The Will to Power as Naturalist Critical Ontology Donovan Miyasaki

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The Will to Power as Naturalist Critical Ontology
Donovan Miyasaki

Wright State University


While the debate continues over whether Nietzsche’s conception of the will to power is intended as ontology, biology, psychology, or some variant of the three, there is a significant consensus on many sides that, were the will to power intended as an ontology, it would be inconsistent with his anti-metaphysical stance, implausible from a contemporary scientific perspective, and very poorly supported, based only on wild metaphysical speculation or sloppy, pseudo-scientific generalization.

In this paper, I suggest, to the contrary, that Nietzsche’s published works contain a substantial, though implied, argument for the will to power as ontology. Further, this ontology and the supporting argument for it are fully consistent with a naturalist methodology. Indeed, I will suggest that Nietzsche believes the will to power ontology follows directly from his rejection of metaphysics and is grounded in a critical form of naturalism. Consequently, even if he is mistaken in this conclusion, we must take the will to power ontology as seriously as we do his critique of metaphysics, for it is intended as a direct consequence of that critique.

I will further suggest that, once we have recognized Nietzsche’s implied philosophical argument for the will to power ontology, we can better understand the intended scope and purpose of the theory of the will to power, as well as reject many of the influential interpretations of the concept, including the vitalist (Heidegger, Schacht), intentionalist (Clark), evolutionary (Richardson), and teleological (Reginster) readings. In contrast to these interpretations, I argue that the will to power as ontology follows directly from his rejection of three principal metaphysical presumptions: substance, causal agency, and teleology. As a rejection of substance, the will to power describes reality as consisting of general will, not objects, agents, or discrete wills. As a rejection of causal agency, it describes events as maximal manifestations of power rather than as realized potencies—abilities, motives, or possibilities actualized by efficient causal agencies. Finally, as a rejection of teleology, the will to power is a descriptive principle of action and events as essentially active engagements of obstacles, rather than an explanatory final cause, purpose or aim. Consequently, the will to power is a not a theory of desires, intentions, or drives, but rather a basic descriptive principle of events or activity, describing not agency but the causal process as a whole, and tending not toward the accumulation of power or overcoming of resistance, but rather toward the activity of resistance as such.

I conclude that the will to power is a critical ontology about what reality is not, rather than a positive theory of reality, intended not to explain events but to reveal and reject the common metaphysical presuppositions that underlie many common-sense, philosophical and scientific explanations of reality, such as freedom of the will, rational and moral motivation, physical atomism and the concept of natural law.
1. Nietzsche’s Critical Naturalism

In Nietzsche’s later works, he expresses a commitment to a form of anti-metaphysical descriptive empiricism that is consistent with a naturalist worldview. While his naturalism differs in important ways from contemporary conceptions, it is sufficiently similar to suggest that his claims and methodology are potentially acceptable from a contemporary scientific perspective.

Nietzsche’s naturalism is both ontological and methodological: both a naturalist view of reality and a naturalist method of justifying knowledge claims. His ontological naturalism follows directly from his rejection of metaphysical dualism. Metaphysical concepts, he claims, are derived from the direct negation of the characteristics of the world as it appears to the senses, making metaphysics nothing more than an inverted image of the natural world disguised as discovered non-sensible entities and qualities: “The ‘real world’ has been constructed out of the contradiction of the actual world” (TI “Reason” 6).1 This is, it should be noted, a critical claim about metaphysics, rather than a positive assertion about the nature of reality. Nietzsche rejects competing, non-naturalist conceptions on the grounds that they are insubstantial, containing no positive information about a non-natural realm, for once we exclude the negation of the sensible world from metaphysics, we are left with nothing.

This leaves open the possibility that, although metaphysics as traditionally practiced has failed to describe another kind of reality, future metaphysical accounts may avoid the error of merely negative descriptions of metaphysical beings or properties. However, Nietzsche further supports his view that the natural world exhausts reality by suggesting there can be no plausible competing views, since “another kind of reality is absolutely indemonstrable” (TI “Reason” 6). While he does not explicitly defend this claim, the context makes it clear: a metaphysical world is indemonstrable because the demonstration must either repeat the error of negating the sensible world rather than demonstrating a non-sensible world, or it must be made using sensible evidence, in which case it fails to demonstrate another kind of reality. Consequently, Nietzsche’s naturalism disallows the explanation by appeal to substances, qualities, or principles distinct from the natural world, an anti-metaphysical stance that is broadly consistent with contemporary scientific senses of naturalism.

