- Moral Critique and Philosophical Psychology
Given the richness of Nietzsche’s texts and the variety of his concerns, picking just a few key topics is no easy task. I am going to focus on two issues that are both obvious and elusive: obvious, because they are some of Nietzsche’s central concerns, and elusive, because the literature hasn’t yet come to terms with these topics. Nietzsche’s approach to these topics is distinctive, his arguments complex and interwoven, so that his discussions can appear incongruously varied, even contradictory.
First, how should we understand Nietzsche’s critique of morality? There is a cluster of questions concerning the status of Nietzsche’s critiques of moralities, values, cultures, and individuals. Nietzsche’s texts are overflowing with claims about the ways in which these things can flourish or be degenerate, can express ascending or declining life, can manifest heightened or impeded will to power, can be symptomatic of nihilism or of life-affirmation. But how should we understand these claims?
Let me break this question into several parts. First, it’s obvious that Nietzsche employs notions such as health, power, flourishing, and life when engaging in these critiques. He will tell us that a particular moral [End Page 245] commitment is expressive of declining life, or that it undermines power, or that it is unhealthy, or that it leads us to negate life. So we have two questions about how these concepts should be understood:
Are some of these concepts (health, power, life, flourishing, affirmation, etc.) more basic in the order of explanation? That is, does Nietzsche define some of these concepts in terms of the others? Might some of these concepts be reducible to others?
Are some of these concepts more basic in the order of justification? For example, does Nietzsche justify the normative status of health by appealing to the normative status of power?
My own view is that will to power is basic in both the order of explanation and the order of justification. Thus, health, life, and flourishing are defined in terms of configurations of power; and the normative status of these notions is vouchsafed by their connection to power. However, I do not think these are straightforwardly reducible to one another: thus, being capable of affirming one’s life might tend to bear a certain relationship to willing power successfully, but these can also come apart. In any case, there’s a great deal of further work to be done on these topics. For example, Ian Dunkle, John Richardson, and Andrew Huddleston have offered fascinating analyses of Nietzsche’s notion of health and its connection to power (e.g., Dunkle, Nietzsche’s Will to Health (unpublished dissertation); Richardson, Nietzsche’s System [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996]; Huddleston, “Nietzsche on the Health of the Soul,” Inquiry 60.1 : 135–64).
But there’s yet another, third question:
Does Nietzsche attempt to offer any ultimate justification of his critical employment of these notions?
Grant, for the sake of argument, that something like my interpretation is correct: Nietzsche defines flourishing and health in terms of power; and he says that we should care about flourishing and health because we care about power. Yet then we ask: why should we care about power? After all, Nietzsche tells us that some of our deepest commitments (such as our valuations of compassion, dignity, equality, democracy, etc.) conflict with power. So, absent an argument showing why we should care about [End Page 246] power, we can imagine individuals saying that the fact that valuing human equality conflicts with valuing power is a reason to reject power rather than equality.
So, in addition to asking how these notions relate to one another, we have to ask whether Nietzsche offers any ultimate justification for whichever notion he treats as basic in the order of justification (whether it be health, power, affirmation, etc., or some combination of these). Here, interpretations diverge widely. The postmodernist readings that were dominant in the eighties and nineties saw Nietzsche as lacking any real answer to this question: his views on metaphysics, epistemology, and so forth were supposed to rule out the possibility of providing theory-independent arguments for normative...