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Christopher Janaway and Simon Robertson (editors), Nietzsche, Naturalism, and Normativity

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 280 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-958367-6, £40 (Cloth).

Reviewed by Matthew Dennis

Strong naturalist interpretations of Nietzsche perhaps had their heyday at the turn of the century in the Anglophone world, around the time that Brian Leiter's influential Nietzsche on Morality was published in 2002. While Nietzsche's commitment to some sort of naturalism is no longer seriously disputed, over the last decade commentators have asked how the naturalistic spirit that undeniably animates Nietzsche's oeuvre also affects the normative character of his project. Nietzsche, Naturalism, and Normativity [1] is a decisive contribution to the literature on this subject. This nine-paper collection is aimed at those wishing to deepen their understanding of how Nietzsche's naturalism can be successfully integrated with his normative framework, but is also an excellent starting point for initiates to the debate. While most of the papers assume a working knowledge of the recent literature on Nietzsche and naturalism, the editors introduce the volume with a lucid overview of the debate so far and have ensured that contributors explain terminology drawn from analytic ethics and moral philosophy in extenso. The result is a collection that remains accessible while engaging in scholarship at the highest level. Furthermore, since the papers come from scholars working in different areas of philosophy, there is a real cross-boundary feel to this volume, one that will attract analytically-minded philosophers interested in tapping into Nietzsche's philosophical resources as well as those Nietzsche scholars curious about the recent upsurge of interest in their work within Anglo-American philosophy.

Peter Railton opens the collection with an informative discussion of what he regards as four cardinal problems with Nietzsche's critique of morality, and his analysis provides an interesting point of reference for reading the subsequent essays. The first problem-that of reconciling Nietzsche's perspectivism with his truth claims-will be well-known to Nietzsche scholars, but Railton touches on it to draw a comparison with what he sees as the more pressing problems of  "normativity" and "morality". For Railton, there are two reasons why furnishing Nietzsche with a positive account of morality is difficult: first, there are Nietzsche's frequent declamations against the possibility and desirability of any moral framework; second, there is the question of morality's universal applicability, something Nietzsche invariably seems to detest. Since a necessary condition of morality is a more general account of normativity, Railton then moves to discuss what is often called the 'placement problem,' asking where we are to place normativity if we assume, as Railton does, that Nietzsche is best understood as a "pioneering naturalist" (22). To elucidate this, Railton distinguishes "two families of normative concepts": the first, normative concepts proper, he argues, share an etymological root related to "straightness and squareness (and their opposites)"; the second, evaluative concepts, derive from terms relating to "wholeness, strength, power, completeness" (25, n.2). For Railton, although both types of concepts are freely used within both the deontological and teleological ethical traditions, the former tends to prioritize the concepts of "right, wrong, duty, obligation," whereas the latter-comprising figures from Aristotle to Canguilhem-prioritizes "good, bad, noble, base" and their cognates. Railton believes that Nietzsche's contribution to moral philosophy can only be understood if he is reinstated in the teleological tradition, and this leads him to suggest that Nietzsche is best interpreted, first and foremost, as an ethicist who offers us a "theory of how to live well" (48).

By canvassing possible solutions to what has become known in the literature as the "scope problem," Simon Robertson's contribution also investigates how Nietzsche can underwrite his account of normativity and value without this entailing a fully-fledged system of morality. Proposing that Nietzsche's real gripe with moral discourse is that it thwarts excellence and flourishing since it sets itself up as "normatively authoritative" (92), Robertson argues that we must understand Nietzsche's seemingly normative remarks on "higher types" as primarily making a "constitutive claim" (108) about what they are and hence what they ought to do to excel or flourish. This positions Robertson close to Railton on this point; both agree that while Nietzsche has a perfectly coherent account of normativity and value, he does not have a positive moral project in any conventional sense.

Robertson's co-editor, Christopher Janaway, also questions the scope of Nietzsche's normative imperatives. But in order to argue that their remit is severely restricted, Janaway attends to their imperative form. In a close reading of the existential dilemma faced by Zarathustra regarding the thought of eternal return, Janaway puts forward a textually convincing account of how, in fact, Nietzsche does not propose that anyone ought to affirm the eternal return at all. Instead-agreeing with Robertson that such imperatives primarily make a "constitutive claim" about their addressee-Janaway suggests that Nietzsche is actually interested in what kind of person one would be if one were to affirm the eternal return. Janaway then asks whether Nietzsche's beguiling account of those individuals who are strong enough to do this implicitly carries normative content. In line with Railton's helpful discussion of "evaluative" and "normative concepts proper" mentioned above, Janaway proposes that if we understand normativity in the former sense then Nietzsche could be seen as implicitly suggesting that, for those who are able, affirming the return has positive normative content. Conversely, on the latter deontic reading, understanding the eternal return as a normative imperative makes no sense at all.