Nietzsche’s methodological naturalism is, likewise, a direct consequence of his rejection of metaphysics. If there are no demonstrable entities, qualities, or principles distinct from the sensible world, then knowledge must have its foundation and limit in the senses. In late works like Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche presents his method as a form of descriptive empiricism, in which a claim is justifiable only if it describes sensible experience without rational inference or deduction beyond the sensible given. “The senses,” he tells us, “do not lie at all [überhaupt nicht].” Rather, “It is what we make of their evidence that first introduces a lie into it” (TI “Reason” 2).2 Consequently, the senses cannot directly be the source of errors in knowledge and are, alone, a sufficient basis for knowledge, while rational interpretation beyond the sensible given can only introduce error. It follows that knowledge demands faithful description of the sensible given and no more: any departure from the empirically given must be counted as metaphysics and, consequently, rejected.3

This is, to be sure, a radical form of empiricism, similar to some versions of phenomenology and inviting the same criticisms that can be leveled against such theories.4 Nevertheless, while contemporary scientists and philosophical naturalists might reject the limitation of knowledge to direct description, it is consistent with the most important characteristic of contemporary naturalism, since its methodology is consistent with the natural sciences and based in empirical, rather than speculative or a priori, claims. If, as I will now argue, the ontological theory of the will to power is based in Nietzsche’s version of methodological naturalism, then the will to power ontology presents the contemporary naturalist with no prima facie reason to exclude it from serious consideration.

2. Toward a naturalist ontology of will to power: against substance

Nietzsche’s naturalism is a critical position rather than a positive ontological claim about the meaning or extent of the “natural,” a rejection of the supernatural, not the assertion of a theory of the natural. The ontological consequences of his naturalism are equally critical: I will try to show that the will to power consists, not of positive assertions about the world, but of descriptions that carefully remove the metaphysical presuppositions about reality found in common-sense, philosophical, and scientific theories. This critical ontology is implicitly argued for and elaborated through the explicit rejection of three principle metaphysical assumptions: substance, agency (or efficient causality), and teleology (or final causality).

The first step in Nietzsche’s naturalist argument for a will to power ontology is the rejection of the metaphysical notion of substance, of the view that discrete, self-identical unities constitute the basic structure of reality by underlying the changeable sensible properties of objects: “We see ourselves as it were entangled in error, necessitated to error, precisely to the extent that our prejudice in favor of reason [das Vernunft-Vorurteil] compels us to posit unity, identity, duration, substance, cause, materiality [Dinglichkeit], being” (TI “Reason” 5). This position leads him to reject the apparent ontological independence of objects and to reconceive them as essentially interrelated, as equal to the activities and relations immediately given in experience, rather inferring from sensible experience an underlying “thing” or “object” distinct from those activities and relational properties.

In Nietzsche’s view this is a less presumptuous, more naturalistic view, because it more faithfully describes experience. Unlike the physicist who tells us that a table is not really the solid, unified thing of our sensible experience, but rather countless particles separated by empty space, Nietzsche claims we do not experience unified substances at all; we infer them from the more primary experience of disunity and change: “Insofar as the senses show becoming, passing away, change, they do not lie” (TI “Reason” 2). If this is true, then we cannot, without returning to metaphysics, assume that an object remains self-identical throughout changes to its properties, nor can we assume that the object is ontologically independent of any other objects to which it is related.5

This rejection of substance is the first step in Nietzsche’s implicit argument for a naturalist ontology of the will to power. This first move is—as will be all the major claims that ground the will to power ontology—a critical claim rather than an assertion, a claim about what reality is not. However, as a critical claim about ontology, it is nonetheless a claim about all of reality: there are no demonstrable substances, or objects cannot demonstrably be reduced to substances. If, as I will try to show, the will to power as ontology follows directly from, and is inseparable from, this initial critical ontological claim, then we must conclude that it bound up with his principal philosophical commitments, and that, consequently, the will to power as ontology is integral to Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Having identified the first claim in Nietzsche’s critical ontology, we are already in a position to reject one influential interpretation of the will to power: the vitalist reading of the will to power as a primary force, desire, or drive that is a positive, basic feature of either all living organisms or all things.6 This reading clearly oversteps the boundaries of Nietzsche’s naturalism, by treating the will to power as a metaphysical substance: a force that, like substance, is self-identical and underlies all changeable, sensible properties. As we shall see, most of the influential readings of Nietzsche’s will to power, even those that limit it to the psychological sphere, also rest on one of the three principle metaphysical assumptions that Nietzsche’s naturalism rejects. Consequently, by elucidating the primarily critical nature of the will to power, we will also be able to reject all interpretations that rest on positive claims about reality, life, or human psychology that overstep the limits of his methodological critical naturalism.

