Handbuch Nietzsche und die Wissenschaften: Natur-, geistes- und sozialwissenschaftliche Kontexte ed. by Helmut Heit, Lisa Heller
Scholars have given increased attention to Nietzsche’s attitude toward science in recent years. This attention concerns not only Nietzsche’s understanding and critique of science in general but also his creative appropriation and criticism of ideas from particular sciences, such as classical philology and biology. The still widespread image of him as a solitary and self-sufficient thinker, closer to an inspired poet than to a methodical researcher and philosopher, has thus been increasingly questioned. Helmut Heit’s and Lisa Heller’s Handbuch Nietzsche und die Wissenschaften is one of the best collections of research of this particular kind.
Two general aims of the book are worth highlighting, as Heit and Heller do in their introduction. First, as the subtitle indicates, the editors chose not to limit their topic to Nietzsche’s reflections on the natural sciences. For they rightly warn against focusing too exclusively on the Naturwissenschaften, at the risk of not doing justice to Nietzsche’s wider understanding of science (4). Indeed, it should not be forgotten that Nietzsche was strongly influenced by his academic training in philology, what Wilhelm Dilthey would call a Geisteswissenschaft. By extending attention to the human and social sciences, then, the Handbuch is a welcome complement to the collection Nietzsche and Science, edited by Gregory Moore and Thomas Brobjer (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004). Second, Heit and Heller rightly emphasize the limits of reading Nietzsche in terms of “influences,” a metaphor that tends to overlook the fact that “what Nietzsche reads, what Nietzsche thinks, and what Nietzsche writes are three different things, which do not necessarily stand in a linear causal relation” (3; all translations are my own). Rather than mere influences, then, identifying the scientific contexts of Nietzsche’s philosophy allows one to reveal processes of selective and creative appropriation that have real philosophical significance.
In light of these aims, however, the organization of the book according to contemporary disciplinary divisions is surprising. The editors are surely right to observe that any disciplinary division will be debatable, insofar as Nietzsche raises and treats interdisciplinary problems. But one might nonetheless ask how far the distinction between Geisteswissenschaften and Sozialwissenschaften is applicable to the sciences of the second half of the nineteenth century. One may also be surprised to see political philosophy classified as a science, and regret the absence of a contribution on ethnology, given its importance both for Nietzsche and for his time. Finally, one might wish for a more thorough [End Page 362] reflection on the scientific divisions that Nietzsche himself admitted or rejected. Beyond Good and Evil 23, for instance, calls for “a genuine physiopsychology” and seems to blur the traditional dividing line between physiology as a natural science and psychology as a science of the soul—as Nietzsche’s contemporaries did in undertaking to reestablish psychology as a natural science (see Martin Liebscher’s chapter, “Nietzsche and Psychology”). Still, at least the first part of the book is not vulnerable to such criticisms, insofar as it is dedicated to more transversal approaches of the scientific context of Nietzsche’s thinking.
I cannot summarize all seventeen chapters (six in English) in this short review, and Heller provides a useful Inhaltsübersicht at the beginning of the volume. I therefore limit myself to listing the contributions and making a few observations on some essays in each of the four parts of the book.
The first part of the book contains Helmut Heit’s and Gregor Schiemann’s essays on Nietzsche’s scientific age viewed as a whole. Heit rightly reminds us in his excellent introductory essay, “Nietzsche’s Philosophy and the ‘Age of Science’”, that “a context is something other than the sum of all the positively demonstrable textual links” (42). This parti pris for a philosophical interpretation of Nietzsche’s scientific contexts seems to be shared by Schiemann, who argues that the advent of fallibilism and experimentalism in nineteenth-century physics resulted in an epochal “loss of truth certainty,” characteristic of modern epistemology (47). The authority of physics as the leading science of the time makes this claim highly plausible.
