Monday, May 12, 2014

Dirk Johnson on Nietzsche's alleged anti-Darwinism

Several years ago, prompted by a review by Paul Loeb, I took a look at Dirk Johnson's book Nietzsche's Anti-Darwinism (Cambridge University Press, 2010).  Johnson is a Germanic studies scholar at Hampden-Sydney College, and the book is generally quite disappointing from a philosophical point of view.   In any case, I never got around to writing up my thoughts about the book, but prompted by a recall notice from the library for the book, I went back to it in the last couple of days, and thought I would try to set out my reservations, before returning it, in the hope of sparing some readers from wasting their time with a book that really should not have been published.

It's been almost a quarter-century since Nietzsche studies entered its philosophical maturity with Clark's Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy, and yet here we have a book published in 2010 declaring that,
For Nietzsche, ‘truth’ was merely a perspective and an exclusive aim to truth revealed in an inherently unstable will. (85)
If this were a once-off bit of carelessness, it could be forgiven, but it is a pervasive feature of the book which was obviously not refereed by anyone knowledgeable about philosophy or the philosophical secondary literature.  I won't belabor examples of this kind, but they do make the book an annoying read for philosophers.

Johnson thinks his book is an argument against "naturalistic" readings of Nietzsche.  Yet he is, to his credit, self-conscious about how bizarre such a claim is:
Does not Nietzsche's style of argumentation, his use of biological tropes and metaphors, and many of his central positions in the text prove that he was a naturalist through and through?  These are serious objections, to which I will need to respond....Nietzsche adopted the discourse of both the naturalists and the Darwinists, because it was the only means to subvert their framework and to challenge their mounting success.  (8)
There is no evidence in the book for the odd claim that the only way to reject naturalism was to act and argue like a naturalist.  Perhaps an "internal critique" of naturalism could be mounted, but Johnson's claim is not, in the end, that Nietzsche's critique is an internal one (i.e., arguing that naturalism is self-refuting).  To the contrary, Johnson ends up claiming that Nietzsche attacks naturalism from an entirely external, evaluative perspective (summarized at p. 212).  According to Johnson,
Nietzsche's entire philosophy hinges on the value he places on the Dionysian--with its tragic awareness and affirmation of the eternal return....Certainly, Nietzsche recognized the explanatory power and suggestive force of the Darwinian worldview--but also the need to transcend it.... (p. 78)
Of course, this is related to a point I made in NOM early on (see esp. 26-28), and I've recently taken up an attempt to understand the "Dionysian" element in Nietzsche.  None of this, however, shows that Nietzsche is not a naturalist:  as a critic of morality and religion, and as a diagnostician of individuals and philosophers, he operates as a methodological naturalist in the way I described in the 2002 book.  Because Nietzsche doesn't think the domain of value is a cognitive one, and because he cares very much about questions of value, necessarily (as I argued years ago) he is not a naturalist in this domain, and he, of course, famously diagnoses the failure of modern science to question its own commitment to the overriding value of knowledge (see NOM at 264 ff. for a discussion).

Johnson, alas, doesn't understand any of this.  He seems to have two main targets, primarily John Richardson's reading in Nietzsche's New Darwinism (2004), and, secondarily, my argument in NOM that Nietzsche is a philosophical naturalist.  Richardson is an apt target (since Richardson really does try to make Darwin central to his reconstruction of Nietzsche's work), though his arguments against Richardson are generally weak.  But Johnson's general ignorance of the history and philosophy of science can only explain his taking my reading as a target as well.  Johnson writes:
Leiter's linkage of the empirical sciences with "naturalism" (as exemplfied by Darwin's theories) is precisely the understanding of "naturalism" that this study will question.  (8, n. 14).
Alas, NOM:3, which Johnson cites, does not link the sciences with Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, indeed, nothing in my book does.  That is because, unlike Richardson, I do not think there is very good evidence that Nietzsche thought of a naturalistic worldview as a Darwinian one.  The German Materialists were not Darwinians, and Nietzsche's main concern against those naturalists was to vindicate the role of psychological (causal) explanation of human phenomena against their mix of physicalist reductionism or eliminativism.  Indeed, even Johnson has to acknowledge that Darwin "continued to receive scant treatment" in Niezsche's corpus (26).   Notwithstanding that, Johnson ascribes Nietzsche's naturalism (allegedly only of his "middle period") to "Darwin's scientific materialism" (33).

