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Positivism andperspectivism

Nietzsche’s critique of the nineteenth-century ‘historical sense’ and his worries about its consequences for culture dominate his writing about history and historians.1 But there are also many passages that show how carefully Nietzsche thought about the epistemological and ontological issues within the philosophy of history. Whereas much of that cultural critique was common among his colleagues at Basel, his thoughts on these latter issues are more original and, in fact, bear more relevance for contemporary analytic philosophy of history. My effort in this chapter will be twofold. In the first three sections, I present Nietzsche's critique of the reigning meta-historical paradigm of his day - that of ‘scientific’ or ‘positive’ historiography - as it concerns the positivistic views of objectivity, description, and explanation. In the latter two sections, I offer a reconstruction of Nietzsche's own metahistorical paradigm as it concerns his original views of the possibility of representing historical objects and of the meaning of explanation.


Before presenting Nietzsche's critiques, let us first articulate exactly what ‘scientific-history’ meant.2 In the nineteenth century the so called ‘historical school’ of Berlin aimed to stave off the influence of the teleological ‘histori- cist' Hegelians and ‘romantic' disciples ofHerder. In the words ofWilhelm von Humboldt: “This search for final causes, even though it may be

  • 1 Among very many studies that focus almost exclusively on this aspect of Nietzsche’s historiography, some of the more prominent are Schlechta (1958), 42—70; Reinhardt (i960), 296—309; Jahnig (1970), 223—236; Zuckert (1976), 55—82; Coe and Altman (2005—2006), 116—128.
  • 2 Nietzsche links history to science in the very first section of Human all-too-Human: “Historical philosophy, which can no longer be even conceived of as separate from the natural sciences.” MaM 1,1; KSA 2, 23. The context of the passage, however, makes clear that what Nietzsche means by science is not an epistemologically naive version of positivism (which we will sometimes designate as ‘scientism’), but above all a naturalism which rejects beliefs in metaphysical ‘essences’ and ‘powers,’ as well as the employment of such anti-naturalist essences in explanatory schemas.


deduced from the essence of man and nature itself, distorts and falsifies every independent judgment.”[1] B. G. Niebuhr, Theodor Mommsen, and above all Leopold von Ranke demanded that historiography emulate the models of natural science insofar as its interpretations were to be justified by objective and impartial evidence. To use Ranke’s oft-parroted mantras, to write history objectively meant to “excise the subjective element,” to present the past “wie es eigentlichgewesen ist.”[2] Historiographical accounts should be “transparent windows on past states and events rather than colorful reconstructions of them.”[3] Subjective intrusions that result in account selectivity, judgments about the morality of agents and their deeds, presumptions about human psychology, and the like not only diminish the scientific rigor of the field but inculcate dangerously value-laden and theory-laden judgments that ought to be below the historian’s professional dignity.

Niebuhr, Ranke, and Mommsen criticized working historians for failing to write history objectively. And indeed, they had something to complain about. As astrology once passed for astronomy, what went under the name of historiography was often an assemblage of ‘facts’ about how things ‘used to be’ for the sake of peremptory endorsements of political or religious theses. Those ‘facts’ were gathered from various sources indiscriminately: here legends were passed down and embellished through generations, there folklore and superstition were accepted as credible witnesses. Friedrich Schiller, himself a professor of history at Jena, crafted his Wilhelm Tell with overt libertarian values, as an almost single-handed freedom-loving savior of the Swiss against the hated forces of statist tyranny. One could unfailingly distinguish the authors of European histories as being either Protestant or Catholic. Herder and Hegel, for their parts, were indicted for being more interested in making the past fit a particular scheme than in getting the details right. Eastern cultures, much less African, barely walk across the stage of history for Hegel since they evidently fail to recognize the necessity of rational freedom. In fact, in the generation of archival historians after Ranke - through figures like Overbeck’s close friend Treitschke and Nietzsche’s own teacher Heinrich von Sybel — historiography was intentionally and overtly marshaled for the sake of defending national liberalism, revealing prejudices, in turn an “anti-French stupidity, then anti-Jewish, then anti-Polish, then Christian-Romantic, then Wagnerian, then Teutonic, then Prussian (one sees here well enough these poor historians, this Sybel and Treitzchke [sic] and their fat bound heads).”6 The historical school sought to overcome these value-intrusions by excising any teleological schema, and by researching only from ‘objective’ sources like state archives, with footnotes to prove that their results could be validated and that the experiment could be run again, so to speak, by anyone who cared to do so.7 “Straightforward description,” Humboldt insists, “is the very first and essential requirement of his calling and the highest thing that he can achieve. Looked at in this way, the historian seems only to be absorbing and repeating, not acting independently and creatively.”8