3. The world as “will”: against efficient causality

Of the three metaphysical targets of Nietzsche’s naturalism, his rejection of causal agency is perhaps the most difficult to reconcile with contemporary naturalism. Nevertheless, if we are unwilling to follow Nietzsche on this point, it is not because Nietzsche has left naturalist methodology behind, but because he applies it more strictly than contemporary naturalism does. According to Nietzsche, the concept of agency or, more broadly, of discrete, efficient causes, is a projection of our belief in human agency, an error in turn grounded in the “metaphysics of language,” which divides events into subject and predicate and “believes in the ego [Ich] as being, the ego as substance, and which projects its belief in the ego-substance onto all things—only thus does it create the concept ‘thing’” (TI “Reason” 5). The belief in agency is not, then, based in the evidence of experience, but rather in a linguistic habit that projects metaphysical assumptions into the interpretation of experience. Our belief in the self as a substance that causes action through the faculty of “the will,” leads us to impute to every object the same power of efficient causality that we have attributed to ourselves.

But his critique of causal agency goes further than a simple non-demonstrability claim. By giving up the metaphysics of substance, Nietzsche directly attacks the concept of efficient causality in two ways. He rejects, first, the ontological distinction between cause and effect and, second, the ontological distinction between agent and action. Consider, for example, the use of the cause and effect distinction in the attribution of moral responsibility. If, as Nietzsche’s rejection of the substantial distinction of discrete substances or causes requires, we recognize a moral agent as an ontologically interrelated element within a larger causal process, the line between cause and effect becomes ambiguous. Motives, desires, thoughts, influences, circumstances, character, past, dispositions, and origins are all causally relevant factors, which can be excluded from consideration only if we can identify a “true” subject distinct from all other causes. However, Nietzsche insists that the agent cannot be extricated from the process: “The fatality of his nature cannot be disentangled from all that which has been and will be” (TI “Errors” 8).

It should be emphasized that this is an ontological, rather than epistemological, problem. The dilemma is not that we cannot know which element is the cause. Rather, the whole is the true cause. There is no efficient causality in the sense of a discrete, efficient cause; there is a causal process, but no causal agent or substance that initiates a causal sequence rather than continues or participates in a causal sequence: “One is necessary, one is a piece of fate [Verhängniss], one belongs to the whole, one is in the whole” (TI “Errors” 8).7 Consequently, if we accept Nietzsche’s rejection of substance, we cannot presuppose the existence of causal agents that are ontologically distinct from each other; every element in a causal process is both cause and effect.

Nietzsche’s second criticism of efficient causality follows directly from the first. If we cannot separate cause from effect by positing the existence of causal agencies that are ontologically distinct from one another, then we also cannot assume the existence of causal agencies that are ontologically distinct from their own actions. As Nietzsche puts it, the metaphysics of language mistakenly “sees everywhere deed and doer” (TI “Reason” 5).

From this two-fold critical position, the inseparability of causal agencies from each other and from their own actions, we can draw the first key conclusion of the will to power ontology: reality consists of “will,” a general, holistic form of causality, rather than of discrete causal objects, agents, desires, or drives. For, if there are no discrete efficient causes, Nietzsche can describe events only as processes and objects only as elements within processes. I believe this is why he preserves the language of “will” despite its misleading connotations of agency and freedom: the word “will” is an appropriate critical description of a reality that lacks efficient causes, because its meaning lies on the ambiguous border between agent and action. The “will” of will to power is a negative metaphor for the ontological absence of subjects, agents, and objects, for causality without causes (“will,” rather “a will,” or “wills”). So, the first claim in our argument for a will to power ontology is one that Nietzsche draws directly from the naturalist rejection of metaphysics: namely, there are causal processes but no causes, reality is a “will” that is equivalent to the causal process as a whole.

