Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 23, 2019, from

5. Knowledge

The position on knowledge to which Nietzsche is led by his rejection of metaphysics is a combination of empiricism, antipositivism and perspectivism. Claiming in his later works that ‘all evidence of truth comes only from the senses’, and that we have science ‘only to the extent that we have decided to accept the testimony of the senses - to the extent to which we sharpen them further, arm them, and think them through’, he considers the rest of purported knowledge ‘miscarriage and not yet science’, or formal science, like pure logic and mathematics ( Beyond Good and Evil §134 [ Werke VI.2: 96]; Twilight III §3 [ Werke VI.3: 69–70]). The latter, he now insists, departing from his earlier stand that they falsify reality, make no claim about reality at all. Nietzsche’s empiricism amounts to a rejection of any wholesale disparaging of sense experience, an insistence that the only bases for criticizing or correcting particular deliverances of the senses are other sense experiences or theories based on them.

Nietzsche’s antipositivism involves a rejection of two aspects associated with some other versions of empiricism. First, he rejects foundationalism. Anticipating many later critics of positivism, he denies that there is any experience that is unmediated by concepts, interpretation or theory. Sense experience, our only evidence of truth, is always already interpreted, and knowledge is therefore interpretation, as opposed to the apprehension of unmediated facts. Nietzsche also avoids the problem of needing an a priori theory to establish his empiricism, which he bases instead on his genealogy of the belief in a metaphysical world (a genealogy that is itself empirical in that it accepts the testimony of the senses) and a diagnosis and working-through of the intellectual confusions that have locked previous philosophers into that belief. Clearing away these confusions (especially pictures of knowledge that set the world’s true nature over against its appearances) removes all intellectual basis for considering sense experience in principle problematic, and all intellectual motivation for pursuing a priori knowledge. Philosophers may, however, still have non-intellectual motives for this pursuit (see §6 of this entry). The upshot of Nietzsche’s antipositivism is that what counts as knowledge is always revisable in the light of new or improved experience. This reinforces his empiricism, and in no way devalues empirical theories or denies that they can give us truth.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism is often thought to imply that empirical knowledge offers us ‘only a perspective’ and not truth. But is perspectivism itself only a perspective? If not, it is false; if so, it is not clear why we should accept perspectivism rather than some other perspective. And Nietzsche himself puts forward as truths not only perspectivism, but also many other claims.

We can avoid saddling Nietzsche with these problems by recognizing that, at least in its mature and most important formulation (at Geneology III §12 [Werke VI.2: 381–3]), perspectivism is a claim about knowledge; it is not a claim about truth, and it does not entail that truth is relative to perspective. Further, ‘perspectives’ are constituted by affects, not beliefs. The point is not that knowledge is always from the viewpoint of a particular set of beliefs and that there are always alternative sets that would ground equally good views of an object (see Relativism). Such a view inevitably saddles perspectivism with relativism and problems of self-reference. Nietzsche’s explicit point in describing knowledge as perspectival is to guard against conceiving of knowledge as ‘disinterested contemplation’.

His early essay ‘Truth and Lie’ did use the impossibility of disinterested knowledge to devalue empirical knowledge, arguing that the latter was only a perspective and an illusion. But the point of the Genealogy’s claim that there is ‘only a perspective knowing’ is quite the reverse: to guard against using the idea of ‘pure’ knowing to devalue the kind of knowledge we have. The metaphor of perspective sets up disinterested knowing as the equivalent of the recognizably absurd notion of seeing something from nowhere. If the conception of knowledge ruled out by perspectivism really is absurd, however - and Nietzsche insists that it is - then it excludes only a kind of knowledge of which we can make no sense and which we could not really want. This explains why so many find perspectivism obvious and even self-evident; but so interpreted, it does nothing to devalue empirical knowledge.

Why does Nietzsche deny the possibility of disinterested knowledge? That surely does not follow from the impossibility of seeing something from nowhere. His early basis for this denial was Schopenhauer’s doctrine that the intellect originates as servant to the will, but he accepted the same doctrine in later works on the basis of a thoroughgoing Darwinian naturalism. Human cognitive capacities exist because of the evolutionary advantage they confer on the species, and no such advantage is to be found in attending to any and all features of reality. The intellect must be directed to certain features - initially at least, those most relevant to human survival and reproduction. Affect - emotion, feeling, passion, value orientations - turns the mind in a particular direction, focusing its attention on certain features of reality and pushing it to register them as important; knowledge is only acquired when the intellect is so pushed and focused. Nietzsche’s perspectivism is a metaphorical formulation of this naturalistic understanding of knowledge.

Because knowledge is always acquired from the viewpoint of particular interests and values, there are therefore always other affective sets that would focus attention on different aspects of reality. Nietzsche’s use of the metaphor of perspective thus implies that knowledge is limited in the sense that there are always other things to know, but not that perspectives block our access to truth. Affects are our access, the basis of all access to truth. If its perspectival character raises any problems for knowledge, it is only because being locked into a particular perspective can make one unable to appreciate features of reality that are apparent from other perspectives. Nietzsche’s solution is simple: the more affects we know how to bring to bear on a matter, the more complete our knowledge of it will be.

This does not mean that true knowledge requires assuming as many perspectives as possible. Knowledge does not require complete knowledge, and complete knowledge is not Nietzsche’s epistemological ideal. In fact, he suggests that the greatest scholars tend to serve knowledge by immersing themselves deeply and thoroughly in some particular perspective, so much so that they damage themselves as human beings. The situation is different for philosophers because their ultimate responsibility is not knowledge, but values. To undertake the task to which Nietzsche assigns them, they need practice in shifting perspectives. This explains much that is distinctive about his way of writing philosophy: why it involves so much affect and seems so given to extremes of expression. He uses different affective stances - assuming them for a while - in order to show us features of reality that are visible from them. More importantly, by moving from one perspective to another, he attempts to show philosophers the kind of ‘objectivity’ that is required for their task: objectivity understood not as disinterested contemplation, but as a matter of not being locked into any particular valuational perspective, as an ability to move from one affective set to another.

Citing this article:
Clark, Maudemarie. Knowledge. Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844–1900), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC057-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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