Nietzsche’s thought is bravely, corrosively, excoriatingly sceptical – letting no piety stand before it; destroying the platitudes of our decadent time in its lordly conflagration of received opinions: so we are told, most of all by Nietzsche himself, who informs us – boldly yet bashfully – that, when we read him, we are in the presence of

a characteristic scepticism to which I confess only reluctantly… a scepticism which sprang up in my life so early, so unbidden, so unstoppably, and which was in such conflict with my surroundings, age, precedents, and lineage that I would almost me justified in calling it my ‘a priori’ (The Geneaology of Morality, 1994, Cambridge University Press, p. 4-5)

Nothing escapes this scepticism – all thought and action is subjected to it, as Nietzsche ruthlessly pursues his genealogies of morality and truth, uncovering the tarnished origins of our most cherished convictions, aided by his “innate fastidiousness with regard to all psychological problems”.

Curiously, though, something escapes this scepticism: the source of Nietzsche’s own claims. On this epistemological matter – the legitimacy of his views – Nietzsche informs us:

The fact that I still stick to them today, and that they themselves in the meantime have stuck together increasingly firmly, even growing into one another and growing into one, makes me all the more blithely confident that from the first, they did not arise in me individually, randomly or sporadically but as stemming from a single root, from a fundamental will to knowledge deep inside me which took control, speaking more and more clearly and making clearer and clearer demands. And this is the only thing proper for a philosopher. We have no right to stand out individually: we must not either make mistakes or hit on the truth individually. Instead, our thoughts, values, every ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘if’, and ‘but’ grow from us with the same inevitability as fruits borne on the tree – all related and referring to one another and a testimonial to one will, one health, one earth, one sun. (p. 4)

Nietzsche’s scepticism is remorseless – except when it comes to Nietzsche. Should you doubt Nietzsche’s historical conjectures or political preferences, remind yourself that Nietzsche possesses “a fundamental will to knowledge” deep inside him – bound to one health, one earth and one sun. Do you have such a fundamental will? Is it deep inside you? No? Then fuck you: let Nietzsche speak.

The shamelessness of this rhetorical move – all should be doubted, except the world-historical profundity of Nietzsche’s vision – has not damaged its effectiveness. Nietzsche appeals to those vulnerable to being bullied by his certainty, and to those who wish also to inhabit the privileged clique of world-historical visionaries, alongside him. Nietzsche does not appeal to those who care about the basis of their claims.

Nietzschean ‘scepticism’, then, and its derivatives, should be seen for what it is: a lack of scepticism, a self-deluding gullibility, a willingness to believe the most unsupported fantasies if they provide a particularly gratifying self-understanding – all presented, falsely, bizarrely, as coruscating willingness to subject everything to critique.

Obvious points, I realise – but still.

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In the introduction to the first edition of his classic The Division of Labour in Society (1893), Durkheim inquires into the possibility of a science of morality. He writes that it is untenable to begin one’s scientific investigation of morality with the underlying rules that guide ethical behaviour, because there is considerable disagreement as to what those rules might be:

each moralist has his own particular doctrine, and the diversity of doctrines proves the flimsiness of the so-called objective value. (Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society, 1964, The Free Press: Toronto, p. 411)

He discusses some of the most prominent attempts to prove the objectivity of a given universal moral law (most notably Kant’s ‘derivation’ of the categorical imperative), and argues that they fail to establish the objectivity of the laws they advocate. If we begin with a dogmatic conviction that a given moral law is the right one, Durkheim argues, then our investigation cannot be a scientific one, for this conviction cannot be scientifically established.

Possibly, there is an eternal law of morality, written by some transcendental power, or perhaps immanent in the nature of things, and perhaps historical morality is only a series of successive approximations; but this is a metaphysical hypothesis that we do not have to discuss. (423)

How then should a scientific study of morality begin? It should look at observable behaviour, and make this the starting point of its analysis. Specifically, it should look at social sanctions.

This predetermined reaction, exercised by society on the agent who has violated the rule, constitutes what is called a sanction. (425)

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