4. The world as power: against potentiality as ontological indeterminacy

The next step in Nietzsche’s naturalist deduction of the will to power ontology is the rejection of ontological indeterminacy in the form of (merely) potentially active causal agents. If there is no justifiable distinction between cause and effect, agent and act, we must also reject any ontological distinction between potentiality and actuality. As an ontological concept, potency is an unexercised ability or capacity belonging to an efficient causal agent that can either act or not act. But such a distinction is possible only if the agent can exist independently of the act. If, on the contrary, as Nietzsche insists, agent and act are one, then there can be no unexercised possibility, no substantial agent capable of not acting wherever and to the fullest extent that it has the power to act.

This is, in short, a rejection of ontological indeterminacy of every kind, whether based in freedom of the will, chance, or probability. This link between Nietzsche’s rejections of causality and indeterminacy is most explicit in his suggestion that the natural world has “a ‘necessary’ and ‘calculable’ course, not because laws obtain in it [in er herrschen], but because they are absolutely lacking, and every power draws its ultimate consequences at every moment” (BGE 22).8 Admittedly, he declares this view to be “only interpretation,” so we might be tempted to accept Maudemarie Clark’s view that here Nietzsche is merely promoting the value of power rather than making a factual claim about reality.9

However, we can reject Clark’s interpretation of this passage using her own methodology: namely, by accepting only interpretations compatible with his rejection of metaphysics. When Nietzsche tells us power never exists potentially, but maximally manifests itself at every moment, he is simply rejecting the metaphysical belief in causal agencies that are capable of delaying, limiting, or preventing their power’s maximal manifestation. Therefore, this striking, seemingly strong claim is nevertheless a critical one, consistent with his naturalism.

And it is not merely consistent; it is necessitated by his rejection of efficient causality. Nietzsche tells us that strength must “express itself as strength,” because agent and act are one: “A quantum of force is equivalent to a quantum of drive, will, effect—more, it is nothing other than precisely this driving, willing, effecting” (GM I: 13). This claim is not grounded in a positive assertion of causal determinism, but in his rejection of the metaphysical assumptions upon which anti-determinism implicitly rests: the existence of a “neutral substratum [indifferentes Substrat]” that is free to act or not, to actualize or not actualize a potentiality (GM I: 13). Consequently, Nietzsche’s rejection of indeterminacy follows necessarily from his rejection of substance. We can, then, reject Clark’s anti-ontological interpretation of the passage on her own terms: her reading must be mistaken, because it would force us to attribute to Nietzsche the implausible, inconsistent view that there is a neutral substratum of action capable of preventing the maximal manifestation of power.
5. The will to power as principle, not desire: against the intentional and evolutionary readings

We can now more fully develop our original definition of the ontological will to power. Given the absence of demonstrable causal agencies which could explain merely potential, delayed, or restrained manifestations of power, we may draw a second key ontological claim: all things tend toward the immediate, maximal manifestation of their power. The will to power [Wille zur Macht] is “toward” [zur] power in the sense that it is essentially, fundamentally active – it is the realization or actualization of power, rather than the lack of power or the desire for its realization.

This definition captures the import of Nietzsche’s most frequent way of characterizing the will to power: as tyrannical, cruel, exploitive, and impulsive, neither possessing nor respecting freedom. Power is tyrannical not because it imposes law, but because there is no metaphysical law or agency to prevent it. It cannot be limited, delayed, or prevented except by a stronger power; it is ontologically, rationally, and morally lawless. Yet, it remains a negative form of tyranny, based in the absence of any causality that could limit its impact. Because power has no agency, no capacity for self-mastery, only power relations can restrain it.

Our more developed definition of the will to power allows us to reject two additional interpretations: the intentionalist and natural selectionist readings. In the intentionalist readings, for example, those of Walter Kaufmann and Maudemarie Clark, the will to power is the expression of a positive causal agency, a desire, drive, or motive upon which a subject may choose to act or not act.10 In the natural selectionist reading, found in John Richardson’s recent work, the will to power is a naturally selected instinct for greater control over other organisms.11 The intentionalist interpretations contradict Nietzsche’s naturalism by presupposing the ontological distinction of causal agency and action or effect. The will to power as drive or desire is ontologically distinct from its activity, since one may choose not to act on it; therefore, the desire can exist as potential action in the absence of any effect, whereas Nietzsche insists that power exists in its manifestation, not as potency.

