Nietzsche’s Hide-and-Seek: A Play with Science

It is often more in opposition to previous thinkers, than in accordance with them, that a philosopher finds his position. In this perspective, Nietzsche may be to Kant what Aristotle was to Plato, or Marx to Hegel: the intellectual revolt, the symmetrical inversion of the master’s doctrine. Kant’s authoritative presence in both the history and philosophy of science is not due to his early, properly scientific writings – seen today as obsolete – but to his larger project: to offer metaphysical results in support to, or at least, compatible with, the revolutionary Newtonian physics of his time. Nietzsche’s fundamental critique of Kant as a system builder is thus indirectly the critique of the scientific inspiration of all positivist, post-Enlightenment thought. It is this very extension of Nietzsche’s critique that we will briefly explore in the present essay, in order to discover how the philosopher managed to brutally dismantle the scientific foundations of modern philosophy. He did so, first on the level of methods, on the ways in which any intellectual enterprise should, according to him, be undertaken. Secondly, via a detour around his new understanding of morality, and its genesis, or rather, genealogy, we will see that Nietzsche’s use of science is even more direct, through a subversion of the concept of force.

Nietzsche’s philosophical project is first one defined by a new method. Nietzsche had one major enemy: the philosopher as system-builder. System-builders were numerous before Nietzsche. Most of the major post-Renaissance philosophers attempted to construct their own systems: Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, only to name a few. As the pivotal character combining empiricism with rationalism, and as the basis for all 19th century philosophy, Kant can be seen (in premonition of Hegel), as the ultimate system-builder. Indeed, all areas of philosophical knowledge were rigorously systematized by Kant: ontology and metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics. Nietzsche saw Kant himself, the philosopher, as ‘a tribunal judge’, a mise-en-abîme of the position occupied by the sacrosanct Reason in the tribunal that was the Kantian judgement. Indeed, Nietzsche was outraged at Kant’s thesis, that the human capacity for discernment, culminating in the philosophical exercise, could be only a sort of passing of a legal judgement. In this view, the mind is a court going through evidences from the senses and ultimately ruling according to the final Reason. Through this process, said Kant, one could bypass the senses’ distortions of the data obtained from the outer world, in order to reach the level of the Noumenon, the thing-in-itself. Nietzsche believed that these categories had to be attacked. But Kant’s system was effective and consistent: disproving it from the inside would be an arduous task. Nietzsche understood that such a task could only be done through the positing of a new method, central for any intellectual project: the genealogy.

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While Kant discussed the human capacity to judge and estimate the world, that is, to posit value, Nietzsche looked at transvaluation, the value of value, or the ways in which certain groups of thinkers come to value one thesis more than another: “the question of values is more fundamental than the question of certitudes: the latter becomes a serious one only on the condition that the question of value has found an answer” — Nietzsche

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Once over with his systematic clarification of the question of pure reason (Critique of Pure Reason, 1781, 1778), Kant entered the social sphere: practical reason with the ‘categorical imperatives’ of ethical duty (Critique of Practical Reason, 1988), and finally aesthetic judgement (Critique of Judgement, 1989). Kant addressed all spheres of philosophy, but for Nietzsche one answer was lacking: why is the subject, this ‘judge,’ this ‘epistemologist,’ undertaking the very enterprise of philosophy? Unlike eating or sleeping, philosophizing is not a natural need. The philosopher comes with a baggage, with certain interests, with particular a priori positions. With and after Nietzsche, the task of the philosopher is not only to investigate the content of his predecessors’ works, but also to assess the very assumptions of their position as thinkers. While Kant discussed the human capacity to judge and estimate the world, that is, to posit value, Nietzsche looked at transvaluation, the value of value, or the ways in which certain groups of thinkers come to value one thesis more than another: “the question of values is more fundamental than the question of certitudes: the latter becomes a serious one only on the condition that the question of value has found an answer” (Nietzsche 1982, 49). While Kantian philosophy focused on the accuracy and relevance of a thinker’s thought, Nietzsche turned the focus towards the very possibility that made one a thinker: what is his interest? What is his social class? What is his status? Truth, with Nietzsche, was not anymore a satisfying category: “truths are illusions of which we have forgotten the illusory nature, used metaphors that lost their sensible force, coins that lost their effigy and that we do not consider anymore as such, but only as metal” (Nietzsche 97, 282). Truth had been at the centre of discussion for too long: value and transvaluation had to be the new concerns of philosophers.