It is an easy argument to show that reliance on ‘objective’ sources like state-run archives will rarely lead to ‘objective’ results, since few officials are unfailingly reliable.9 The people who record official legal transactions are people just like everyone else, with their own biases and prejudices. For even the most stringently archive-reliant historians, those stalwarts of historiography’s “noble neutrality,”10 it is a case of “no bias, no book.”11 And Nietzsche realized this not simply as an unfortunate tendency of a few bad apples. “The foundation for the general esteem for antiquity is prejudices [Vorurtheile]. ”12Every consciousness consists in prejudices. His present power rests on those prejudices, e.g., the high regard for ratio, as in Bentley and Hermann. Prejudices are, as Lichtenberg says, the artistic drives of men.”13 Because of this, “[t]he so-called objective writing of history [Die objective genannte Geschichtsschreibung] is nonsense: the objective historians are ruined or smug personalities [vernichtete oder blasirte Personlichkeiten].”14

Paradoxically, the subjectivity of the historical positivists is so ‘ruined’ because they have spent their lives trying to excise the subjective element of interpretation from their historiography. Theirs is a faith in a real world outside themselves, and an ascetic attempt to remove themselves from the calculation of it.

- Or did the whole of modern historiography take a more confident position regarding life and ideals? Its noblest claim nowadays is that it is a mirror, it rejects all teleology [Teleologie], it does not want to ‘prove’ [‘erweisen] anything any more; it scorns playing the judge, and shows good taste there, - it affirms as little as it denies, it asserts and ‘describes’ [‘beschreibt] ... All this is ascetic to a high degree; but to an even higher degree it is nihilistic, make no mistake about it![4]

But like all variations of the ascetic ideal, the more they will to deny

themselves in their activities, the more clearly is it revealed to what extent

even that denial is the inextricable function of a tortuous psychological

dynamic. “[T]he compulsion towards it, that unconditional will to truth

[unbedingte Willezur Wahrheit], is faith in the ascetic ideal itself, even if as an 16

unconscious imperative.

But Nietzsche’s critique is more than mere finger-pointing at particularly biased historians. To the best of my knowledge, he was the first to argue that historians of necessity must fail to write history objectively due to the natures of experience and of subjectivity.[5] Sometime during his years at Basel, Nietzsche sensed the epistemic naivety of the belief that the historian re-presents the past as it really was in-itself as a detached or discontinuous reality apart from preexisting subjective frameworks of the historian. “It is only a superstition [Aberglaube] to say that the picture provided by the object to such people really shows the empirical essence of things. Or should it be that objects through their own activity copy, reprint, or photograph themselves on a pure passivity [reinen Passivum]!”[6]

Note how diametrically this opposes both his published philology’s naive faith in representational realism as well as his aspiration to be able to gaze “ unmittelbar” into the pure idea of tragedy itself in The Birth of Tragedy. His new critique of historiographical objectivity follows from his transformed view of thinking generally. The most fundamental aspect of that view, and that which marks an essential change from his earlier position, is that the act of thinking is always mediated, never immediate or self-grounding, and always follows as a result of more primal drives or urges that persist underneath the level of conscious thought. Just months after the Birth, he writes that thinking “is, in any case, something artistic [Kunstlerisches], this generating of forms, by which it then happens in recollection [Erinnerung]: it selects this form [diese Form hebt sie heraus] and strengthens it thereby. Thinking is a selecting [Herausheben].”19

