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Helmut Heit, Günter Abel and Marco Brusotti (eds.), Nietzsches Wissenschaftsphilosophie: Hintergründe, Wirkungen und Aktualität

Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012. x + 551 pp. ISBN 978-3-11-025937-7. Cloth, $154.

Reviewed by Mario Brandhorst

Few will dispute that the sciences were of special importance to Nietzsche. The natural and human sciences had a significant influence on his thought from the very beginning, and his writings probe and engage with them, exploring their interrelations as well as their place in an adequate broader view of our existence. By contrast, it is less clear whether Nietzsche had, or thought that we could have, something that amounts to a philosophy of science. To the extent that he did, we must ask what its content and value may be. This involves asking whether his thought can help to explain what natural science is for, what it can and cannot do and how it relates to other areas of enquiry. Similarly, we must ask how it can help us to further not only the concerns of humanistic understanding, but also our understanding of these concerns themselves.

The editors of Nietzsches Wissenschaftsphilosophie: Hintergründe, Wirkungen und Aktualität present a collection of essays that promise to cast new light on these questions. All of the contributions are original and were first presented at a conference on “Nietzsches Wissenschaftsphilosophie” at the Technische Universität Berlin in July 2010. Some thirty papers were selected and revised for the volume, of which roughly a third are in English, the others being in German. One drawback of the volume is its price, especially given the minimal effort at editing and correcting mistakes that has been made. This is fairly typical of German academic publications, but it means that the fate of the book is the library. There is no substantial introduction and the contributions vary significantly in style and quality: the level of scholarship and presentation is generally high, but many papers are encumbered with too much paraphrase and repetition, too much broad unwarranted assertion, and correspondingly too little patience for argument and for critical and original engagement with Nietzsche or rival interpretations of him. To some extent, however, these deficiencies are outweighed by the wealth of ideas and perspectives that are presented. The book also benefits from the expertise of the contributors, many of whom are recognized, and even outstanding, scholars from around the world. (Indeed, a note on the contributors would have been helpful, especially given that they come from different countries and backgrounds.) In this review, I shall focus on the papers from which I learned most and which I found to be written in a clear and accessible style.

Thomas Brobjer examines Nietzsche’s view of science in Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, and Ecce Homo and the notes from the Nachlass of 1888. He suggests that in those writings, a conception of a new, revalued science emerges. Admittedly, this conception is less visible in the books than in the notes of the Nachlass, but Brobjer thinks it unlikely that the latter represent rejected ideas (40). While the published works put a strong emphasis on the importance of accepting and knowing ‘reality’ and praise the virtues of courage and intellectual honesty that are required to accept it, the notes from early 1888 add further dimensions. In them, Nietzsche explores what science might be once it completely rejects the dichotomy between a ‘true’ and an ‘apparent’ world, discards its moral and religious heritage and gains a better understanding of itself and its relations to philosophy. Here, more textual evidence would have been welcome, but the paper gives a useful overview of Nietzsche’s attitude to science in the last year of his active life.

In an elegantly written contribution, Lanier Anderson revisits his earlier interpretation of will to power. On this interpretation, will to power is not a grand metaphysical theory in the German tradition, but rather “an account of the unity of the sciences, which aims to establish connections across various different domains of empirical knowledge by identifying a central conceptual structure” (56). Still insisting on this interpretation, Anderson considers a further question about it – namely, whether it is to be located within the sciences or understood as a part of philosophy (56). Anderson claims that it is indeed a piece of philosophy, but that it should not be read as an essentialist theory of inner natures or essences. Rather, he claims, it is to be understood as a “description of outer relations among things” (57). In this description, forces and relations, not substances and things, are fundamental. Taking psychology as an example, Anderson’s approach has the advantage of making it clear that the doctrine is both a defeasible empirical hypothesis and an interpretation, differing in both respects from traditional metaphysical models. To my mind, these are indeed advantages, but I suspect that Anderson’s approach still shows too strong a tendency to unifying reduction. Is there really such a thing as Nietzsche’s doctrine of will to power? Once the premise that there is, is questioned, it becomes easier to accept that Nietzsche entertained and explored the idea of will to power in different ways, occasionally sounding more openly speculative and metaphysical as a result.

