The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche's Darwinian Religion and Its Critics

The Moral Meaning of Nature: Nietzsche's Darwinian Religion and Its Critics

by Peter J. Woodford

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What, if anything, does biological evolution tell us about the nature of religion, ethical values, or even the meaning and purpose of life? The Moral Meaning of Nature sheds new light on these enduring questions by examining the significance of an earlier—and unjustly neglected—discussion of Darwin in late nineteenth-century Germany.
We start with Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings staged one of the first confrontations with the Christian tradition using the resources of Darwinian thought. The lebensphilosophie, or “life-philosophy,” that arose from his engagement with evolutionary ideas drew responses from other influential thinkers, including Franz Overbeck, Georg Simmel, and Heinrich Rickert. These critics all offered cogent challenges to Nietzsche’s appropriation of the newly transforming biological sciences, his negotiation between science and religion, and his interpretation of the implications of Darwinian thought. They also each proposed alternative ways of making sense of Nietzsche’s unique question concerning the meaning of biological evolution “for life.” At the heart of the discussion were debates about the relation of facts and values, the place of divine purpose in the understanding of nonhuman and human agency, the concept of life, and the question of whether the sciences could offer resources to satisfy the human urge to discover sources of value in biological processes. The Moral Meaning of Nature focuses on the historical background of these questions, exposing the complex ways in which they recur in contemporary philosophical debate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226539928
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/28/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 626 KB

About the Author

Peter J. Woodford is an Assistant Professor of Religion, Philosophy, and Science at Union College in Schenectady, NY. His research covers major thinkers and periods in the history of philosophical reflection on the relationship between science and religion, and he also works on current debates surrounding evolutionary explanations of both religion and morality. Before coming to Union, he received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Stanford University and completed an innovative 3-year postdoc at the University of Cambridge, where he was placed in a lab in the Department of Zoology with scientists researching the evolution of cooperation across species. While at Cambridge, his research focused on both tensions and possible points of reconciliation between scientific, philosophical, and humanistic approaches to religion and morality. He is currently the co-PI on a research project entitled “Is a Social Mind Aware of its 'Self?'” that will investigate the nature and possibility of self-awareness in social primates that do not pass the mirror test.

Read an Excerpt


Friedrich Nietzsche: A Darwinian Religion

If one statement from Nietzsche's vast corpus could be selected to capture the sense of validation he found in Darwin's theory of evolution for his own project of a "revaluation of values," it would be this: "Life is something essentially non-moral." This phrase appeared in the preface that Nietzsche added in 1886 to his earliest published work from 1872, The Birth of Tragedy, and it signaled Nietzsche's sense of the continuity between his concerns as a young professor of classics in Basel and his mature views as the nomadic iconoclast of Western philosophy. It also captures a puzzle that surrounded the philosophical implications of evolutionary biology in the strand of German thought that Nietzsche came to embody. For Nietzsche in particular, there were three main questions that Darwin's discovery raised: First, if life is non-moral, then how could moral values have arisen in the first place? Second, if moral values do not capture the dynamics of the living world, then what values — if any — do? Lastly, what would it take to affirm such a world? These clearly philosophical, and even existential, questions were raised by the evolutionary ideas floating around the sciences of Nietzsche's time. Moreover, I argue in this chapter that these were the questions that became essential as Nietzsche and his critics sorted out the relationship between religion and science.

Some disclaimers must inevitably be made before plunging into Nietzsche's thought. Nietzsche perhaps more than any other thinker in the history of philosophy is a figure with many faces, and the task of "getting Nietzsche right" is one that is fraught with difficulty. It is obligatory before beginning any discussion of what Nietzsche thought to note that attributing to him any sustained position in ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of science, or philosophy of religion is a nearly impossible interpretive task. Here, too, we must admit that the following interpretation will inevitably meet strong objections based on counter-evidence from Nietzsche's own vast corpus. Part of the difficulty is due to Nietzsche himself; he does not often provide explicitly formulated arguments for his positions in a form that contemporary philosophical readers have come to expect and demand in philosophical work. He also often makes claims in various books that are undeniably in tension with one another. Nietzsche certainly did not compose his texts for readers who approach his work as skeptics looking to be convinced through rational argument alone — indeed, the reason for this is rooted in his understanding of human psychology and the nature of reason in general, which I discuss in this chapter.

Another problem is simply the breadth of topics in Nietzsche's texts, to which any simple reduction to a basic or privileged concern does not do justice. Nietzsche wrote quite a lot over many years in his published works, unpublished notebooks, and extensive letters with philosophical content. Although I argue that a lasting concern or guiding thread can be traced from Nietzsche's earliest writings to his final ones, this should not camouflage the stunning variety of individual aims, argumentative strategies, brilliant flashes, and stylistic forms both within and among his various books at different stages of his life. In fact, the guiding thread that I concentrate on is one that is almost constructed by Nietzsche himself as he turned, in the late 1880s, to reflect on his early works and to discover in them the seeds of his later concerns, especially on the topics of science, life, value, and Christianity. I rely on these late, retrospective readings but am aware of the growing body of philological research that has challenged claims of continuity and the attempt to find an essential Nietzsche. Rather than argue that Nietzsche's total literary output contained only one definitive account of the relationship between religion and science, one concept of life, or one theory of what Christianity is, I instead piece together a coherent, recurring, and fundamental set of issues that shaped the reception of Nietzsche by his early critics and, I would also venture to claim, is the source of much contemporary constructive interest in his writings.

