NIETZSCHE THE PROPHET
Brian Leiter TLS March 4 2011
Nietzsche, with characteristic bravado, declared himself in 1888 to be "the first psychologist" (in his stylized autobiography, Ecce Homo). Yet one might well ask whether subsequent events have not, in fact, shown him to be right. His influence on Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, is by now well known. Freud's explanation of the origin of guilt in Civilization and Its Discontents, for example, is obviously lifted from the Second Treatise of Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality (although Freud misses Nietzsche's distinction between the bad conscience and guilt proper), and Freud's conception of the unconscious, the drives, and the importance of sexuality also bear recognizable Nietzschean imprints.
Yet doubts about the psychoanalytic theory of the mind over the past thirty years might be thought to redound unfavourably to Nietzsche's hubris in 1888 (even if these doubts sometimes ignore the experimental evidence supporting the theory). If Nietzsche is just a proto-Freudian, then his claim to profound psychological insight fares as well, or badly, as Freud's. This is why it may be useful to call attention to something that has largely escaped notice in contemporary scholarship, perhaps because of the unfortunate association of Nietzsche in recent decades with the influential interpretations of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. Their wilful misreadings are well known among Nietzsche scholars, but less so elsewhere in the academy. One of the deleterious consequences of their appropriation of Nietzsche is that his contributions to psychology, well beyond the Freudian framework, are ignored.
For what may prove surprising, as well as vindicatory of Nietzsche's bravado, is that a wide array of the most striking (if sometimes contentious) findings of recent empirical psychology - about the primacy of the unconscious, the "illusion" of free will, the affective component of moral judgement, and the high degree of heritability of character traits - were explicitly anticipated by Nietzsche more than a century ago. The fact that empirical psychology has finally caught up with Nietzsche raises, in turn, a puzzle about scientific methodology.
For how could Nietzsche in the 1880s - who applied for no grants, conducted no experiments, and ran no statistical analyses - arrive at some of the most distinctive hypotheses of contemporary psychological science in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries? We should begin, though, by characterizing Nietzsche's hubris a bit more carefully. For what he really claims in Ecce Homo is to be "the first psychologist of the good", that is, the first to understand and expose the psychology of those who claim to be morally good. And when he asserted several years earlier, at the conclusion of the first chapter of Beyond Good and Evil, that "psychology shall be recognized again as the queen of the sciences", and "psychology is now again the path of the fundamental problems", it is apparent, in context, that it is the psychology of moral judgement that is his immediate target.
But since "the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant has grown", as he put it in the same chapter, moral psychology is also the route to explaining philosophers and philosophical doctrines.
Nietzschean psychology, then, is an ironic kind of "queen of the sciences" or first philosophy, one that does not, like its Kantian or Cartesian precursors, try to vindicate the epistemic bona fides of other forms of human inquiry, but tries rather to undermine them by explaining away philosophical doctrines - such as the Kantian account of the synthetic a priori or Cartesian certainty about the Cogito - as products of a hidden moral or at least evaluative psychological outlook, rather than the result of "a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic" (Beyond Good and Evil). Philosophers, Nietzsche claims, "are all advocates who resent that name", but who won't own up to the fact that they are pleading a moral case, dressing up their pre-determined conclusions with the "stiff and decorous Tartuffery of the old Kant" or Spinoza's "hocus-pocus of mathematical form". Nietzsche's general view is that moral judgements, not only those of the philosophers, are "just a sign language of the affects", a view recognizable to any student of contemporary psychology as winning support from, for example, Jonathan Haidt's work on moral judgement, such as his well-known paper "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail" (2001).
If Nietzsche's claim to special insight concerns, broadly, moral psychology - what explains moral judgement and the sources and character of moral (or immoral) agency? - then we might bracket some areas of psychological insight where Nietzsche also, as it happens, seems prescient. So, to take one example, a recurring theme in Nietzsche's work is that consciousness is a "surface" and that "the greatest part of conscious thought must still be attributed to [non-conscious] instinctive activity", as he puts it in Beyond Good and Evil. The Nietzsche who laments, in The Gay Science, the "ridiculous overestimation and misunderstanding of consciousness" - when, in fact, "the greatest part of our spirit's activity remains unconscious and unfelt" - might be thought, by a contemporary reader, to have offered here an apt precis of Timothy Wilson's influential book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious (2002).
Yet Nietzsche's scepticism about consciousness is not unrelated to important themes in his moral psychology. Consider his attack on the experience of free will, the kind of will typically thought to be necessary for our actions to be morally praiseworthy and blameworthy. Nietzsche thinks that the feeling of free will is, at bottom, an epiphenomenon of a process in which conscious thoughts that are consistent with and temporally proximate to succeeding actions are misinterpreted as causal, when, in fact, both the thoughts and the actions themselves are causally determined by fundamental psycho-physical traits that lie wholly outside the domain of consciousness. I think to myself, "I will head downstairs now" and then I stand up and head to the stairs. I feel as though I have freely done this because I identify with the "thought" ("I will go downstairs now") that precedes the action. We identify with this preceding "commandeering thought", as Nietzsche calls it, because of the feelings of pleasure and power that arise from the "affect of superiority" that flows from that identification: my body moves because I willed it.
