To save content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about saving content to .
To save content items to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about saving to your Kindle.
Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
Nietzsche's Anthropic Circle is an internal analysis and interpretation of Nietzsche's critical uncovering of 'anthropomorphic truth' in language and science, as well as his later use of anthropic analogies and transferences in his imaginative perspectival interpretation 'a hybrid of art and science' of a universal, immanent 'will to power' in nature.
… the beauty and grandeur of a world-construction (alias philosophy) is what is now decisive for its value—it is judged as art.
AN EXOTERIC MYTH
Although Nietzsche was vaguely familiar with the distinction between esoteric teachings for the elect and the exoteric representations of popular beliefs or external doctrines taught to the majority in medieval Islamic philosophy,1 he was quite familiar with its earlier adoption in Hindu thought. His friend Paul Deussen's Das System des Vedanta (1883) had been read and praised in a letter to Franz Overbeck (March 6, 1883) as an “excellent” study. In a letter to his mother (August 19, 1887) he alludes to a work edited by Deussen, Die Sutra's des Vedanta, and accurately described him as the leading authority in Indian philosophy in Germany.
The references to the esoteric-exoteric disjunction in Nietzsche's published and unpublished writings are sparse, as one would expect in the works of a thinker who intends to adopt this distinction. In The System of the Vedanta Nietzsche found extensive material on the use of an “exoteric metaphysics.” Deussen devotes chapters to variations on this theme: “Exoteric and Esoteric Vedanta Doctrine,” “The Exoteric Picture of Creation,” and “Esoteric Theology.” Deussen's still-valued study of Vedanta philosophy had a strong effect on Nietzsche's thought. The notion of being “beyond good and evil” is indebted to the same conception discussed by Deussen. That is, one who truly knows Brahman achieves liberation and puts both good and evil deeds behind and beneath him or her. There is little doubt that the ancient principle and practice of writing within the framework of the esoteric-exoteric difference was primarily absorbed by Nietzsche via Deussen's detailed examination of Vedantic thought. And I am convinced that he applied this technique to his own corpus and particularly to what Heidegger and others mistakenly consider as his “metaphysics” of the will to power.
The extension, by means of analogical reasoning, of the will to power to all entities entailed the supposition, which Nietzsche embraced, that man is a microcosm. The unending striving for “more” that he believed was characteristic of mankind is attributed, by way of anthropomorphic projection and transference, to nonhuman organisms and inorganic entities. This “hypothesis” is a skillfully created amalgam of science and art.
… that every elevation of man brings with it the overcoming of narrower interpretations; that every strengthening and augmentation of power opens up new perspectives and enjoins believing in new horizons— this runs through my writings.
Among many paradoxical conceptions in Nietzsche's writings, one of the most consistently defended in his theory of perspectivalism. It is central to his epistemic reflections and lies at the heart of many of his fundamental ideas. But although perspectivalism has been analyzed quite often, some aspects of it have not received sufficient attention. What complicates matters is that Nietzsche introduces various levels of perspectival analyses. Moreover, he intermixes perspectivalism as an epistemological method with his own imaginative perspectival interpretation of actuality, a source of a great deal of confusion and of questionable renditions of his thought.
Although Nietzsche's views on various moral or valuational perspectives tend to attract the most attention, they are not the only or the most basic modes of perspectival analysis. Even though he refers often to the variety of values that have been elevated in different cultures and in different periods of history, his own “table of values” is not relativistic. He consistently values what affirms and enhances life, whatever elevates the type “man.” Where we find an ingenious use of relative points of view is in Nietzsche's employment of a variety of conceptual perspectives. These are the foundation for the construction of a global interpretation of the nature of actuality.
The first suggestion of the importance of perspective for understanding, the one that was the model for many subsequent uses of this method, was derived from the hermeneutic problem of deciphering the meaning of texts in philological studies. A text has to be interpreted against a background of general cultural knowledge and in terms of a literary, historical, and valuational context. Thus, to cite one of Nietzsche's insightful exercises, he discerned in Socrates’ attitude toward life a “pessimism” that had only previously been noted by Kierkegaard (though in a somewhat different way). Commenting on Socrates’ words in the Phaedo as he was dying, “Crito, we owe a cock to Asklepios, pray do not forget to pay the debt,” he points out that it was the custom in ancient Greece to offer a rooster to the god of health, Asklepios, after one had recovered from an illness.
It is impossible to see any limit to the distance anthropomorphism can extend… . This transference of our feelings is … found everywhere, and in such manifold forms it is not always easy to identify it.
