Gregory Moore and Thomas H. Brobjer, eds. Nietzsche and Science
Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004. xii + 233 pp. Index. ISBN 0-7546-3402-7(hardcover)
Reviewed by Peter Murray
This book is a collection of papers from the Friedrich Nietzsche Society's Annual Conference of 2001. As Gregory Moore's informative introduction suggests, the papers are not concerned with any direct involvement with science, or Nietzsche's critique of epistemology, but with his relationship to individual sciences, the effect of these on his work, and his relation to the emergence of the scientific world view. Most generally, this relationship is manifest in the value Nietzsche placed on the physical standpoint basic to science and the humility of the scientific method, as opposed to more speculative models for thinking.
The first half of this book is chiefly concerned with Nietzsche's relation to actual scientific texts, to the history of science and to the uses made of his research in this area, while the second half deals mainly with the relationship between philosophy and a broad-based science as a basis for Nietzsche's notion of a gaya scienza. The first essay by Thomas Brobjer provides a detailed exploration Nietzsche's readings of scientific texts. These are shown to be fairly extensive, though not detailed or concerted. Nietzsche had periods of intense reading associated with the development, for example, of a certain speculative point of view on physical and cosmological theories, expressly to support the theories of will to power and eternal recurrence. The better known works Nietzsche consulted, such as Lange's popular History of Materialism, are balanced by more detailed works, but his research could not be described as more than an active interest. Nietzsche read works on such topics as Darwinian theory and physiology as well. Again, these are associated with the development of certain ideas: with a rejection of Christian and Hegelian notions of development and teleology respectively, and with Nietzsche's obsession with his own health. It is clear that Nietzsche was not engaged in a disinterested study, but was looking for evidence to back up his point of view on a number of scientific issues.
Following Brobjer's extensive list, Richard Brown takes as his point of departure Nietzsche's remark concerning the Buddha as physiologist. The basic issue addressed is the influence of the body on thinking. Brown traces an influence to Feuerbach, who suggested the necessary effectiveness of such a relation. Brown addresses the views of a number of commentators, building up his argument for the importance of physiology in providing an alternative to religious bases for value judgements. This is no doubt the case for Nietzsche, who considered that the thought of God, or being, involves the attribution of a culturally valued concept to a feeling or pathos, in a metonymical inversion of cause and effect. A physiological analysis of will to power touches on the question of which is primary, will to power or the resistance which it seems to require to become manifest and to develop, and to become spiritualized. Brown makes the interesting claim that, for Nietzsche, the notion of cause and effect originated in physiological precedents (66). This does not rid us of the problem of priority, though it does seem to point in the direction of a notion of thinking as responsive rather than autonomously wilful. Nietzsche suggests that feelings come first, as responses to life, and are already value laden at this level, making physiology a study of the body as a 'great reason'.
Gregory Moore brings Nietzsche's health issues into the perspective of a sick Europe, full of spas with gaunt figures staggering to their doors. Decayed and degenerate, the body is supported by health books and quackish treatments. As well as these, Nietzsche's belief in the benfits of clear skies and sunshine goes some way to explain his cyclic travels each year, though the suggestion that spring fever was the basis of la gaya scienza is perhaps a reference to Dionysianism and Parnassus—or opium. Perhaps the latter was causing Nietzsche's stomach cramps and constipation, hardly a model for a Dionysian, as Moore remarks (though apparently, Nietzsche attempted to make amends by eating large amounts of grapes!) What is of note is the physiological interest considered within the philosophical context, and the general project of revaluation, in which a correct physiological balance is essential for one's strength, and a certain lightness is needed to overcome nihilism.
Christian J. Emden connects Nietzsche's interpretation of rhetoric with neurophysiology. The latter relies on Nietzsche's argument for an origin of language in nerve stimuli. What is interesting here is the issue of how to establish the signification of nerve stimuli without sinking into relativism or foundationalism, for the mere statement of a 'scientific' analysis of this process could hardly have satisfied Nietzsche. While Emden traces the effect of the model of electrical transmission on the nervous system, he does not provide anything more than a complementary scientific model which may have inspired or reinforced Nietzsche's notion of the impact of nervous stimuli on consciousness. However, while such a notion is fundamentally important for Nietzsche, especially in so far as intoxication (the basic form of nerve stimuli) gives him his model for the relation to externality, it appears that he gains support too easily from science. However, it also seems that Nietzsche is well aware of this weakness, realizing that when all concepts are a matter of perspective and metaphor, seeking support in one place or another is merely a matter of temporarily pulling the veil of Maya back over his face. What this naturalistic theory of the development of language does suggest is another aspect of the attempt to provide an alternative humanism, based in human life. The nerve stimuli do not signify beyond an incapacity to be indifferent to such events, and a need to be given meaning in the course of the continual becoming of language.
