Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Nietzsche's Naturalism Redux: Thoughts on Janaway

Sorry for the dearth of postings, it's been incredibly hectic lately. These are very much thoughts in progress. The main references are to Janaway's Beyond Selflessness: Reading Nietzsche's Genealogy (OUP, 2007) and to my Nietzsche on Morality (Routledge, 2002).


Christopher Janaway claims that most Nietzsche scholars now accept that Nietzsche is a naturalist in what Janaway calls the “broad sense”:

He opposes transcendental metaphysics, whether that of Plato or Christianity or Schopenhauer. He rejects notions of the immaterial soul, the absolutely free controlling will, or the self-transparent pure intellect, instead emphasizing the body, talking of the animal nature of human beings, and attempting to explain numerous phenomena by invoking drives, instincts, and affects which he locates in our physical, bodily existence. Human beings are to be “translated back into nature,” since otherwise we falsify their history, their psychology, and the nature of their values—concerning all of which we must know truths, as a means to the all-important revaluation of values. This is Nietzsche’s naturalism in the broad sense, which will not be contested here. (Janway 2007: 34)
This is less a “broad sense” of naturalism, however, than it is “Laundry List Naturalism.” Janaway seems oddly indifferent to the question why these are a set of views a philosophical naturalist ought to hold, or what it is that makes them the views of a philosophical naturalist at all.

My aim, in earlier work, was to make some philosophical sense of why Janaway’s Laundry List Naturalism, in fact, seems descriptively adequate to many things Nietzsche says. I suggested that underlying this Laundry List Naturalism was, in fact, a kind of familiar “Methodological Naturalism” (hereafter “M-Naturalism”), according to which “philosophical inquiry…should be continuous with empirical inquiry in the sciences” (2002: 3). Many philosophers are and have been Methodological Naturalists, but to understand Nietzsche, everything turns on the precise kind of M-Naturalism at issue. I emphasized two commitments of Nietzsche’s M-Naturalism. First, I claimed that Nietzsche is what I called a Speculative M-Naturalist, that is, a philosopher, like Hume, who wants to “construct theories that are ‘modeled’ on the sciences…in that they take over from science the idea that natural phenomena have deterministic causes” (Leiter 2002: 5). Speculative M-Naturalists do not, of course, appeal to actual causal mechanisms that have been well-confirmed by the sciences: if they did, they would not need to speculate! Rather, the idea is that their speculative theories of human nature are informed by the sciences and a scientific picture of how things work. Here, for example, is Stroud’s influential formulation of Hume’s Speculative M-Naturalism:

[Hume] wants to do for the human realm what he thinks natural philosophy, especially in the person of Newton, had done for the rest of nature.

Newtonian theory provided a completely general explanation of why things in the world happen as they do. It explains various and complicated physical happenings in terms of relatively few extremely general, perhaps universal, principles. Similarly, Hume wants a completely general theory of human nature to explain why human beings act, think, perceive and feel in all the ways they do….

[T]he key to understanding Hume’s philosophy is to see him as putting forward a general theory of human nature in just the way that, say, Freud or Marx did. They all seek a general kind of explanation of the various ways in which men think, act, feel and live….The aim of all three is completely general—they try to provide a basis for explaining everything in human affairs. And the theories they advance are all, roughly, deterministic. (Stroud 1977: 3, 4)

So Hume models his theory of human nature on Newtonian science by aiming to identify a few basic, general principles that will provide a broadly deterministic explanation of human phenomena, much as Newtonian mechanics did for physical phenomena. Yet the Humean theory if still speculative, because its claims about human nature are not confirmed in anything resembling a scientific manner, nor do they even win support from any contemporaneous science of Hume’s day.

Nietzsche’s Speculative M-Naturalism obviously differs from Hume’s in some respects: Nietzsche, for example, appears to be a skeptic about determinism based on his professed (if not entirely cogent) skepticism about laws of nature. Yet Nietzsche, like Hume, has a sustained interest in explaining why “human beings act, think, perceive and feel” as they do, especially in the broadly ethical domain. Like Hume, Nietzsche proffers a speculative psychology, though as I have argued elsewhere (Leiter 2007; Knobe & Leiter 2007), Nietzschean speculations seem to fare rather well in light of subsequent research in scientific psychology. And this speculative psychology (as well as the occasional physiological explanations he offers in passing) appear to give us causal explanations for various human phenomena, which, even if not law-governed, seem to have a deterministic character (cf. Leiter 2002: 5).