Georg Lichtenberg, Aphorisms
One of the central themes that runs through Nietzsche's polymorphic writings is the influence of anthropomorphism upon our conceptions of truth and reality. The “humanization” of the world for the sake of life and its enhancement and the “humanization” of nature for the sake of mastery of it are core ideas in his thought. In some of his earliest writings Nietzsche examined under a skeptical microscope the language and concepts that we take for granted. He detected traces of an ineluctable tendency to describe and understand the nonhuman in terms of human sentiments, attitudes, and feelings. He raises serious doubts about our capacity to comprehend anything that is not filtered through notions derived from our social relations, our psychology, or the metaphorical language we use to describe ourselves and our experience. His attitude towards this tendency of anthropomorphic transformation is not, however, unambiguous. Though Nietzsche often presents anthropomorphism as a naïve mode of thinking, it also evolves in his thought to the point at which it is self-consciously employed in his numerous metaphorical images of actuality, nature, and the multiple dimensions of the self and human experience.
In his later philosophical appropriation of a dynamic world-interpretation in physical theory Nietzsche occasionally seeks to transcend the “anthropomorphic idiosyncrasy”—that is, the tendency to conceive of the cosmos in terms of a purely anthropic perspective. Especially in notes from the late 1880s he seems to delete man from his conceptual landscape and to conceive of actuality as a dynamic system of interacting “force-centers” or “powerquanta.” This de-anthropomorphic perspective characterizes reality as the particular action and reaction of each “center of force” in relation to others and man is reduced to “a multiplicity of forces.” But Nietzsche does not settle in this depersonalized, dehumanized vision. He seeks to create a human meaning for this radical physical-theoretical reductionism. A reconstituted anthropomorphism is then introduced in order to picture reality as a dynamically striving, waxing and waning, struggling field of forces analogous to human experience.
A consistent theme in Nietzsche's thought is that all things have developed or evolved. He strongly defends the notion that our modes of perception, our concepts, and our language have developed over long periods of time and are subject to evolutionary change. In this sense, he presents a prototypical version of a naturalized epistemology and employs it as one of the weapons in his armamentarium in his critical analysis of knowledge.
Most of the elements incorporated in recent forms of evolutionary epistemology can be found in Nietzsche's multidimensional analyses and speculations concerning the development over time of ways of perceiving and thinking that eventually become sedimented and dominate historical periods. From his earliest writings to his last thought-experiments he disclosed the anthropomorphic nature of truth, the utilitarian function of perception, cognition, conceptual schemata, and language, intimately relating them to their survival value.
In the Essays of Emerson Nietzsche first found a general conception of evolution that linked man's “natural history” to the “ferocities of nature” and pointed to the presence in man of primal traits and tendencies. Later, in the writings of Schopenhauer, he found a foreshadowing of evolutionary thought and the view that the intellect is a tool of more basic drives, an instrument comparable to the aggressive and defensive “weapons” of animals. Moreover, in Schopenhauer's “On Philosophy and Science of Nature,” he would have found a surprisingly detailed evolutionary theory. Shortly after his discovery of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche became familiar with Lange's History of Materialism and no doubt absorbed his sketch of Darwin's theory of evolution by means of natural selection. In fact, in his notes from the mid-1860s he linked Empedocles’ insight that extant organic beings were the result of random, natural experiments over time and not design to “the Darwinian theory.”
In “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche alluded to the evolutionary basis of perception and concept-formation and adopted Schopenhauer's characterization of the intellect as a tool used in the struggle for survival. In addition, he argued that we value truth, intellect, and knowledge not as intrinsic goods, but because of their life-preserving function. Our knowledge is tantamount to “anthropomorphic truth” or the practical truth that is in the service of life.
[T]he dreadful basic text of homo natura must again be understood … man put back in nature; becoming master of many vain … interpretations … that have till now … painted over the eternal basic text of homo natura.
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
The philosopher of tragic knowledge … controls the unleashed drive for knowledge, not by means of a new metaphysics … a new faith. He feels it … tragic that the ground of metaphysics has been cut away and can never be satisfied by the colorful kaleidoscope of the sciences.
Nietzsche often appears to contradict himself in his voluminous writings. This is especially the case in regard to formulations of the idea of the will to power. Even the presentation of a theory of the nature of reality seems to contradict a forceful denial of the possibility of attaining metaphysical truth. How can Nietzsche proclaim that there is no ultimate truth and then proceed to develop a reductive, explanatory principle that is presented as the answer to the riddle of existence? A passionate antimetaphysician appears to end his reflections by propounding what has been called his “metaphysics of will to power.” Some have charged him with radical inconsistency in this regard while others have held that he regressed to a positive metaphysical standpoint, which he had abandoned even before the appearance of The Birth of Tragedy. But the conception of a universal will to power acting through all beings is neither a claim to metaphysical truth nor a claim to positive knowledge about “ultimate reality,” nor a novel discovery of a “principle of explanation.” The hypothesis of a universal will to power (or, more accurately, the hypothesis of a plurality of “wills to power”) is an elaborately crafted, sophisticated myth that is put forward as an experimental, metaphorical, poetic “truth.” Nietzsche never abandoned his view that we have no access to “truth-in-itself,” to a knowable transcendental “Truth.”
