Nietzsche’s ‘Scepticism’

December 8, 2012

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.


19 Responses to “Nietzsche’s ‘Scepticism’”

  1. Naxos Says:

    I do not think it is a question of scepticism in Nietzsche’s case, but of a matter of fact to be affirmed, not even confirmed, i.e, the event of sense in him has nothing to do with beliefs, but with the values that are immanent to it, outside it. So let’s say that there is thus in Nietzsche nothing to be sceptical for: scepticism is a term that leaves much to desire regards to the philosophical envisioning he achieved, and in this sense Nietzsche was farther than he would actually admit. Of course, having such a fundamental will to knowledge was not for him a bourgeois choice, but a fact of his life, its embodied event.

  2. […] Nietzsche’s ‘Scepticism’ […]

  3. duncan Says:

    Nietzsche claims this will to knowledge is a fact of his life – he tells us so – it is one of his beliefs, and he would like it to be one of our beliefs – just as there are many other claims (with associated beliefs) advanced in his work. The works for which he is remembered are not his musical compositions (which can convincingly be said to lack propositional content), but his non-fiction books (plus Zarathustra), and these non-fiction books contain propositional content. I don’t think it make much sense to affirm this belief of Nietzsche’s (that he possesses a fundamental will to knowledge) by saying that the event of sense in him has nothing to do with beliefs. This point about his purported embodied will to knowledge is a belief – it’s a belief that you and Nietzsche share.

    Smaller point: “immanent to” and “outside” seem to be opposed, not complementary, concepts.

  4. j. Says:

    i would have thought that your respondent above meant something like: nietzsche’s identification with the will to knowledge is an affirmation that he values knowledge, and the pursuit of it, more highly than other things, or most or all things. but it’s not obvious that that is meant to confer legitimacy on any particular claims made as part of the pursuit of knowledge (which in any case nietzsche often makes with evident concern for the quality of the bases of his claims, correctness of explanations, and the like – for example as when he steps back from making vanity a primary factor in his explanations after human, all too human).

    my impression, without having read the genealogy in some time, was that by identifying himself with the will to knowledge nietzsche is recalling some of his recurring concerns: the potential harmfulness of the will to knowledge, a thinker’s personal involvement in his work, the conception of self-created individuals as sources of change in values, the proximity or continuity between the ascetic ideal and that of the knowledge-seekers nietzsche counts himself as part of. with those sorts of things in mind, doesn’t the denial of individuality sound extremely odd for nietzsche? as part, i would think, of an admission that there is still much for knowledge-seekers to understand about themselves, if they can be driven on by such a trans-personal demand which (if they go along with nietzsche) they can see as shared with some of their subjects of critique.

  5. Naxos Says:

    @duncan: Thanks for your reply 😉 ! I think you are not getting Nietzsche’s point as it goes: if this will of knowledge is a fact of his life, it is because it happened to him, you see? This will of knowledge happened to him and was his event. He lived this event as it happened to him in a very empirical way. You take as for granted that he only believed in it because it is supposedly given to all, and therefore, as he realized about it, he thus believed it. But it is not like that. He would not believe as a belief something that happened to him as a fact (the hugest fact of life). There is no way nor a reason to believe in fact that what has happened to you: when it happens, as it has happened, it is not believable but knowledgeable. Something that we know as a fact because it actually has happened as such to us cannot be something to believe, quite the contrary: it comes as the hugest certitude. Nietzsche did not believed HE was that will, but that he was becoming through it, and hence his philosophical histrionism: he enacted and performed this his will with his life and through his writings: hence, the event of sense in him has nothing to do with beliefs.
    And your smaller point turns out to be the biggest and the most important: in what world immanence does not come from the outside?

