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An impossible argument in Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations

I am recently coming to suspect that Nietzsche, that most naturalist of philosophers, was a vitalist. This leads him into trouble, but not the usual troubles. When I call Nie­tzsche a vitalist, I do not mean that he thought an additional, non-physical law or princi­ple was needed to account for the phenomenon of life. (Perhaps that is what his will to power is. I don’t know. In any event I am focusing on the younger Nietzsche.) Rather, I mean that he viewed life as something special, something that perhaps not all living organisms possess. [All citations will be to the Cambridge editions of Untimely Meditations, translated by R.J. Hollingdale and edited by Daniel Breazeale.]

This comes out when Nietzsche says, in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, that history should serve life rather than life serve history. What Nietzsche means by “life” is only a subset of what there is to living beings. Consider the following passage, in which Nietzsche asks of possessors of life (in the vitalistic sense):

What was left of them to bury! Only the dross, refuse, vanity, animality that had always weighed them down and that was now consigned to oblivion after having for long been the object of their contempt. But one thing will live, the monogram of their most essential being, a work, an act, a piece of rare enlightenment, a creation: it will live because posterity cannot do without it. (69)

Here life is not our living bodies, but our “essential being”, which may be found in a work or an act, and which remains even when our bodies are decayed. Nietzsche at one point (I haven’t been able to track it down) suggests a pruning metaphor: the great individual prunes himself, shedding that which is not life or not in service of life, preserving only what is or serves life. Life is only a small part of the living organism, if any.

It is this life that history is supposed to serve. We can well imagine utilitarianism or Christianity has been useful for the preservation of the species, yet Nietzsche could still adamantly respond: yes, but they have not served life! The same is true for history: its application could preserve the human race, perhaps, but not human life.

Nietzsche, later in the essay, gives an argument for why history must serve life—for its own sake!

As cities collapse and grow desolate when there is an earthquake and man erects his house on volcanic land only in fear and trembling and only briefly, so life itself caves in and grows weak and fearful when the concept-quake caused by science robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal. Is life to dominate knowledge and science, or is knowledge to dominate life? Which of these two forces is the higher and more decisive? There can be no doubt: life is the higher, the dominating force, for knowledge which annihilated life would have annihilated itself with it. Knowledge presupposes life and thus has in the preservation of life the same interest as any creature has in its own continued existence. (121)

(Note: Nietzsche in the essay considers whether or not history should be a science or an art. So when Nietzsche considers science and life, history is included under science, I believe.)

There is an uncontroversial sense in which knowledge presupposes life: it requires living beings to carry it out. But what I have been suggesting is precisely that Nietzsche has been developing a sense of ‘life’ that is distinct from that of living beings: life may be found even after the death of the living being (think how often in his later philosophy Nietzsche praises the life that squanders itself—or even think of the very idea of untimeliness and posthumous birth), and the living being can exist without life, if those living parts have been pruned away, leaving only the dross and vanity.

Nietzsche’s argument turns on an equivocation: history presupposes living beings, and Nietzsche slides from this uncontroversial claim to the much more interesting view that history presupposes life. Nietzsche’s argument is impossible: his peculiar definition of ‘life’ makes it so.

I don’t wish to speculate why Nietzsche fell into this mistake. Carelessness, perhaps, or maybe it was deliberate. It is an interesting mistake, in my view, since so much of Nietzsche’s work is premised on the idea that something might be incredibly harmful to life, to health, without having the slightest negative consequences for the preservation of the species. Nietzsche confronts, again and again, the possibility and even reality of what is non-life in humans dominating what is life in them. Yet here he would rule out that possibility a priori. A defensive maneuver, perhaps? A retreat from a terrible truth he was not yet ready to face?

I do not know.

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Two metaphors in Coleridge’s “Theory of Life”

2013/10/17 1 comment

UPDATE: For reasons that baffle me, this post has been cited as a source in a wikipedia article. If you were sent here from that, know that I am not at all an expert, merely an interested reader. I would not, if I were you, trust anything I say here.

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My seminar on the boundary between humans and animals continues on to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, philosopher and poet, author of the long essay “Hints Towards the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life”. Here I want to explore two metaphors about the process of science as they arise in this essay. The essay may be read here, and page references are to that file.

Coleridge, in the “Theory of Life”, offers two quite different and quite interesting metaphors about the scientific process. The first metaphor, located in the essay’s first paragraph, is a call to rigor:

The positions of science must be tried in the jeweller’s scales, not like the mixed commodities of the market, on the weigh-bridge of common opinion and vulgar usage. (21)

The jeweler’s scales here represent accuracy and precision, as opposed to the much blunter tools of common opinion and vulgar usage. A further undercurrent of the metaphor is its relationship to honesty: accuracy and precision in this context are not purely descriptive virtues, but rather are connected to the discovery of the true value of the jewel. On the market, by contrast, the confusion created by common opinion and vulgar usage allows for swindling and deception. The essay begins by describing Coleridge’s opponents: those who have earlier attempted to define life, but have done so in a way more reminiscent of the market than the jeweler’s scales. The first metaphor, then, is not just a call to rigor; it is a reproach.

