Monday, June 20, 2011

Dirk Johnson on Nietzsche's Anti-Darwinism

I haven't read this book, but I was just reading Ansell-Pearson's review, in which he writes:

The fundamental claim of this book is that we will not properly understand
Nietzsche until we understand the main polemical target of his philosophizing.
This target, the author wants to demonstrate, is the evolutionary naturalism of
Darwin: “Nietzsche’s philosophy in his final years was premised on a fundamental
anti-Darwinism” (p. 203)....According to Paul S. Loeb, who provides the puff on
the back cover, the balanced and careful examination the book offers of this
crucial test case, “results in a powerful critique of the prevalent naturalistic
approach to Nietzsche.” In short, instead of trying to co-opt Nietzsche for
fashionable projects we need to respect the independence of his philosophical

This is puzzling. Who, apart from Richardson in the 2004 book, reads Nietzsche as a systematically Darwinian naturalist? There are obvious Darwinian themes here and there in Nietzsche (as in his critique of Paul Ree, or his Lamarckianism), but I'm not aware of anyone other than Richardson reading Nietzsche as fundamentally a Darwinian naturalist. Ansell-Pearson suggests that this ambiguity infects the book: "There is, however, an ambiguity at the heart of Johnson’s book that is never satisfactorily resolved: is the suggestion that Nietzsche is not at all a naturalist, or is it that he needs to be liberated from his entanglement with a fashionable Darwinism?"

Thoughts from readers who have read the book? Is it confused as Ansell-Pearson implies? And is it worth reading? Signed comments, as usual, will be strongly preferred.


Anonymous said...

Hi Brian, by "prevalent" I had in mind your influential ascription to Nietzsche of the kind of Methodological Naturalism according to which “philosophical inquiry…should be continuous with empirical inquiry in the sciences” (2002: 3). In his study, Johnson argues (and you seem to agree here?) that Nietzsche's philosophical inquiry was not continuous with the contemporaneous empirical inquiry in biology. Cheers, Paul

Brian Leiter said...

It was no part of my view that N was significantly influenced by contemporary Darwinian biology, so I'm still not sure I get the point. He took serously work in physiology from the 1820s onwards, and he absorbed the Lamarckianism that was part of the cultural milieu. But substantive Darwinian theses would be part of a substantive, not methodological, naturalism, and so was no part of my interpretation.

Paul Loeb said...

This is helpful, Brian, thanks. I should really let Dirk or Keith speak for themselves, but at the risk of misinterpreting their thoughts ... I understand your distinction between methodological naturalism and substantive naturalism, and I read Johnson as arguing that N was also attacking the contemporaneous methodology of Darwinist biology. Cheers, Paul

Brian Leiter said...

Thanks, Paul, I'll obviously have to look at Johnson's book. I'm still worried that it's no part of my account of Nietzsche's methodological naturalism that he took himself to be trying to emulate Darwin's functional explanations of the diversity of species.

Brian Leiter said...

So prompted by the review and Paul Loeb's comments, I have now spent muhc of today reading the Johnson book, and I'll write more about it soon. Johnson is not a philosopher, and that shows, rather painfully at times. There are some interesting historical/philolgical bits, but overall, the book strikes me as wholly irrelevant to the issue of Nietzsche's naturalism. But I'll set out my views in the next couple of days.

fred said...

Not worth it. There is psychology, evolutionism, and many other fashionable schools of thought battling each other within Nietzsche. However, this anti-Darwinism is just the punch line of a joke, much like the definition of Germans as those with cluttered intestines.

Nietzsche said...

Just finished it. Did not come away knowing much more about Darwin, which I'd hoped would occur, incidentally. Dwells excessively on the inheritance of wills, notably the ascetic "(re)active" one. Lost count of how many times he wrote reactive that way... I know Nietzsche believed in the inheritability of physiological traits or characteristics, but the "will" seems a little more problematic to me, and, this is almost the crux of the work.

Anonymous said...

Professor Leiter:

I am looking forward to your take on Prof. Johnson's book, especially the view that Nietzsche's (mature) view is both non-naturalistic and non-metaphysical.