Saturday, September 27, 2008

Nietzsche's Naturalism

Brian Leiter's draft paper "Nietzsche's Naturalism Reconsidered" is an engaging look at the issue of "whether and in what sense Nietzsche is a naturalist in philosophy". Leiter contends that perhaps the most worrying obstacle in reading Nietzsche as a philosophical naturalist is his doctrine of the Will To Power and the "crackpot metaphysics" that some interpretations of this doctrine may imply.

In this post, I intend to argue that a metaphysical interpretation of the Will to Power ('MIWTP'), in which 'the world is will to power', is both consistent with Nietzsche's naturalism and of contemporary relevance.

The Scope of Nietzsche's Naturalism

Drawing on his earlier work, Leiter characterises Neitzsche's naturalism as Speculative Methodological Naturalism ('M- Naturalism'). Leiter describes M-Naturalism as the view that “philosophical inquiry…should be continuous with empirical inquiry in the sciences”. Speculative M-naturalists want to construct theories that are "modeled on the sciences…in that they take over from science the idea that natural phenomena have deterministic causes”. Speculative M-Naturalists do not appeal to actual causal mechanisms that have been scientifically confirmed (because their theories are speculative), but their explanations are bound by the constraint "that they not invoke entities or mechanisms that science has ruled out of bounds."

I am very much in agreement in reading Nietzsche as a M-Naturalist and am glad to see his philosophy being rescued from the excesses of postmodernist irrationalism (though as an aside, I think Nietzsche's M-Naturalism might better be characterized as being committed to natural, rather than deterministic causes, given his skepticism about deterministic laws). However, I think legitimate questions can be asked regarding whether Nietzsche's naturalism extends further than this.

Leiter raises the question of whether, if Nietzsche is a skeptic about what he takes to be the underlying metaphysics of science, how could he then be a naturalist who takes science seriously? Yet, not invoking entities or mechanisms that science has ruled out of bounds does not preclude the critical examination and possible displacement of the metaphysical presuppositions underlying scientific explanations (even if this activity itself is not part of science). Of course, in order to qualify being described as such, their are some assumptions which must be endorsed by a philosophical naturalist, such as belief in some form of causation (as Leiter explains). However, there may be other metaphysical assumptions which are conventionally accepted as being part of science which could be rejected without compromising an explanation being naturalistic in character.

Whilst it would obviously take more than a short blog post to give this issue full justice, that Nietzsche's naturalism did incorporate questioning the metaphysical assumptions of science is supported by the "We scholars" chapter of "Beyond Good and Evil". In this chapter, Nietzsche says the man of science or "objective man" is a "mirror: accustomed to submitting to whatever wants to be known", and an "instrument, something of a slave, certainly the sublimest kind of slave, but in himself he is nothing" (Aphorism 207). Nietzsche castigates those who would have science "taking upon itself to lay down laws for philosophy and for once to play the 'master'... to play the philosopher itself" (204).

Overall, I think the chapter supports the view that Nietzsche's naturalism is one that is against the unwarranted priority of science over philosophy, and is open to the critical examination, displacement and transformation of the metaphysical assumptions underlying science. Of course, in line with Nietzsche's anti-metaphysical stance any such alternate metaphysical assumptions would, like scientific theories themselves, not be presented as absolute, transcendent truths but would be open to further critical revision and transformation (BGE 22, 43,211).

The World as Will To Power

Turning now to the issue of whether Nietzsche did in fact endorse a metaphysical interpretation of the Will to Power, Leiter says that he is hopeful that the "crackpot metaphysics is really presented in an ironic spirit, and that Nietzsche, the otherwise sound naturalist, knew better." This hope is based primarily on the view that the doctrine is based on premises that Nietzsche explicitly rejects in his published works and that Nietzsche assigns the MIWTP no significance in his own appraisal of his corpus. In his analysis, Leiter also addresses the significance of an apparently metaphysical interpretation of the WTP in II:12 of the Genealogy of Morals.

Leaving aside the issue of what significance should be placed on unpublished works in the case of Nietzsche (whose productive life was cut short with many ideas still under development, with the developmental stages of such ideas perhaps being explanatory of why they are not addressed in his reflective self-appraisals), I think a good case can be made for the MIWTP both having a significant role in and being consistent with his published corpus. Although rigorous philosophers such as Clark have argued against this, others such as Schacht have cogently argued for it. Schacht's references to the unpublished works in his analysis do not, I think, significantly detract from his argument for the coherence of MIWTP with Nietzsche's other ideas.

In Leiter's analysis of GMII:12, he argues that the fact that MIWTP is only mentioned in that single passage in the book, coupled with Clark's critique, supports the view that II:12 was included for rhetorical purposes and perhaps "should not be taken too seriously at all". Yet, the Genealogy of Morals is restricted in scope, as its name suggests, and in order to assess Nietzsche's commitment to MIWTP it is appropriate to address a book with a broader philosophical compass, such as his ''Prelude to the Philosophy of the Future", Beyond Good and Evil.

From a sympathetic reading of Part One of this book ("On the Prejudices of Philosophers"), along with aphorism 36 of the following chapter, it can plausibly be argued that Nietzsche is not only critiquing conventional metaphysical and scientific presuppositions relating to such topics as physical laws, atomism, substance, free will, causation and the metaphysical biases of subject-predicate grammar, but also offering a tentative alternative metaphysical hypothesis consistent with this critique (aphorisms 13, 19,22 , 23 and 36 being most relevant to this alternate hypothesis). Thus, Nietzsche here speaks of an interpretation embracing "the universality and unconditionality of all will to power", in which " all efficient force" could be defined as such, with the world described according to its intelligible character being "will to power and nothing else".