The second metaphor comes much later, and has quite a different tenor. It arises in the course of a friendly critique of John Abernethy’s theory of life:

In Mr. Abernethy’s Lecture on the Theory of Life, it is impossible not to see a presentiment of a great truth. He has, if I may so express myself, caught it in the breeze: and we seem to hear the first glad opening and shout with which he springs forward to the pursuit. But it is equally evident that the prey has not been followed through its doublings and windings, or driven out from its brakes and covers into full and open view. (65)

This is a much richer metaphor than the first. In the first, accuracy is achieved by the use of a precise instrument that measures the relevant quantity exactly. But what is to be measured is given: Coleridge says nothing of the extraction of the jewel. Here, by contrast, finding the truth is not a matter of calm measurement. It is a matter of a strategic and perhaps even dangerous pursuit against a worthy adversary. And, while Coleridge thinks Abernethy has failed in his pursuit, this failure is nothing like that of his earlier targets, who have failed even to rise above the discourse of the marketplace.

Why this difference in metaphors? The difference in tone may be attributed to Coleridge’s differing levels of respect for his targets. But what about the difference in content, between the hunt and the jeweler’s scales? What I want to suggest is that this difference in content is crucially related to Coleridge’s views about the aims of science and the status of scientific theories, and cannot be understood in isolation from them.

Sprinkled throughout the essay are various anti-realist remarks about quantitative scientific theorizing, sometimes at an abstract level and sometimes connected to particular theories. Thus, early in the essay, Coleridge remarks on the theory of “the French chemists” that it remains the dominant theory because of “the absence of a rival sufficiently popular to fill the throne in its stead” and not from “the continuance of an implicit belief in its stability” (23). This is a straightforwardly anti-realist attitude toward the theory: it is simply waiting to be replaced by a successor. Coleridge later generalizes the point: “For the full applicability of an abstract science ceases, the moment reality begins” (51), which receives an extensive footnote that begins by noting that abstractions are the “only subject of all abstract sciences.”

We can understand this view in light of Coleridge’s argument that everything that is, is Life. This argument itself is worthy of detailed consideration, but here I note only Coleridge’s comments about quantity and quality.

Our reason convinces us that the quantities of things, taken abstractedly as quantity, exist only in the relations they bear to the percipient; in plainer words, they exist only in our minds, ut quorum esse est percipi. For if the definite quantities have a ground, and therefore a reality, in the external world, and independent of the mind that perceives them, this ground is ipso facto a quality… (38-39)

Quantity, for Coleridge, is inherently mind-dependent, whereas external reality is qualitative. Quantity is nothing more than a human abstraction from this qualitative reality. The quantitative sciences, then, are properly considered with an anti-realist attitude—unless they are grounded in some qualitative reality.

Now it is worthwhile to recall that the first metaphor arises precisely in the context of an anti-realist argument about existing theories of life: these theories are to be rejected as insufficiently precise and rigorous. They do not pass the test of the jeweler’s scales; they belong in the marketplace. Indeed, Coleridge explicitly says that may be “sufficient, perhaps, for the purpose of ordinary discrimination, but far too indeterminate and diffluent to be taken unexamined by the philosophic inquirer” (21). But now consider the metaphor again. The jeweler’s scales are precisely a quantitative instrument—and so the jeweler’s measurements are inherently mind-dependent abstractions.

Coleridge, however, wants to claim for his theory more than the sort of anti-realist success of the abstract sciences. Why, then, a metaphor that, by his criteria, only points toward the quantitative sciences? Some light is shed on this by the presence of a frequent bugbear in Coleridge’s essay: the materialist. Coleridge on numerous occasions points out the impossibility of a materialist account of Life—that is why Coleridge’s vitalist alternative is needed. (Note that Coleridge is a strange sort of vitalist in that his vitalism unifies the organic and physical sciences rather than serving as a basis for their disunity.) Nevertheless, Coleridge does not deny the genuine scientific successes of materialistic theories. It is merely that these successes are quantitative and not qualitative—and so deserving of an anti-realist attitude.

Here the second metaphor comes in. No longer are we in the back room of the jewelry shop. We are out in the field, hunting. The pursuit of truth is now mixed with sweat and blood. In an almost literal way, this metaphor puts flesh on the first. Moreover, it comes precisely in the context of a realist argument. While he critiques Abernethy, Coleridge is concerned to say that Abernethy nonetheless has the presentiment of a great truth. Unlike the jeweler, Abernethy is on the path to truth, and not mere abstraction. Coleridge, by using the hunt metaphor, can thus characterize his own view as being simply further down this path than Abernethy’s view, thereby securing a qualitative, realist basis for his theory of life.