Nietzsche, Psychology, and First Philosophy

Nietzsche, Psychology, and First Philosophy

by Robert B. Pippin

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Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most elusive thinkers in the philosophical tradition. His highly unusual style and insistence on what remains hidden or unsaid in his writing make pinning him to a particular position tricky. Nonetheless, certain readings of his work have become standard and influential. In this major new interpretation of Nietzsche’s work,

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Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most elusive thinkers in the philosophical tradition. His highly unusual style and insistence on what remains hidden or unsaid in his writing make pinning him to a particular position tricky. Nonetheless, certain readings of his work have become standard and influential. In this major new interpretation of Nietzsche’s work, Robert B. Pippin challenges various traditional views of Nietzsche, taking him at his word when he says that his writing can best be understood as a kind of psychology.

Pippin traces this idea of Nietzsche as a psychologist to his admiration for the French moralists: La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, Stendhal, and especially Montaigne. In distinction from philosophers, Pippin shows, these writers avoided grand metaphysical theories in favor of reflections on life as lived and experienced. Aligning himself with this project, Nietzsche sought to make psychology “the queen of the sciences” and the “path to the fundamental problems.” Pippin contends that Nietzsche’s singular prose was an essential part of this goal, and so he organizes the book around four of Nietzsche’s most important images and metaphors: that truth could be a woman, that a science could be gay, that God could have died, and that an agent is as much one with his act as lightning is with its flash.

Expanded from a series of lectures Pippin delivered at the Collège de France, Nietzsche, Psychology, and First Philosophy offers a brilliant, novel, and accessible reading of this seminal thinker.

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Editorial Reviews

Christopher Janaway

“Through sympathetic and creative readings of Nietzsche’s imagery, and with an unusually strong emphasis on his project of a ‘gay science,’ this book presents Nietzsche’s commitment to the priority of psychology in a new light. Arguing against the tendency to give naturalist readings of Nietzsche’s psychology, Pippin’s refreshing proposal is to place Nietzsche’s project in the light of the earlier French moralistes and of Montaigne in particular. From this perspective he is able to cast light on Nietzsche’s treatments of agency, erotic longing, and self-deceit in ways which challenge much recent thinking about Nietzsche. This book should provoke lively debate and anyone interested in Nietzsche will gain much from Pippin’s subtle reflections.”--Christopher Janaway, University of Southampton
Sebastian Gardner
“What counts in the context of Nietzsche as a successful or even legitimate interpretation is open to dispute in a way that is true of perhaps no other major figure in the history of philosophy. The need for a unifying characterization of Nietzsche’s philosophical project is both pressing and extremely hard to fulfill. Pippin’s interpretation of Nietzsche—as occupied fundamentally with subjective deficiencies which not even a full realization of Enlightenment ideals in modernity could eliminate—is by any measure outstanding and merits the attention of all concerned to understand the development of philosophy in the wake of Kant. Readers who fear that unless Nietzsche is equipped with an original and cogent set of doctrinal commitments in epistemology, metaphysics, and meta-ethics, his strictly philosophical interest will evaporate, will find in Pippin a trenchant, rigorous, and persuasive account of how Nietzsche’s psychological turn, understood correctly, addresses traditional philosophical concerns while seeking to recast our basic conception of the task of philosophy.”--Sebastian Gardner, University College, London
Alan D. Schrift
“There have been literally hundreds of works on Nietzsche published over the last thirty years, but none of them approach him in quite the way Robert Pippin does here. The result of long and deep reflection on Nietzsche’s philosophical project, Nietzsche, Psychology, and First Philosophy does not attempt to reduce all philosophical theorizing to psychology, but instead suggests that Nietzsche’s philosophical thinking, like that of the French moralistes before him, was driven by a desire to understand how human beings think about their lives and why they think about their lives in the ways that they do.”--Alan D. Schrift, Grinnell College

"Pippin presents a much-needed new approach and appreciation of Nietzsche. . . . [He] adroitly starts fresh with Nietzsche, considering his work holistically and in the context of both early psychology and 19th-century French morality. In his novel reading, Pippin exposes the folly of underappreciating Nietzsche's irony and self-criticism."—Choice
Common Knowledge
Pippin’s is one of a small but growing numbers of works that, working through Nietzsche, recognize that orthodoxy is often little more than a heresy that has, for the moment, won the day.”  

— Alexander Nehamas

Common Knowledge - Alexander Nehamas

“Pippin’s is one of a small but growing numbers of works that, working through Nietzsche, recognize that orthodoxy is often little more than a heresy that has, for the moment, won the day.”  

