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Jessica Berry, Nietzsche and the Ancient Skeptical Tradition

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. xi + 230 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-536842-0. Cloth, $65.00.

Reviewed by Matthew Meyer

With Nietzsche and the Ancient Skeptical Tradition, Jessica Berry sets out to a fill a gap in the secondary literature on Friedrich Nietzsche by showing how an understanding of ancient skepticism can shed light on central features of his philosophical project (5). Although she is right to emphasize the importance of the ancient Greeks for understanding Nietzsche’s thought generally and to identify issues that, either directly or indirectly, point to the ancient skeptical tradition, her attempt to show that Pyrrhonian skepticism offers the best model for interpreting Nietzsche’s project remains unconvincing.

The author divides the book into six chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. She introduces her topic by noting that although skepticism is often associated with Nietzsche’s thought, commentators usually employ the term in the colloquial sense of denying truth or knowledge (4). According to Berry, the mistake of such commentators is that they often fail to use this insight as an occasion for exploring Nietzsche’s relationship to the ancient skeptical tradition [1], which Berry rightly distinguishes from a modern variant of skepticism that has emerged from Descartes’ Meditations. Whereas Berry sees the conclusions of the latter as either unsustainable or trivial (7), she sees in the former a rich tradition that links the suspension of belief or epochê to the quest for psychological health in the form of ataraxia or freedom from disturbance (14).

Berry devotes the first two chapters to laying the foundations of her argument. In the first, she provides evidence for Nietzsche’s familiarity with ancient skepticism and outlines the fundamentals of the philosophy. Although Nietzsche’s corpus reflects his general interest in ancient philosophy and poetry, the evidence Berry presents attesting to Nietzsche’s specific interest in ancient skepticism is relatively sparse and often indirect. Here she points to Nietzsche’s familiarity with Pyrrhonian skepticism through his work on Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, his acquaintance with Sextus Empiricus through his work on Democritus, and his late reading (1888) of Victor Brochard’s Les sceptiques grecs (28f.). Nevertheless, there does seem to be some significant connection between Nietzsche’s project and ancient skepticism because, as we know from the preface of Beyond Good and Evil and as Berry makes clear in her introductory discussion, both oppose dogmatism. According to Berry, dogmatists are those who “make a professional habit of forming theories and beliefs (dogmata) and who subsequently stop investigating” (34). In contrast, the skeptic remains open to inquiry and strives for psychological health by suspending belief about theoretical issues and the customs that have emerged from dogmatic truth claims.

In the second chapter, Berry turns to Nietzsche’s unpublished essay, “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense,” to discuss skepticism in his early work. In contrast to commentators who think that Nietzsche denies truth in the essay, Berry contends that the text gives expression to an early version of Nietzsche’s skepticism. Here, two features of her reading stand out. First, Berry claims that Nietzsche is like the skeptic in insisting that we cannot be sure whether the world as it appears to us corresponds to the true essence of things. Second, Nietzsche follows the skeptic in pointing out that different species perceive the world in radically different ways and then by insisting that there is no available criterion for determining which perception is correct (63ff.). Although Nietzsche seems to conclude from this fact that all perceptions are false, Berry defends a skeptical reading of the passage where perceptions cannot be assessed for their truth content.

Berry’s argument thus far is not terribly controversial. However, the difficulty of sustaining her skeptical reading increases as she ventures beyond TL. On the one hand, she notes the incommensurability between Nietzsche’s skepticism in TL and his metaphysical speculations in his other works of the time. She resolves this issue by pointing to Nietzsche’s anti-metaphysical turn in Human, All Too Human and its continuity with the argument of TL. However, in turning to HH, Berry encounters a second threat to her skeptical reading in the form of Nietzsche’s naturalism, which is the subject of chapter three. The naturalist reading, or the view that Nietzsche’s philosophical program is continuous with the natural sciences, seems to conflict with the skeptical reading because the natural sciences often endorse dogmatic claims about empirical reality. To respond to such worries, Berry notes that Nietzsche, in HH 9, affirms the skeptical view that one cannot deny the possibility of a metaphysical world (76) and that he attacks metaphysics not by showing such claims to be false, but by rendering metaphysical explanations epistemologically idle and by casting suspicion on the psychological origin of metaphysical concepts. For these reasons, Nietzsche’s naturalism does not commit him to any positive ontological theses (76, 88). Instead, what Nietzsche finds most valuable in the natural sciences is a methodology (89) that is ultimately compatible with skepticism (103).