The intentionalist and natural selectionist approaches both contradict Nietzsche’s naturalism in a second way: by treating the will to power as one desire among others. This view implicitly depends upon the metaphysical presumption of ontological indeterminacy: the existence of other non-tyrannical desires or drives, powers that do not seek maximal manifestation, and in relation to which the subject is capable of self-restraint, limitation or inaction.
6. The world as “toward” power, not for power: against teleology

The final consequence of Nietzsche’s critical naturalism is the rejection of final causality or teleology, of purposes as causes of events and actions: “We invented the concept ‘purpose’; in reality purpose is lacking” (TI “Errors” 8). Once again, Nietzsche simply draws the stark conclusion of his radical methodological naturalism. Teleology must be rejected as a violation of descriptive empiricism. Because final causes or causal purposes can be sensibly experienced only in the form of causal outcomes, teleological explanations depend upon an unacceptable metaphysical inference beyond given experience.

For example, suppose the common misconception that the will to power is a teleological desire to accumulate power were true. If so, how would we go about establishing this? We might try to draw this conclusion from the empirical fact that successful human actions always have an increase of some form of power as their consequence. However, we would experience this consequence of increased power only as effect, never as cause. In other words, teleological interpretations suggest that a merely potential outcome (the purpose) is nevertheless causally effective prior to the action (its own actuality), causing the actual outcome. But this is a metaphysical claim: the purpose is a supersensible substance that underlies the action and is discovered in experience only after the fact. Consequently, this view is incompatible with Nietzsche’s naturalist methodology. Nietzschean naturalism can identify and describe regular consequences of action, such as growth, the increase of power, pleasure, and so forth, but it cannot identify these consequences as the cause of action.

7. The will to power as resistance, not overcoming: against the teleological readings

If Nietzsche is, as I have argued, committed to a strong rejection of teleology as metaphysics, then we have strong cause to doubt all interpretations that treat the will to power as a purpose or goal that causes choices or actions. There are many different forms of the teleological reading; however, I will focus on Bernard Reginster’s teleological interpretation, since it is the most sophisticated, original, and convincing version in the recent literature.12 Reginster’s interpretation is superior to most, because it attempts to solve a serious problem posed by the teleological reading, namely: how can the teleological reading account for Nietzsche’s frequent suggestions that the will to power includes pleasure in struggle and resistance, in obstacles to the apparent teleological aim of power, as well as in the overcoming of obstacles and achieved power?

Reginster resolves this tension by specifying that the will to power is not a simple desire for growth or creation, but a tendency based in a desire specifically for the activity of overcoming a resistance. Consequently, the will to power includes a desire to engage resistances as a means to that end. Because it is a tendency toward the activity of overcoming rather than toward the achieved state of having overcome an obstacle, the will to power seeks out sources of resistance, even where none are present. This interpretation has the added benefit of explaining the progressive nature of the will to power toward ever-greater levels of achievement; once an obstacle is overcome, the need for the activity of overcoming motivates the search for greater resistances.

However, there are two substantial problems with this view. First, Reginster’s definition of the will to power simply asserts the tendency toward both resistance and overcoming without explaining their compatibility as a part of a single motive or goal. If the will to power is a desire to overcome obstacles (toward overcoming, not the activity), then it can desire resistance only as a means to that end; the value of resistance is contingent upon its utility for that end. It cannot therefore desire resistance as an opportunity for overcoming new, and ever greater, obstacles. For this would be to desire resistance as an end in itself, not as a means to overcoming.

If, on the contrary, the will to power does, as Nietzsche insists, seek resistance as more than a mere means to overcoming (a desire for the activity of overcoming qua activity), then it cannot be a desire for overcoming, growth, or creation, since this would be a contradictory desire to both preserve resistance and overcome it. In the end, Reginster’s definition is a dualistic theory: there are two foundational desires, one for resistance and one for the overcoming of resistance. And although this dualistic theory of a will to power and a will to resistance does solves the tension of overcoming and resistance in Nietzsche’s account, it does so at the cost of doubling its metaphysical presuppositions, inserting a second desire and teleological aim, and therefore making it incompatible with Nietzsche’s naturalist methodology.

Despite the difficulties presented by its teleological commitments, Reginster’s interpretation of the will to power is superior to many interpretations in its emphasis upon both activity and resistance, and it may offer the beginnings of a solution to the problems of the teleological readings. In fact, I believe we can easily avoid the difficulties in Reginster’s interpretation with only a slight modification to his view. Rather than viewing the will to power as a tendency toward the activity of overcoming, I would like to propose that it is a tendency toward the activity of resistance.