Naddem J.Z. Hussein finds it comforting that Nietzsche's positivistic remarks temper his scepticism. He finds similar remarks in the works of Mach and Lange. This argument restores a positive role for Nietzsche as a critical and yet positive hypothesizer, without denying his overall rejection of the capacity of science to determine absolute truth. While Nietzsche is concerned with demonstrating the importance of the role of the senses in interpretation, he is keen to avoid the Romanticist attribution of absolute meaning to sensory events such as aesthetic and religious experience. Hussein finds Mach to have put forward very similar views, but to have directly rejected what he takes to be Nietzsche's ethics, particularly the hubris of Nietzsche's announcement of the Übermensch. The background to the paper is a discusses of the value of science, and there is no doubt that Nietzsche did not believe in the redemptive powers of science. It appears that he shared a common point of view with Mach that the industrial revolution had enriched some while making slaves of the rest, and that the seemingly innate greed of those in power would lead to their vigorous rejection of any call to spiritualize this decadent will to power. Science stands somehow condemned here, perhaps lacking a Machian ethic.
Part Two begins with Babette Babich's analysis of Nietzsche's essentially subversive relation to science. She returns to The Birth of Tragedy and its later preface to examine whether there is something more affirmative in his remarks. She explores the broader meaning of science following from Nietzsche's notion of fröhliche Wissenschaft, which is essentially critical of a teleological fervour in the sciences when used to reinforce the decadent pride of the misanthropic Western community. For Nietzsche, anything more than a practical application of hypotheses drifts into inspired creativity. Which one is essentially scientific? It would seem that science could not progress without constant creativity in a world in which little is certain. This creative science is still not Nietzsche's gaya scienza, but there is an element of it there in its boldness, in the attempt to become 'master of the earth'. For Nietzsche, it is not enough to create without an adequate understanding of the human. In some of his remarks on art it is clear that he requires a Dionysian world view to be at the basis of all creation, which, put simply, works through uncertainty to provide a redemptive affirmation of life beyond the self. This begins to sound like what science promises; however, the problem with science is its particularity. I suggest that it offers redemption through promises of a future discovery that will resolve present problems, whereas for Nietzsche, redemption is a much more diffuse concept requiring an acceptance of the ultimate meaninglessness of all so-called knowledge, and the impossibility and extreme vanity of the suggestion that any one or series of scientific events could have an eternal effect identical to that which was intended. This is the lesson of eternal recurrence seen as the most nihilistic event—nothingness eternally.
Robin Small situates Nietzsche's materialism within its eighteenth-century context and in relation to his early works on Democritus. Nietzsche is then placed within the 'science wars' between Germany and England and his position in the debate is compared to that of Paul Rée. The international debate is shown to involve disagreement about mathematically and empirically based models, the issue discussed being heat-death. Both models have a basic point of agreement: the mechanistic model of the sun running out of fuel, which can be extended to all other stars. Opposed to this is an organicist argument for the seemingly spontaneous, or at least inexplicable, replenishing of solar energy. Nietzsche rejects both views in favour of a form of interpretive chaos, in which the actuality of nature is incommensurable with the meaning of nature. Also discussed is Lamarkian genetic theory, which Nietzsche seems to have adopted as the basis of his notion that cultural characteristics can be a matter of inter-generational breeding. With regard to such issues, Small finds that Rée favoured the English faction, just as he favoured English moral theory, but Nietzsche was to reject this point of view, finding it moralizingly focused on the good of altruism and the evil of egoism, that is, remaining within the Christian parameters of good and evil.
Addressing Nietzsche's notion of a joyful science from the point of view of the agon and play, Christa Davis Acampora identifies modes of thinking that incorporate some of the epistemological concerns mentioned in other chapters. She maintains that the Nietzschean point of view seems to make anthropomorphism necessary, and wonders about the dangers of this for any kind of legitimate theorizing. There is little doubt that the perspective lends itself to relativizing, and that solutions such as that attributed to Keith Ansell-Pearson do not seem to deal adequately with the problems of claims for a 'better' meaning.
Acampora interestingly touches on the redemptive notion of the better perspective—that it redeems the past—and, it should be said, can do so on the basis of the effective event of affirming the future, such as occurred, for Nietzsche, by that 'great pyramidal block of stone' (the rock where Zarathustra was conceived). From this stone at the road down from the Julier Pass, Nietzsche stared directly into his own past, into the feelings and thoughts he had had at the time of arriving at Sils Maria, now replaced with some kind of joyfulness on the basis of which he could shoulder the burden of revaluation. This taking up of responsibility (183) is indeed the essential aspect of Nietzsche's affirmative thinking—in which will to power operates as gay science. The model that Acampora puts forward (184) is that which Nietzsche gained from his analysis of tragedy—destructive but also necessarily redemptive. This is the basis of the value standard—the capacity for redemptive creation—which the Greeks recognized in the shudder that they named 'Dionysus'. However, Nietzsche's relation to science in any meaningful sense has been left well behind here. The real question is how the affirmation transcends self-interest in the narrow sense. This is not a willing of non-human events but specifically a capacity for taking responsibility for the past of human suffering; developing a 'historical sense' which must be carefully considered on the basis of the creation of an affirmative vision for humanity that goes beyond one's own finitude—an übermenschlich projection that still requires some justification.