Hence, it seems to me that Beyond Good and Evil supports the view that Nietzsche regarded the MIWTP as something which, whilst not fully developed, was of considerable significance to his philosophical project.

Is a Metaphysical Interpretation of The Will to Power Consistent with Speculative Methodological Naturalism?

In analysing the issue of the coherence of the MIWTP with Neitzsche's M-Naturalism, aphorism 22 of BGE is of interest. In comparing the view that the regularities of nature are a consequence of conformity to laws or of the "inexorable enforcement of power demands", Nietzsche makes the point that the latter interpretation would also assert that the world has a "necessary" and "calculable" course. He questions the ontological status of physical laws as externally imposed constraints and asks whether regularities could more appropriately be characterized as being a consequence of the internal dynamics of natural events. This is very reminiscent of Whitehead's depiction of physical laws as the "habits of nature".

So this passage can be read as Nietzsche as offering an interpretation which is consistent with the 'calculable course of events' investigated by M-Naturalism but which entails a different set of metaphysical assumptions than that conventionally accepted by science. This is not a view which contradicts M-Naturalism but instead one in which the intrinsic experiential dynamic of physical events (in which the world "seen from within" is will to power) runs parallel to their outer character described by the physical sciences.

Whilst this 'parallelist' reading of MIWTP is consistent with and complementary to M-Naturalism, there are passages where Nietzsche appears to be saying that the WTP is an additional causal factor over and above the forces and processes described by the physical sciences. For instance, GM11:12 appears to impute to the WTP, in relation to the physiological and adaptive processes of life, a causal role that is distinct from known biological mechanisms. This would appear to be in contradiction with the generally held tenet of biology that life can be explained mechanistically in terms that are ultimately reducible to the work of natural selection on physical processes governed by laws operating at the microphysical level (an issue I previously discussed in this post).

However, this issue relates not to the MIWTP being incorrect in toto, but rather that a particular inference derived from MIWTP, proferred in accordance with the speculative spirit of Speculative M-Naturalism, has turned out to be erroneous and should be disregarded. On the other hand, the MIWTP doesn't discount the possibility that nature may turn out to operate differently from what one would expect from reductionist assumptions ( through mechanisms such as top down causation or strong emergence). Of course, it is a matter for science to investigate whether such phenomena which may be consistent with MIWTP do in fact exist.

Contemporary Relevance

In relation to the issue of whether the MIWTP has any relevance to contemporary philosophical positions that seek consistency with modern science, I do not think the panexperientialist implications of this interpretation detract from its potential relevance. Espousal or interest in panexperientialism from contemporary philosophers within the analytic tradition such as Galen Strawson, David Chalmers, Gregg Rosenberg, David Skrbina and William Seager show that this topic is now a legitimate area of mainstream philosopical inquiry.

In assessing the relevance of MWITP, reference again to the philosophy of Whitehead is apposite. A strong analogy can be made between the concresing 'actual occasions' of Whitehead and quanta of will to power (see here for example). Therefore, I think there is a potential for the MIWTP to form a basis for a salient and coherent metaphysics of the world that is consistent with modern science to the same extent that Whitehead's philosophy has this potential.


In view of the above, I think a strong case can be made that a metaphysical interpretation of the Will to Power is consistent with the methodological naturalism of Nietzsche, was tentatively endorsed by him and is of contemporary relevance. Whilst I think the MIWTP is complementary to and runs parallel to Nietzsche's methodological naturalism (and therefore is not essential to it), in my view it has significant philosophical merit in its own right.

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H.C said...

I see Nietzsche's view as an affirmation of the fact that consciousness is endowed with creative energy and it can and mush seek fulfillment inside. This position is consistent to Kashmiri Shaivism - a philosophy that takes a very similar view on the world as panexperientialism.

Justin said...


Thanks for the info re Kashmiri Shaivism - I'm not familiar with this position, but agree that there are some affinities between Nietzschean and Eastern philosophy.

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Canadian Pragmatist said...

Finally, someone willing to stand up to Leiter on this. He dismisses Heidegger, Nehamas, Solomon, Jaspers, and scores of other Nietzsche interpretors as amatuerish and in a sense, childish (my words, not his).

I'm all for contrarian wisdom, but just because you disagree with everybody doesn't necessarily make you right! And that's his big problem. He thinks there is a single, 'right' way to read and interpret Nietzsche (and everyone else for that matter).

His is not displaying, courage or intellectual integrity. He's intellectually arrogant (he thinks he has a greater claim to 'the' true Nietzsche than his past intrepretors.). And as Nietzsche says, "Arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive." But, if Leiter didn't rank schools, I honestly don't think he would be taken as seriously as he is right now.

Analytic philosophers, I'm sorry, but they should not get involved with the great continental philosophers, and nevertheless Nietzsche! They think they're writing the truth about him, when really they're just trying to make one of the greatest philosophers of all time seem to agree with themselves.

Justin said...

Hi CP.
Thanks for your comment. Whilst I disagree with Leiter's ctitique of the WTP, overall I don't mind the way he approaches Neitzsche and think there is room for an analytic type of engagement with Nietzsche.

Canadian Pragmatist said...

How is there room for an analytic engagement with Nietzsche when there is no longer room for an analytic approach to philosophy?

Aside from which, you don't have to have read a lot of Nietzsche to know that he does take different normative ethical positions as well as different metaphysical positions. I believe that all the four great errors he writes about in "Twilight of the Idols" are of a metaphysical nature.