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.


Brian Leiter said...

Prof. Paul Loeb asked me to share his response to the above critique. I’ve inserted my replies prefaced by BL REPLY and placed them in brackets, below. Prof. Loeb writes:

In my endorsement of Dirk Johnson’s book, Nietzsche’s Anti-Darwinism, and in our earlier blog exchanges about his book, I had the following argument in mind:

(1) Johnson’s book argues, rightly I think, that Nietzsche’s entire philosophical career was governed by his own view that Darwinism was the dominant methodological paradigm in the biological and physiological sciences of his day. Johnson’s argument for this claim ranges from Nietzsche’s lengthy and explicit engagement with Darwinism in his early essay on Strauss (24-25), through his temporary allegiance with Paul Rée’s Darwinism in HH (33-34), moving beyond Darwinism in Z (48-50, 55-70), to his final polemics against Darwinism and Darwin in works like G1M and TI (95-99). [BL REPLY: Johnson himself admits that Nietzsche’s actual discussions of Darwin are few and far between, and several of the passages, above, are only *arguably* concerned with Darwin.]

(2) Johnson's book also argues, rightly I think, that Nietzsche’s mature philosophy was methodologically opposed to Darwinism (cf. Johnson 4). Johnson spends the most time arguing for this claim with respect to Nietzsche’s GM views (7, 79-81). Indeed, the second half of Johnson's monograph is devoted to a persuasive argument that Nietzsche designed GM as a whole in opposition to English-origin Darwinist genealogy. [BL REPLY: This strikes me as wholly incredible and not persuasively argued at all.] I think the best textual support for his claim in relation to the debate about methodological naturalism is GM II:12. In this passage Nietzsche complains that the most rigorous and apparently most objective biological sciences of his day are being corrupted by Darwinist methodology—e.g., by an appeal to the absolute randomness and mechanistic senselessness of the origin of all events in the organic world [BL REPLY: that claim is not at all distinctive of Darwinism, and indeed much of GM II:12 is given over to making the Darwinian point that the current utility of a practice may tell us nothing about its origin]; or by an improper foregrounding of the reactive adaptation of biological organisms to their external environment. Indeed, Nietzsche writes here, it seems to him that this Darwinist methodology has taken over all of physiology and the life sciences (ja er scheint mir schon über die ganze Physiologie und Lehre vom Leben Herr geworden zu sein). Nietzsche doesn’t explicitly say “Darwinist methodology” in this passage, but the details of his complaint, and his reference to Herbert Spencer, make it clear that he has this in mind. [BL REPLY: it’s clear N. does object to the “reactive” character of the Spencerian explanation.] See also GM I:4 for Nietzsche’s anticipatory hint about the harmful influence of the English-origin democratic prejudice in the apparently quite objective domain of natural science and physiology. And see especially WP 647, the unpublished note entitled, “Anti-Darwinism,” where Nietzsche reviews many of the same points as in GM II:12.

Brian Leiter said...


From these two assumptions, it follows that Nietzsche’s mature philosophy of the GM period could not have been methodologically naturalist with respect to the physiological and biological sciences in the sense in which you have defined this term. That is, it could not have incorporated “the methodological view about how one should do philosophy” according to which philosophical inquiry “should be continuous with empirical inquiry in the sciences” (NOM:3). Even if some recent scholars (like Gregory Moore) might disagree with Nietzsche about the extent to which Darwinist methodology had come to dominate the physiological and biological sciences of his day, all that matters for the purpose of this argument is that Nietzsche himself believed this. And physiology and biology were the natural sciences that Nietzsche cared most about and thought most about. [BL REPLY: None of the evidence on offer establishes anything of the kind. The best piece of the evidence is the Spencer reference, though Spencer is not Darwin, and one suspects that N. was reacting most strongly to the application of the Darwinian model in the social, not biological realm.] Given this crucial test case, I think we need to reject your interpretive claim: “The Genealogy, and Nietzsche’s mature philosophy generally, proposes a naturalistic explanation. i.e., an explanation that is continuous with both the results and methods of the sciences” (NOM:11). [BL REPLY: Given how I characterize Nietzsche’s M-Naturalism, none of this even touches that interpretation, unless Johnson had shown, which he obviously has not, that Nietzsche understood naturalistic explanations to be primarily Darwinian in character, which he did not.]