It is a curious fact that the factors which prevent the historian from writing with positivistic objectivity are precisely those that have been brought about by the process of history. We write, in a sense, from what we are, and what we are is a dynamic aggregate consequence ofwhat we have been.20 Thus, beyond the static rationalistic barrier erected by Kant, the rationalistic schema put into historical motion by Hegel and Marx, or the physiological conditions for the possibility of experience endorsed by Helmholtz and the early Neo-Kantians, Nietzsche advanced the view that no type ofjudgment can be free from the historically-instantiated dynamic of psychological drives, motivations, feelings, and intentions that actively constitute the authorial moves of the historian. We need not reduce the distortion to any particular one of these, and Nietzsche himself does not; instead, sometimes values, sometimes feelings, sometimes unconscious interpretive motivations will be tagged the interfering culprit, as a product of the particular history through which we are constituted as agents.21 “Before a knowing [ein Erkennen] is possible, each of these drives [Triebe] must first have presented its one-sided view of the thing or event; underneath that occurs the fight among these one-sided views [Einseitigkeiten], and occasionally out of it a middle-ground, an appeasement [Beruhigung], a concession [,Rechtgeben] to all three sides, a kind of justice and contract."22 Historical representation is, as a species of thinking generally, not mere representation but an aggregate construction of Gesamtbilden derived from the historical conflict and historically temporary ‘appeasement’ of the psychological conditions that alone render the past a meaningful whole to the interpreter in the present.23

As Nietzsche writes in the Gay Science, “Your judgment [...] has a prehistory in your drives [Trieben], inclinations [Neigungen], disinclinations [Abneigungen], experiences [Efahrungen], and non-experiences [Nicht- Erfahrungen].”x4 Besides what is listed here, he often enough talks about instincts [Instinkte], powers [Msichte], impulses [Impulse1], stimulation

[Reiz], passions, feelings, pathos, forces, affects, etc.25 The precise differences and similarities among these, and how they function within Nietzsche’s vision of epistemology, have been the subject of considerable debate. For our purposes we will typically refer to them summarily as drives, where drive means a relatively consistent tendency for one aspect of an organism to seek a particular end that defines it as a drive-for-something and an affect as a felt inclination for or aversion to what it has been driven to.26

Because the precise dynamic of drives is unique to every particular rational agent, the pervasiveness of these psychological intrusions renders the correspondential-realist criterion of objectivity impossible.27 Experience is no clear mirror of the past, but a representation that springs from personal psychologically colored subjective factors. Therefore, like all judgment, historical judgment can never be free of the judge’s personal perspective. “‘Objectivitat des Historikers ist ein Unsinn,” Nietzsche tells us, in the particular sense of having that by now familiar “Interesseloses Anschauen” on the real nature of the past.28 Instead, what is allegedly “[o]bjectiv Geschichte is the quiet work of a dramaturge,” a tangle of events whose actual plan is the function of their “Kunsttrieb: nicht Wahrheitstrieb.”x9 The expression of these drives constitutes historical description. “The appropriation of history [Geschichte] under the direction of the impulses and drives [der Reize undder Triebe] - there is no ‘objective history.’”30 The judgments of historians - as with everyone else - cannot be objective in the sense of the positivist’s subject-free disinterestedness but remain a product of their uniquely determined and fully ‘interested’ interpretive capacities.31

Thus man spins his web over the past and subdues it, thus expresses his artistic drive [Kunsttrieb] - but not his truth-drive or justice-drive. Objectivity and justice [Objectivitat und Gerechtigkeit] have nothing to do with one another. A historiography could be imagined which had in it not a drop of common empirical truth and yet could lay claim to the highest degree of that predicate objectivity.[7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14]

Nietzsche’s critique of this Rankean-postivistic objectivity on the basis of a physiognomically-sensitive view of subjectivity has been echoed by a number of later thinkers. Indeed, it would be difficult today to find a philosopher of history who would doggedly maintain the subject-free view of objectivity. Thinkers like Popper, Nagel, and, more recently, Mary Fulbrook have come to the consensus that “nothing is simply given” in history.[15] Heidegger, too, in his elusive way, writes, “interpretation is grounded in something we have in advance — in a fore-having. As the appropriation of understanding, the interpretation operates in Being towards a totality of involvements which is already understood.”[16] Or as Arthur Danto puts it, in a colorful inversion of Rankean objectity, “One does not go naked into the archives.”[17] Nietzsche agrees. “Strictly speaking, there is no ‘presuppositionless’ science [‘voraussetzungslose’ Wissenschaft], the thought of such a thing is unthinkable, paralogical.”36 “Behind all logic ... stand valuations [Wertschatzungen] or, stated more clearly, physiological requirements for the preservation of a particular type of life.”37