  6. […] Nietzsche’s ‘Scepticism’ […]

  7. duncan Says:

    Responding to J. first –

    Nietzsche’s work is not fully consistent with itself, either conceptually or affectively, within individual works or across the corpus – but there is a logic to its inconsistency that makes the work comprehensible in symptomatic and ideological terms. Nietzsche is certainly recalling some of his recurrent concerns in this passage, and all of the items you list are longstanding preoccupations. But I do not find the denial of individuality strange, given these things – for this denial is also a longstanding preoccupation. From first to last Nietzsche is interested in the denial of and dissolution of individualisation, as the empirical individual is revealed as epiphenomenal of deeper life-forces, and the world-historical legitimacy and potency of the individual’s actions/thought is taken as derived from the generality of these life-forces. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche names this movement – whereby the individual is dissolved into / revealed as an agent of the general world-will – Dionysian, and his recurrent description of himself as ‘Dionysus’ (up to, if I recall correctly, the end of Ecce Homo) is meant to resonate with this vision. Nietzsche never abandons the Schopenhauerian idea that there is a seething, teeming, self-conflicted but ultimately monistic metaphysical will underlying phenomenal reality, though how he understands this will differs at different times – sometimes more biologistically, sometimes as a more metaphysical will to power. Throughout his corpus, Nietzsche thinks that the power of his work comes from the fact that he, more than others, channels this will, this deep world-unity, is in contact with it, represents it. But there is a tension and a terror in this self-conception, because Nietzsche is also frightened by the thought of loss of self, dissolution of self. Nietzsche wants to be an individual who channels these things, as an individual – he thinks he has a world-historical mission, as an individual, to transvalue decadent values that do not themselves adequately channel the world’s life-will – and he thinks that to do so his own will – or, at a push, the will of a future ubermensch who may turn out not to be Nietzsche, though hopefully he will be – is itself, as individual will, self- and world-forging. The great-willed individuals can, in their own individual actions, make new worlds, and should be glorified as individuals because of this capacity. The individual who, in their self-forging unique and adamantine individuality, reveals the illusion of individuation – this is one of Nietzsche’s most consistent desires.

    This position is not a stable one – it cannot actually be coherently achieved – so Nietzsche’s text vacillates around different moments of it, emphasising now one, now another, constantly attempting and failing to bind them together into a realisable whole. The passage I quote is one such moment – the moment in which Nietzsche emphasises that his own thought is not an individual’s thought, but channels “one will, one health, one earth”. At other moments Nietzsche emphasises instead the self-forging sovereign individual, who makes their own world and seemingly channels nothing. This inconsistency or incoherence is itself an identifiable ideological position: it is fascism, or at least one of the most common philosophical articulations of fascism: Nietzsche is an early avatar of this cultural movement. (And the fact that Nietzsche’s text is committed to both positions is a problem with the text, not with my analysis of it.)

    Now, still talking to J., I think you’ve misunderstood where Naxos is coming from. My earlier response was based on the view – and I think Naxos’s subsequent comment confirms this interpretation – that Naxos is critical of my characterisation of Nietzsche’s themes here in terms of scepticism/belief. For Naxos, Nietzsche’s will to knowledge, and general willyness, his general contact with potent life-forces, is such a ferociously embodied fact that it escapes the grasp of belief and scepticism altogether – it is pre-discursive, and indeed not capturable by discourse – those of us who want to characterise Nietzsche in terms of his beliefs are missing the point, because that point is the raw potent factuality of Nietzsche’s [whatever-it-is-that-pedantic-decadent-priestly-philosophical-language-fails-to-capture]. Naxos’s position – like Nietzsche’s – is an irrationalist one, and he objects to my characterising it in terms of (what I would call) the space of reasons – i.e. interlocking networks of beliefs.

    My view, however, (and here I’m talking to Naxos too) is that whatever Naxos thinks he’s doing, in this thread he’s articulating beliefs, and so is Nietzsche. One of those beliefs is the belief that the sheer willful power of Nietzschean embodied life can’t be challenged at the level of beliefs. I think this belief is wrong.