How does this avoid teleology? The activity of resisting is not a distinct aim, but an integral part of every action. It is not a goal of action, since a goal is an accomplishment that the act may or may not achieve. The activity of resisting an obstacle, in contrast, is a “goal” that is always achieved. For every action is an interaction, an action in relation to another object which, in its relative independence, serves as a resistance to the act.

If the will to power describes activity as such, rather than a distinct goal that causes actions, it shares the character of universality and necessity that any strong ontological, biological, and psychological theory will. But it is not a universal aim or goal. Nor it is any kind of desire or drive. Much like Nietzsche’s misleadingly “teleological” description of the will to power as seeking to “discharge [auslassen] its strength,” the tendency toward the activity of resistance merely describes the necessary form of all activity; it is not an explanation of its cause or aim. It is a principle of action, not a desire, drive, or instinct—a necessity intrinsic to the act, rather a metaphysical agency that is distinct from and imposed upon it.13 In this way, it is a form of necessity that successfully avoids each of the three forms of metaphysical explanation that Nietzsche’s naturalism rejects: substance, efficient causality, and final causality.

8. The practical purpose of the will to power: critical description, not explanation

We can now define the ontological theory for the will to power in its fullest form: the will to power is an ontological principle of the causal process as a whole, according to which every event tends toward the maximum manifestation of power in the form of the activity of resisting, of seeking and acting in relation to resistances. It might be objected that I have defined the will to power as a tautology, as the claim that actions tend toward activity. This is in some sense true, but misleading. In keeping with his radical naturalist methodology, Nietzsche’s ontology is indeed a tautological description of experience in the sense that it does not add positive information to our sensible experience.

It might be further objected that on this view the will to power becomes an altogether uninformative and, hence, trivial theory—that I have naturalized it at the expense of destroying its explanatory power.14 However, this objection is based on the common, but questionable, assumption that the will to power is intended as an explanatory concept. On the contrary, I would argue that the ontology of the will to power is meant to have not explanatory but critical power. Its power consists in its careful identification of what does not cause or regulate events—in its lack of metaphysical explanations, rather than in counter-explanation. It is not a trivial theory because it gives us a reason to reject false explanations of natural events and human behavior and, with them, false conclusions about the possibilities and limitations of nature and human nature. If, as I have argued, the will to power is the direct consequence of a stringently critical form of naturalism, it should come as no surprise that its principal purpose and value is as a critical tool.

In fact, if we examine Nietzsche’s actual use of the concept of the will to power, it is clear he intended the will to power as a critical, rather than explanatory, theory.15 In the overwhelming majority of cases, Nietzsche uses the will to power is to reject common explanations of human action as the product of the free determination of the will according to moral or rational criteria. For example, it appears as part of the claim that philosopher’s views are not the product of objective reason or a true “will to truth” (BGE 9 and 211); that purpose and utility are signs not causes (GM II: 12); that the moral aversion to exploitation is not causally capable of eliminating it (BGE 259); that the asceticism of the saint is not caused by moral motivation; and that motives are never purely altruistic (GM 3: 11, BGE 51, 186, and 23, where the “teaching” of psychology as the development of will to power is described primarily as a psychology stripped of “moral prejudices” and “presuppositions”).

Whenever Nietzsche’s use of the will to power is not aimed at the rejection of the metaphysics of free will and rational or moral motivation, it is usually directed at scientific concepts that Nietzsche accuses of being based on metaphysical causal principles in disguise. For example, the will to power appears in his rejection of the drive for self-preservation (BGE 13, GS 349); in his rejections of natural law (BGE 22) and materialistic atomism (BGE 12); and in his rejection of evolutionary theory’s emphasis upon passive adaptation as conformity to a metaphysical, external law (GM II: 12). In each of these cases, he uses the will to power critically, offering no substantial, positive alternative explanation.

Overall, the textual evidence in the published writings demonstrates that the principal philosophical purpose of the will to power is a critical one: to reject false explanations of natural events, life, and human action as metaphysical. This conclusion, in turn, may answer another likely objection my strictly critical reading of Nietzsche’s ontology: namely, that it is far too weak to be what Nietzsche intended. However, the will to power as I have defined it successfully serves the intentional practical purpose Nietzsche puts it to in the published works, so it cannot be rejected on that score.