To appreciate the originality of Nietzsche's position, however, it serves to compare it to the other great contemporary critic of ‘subject-free’ objectivity in historiography, the neo-Kantian Heinrich Rickert. In keeping with Kant's general contention that experience is nothing given as such, but an interaction between a sensuous manifold and mental mechanisms, Rickert maintained that any attempt to excise the subjective factor in historical judgment was impossible. What is added to the thing itself beyond the pure intuitions of space and time and the logical categories of the understanding is a dynamic of values which filters out, so to say, what is significant from the infinite welter of sensations. Logical concepts simplify and order reality, values distinguish the meaningful from the inessential. “The concrete meaning that is found in the real objects, as well as the historiographic principle of selection, lies not in the sphere of real being but in that of value, and it is from here that the connection between the individual value-related method and the meaningful material of historiography must be understood.”38

Historians, for Rickert and for Nietzsche both, never report the past without the interference of values. What historians select from the nearinfinite details ofpast occurrences is what interests them. And thus for both Rickert and Nietzsche subjective factors necessarily obfuscate those

‘transparent windows’ of a subject-free sense of objectivity. But what would then prevent one from slipping into a purely personal, prejudiced, slanted, or biased reconstruction of the past?[18] In order to maintain the intersubjective compulsion of admittedly subjectivity-laden historical judgments, Rickert insists on the universal character of the subjective factors. Just as for Kant, the intersubjective compulsion of normative judgments rests on the universal character of pure practical reason; only since values constitute historical judgment, so must those values be universal if a historical judgment would compel assent intersubjectively. “The fact that cultural values are universal in this sense is what keeps concept formation in the historical sciences from being altogether arbitrary and thus constitutes the primary basis of its ‘objectivity.’ What is historically essential must be important not only for this or that particular historian, but for all.”[19]

For Nietzsche, on the contrary, the values that various types of historians employ - what they desire the past to be either at a conscious or unconscious level - are often fundamentally different. In the nineteenth century historians were mostly divided between Catholic and Protestant, between progressive liberal egalitarian and conservative aristocratic, between those who thought the unification of Germany under Bismarck was the dawn of a new era of prosperity and those, like Nietzsche, who didn’t. Even if there was some rough similarity in values, one could make the case that they only appeared so because the people writing histories were most often Western, Caucasian, upper- middle-class, university-educated, Christian males. The greatly expanded demographic of historians since the late twentieth century brought with it a corresponding widening of both possible topics and of the perspectives from which and to which those topics were addressed. If this has proven anything, it is that a universally shared set of values simply does not exist among historians, or among the people about whom historians write. Nietzsche is thus more in keeping with contemporary historiography than Rickert insofar as he recognizes at least a portion of the value-diversity that lies behind historiographical accounts. “What is history other than an unending struggle of different and countless interests for their existence?”[20] And although it is unlikely he knew it, Wilhelm Dilthey, brother of the young Nietzsche’s philological associate Carl,[21]

thus stands in Nietzsche’s debt when he wonders, “How are we to overcome the difficulty that everywhere weighs upon the human sciences of deriving universally valid propositions from inner experiences that are so personally limited, so indeterminate, so compacted and resistant to analysis?”[22] Indeed, Dilthey unknowingly followed Nietzsche in recognizing that the hermeneutics of history required a psychological understanding of the diverse forms of mental and active life as a perspectival framework in which the historian’s judgments are presented.