But I also emphasized a second aspect of Nietzsche’s M-Naturalism. As I noted, some M-Naturalists demand a kind of “results continuity” with existing science: “philosophical theories,” should they believe, “be supported or justified by the results of the sciences” (Leiter 2002: 4). I argued, however, there is only one kind of “results continuity” at work in Nietzsche, namely, the result that the German Materialists of his day thought followed from advances in physiology, namely, “that man is not of a ‘higher…[or] different origin’ than the rest of nature” (Leiter 2002: 7).[1] Arguably, Nietzsche’s one bit of Substantive (in contrast to Methodological) Naturalism--meaning “the (ontological) view that the only things that exist are natural” [Leiter 2002: 5]--is a consequence of this “results continuity. Here, of course, Nietzsche had in mind the developments in 19th-century physiology which appeared to support the view that all kinds of conscious experiences and attitudes had physiological explanations. (I discuss this at greater length in my book.)

By introducing Nietzsche’s naturalism within a broader typology of kinds of naturalism, I appear to have sowed confusion among some scholars. Janaway’s recent critique of my naturalist reading is illustrative. He complains, for example, that:

[N]o scientific support or justification is given—or readily imaginable—for the central explanatory hypotheses that Nietzsche gives for the origins of our moral beliefs and attitudes. For a prominent test case, take Nietzsche’s hypothesis in the Genealogy’s First Treatise that the labeling of non-egoistic inaction, humility, and compassion as “good” began because there were socially inferior classes of individuals in whom feelings of ressentiment against their masters motivated the creation of new value distinctions. This hypothesis explains moral phenomena in terms of their causes, but it is not clear how it is justified or supported by any kind of science, nor indeed what such a justification or support might be. (2007: 37)

This challenge, of course, simply ignores my claim that Nietzsche, like Hume, was a Speculative M-Naturalist, as, of course, Nietzsche had to be given the primitive state of psychology in the 19th-century! A Speculative M-Naturalist simply does not claim that the explanatory mechanisms essential to his theory of why humans think and act as they do are supported by existing scientific results. To be sure, what Nietzsche does do is appeal to psychological mechanisms—such as the seething hatred characteristic of ressentiment—for which there seems to be ample evidence in both ordinary and historical experience, and weave a narrative showing how that simple mechanism could give rise to particular human beliefs and attitudes. It is, moreover, quite easy to see what empirical evidence would bear on this. To start, is there a reason to individuate a psychological like ressentiment for either diagnostic or predictive purposes? And if so, what is the symptomology of those suffering from that emotion? Even in the First Essay of the Genealogy, Nietzsche elicits a variety of kinds of evidence in support of the existence of this psychological mechanism: for example, the facts about the etmology of the terms “good” and “bad”; the general historical fact that Christianity took root among the oppressed classes in the Roman empire; and the rhetoric of the early Church Fathers. Here we see Nietzsche arguing for a characteristically scientific kind of inference: namely, to believe in the causal role of a particular psychological mechanism, for which there is ample independent evidence, on the basis of its wide explanatory scope, i.e., its ability to make sense of a variety of different data points.

Janaway, it bears noting, in fact endorses a weaker version of my reading of Nietzsche as an M-Naturalist, though the weakening seems to derive from his misunderstanding of the role of “results continuity” in my interpretation of Nietzsche’s M-Naturalism. He writes that “Nietzsche is a naturalist to the extent that he is committed to a species of theorizing that explains X by locating Y and Z as its causes, where Y and Z’s being causes of X is not falsified by our best science” (2007: 38). Janaway prefers this account, because of his doubts about whether there are actual scientific results supporting Nietzsche’s actual causal explanations. Since my reading of Nietzsche’s naturalism emphasized its speculative character, Janaway’s formulation serves as a useful way of stating a pertinent constraint on speculative explanations: namely, that they not invoke entities or mechanisms that science has ruled out of bounds. But even so, it may seem an unnecessarily weak a criterion: why not expect, instead, that a good speculative naturalist will rely on explanatory mechanisms that enjoy some evidential support, or that enjoy a wide explanatory scope, of the kind we expect genuine explanations in the sciences to exemplify? I do not think there is text in Nietzsche that settles this matter, and so this is more a matter of giving the most philosophically appealing reconstruction of his actual argumentative and explanatory practice.