This phenomenology of willing is, Nietzsche thinks, wholly misleading, when it comes to the question whether or not we are responsible for the resulting action. To make that case, he invokes another bit of phenomenology, namely, that "a thought comes when 'it' wants, and not when 'I' want" (ein Gedanke kommt, wenn 'er' will, und nicht wenn 'ich' will"). That is, a "thought" preceding an action that appears in consciousness is not itself preceded by the phenomenology of willing that Nietzsche has described; there is, in short, no "commandeering thought" preceding the conscious thought to which "the affect of superiority" attaches. (Even if there were such a commandeering thought in some instance, this would just create a regress, since not every commandeering thought will be preceded by the experience of willing.) Since we do not experience our thoughts as willed the way we experience some actions as willed, it follows that no thought comes when "I will it" because the experience to which the "I will" attaches is absent. Thus, the criterion of willing that agents themselves treat as reliable guides to a causal relationship - namely, the phenomenology of the "commandeering thought" - is, in fact, completely absent in the case of (at least some) thoughts. But since Nietzsche believes that Christian morality supposes that being self-caused (causa sui, as he calls it) is a necessary condition for responsibility, the fact that "thoughts" are caused by something else (whatever it is that prompts them into consciousness) undermines any responsibility that could attach to actions that follow upon the "commandeering thought".
In a later work, Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche develops these ideas about the "error of free will". He writes: The "inner world" is full of phantoms... the will is one of them. The will no longer moves anything, hence does not explain anything either - it merely accompanies events; it can also be absent. The so-called motive: another error. Merely a surface phenomenon of consciousness - something alongside the deed that is more likely to cover up the antecedents of the deeds than to represent them. .. . What follows from this? There are no mental causes at all. We know, of course, from the earlier remarks, that Nietzsche is denying conscious mental causes of the actions we experience as freely willed. And the antecedents of the actions at issue are precisely the fundamental psycho-physical traits that really explain the person's agency.
If the experience of willing does not, according to Nietzsche, illuminate how actions are brought about, what, then, really explains our actions? The "Four Great Errors" section of Twilight of the Idols suggests an answer, one which wins powerful support from recent work by the psychologist Daniel Wegner in his widely discussed book The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002). Wegner, like Nietzsche, starts from the experience of willing, and, like Nietzsche, wants to undermine our confidence that the experience accurately tracks the causal reality. To do so, Wegner calls our attention to cases where the phenomenology and the causation admittedly come apart. One set of cases involves "illusions of control", that is, "instances in which people have the feeling they are doing something when they actually are not doing anything" (there are experiments involving video games in which the subjects feel that their manipulation of the joystick explains the action on the screen, when in fact the machine is just running a pre-set programme). Another set of welldocumented cases involves the "automatisms", that is, cases where there is action but no "experience of will" (examples would include ouija board manipulation and behaviours under hypnotism). Wegner remarks: "The processes of mind that produce the experience of will may be quite distinct from the processes of mind that produce the action itself". If the cases in question do indeed show that phenomenology of willing is not always an accurate guide to causation, they certainly do not show that this is generally true. But Wegner wants to establish Nietzsche's claim, namely, that the phenomenology of willing systematically misleads us as to the causation of our actions. And in the place of the "illusion of free will", as Wegner calls it, he proposes a different model according to which the conscious experience of will and the action are the effects of a common unconscious cause, but in which the chain of causation does not run between the experience of willing and the action; rather, in Nietzschean terms, some psycho-physical fact about persons explains both the experience and the action. As Wegner sums up his alternative picture of the causal genesis of action: unconscious and inscrutable mechanisms create both conscious thought about action and the action, and also produce the sense of will we experience by perceiving the thought as cause of the action. So, while our thoughts may have deep, important, and unconscious causal connections to our actions, the experience of conscious will arises from a process that interprets these connections, not from the connections themselves. Wegner adduces a variety of kinds of evidence to support this idea, but I will focus here on one illustration. These are the studies by Benjamin Libet and colleagues examining the brain electrical activity (the "readiness potential" or RP) that precedes an action (such as moving a finger) and the experience of willing. What the researchers found is that "the conscious willing of finger movement occurred at a significant interval after the onset of the RP (and also at a significant interval before the awareness of the movement)".