This conclusion alone points to the great originality and value of Johnson's book. No one before had systematically shown (1) in conjunction with (2). In your post, and in our earlier exchanges on this blog, you have kept repeating that you don’t understand the relevance of Johnson’s book to the question of Nietzsche’s naturalism because you had never said that Nietzsche was a Darwinist or that Nietzsche’s naturalism included Darwinism. Indeed, you have kept repeating: who besides John Richardson says these things? (Actually, Maudemarie Clark also says these things, throughout the introduction and notes to her translation of GM; and in her 2007 ISP response to Richardson, “On Nietzsche’s Darwinism”.) [BL REPLY: Actually, Maude does not, but readers can take a look]

But this reply misses the point completely. Given Nietzsche’s own belief in the rule of Darwinist methodology in the physiological and biological sciences, your definition of methodological naturalism commits you to the claim that Nietzsche’s mature philosophy should have followed or emulated Darwinist methodology and that his naturalism should have included Darwinist methodology. [BL REPLY: My reply identifies the only relevant point, as Loeb’s response makes clear: only if Nietzsche actually believed that Darwinist methodology was essential to sound scientific explanation would there be a puzzle, but Johnson adduces no good evidence that this is Nietzsche’s view. Lange’s account of German Materialism, which was N’s primary source, does not make selectionist explanations central to the understanding of human beings; rather it is causal explanation by appeal to physiological facts about persons that impresses N.., and explains,e .g., his appeal in GM I Note for physiologists to join in the study of morality.]

Brian Leiter said...


So if Johnson is right, as I think he is, that Nietzsche was actually rejecting the Darwinist methodology that he believed had come to dominate the physiological and biological sciences of his day (and that has indeed prevailed ever since), then his book is of the utmost relevance to your interpretive hypothesis.

The other point you have kept repeating in reply to Johnson’s book is that the German Materialists or “naturalists” of Nietzsche’s time did not regard themselves as Darwinists, and that Nietzsche did not regard them as such. But now you are changing your definition of “methodological naturalist” to avoid the point of Johnson’s book. Now you are saying that this term actually means to be self-defined as a “naturalist” or to be defined by Nietzsche as a “naturalist.” But the real question, the important question, as you first defined it in NOM and as you define it most recently in the Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche, has to do with the empirical inquiry in the natural sciences. And to this question, Johnson's book proves that Nietzsche could not have been a methodological naturalist with respect to physiology or the life sciences. You rightly point out the concerns Nietzsche had with the German Materialist figures he called “naturalists,” e.g., their physicalist reductionism, or their eliminativism. But these concerns are irrelevant to the argument outlined above. [BL REPLY: This is a completely confused response. The interpretive claim that philosopher X is an M-Naturalist means that he conceives of his own explanatory practice as continuous with the sciences as he understands them. If N. does not understand the sciences in Darwinian terms, then it does not refute the interpretive hypothesis that N. is an M-Naturalist to note that he rejects Darwinian explanations.]

Notice that the argument outlined above has nothing at all to do with Nietzsche’s critique of the value of truth or scientific knowledge, or with the question whether Nietzsche is a naturalist in the domain of value. So your replies to Johnson’s book having to do with these issues are beside the point. [BL REPLY: As a reader of Johnson’s book will see, he makes a central issue of the fact that the later N. challenges the value of truth and knowledge.]

Notice also that assumption (2) in the argument above is based on a key passage from the published book that you yourself take to be Nietzsche’s most important work. I know that you attempt in the Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche to minimize the importance of GM II:12 (against Christopher Janaway’s challenge to M-Naturalism), and I have argued against this attempt in my paper on BGE 36 (recently posted on your blog). But the argument I’ve outlined above is not about the apparent reference in this passage to what you’ve called a “crackpot” metaphysics of will to power. Instead, it is about Nietzsche’s attack in this passage on the harmful infiltration of Darwinist methodology in the physiological and biological sciences. [BL REPLY: This raises a genuine interpretive issue, and I invite readers to consider your paper, to which I linked, and also my treatment and Janaway’s. I hope to address this during the summer]

Brian Leiter said...


By the way, there is simply no doubt that Nietzsche regarded Paul Rée as the German Darwinian. Just look at GM P:7, where Nietzsche makes a direct and explicit reference to Rée’s Darwinian thinking. [BL REPLY: The import of the reference to Darwin here is rather more obscure than Loeb allows—the claim is that Ree didn’t really understand the genealogy of morality because of the influence of Darwin—but what could that mean? One possibility is that he thought that morality was beyond the scope of selectionist explanation, which was Darwin’s general view, except for some occasional asides—the answer turns on some historical questions about what N. read and took Darwin to mean.] Or look at Robin Small's book, Nietzsche and Rée, and my NDPR review of this book, for an extensive account of the Darwin-centered philosophical relationship between Nietzsche and Rée.