[1] Janaway (2007: 37) says: “the status of this as a ‘result’ is perhaps debatable: it is hard to say whether the exclusively empirical nature of humanity was a conclusion or an assumption of scientific investigation in the nineteenth century or at any time.”. This I find extraordinary. If one discovers that conscious experiences have a neurophysiological explanation, or an explanation in terms of the biochemistry of the brain, hasn’t one adduced some evidence that bears on whether man is of a “higher or different origin” than the rest of nature? Our consciousness and our capacity for self-reflection, for spirituality, for “inwardness” are all among the typical phenomena appealed to as evidence of our “higher” or “different” nature, perhaps as glimpses of our immaterial “soul” even. If, in fact, they are explicable through processes and mechanisms that are operative in other parts of the natural world, is that not evidence that we are not of “a higher or different origin” than other natural things?


Bryan said...

Like Hume, Nietzsche proffers a speculative psychology, though as I have argued elsewhere (Leiter 2007; Knobe & Leiter 2007), Nietzschean speculations seem to fare rather well in light of subsequent research in scientific psychology.

This passage seems to suggest that Nietzschean speculative psychology fares better than Humean speculative psychology in light of subsequent science. I have read Knobe & Leiter 2007, which compares Nietzsche to Kant and Aristotle. I am not sure what Leiter 2007 is (no works cited), and in any case I haven't read it, but I'd be interested if it did involve a comparison of Nietzsche and Hume.

Rob said...

If the difference between your and Janaway’s respective accounts of Nietzsche’s M-Naturalism depends upon, as you put it, “whether there are actual scientific *results* supporting Nietzsche’s actual causal explanations,” then it would seem that this issue is in principle one that can be settled empirically: as you suggest with the example of GM 1, its explanatory hypothesis seems to meet your “results continuity” criterion. However, could it be that Janaway’s weaker criterion (“not falsified by our best science”) captures desirable features of Nietzsche’s explanatory practice that might otherwise have to be abandoned or neglected under your more stringent criterion?

Here, I’m reminded of Freud’s characterization of drive-theory as “mythological,” and what I take to be his accompanying insistence that this is consistent with results continuity since, he claims (e.g. “Why War?”), even physics entails such “mythology” in its explanatory practice. I don’t know what to make of this, and perhaps it’s merely Freud’s way of veneering his own practice, but I often wonder if the explanatory power of Nietzsche’s account of “morality of custom” doesn’t essentially involve principles about which the most that might ever be said is that they aren’t falsified by our best science. The principles I particularly have in mind are those quasi-atavistic ones, such as the one suggested parenthetically in the first sentence of GM 2.9. Is there, as Janaway might ask, any scientific support or justification given or readily imaginable for the notion that those features of the past Nietzsche highlights in human "pre-history" are "at all times present or again possible"?

(Bryan, I take it that Leiter 2007 refers to "Nietzsche's Theory of the Will".)

Rob said...

On second thought, perhaps the scientific support or justification needed in regard to the explanatory power Nietzsche claims for the "morality of custom" is to be found in Haidt's work on the five psychological foundations of morality: the Genealogy could be read as a contribution to an account of how the two "individualizing" foundations developed to their current extent, and so illuminate how they conflict in contemporary life with the perhaps more fundamental or long-standing "binding" foundations.

Charlie H said...

Just a side quibble re. Nz's naturalism. Very often, along with M-naturalism, naturalism assumes that contemporary sciences are right or on the right track, leaving room open for scientific advancements and refinements. Nz, I think, reserves the right to launch substantial criticisms of contemporary science (such as his criticism of atomic theory), precisely because of the M-naturalism he practices in psychology. Basically, he thinks psychology is better grounded than physics, and so he can use it to "naturalize" or psychologize the abstract speculations physicists make.

Eric Schliesser convinces me that the same is true of Hume, who believed a proper science of human nature could be used to discredit the unjustified speculations of Newtonian science -- especially action at a distance.

It seems both Nz and Hume wanted a science of human psychology to provide a natural corrective to all branches of natural science.

J said...

A real issue then would seemingly be the status of supposed "a priori" truths of logic and mathematics. Nietzsche sort of sweeps that aside, doesn't he--as he dismissed Kant. When do baboons become Euclid, not to say Plato? Euclid and pythagoras, et al, may be very clever baboons, but Nietzsche generally wastes little time in reaching his naturalist, and dare we say a posteriori conclusions. Hume, every bit as diabolical, was at least more concerned with method and precise argument.