Directly following Janaway's contribution, R. Lanier Anderson navigates between what he regards as the twin dangers of eliminative naturalism and transcendentalism (positions he attributes to John Richardson and Sebastian Gardner, respectively), in order to investigate what he regards as the naturalistic but irreducibly normative dimensions of Nietzsche's notion of selfhood. To do this, Anderson suggests that although Nietzsche has a conception of the self that is minimally descriptive, he also gives the notion of selfhood a vital normative status insofar he conceives of it as an "achievement" (229). Other commentators have also suggested this-Alexander Nehamas, Richard Schacht, and Ken Gemes are cited as examples-but Anderson's account is distinctive insofar as it explains the antecedent conditions necessary for selfhood. For Anderson, Nietzsche's normative imperatives must presuppose a minimal level of selfhood so that they can entreat the honorific self to emerge. This paper will be of interest to those who suspect that Nietzsche is committed to a far more substantial notion of selfhood than one based solely on the drives, but Anderson's remarks on the sovereign individual, which he believes foreshadows Nietzsche's "normative conception of selfhood" (230), is likely to trouble historically-minded scholars and strong naturalists alike. [2]

Taking a different approach, Peter Poellner seeks to shed light on Nietzsche's ethical imperatives by comparing the normative features of the ethical and aesthetic realms. Poellner contends that-once certain Aristotelian and Kantian stipulations are excluded-we can furnish Nietzsche with an account of the ethical that is modeled on aesthetics. For Poellner, Nietzsche's normative account works in a similar way to Bernard Reginster's celebrated two-tier account of the will to power. [3] But while Reginster's account equates the pursuit of second-order desiderata with Nietzsche's ethical project, Poellner suggests that first-order desiderata are best understood as governed by aesthetic norms. Poellner's ideas on this are perhaps the most intriguing of his paper; they offer an illuminating account of how we can explain the salience of aesthetic terms in Nietzsche's discussion of normativity, one that connects this terminology directly with his ethics.

Both Nadeem J. Z. Hussain's and Alan Thomas' contributions present themselves as correctives to ongoing debates within the literature-the former responding to Maudemarie Clark and David Dudrick's much-cited paper on Nietzsche's non-cognitivism, [4] the latter assessing Hussain's rival fictionalist interpretation. [5] Contra Clark and Dudrick, Hussain adduces compelling textual evidence to show that Nietzsche did not reject his error theory in works after Human, All-too-Human, whereas Thomas concentrates on whether Hussain's own fictionalist account makes sense of how values are revalued (not just replaced) and how it fares as a "free-standing metaethical position" (140). Hussain's attack constitutes the most serious challenge yet to readings of Nietzsche as a non-cognitivist, and both papers will surely become required reading for those engaged in these debates.

Both Bernard Reginster and Richard Schacht's papers adopt a more historical approach. Reginster explores Nietzsche's reasons for rejecting Schopenhauer's "morality of compassion," and proposes that Nietzsche's account of egoism is original insofar as it strongly emphasizes the "personal significance" (181) of the individual's interests. Schacht also begins historically, but does so in order to reassess the legacy of naturalist readings of Nietzsche since his own seminal contribution to the subject thirty years ago. After agreeing with the editors' opening contention that the normative dimension of Nietzsche's thought reflects the kind of naturalism we attribute to him, Schacht argues that Nietzsche's implicit distinction between Sittlichkeit and Moralität indicates that his imperatives only have normative force when they are correlated with specific "forms of human life" (248).

In summary, this collection is an important and timely contribution to the existing literature that deals with Nietzsche's account of normativity, one that will be warmly welcomed both by those who are well-versed in the recent scholarship and those who have yet to contribute. The latter will find Railton's opening paper and Schacht's concluding one excellent places to start; both papers supplement the comprehensive introduction provided by the editors, as well as being original and provocative contributions in their own right. Those who have followed the debate about Nietzsche's non-cognitivism for some time now will be impressed by Hussain's critique of Clark and Dudrick, as well as Thomas' own riposte to Hussain. Since both contributions offer substantive and text-based arguments in favor of rejecting the other's position, taken together these papers make it clear that neither a non-cognitivist nor a fictionalist approach to Nietzsche's moral theory is commensurate with all the textual evidence. The accounts of Nietzsche's normative project put forward by Anderson, Robertson, Janaway, and Poellner also merit special attention. Each contribution offers an original account of Nietzschean normativity, and any one of these papers could be profitably expanded into a full-length monograph in its own right. As a set of papers, this collection will contribute much to what is quickly growing into one of the most fecund areas of Nietzsche scholarship.

University of Warwick


1. The volume itself takes its name from the title of a conference held at the University of Southampton in July 2008; it is hoped that it will be the first of three edited collections also named after eponymous conferences (the second and third of which have been provisionally entitled Nietzsche and Traditions in Ethics and Nietzsche’s Postmoralism).
2. Interestingly, historically-minded scholars such as Christa Davis Acampora and strong naturalists such as Brian Leiter find some common ground on this point. Acampora urges us to deflate the importance of the sovereign individual passage in The Genealogy of Morals on the basis of textual evidence in the Nachlass, while Leiter argues that it is incompatible with Nietzsche’s overtly naturalistic commitments. An informative overview of this literature is given by Matthew Rukgaber in “The ‘Sovereign Individual’ and the ‘Ascetic Ideal’: On a Perennial Misreading of the Second Essay of Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality”, The Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 43.2 (2012): 213–239. Thanks to Keith Ansell-Pearson for drawing my attention to this.
3. Bernard Reginster, The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), especially ch. 3.
4. Maudemarie Clark and David Dudrick, “Nietzsche and Moral Objectivity: The Development of Nietzsche’s Metaethics” in Nietzsche and Morality, ed. B. Leiter and N. Sinhababu (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): 192–226.
5. Nadeem Hussain, “Valuing for Nietzsche’s Free Spirits” in Nietzsche and Morality, ed. B. Leiter and N. Sinhababu (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): 157–191.