You say that Clark has argued for years that Nietzsche offered a Darwinian critique of Paul Rée’s confusion of origins and functions. Actually, Clark applies this critique only to David Hume, not to Paul Rée. But your extrapolation is fair, and I agree with you that Nietzsche had Rée in mind here (see the ending of GM P:4). So I will quote Clark’s analysis in full here:

“Such a move violates the major point of ‘historical method’ laid down at Genealogy’s midpoint: The purpose served by a thing does not explain its origin; rather, the cause of its coming into being and ‘its final usefulness, its actual employment and integration into a system of purposes,’ lie worlds apart (GM II:12). Nietzsche’s prime example of a violation of this principle is the assumption that the eye was made to see, the hand to grasp. This suggests that his principle of historical method is inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution, according to which the eye’s usefulness does not explain why it originally came into existence, but only why, having somehow or other come into existence, it had a greater chance of surviving and being passed on to heirs. To explain how the eye came into existence would be to trace it back through a whole series of previous forms, and transformations of these forms by means of new variations, to something that lies ‘worlds apart’ from it, say a simple nerve that is particularly sensitive to light.” (Clark and Swenson: xxiv; cited and applied by you in NOM:168, and again in this post and in your earlier post).

As Clark rightly argues here, Nietzsche thinks that we cannot explain the origin of X by appeal to the adaptive function of X. This is because X must already exist, having somehow come into being, in order to acquire even its first adaptive function. But now the question arises: how should we explain the origin of X? Why did the eye originally come into existence? Clark’s implied answer follows the Darwinist theory of natural selection—namely, that there was some chance event, like a genetic mutation, that first brought into existence a simple nerve that is particularly sensitive to light. But this is not Nietzsche’s answer. In fact, Nietzsche goes out of his way to attack this answer. [BL REPLY: Where does N. attack this answer? Loeb cites only a passage, below, that has nothing to do with this question.] He thinks that this answer reflects the currently prevailing Darwinist methodological principle of the absolute randomness and mechanistic senselessness of all originating events in the organic world. Such a principle, Nietzsche writes, “overlooks the essential pre-eminence of the spontaneous, attacking, infringing, reinterpreting, reordering, and formative forces upon whose effect the ‘adaptation’ first follows” and “denies the dominant role of the highest functionaries in the organism itself, in which the will of life appears active and form-giving.” [BL REPLY: This quote comes from a passage that has nothing to do with the claim at issue.]

Brian Leiter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Leiter said...


So it cannot be the case, as Clark argues, and as you agree and extrapolate further to Paul Rée, that Nietzsche’s major point of historical method in GM II is inspired by Darwinist methodology. Instead, Nietzsche introduces his major point of historical method in order to attack the Darwinist methodology that he believes has taken over and corrupted the supposedly objective physiological and biological sciences of his day. This reason is laid out more clearly in the unpublished note that is entitled “Anti-Darwinism” and begins as follows: “The utility of an organ does not explain its origin; on the contrary! For most of the time during which a property is forming it does not preserve the individual and is of no use to him, least of all in the struggle with external circumstances and enemies” (WP 647; notice the direct contradiction to Clark’s claim above that Nietzsche thinks the eye’s usefulness explains why it had a greater chance of surviving and being passed on to heirs). [BL REPLY: the claim that the “utility of an organ does not explain its origin” is precisely Clark’s point, unless one construes this to mean “the original utility of an organ.” But I do not see the passage warrants that reading.]

I will add one last clarifying point here. I completely understand your distinction between the two senses of "method" in your definition of M-naturalism: 1) the sense in which a philosopher has a methodological view about how one should do philosophy--that is, as continuous with empirical inquiry in the natural sciences; and 2) the sense in which this empirical inquiry in the natural sciences will include both results and methods--so that M-naturalism branches into Results Continuity and Methods Continuity (NOM: 3-4). The argument I have outlined above aims to refute the Methods Continuity branch of your M-Naturalism interpretation of Nietzsche's mature GM philosophy. This argument shows Nietzsche doing philosophy in GM in a way that is deliberately discontinuous with the Darwinist style of explanation and understanding that he himself believed was widely accepted and employed in the natural sciences that mattered most to him (physiology and biology).

There is a lot more in Johnson’s book that I think is of great interest and value. But this is the part of his argument that I found most important and relevant to your question of Nietzsche’s methodological naturalism. I’m proud to have helped Johnson’s book get published and I would recommend it to the readers of your blog. In fact, now that you have returned it to the library, you should buy your own copy! [BL REPLY: I am surprised that Loeb was a referee for this book, since his own work is written to a much higher standard of philosophical argumentation. I stand by my original verdict, for the reasons given above in brackets. The argument and the scholarship of Johnson’s book are not good, and readers should not waste their time in my view.]

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the replies, Brian. I will look forward to our further discussion about these issues.

Christian Emden's new book should prove relevant to our debate: