitude thinks of history as a relic, precious but practically obsolete. This is common amongst ancient historians and archaeologists. Remembering for the sake of not forgetting. It can be a powerful force that brings communities together, across generations. However, as Nietzsche asserts, this attitude towards history is often very narrow and limited in vision.
  • The Critical Attitude primarily strives to cut itself completely from the past – it desires a full restart. Revolutions start this way. Though valiant and, in some cases, progressive, it is also usually naive and unrealistic. Nietzsche remarks it’s impossible to completely abandon history as it will always be a part of us. We can’t escape our past; it’s futile.

Can you see the parallels with our watch community today?

The monumentalists are those who swear off industrialization to return to the “glory days” of historical watchmaking. The antiquarians fit the attitude of most vintage collectors – they are the shepherds of the past with little interest in the present or the future. The critical among us, often in the form of individual collectors (the “radicals”) and meme pages, try to push beyond monumentalist and antiquarian attitudes… usually in vain. What unites all three groups is a symptom Nietzsche identifies as a deep-seated irony and cynicism.

Underneath all our collective passion and interest, this irony and cynicism rears its head every time I hear watchmakers and collectors say, “watches don’t matter now that smartphones exist – these are frivolous objects with no purpose.” Living in the shadow of history, a time where watches once held “functional” value, weighs heavily on our culture, the standards we set for the present, and our goals for the future.

Nietzsche doesn’t advocate for one particular attitude toward history, but he does make it clear that these attitudes work like an invasive species – they individually and collectively have the tendency to become a detriment to the health of their environment.

So, what’s the antidote?

Nietzsche encouraged a balance between the historical and “unhistorical” as a means to avoid unproductive self-awareness and self-destructive irony. I believe we must strive for our own middle ground. I don’t know how this will work or where this goes, but I have an easy recommendation to get things going: Stop saying collecting watches makes no sense.

Otherwise, we might actually believe what we say.

Another day with the beast,

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