    Still talking to Naxos – on the immanence question: immanence is typically contrasted with transcendence, where that which is transcendent is outside, and that which is immanent is within. For example:

    remaining within; indwelling; inherent.
    Philosophy . (of a mental act) taking place within the mind of the subject and having no effect outside of it. Compare transeunt.
    Theology . (of the Deity) indwelling the universe, time, etc. Compare transcendent ( def 3 ) .

    There is, I think, a trend in modern continental philosophy to shift the meaning of the term. My read of it is that there was a longish period where commitment to transcendence was regarded as deplorably naive or passé; that there are a lot of people who are, in fact, strongly committed to transcendence; and that there’s therefore been a shift towards simply renaming ‘transcendence’ as ‘immanence’. Laruellean ‘Non-philosophy’ seems a particularly striking example of this: Laruelle is (on my admittedly apparently controversial read) literally a gnostic – exemplarily committed to a transcendent reality – but insists that his position is one of “radical” immanence. But this is part of a more general trend, I think.

    That said, I wouldn’t want to go to the wall on that informal sense of shifting philosophical usage.

  8. Naxos Says:

    Thanks for your response 🙂 Well, I have the impression that you have missed my point, and that you omitted inadvertently the idea that this will of knowledge is something to be very empirically experienced, that is not given per se in experience itself, and that to achieve it is needed certain experimentation with sense, value and knowledge. You missed the point, because we are not talking about whether what we articulate are beliefs or not, we are talking about if this will to knowledge was in Nietzsche a belief or a fact. For me it is a fact that this will was in him a fact. And with ‘fact’ I mean The Event, the great event of life. So, to have this will is conditioned then by the experience of this event. This event that means transvaluation comes as an instant that strikes the interiority of experience, meaning an openness that fulminates (not even dissolves) the identity of the self in a single hit. It is the event of God’s death, particularly the one announced as such by Zarathustra in his descending [see ].

    From where I come from, there is no need to take a position framed by a limited scholastic view, which is the one you seem to be subjected to, otherwise you would not be so urged to put me as irrationalist: but see that of such a scholastic frame being an irrationalist means no big deal. However, Nietzsche was more as a legislator and a thinker than an irrationalist. Let me copy-paste a part of a response I did once in a blog regarding to this:
    **For Deleuze, following Nietzsche: reason represents our slavery and subjections as superiorities that makes us ‘reasonable beings’ who have interiorized established values as part of our experience. Beyond the masks of ‘reason’ and ‘nature’ there are intensities and forces of thought to be experienced, and in this sense, Nietzsche suggested that no one can be ‘reasonable’ enough. From this perspective, being irrational is not opposed to thought, on the contrary: irrationalism makes thought to intervene in experience: what opposes reason is thought itself. We see then that in the Nietzschean system it is not but thought what recovers its superiority against reason: what is opposed to ‘being reasonable’ is one ‘being a thinker’ because thought would unmask reason and ‘legislate’ against it. We see that it is not quite a question of elimination, not even a question of ‘draining’ or ‘dissolving’ reason from our body. With Nietzsche, it is a question of smashing the conventional sense and the historical values of established reason. This ‘hammering’ is indeed one epistemological stage to grasp sense and values in a more creative non-established and non-juridical way.**
    It is not that I believe in this, it is that I share this conceptualization in my experience, a ionization of knowledge into a body-schemed-experience, which means that I am able to comprehend it, and therefore, to think about it despite me and myself, and of course, despite anything that I could eventually believe. It is not that I don’t believe at all, but what I believe is not fixed and static anymore, it is more like disposable instead, precisely because I am able to think about it and thus, to comprehend it less conceptually as changeable, provisional, fruit of my own bad conscience etc. Thus, this legislation is also an affective temper-ation of values and sense. But all this does not happen if the event is not achieved in experience: the very empirical experience of this event is a condition of thought itself, a condition to experience life intensively in its own materiality. And when one gets to get this post-Nietzschean implication of the event, which is where I come from 😉 , one is able to see that what strikes through this absolute experience and breaks with all what is trascendent in it, what opens it to its own outside, is not but life itself (being this outside life’s own immanence, i.e, immanence itself). And that is where I come from 😎 .