But if Nietzsche rejects the positivistic subject-free ideal of objectivity and also the neo-Kantian universalist notion of objectivity, it would seem that he rejects objectivity altogether. This need not be the case logically since there are more than just these two alternatives. And we saw plainly in the last chapter that Nietzsche criticized some types of interpreters for their lack of objectivity and praised others precisely for their objectivity. Burckhardt, for example, won Nietzsche’s approbation for not being biased by “stupid theories.” This is a claim neither that Burckhardt was capable of a subject-free observation of the past nor that the values that lay behind or underneath his interpretation could claim universal acceptance. Given that Burckhardt himself endorsed an aesthetically selective mode of historical judgment and given that his own value judgments were hardly universally accepted, neither of these alternative definitions of objectivity would seem remotely plausible. The difference between the objectivity of Burckhardt’s claims and that of both the critical philologists and the teleologists resides in the fact that, according to Nietzsche, his were not, in a word, ‘stupid.’

What Nietzsche has in mind is, again, more serious than mere namecalling. For Nietzsche, I contend, objectivity means the intersubjective agreement about judgments from within a specific type. Such a definition sacrifices any universal or non-subjective character of objectivity, true. It instead opts for a relational notion wherein the distortive character of the affective component of judgments is neutralized among those judges who share a similar set of affects. This is the meaning of his famous pronouncement about objectivity in The Genealogy of Morals: “the more eyes, different eyes we learn to set upon the same object, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of this thing, the more ‘objective.’”[23]

Consider the example of an object seen through two media. Imagine that two agents, ‘x’ and ‘y,’ look at a cube. ‘X’ does so through the air, while ‘y,’ submerged in a tank, does so through water. Irrespective of what the other senses tell us the object must ‘be’ independent of how it appears visually, we ask ‘x’ and ‘y’ to describe how the edges of the object look. ‘X’ will say ‘straight’ of course, whereas ‘y,’ if honest, will answer ‘wavy.’ We say that ‘y’ is seeing things wrongly because his vision is distorted by the water, that there is a subjective interference that burdens ‘y’ but not ‘x.’ Of course this is naive, for in obvious point of fact the vision of ‘x’ is equally distorted by the medium of air through which she looks. The two reasons we typically offer in order to claim that only ‘x’ has an objective judgment are, first, that we as viewers far more typically look at objects through the air than through water. The water-perspective is unusual; we are not accustomed to it; we do not share in the presumption of that particular distortion. The second is that we believe we can confirm the correctness of ‘x’ by appeal to other senses, most notably touch. ‘Y’ is considered distorted because our sense of touch disconfirms her claim about wavy edges. But when it comes to the distortive affects of the mind that render judgments about history subjectivity-laden, we have no extra-mental capacity by which we can evaluate the traces of the past within evidence. There exists no account of the past that was not constructed by a mind, a human mind that for Nietzsche is constituted by its subjective affectivity. There is not an infinity of different ways of viewing the phenomenon in question, but a rough set of types who tend to judge in ways befitting their at least roughly typical subjective facticities. Like an atheist and a Christian each telling the other their political views are biased by their values, Nietzsche thinks judgments are considered biased by a type insofar as those judgments cut against what that type is already predisposed to accept, or else are considered objective only insofar as they accord a given type’s predispositions about what sorts of judgments to accept. So while we should expect same types to agree on the ‘objective correctness’ of same-type interpretations, there is no logically justifiable way of verifying the objectivity of a judgment independently - no canonical ‘sense of touch,’ as it were - by which we can separate the subjectively distorted from the objective.

The objectivity of a judgment is thus not about some thing in the world, but a way of considering the psychological attitude that gives rise to it. We consider a judgment objective when we are accustomed to it; we anticipate its correctness because we share the basic presuppositions by which it was generated; we share those presuppositions because our type of life leads us unconsciously to hold them. The “more eyes” that become convinced to interpret a phenomenon in a single way - like the near-universal tendency to see objects through the medium of air - the more “objective” will that way of seeing be considered.

As we saw in the previous chapter, the particular historical judgments of Hartmann and Strauss, or Sybel and Treitschke, or Mommsen, Bergk, and Welcker, or Jahn and Wilamowitz, are often not the focus of Nietzsche’s attacks. They themselves represent various forms of degenerate types insofar as those judgments are a product of predispositions that cut counter to the predispositions of Nietzsche and those who - like Burckhardt, Bachofen, Ritschl, Overbeck, Rohde, etc. - he believes share his own “healthy” predispositions. They are the ones with clear vision, not because they exist as some magical exceptions to the character of human subjectivity; but because they, too, see through a medium whose distortion is canceled out by the like-type characteristic distortions of Nietzsche himself.[24] If this is how Nietzsche thinks of objectivity, then it is false to think that Nietzsche rejects the possibility and value of objectivity altogether. Nietzsche in fact endorses objectivity - despite his objections to the positivist and neoKantian definitions of it - as a standard of relational rather than absolute evaluation.