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Nietzsche, Psychology, and First Philosophy


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 Robert B. Pippin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-66975-5

Chapter One

Psychology as "the Queen of the Sciences"


In paragraph 23 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche encourages us to "clench your teeth! open your eyes! and grab hold of the helm!" We are to make a voyage that will entitle us to demand that "psychology again be recognized as the queen of the sciences, and that the rest of the sciences exist to serve and prepare for it. Because, from now on, psychology is again the path to the most fundamental problems" (BGE, §23, 24).

This seems to state very clearly that Nietzsche, by mentioning the "queen of the sciences" and "fundamental problems," is claiming that "psychology" as he understands it will replace philosophy, especially metaphysics, the former and presumably dead or deposed queen. (To be sure, there is in the passage a distinction between the "path" to the problems, which path is psychology, and the "fundamental problems" themselves, the precise character of which is unnamed. But this appears to be a distinction between what psychology will explain and the basic explicanda, the problems of value at the heart of Nietzsche's interests. Or so I shall argue below.)

What could this mean? What could "psychology" in that claim refer to, and why would it not be just one of the sciences but their "queen"? If this is not an empirical psychology, is it a "philosophical psychology"? What would its object be? The soul? What does Nietzsche mean by "again"? When was psychology like first philosophy? How does all this square with Nietzsche's resistance to "theory"? My thesis in this book is that, however resistant he may be to philosophical theory, Nietzsche's claim here is a serious one and has a determinate content (his "booby traps" are not self-immolating; something is left standing) and that we have not yet understood either that content or in what sense Nietzschean psychology might replace, even serve as the explicans for, metaphysics or first philosophy in any sense.

There are some general characteristics of a Nietzschean psychology with which most Nietzsche commentators would agree. First, he is primarily interested in what we need to say about the psyche to understand what happens when we act on the basis of some value claim or express in some way a commitment to a value. (One way of interpreting Nietzsche on the priority of psychology is already visible: he clearly believes that any activity, whether theoretical or practical, already involves such a commitment, and so the place of value and its psychological conditions in the economy of the soul must be "fundamental" for any other activity.) Academic philosophy now characterizes this set of concerns—as they appear in Plato and Aristotle, through David Hume, to Elizabeth Anscombe and Donald Davidson—as "moral psychology," or "philosophical psychology." Typical questions include: What is the relation between reason and the passions in action? Can reason alone direct action? Is akrasia, or knowing the better but doing the worse, possible? And so forth. As we have already seen, however, Nietzsche does not appear to want simply to add another position to this list. Indeed, his main point seems to be that there is no general philosophical psychology. His view, which I will be exploring in these chapters, is that views of the soul and its capacities vary with beliefs about and commitments to norms; normative commitments are subject to radical historical change; and so what counts as soul or psyche or mind and thus psychology also changes. The "soul" is merely the name for a collective historical achievement, a mode of self-understanding, of one sort or another, what we have made ourselves into at one point or other in the service of some ideal or other. When we describe to one another what we think the soul is, we mean thereby to propose an ideal, usually something like psychic health. Hence also the deep interconnection or inseparability between psychology and genealogy. This is a point that will emerge frequently throughout what follows.

Second, it is often said that Nietzschean psychology must be "naturalist," and third, that it is therefore largely deflationary. The former, "naturalism," requirement amounts to an insistence that, when trying to account for the human capacities required when persons direct their actions on the basis of norms, we should appeal to capacities also discoverable in nonmoral or nonethical contexts, and those capacities must be consistent with our being organic material bodies located in space and time. If we can only explain normative constraints and a set of practices by appealing to a capacity uniquely required by a particular view of value (such as a free will, an uncaused cause, or a unified subject independent of and directing its deeds), especially if that capacity is supranatural, the odds are high, at the very least, that we are dealing with a kind of philosophical fantasy.

This enterprise turns out to be critical and deflationary, especially with regard to the set of values and practices that Nietzsche designates as "morality"—the Christian and post-Christian values of universal equality, absolute individual responsibility, and guilt. The way the psyche "works" in commitment to and pursuit of moral values is in reality far different from the self-descriptions of moral agents. (That psychology is the sort of fantasy just described.)