  9. Naxos Says:

    Ooos errata! where it says:

    **but see that of such a scholastic frame being an irrationalist means no big deal**

    should be instead:

    **but see that [out] of such a scholastic frame being an irrationalist means no big deal**


  10. […] December 8, 2012 8.25am […]

  11. I haven’t read all the comments but its always funny that Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values results in his reverence for strength, candor, cleanliness, punctuality, social order, respect for one’s betters…

  12. duncan Says:

    To be honest I think Naxos and I understand each other pretty well – with, to be sure, rather different valences in our perspectives on each others’ words. When Naxos says I miss the point, he means (to my eyes) not that I mischaracterise what he is saying, but that I fail to grant its profundity. We agree that, for Naxos, this is not a matter of belief – but I regard Naxos’s points as dogmatic assertions of revelation, and he regards my request for reasons as scholastic quibblings that miss the core of life. This is a differend – we will not persuade each other. When Naxos writes that –

    For me it is a fact that this will was in him a fact. And with ‘fact’ I mean The Event, the great event of life.

    – he is asserting that he has no need to ground his claims in anything other than the self-remaking revelation of their power: if you experiment boldly with sense and value you too may perhaps experience a similar Event, and then you will have no need of epistemological ground for your assertions, just like Naxos and Nietzsche. This is unarguable – no one can argue with revelation – but neither can one argue for it. One must simply experience, assert, or accept it. Those who have experienced this revelation may indeed find it fully compelling as stands. But one should remember, in these scenarios, that experiences of revelation can often also be explained by delusion or hallucination, and one should remember, when faced with such assertions, that prophecies are a dime a dozen, Nietzsche’s and Naxos’s vision no different, in evidentiary terms, from those of every street corner prophet. For myself, simple assertion of revelatory Evental rapture is insufficient to warrant membership in rational secular public discourse; such claims should be protected and defended under the principle of freedom of religion, but there is no need beyond political pragmatism for them to be seriously incorporated into secular, empirical inquiry (and secular empirical inquiry is what this blog is for, no matter what visions may accompany it).

  13. duncan Says:

    Chabert – that made me laugh out loud. You’re right – Nietzsche is full of these innovations. Did you know that we have lost touch with insights known to the ancient Greeks, for instance?

  14. Naxos Says:

    Thanks again 🙂 I agree, though I am still retractile to accept with you that my points are dogmatic assertions of revelation, while it is easier for you to accept with me that your scholastic posture is only useful to deny the implications I have exposed. I am being straight with my words: am not preaching this event in any sense as you seem to suggest, but you are free to take my points as such according to your own subjections. However, I do not see why you think that I need no epistemological ground to hold my assertions: on the contrary, the problem is that any epistemology that would ground them would be erratic in its own terms, but this does not mean that such epistemology would not exist: we are talking about a huge (unprecedented) epistemology of life, an epistemology where life presents itself as the instance that ruptures with any philosophy that aims to contain it and that pursues it as its object. But this aim is not even objectively nor empirically imaginable as there is no philosophy that would contain, in its proper terms, the absolute implication of life as a knowledge-able experiencie-able ‘object’. Given this erraticness, we have to be braver and take off our academic hats (mostly if we consider ourselves philosophers, which might not be your case as professor) so to accept that any truthful approximation to this ‘object’ would transform our experience in a way that any of our beliefs would unstick from of their substantial fixism and thus, within their fulminant dissolution as a fact, would expose our body to its own singular becomings. So we are not arguing with revelation, we are arguing with life as potentially and materially objective: but if from a scholastic subjection this implication presents itself as a revelation, it is because such limited subjection does not have any other word to refer to this erraticness. Nietzschean histrionism is explained in this sense of becoming, as it was confronting directly this sort of substantial erracticness. From this point of view, the great event of life, while empirically experienced as such, is just the sign of how our boby-experience have learnt and conquered a new horizon of success, a broader one: but if it has done so, it was only on the basis of an older horizon whose terms were provisionally truthful but after the experience **reveal** themselves as erratic. The only thing that might be revelatory, if so, would be this erraticness of the terms.