Nietzsche cherished the thought of studying chemistry with Rohde in Paris. Instead, he went to Basel, where he wrote what he would later call a book on the problem of science. In the context of his description of these events, Duncan Large wonders whether Nietzsche at one time wished to be the Socratic character of The Birth of Tragedy. Such a contradiction of the tragic world view was possibly an aspect of his acknowledged Romanticism, and could equally have been a product of his enthusiastic relations with others, which sometimes seem disingenuous. Large discusses Nietzsche's interest in the science of the day, an interest which is again shown to be broadly based rather than a matter of serious research. Nietzsche uses the word chemistry to mean something formulaic and, attempting to reduce mental events to physical, as another argument against transcendence—hemistry versus the Crucified—but he also praises the chemist's attention to detail, something which he can transfer, as a model, to his understanding of the subtlety of power relations—of the relations of Lust and Unlust. 'Philosophical chemistry' receives an increasingly dynamic interpretation as Nietzsche moves through his career. The aim is to produce a 'chemistry of basic' concepts, as Large notes, as part of a 'true philosophy of becoming' (195). This surely identifies Nietzsche's real interest aside from Romanticism and metaphoricity: he is developing an extremely complicated system of meaning which must respond to the infinite. The attempt requires working within the realm of the infinitesimal in order to act justly, and is Nietzsche's gift to humanity—his version of the Promethean gift of blind faith—amor fati.
The book finishes with Tracy B. Strong's treatment of Nietzsche's notion of the tragic effect as a moment of cultural and political transformation. Generally this requires re-education, especially in relation to science. Rather than wondering at the complexity of becoming, and making the vain analysis that one is undergoing a privileged divine event, there is a need to explore and affirm the unsettling otherness of existence. Science provides the escape from wonder as a founding event for thinking (200) and can be seen as a principle of the Menschen-Erde, one which keeps the thinker 'true to the earth'. This is especially the case with Nietzsche's thinking on Dionysus. As Strong notes, for Nietzsche, the attempt by science to 'think the beyond' leads to moralism and its characterizations. For Nietzsche, the unsettling nature of thinking is that it continually broaches the infinite dynamism of thought by the need for a more affirmative meaning in the exploration of the beyond, post-God. Vital to this is personality (202) and its role in encountering others. This requires a degree of passivity (204), of adopting the role of a disciple in the presence of a teacher. Strong makes the important point that, in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argues against the drive to secularization as well as against religious thinking. What is his third way? Nietzsche suggests that philosophy is ideally a third course between rationalism and irrationalism, retaining something from both that we could call 'extra-rational'. The third way occurs when the teacher sets aside the aloofness of rationalism so that the fright at the unknown is not rigidified into a world-destroying nihilism, but becomes an affirmative delight at the actuality of infinite otherness—re-enacting the movement of the tragic experience (205). Overcoming the hubris of being privileged by God allows for the development of the correct scientific attitude. This requires a new understanding of myth rather than its rejection, in other words, a re-thinking of philosophy—a scientific understanding of philosophy similar to pre-Platonic philosophies (208). For Strong, Nietzsche combines philosophical, scientific, and aesthetic thought to provide the parameters of a way of thinking that is possible for all, though perhaps achieved by none. Nietzsche tries to introduce rhapsody into science, and scientific rigour to combat Romanticism. Science through the eyes of life is just this affirmative response to nihilism. Finally, Strong argues that the attempt to write such a philo-science-art book, and its rejection, caused a response in Nietzsche that was continually thematized throughout his works. Still, Nietzsche does not regret the Romanticist influences that informed his enthusiasm and naivete. It is in addressing the embarrassment of his youth that Nietzsche employs science. Science becomes a banner that is almost self-chastising—a reminder to be vigorous or 'hard'—of the great seriousness of the task—something for which, at the time of publishing The Birth of Tragedy, he was not prepared.
This book adds to the increasingly sophisticated treatment of Nietzsche's work in English. Each of the papers is stimulating, well written and well researched. Of course, the book is essential to those in this specific field, but even those readers not directly involved in Nietzsche studies will find much of value concerning the scientific and philosophical environment of Germany at the time, and Nietzsche scholars not directly involved in these areas of research will benefit from the historical background that this book provides.