While simplifying things greatly, one can highlight two basic camps today that claim Nietzsche as their intellectual inspiration. One of these is the Foucauldian, postmodern, and postcolonial tradition, which in contemporary anthropology and cultural studies has taken the concept of power to be fundamental for social theory and has aimed to analyze often hidden power dynamics involved in shaping cultural identities and values — religious, political, or otherwise. In the process of refining Nietzsche's method of genealogy and uncovering dynamics of power in processes of enculturation, belief formation, and identity formation, this tradition has cast into deep suspicion the entire concept of normativity and validity, and has even gone as far as to question the legitimacy of ethics as a philosophical enterprise. For such critical theorists, Nietzsche helped us to see through the pretenses involved in the privileged values of truth and knowledge that had guided his philosophical predecessors, and he revealed the exercise of subtle forms of social domination behind the search for ultimate values and sources of value. Nietzsche's invention of the genealogical method of analysis and critique suited the purpose of this unmasking of power relations, forms of dominance, and even desire underneath the mantle of sober rationalism and taken-for-granted normative values. But it left the question of what the human good is in its wake.

Historians of philosophy in the Anglo-American and German traditions have revealed a rather different Nietzsche. A growing body of evidence shows Nietzsche's deep engagement with and defense of science, and of the life sciences in particular. Rather than reject science and deconstruct notions of truth and knowledge, many interpreters show Nietzsche to be a staunch defender of science and even a metaphysician who saw his metaphysics confirmed by the sciences. This Nietzsche did not reject normative values; he sought new and better ones that were defensible on the basis of rigorous scientific inquiry. Many interpreters today rest the contemporary relevance of Nietzsche in his naturalistic account of the origins of human values, which was inspired and validated by the scientific thought of his day. This Nietzsche passionately pursued a new and better notion of what the human good is.

The goal of this chapter is not to debate the strengths and weaknesses of these different readings, but to explore Nietzsche's work in a way that will expose a key ambiguity that is at the heart of their divergence. I aim to show that these two paths diverge in response to an ambiguity in how Nietzsche related the realm of life to the realm of value, and that this ambiguity was also crucial for early critical responses to his work. Analyzing Nietzsche's notion of life is crucial for the later chapters because of the confusion over how to combine Nietzsche's project of "revaluing values" and combating nihilism with his appropriation of biological and scientific thought that his early critics — Overbeck, Simmel, and Rickert — all seized upon. Their conceptions of life, and of the significance of the concept of life for understanding the relationship between science and religion, were responses to Nietzsche's unique combination of naturalistic investigation and normative, ethical, critique. Moreover, analyzing Nietzsche's concept of life allows us to understand his reception of Darwin. The general problem of the relationship between life and value became the point of confrontation between philosophy and the natural sciences, and it was on this ground that these thinkers debated the philosophical implications of evolution.

Whether Nietzsche was an antinormative postmodern, or a defender of science, a metaphysician, and even a moralist, his attempt to understand ethical and religious values in the context of the living world of organisms attempting to flourish, and to secure the means of flourishing in nature, is still the reason why many have returned to him as a resource for contemporary ethical theory. But there is another side to Nietzsche the Lebensphilosoph that is less emphasized by contemporary retrievals of his work for ethical theory or cultural anthropology, and that his early critics saw as fundamental. To use Thomas Nagel's phrase quoted in the introduction, Nietzsche the Life-philosopher had a "religious temperament"; he wanted to discover a new way of life that was aligned with the way things are. This Nietzsche seized upon the evolutionary view of nature in such a way that it could come to "play a role in inner life" and because it helped humans understand what it meant to flourish as a creature of nature. Understanding human moral life in terms of flourishing as a natural creature, a product of a natural history of evolution, could allow Nietzsche to develop what I call a "realistic idealism." That is, it could help inform the religious quest for a way of life that would lead to ultimate fulfillment by telling us something about the nature of the world in which this fulfillment was sought. The following chapter aims to show that Nietzsche's concept of life did not erase value from nature but showed that valuing and life were fundamentally entwined to the extent that life was both the ultimate source and criterion of value.