Finally, though, if the Nietzschean enterprise is deflationary, it is not reductionist. One of the things natural organic beings can do, must do, is to create all sorts of different institutions under varying circumstances, train themselves to observe certain constraints and not others, and there is no reason to believe that exclusive attention to the biological or physical properties or evolutionary histories of these organisms best explains (or could explain at all) why they create one sort rather than another, nor is there any way a purely natural science account could explain what these institutions actually mean to the participants, what they take themselves to be doing.


But why should psychology, understood in this way, be so important that it becomes "the queen of the sciences" and thus functions like metaphysics used to function, as the path to all the "fundamental problems"?

Here is a conventional view, one with which we are all familiar. Nietzsche seems to be referring to a new sort of fundamental doctrine or teaching, let us say—perhaps an aesthetic picture or perhaps a legislation of a new value—that takes in "everything," as much cosmology as ontology, as much metaphysics as natural science. The "will to power" seems to be the name of this new doctrine, and such a doctrine clearly has many psychological implications. All of nature, especially organic nature, most especially human psychological nature, is to be understood as the expression of a basic drive to dominate and exert power over as much as possible, not to be subject to any other will or drive. This almost seems to amount to a psychologizing of being itself, attributing to everything what seems in itself a psychological drive. After all, paragraph 23 in Beyond Good and Evil had begun with "All psychology so far has been stuck in moral prejudices and fears: it has not ventured into the depths. To grasp psychology as morphology and the doctrine of the development of the will to power, which is what I have done—nobody has ever come close to this, not even in thought" (BGE, §23, 23).

Nietzsche is famous for having said such things as "Life itself is will to power" (BGE, §13, 15), and a bit later in his Genealogy, he had written "that everything that occurs in the organic world consists of overpowering, dominating, and, in their turn, overpowering and dominating consist of re-interpretation, adjustment" (GM, II, §12, 51). And, in a much-quoted passage in the same section, "But every purpose and use is just a sign that the will to power has achieved mastery over something less powerful, and has impressed upon it its own idea [Sinn] of a use function; and the whole history of a 'thing,' an organ, a tradition can to this extent be a continuous chain of signs, continually revealing new interpretations and adaptations" (GM, II, §12, 51).

These are standard quotations, although there are indications immediately that it will not be easy to find the right category for these claims. For one thing, even though Nietzsche seems to be talking about the organic world here, this "dominating [Herrwerden]" is, rather oddly, discussed in terms of "new interpretations [Neu-Interpretieren]" and "adaptations [ein Zurechtmachen]." This sounds like some gigantomachia of philologists, not the sort of bloody test of brute, cruel, merciless strength with which Nietzsche has been associated. The same is true of phrases like "a continuous chain of signs of ever new interpretations and adaptations." Nietzsche clearly does not want "power" to function as a purpose or basic drive, since he is admitting freely that what counts as power changes frequently and radically and so itself is a subject of contestation and dispute. (Unless power were a very un-Nietzschean end in itself, it is also unclear how the appeal to power would figure in any psychological explanation, since it is unlikely that persons would simply seek to gain power unless they already desired some end that such power could serve.) Moreover, unless we are willing to think that Nietzsche actually believed that the cosmos was some sort of living brute with its own psychology, this sort of approach leaves us right back again with metaphysical foundations and psychological implications, exactly the model Nietzsche says he is replacing.

For another thing, it is easy here to explode one of the "booby traps" planted by Nietzsche. Here is one from the "Assorted Opinions and Maxims" section of Human, All Too Human. (It contains the hint or clue that I will follow through these chapters, so I will quote it at length.) "An original sin of philosophers.—Philosophers have at all times appropriated the propositions of the examiners of men (moralists) and ruined them, inasmuch as they have taken them for unqualified propositions and sought to demonstrate the absolute validity of what these moralists intended merely as approximate signposts or even as no more than truths possessing tenancy only for a decade—and through doing so thought to elevate themselves above the latter" (HAH, 215). The example Nietzsche gives of this original sin is a telling one—Arthur Schopenhauer on the will. Nietzsche claims that Schopenhauer was in reality, without appreciating the fact himself, a "moralist," who rightly used the term will loosely and "remoulded as a common designation for many different human states and inserted a gap in the language" and so earned the right "to speak of the 'will' as Blaise Pascal had spoken of it." Unfortunately, though, "the philosopher's rage for generalization" turned such a moralist façon de parler into a metaphysical claim about the omnipresence of the will in all of nature (a claim Nietzsche calls a piece of "mystical mischief [mystische Unfuge]") and so ended up turning everything "towards a false reification [zu einer falschen Verdinglichung]."