Marco Brusotti and others rightly emphasize that Nietzsche thought of the sciences as preconditions for new ways of valuing, and therefore never rejected them or their importance wholesale, but rather sought to liberate them from their entanglement with the ascetic ideal. In this way, Nietzsche can be seen as working towards the integration of natural and human sciences, conceiving and employing them as instruments for purposes that fall outside their epistemic domain. One such purpose is the critique and creation of values, which is the privilege of the philosopher of the future (BGE 211, GM I note). As Brusotti sees it, the project of such a critique and creation of values should therefore be seen as an integral part of the naturalist outlook that Nietzsche embraces rather than as an addition to it (107).

Related themes are pursued in succinct papers by Rogério Lopes, Joseph Ward, and Matthew Meyer, all of whom contribute to the section on naturalism. Lopes questions the interpretation of Nietzsche as a methodological naturalist that has been forcefully advocated by Brian Leiter and others for over a decade. He discusses two specific doubts about it. The first is based on the idea of will to power: according to Lopes, this idea implies that Nietzsche takes the ‘intentional’ vocabulary to be deeper and more basic than the ‘physical’ one. The second is based on the idea of revaluation: like Brusotti, Lopes points out that Nietzsche thought of philosophy as retaining a genuine normative task (113). On his reading, Nietzsche takes over the highly general principle of parsimony in explanation, but he does not model his philosophy on science, in the sense of providing causal laws and nomological models of explanation (123).

Joseph Ward is equally skeptical of what he calls the “scientific naturalism” that he attributes to Leiter’s reading of Nietzsche (125). In reaction to it, he diagnoses and tries to resolve an apparent tension between section 6 of Beyond Good and Evil and section 23 of the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morality, and a tension within the latter. Both tensions concern the role of science in Nietzsche’s mature philosophy and, like other contributors, Ward argues that Nietzsche’s view of it “is neither that of a uniquely privileged domain of truth nor that of an unredeemably ascetic practice synonymous with the ascetic ‘will to truth’ and therefore to be rejected wholesale” (125). I agree with this overall conclusion. However, I have some reservations about Ward’s reading of the section of Beyond Good and Evil, where Nietzsche seems to allow that proper “scientific men” may have something like a “drive to knowledge”—something that, once wound up, ticks like “some little independent clockwork” of its own accord (BGE 6). Somewhat surprisingly, Ward thinks that this drive to knowledge in the truly scientific man is “not really his drive at all,” and that it is “manifestly unconnected with the drives which really do motivate his activity” (127). Ward suggests that we should rather take the metaphor to point to the “autonomy of scientific practice,” which includes “models and paradigms” that can be followed like clockwork (128). But is the clockwork drive ascribed by Nietzsche to the proper “scientific man” not a drive as good as any? I suspect that in the interest of a realistic psychology, he does not wish to deny the existence of a pure, intrinsic, thus not merely instrumental drive to knowledge. Nor does he wish to denounce it, because it may well be of good use for human life and for future philosophy (see GM III:23).

Matthew Meyer considers the topic of naturalism from a different angle. He questions Maudemarie Clark’s well-known claim that the later Nietzsche rejected the idea of an inaccessible reality, by arguing that “Nietzsche remained committed to some version of the falsification thesis throughout his career” (135). At the same time, he remains sympathetic to the naturalist reading of Nietzsche and builds his rival interpretation upon it. On his view, the falsification thesis is not tied to the idea of a thing in itself. Rather, he claims that Nietzsche endorses Heraclitean becoming, an “ontology of dynamic relations that eliminates property-bearing things” (136), while considering language and logic to “seduce us into hypostatizing property-bearing things” (ibid.) and so to falsify reality. Nietzsche’s falsification thesis can thus be said to result from his naturalist commitments (136). Meyer’s nuanced defense of these claims ranges from Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks of 1873 through Human, All Too Human to Beyond Good and Evil of 1886. Two questions that remain, perhaps, regard whether Nietzsche ever had a single and coherent conception of falsification and whether his appeal to Heraclitean becoming ever amounted to such a thing as a “relationist ontology” that could then serve as a foil for falsification. Do we have any idea of a world that is not made up of objects and properties? Do we have any idea of “relations without any pre-existing relata” (138)? If we do not, as Meyer in fact admits, what becomes of the idea of falsification? One might also suspect that the Heraclitean view that Meyer attributes to Nietzsche is really only what Richard Schacht calls “’wahre Welt’ metaphysics once more” (173).

