Monday, 20 February 2012

On Perspectivism, Science, and the Affects in Nietzsche

In this essay I am going to critically discuss Nietzsche’s account of perspectivism, defending Brian Leiter’s rejection of what has come to be known as the received view. With his interpretation in view I aim to unearth an example of perspectival interpretation embedded in the last part of the Genealogy of Morals (henceforth ‘GM’). To this end I hope to go some way towards answering the question of what Nietzsche means when he speaks of perspectives and consequently how he understands interpretation.

The place which we find Nietzsche’s most explicit account of perspectivism is found in the GM section 12. In it he denounces the idea of a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless, knowing subject” insisting that it is in fact unintelligible to imagine a knowing being having a nature of that kind. For Nietzsche, the separation of the will and the intellect amounts to the latter’s castration. At the section’s close he asserts the priority of knowing grounded in an active interpretive engagement with the world organised from within a perspective and insists that such perspectival knowing is the only kind of knowing.

Nietzsche’s comments are, unfortunately, very brief and so a plentiful horizon of interpretive possibilities has been opened up trying to get clear on what Nietzsche means when he talks of perspectives and interpretation. The “received view” has it that perspectivism amounts to the following claims: the world has no determinate nature, our models of the world are necessarily in error (no interpretation has a definite state of affairs to correspond to), and as a result no ‘mere’ interpretation is any better than another.[1] The evidence for this interpretation is found throughout Nietzsche’s work, in his denial of an absolutely knowable reality,[2] his challenging of the value of truth,[3] and his insistence that all understanding is interpretation.[4]

Treating all of these issues would take us beyond the remit of the current paper, however presenting some interpretive evidence against the received view (henceforth ‘RV’) will be necessary in support of the present claim. The aspect of Leiter’s interpretation which is significant in the context of the present essay is his emphasis on passages where Nietzsche can be seen speaking of a certain privileged mode of access to reality. The idea is that if Nietzsche’s mature philosophy does contain a notion of epistemic privilege then the RV (which asserts priority over no view) will simply be at odds with Nietzsche’s other mature views, rendering the interpretation inconsistent.[5]

Throughout his later work we often see Nietzsche rejecting ‘spiritual’ or metaphysical interpretations of matters in favour of naturalistic or physiological accounts. At the end of GM I he in fact offers a sort of challenge to academia, to involve physiologists and physicians in developing the history of moral concepts. He writes that “all ‘Thou shalts’ […] require physiological investigation and interpretation prior to psychological examination".[6] Elsewhere, Nietzsche describes the possible physiological grounds of ressentiment as “excessive secretion from the gall-bladder”, “deficiency of sulphuric or phosphoric potash in the blood”, and “poor circulation in the lower body”, among others.[7] Yet more revealingly he even says that “if one cannot deal with ‘spiritual suffering’ […] this is not the fault of his ‘spirit’; but more probably that of his stomach” and “if he cannot ‘deal’ with an experience, then this kind of indigestion is as much a matter of physiology as the other kind".[8]

Similarly, in Twilight of the Idols (henceforth ‘TI’) Nietzsche describes a fundamental error of morality and religion in their conflation of cause and effect.[9] Morality and religion err by prescribing a way to live and insisting that following it will grant happiness. Nietzsche instead holds that “one can experience hope because the physiological basic feeling is once more strong and ample".[10] This reversal means that the state of the body provides the condition of possibility for feeling ill or well, but Nietzsche’s whole claim is even stronger than this. He seems to want to tell us that a good constitution necessarily causes someone to perform certain acts (they must, he writes) and refrain from others, contra the religious/moral view that happiness actually results from such acts of faith, charity, and hope themselves.[11] Nietzsche here explicitly denounces moral and religious interpretations as translation into a "false dialect".[12]

The difficulty the RV faces is translating Nietzsche’s talk of falsehoods, errors, and the priority of physiological interpretation into the sorts of radically sceptical terms it must couch him in. If one interpretation cannot be better than another, why does Nietzsche quite obviously prefer to emphasise physiological phenomena in his discussions of morality? Leiter offers two ways a proponent of the RV might respond to this challenge, the most promising of which is denying that Nietzsche grants epistemic privilege to naturalistic and physiological interpretations. On this view Nietzsche favours an interpretation on the basis of its pragmatic value where endorsement emerges not of a relationship to truth but out of its contribution to living well. Certainly in his notebooks he describes every interpretation as “a symptom of growth or decline"[13] which would seem to suggest a mode of evaluation apart from epistemic concerns.