According to Wegner, "These findings suggest that the brain starts doing something first. .. . Then the person becomes conscious of wanting to do the action" that the brain has already initiated. Wegner quotes Libet summing up the import of his findings as follows: the initiation of the voluntary act appears to be an unconscious cerebral process. Clearly, free will or free choice of whether to act now could not be the initiating agent, contrary to one widely held view. This is of course also contrary to each individual's own introspective feeling that he/she consciously initiates such voluntary acts; this provides an important empirical example of the possibility that the subjective experience of a mental causality need not necessarily reflect the actual causative relationship between mental and brain events.
In other words, about a century after Nietzsche, empirical psychologists have adduced evidence supporting his theory that the phenomenology of willing misleads as to the actual causal genesis of action. Even if Libet's interpretation of the results of his work remains controversial among both psychologists and philosophers, it is surely stunning that Nietzsche reached the same conclusions a hundred years earlier.
Nietzsche's scepticism about free will is closely connected to another aspect of his general moral psychology, namely, his view that a person's character and actions are determined in large part by highly heritable psycho-physical traits over which one exercises relatively little control. This aspect of Nietzsche's view - a version of which he encountered in Arthur Schopenhauer, and then found support for in contemporaneous scientific research popularized by the German Materialists of the 1850s - is one that commentators often ignore, although it looms large in his work. As Nietzsche puts it in the Genealogy: "our thoughts, values, every 'yes,' 'no,' 'if' and 'but' grow from us with the same inevitability as fruits borne on the tree - all related and each with an affinity to each, and evidence of one will, one health, one earth, one sun". To say that one's values are "inevitable" like "fruits borne on the tree" is, of course, to say that they are strongly heritable features of the organism over which the organism can exercise no control.
Consider again the attack on free will in Twilight of the Idols. It begins with a discussion of what Nietzsche calls the "error of confusing cause and effect". The crux of this error can be summarized as follows: given two regularly correlated effects E1 and E2 which have the same "deep cause", we confuse cause and effect when we construe E1 as the cause of E2, missing altogether the existence of the deep cause that really explains them both. Let us call this error "Cornarism" after the (now) famous example Nietzsche invokes: Everybody knows the book of the famous Cornaro in which he recommends his slender diet as a recipe for a long and happy life. .. . I do not doubt that scarcely any book (except the Bible, as is meet) has done as much harm. .. . The reason: the mistaking of the effect for the cause. The worthy Italian thought his diet was the cause of his long life, whereas the precondition for a long life, the extraordinary slowness of his metabolism, the consumption of so little, was the cause of his slender diet. He was not free to eat little or much; his frugality was not a matter of "free will": he became sick when he ate more.
In other words, what explains Cornaro's slender diet and his long life is the same underlying fact about his metabolism. Cornaro's mistake was to prescribe his diet for all without regard for how individuals differed metabolically, metabolism being the relevant psycho-physical fact in this context.
Nothing turns on whether Nietzsche is right about Cornaro's metabolism. What is of philosophical interest is whether the type of error involved in the Cornaro case (assuming the facts are as Nietzsche presents them) extends beyond cases such as diet and longevity - and that is precisely Nietzsche's contention.
In the very next section of Twilight, he saddles morality and religion quite generally with Cornarism, claiming that the basic "formula on which every religion and morality is founded is: 'Do this and that, refrain from that and that - then you will be happy! Otherwise...'". Cornaro recommended a slender diet for a long life; morality and religion prescribe and proscribe certain conduct for a happy life. But, says Nietzsche, a well-turned out human being... must perform certain actions and shrinks instinctively from other actions; he carries the order, which he represents physiologically, into his relations with other human beings and things.
So morality and religion are guilty of Cornarism: the conduct they prescribe and proscribe in order to cause a "happy life" are, in fact, effects of something else, namely the physiological order represented by a particular agent, one who (as Nietzsche says) "must perform certain actions", just as Cornaro must eat a slender diet (he is "not free to eat little or much"). That one performs certain actions and that one has a happy life are themselves both effects of the physiological order. If Nietzsche is correct about the role of strongly heritable psycho-physical traits in agency, then his worries about the wide-ranging implications of the kind of error involved in Cornarism would be warranted.
As it happens, something like Nietzsche's view seems, once again, to win support from recent empirical research. Two kinds of evidence are pertinent here. On the one hand, there is the famous work by Jerome Kagan on the biological foundations of temperament, suggested by the clear patterns of emotional and behavioural response apparent in very young children, patterns that often persist into maturity. A second kind of evidence, as Joshua Knobe and I have argued elsewhere, comes from studies in behavioural genetics involving twins (comparing monozygotic to dizygotic) and adopted children, which show that every personality trait studied to date is heritable to a surprising degree. For example, a review by the psychologist John Loehlin in 1992 of five studies in five different countries (comprising a total sample size of 24,000 twins) estimates that genetic factors explain 60 per cent of the variance in extraversion and 50 per cent of the variance in neuroticism - magnitudes that are quite remarkable and that make clear that personality traits are highly heritable. (Note that a heritable trait need not be produced entirely by genes, but can reflect a gene-environment interaction. The shyness of John's children may be heritable if they inherit, through the regular genetic mechanism, John's large nose, and John and his children live in a society in which large noses are subject to ridicule and other social sanctions that induce introversion.) Now extraversion and neuroticism are not the precise kinds of traits that typically interested Nietzsche, but their robust heritability underlines the general assumption to which Nietzsche was committed, namely, that dispositions of character are facts about a person largely beyond his or her volition. Importantly, recent empirical results do implicate character traits that are more obviously central to moral agency.
