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Nietzsche's Metaphysics and Epistemology

Nietzsche's Metaphysics and Epistemology

5 Mins
March 8, 2011

It is no easy task trying to understand what Nietzsche’s views on metaphysics and epistemology are. Beyond getting past Nietzsche’s manner of writing and doing philosophy, the ideas themselves seem to be somewhat muddled and confused. He shifts from a cool and passionless account of an idea, to a fire and brimstone account of another idea.

In one paragraph, one can feel as though he completely agrees with Nietzsche’s point, it makes senses and fits with his understanding of the world. Nonetheless, in the next paragraph, this understanding is turned on its head with an account that makes no sense and sometimes seems to even contradict the previous point. Part of this problem, I think, arises from reading Nietzsche’s notes; however, his published writings are not that much clearer.

Nietzsche seems to be a Kantian in rejecting the possibility of knowing the “true” world. For both Kant and Nietzsche, to know the “true” world requires what David Kelley has called the diaphanous view of consciousness. Others have called it the “God’s eye view.” Since we have to use our senses, that is, since in order to know the external world we have to use a particular method and process, then we are not really knowing the world. If we could get beyond these methods and processes, we could see the “real” world and truly know it. (It is called the “God’s eye view” because it is stipulated that God can know the world without any particular method. )

If we are unable to know this world, how do we know it exists?

However, Nietzsche seems to break with Kant in the following way: Kant supposes two realms, the phenomenal and noumenal. The noumenal is the external, “real” world. The phenomenal world is the world our senses present to us. Kant argues that all we know is the phenomenal world, and can have no knowledge of the noumenal realm. But, he still thinks it is out there, and possibly causing the phenomenal world (I could be wrong on that last point but it’s not really relevant here). Nietzsche rejects this categorically. “The ‘thing-in-itself’ is nonsensical” (WtP sec. 558). He argues, as much as Nietzsche actually argues, that if we can have no knowledge of this noumenal realm, why are we supposing it even exists? “To assert the existence as a whole of things of which we know nothing whatever...was a piece of naiveté of Kant” (WtP sec. 571).

Nietzsche is more consistent than Kant is in this regard. He follows through with the implications from the diaphanous view of consciousness. Without any knowledge of this noumenal realm, what reasons do we have to suppose it exists?

Still, Nietzsche is not a philosophic Idealist. There is, it seems, a world external to humans: a world that is separate from our conditioning of it, from our imposing order, logic, and meaning upon it. It is a little muddled exactly what this world is, but that is, I think, precisely the point. He says it is “essentially a world of relationships” and it is a “formless unformulable [sic] world of the chaos of sensations” (WtP sec. 568 and 569).

It is not, according to Nietzsche, any more real (or unreal for that matter) than the phenomenal world that we operate in. It is still a world of sensations and perspectives. It has no meaning or even things in it; meaning and “thingness” are ideas imposed on our phenomenal world.

Nietzsche runs into a problem here, however. It is the same mistake that he accuses Kant of. If we are unable to know this world, how do we know it exists? One answer Nietzsche might give is that we don’t know, we really don’t know anything. All we have is appearance and perspective. Our will to power imposes and creates meaning and order. Part of the understanding created by our will is this formless world of relationships.

Nietzsche’s view is different than Kant’s because Kant thought the noumenal world was the real and true world. For Nietzsche, the concepts of real and true are fictions created by the will to power; there is no “real” world.

The two fundamental ideas in understanding Nietzsche’s metaphysics and epistemology are perspectivism and the will to power.

Perspectivism is the view that our knowledge and understanding are conditioned by how we are viewing it. To see something, one must be in particular place and a particular time and view it from a particular angle. One cannot view a thing from every angle at every time all at once. So, we do not see the thing, only a perspective of it.

Knowledge, then, only occurs within a particular perspective. There is no knowledge of the whole, only the part one can relate to given one’s perspective. For Nietzsche, and most philosophers, this destroys knowledge as classically understood. Knowledge is only knowledge of the whole, not a part; to think of that as knowledge is just deceptive and illusionary.

Another aspect of this view is that whatever knowledge we think we have is human knowledge. That is, it is based on, and conditioned by, our human processes and faculties. Part of our perspective is the kind of being we are.

There is no problem, I think, in the perspectivist idea that we can only know something in a given domain and that we can only know things through our processes and faculties. It seems obvious, to Objectivists anyway, that we can only know something from a point of view. The problem for Nietzsche’s (and other’s) perspectivism is that they conclude from this that “real” knowledge is not possible and that we are only left with a rather unsuitable remnant of knowledge. Of course, this is logical if one holds the classical view that knowledge requires the view from nowhere, that is, the God’s eye view.

The other major part of Nietzsche’s epistemology is the will to power. Most of the work is done by this idea. The will to power is basically the force within humans that drives us to survive and live. We survive and live by forcing other people and “reality” to succumb to our power.

The will to power drives us to think about the world in the way we do. We subscribe meaning, order, logic, and understanding to the world because of the will to power.

In a sense, Nietzsche is anticipating Pragmatism. Truth, in his view, is not what corresponds to reality, but what allows us to attain our goals and power. Reason represents only the “expediency of a certain race and species--their utility alone is their ‘truth’” (WtP sec. 514).

Truth and reason and knowledge have nothing whatsoever to do with the “real” world. They have to do with how well a species can survive and control. The “real” world could be, he argues, entirely different than what our reason says and what we hold as true; but this is irrelevant. So long as reason and truth enable us to have power and control, that is all that is important. “The criterion of truth resides in the enhancement of the feeling of power” (WtP sec. 534).

The will to power in metaphysics and epistemology means that things that are “real” are the things we do or can have power over. The classical notions of truth and knowledge are passive and ineffectual. They are, for Nietzsche, meaningless and signs of weakness. Strength comes in actively creating the “reality” of one’s world.

Nietzsche does not think anything is really true. Just useful or not. Just able to bring power or not.

One of the interesting aspects of this theory is that Nietzsche takes all of experience and reasoning and claims that it does not point to any kind of truth or real world. “Trust in reason and its categories, in dialectic, therefore the valuation of logic, proves only their usefulness for life, proved by experience--not that something is true” (WtP sec. 507). In this way, he is not a Pragmatist. The usefulness of reason and logic, for the Pragmatist, show that these are, in fact, true. But Nietzsche does not think anything is really true. Just useful or not. Just able to bring power or not. And that is all that matters. Truth and real knowledge are unimportant and useless from Nietzsche’s point of view. They push us down the road toward weakness and frailness. What we need is power, not truth. So, we call things that bring us power, true and real.

I am not a Nietzsche scholar. This is the first time I have read Nietzsche at any great length, so I hope those more familiar and more erudite in Nietzsche’s ideas will forgive the errors I am sure I made. However, if I am basically correct in my interpretation of Nietzsche, then I think there are some interesting things to say. Nietzsche has anticipated much of contemporary philosophy. Forms of Perspectivism and Pragmatism are now commonly held views. His critique of Kant and of “real” reality also precipitates much of Postmodernism.

While no one else seems to have a theory quite like the Will to Power, it does seem to explain, from a psychological point of view, the way many act. While Ayn Rand certainly does not subscribe to the Will to Power, I think we can learn a lot, about psychology, by comparing it to social metaphysics and the primacy of consciousness. I think the will to power can, in part, explain these from a psychological point of view.  

Response by Michal Fram Cohen

Response by Jason Walker

Back to Part Two, On Metaphysics and Epistemology

Shawn E. Klein
About the author:
Shawn E. Klein
History of Philosophy