- Nietzsche and the Ancient Skeptical Tradition
Jessica Berry provides the first detailed analysis of whether, and in what sense, Nietzsche was a skeptic (5). Exploring the affinity between Nietzsche’s work and Pyrrhonism in six main chapters, Berry differentiates between modern skepticism, understood as epistemological pessimism or nihilism (33), and Pyrrhonian skepticism as a commitment to continuing [End Page 138] inquiry, based on the equipollence of arguments, “roughly equal persuasive weight for and against just about any claim,” and epochē, suspension of judgment (36–37).
Berry shows that Nietzsche appreciated this distinction (29–32) and proceeds to read Nietzsche’s remarks on truth skeptically. She argues that—like the ancient Skeptic’s response to the Dogmatist—Nietzsche does not deny truth in “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense,” but suspends judgment, because he is not yet entitled to the assertion or denial of truth (55). She contends that recognition of equipollence of argument and epochē best explain the perspectivism in Nietzsche’s later writings, challenging previous influential work on Nietzsche’s metaphysics. For Berry, perspectivism is a “fundamentally Skeptical” position that “undermines the attempt to secure justification for all such theses” (111). She squares this with previous scholarship on Nietzsche’s naturalism by defining naturalism as a methodological stance that requires continuity with “the investigative techniques employed by the natural sciences,” and by treating Nietzsche’s conception of the scientific spirit as distinctively Pyrrhonian, owing to its emphasis on inquiry’s being open-ended (89, 88–103). Berry’s suggestion that we think of Nietzsche’s naturalist and skeptical stances not as philosophical positions “but as a martial art” helps convey her insight that Nietzsche unites these concepts (94–95).
Berry attaches fresh significance to the concept of health in Nietzsche’s philosophical psychology (6). She examines the history of medical empiricism (reminding us that Sextus Empiricus was a physician), suggesting that health is more than a mere metaphor to Pyrrhonists: Skeptics live their philosophy while making a “tangible contribution” to promoting mental and physical health (99–101). Ataraxia emerges as the healthy product of skeptical epochē; Berry proposes that Nietzsche shares this Pyrrhonian interest: “[T]o philosophize out of health and to philosophize out of cheerfulness are one and the same thing” (141). She treats health as a “framing question” for Nietzsche’s diagnosis of value systems in On the Genealogy of Morals (135–36). Berry draws an analogy between Nietzsche’s concept of “great health” and the Pyrrhonian epochē by explaining how both involve active maintenance through the continuous work of suspending judgment (136–42) and that both also require cheerfulness, turning to Democritus for support (156–73). This promising line of inquiry might have been further clarified by including additional textual support from both ancient sources and from Nietzsche’s writings.
The precise limits of Berry’s skeptical reading are not always clear. Initially, Berry claims that she does not intend to defend “the claim that ‘Nietzsche is a Pyrrhonist,’” but rather intends to treat the relationship between Nietzsche and the Pyrrhonists as one of “influence” (24). She grounds this claim using criteria for determining scholarly influence identified by Quentin Skinner (22–23), developing the helpful criterion of pragmatism: we should only claim that one author influences another if we come to understand one author better by acknowledging the influence of another (24). Later, her analysis turns from Nietzsche’s philosophy as influenced by Pyrrhonism (yet distinct from it), to Nietzsche as so much like the Pyrrhonists that he emerges as a Pyrrhonian skeptic. Just like Sextan skeptics, Berry suggests, Nietzsche’s aims as a philosopher are “limited to descriptive ones” (155); she concludes that Nietzsche’s philosophical project is “purely descriptive,” not “prescriptive or normative” (214). Yet the pragmatic value of Berry’s project—reading Nietzsche through a Pyrrhonian lens in order to better understand his philosophy—does not require Nietzsche to emerge as a fully paid-up Pyrrhonist; and it is unclear that Nietzsche’s philosophy is purely descriptive.
Berry’s discussion of therapy provides a...