  15. […] December 9, 2012 9.35am […]

  16. Naxos Says:

    Pff, rereading my last comment i foudn another errata, sorry, where it says:

    **in a way that any of our beliefs would unstick**

    should be

    **in a way that [every] of our beliefs would unstick**

    and where it says:

    **boby-experience** LOL

    should be of course:

    **body-experience** 🙂

    I want to thank duncan for this exchange 😉

  17. duncan Says:

    Well as I say, we’re not going to persuade one another here. Readers can inspect the turbulent depths of their own souls to discover whether Naxos’s comments resonate with sufficient pre-conceptual factuality to warrant endorsement. I would ask readers to note, however, that although Naxos insists that his comments gesture (presumably inexpressibly) towards a perspective that no pitiful scholastic philosophy can contain, they also belong firmly in an established philosophical tradition: lebensphilosophie. It’s curious that such embodied visions, subject to no scholastic pettiness, seem also so consistently to be explicable by the usual banal sociological and intellectual influences – almost as these visions do not touch the occluded mysterious core of life at all, but express the preoccupations of a particular social milieu, like so much else.

    I’d also ask readers to note the approach that Naxos and Nietzsche take when discussing epistemological doubts about their views. It is not that evidence is adduced – rather, in-group and out-group boundaries are established, around virtues such as bravery: “we have to be braver and take off our academic hats”. It’s always brave to be a Nietzschean – cowardly to be otherwise. Are you, reader, not a Nietzschean? Well, what a puny worm you must be, I’m sorry to say. It isn’t particularly clear why the Nietzschean views advocated require especial bravery. But it’s clear that you must lack that bravery if you fail to shudder at their abyssal profundity. This mode of argument does not really function by persuading – it functions by intimidating and seducing. On the one hand: you too could be so brave as to read and value Zarathustra! On the other hand: imagine what a wretch you must be if you don’t join our club of courageous value-forgers. This is the same rhetoric of ‘persuasion’ that informs us that sophisticated gentlemen buy this brand of cigarette; plebian scum buy that brand. Or that only an embarrassingly cowardly, priestly and stupid individual would fail to see the lustrous threads of this glorious coat, invisible to scholastic philosophers.

  18. Naxos Says:

    That’s the problem with bad conscience: it always leads people (and professors) to take dialectically what others say mostly when they say it with frankness, straightness and openness –the frankness, straightness and openness that these people (and professors) do not exert for their sakes, and thus, that when is expressed in their face rawly as such, i.e, when it is exerted by others in their own experience, i,e, when these others give themselves such a liberty to their minds and bodies: this frankness, straightness and openness is taken as the excess that such people (and professors) cannot afford, though that they intimately long without knowing. This reactive forms of expression speak in the name of superior values, though not in the own name of each of these people (and professors): no singularity is allowed in their experience, thus, nothing of that it is accepted. How could they accept what they have lost and what they did not enrich themselves and instead got spoiled and unvented from inside? Readers shall be already aware that this failed conscience of life is the heavily weight that shapes and moves duncan’s way of thinking.

    I have already expressed my views here, so I am off this conversation for now. I am still thankful with duncan for the exchange, maybe in a near future, when he would get himself tired of feeding his encystments, we could have it again: I am sure that then I will be able to learn something from him 😉

  19. […] December 10, 2012 3.25pm […]

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