  • [1] Humboldt ([1822] 1967), 63ff. Humboldt himself exerted considerable influence upon historicalstudies at the University of Berlin. However, he was never referred to directly by Nietzsche aspossessing the failings of the ‘Berlin school’ of history.
  • [2] Ranke (1972), 57. There is presently a general sentiment among philosophers of history that Rankenever really meant subject-neutral objectivity in a strong sense. See Iggers (1962—1963,1983). Howevercorrect Iggers may be, the traditional portrait of Ranke is the one with which Nietzsche would havebeen familiar and thus we shall continue to employ it here.
  • [3] Grafton (1999), 59. See also the famous formulation of Mandelbaum (1977), i46ff.
  • [4] GM in, 26; KSA 5, 405ff. 4 GM111, 24; KSA 5, 400.
  • [5] though independently of Nietzsche. In general, see Dray (1980); see also Tucker (2009), 101.
  • [6] HL 6; KSA 1, 290. See also, NFfall 1867—spring 1868, 56[6]; KGW1/4, 367: “The medium throughwhich the historian looks is his own representations (and those of his time) and his sources.” This noteappears in a discussion of Ferdinand Baur. Nietzsche doesn’t cite what he was reading, and I havebeen unable to determine whether this is Nietzsche’s own thought at that time or a summary ofBauer. For a discussion, see Emden (2008), 50—53.
  • [7] Cf. Cox (1999), i26ff. See also van Tongeren (2003), 205-214.
  • [8] A similar definition is provided by Richardson (1996), 37. Thorough accounts can also be found inBrusotti (1997) and Reuter (2009). On the relation between subjectivity and thinking generally, seeClark (1998), 63-82.
  • [9] On this point, see especially Blondel (i990), 7-24.
  • [10] NF summer-fall 1873, 29196]; KSA 7, 673.
  • [11] NF summer-fall 1873, 29 [96]; KSA 7, 674. See also Muller-Lauter (1999), 193 n. 42.
  • [12] NF spring-summmer 1883, 7 [268]; KSA 10, 323.
  • [13] What Nietzsche says about the judgment of philosophers would naturally hold for historians as well. See JGB 6; KSA 5, 20.
  • [14] HL 6; KSA 1, 290.
  • [15] Fulbrook (2002), 25. For a discussion of these figures and a fine survey of views of historiographicalobjectivity, see Newall (2009).
  • [16] Heidegger (1962), 150. 3 Danto (1965), 101. 36 GM111, 24; KSA 5, 400.
  • [17] 37 JGB 3; KSA 5,17. 38 Rickert (1924), 70.
  • [18] Leon Goldstein made popular what is today known as historiographical constructivism in a way thatrecapitulates both Nietzsche’s and Rickert’s general positions here. See Goldstein (1976), Chapters 1-3.
  • [19] Rickert (1962), 97. Both passages from Rickert are cited from the fine study ofBambach (2009), 482.
  • [20] NFfall 1867—spring 1868, 56[7]; KGW1 /4, 368.
  • [21] There is a further biographical connection between Dilthey and Nietzsche. The young Dilthey hadbeen appointed chair in the philosophy department at Basel in 1866. He left that post for Kiel in 1868,thus missing Nietzsche’s appointment by a matter of months.
  • [22] Dilthey (1914—1990) vi, 107. See also Ermath (1978); and Owensby (1994).
  • [23] GM iii, 12; KSA 5, 365.
  • [24] Nietzsche never states this per se, though the attribution seems to fit with Nietzsche’s usage. Thehistorians he labels ‘objective’ are the same ones that he tends to think of as having a ‘healthy’ type oflife. And I see no exception to this rule, no case where he criticizes the person of a historian whilenevertheless naming their judgment ‘objective.’
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