Today’s reading continues Nietzsche’s catalog of the errors of philosophers. These sections focus on writers more contemporary to Nietzsche, albeit with some references here and there to older writers as well.
Kant, for example, was hugely influential on German (and European) philosophy. His introduction of the categorical imperative inspired a generation of philosophers to explore just what this imperative was and what faculty in man was capable of comprehending it. And yet, Nietzsche believes that at the end of the day Kant and his followers had not gotten back to the real question, which is to explain
that such judgments must be believed to be true, for the sake of the preservation of creatures like ourselves; though they might, of course, be false judgments for all that. (11)
Kant, in other words, has not taught us something true about the world or morality—he has revealed a truth about our needs and drives as human beings.
If Kant is wrong, so too is “materialistic atomism… one of the best refuted theories there are” (12). Nietzsche does not explain here what is wrong with this theory in itself, instead he uses is as a springboard to discuss the doctrine that must be resisted:
that other and more calamitous atomism which Christianity has taught best and longest, the soul atomism. (12)
The idea that each of us are spiritual abstractions separate from each other and in some way above the physical world is the pernicious idea that Nietzsche sets his sights on. Which isn’t to say we should dispense with the word “soul” all together—Nietzsche is quite happy to keep it so long as it is stripped of any real or substantive meaning. Phrases like “mortal soul,” “soul as subjective multiplicity,” or “soul as social structure of the drives and affects” he’s perfectly comfortable with.
Nietzsche again takes aim at the idea of teleology (which I assume involves at least a nod to Hegel), even the simple biological teleology of self-preservation may be more than we actually observe:
A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength—life itself is will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results. (13)
We have instincts and drives, but to claim that they have a direction is to take a view based on an assumption that we cannot prove and that we ourselves bring to the table, rather than finding already there in existence itself.
The natural sciences—hard and soft alike—do not escape Nietzsche’s judgment. Both physics (14) and psychology (15–16) in themselves cannot give us a holistic view of ourselves and the world. They too have their preconceptions that color both their methods and their results. Which isn’t to say that we should embrace their opposites either. If natural science tells us to embrace only what we can see, we should not necessarily run to Platonism and embrace what we cannot see because we cannot see it. Likewise psychology encourages us to draw certain conclusions about how “I think” but doesn’t really stop to reflect on the source of thought or the relationship between the “I” and the “think”; instead it assumes the common ground between the two already (17).
Finally, Nietzsche discusses the large philosophical category of free will. At first he takes a fairly traditional approach, noting that the will in itself does nothing but instead involves a movement of the mind and the sensations toward an object of desire or away from an object of revulsion. That much we can find in Augustine. Nietzsche, however, focuses on the “object.” If the will is to be free, there must be an object for it to affect:
That which is termed “freedom of the will” is essentially the affect of superiority in relation to him who must obey: “I am free, ‘he’ must obey”—this consciousness is inherent in every will. (19)
There is an element of joy in this dominance when the will is exercised over someone or something else, and so freedom of the will in a sense is found not dependent merely on us but also on our environments. Which is an interesting argument, albeit one I’m not really sold on.
More next time.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.