This brings me to Schacht’s paper, which strikes me as the most forceful, elaborate, and substantial contribution to this volume.[1] Its target is the interpretation of Nietzsche as a “scientistic” naturalist, an interpretation that Schacht too attributes primarily to Leiter. Schacht agrees with Leiter that Nietzsche is a naturalist of some sort, and that this entails that, for Nietzsche, philosophy and scientific thought must somehow be allied. But, for Schacht, Nietzsche’s philosophy and naturalism are “scientian,” or “wissenschaftsfreundlich”—that is, they are “intended to be scientifically informed and sophisticated, and importance is attached to that intention” (161). By contrast, they are by no means “scientistic,” or “wissenschaftsbeherrscht”—that is, Nietzsche does not deem scientific thinking “paradigmatic methodologically and decisive substantively” (ibid.). The main strength of Schacht’s contribution is that it brings out the many dimensions of naturalism in Nietzsche, and so effectively counteracts tendencies to false reduction and simplification. As Schacht observes, there are many kinds of things called “naturalism” in the literature, and “it would be a mistake to suppose that any one of them in particular is what Nietzsche espoused or was moving toward” (164). According to Schacht, Nietzsche “seeks explanations and offers interpretations of many sorts” (168). These pertain primarily to human reality, and their distinctive mark is that they do not conflict with science and make no reference to “anything that is not comprehensible in terms of entirely mundane developments and transformations,” starting from our human and partly animal nature (ibid.).

There are many other papers in the volume that would deserve a full discussion. Thus, John Richardson argues that Nietzsche is on the whole favorable to science and the idea of scientific truth, and further claims that he “makes it—in particular one branch of it, psychology—the project that will save us from nihilism” (315). On his interpretation, psychology yields the truth about values, including the value of truth, and thus takes its rightful place as the “queen of the sciences” (BGE 23). All the same, it remains in the service of life, since to overcome the ascetic ideal we must accept what we understand and learn “to find all life good and indeed holy” (329). Anthony Jensen develops a line of thought that he identifies in Nietzsche into a powerful challenge to the idea that history can be modeled on methods of science. This project is doomed to fail if Nietzsche is right that instead of laws in history, we find a series of singularities, and that the mental states of agents that would feature in explanations of action are by their nature opaque. In another valuable paper, Andrea Orsucci presents Nietzsche as an early exponent of the idea that there is no sharp divide between the natural and human sciences, and that efforts to systematize them or to give a general account of their differences and relations are bound to fail. This makes Nietzsche an original dissenting voice at a time when such attempts abound. Helpful overviews of Nietzsche’s attitude to science and its relevance for philosophy are also found in the papers by Klaus Fischer and Tilman Borsche.

Overall, the volume reinforces my sense of the interest as well as the difficulty of its subject. In order to engage in a fruitful discussion with Nietzsche, commentators must strike a delicate balance. On the one hand, they must do more than contextualize and paraphrase his claims; on the other hand, they must not give in to the temptation to treat him like other, more systematic philosophers. It is evidently to be welcomed that Nietzsche is now being read and taken seriously as a philosopher, and that he is read with greater attention to detail, argument, and rhetorical strategy than before. But if we try to read him as yet another variety of ‘analytic’ philosopher—perhaps as one with a penchant for style and polemical outbursts, who often lacks the patience for full explanation and argument—then we are certainly bound to fail. The challenge remains of making sense of Nietzsche both philosophically and philologically without forcing onto him doctrines or theories—including theories about his philosophy—that he resolutely and rightly refused to accept.

Georg-August-Universität Göttingen and Universität Bielefeld

[1] Ed. note: A revised and expanded version of this paper was subsequently published as “Nietzsche’s Naturalism,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 43.2 (2012): 185-212.