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Reviewed by:
  • Nietzsche and Ethics
  • Martin Liebscher
Gudrun von Tevenar (Ed.). Nietzsche and Ethics. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007. 318 pp. ISBN 978-3-03-911045-2. Paperback. $97.95.

The title Nietzsche and Ethics subsumes a collection of various articles from a conference held in September 2004, under the auspices of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society, U.K. This open, almost [End Page 161] vague formulation of the topic reflects the following difficulty: that one cannot ascertain with certainty what constitutes Nietzsche’s ethics or indeed whether one can speak of moral thinking in Nietzsche at all. It is, however, this nexus between Nietzsche and ethics that opens up a space for a diversity of contributions ranging from either the affirmation or the rejection of Nietzsche’s dismissal of moral values to attempts at delineating a new ethics from his writings. This is confirmed by the editor’s introduction, which observes that scholars, despite their agreement on the importance of Nietzsche’s thinking for moral philosophy, tend to diverge in their conclusions about Nietzsche’s relation to ethics (7).

The different philosophical and methodological approaches of each contributor add to this confusing variety of views, and the reader should not necessarily expect to come closer to a final verdict on the merits of Nietzsche’s ethical considerations. Yet at the same time, the impossibility of pinning Nietzsche’s philosophy down to its “true” moral content is itself inherent in his perspectivism, which has been both the curse and the fortune of Nietzsche scholarship. According to Nietzsche, truth and moral truth are related to the constant shifting of perspectives in relation to changing constellations of power.

While some articles in this volume seem to ignore the perspectival character of truth in Nietzsche altogether, embarking on a search for the esoteric contents of his moral philosophy, the approach of Robert Guay provides a welcome contrast insofar as it gives credit to Nietzsche’s ever-shifting perspectives. Guay engages with Nietzsche’s claim to be an immoralist and interprets his critique of morality as a necessary corrective: “Any approach that offers definitive answers or that relies on the fixity of character to provide stability harms its own provision of practical guidance” (73). By rejecting morality, immoralism questions the dogmatic character of hitherto fixed ethical systems. What remains is “human flourishing” (GM P:3), a teleology without any particular telos—an everlasting play of will-to-power quanta. This means—according to Guay—that Nietzsche’s immoralism leads back to the fundaments of human nature and the human need to find a purpose for existence: “So we need teachers of the purpose of existence to make sense of life, and we need to be able to live up to our sense-making in order to sustain our purposiveness” (77). This circle, in which life is giving itself a purpose for the sake of doing so, is constantly shifting, and thus Guay’s interpretation seems to be in accordance with Nietzsche’s understanding of perspectivism and the will to power.

It follows from this perspectival reading that Guay disagrees with Edward Harcourt’s approach to interpreting Nietzsche’s ethics along the lines of eudaemonism. Harcourt places Nietzsche’s reflections between the neo-Aristotelian and the immoralist positions. Similarly to Guay, he understands Nietzsche’s concept of “human flourishing” from the preface of GM as central for his ethics but defines this as a eudaemonistic position. This comes at the price of excluding inner harmony from the essential realm of eudaemonism.

In their attempt to get hold of Nietzsche’s ethics, both contributions place an emphasis on those texts by Nietzsche that seem to affirm their arguments, thereby neglecting others and ignoring the development and changes in Nietzsche’s thinking. Whereas Guay could argue that there are perspectival changes, Harcourt falls into the trap of finding a fixed ethical position in Nietzsche and of applying this assumption to contradictory arguments in Nietzsche’s work. To avoid this difficulty, one must either follow Karl Jaspers by deliberately looking for those contradictions in Nietzsche that suit one’s interpretation or choose a philological approach that investigates thoroughly the development of Nietzsche’s thinking on ethics. This is one of...