Theories are our own inventions, our own ideas; they are not forced upon us, but are our self-made instruments of thought.
Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations.
Our concepts are inventions.
Nietzsche's theory of the fictional nature of logic, scientific concepts and principles, and philosophical categories has rarely been discussed in detail. My concern here is to elucidate the instrumental theory of fictions in his thought and the role it plays in his critical analysis of knowledge. I will also briefly analyze some of the negative consequences of this general theory for his own thought.
One of Nietzsche's fundamental claims is that our senses, concepts, psychology, and language contribute to the simplification of phenomena and what we come to know and construct as our “world.” The intellect is thought of as an instrument, the primary function of which is the organization and simplification of a presumed flux or an ostensible “chaos of representations.” Reason and intellect are in the service of life and their functions serve to construct a “world” in which we can act effectively, in which our various “needs” and “drives” are satisfied. Our sensory modalities are selective and conditioned by interest, need, and serviceability. They exclude extraneous detail and, as a result of a long evolutionary process, have developed a precision that is adequate to the preservation needs of the species. We are able to perceive only what is useful for us, only up to the point beyond which our sensory system would be overwhelmed by stimuli. Because of the inherited, acquired, and contemporary psychic factors that enter into our sensory awareness, there is no such thing as “immaculate perception.” Perception is pervaded by interest and is value-laden.
Nietzsche's conception of the threshold of our modalities of sense is compatible with recent studies on the psychology of consciousness. Our consciousness is “outward-oriented” and concerned primarily with action; the primary function of sensory awareness is “biological survival.” The mass of stimuli that bombard our senses must be selectively limited by a process of “multilevel … filtration.” This “filtered input” is, then, the basis for our “construction” of our immediate environment. The content of sensory experience is processed in relation to needs, interest, and, ultimately, survival. Furthermore, it is plausibly assumed that our mode of sensory awareness “is only one possible consciousness.”
The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is unconsciously built on the language habits of the group.
Edward Sapir, Language
Although Nietzsche is mentioned in the works of structuralist thinkers and is a strong presence in the writings of Foucault, the precise relationship between his analyses of consciousness, language, and structural analysis has not been delineated. This dimension of the philosophy of this many-sided thinker has been recognized, but not fully explored. Although Nietzsche is not the pure type of structuralist, he is, nonetheless, very much concerned with the uniformity in forms of thought and language that he believes have determined the cognitive-linguistic system of those who think, speak, and write in Indo-European languages. This concern is central to his critical stance in relation to sedimentations of language and thought that he believes have perpetuated a false, but pragmatically useful, conception of the world.
In all probability, Nietzsche found the first suggestion of a structural analysis of language in his study of F. A. Lange's History of Materialism. He discovered this work in 1866 and returned to it for inspiration from time to time, specifically incorporating some of its critical analyses into his epistemological notes of the late 1880s. Since we have sufficient evidence that he studied Lange's rich critical history of materialism with great care and praised it as a “treasure-house,” we are justified in looking there for a foreshadowing of his own structuralist leanings.
In the course of examining recent work in anthropology and in the “psychology of peoples,” Lange refers with approval to a study of Bastian’s, Der Mensch in der Geschichte (1830), considered an important contribution to “ethnopsychology” or “pragmatisch Anthropologie.” Specifically, Lange praises Bastian's sympathetic understanding of primitive peoples and his recognition of the complexity and richness of their cultures. What he has to say about the value of Bastian's study is especially interesting in light of the subsequent development of structuralism. He remarks that Bastian saw
that the similarities in the mental condition of peoples, and especially in their mythological traditions, are to be explained, not so much by their descent from a common primitive stock, as by the same psychological disposition, which must necessarily lead to the same or similar creations of superstition and myth.
Like geometry each scientific theory is our own, human.
R. J. Boscovich, Theory of Natural Philosophy
Although interpretations of Nietzsche's philosophy often allude to the theory of nature propounded by the Serbo-Croatian physical theorist Roger Boscovich, there have been few attempts (until recently) to see whether there is a strong relationship between Boscovich's theoretical physics and what has sometimes been called Nietzsche's “cosmology” or “physics.” In addition, the close relationship between central conceptions in dynamic theories of nature and Nietzsche's conception of the will to power has not often been explored. Although Nietzsche rarely refers to Boscovich by name, the enthusiasm he expresses for his theory of nature finds its way into remarks in Beyond Good and Evil and occasionally in his notes.
Boscovich's Theory of Natural Philosophy anticipated a number of themes in twentieth-century physical theory. Working against the background of the triumph of Newtonian mechanics, Boscovich challenged some of its key principles. And he developed an imaginative theory of matter that anticipated and provided the groundwork for a field theory of physical action. On the basis of his study of bodies in collision, Boscovich formulated a theory of the structure of matter that postulated dimensionless, indivisible “points of force.”