Although Nietzsche does attack metaphysics in the way she describes, there are a handful of passages in HH that evince positive ontological commitments. For instance, in the very first aphorism, Nietzsche raises a problem concerning opposites and divides the responses to this problem into two camps, metaphysical and historical. If Nietzsche were a skeptic, he would suspend judgment on this issue. However, Nietzsche sides with historical philosophy in holding that there are no opposites (HH 1). Although this point—which is sufficient to refute Berry’s skeptical reading—might seem trivial, it has been argued that Nietzsche, in his 1888 reworking of the section (KSA 14, p. 119), links the problem of opposites to the distinction between Heraclitean becoming and Parmenidean being that he discusses at length in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks.[2] So understood, Nietzsche’s naturalism in HH commits him to a substantive ontological thesis in the form of Heraclitean becoming, a view present not only in HH 2, where facts are denied because everything has become, but also in HH 19, where we are told that there are neither commonsense things nor scientific atoms because the natural sciences have resolved everything into motions.

Berry’s neglect of Nietzsche’s denial of independently existing things—metaphysical, scientific, and commonsense—also poses problems for her understanding of his perspectivism, the topic of chapter four. After rightly worrying about the centrality of a so-called doctrine of perspectivism for Nietzsche’s overall project, Berry challenges the belief that we can only understand the view by fleshing out his ontology and theory of truth (106). Against such “metaphysical” readings—offered by the likes of Arthur Danto, Alexander Nehamas, and Maudemarie Clark—Berry proposes to read Nietzsche’s perspectivism “as a position that undermines the attempt to secure justification for all such theses” (111).

She begins her skeptical reading with a discussion of what might be called point-of-view perspectivism by turning to the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morals (§12). In the passage, Nietzsche establishes an analogy between knowing and seeing; just as subjects always perceive objects from particular points of view, knowing always occurs within a context of cognitive capacities and beliefs. On this reading, a certain sort of ‘objectivity’ can be approached by collecting information about a given object from various perceptual or epistemic viewpoints (116f.). To link this understanding of perspectivism to skepticism, Berry makes two further moves. First, she rightly notes that Nietzsche’s perspectivism, so construed, inevitably generates conflicting appearances, an issue central to ancient skepticism. This is because when objects are viewed under different conditions they often reveal opposite properties that cannot, without violating the principle of non-contradiction, belong to the same object at the same time and in the same respect. Since there is no criterion for determining which appearance is correct, we must, so argue the skeptics, suspend judgment. Second, Berry argues that Nietzsche can be understood as endorsing the skeptical epochê because his philological training, as the interpretive art of ephexis or “holding back,” informs his philosophical practice (125ff.). As an example of this, Berry points to the will to power. On her reading, Nietzsche presents the will to power as an alternative to the physicist’s belief in a law-governed nature (BGE 22). The result of Nietzsche’s alternative interpretation is not the dogmatic belief that the world really is will to power, but rather a suspension of belief as to which interpretation captures the way things are.

The virtue of Berry’s account of Nietzsche’s perspectivism is that it highlights a serious concern for any defender of the point-of-view reading: Infinitely multiplying perspectives on an object inevitably generates conflicting appearances, and this raises the question as to which is correct. The weakness of Berry’s account is that the skeptical epochê seems to presuppose an appearance-reality distinction that the post-TL Nietzsche rejects (HH 9 notwithstanding). This is because the skeptic suspends judgment about which appearance corresponds to “how these things are in themselves” (120). Nietzsche, however, rejects things in themselves (GS 54; BGE 16) and the related appearance-reality distinction (BGE 10). For this reason, there is no skeptical suspension of judgment because there is no worry about appearances corresponding to some further reality. On this (Protagorean) view, each appearance is reality for the person to whom it appears.

In the final two chapters of the text, Berry turns to the ethical and psychological dimensions of Nietzsche’s thought, attempting to link his positions on these issues to the ancient skeptic’s quest for psychological health in the form of ataraxia. This is perhaps the most surprising feature of the work. Not only does the quest for ataraxia smack of the psychological exhaustion, decadence, and nihilism that Nietzsche seeks to overcome,[3] but it also seems to have little to do with the arts associated with Dionysus, a figure that appears throughout Nietzsche’s post-Zarathustra writings. Moreover, it places Nietzsche in an eudaimonist tradition (142) that he rejects as early as The Birth of Tragedy via his critique of Socratic optimism in favor of a pessimistic or tragic worldview. The task is not the impossible elimination of suffering through virtue, knowledge, suspension of judgment, etc., but rather to transfigure and affirm suffering through art (GS 370).

