Nietzsche against Metaphysics: The Ironic Naturalism of the Gay Science

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The next several posts will cover one of Friedrich Nietzcshe’s most important works: The Gay Science (Die fröliche Wissenschaft). My earlier post “Nietzsche on Joy” does some legwork in introducing the reader to the basic theme of the text: incipit parodia. Nietzsche has undergone a convalescent period—a bout of psychosomatic illness—from which he has emerged healthy. For Nietszche, the gay science symbolizes the warm wind that melts away the winter. He mocks that winter: the parody begins. But there are several ways in which one can observe the metaphor. A parody of what winter? This post will explore what I consider the major theme of Book 1 of 5 of the Gay Science (GS): the arguments made by Nietzsche against metaphysics.

GS, a mature text, contains several of Nietzsche’s most important psychological and philosophical ideas: genealogical critiques, the death of God, eternal return of the same, etc. It has been called by many people his most important work alongside Thus Spoke Zarathustra but differs from that text in its style. Zarathustra is a poetic text that contains riddles and parables; The Gay Science is a prose work that mounts (sometimes) clear and direct arguments. Its riddles arise not from the meaning of the images but from Nietzsche’s endless philosophical irony.

Monika Langer’s book Nietzsche’s Gay Science: Dancing Coherence offers a unified, thematic reading of the text—as opposed to the idea that the text is volatile, random, and chaotic—that turns on three specific themes: “the de-deification of nature, the world, morality, and knowledge; the naturalization of ourselves; and the beautification of our lives.”1 Though her book reads like a Byzantine paraphrase—a testament to the difficulty of organizing the myriad angles of thought that Nietzsche exercises in GS—the book is generally useful. This post takes on the first of those themes—”de-deification”, a term that I shall adjust slightly in the next paragraph—within the range of GS 1.

These three themes help to provide a general framework for how to read and navigate the text. Nietzsche is commonly read as a philosopher who still believes that there is a grand and ultimate reality to which natural science has a prioritized access.2, 3, 4 I should instead defend the claim that Nietzsche did not actually believe anything like ‘scientific discourse is the only real discourse’, but rather that a certain irony inheres in any statement that seems to assert a naturalist priority. As a result, I should instead replace Langer’s characterization of a major theme of GS as ‘de-deification’ with the claim that GS establishes an outright anti-metaphysical position. I should likewise replace Martin Heidegger’s claim of Nietzsche’s being “the last metaphysician” qua thinker of the will to power with Nietzsche’s being the first anti-metaphysician. The claim is simple: Nietzsche at no point presumes himself to be speaking about anything like an ‘ultimate, metaphysical reality.’

But Nietzsche is hardly the first anti-metaphysician; perhaps he is simply the best; or the handsomest; or perhaps he was the best/handsomest of the 19th century and so became the seed of 20th century critiques of Cartesian science that philosophers today must engage with should they desire to understand those he influenced. Anti-metaphysics has a long and complicated history, especially in the Greek thought in which Nietzsche was a specialist. Sextus Empiricus comes to mind first as a thinker who rejects metaphysics as impossible and pointless, though for reasons very different than why Nietzsche has rejected it.

So, I should call Nietzsche an Anti-Metaphysician. There are perhaps more elegant ways to characterize his view, or more academic ones along the lines of Justin Remhof’s “Nietzsche-is-a-constructivist-about-objects”, and I shall take those on once I discover them. But, for now, to characterize Nietzsche as an anti-metaphysician works.

But why am I even saying this? Again, most read Nietzsche as a naturalist. Authors like Martin Heidegger and Richard Rorty think that Nietzsche understands human life via a form of ‘biologism’ that expresses itself in the will to power. Heidegger, Rorty, and many others view Nietzsche (in his texts) as not having fully anticipated the revolution against Cartesian science of the 20th century. Heidegger, whose third of four volumes on Nietzsche mostly concerns the Nachlass published posthumously as “Will to Power”, thinks that Nietzsche in a way became dependent on the “Neo-Kantian twaddle” about epistemology.5 But in what way is Nietzsche given to the idea that human knowledge has a ground in biological necessity? I’m skeptical about the claim that he consciously or unconsciously committed himself to this biologism, that he did not actively commit himself to the notion that the natural sciences just as well constitute the same kind of absolutism, even if the thought of ethics as always expressive of the will to power helped him undermine much of the nihilist metaphysics that he attacked.

In Book 1 of The Gay Science Nietzsche slowly develops the idea that all metaphysics is error through his analysis of the different species of metaphysical errors that he finds in major religions and philosophical movements, and the residual magic they leave behind even after they perish. He sees: Platonic metaphysics is in error; Christian metaphysics is in error; Hindu metaphysics is in error; Kantian metaphysics is in error; all metaphysical systems are in error. He eventually concludes that consciousness itself is reducible to a form of daydream that flows through individuals. The history of those episodes of consciousness—instantiated in thinking individuals—does not flow in a Hegelian teleological or Darwinian progressivist way toward a more absolute form of knowing or being but is more chaotic and random.