Boscovich focused upon themes that came to fruition only in the general theory of relativity and quantum physics. He regarded Newton's system as a generally accurate description of the universe, but held that the law of gravitation was a “classical limit” that was approximately accurate as applied to extensive distances. He maintained, however, that for phenomena of atomic size Newton's classical law was insufficient. At the atomic level forces of attraction are replaced by continuous oscillations between both attractive and repulsive physical forces.
The development of the idea of a pervasive “will to power” present in all dynamic entities can be traced, in Nietzsche's thought, from his critical insight into the psychological drive for power over others as a kind of overcompensation for feelings of inferiority or as an expression of ressentiment to his empirically derived assumption that there is a biophysiological drive to master an environment or strive for dominance.
Although Nietzsche often expresses unjust criticisms of Kant's thought, and did not have a detailed understanding of Kant's critique of knowledge, he was profoundly influenced by his epistemic analyses. The only work of Kant's that he seems to have studied with care was the Critique of Judgment. He read it in preparation for a brief, unpublished, and none-too-original essay entitled “On Teleology.” That Nietzsche wrote this essay when he was twenty-three, and made notes on Kant in 1888 indicates the longevity of his struggle with and against a formidable philosophical foe.
Interestingly, in this early study of Kant's Critique of Judgment Nietzsche hesitates to adopt Kant's notion of the relation between teleology and life, but is sympathetic to the emphasis upon the applicability of a mechanistic explanation to the natural world and its inapplicability to organic life. We can already see the emergence of Nietzsche's philosophy of life, his conception of the unique nature of living beings, his preoccupation with “forms of life,” and with the belief that we can comprehend life only via human analogy.
Nietzsche was familiar with Kant's philosophy primarily through critical commentaries such as F. A. Lange's discussion of Kant in The History of Materialism, Schopenhauer's treatment of Kant in The World as Will and Representation, and Kuno Fischer's volume on Kant in his Geschichte der neureren Philosophie. Although Nietzsche's approach to Kant's analysis of knowledge is typically critical, he absorbs much of the subjectivistic slant of the first edition of the Critique and some of Kant's terminology.
Nietzsche's early formulation of a pragmatic account of knowledge owes a great deal to his understanding of Kant's conception of practical reason. In addition, the emphasis upon the questionable nature of transcendental metaphysics, as well as the stress on agnosticism concerning actuality, which one finds throughout his writings, was indebted to Kant’s general orientation. Nietzsche's focus upon “conditional knowledge” and his conception of the fictive nature of basic categories of thought were suggested, in an indirect way, by Kant's critical philosophy and its skeptical implications.
The richness and diversity of what Nietzsche called his “philosophies” make his writings a complex, intriguing philosophical puzzle. He not only defends a perspectival approach to knowledge, but his own multifaceted thought is, in fact, an illustration of this approach to knowledge. It is perhaps for this reason that his evocative works have been subject to so many differing interpretations. The once-popular and distorted understandings of “what Nietzsche said” has long since been surpassed by the restoration of Nietzsche as philosopher. A “new” Nietzsche is discovered. But this assumes that the “old” Nietzsche is thoroughly known and understood. In point of fact, what is often discerned as a new Nietzschean philosophy is but an aspect of, a dimension of, the thought of a many-sided philosopher who eschewed a systematic presentation of his reflections.
In this approach to the thought of Nietzsche, my intention is not to offer a liberal interpretation of his “text” in order to fit him into a predetermined pattern but to attempt to understand his philosophical project, as far as possible, from within. My primary stress is his lifelong preoccupation with the problem of anthropomorphism, his persistent wrestling with the question of knowledge and his reformation of its meaning, his response to a rising scientific culture, and the dynamic theory of the natural world he found intriguing and suggestive of a world-model. I place particular emphasis upon perspectivalism and Nietzsche's modified appropriation of, and critique of, Kant's analysis of knowledge. Finally, I will explore the rationale for his putative reversion to “metaphysics” in the theory of the will to power. All of these themes are interwoven in most of Nietzsche's kaleidoscopic writings. They fuel his skepticism about certainty and objective knowledge even as they stimulate his attempts to create meaning in a world in which the religious interpretation of existence is waning and a powerful culture of science is emerging. They reflect the consequences of the enormous scientific advances since Copernicus that have decentered, demythologized, and diminished the value of the human world.
I emphasize Nietzsche's critique of knowledge because his epistemological attacks on traditional conceptions of knowledge, the idea of transcendental truth, absolute truth, or “truth-in-itself” are essential ingredients of his ambitious philosophical task. He was not satisfied with simply saying that we have no access—in philosophy, in art, or in science—to a unifying holistic truth.