Nietzsche, Cohen, and Positivism

Jonathan Cohen interprets Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics in Human, All-Too-Human as operating within the tenets of a “positivist” scientific methodology (Cohen 103), in which truths are universal, objective, and foundational, and are preferable to non-truths or tautologies. For Cohen, Nietzsche’s argument can be divided into ‘possible alternative explanations’ and ‘origins,’ which work in tandem to both decenter metaphysical claims to truth and provide positive justifications to be averse to metaphysics. Cohen concludes that this cannot effectively challenge metaphysics because it concedes the possibility of positive truth (as ascertained by science, either by the free spirit or the metaphysician) and does not adequately develop a perspectivist epistemology that could confront metaphysics’ claims to logical wholeness. My contention is that Cohen’s reading of Nietzsche’s science too quickly discards a few important nuances that distinguish it from pure positivism, such that Cohen fails to see how this Nietzschean science is designed precisely to handle the concerns Cohen puts forward.

Significantly, Nietzsche may be showing a new fondness for ‘science’ in HH, but this is no ordinary science. The life-affirming element of science is not found in its product, but in the process of adopting a calm skepticism about the fascinating, all-encompassing truths which it supposedly yields; it is “the man [sic] who works and searches” that receives pleasure from science, not “the man who learns its results” (HH S251). The authentic scientist innocently “seeks knowledge” regardless of consequences (HH S6). Thus, science remains unconcerned with “final purposes” precisely because it is designed to reflect nature, which also becomes without beginning or end (HH S38). However, when we subordinate science to an end-goal of universal truth, we dismiss the “little, humble truths” of higher culture for the “gladdening and dazzling errors” of metaphysics (HH S3). These dazzling errors appear to be important on account of their claims to totality, but as seen in UM II, this dream of unlimited knowledge is actually destructive for high culture—a claim that appears consistent with Nietzsche’s critique of metaphysics here, as based in illegitimate notions of identity, reason, and purpose (HH S18).

Nietzsche does not dismiss the possibility that metaphysics, too, can be ‘science’ in an abstract sense. Even metaphysicians do some science when they think “profoundly” and feel “tenderly,” although they are mistaken in their precise method (HH S29). The difference, once again, is that metaphysics is too fiery and passionate, trying to reach the end without enjoying the journey; free spirits, on the other hand, are distinguished by their love of “the search for truth” and their demands for reason (HH S225). Science, when done correctly, is important because of its modesty and willingness to find satisfaction with little truths or maxims (HH S3) found in moments of apparent despair (HH S35); a modesty that Cohen mistakes for inferiority in his reading of section 128. These ‘little truths’ are probably distinct from metaphysical, capital-T Truths such as the existence of God or the original sin of human life; in fact, the truths of the free spirit may not actually be true in any objective sense. What matters to the free spirit is not that their views are correct, “but that he [sic] has released himself from tradition” and found useful maxims to affirm their own life (HH S225). The free spirit, as opposed to the metaphysician or the bad scientist, is capable of overcoming the weaknesses of a commitment to objectivity through continual “dance” between different approaches to knowledge and life, which temper hotness and revive coolness as necessary instead of falling into dogmatic commitment to one side or the other (HH S270, 278).

Cohen’s flawed understanding of Nietzsche’s science leads him to downplay the strength and importance of Nietzsche’s ‘perspectivism’ for his science (Cohen 102-3). For Nietzsche, knowledge is shaped according to its holder’s temperament, which makes particular ‘alternate explanations’ (in Cohen’s words) unimportant: the real truth is that these alternate explanations are historically necessary because their interpretations are subjectively and affectively contingent (HH S34). Therefore, when Cohen expresses his concern that a metaphysician might avoid Nietzsche’s criticism by claiming to have a better explanation of “the facts” (Cohen 102), Nietzsche would actually respond that it is the correlation between metaphysical theory and these facts that are the problem; the metaphysician is more interested in finding facts to fit their theories than adjusting theories to shape facts. This is the epistemic pitfall of subordinating science to the goal of objectivity, resulting in the psychological problems Nietzsche associated with reactivity.

If we are concerned with analytical clarity, we might conclude with the observation that Nietzsche, contrary to Cohen, is far from a positivist, even if we give Cohen a lot of ground regarding his interpretation of Nietzsche’s scientism. Adding to the observations above regarding Nietzsche’s preference for scientific process over scientific product, we should note a specific moment when Nietzsche criticizes metaphysics not for its non-verifiability (which would be a positivist argument) but for its non-falsifiability (HH S9). This seems more in line with Karl Popper’s critique of positivist epistemology than positivism itself, the former being entirely compatible with a view of science as continuous and unending.

Jonathan Cohen, “Nietzsche’s Fling with Positivism,” Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 204, 1999, pp 101-107.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, in The Nietzsche Reader, eds. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large, Wiley-Blackwell Press: 2006.


One thought on “Nietzsche, Cohen, and Positivism

  1. “…we should note a specific moment when Nietzsche criticizes metaphysics not for its non-verifiability (which would be a positivist argument) but for its non-falsifiability (HH S9).”

    A weird criticism. The whole method is one of refutation. It seems to me that this sort of meta-metaphysical analysis would be best replaced with some decent metaphysical analysis.

    Just shooting the breeze…


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