The problem is that if the world has no determinate structure then how could it be that moral and religious interpretations translate somatic phenomena into a false dialect? In order for something to be falsified there must be a discrepancy between the way in which it is and the way in which it has been presented. This simply doesn’t make any sense under the RV which has it that, owing to its lack of a determinate structure, any interpretation of the world is as good as another. Further supporting passages are provided by Leiter, indicating where Nietzsche denounces morality and religion for their lack of contact with reality[14] and where he stresses that the phenomenal world is the only demonstrable world.[15][16] The consequence of this view is that it devalues transcendental interpretations such as religion, morality, and metaphysics. Furthermore, as Nietzsche is here explicitly praising a mode of access to reality it seems the most obvious way of understanding his rejection is epistemic and not pragmatic.

Leiter makes use of the following analogy provided by Frithjof Bergmann to make this interpretation of Nietzsche clear.[17] On any given map there is represented a series of data representing a landscape of some sort. Depending on the concernful perspective which gives the map its meaning (is it for navigation? for finding treasure? is it a map of geological phenomena?) certain elements of the world become salient and are represented on the map. If you want to get from Leeds to London the same map a geologist might use to predict the whereabouts of a given mineral won’t be of use. You need a map with roads on it, not geological formations. The roads and geological formations are both there in the world, though not always represented on the same map, maps being as they are informed by a set of active concerns (what the map is for).

So it is with interpretation, certain aspects of the world become salient relative to one’s concernful perspective. There are infinitely various elements we can include on a map, though only a few of those are relevant to our concerns. The possibility remains that some maps are false in that they do not describe the landscape at all. Critically, as Christopher Janaway points out, the idea of an “absolute” map which excluded nothing is absurd, yet, contra the RV, it doesn’t follow that the maps we do have don’t describe the world in any way.[18]

Now, it would be hasty to call this matter settled though we have at least now provided sufficient textual evidence to demonstrate the plausibility of Leiter’s claim against the RV. It seems like Nietzsche does value certain interpretations over others, and that he does so on epistemic grounds. But in order to get clearer on what Nietzsche actually means by “interpretation” and how he imagines a perspective we will look at the example of science to which he devotes a considerable amount of time to in the GM. We’ll see what he has to say about the perspective from which science emerges and then trace the type of interpretation such a perspective gives rise to.

Nietzsche claims that there is no such thing as a science without presuppositions[19] and controversially accuses science of being supported by a mode of the ascetic denial of sensuality.[20] He holds that scientists are moved by a will to conceal their suffering which emerges “from a lack of any great love”. He describes them as “insensate men who fear one thing only: being brought to consciousnes..."[21] This ascetic basis results in the scientific emphasis on disinterested contemplation, something which Nietzsche himself rejects.[22] There are obvious affinities here between the suffering of the scientist from a lack of ideals and the suffering of the poorly-constituted, treated in GM II, both of whom, for Nietzsche, seek refuge in the denial of sensuality[23] and the denial of their perspectival characters.[24]

Now, Leiter quotes Nietzsche as saying that the physicist’s interpretation of the world is a “perversion of meaning” and a “bad mode of interpretation".[25] In GM I Nietzsche presents his initial comments on the character of the scientist. The “English Psychologists” mentioned here seek the driving force of human life “in the very place the intellectual pride of man would least wish to find it” – in a “blind arbitrariness of a mechanistic chain of ideas” or “in something purely passive, automatic, reflex-like, molecular, and fundamentally stupid".[26] In a late notebook entry Nietzsche openly challenges the mechanistic notion that calculability grants comprehension, and taking the example of a piece of music he asks how much has been understood when its calculable aspects are translated into the formalism of mathematics.[27]

Nietzsche’s dim view of scientific reductionism is obvious, but crucially (and in line with Leiter’s interpretation) he does not insist that the interpretation offered by scientists is untrue. In fact, Nietzsche asserts that there remain a lot of useful things for science to pursue, and even remarks that the work of scientists brings him pleasure.[28] His repeated emphasis on physiology too reveals his support of science, however ambivalent that support may be - so why it that the physicist’s mechanistic view is a bad mode of interpretation?

Nietzsche’s selection of a piece of music to demonstrate the wrongs of reductionism is incredibly astute. Quite clearly, when one reduces a piece of music down to its calculable formal aspects much of the piece is stripped away. Merely considering a list of calculable facts is an entirely different manner of approach to listening to the music and being moved by it. What is reduced in a mechanistic interpretation is the character of a thing as it is when it’s experienced. What makes his example so clever is that music has an essentially affective import so that science’s “cooling of the feelings"[29] is made particularly obvious when given in contrast to it.

It might be true that a piece of music has this or that calculable structure[30] but it is simply erroneous to imagine this disinterested perspective as the only or most fundamental way of understanding the music. One way of discovering things about the piece is to listen to it and be involved with it first-hand, it is quite another to reduce it to its formal calculable elements for the sake of study. We’re already familiar with Nietzsche’s strong emphasis on first-hand phenomenal experience. However, what might seem a strange is that he seems to be referring to something other than science when he gives deference to phenomenal experience. In fact he even goes so far as to say that science concerns itself with a world other than the phenomenal world.[31] Indeed the object of physics is no longer even the object of experience considered in its primary qualities but the ideal formalism of mathematics.[32]

What the foregoing demonstrates is how a perspective, a will, effects an interpretation of the world. If Nietzsche’s analysis of the character of the scientist is correct, science’s inclination towards discovering facts of a certain formal, ideal character by means of disinterested contemplation emerges from a denial of sensuality. What thus becomes salient in this interpretation of the world are precisely those sorts of facts, and affectivity, sensuality, and so on are demoted to a lower rank ontologically.

- Jordan Adshead (February 2012)


Heidegger, M. (2009). The Question Concerning Technology. In M. Heidegger, Basic Writings (pp. 307-343). Routledge.

Janaway, C. (2007). Beyond Selflessness: Reading Nietzsche's Genealogy. Oxford University Press.

Leiter, B. (1994). Perspectivism in Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. In R. Schacht, Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality (pp. 334-357). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1968). The Will To Power. Vintage Books.

Nietzsche, F. (2003). Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. Penguin Books.

Nietzsche, F. (2008). On The Genealogy of Morals. Oxford University Press.

[1] Leiter (1994), p. 334

[2] GM III, 12

[3] GM III, 24

[4] WP 481

[5] Leiter (1994), pp. 336-338

[6] GM I, 17

[7] GM III, 15

[8] GM III, 16

[9] TI VI, 1

[10] TI VI, 6 (emphasis added)

[11] TI VI, 2

[12] TI VI, 6

[13] WP 600

[14] The Anti-Christ (‘A’), 15

[15] TI III, 6

[16] TI IV

[17] Leiter (1994), p. 356

[18] Janaway (2007), p. 204

[19] GM III, 24

[20] Ibid.

[21] GM III, 23

[22] GM III, 12

[23] GM III, 25

[24] GM III, 24

[25] Beyond Good and Evil (‘BGE’), 22

[26] GM I, 1

[27] WP 624

[28] GM III, 23

[29] GM III, 25

[30] In Bergmann’s terms, it is an aspect owning the possibility of being represented on a ‘map’, but it is not an absolutely complete map in itself.

[31] GM III, 24

[32] Heidegger (2009), pp. 326-328

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