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Was Nietzsche a Cognitivist?

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 22, Number 3, July 1984
pp. 343-363 | 10.1353/hph.1984.0042

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Was Nietzsche a Cognitivist? KENNETH R. WESTI~HAL INTERPRI':TATIONSO1-"NIE'rZSC:IIEhave been improving dramatically in the last decade, both in sophistication and in appreciation of his texts ancl issues. Nevertheless, there remains something disappointing about the tield of Nietzsche interpretation. As Bernd Magnus has noted, the main contributions to the fielcl come from three broad and roughly distinguishable groups: "analytical" interpreters who regard as their task the determination of Nietzscbe's views on distinct tractitional conceptual issues in philosophy, "deconstructionist" interpreters who regard philosophical issues as socially and historically conditioned and interpret Nietzsche accordingly, and "reconstructionist " or more purely scholarly interpreters who simply seek to make the most exhaustive and coherent account of Nietzsche's corpus. Magnus notes that these groups tend to talk past one another, indicates that their clifferences stem principally from divergent nmtaphilosophical commitments --divergent commitments about what "philosophy" as a discipline and activily is--and suggests that the controversy between these groups "can and ought to be surmounted."' Because divergent metaphilosophical positions disagree about what constitutes a serious problem or a plausible view, a major ditticulty faced in overcoming such controversy is finding determinate issues and texts which can support proctuctive disagreement. This problem is especially acute wivh Nietzsche because clocumenting an interpretation of his views is so difticult that it scarcely allows for considering one's own interpretive principles, the reasons one fincts particular issues and passages compelling, or alternative readings of the texts. Thus both the principles about which these groups disagree as well as the textual issues on which they disagree remain in the background, making it diflicult to bring divergent interpretations into mutual focus. Nietzsche's own unprecedented emphasis on the importance of ' BerndMagnus,"Perfectabilit,vand Atlitudein Nietzsctne'sUbermensch,"(Review oJMetaphysic .s, 36, no. 3 (1983):651-53. 344 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 22:3 JULY t984 one's perspective would seem to make consideration of interpreters' metaphilosophical commitments all the more appropriate? In this paper I will raise a question which invariably brings interpreters' metaphilosophical commitments into play: Was Nietzsche a cognitivist? "Cognitivism" here is the view that there are knowable truths about the world; "non-" and "anti-cognitivism" are rejections of that view. I give content to this general contrast through a critical examination of some Nietzsche interpretations bearing on three subquestions: Does Nietzsche make (putative ) cognitive claims? Does he need to do so for his own purposes? Is he entitled to do so by his own episternological views? From my discussion follow affirmative answers to the first two subquestions and five points pertinent to the third. These points include unresolved philosophical difficulties in available Nietzsche interpretations and some unexplored aspects of Nietzsche's views. It is desirable that these points be addressed both by cognitivist and by non- or anti-cognitivist interpretations of Nietzsche, and it is hoped that the following discussion can provide common points of focus among the three groups of Nietzsche interpretation and thereby concrete opportunities for disagreement and mutual assessment. 3 There are roughly four broad themes comprising Nietzsche's views on truth and knowledge: (1) passages in which Nietzsche seems to proclaim truths about the world, (2) passages which are highly sceptical, (3) passages arguing that language is incapable of capturing truths about the world, and (4) passages expressing Nietzsche's "perspectivism." His writings are marked by bold passages which eulogize the importance of truth: " 'We strive for the forbidden': in this sign my philosophy will triumph some day, for what one has forbidden so far as a matter of principle has always been--truth alone." (EH P 3)4 and by passages apparently proclaiming truths about the world: '~ I would refer those who would oppose my suggestion as un-Nietzschean insofar as it is too exoteric (cf. FW 354, 381) or incautiously argumentative (cf.J 25) to Nietzsche's remarks on the merely modern virtue of ambiguity (cf. G 1X x8; EH I 7) and would suggest that being more explicit about these matters would aid our ephexis in interpretation (A 52). (A key to citations appears in note 4.) 3 The distinction between cognitivist and non- or anti-cognitivist interpretations does not fall along the divisions among Magnus...