Nietzsche’s Perspectivism Versus Epicurus’ Physics-Based Realism

See Will to Power Reasonings I

Nietzsche is leonized by many Epicureans for various reasons in this post-Christian era, however one of the key distinctions between Nietzsche and Epicurus is their view concerning reality itself. We must start our evaluation of Will to Power from these fundamental distinctions. In atomism, all things exist materially: things that are real, exist as bodies, or emergent properties of bodies that are made of progressively simpler things, down to the ultimate particles that make up all things. This is known as philosophical realism: the doctrine that reality exists independently of the observer. This does not mean that the observer and his senses, his physical constitution, play no part in his apprehension of said reality. It merely recognizes that the things apprehended were there prior to observation and would have been there regardless of being observed.

To Nietzsche, however, truth and reality are the concoction of someone who, in the process of positing a narrative of reality, is acting upon and exerting power over reality, creating reality. It was this view that later made philosopher Jean Paul Sartre say that “existence precedes essence“. While I embrace the creative and dynamic process of the existential philosopher, I can’t help but think that there is an element of dishonesty in this attitude, that although Nietzsche often argues that people lie to themselves all the time in the act of self-creation and in the manufacture of “truth”, and seeks ulterior motives for why people do this, he’s also entertaining this same power. Does factual, physical truth not matter? Does it not have value?

There are two distinct kinds of philosopher: … those who are legislators … are commanders; they say “Thus it shall be!” They alone determine … what is useful and what constitutes utility for men … and all knowledge is for them only a means for creation. – WtP 972

Some argue that Nietzsche did not exactly deny the existence of nature (although he flatly says “there is no true world“), that he–like Siddhartha Buddha–merely questioned whether reality exists as we imagine it to exist. He posited a view known as perspectivism: what we think of as reality is “a perspectival appearance whose origin lies in us” (WtP 15).

That is the best quick definition of perspectivism in Will to Power, however the best justification for it might be found in notes 615-617, where Nietzsche demonstrates how influenced he was by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and explains that as we evolve, what we know also must evolve, that we must recognize the uselessness of old ideas and we must name and re-interpret things anew. This is fair enough. In other words, Nietzsche recognizes that evolution slowly changes the body and psyche of sentient beings, and there must be a cognitive aspect of evolution. Perspectivism must therefore be understood as a means to address issues concerning our future cognitive evolution.

In note 647, he declares that evolution is also from within, from the will–that is, decisions made by living organisms have the power to change the evolutionary direction of a species or group. This, of course, immediately makes us imagine the choice that an animal makes of where to get its food from, a decision which later would favor specific adaptations to acquire that food source. This has encouraged speciation in many lineages. It is believed that meat eating led to the quick growth of the human brain (although other theories, which are not mutually contradictory, also posit the consumption of fungus and other hallucinogens helped along).

Today, men organize their reality around computers, smart phones, and other technological gadgets that are changing the way we think and reshaping our brains. Something as simple as choosing these activities has a real bearing on the future evolution of our species: we create our future selves via these choices, and we should therefore be mindful of them. Nietzsche’s Overman concept revolves around our instinct to create the future self–for both the individual and the species.

There are no facts, only interpretation. – WtP 481

Sorry Nietzsche, this is false. Our drives and needs are not the only things that interpret the world. It is one thing to say that our perspective influences our grasp of reality, and this is undeniable, but N’s perspectivism seems to lead him to think that there is no reality out there, and he even declares that both deed and doer are fictions–regardless of their physicality.

Since all evaluation happens from a perspective, this creates contradictions, and N is the first one to admit that the “wisest man is richest in contradictions” (WtP 259).

One wants to sympathize with him, attempt to see what he means, but the dangers of Nietzsche’s estrangement from reality are many and must be named. I do not see his ruminations in this regard as healthy or useful, and I see many problems with them. There is a limit to how much power we can exert in positing “truth” and “reality” narratives; there are elements of facticity (laws of nature, facts about the environment) that establish the contours around which we can create reality. Decades after Nietzsche, Sartre dealt with these tensions beautifully. N went as far as saying that (WtP 487) for the sake of self preservation, we must believe in time, motion, and space “without giving them absolute reality” … but they ARE physically, absolutely, and observably real. In WtP 497 he demonstrates that he was a radical skeptic, even of what’s needed for survival. Nature does not give us a choice, however, when it comes to the natural and necessary things. Later in WtP 578 he even states that even “Epicurus denied the possibility of knowledge”, which is false. All of these issues are problematic.

In WtP 505, he explains perspectivism as “we perceive what is essential to us and our survival”. His intended point: usefulness is not truth. Perhaps what must be conceded here is that our own nature has a greater urgency to grasp certain truths than others.

In WtP 508, he explains our search for knowledge as an attempt to eliminate the chaos of ideas, and in WtP 594 he attributes science to the intellect’s dislike of chaos, saying that we want a similar order in the soul, that is, morality.

As always, N seems to be studying what motivates us to posit truths, and in doing so he sometimes may pick the wrong fights, but illuminates many good insights–like when he explains that the search for causality is a search for familiarity. Of all the instincts he uncovers, the instinct to rebel against nature / reality is the most futile one, and the one I most immediately wish he would do away with.

In WtP 572, N names Plato as a philosopher-artist, praising how he chose the imaginary as real, how he chose his creation as real. The irony and tension in this is enormous: elsewhere, he criticizes the rebellion against nature that others exhibit when (WtP 576) they replace the real (when ugly) with the unreal, and turn socially accepted categories upside-down in order to cope with their own powerlessness. This is a subject that we’ll have to address separately in a future essay.

Nietzsche sees the will to truth as an impotence of the will to create, but this is at least a will to interpret. Even lower is the (passive) nihilist. Here’s another interesting insight. This video on active and passive nihilism may help the student to understand what is meant here. Since truth is ugly, nihilism (lack of meaning and of yay-saying) can be seen as relaxation and recuperation, and those who embrace the disgusting truths that make people sick of life have a right to take a “tragic pride” in their philosophical accomplishment (WtP 596, 598).

Nietzsche also recognizes (WtP 482) that words, naming things, constitute the horizon of our knowledge, and yet words are not “truths” and can often be confused for the things meant. Ergo, many words can serve as “gods of the gaps”–that is, replacements in the absence of true theories about the nature of reality.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, it seems clear that N isn’t exactly a materialist–one who believes that things are made of atoms and their existence is anchored in concrete particles–but he’s a philosophical materialist, at least insofar as he philosophizes from the same place as Marx or Darwin: the struggle for existence–rather than abstractions unconnected from context–produces philosophy, it produces the ideas that these thinkers formulate about reality.

Next, we will attempt to untangle Nietzsche’s discrepancies with the Epicureans concerning the telos / end: power versus pleasure.

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About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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9 Responses to Nietzsche’s Perspectivism Versus Epicurus’ Physics-Based Realism

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