More importantly, my interpretation of the will to power as merely critical ontology is better suited to Nietzche’s purposes than stronger ontological, biological, or psychological interpretations are. For any interpretation of the will to power as a positive explanatory principle must implausibly conclude that Nietzsche, in each use of the will to power, is simply opposing one explanatory principle for another without justification. For example, if the will to power were a positive explanatory principle, then in Beyond Good and Evil 13, Nietzsche’s claim that life seeks “discharge [auslassen] strength” would be an empty assertion that provides no reason to prefer it to the instinct of self-preservation that he rejects. As Clarke has pointed out, this is an improbable oversight on Nietzsche’s part, given the passage’s explicit condemnation of “superfluous teleological principles.”

In fact, we have seen that most of the stronger interpretations of the will to power as a positive explanatory principle rest on implicit metaphysical assumptions and so are incompatible with Nietzsche’s naturalism. Consequently, the stronger positive interpretations implausibly suggest that Nietzsche devotes himself to exposing the metaphysical underpinnings of opposing explanations of human and natural activity, only to suggest alternatives that are clearly vulnerable to the very same criticisms he levies against his opponents.

I conclude that this is the less likely interpretation and that we can only consistently interpret the will to power as a positive explanatory theory of substance, efficient causality, or final causality (thus as force, drive or desire) at the expense of undermining the critical strength and consistency of Nietzsche’s critique of the metaphysical ground of free will, rationalism, morality, and traditional scientific ontology. Consequently, not only is the interpretation of the will to power as a critical ontology consistent with Nietzsche’s use of the concept, the alternatives interpretations must, because they rely on assertion of forces, drives, or causes incompatible with Nietzsche’s naturalism, be rejected as inconsistent with Nietzsche’s actual use of the concept.
Clark, Maudemarie. Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press,


Heidegger, Martin. Nietzsche, Volumes I-IV, ed. and trans. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper

and Row, 1972-87).

Kaufmann Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton

University Press, 1968).

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage

Books, 1966).

________. Daybreak, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

________. Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967).

________. Human, All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Glasgow: Cambridge University Press,


________. On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. by Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen

(Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998).

________. Twilight of the Idols, translated by R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 1968).

Reginster, Bernard. The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism (Cambridge, Mass.:

Harvard University Press, 2006).

Richardson, John. Nietzsche’s System (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

________. Nietzsche’s New Darwinism (Oxford University Press, 2008),

Schacht, Richard. Nietzsche (New York: Routledge, 1983).


1 While Nietzsche is sometimes more direct in his form of argument (“The ‘apparent’ world is the only one,” TI “Reason” 2), the indemonstrability claim is more is consistent with his overall view and methodology, since to directly deny the non-sensible world or argue for its necessary impossibility would require a metaphysical form of argumentation.

2 Once again, Nietzsche equivocates between a stronger and weaker claim: the stronger claim, which would require an a priori or metaphysical justification, that the sense do not lie at all, and a weaker implied claim that there are no strong reasons for doubting sense evidence and (given the critique of metaphysics) no alternative basis for knowledge.

3 It might be worried that this radical empirical position is at odds with the seemingly more skeptical, “perspectival” position found in On the Genealogy of Morality and other texts. However, Nietzsche only limits knowledge to “perspective” in relation to the whole. Although no single perspective exhausts the reality of the object of knowledge, this does not entail that perspectives can lie, only that they are limited, offering an incomplete knowledge of the object, a view consistent with the radical empiricism I have described here (GM 3: 12).

4 It should be noted that this radical empiricism is qualified in Beyond Good and Evil as a guiding ideal that is impossible to fully reach in practice. In his critique of the “will to truth,” Nietzsche insists that some fictions, including those of metaphysics, may be necessary and even beneficial to human life (BGE 4). However, this is consistent with a general methodological principal of minimizing unnecessary fictions and, consequently, metaphysical explanation.

5 Again, we can distinguish stronger and weaker versions of this view: the more cautious critical view would be simply to refuse any appeal to self-identical independent objects in scientific explanation. However, his critical naturalism can easily slide into a stronger form. For example, to assert that there is no substantial subject is one thing, to assert that the subject can be reduced to a configuration or relation of basic, possibly substantial, drives or motives is another. Likewise, to assert that there is no self-identical independent object underlying sensible properties is not the same as to assert, as Nietzsche seems to do in the Nachlass, that all objects consist of force relations (where “forces” stand in for substance). In the present paper, I will hold Nietzsche strictly to the critical, cautious, and more plausible form of naturalism that characterizes his argument against metaphysics. Fortunately, this seems to be the dominant view in his completed, published works, so there is no need to appeal to his positive metaphysical speculations about force relations to reconstruct an argument for his will to power ontology.