In responding to such worries, Berry begins by noting that both Nietzsche and the skeptics were concerned with psychological health. To show that Nietzsche further shares the skeptic’s specific vision of psychological health as ataraxia, she first defends a broader understanding of ataraxia than is commonly recognized, arguing that it can be thought of as a state of cheerfulness (141), and then urges us to understand Nietzsche’s conception of health in terms of cheerfulness. Although the latter claim seems right, Berry can only make the former move by linking ataraxia to its ancestor euthumia in the work of Democritus and then by arguing that Nietzsche’s conception of cheerfulness resembles Democritean euthumia (156ff.). So understood, the link between Nietzschean cheerfulness and ataraxia no longer sounds entirely implausible. Nevertheless, it is hard to shake the thought that significant differences remain, especially since Berry has not established a direct lineage, but rather identified a common ancestor in Democritiean euthumia.

In the final chapter, Berry contends that Nietzsche’s immoralism can be linked to his skeptical commitments. This is because Nietzsche’s attack on morality does not just target Christian values, but moral theorizing as such. On this view, Nietzsche and the ancient skeptics stand beyond good and evil because they both suspend judgment on such issues (177). As Berry readily acknowledges, her reading conflicts with the prevalent view that Nietzsche is an antirealist about moral values, i.e., holds the dogmatic claim that there are no moral facts, and therefore she devotes significant space to responding to a leading proponent of the antirealist reading, Brian Leiter (184ff.). Leiter garners support for his position by appealing to the persistence of disagreement in moral theorizing, arguing that the failure to discover a generally agreed upon moral theory is best explained by the non-existence of moral facts. In response, Berry points to the skeptical heritage of this argumentative strategy and uses it to defend her skeptical reading in which judgments about such issues should be suspended.

Although Berry unleashes a forceful argument against the antirealist position, the problem is that even if she wins this battle, it still does not seem that Nietzsche endorses a suspension of judgment about values. This is because Nietzsche often speaks of future philosophers legislating and creating values (BGE 211), and so for Berry’s reading to go through, she needs to reconcile Nietzsche’s skepticism with such passages. In a footnote from her concluding chapter, she briefly responds to this worry by claiming that such talk is not about Nietzsche’s own project, but rather about future philosophers (210n2). However, even if this is right, it is still the case that Nietzsche’s suspension of belief is not an end in itself, as it is for the skeptic, but rather a means to something else. Furthermore, there is reason to think that Nietzsche himself takes on this value-creating, legislative role in the Antichrist, as he begins the work by determining both good (power) and bad (weakness/pity) (A 2) and concludes the work with his “Decree against Christianity” (KSA 6, p. 254).

In conclusion, it should be said that Berry offers perhaps one of the strongest cases that can be made for reading Nietzsche’s project through the lens of ancient skepticism and for this reason her work should not be overlooked by those interested in Nietzsche generally and his relationship to ancient Greek philosophy in particular. However, the relative paucity of textual support for her reading along with the complications that arise from it leave one thinking that the central focus of Nietzsche’s interest in antiquity is what he calls the tragic age of the Greeks and that the skeptical elements Berry finds in Nietzsche’s thought can ultimately be explained by a common heritage of pre-Platonic thinkers such as Democritus, Protagoras, and Heraclitus (188f.).

The University of Scranton

[1] For one notable exception, see Richard Bett, “Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 82 (2000): 62-86.
[2] See Peter Heller, “Von den ersten und letzten Dingen” Studien und Kommentar zu einer Aphorismenreihe von Friedrich Nietzsche (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1972), and Britta Glatzeder, Perspektiven der Wünschbarkeit: Nietzsches frühe Metaphysikkritik (Berlin: Philo, 2000).
[3] Indeed, Nietzsche casts Pyrrho as the highpoint of decadence (KSA 13:14[87]), a “Greek Buddhist” (KSA 13:14[85]), and a nihilist (KSA 13:14[100]).