- The Psychology of Perspectivism: A Question for Nietzsche Studies Now
There are many pressing questions for Nietzsche studies at present, but I will attempt neither a systematic catalog nor any argument that one or two have greater immediacy than all others. Instead, I will sketch one issue (concerning “perspectivism” in the theory of cognition) that I find especially pertinent: the relation between perspectivism and Nietzsche’s core commitments in moral psychology. Work on this relation can build on certain [End Page 221] significant results from the recent literature, but I believe that substantial progress remains to be made. I say that not to impugn the completeness of the recent scholarship I highlight below, but rather to indicate limitations in some of my own previous work.
Nietzsche holds that all cognition is conditioned by the influence of some perspective, which shapes the way the world appears to a cognitive agent or to a group that participates in a shared outlook. In his view, such cognitive perspectives are both limiting and contingent, and thus afford their inhabitants an essentially partial grasp of the world. That is, a perspective cuts us off from some information (even as it facilitates its own particular view), and in addition, the perspective of a person or group cannot claim necessity either as something imposed on us by the nature of the objects of knowledge, or as a condition of the possibility of cognition. Instead, perspectives arise as a consequence of relatively idiosyncratic facts about the cognitive positioning of the agent or agents in question. The effects of any given perspective therefore leave room for other possible perspectives, whose effects on cognition would be different. It is because these cognitive effects are both contingent and real (genuinely shaping the content of our representations) that a perspective’s capacity to open some aspects of the world to cognitive representation simultaneously cuts off others, which would be revealed by other perspectives.
The connection between perspectivism and moral psychology is suggested already by the observation that Nietzschean perspectives are supposed to be partial in a second sense, as well—namely, that a perspective favors some things over others, that it reflects values and emotional attachments, in short, that it is the opposite of impartial. This fact is neither incidental to the cognitive role of perspectives, nor peripheral to the wider philosophical concerns motivating perspectivism. On the contrary, Nietzsche insists that perspectives are partial, in the general sense of being incomplete, because they are partial in the more specific sense of being personal and bound up with the interests and values of a particular individual or group. Moreover, when we consider the philosophical ends to which Nietzsche deploys perspectivism, the value-laden and psychologically loaded character of perspectives clearly assumes a weight-bearing role. For arguably, the central function of Nietzschean perspectives is to support genealogical critiques of various philosophical, religious, and cultural commitments. The key move in such arguments is to trace the peculiarities of the commitments under investigation to some particular perspective, [End Page 222] the evaluative basis and affective involvements of which Nietzsche then criticizes. In BGE, Nietzsche offers a representative portrayal of this ubiquitous procedure: “Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constitute the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown” (BGE 6; trans. W. Kaufmann [New York: Vintage, 1966]). Thus, the psychological basis of perspectives is crucial both to what they are and to what they are for, in Nietzsche’s hands.
Because perspectives play a cognitive role in the agent’s representational life (shaping how the world “looks” to her), it is natural to think of them as composed of cognitive representations. In earlier work, I treated them as constructions of concepts (see “Truth and Objectivity in Perspectivism,” Synthese 115.1 : 1–32; “Sensualism and Unconscious Representations in Nietzsche’s Account of Knowledge,” International Studies in Philosophy 34.3 : 95–117; “Nietzsche on Truth, Illusion, and Redemption,” European Journal of Philosophy 13.2 [2005...