6 See, for example, Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, Volumes I-IV (New York: Harper and Row, 1972); Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968); Richard Schacht, Nietzsche (New York: Routledge, 1983) and John Richardson, Nietzsche’s System (Oxford University Press, 2002). Richardson has since rejected vitalism for the view that the will to power is a naturally selected instinct.

7 This is why Nietzsche avoids the standard incompatiblist argument that an agent’s character is caused by something other than the agent and instead says that nothing causes it: “No one gives a human being his qualities: not God, not society, not his parents or ancestors, not even himself” (TI “Errors” 8).

8 In the original German, the suggestion of a metaphysical distinction between cause and effect is clearer: in the traditional conception of natural law, laws “prevail” over [herrschen] nature; thus, a law is a causal agent distinct from and acting upon natural objects; it is the cause of which the regularity of nature is an effect.

9 Maudemarie Clark, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), chp. 7, pp. 205-44. Clark has argued that the published passages that have grounded ontological readings of the will to power must not be read literally, because to do so would require committing Nietzsche to views that are inconsistent with his uncontroversial philosophical position against metaphysics. In this case, she argues it is implausible that Nietzsche wishes us to take literally a claim that he compares to the physicist’s “bad modes [Künste] of interpretation” and “bad ‘philology’” (BGE 22).

10 See, for example, Clark’s view that it is a second order desire to satisfy first order desires treats the will to power as a desire possessed by an agent upon which one may or may not intend to act; this desire serves as the efficient cause that moves the subject to seek to increase its power and with its ability to satiate its first order desires (Clark 1990, pp. 210-12). In an equally influential reading, Kaufmann interprets the will to power as a desire for overcoming which, firstly, one may intend or not intend to act upon and which, secondly, one may choose to express in higher or lower ways, as physical overcoming of external objects or, in sublimated form, as the spiritual overcoming of other ideas and self-overcoming (Kaufmann 1968, chp. 7, pp. 209-83).

11 John Richardson, Nietzsche’s New Darwinism (Oxford University Press, 2008), chp. 1.5, pp. 45-65.

12 Bernard Reginster, The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006).

13 I think this notion of principle, distinct from cause, particularly as it relates to Nietzsche’s psychology of the drives, can be helpfully compared to Freud’s metapsychology of pleasure and reality principles – call the will to power the principle of every drive and desire, rather than one drive among others, or a foundational drive. It might be objected that Freud’s metapsychology is teleological – and this is true in the later works, where Freud speculates about a foundational teleological dualism of Eros and death drives, which seek to establish growth and survival on the one hand, dissolution and death on the other. However, the pleasure principle (of which the reality principle is a modification) is not a teleological principle, but a descriptive principle of the necessary form of action as maximal discharge of libidinal energy, having pleasure as a consequence rather than aim. In this respect it resembles Nietzsche’s definition of the will to power a seeking to discharge strength, though it differs in important ways, particularly in Freud’s emphasis upon reaction and passivity over activity.

14 Indeed, this is one of Clark’s objections to the view that the will to power explains every drive, rather than one drive among others – for it will have explanatory power only if it demonstrates that an act was motivated by power in contrast to other equally possible motives (Clark 1990, p. 210).

15 There is a general trend in Nietzsche’s work from an explicit positive use of power to a much less explicit critical use. For example, in Daybreak and Human, All Too Human, we find Nietzsche constantly using the desire to increase the “feeling of power” (machtgefühl) as a foundational teleological cause of human action, in the middle and later works, we see the disappearance of this term and the increased use of will to power, which downplays the role of conscious intention, agency, and teleology, then in the final works, we have a relative disappearance of will to power, too, at the same time as we see a stronger and more explicit rejection of the concept of “will” and causality. Nevertheless, he does not reject either one: we find very rare instances of both in Twilight of the Idols and Ecce Homo. This suggests a rhetorical reason for the elimination of power as a term—due to its misleading implication of intentionality and teleology—but not a rejection of them.

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