Nietzsche's Concept of Life

Max Scheler and Heinrich Rickert early on recognized the centrality of the concept of life for Nietzsche, and they enshrined this by designating him as a Lebensphilosoph. It was also recognized as central in Martin Heidegger's highly influential Nietzsche lectures in the late 1930s through the 1940s. However, Heidegger's writings on Nietzsche subordinated the term life to its synonym, the will to power, thus partly downplaying the biological resonance of this fundamental notion. Moreover, Heidegger's influential interpretation of Nietzsche led the excerpts from Nietzsche's notebooks published posthumously in 1906 as The Will to Power to become a privileged text. This text was misleadingly publicized by Nietzsche's infamous sister, Elisabeth Förster Nietzsche, and his friend Heinrich Köselitz as the culminating magnum opus that Nietzsche had been planning before his breakdown in 1889. As a result of Heidegger and this unauthorized posthumous publication, the "will to power" gained priority over the notion of life. Heidegger explicitly wrote off the naturalistic, biological, and Darwinian reading of Nietzsche as superficial and declared that the unpublished material in the posthumous The Will to Power gave more insight into the meaning of Nietzsche's philosophy than his published works. The influence of Heidegger's critique of Nietzsche's "will to power" as a metaphysical doctrine — meaning one that attempted to characterize "the being of beings"— and his subordination of the significance of Nietzsche's published works to his unpublished notes prevented Nietzsche's deep engagement with the biology of his day from attracting much philosophical interest.

Recent historical and philosophical work on Nietzsche has challenged Heidegger's dismissal of biological themes in Nietzsche's published texts. While it is still questionable whether or not Nietzsche read Darwin himself, he voraciously read German biologists who critically appropriated Darwin, such as William Rolph, Wilhelm Roux, and Carl von Nägeli, and he followed discussions of Darwin circulating in his day. Nietzsche's engagement with biology stemmed from a core conviction that to understand human ethical and religious values, and even to critique and evaluate them, one had to understand them through the characteristics of living organisms more generally. And this required investigating the teleological concepts prevalent in the life sciences. These were concepts that captured living entities in terms of what they were after — what they wanted and needed and what it meant for them to do well or badly. Nietzsche turned to biology because he thought it was fundamental for providing the context within which human ethical and religious values would be shown to fit into the natural world.

As it divided Nietzsche's earliest interpreters, the problem of interpreting Nietzsche's twin notions of "life" and "will to power" as metaphysical, biological, psychological, or even phenomenological persists in contemporary debate. As ever-present as the concept of life seems to be in Nietzsche's books and notes, it also bears a strongly metaphorical quality, and Nietzsche's unsystematic style of writing notoriously makes philosophical analysis difficult. Even though the concept of life is ubiquitous, it is rarely given explicit definition in the variety of contexts in which it is used. Despite these interpretive difficulties, one can scarcely pick up a work by Nietzsche without reading castigations of those cultural forces that "deny life" and those that can only "affirm" it by falsifying it or looking beyond it. When he does identify characteristics of life explicitly, they are often quite general and vague features such as "strength," "growth," and "ascension"— or their opposites, "weakness," "decline," "degeneration." It is clear that the concept of life poses strong challenges for interpreting Nietzsche's philosophy, yet it is so central that it cannot be avoided.

The concept of life first figures prominently as a term of art in the title of the second essay of Nietzsche's early Untimely Meditations (Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen), "On the Use and Disadvantage of History for Life" (1874), and it is in this essay that Nietzsche gives the earliest direct definition of life in his published work. There, Nietzsche describes life in richly metaphorical language as "that dark, driving, insatiable power craving itself." While this early definition is highly figurative, it nonetheless contains crucial meanings that persist in Nietzsche's later use of the term and ought not to be written off as mere metaphor. Here, life is an erotic notion — an appetite, an animating "drive," a "power," a desire and hunger. But just as importantly, Nietzsche names an object and aim of that desire and thirst — namely, life itself. Life here is an appetite and a drive that is naturally directed at itself and so in this sense is self-valuing, it wants more of itself and seeks itself as its own telos and as that which will satisfy its own "craving."

Nietzsche's goal in the second Untimely Meditation is to evaluate the discipline of history in terms of its service to this drive — a drive that Nietzsche finds to be at the origin of great cultural accomplishments, virtuous and noble individuals, and at the origins of phenomena like religions and even science itself. Nietzsche's early meditation on the relationship between science and life was precipitated by the problems of historical consciousness that were already beginning to occupy many other thinkers of his generation, including his friend Franz Overbeck and later Simmel and Rickert. The central question that precipitated the so-called "crisis" of historicism was similar to the existential question posed to biology outlined in the introduction: How can historical knowledge be useful for living a life in the present, for determining what to value and pursue? Can history have meaning for living, or did it merely undermine a naive self-confidence in ideals by showing us what fate they had met in the past or that ours are simply a few of many ideals that have animated human lives across history? In answering these questions, Nietzsche's early essay already rejected a positivist, value-free conception of science that stripped it of ethical content and import. Nietzsche's attack of history was an attack of the positivist pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, disconnected from the drive of life to seek after and "crave" itself. It was precisely the separation of science from this erotic source of value that threw into question its existential and ethical utility. The remedy for this situation, Nietzsche claimed, was to recognize that life and its striving to realize ideals was present in science itself, in the form of the very ideals of knowledge and intellectual understanding that were its objects of desire.


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Table of Contents

Introduction 1/ Friedrich Nietzsche: A Darwinian Religion 2/ Franz Overbeck: The Life History of Asceticism 3/ Georg Simmel: Evolution and the Self-Transcendence of Life 4/ Heinrich Rickert: The Autonomy of Agency and the Science of Life Conclusion

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