The title of this post is intended partially as a joke—it is difficult to think of many philosophers less Platonistic than Nietzsche, whose philosophy is routinely aimed at cutting down Plato’s metaphysical bloat and the morality that Nietzsche would argue underlies it. Nonetheless, I do intend the title to be taken seriously. I think that, in his writing, Nietzsche employs a type of “theory” of recollection, one radically different from Plato’s to be sure, and that understanding this (and how it differs from Plato’s) will lead to a more fruitful engagement with Nietzsche’s style. I had the idea for this post while reading Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, but I think it applies more broadly. I hope to explain why Nietzsche’s writing will frustrate those seeking primarily to find arguments in his work, and why such frustration is, I believe, largely unwarranted.
Nietzsche, in his works, rarely if ever presents an argument alongside or embedded within extensive commentary and analysis. Rather, he often categorically states some (usually controversial) claim, or, if he does give an argument, it is usually only a sketch founded on other controversial claims. Given how much time Nietzsche spends hammering home the ramifications of his views, one might expect him to spend more time establishing them. Now, there is one obvious reason for the structure of Nietzsche’s works, one related to my main point, but not what I will focus on. Nietzsche was a master stylist with a remarkably fluid writing style—he was probably the best philosophical writer. Nietzsche once remarked something along the lines of, “most philosophers are bad writers because they tell us not only their thoughts, but also the thinking of their thoughts.” We are spared the thinking of Nietzsche’s thoughts in part out of aesthetic considerations. This will be rightly unsatisfying to the person who looks to Nietzsche for arguments. If Nietzsche desires to persuade us of his positions, to earn our assent to them, then he ought sacrifice some stylistic beauty for the sake of shoring up his arguments. I maintain, however, that this is not Nietzsche’s goal, and that fleshing out his arguments would in fact make Nietzsche’s books weaker and less effective.
Plato’s theory of recollection roughly states that people, before they were born, possessed all knowledge. At birth, however, this knowledge is lost, and all that we call learning is merely recollecting of what we’ve forgotten. Plato is focused not on knowledge of contingent, earthly things, but rather with knowledge of the Forms, of logic, of mathematics, and of any other perfect, eternal truths. Teaching is thus an act of reminding one of eternal truths he has already grasps (Plato illustrates this with a truly horrid example of Socrates helping a young boy to “recollect” geometry). Nietzsche, of course, rabidly attacks both the idea of eternal truths and of eternal souls to grasp them. This would seem to make the theory of recollection entirely unavailable to Nietzsche. I propose, however, that his works exemplify a non-metaphysical analog of Plato’s theory: they serve in large part to remind people of what they already know. The truths may be contingent and earthly, but they are recollected all the same, and this paves the way for the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy: his “revaluation of all values.”
Nietzsche, in The Gay Science and elsewhere, proclaims, “God is dead!” This is not a declaration of atheism, but a comment on the relationship to religion in 19th century Europe: it is dying out. Advances in scientific thought, the Englightenment, Kant’s attacks on the ontological argument, materialism—all have eroded the ability for one to both think critically and believe. The religious spirit, Nietzsche claims, is losing it’s grip on European minds. In attacking notions of free will and God’s existence (to pick two major examples), Nietzsche is to an extent merely capturing what he sees as the current direction in which thought is moving (though of course he agrees with this movement to an extent, and then goes beyond it). Note that Nietzsche thought his books could be properly read only by a limited audience, and I expect that his ideal audience would have been precisely those people who acutely felt the break with religion in their own thought. This audience, then, will already have arrived at many of the same conclusions as Nietzsche at many points, and he is helping them to recollect these conclusions, in order that they might explore their ramifications.
Thus Nietzsche’s are thoughts we (the readers) already have, and he is merely reminding us, and sketching the arguments that got us there. To what end? Plato thought that right knowledge leads necessarily to right action. For Nietzsche, this is not so. He writes, “Is the ‘terrible’ truth not that no amount of knowledge about an act ever suffices to ensure its performance, that the space between knowledge and action has never yet been bridged even in one single instance” (Daybreak, 116, Hollingdale translation). Even if we know that Christianity’s justifications for morality are bunk, we are still tempted to view morality in a fundamentally Christian way. The Christian virtues have seeped into us, and cordon off our dangerous knowledge, saving action from that knowledge’s “pernicious” influence. Right thought does not lead to right action—and it is action that Nietzsche cares most about. To change the orientation through which we approach life thus requires not careful argument, but careful arrangement and forceful presentation of claims we already recognize but have not fully absorbed. Thus Nietzsche focuses his efforts primarily on exploring e.g. the implications of God’s nonexistence, rather than yet again tearing down the ontological argument. He drives home the blow to our conception of personal responsibility that comes with a materialistic worldview, rather than agonizing over the arguments for materialism.
All of this to achieve a revaluation of all values, as he described the goal of his philosophy. By reminding us of what we already know in the right way, Nietzsche strives to break us free of patterns of thought and action that are pernicious holdouts from Christianity. Making his works more academic and dry by fleshing out argument sketches that serve merely as reminders would work directly contrary to the goals of Nietzsche’s works. Nietzsche asks of his readers: you know this (you have reasoned in the way I outline here)—but can you live it? I would not expect people for whom God is not dead to come away from Nietzsche as atheists (unless perhaps they took the time to flesh out his argument sketches and evaluate them for themselves). I imagine they would find his works rather foreign, as if Nietzsche wasn’t talking to them at all. In many ways, he wasn’t.