I would venture to guess that if the "Nietzsche community" were to agree that no new book on Nietzsche could be written until it was made consistent with this admonition, publication would grind virtually to a halt. What Nietzsche is warning against here—the substantialization and reification of what is really a kind of placeholder used to very different purposes by "moralists"—is an interpretive tendency shared both by the anglophone academic philosophy literature and the European literature so influenced by Heidegger's lectures on Nietzsche in the 1930s, which famously claimed Nietzsche as a metaphysical thinker and the will to power as his metaphysical doctrine.

Even more valuable is the reference to "examiners of men [Menschenprüfer]," or to "the moralists." To whom is he referring? Explicitly and quite favorably in this passage to Pascal. Now it is always acknowledged that the great "French moralists," especially but not exclusively of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were heroes to Nietzsche, that he mentions them often and often with exorbitant praise. It is also clear that he treats them as "psychologists" in a very broad sense but with that specific focus noted above—how we should understand what happens when people appeal to normative considerations, or try to live well, how those norms have come to matter to people, how even they could or could not come to matter.

The names in question are also clear: above all and by a wide margin, Michel Montaigne (about whom he had almost nothing critical to say) and also François La Rochefoucauld and Pascal round out the top and pretty distinct group. These three especially all join a Nietzschean pantheon with very few members: the pre-Socratics, Greek poets, some Romans, a few from the Italian Renaissance, Napoleon, Goethe, and Shakespeare. He even once dedicated a whole book to Voltaire (although he eventually lost faith in Voltaire's optimism and reliance on reason), and Stendahl is also frequently lionized, again as a "moralist." It is sometimes said that this French influence is only relevant to Nietzsche's own "moraliste" period, or the three books Human, All Too Human, Daybreak, and The Gay Science, but as we have already seen, the formulations of his task as "psychology" extend well beyond this period. We will see their influence in Beyond Good and Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, and his autobiography of sorts, Ecce Homo.

There are others (Nicolas Chamfort, Paul Bourget, Vauvenargue [Luc de Clapiers], even some interesting remarks about Bernard de Fontenelle), but what is important, I propose, is the direction suggested by the passage just quoted from Human, All Too Human. I can state the thesis that I want to argue very simply in the terms of that passage: Nietzsche is much better understood not as a great German metaphysician, or as the last metaphysican of the West, or as the destroyer or culminator of metaphysics, or as very interested in metaphysics or a new theory of nature at all, but as one of the great "French moralists." The point is not only that that is how he sees himself but that this is what he is trying "to do" with his work, as I put it before, and it is much more interesting, provokes more interesting questions and counters than he does "qua metaphysician." The questions are clear: what sort of a psychologist is a "moraliste"? But more problematically: in what way does such a psychologist avoid the "original sin" of philosophy, the "false reification [falsche Verdinglichung]" of his terms of explanation so typical of philosophers? And, yet again, in what sense is such an enterprise the queen of the sciences?


What interests Nietzsche in "essays" or "maxims" or "pensées," I want to suggest, is that they are presented without, and with no hidden reliance on, a "deeper" philosophical theory of human nature or of reason or of anything else, and it is clearly an assumption in all three (and by Nietzsche) that this is not a limitation but unavoidable if one is to write "honestly," and so is a virtue. Pascal's "l'homme honnète" is the clear model for the Nietzschean "free spirit [freie Geist]" from the 1876 Nachlass written in preparation for Human, All Too Human and there after. It is also no accident that the three moralists Nietzsche admired the most wrote in such unusual, original forms, as we shall see.

Here is what I think Nietzsche got from this reading of les moralists, especially in the late 1870s, although it carried over into all his mature works: while, according to Nietzsche, La Rochefoucauld's tendency to see petty egoism everywhere finally belittles man unfairly, and while Pascal's noble soul was eventually crushed by Christianity or the Christian understanding of the weakness and depravity of man, the Nietzschean question is at its clearest with Montaigne. How, he wants to know above all, did Montaigne manage to exhibit such a thoroughgoing skepticism and clarity about human frailty and failings without Pascal's despair and eventual surrender or La Rochefoucauld's icy contempt for the "human all too human"? Instead, Montaigne ended up a thoughtful, ferociously honest, cheerful free spirit, someone who had succeeded at the task of "making [himself] at home in the world [sich auf der Erde heimisch zu machen]."


Excerpted from Nietzsche, Psychology, and First Philosophy by ROBERT B. PIPPIN Copyright © 2010 by Robert B. Pippin. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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