The second part of the book treats Nietzsche’s “natural scientific contexts” and includes five contributions of rather unequal value, respectively on Nietzsche’s relation to sense physiology and epistemology (Sören Reuter), the life sciences (Dirk Solies), mechanism (Pietro Gori), medicine (Tobias Dahlkvist), and astronomy (Irene Treccani). Notably, Dahlkvist makes the audacious but persuasive attempt to reconstruct Nietzsche’s relation to medicine on the basis of the philosopher’s own health and illness (138). The third section, on melancholy or Schwarzseherei, and inspired by Jean Starobinski’s analyses of Montaigne, is particularly worth reading, for it suggests a fruitful comparison with Nietzsche’s conception of décadence as a dangerous but potentially creative illness. To Solies’s short essay on “Nietzsche and the Life Sciences,” one could object that, while devoting much space to a general discussion of Nietzsche and the natural sciences and to his 1868 notes on “the concept of the organic since Kant” (107–13), it does not give sufficient attention to the epistemological status of the Darwinian theory of evolution, which gives biology a historical dimension that exceeds the limits of organic physiology. In particular, the issue of heredity (Vererbung) in Nietzsche deserves more extensive consideration than Solies’s isolated mention of Nägeli’s idioplasm (116).
The third part focuses on Nietzsche’s reception of the human sciences, although Mattia Riccardi’s stimulating essay on epistemology and metaphysics could have been placed in the second part, because it also deals with Nietzsche’s interpretation of sense physiology (246). Riccardi responds to the noncontextual reading of two contemporary American commentators, Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter, by showing that Nietzsche’s primary sources help to make sense of his epistemological and metaphysical position. Here, contextualizing two of Nietzsche’s major claims, the falseness of our image of the world and the doctrine of the will to power, serves to reveal their strength and coherence, beyond the false alternatives suggested by the decontextualized reading. The other human sciences treated in this part of the book are philology (Christian Benne and Carlotta Santini), historiography (Anthony Jensen), “logic” (Nikolaos Loukidelis’s identification of the “logicians” criticized in Beyond Good and Evil 17 as, primarily, Gustav Teichmüller and Afrikan Spir), linguistics (Benedetta Zavatta), and the history of religion (Andreas Urs Sommer). Sommer convincingly shows that Nietzsche’s reflections on Judaism, Christianity, and the ordinances of Manu reflect contemporary (and more or less ideological) efforts to apply the comparative and historical method of philology to religions. But Sommer also interestingly suggests that, in so doing, “Nietzsche the Antichrist” did not abandon, but only transformed the existential seriousness toward Christianity that he had developed in his childhood (301). [End Page 363]
Regarding Nietzsche and the social sciences, the fourth and last part of the book comprises four essays, on economics (Thomas Brobjer), political philosophy (Maria Cristina Fornari), sociology (Chiara Piazzesi), and psychology (Martin Liebscher). A notable feature of this last part is its treatment of several sciences whose claims to scientificity Nietzsche contested. Using results of Quellenforschung, Brobjer reconstructs Nietzsche’s reading, knowledge, adoption, and critique of economical thought, arguing that his relative silence on the subject was due “to an opposition to this whole manner of thinking” (307). Piazzesi’s significant essay on “Nietzsche and Sociology” also reveals his negative reception of this particular science. Indeed, she shows that, in rejecting the sociology of his time for its ignorance of its own ideological limitations, Nietzsche made a (perspectivistic) contribution to the reflexivity of sociological theory. Piazzesi rightly insists on this epistemological concern, against the idea that Nietzsche “is just seeking to replace one ideology with another” (353). In this respect, the Handbuch takes into account an essential aspect of Nietzsche’s engagement with science, the critique of false scientism that he directed at figures such as Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer.
Of course, this brief survey cannot give an adequate account of the richness and diversity of the perspectives expressed in the book. But, taken as a whole, it accomplishes its stated aim of highlighting the contexts and the originality of Nietzsche’s philosophy through a broad examination of his reflections on the sciences (5).