Nietzsche reduces all metaphysical knowledge to a persistent form of appearance (cf. GS, §54). Metaphysics itself appears so reliable that it itself gives rise to the conceptual distinction between “appearance” and “reality”. But the comings and goings of these metaphysical systems have in the end shown each system to be only apparently true. The more people that dedicate themselves to these errors by the multitude of possible means, the more costly these seemingly innocuous intellectual errors become.

Recall the social profile of Pygmalion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor who carved a beautiful ivory statue that ‘resembled’ a woman. And he then fell in love with what he had made. Ovid, who is often worth thinking better of, then implants the magical thought that Aphrodite turns Pygmalion’s ivory blow-up doll into a real, lovable lady. To get Nietzsche’s point: what if Pygmalion had gone through all this trouble only to exhaust himself on the magical wish that his creation would become a real woman?

Nietzsche’s point is largely this. You had the real world, natural, naked as it presented itself to you, before you ever became interested in ultimate truth; but that world hurt you in some way, it interrupted your daydream, and so you invented another protective and anesthetic world that promises a dividend for having long-suffered the affliction of being alive. You demanded a recompense for your suffering, but that recompense is part of the fiction that anesthetizes the suffering itself. You only get something “like” a recompense for your pain—a practical benefit—if you actually confront it, endure it, and have a physical constitution that such an experience will strengthen.

But doesn’t Nietzsche right here commit himself to a form of metaphysics—the biologism and physicalism that informs Heidegger’s and Rorty’s readings? How can Nietzsche justify replacing one metaphysical system—the Platonico-Christian metaphysics—with a new reductive naturalism? …This is where Nietzsche’s troubling irony enters the fold. Yes, he is positing a naturalist and biologist outlook as the most felicitous way of seeing. But is he really endorsing that naturalism as ultimate? Even after having dismantled the metaphysics of age after age, world after world?

I should rather argue that Nietzsche takes an ironic stance toward his own perspective. I think that Heidegger is also onto this, too, with his statements about Nietzsche as “the thinker of the thought of the will to power.” Recall that Nietzsche begins the text with a metaphor of seasonality: winter begets spring… and spring ultimately begets winter. But, again, GS is a song of spring: incipit parodia. His naturalism seems simply to mock the death of God… but he knows as he states from the very beginning that all his philosophical pursuits will culminate like all tragedies do: with a series of on-stage deaths.

When Rorty posits that Nietzsche contradicts himself and that he “slips into metaphysics”, I should counter that Nietzsche philosophizes—a pursuit which for him is a way of directing conscious attention—as a fallibilist, with the constant possibility of suspending any and every claim in place of some better idea. Importantly, Nietzsche uses his new biologistic metaphysics as a tool by means of which he can help his readers turn their lives away from the “clouds” in the Aristophanic sense and toward the real world that might be so frightening and painful. The “new metaphysics” of the will to power is purely a matter of emphasis and at its worst a naked ataraxic point: I think, above all else, it is simply the argument that must be made, not a statement of belief or reliabilist endorsement. So, I should argue that those naturalistic “slips into metaphysics” are conscious statements of a) a basic skepticism about all previous and future forms of metaphysics and b) both an affirmation of and a precursor to the tragedy of the metaphysics—the dominant naturalistic and biologistic ‘daydreams’—of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Langer, Monika M. Nietzsche’s Gay Science Dancing Coherence. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2010. xv.

Rorty, Richard. “Dewey and Posner on Pragmatism and Moral Progress,” University of Chicago Law Review: Vol. 74 : Iss. 3 , Article 3. 2007. Rorty in his Dewey Lecture argues that Nietzsche adheres to a solid form of scientific naturalism.

3 Sluga, Hans and Gary Gutting. “Foucault’s Encounter with Heidegger and Nietzsche”  In The Cambridge Companion to Foucault, 210-239. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 233-234. Sluga distinguishes Michel Foucault’s genealogy from Nietzsche’s in that Nietzsche was given to a sort of grand systematizing that Foucault wanted to avoid.

Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, trans. Joan Stambaugh, David Farrell Krell, and Frank A. Capuzzi, ed. David Farrell Krell, vol. III (New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987), 8. Heidegger Heideggerianly writes: “Nietzsche, the thinker of the thought of will to power, is the last metaphysician of the West.”

5 Ibid. 23.

Nietzsche the Anti-Metaphysician: the Ironic Naturalism of the Gay Science
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Nietzsche the Anti-Metaphysician: the Ironic Naturalism of the Gay Science
Influential philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Richard Rorty have argued that Friedrich Nietzsche commits himself to a form of naturalist metaphysics. This article explores the position of Nietzsche against metaphysics—even metaphysical naturalism.
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