Even putting that to one side, the problem remains that he consistently confuses an attack on the value of truth and knowledge with an attack on science and naturalism:  so, e.g., he notices that Nietzsche is critical of the ascetic impulse underlying the modern scientific imperative to pursue truth at any cost (as I discuss at some length in NOM, as noted above), but nowhere seems to recognize that this is a dispute about the value of truth and knowledge, not about how one acquires truth and knowledge (namely, naturalistically). Against my extended discussion in NOM in defense of the claim that Nietzsche "endorses a scientific perspective as the correct and true one" (NOM: 21), and Clark's 1990 defense of a related view, Johnson responds, in a footnote, that "my study will show that...the modern scientific enterprise becomes one of Nietzsche's most significant polemical targets in the final period" (10 n. 10).  All he actually shows--sophomoric confusions about truth and knowledge to one side--is what Clark and I acknowledge, namely, that Nietzsche repudiates overestimating the value of these epistemic achievements, not that he denies they are actual epistemic achievements.

There is much else that is wrong and misleading in this book.  Johnson thinks Paul Ree is "the German Darwinian" (88), even though, as Maudemarie Clark has argued for years, Nietzsche's critique of Ree is precisely a Darwinian one, i.e., that Ree wrongly infers origins from current function.  Johnson thinks Nietzsche was engaged in a decade-long "philosophical investigation into the moral suppositions behind the biological discourse of his time" (203), mainly based on his confusions about Nietzsche critical commentary on egoism and altruism.  But in the concluding chapter, Johnson makes clear that he thinks his monograph contributes to a debate beyond how to read Nietzsche.  There is, Johnson claims,
a stubborn skepticism that Nietzsche's philosophy could with any degree of credibility call into question modern science, particularly Darwinism.  The implication is that a post-Darwinian philosophy cannot hope to compete with teh uncontestable truths of modern science but must to some degree work as the handmaiden of science.  The current divide in contemporary philosophy reflects this dilemma:  while analytic philosophy disregards any efforts at philosophical speculation that diverge from the principles and methods of scientific induction, Continental philosophers argue for the possibility of philosophical "truth" that can liberate itself from scientific expectations and methodology....  (205-206)
Like most scholarly tourists, Johnson  is apparently unaware that anything happened in "analytic" philosophy since logical positivism and Quine; so, too, he thinks there is something called "Continental philosophy."   There is a sensible point to be made here--one I made in the 2002 book and, more recently, in "The Truth is Terrible" paper--namely, that Nietzsche thinks pursuit of the truth is not compatible with life-affirmation, but this point is not captured by putting the word truth in quotes, as though that somehow designates another kind of "truth."

There is an interesting puzzle about Nietzsche's naturalism and his attack on the ascetic ideal that I discuss near the end of NOM (279-283), and one often suspects that Johnson's confusion about this issue animates a lot of his book.  The puzzle is that it looks like Nietzsche's polemic against the ascetic ideal is also a polemic against his own naturalism.   The crucial point, however, to remember, as I note, is "that what makes the will to truth hostile to life is when the truths it uncovers are, in fact, dangerous to life" (280).  But Nietzsche thinks the truths about morality he uncovers "are, in fact, advantageous for life, since, of course, he equates 'life' in this regard with the flourishing of the highest human beings" (280--this is argued in NOM at 125-126).  In addition, one has to remember that Nietzsche "does not call...for us to abandon science--'there being so much useful work to be done' here (GM III:23)--but rather for science to be informed by a different, non-ascetic ideal" (282-283).  Thus, as I conclude:
We have emphasized since the very first chapter that Nietzsche's naturalistic approach is merely an instrument in the service of the revaluation of values, i.e., the revaluation of the "ascetic" values that have come to predominate as morality.  By lookoing at our ascetic morality as just another natural phenomenon, Nietzsche removes it from the realm of divine commandment or the eternal, unchanging order of things; he shows morality to be another phenomenon of nature, with a history and particular causes.  Naturalization for Nietzsche is fundamentally non-ascetic, because it is ultimately in the service of an anti-ascetic end:  to free nascent higher human beings from their false consciousness about [morality] (itself an expression of asceticism), and thus permit them to flourish.  (283)
Unfortunately, Johnson, although occasionally citing my book, appears not to have gotten this far.  If he had, he might have realized that his book was based on a non-sequitur:  that Nietzsche thinks there are things more important than knowledge of the truth, does not mean he doesn't think that knowledge of the truths there are is to be had naturalistically.