The next few parts of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil deal mostly with our perceptions and our experience of the world. Nietzsche continues to avoid targeting individual philosophers or philosophical traditions—for the most part. He does casually refute them here and there in order to illustrate larger points, but he seems to have left off with devoting whole sections to the undermining of a single person or named philosophy.
That being said, he’s no less relentless than before.
But I’ve found, and I think you will too, that he’s getting more thoughtful in his writing. He’s still bombastic, he still relies heavily on vague language and hedging, and he continues his love affair with the run-on sentence. But there seems to be some self-awareness creeping into the mix.
His writing is starting to rely less on outright attacks, and more on mildly mean-spirited disagreement. This is an improvement by Nietzsche’s standards, and a welcome one. I think if he’d continued this far without changing his approach, I’d have been long since turned off by his writing. Instead, I find that the subtle change in tone has me wanting to read on.
Part 15 is just a couple paragraphs long, and it basically amounts to a case for sensualism—albeit a terse case. Nietzsche has mentioned sensualism a few times, but he’s never really come out for or against it. In Part 15, he concedes that sensualism is necessary “at least as a regulative hypothesis, if not as a heuristic principal.”
To illustrate this point, Nietzsche uses the example of idealism, a philosophy which holds that the external, physical world is a creation of our senses, rather than something that is perceived by them.
He then points out that, since our bodies are part of the physical world, idealism would require them to be the work of our senses and sense organs. Finally, if we hold this to be true, then “…our organs themselves would be—the work of our organs!”
The absurdity of this line of reasoning is enough to refute the idea that the external world is the work of our senses, according to Nietzsche. So, while he doesn’t declare his unconditional acceptance of sensualism, he at least recognizes that there is an external world, and that we can glean information about it from our senses.
Part 16, however, offers an example of how our perception falls short.
Nietzsche calls out “…harmless self-observers” (a title that’s both polite and brutally condescending) “who believe there are ‘immediate certainties’; for example, ‘I think’…”
He starts off by saying that to know something means to understand it completely, which I think is a reasonable assessment. If we assume this, and then go on to say that we know that we think, “[Nietzsche finds] a whole series of daring assertions that would be difficult, perhaps impossible to prove.”
To be certain that “I think,” I’d have to prove that “I” am thinking, which means I’d have to prove that thinking requires an agent, that that agent causes thinking, and that I am that agent. Finally, and most importantly—I’d have to know exactly what thinking is. Unless I have an airtight definition for thinking, there’s no way to know if what I call thinking “…is not perhaps ‘willing’ or ‘feeling.’”
Nietzsche says that a philosopher (presumably not one of the prejudiced ones) will see in this “immediate certainty” an avalanche claims which must be proven in order to establish even the least bit of certainty. Each of the questions mentioned above would themselves give rise to multiple new questions, and the whole process of proving this “certainty” would quickly descend into endless Socratic head scratching.
Nietzsche finishes by “thinking aloud,” and asking why it is that someone should even want to convince themselves or anyone else that they think. He presents his question as the musing of an imaginary philosopher.
“’Sir,’ the philosopher will perhaps give him to understand, ‘it is improbable that you are not mistaken; but why insist on the truth?’”
I’m not exactly sure what kind of answer Nietzsche expects here, but it’s an interesting question that he poses. The desire to have others accept one’s personal truth is universal—we all experience it on a regular basis. But when faced with the question of why it’s so important that others see things my way, I find myself fumbling to come up with a good answer.
Where philosophical questions are concerned (as opposed to more practical ones like how to maintain public health, ensure food security, fix my refrigerator, etc.), it’s hard to justify the idea that one opinion must win out over the others.
Why insist on the truth indeed? Because it feels good to be right? Because such questions are interesting? Because to prove that “I think” will somehow contribute to my mental wellbeing?
These are all flimsy answers, and I’m wondering now if Nietzsche expected anything but flimsy answers.
In Part 17, Nietzsche goes on to unpack one small aspect of the above “certainty.” In so doing, he further demonstrates what a monumental task it would be to prove even a simple statement like “I think.”
“…it is a falsification of the facts…” he says, “to say that the subject ‘I’ is the condition of the predicate ‘think.’
Instead, Nietzsche says it’s better to say that “it” thinks, and that it’s a stretch to assume that “it” is “I,” or the ego. And he goes even further than this, suggesting that “it” might not be thinking at all. “…even the ‘it’ contains an interpretation of the process,” he says, “and does not belong to the process itself.”
Nietzsche claims that the certainty that there must be a thinker is just the result of a “grammatical habit,” and that we’re so accustomed to the need for an action to have an agent that we compulsively apply this linguistic principle to philosophy.
The need for there to be a thinker, says Nietzsche, is linked to the atomistic need for an indivisible center of things—a perspective that he’s recently rejected in no uncertain terms. He finishes, as he has before, by expressing a hope for the future of philosophy. This time, that hope is that one day we’ll be able “…to get along without the little ‘it’…”
Part 18 is another of Nietzsche’s briefer musings. I’d be tempted to call it a blurb if that word didn’t seem too modern to a apply to something written over a century ago. In any case, it’s short enough to quote in its entirety:
“It is certainly not the least charm of a theory that it is refutable; it is precisely thereby that it attracts subtler minds. It seems that the hundred-times-refuted theory of free will owes its persistence to this charm alone; again and again someone comes along who feels he is strong enough to refute it.”
This paragraph is short and simple, and has an obvious surface-level meaning. But the more I read it, the more layers it seems to acquire. On the one hand, it’s a simple introduction to Part 19 of BGaE, which deals with free will. But it could also be self-aggrandizement on the part of the author, because in refuting the theories discussed over the course of this post, he’s placed himself amongst those “subtler minds” that he mentions.
Then again, when he claims that the belief in free will is so frequently revisited because of that charm, he seems to be implying that the debate is tiresome, and maybe that those who continue to keep it alive are just reaching for low-hanging philosophical fruit.
This casts a whole different light on the paragraph, and I can now imagine Nietzsche winking at the reader as he lingers sarcastically on the word “subtle.”
He seems to be simultaneously claiming that intelligent people will be drawn to refutable theories, but also that the attention they give to these theories is what causes them (the theories) to remain in the public consciousness. If the theories are refutable, then it might be best to forget them in favor of better alternatives, but the very act of refuting them keeps the discussion surrounding them alive!
It makes the whole business of discussing philosophy seem brainless and compulsive, rather than serious, and now I find myself asking if Nietzsche really meant to count himself amongst those “subtler minds.” And if that was his intention, was it meant to be self-deprecation rather than self-aggrandizement?
I feel as though the answer might lean towards the former.
In any case, Nietzsche continues to demand that we look at everything critically, and it’s becoming clear that he includes his own opinions in that imperative.