Can a philosopher hate philosophy? Can he oppose it? In this article, we examine Nietzsche’s critique of and antipathy towards philosophy and philosophers, with a particular stress on the notion of perspectivism as an alternative. The article begins with a discussion of Nietzsche’s stance in the context of other attempts to distance one’s philosophy from all that came before. The concept of perspectivism is introduced and explained. The relationship between Nietzsche’s anti-philosophical stance and the concept of truth is then explored, along with a problem with Nietzsche’s negation of truth.
Nietzsche’s Way of Creating Distance From the Tradition
It is not uncommon for philosophers to characterize themselves or their work as being at odds with the philosophical currents of their time, whether for intellectual or egotistic reasons. Certain philosophers even go so far as to describe their work as at odds with philosophy as it has been practiced before. This is usually done by relying on intellectual developments in other fields which such philosophers argue philosophy must respond to.
Nietzsche is the rare case of a philosopher who wishes to set himself against philosophy as a whole, but does so without drawing on developments in other intellectual fields. It would be difficult to give a full account of how Nietzsche does this in a brief article such as this. Nietzsche’s antipathy to philosophy or “the philosophers” is arguably a rare, unifying thread that runs through Nietzsche’s work. Moreover, this element of his thought fluctuates wildly in its apparent (intellectual) seriousness; in other words, Nietzsche’s opposition to philosophy occasionally seems more like a personal grudge or an elaborate joke to which no one but he knows the answer than a philosophical position.
Though this article will be more concerned with sketching out the latter, that shouldn’t suggest to the reader who has not encountered Nietzsche’s writings that there is a strict distinction between these different elements in Nietzsche’s work. Indeed, it is highly characteristic for them to be jumbled together.
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The philosophical position which goes further to explain Nietzsche’s antipathy to philosophers is that of perspectivism. It is almost obligatory in the literature to observe that there isn’t a great deal of agreement on what perspectivism is and entails. In the most general sense, perspectivism is an epistemological claim—it is a claim about our conception of knowledge. More specifically, it is the claim that we should be more self-aware about the perspectival elements of knowledge.
The beginning of Beyond Good and Evil, which contains one of Nietzsche’s more famous diatribes against the philosophers, characterizes philosophers as attempting to make sense of the world only as if they were able to make sense of it from no particular position within it. It is important to stress that Nietzsche is not claiming that our perspective is fixed, or that we have no autonomy or control over the conditions by which we come to know. In fact, his emphasis on the role of perspective in knowledge comes from the exact opposite impulse.
In Nietzsche’s view, it is the certainty that philosophers crave which negates our capacity to retain “one’s power” over knowledge production. Nietzsche is, as a rule, against “disinterested contemplation” and in favor of human beings retaining and developing their powers. In any case, as Nietzsche also observes, any attempt to make objective sense of things relies on the capacity to think of things from different perspectives, to learn the discipline of changing one’s perspective. To acknowledge the role of perspective in knowledge production is therefore indispensable, no matter what model of knowledge one happens to have adopted.
Nietzsche’s perspectivism is related to another major element of Nietzsche’s philosophy, which is his naturalism. The late 18th and early 19th centuries inaugurated the habit of thinking of basic features of our perception of the world—those are not just particular perceptions but also the most fundamental structures of those perceptions—both in philosophy and in the natural sciences.
In a philosophical context, the dominant model for conceptualizing the structure of perception was that of Immanuel Kant, who held that those structures were necessary conditions of any kind of perception.
Nietzsche was more taken with the so-called Neo-Kantianism of Friedrich Lange, as well as the new strand of positivist empirical philosophy. Both accepted the basic Kantian framework in which our perceptions are constituted by structural elements but denied the view that such elements are necessary. The contingency of these elements is due to their conception within a naturalistic, psychologistic theory of cognition.
The consequences of these influences on Nietzsche’s thought constitute some of the most striking and original elements of his philosophy. The contingency of that which structures perception allows Nietzsche to speak of perspectives, of course, given that the contingency of these structures implies the possibility of variation. The contingency of the structures of perception also suggests a basic pattern of recognition, of diagnosing why we hold the beliefs we do. Philosophy for Nietzsche, despite the protestations of philosophers, is always profoundly personal.
Nietzsche and Psychoanalysis
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Nietzsche diagnoses philosophy as the consequence of personal neuroses. Nietzsche’s explicit introduction of the unconscious into philosophy as its creative force leads Nietzsche to become a philosopher of critical importance for psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic philosophers in the 20th century.
Yet Nietzsche goes further than merely analyzing the knowing subject in terms of perspective. He is also, at certain points, explicitly skeptical about the very concept of truth in itself. If Nietzsche thinks this is so, then what does he think he himself is doing? Surely some of Nietzsche’s claims appear to be claims concerned with what is true, rather than what Nietzsche himself happens to think. The question this then raises is—if Nietzsche is attempting to do something other than philosophy (because philosophy is dispensable in light of perspectivism), what is he attempting to do?
Perhaps the best attempt to show philosophy to be dispensable would involve replacing philosophy with an alternative that is totally practical. This alternative should retain certain features of philosophy (involving a redeployment of certain critical tools) but also remain aloof from any preference against untruth, uncertainty, ignorance, etc. Perhaps we can consider the “practical” purpose of the philosophy to be the fulfillment of physiological needs, or at least needs which have some physiological root.
The problem with this approach is that even if a philosopher is happy to conflate practical importance and our physiological demands, eventually, they are presented with a pretty unappealing choice. They must hold that it is completely obvious what our physiological needs are and how they should be fulfilled, and without adopting an exceptionally narrow conception of a physiological need, this seems implausible.
Which Philosophers is Nietzsche Against?
After all of this, it is reasonable to ask: who are the philosophers, really? To whom is Nietzsche referring? As much as Nietzsche is critical of philosophy and the philosophers in general, the philosopher to whom he is responding directly is Plato. When Nietzsche describes perspectivism as a “fundamental condition of all life,” he does this in contrast with Plato’s philosophy.
In particular, Nietzsche takes aim at the Platonic commitment to the worldview that objective knowledge of things in themselves, as opposed to things as they appear, is both possible and the preserve of philosophers. The idea that the point of intellectual activity is to get at what is “real” and discard, no matter how difficult, what is apparent is one which Nietzsche appears to reject outright.
Yet Nietzsche is not merely critical of Plato and the philosophers. He is also able to take a more detached view and characterize the tension between the inescapable truth of perspectivism and the beautiful lie of Platonism as a kind of tension in European culture, which is the source both of vitality and of extraordinary destructive potential in Europe.
Can Nietzsche Escape the Canon?
Nietzsche certainly makes an admirable attempt to break with the philosophical tradition. In philosophy, the discipline which is most loathe to reconfigure its canon, this is no mean feat. Yet—as Nietzsche himself will have been well aware—the problems he is most interested in are almost as old as philosophy itself.
The problem of total context-sensitivity—that is, an all-consuming perspectivism – has plagued philosophy almost from the start. Perhaps Heraclitus is to blame, considering his doctrine of the Unity of Opposites opened this particular can of worms:
“The same thing in us is living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old. For these things having changed around are those, and those in turn having changed around are these.”
When Heraclitus proceeds from this insight to argue that we must think of the world as “collections: wholes and not wholes; brought together, pulled apart; sung in unison, sung in conflict; from all things one and from one all things,” he has already introduced a kind of total context-sensitivity and perspectivism from which it is will take some work to extract anything like philosophy. It doesn’t seem especially difficult to imagine writing of some kind that embodies the principles of the philosophy of becoming, but it’s hard to imagine we would call it philosophy.