Consider, for example, what psychologists sometimes call "aggressive antisocial behaviour". A variety of studies have found heritability of this trait in the range of 49 to 70 per cent (representative is the research discussed by Thalia Eley et al in "Sex Differences in the Etiology of Aggressive and Nonaggressive Antisocial Behavior", Child Development 70, 1999). Magnitudes of this size, across many different empirical studies, cannot plausibly be dismissed as experimental artefacts or the products of error. More importantly, they lend support to the view that Nietzsche strongly endorsed: "It is simply not possible that a human being should not have the qualities and preferences of his parents and ancestors in his body whatever appearances may suggest to the contrary" (Beyond Good and Evil). Nietzsche, unsurprisingly for the nineteenth century, gave this point a Lamarckian gloss, but it turns out to survive research in a post-Lamarckian world. As Nietzsche puts the point elsewhere in the same work: "Wherever a cardinal problem is at stake, there speaks an unchangeable 'this is I'". What makes Nietzsche's view especially interesting is that the mainstream of moral philosophy, deriving from Aristotle and Kant in particular, almost entirely ignores the role of heredity in moral agency. Of the major historical figures in moral philosophy, only Nietzsche comes to terms with the issue.
Any reader of Nietzsche knows that he is not primarily concerned to report the findings of psychological "research" or to establish, through conventional methods of argumentation and the mustering of evidence, the truth of particular empirical hypotheses. His work is suffused with psychological and empirical claims, but his aims are always much more polemical: to transform the consciousness of at least some readers about the morality they take for granted, and thus, at the same time, to change their affective orientation towards their lives. His psychological claims are always subservient to these rhetorical aims, but this does not alter the fact that Nietzsche makes psychological claims, ones that admit of empirical study and confirmation, and many of which may, as recent research suggests, be true. But how, one might wonder, could Nietzsche have been so right about so much of moral psychology without employing the methods of contemporary empirical psychology? To start, we must remember that the best account of the psychology of human agency, moral and otherwise, is on a clear continuum with ordinary folk psychological explanations of behaviour, in a way that contemporary physical science is not derivable from "folk" physics, that is, from the ordinary categories we use to make sense of our observations about the physical world around us. Atoms, molecules and invisible forces do not play an obvious role in my observation that if I drop the sofa on my toe, it will hurt, but contemporary empirical psychology avails itself of basically the same ontology - beliefs, desires, traits, bodily movements - that are the very stuff of unsystematic folk psychology.
Empirical psychology has plainly evolved methods for testing and confirming hypotheses that were not in use in the nineteenth century, but that does not mean Nietzsche lacked evidence on which to base his speculative moral psychology. Speculation by geniuses based on limited evidence has always played a major role in scientific progress, and it should hardly be surprising if psychology were any different. (John Doris suggests that such speculation may indeed play the decisive role, since innovations in psychological theorizing are rarely data-driven.) Nietzsche's evidence appears to have been of three primary kinds. First, there were his own observations, both introspective and of the behaviour of other people. Second, Nietzsche was an avid consumer of the psychological observations recorded by others, in a wide array of historical, literary and philosophical texts over long periods of time, observations which, in some respects, tended to reinforce each other (consider, for example, the realism about human motivations detailed by Thucydides in antiquity and, in the modern era, in the aphorisms of La Rochefoucauld, both authors whom Nietzsche admired). Finally, there was Nietzsche's extensive reading about contemporaneous scientific developments in the 1850s and 1860s, most of which - even if amateurish or simply wrong by today's standards - did represent systematic attempts to bring scientific methods to bear on the study of human beings and many of which, in at least some of their broad outlines, have been vindicated by subsequent developments. By the standards of contemporary methods in the human sciences, we would not deem insights based on this evidence to be well founded, but that certainly does not mean such evidence is not, in the hands of a genius like Nietzsche, adequate for insights that survive scrutiny by our contemporary methods. This is precisely one of the reasons why Nietzsche, like David Hume, is a great speculative naturalist in the history of philosophy: with unsystematic data and methods he could nonetheless arrive at hypotheses that turn out to be supported by the more systematic data and methods the scientific study of human beings relies on today.