This is where Nietzsche presented his new approach, his new epistemology: the genealogy. The philosopher looks for the early difference, for the schism that led to the present state of any question. The method of genealogy comes against the unsaid methodological assumption of philosophy, from Socrates to Kant, to look for the essence of specific concepts, subjects or questions. Earlier philosophers looked for truth; Nietzsche looked for value. Questioning the value of a philosophical argument, it is questioning both its origin (because every philosophical argument is human-made and thus never beginning-less), and it is questioning its present state of use. Nietzsche describes this method rather late in his career, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1887) onwards. It is in Genealogy of Morals (1887) that Nietzsche systematizes and gives the most refined illustration of a genealogical approach:

“Let us articulate this new demand: we need a critique of moral values, the value of these values themselves must first be called in question – and for that there is needed a knowledge of the conditions and circumstances in which they grew, under which they evolved and changed (morality as consequence, as symptom, as mask, as tartufferie, as illness, as misunderstanding; but also morality as cause, as remedy, as stimulant, as restraint, as poison), a knowledge of a kind that has never yet existed or even been desired” (Nietzsche 1989, 20).

It is a philosophy of the stable, of the final position, of the essence, which Nietzsche criticized. As Deleuze (1983) explains in his classical study on the German thinker, Nietzsche went against the ‘three forms of the undifferentiated’: “This is why his whole critique operates on three levels; against logical identity, against mathematical equality and against physical equilibrium. Against the three forms of the undifferentiated” (45). In a word, Nietzsche criticizes Kant, and the whole main threads of Western thought by the same, for not understanding that knowledge, or rather, intellectual positions, are always historical, always the product of particular evolutions in society. After Nietzsche, every philosopher is a philosopher of difference, operating an activity of differential comparison in the evolution of a concept, of a question. To understand the genealogical track of an idea is the new intellectual challenge of the philosopher.

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After Nietzsche, every philosopher is a philosopher of difference, operating an activity of differential comparison in the evolution of a concept, of a question. To understand the genealogical track of an idea is the new intellectual challenge of the philosopher.

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It is primarily on the question of morality that Nietzsche illustrates the way the genealogical method can be used. In philosophy, ethics was conceived, from Aristotle to Kant, from Bentham to Mill, as a set of static perspectives that the reader of philosophy could take upon to undertake a more moral life. Nietzsche’s genealogical breakthrough allowed him to realize that human beings do not select a particular view on ethics reasonably, choosing freely from their favourite thinker, but are instead affected by certain major and hegemonic dynamics of morality, which developed through the course of the history of societies. This is again a criticism of Kant, who was the one who had posited human’s capacity for ethical judgement to be a process allowed by reason. But there is a second way in which this particular point of Nietzsche’s philosophy connects to science and unsaid scientific assumptions in philosophy. This time, the connection is even more explicit and visible. Nietzsche was inspired by the major contributions of Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677) and his contemporary, German rationalist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), in their critique of Cartesian rationalism. Spinoza and Leibniz denied Descartes’ positing of spatial extension as the quality of a body, and suggested instead that it is capacity or force that is the main criterion of a substance. This shift is premonitory to Nietzsche, as it is a transition from the notion of essence to that of capacity. Newton would come as the major confirmation of the new need for physics to focus on force, instead of substance. Nietzsche took upon this new understanding of force, and extended it beyond the realm of physical substances. The very motor of morality, says Nietzsche, is force. This is so, because the external, physical force is completed, according to Nietzsche, by an inner force, or a force in an inner dimension: the will to power. Briefly – a longer description would be necessary to do justice to Nietzsche’s thesis – the main argument of Genealogy of Morals is that the very historical construction of a concern for ethics was the byproduct a reactive force, that is, the reaction of a group of individuals after being economically, socially or physically constrained by another, more powerful group. While the traditional cultural and social habits of the latter slowly ‘cemented’ into the construction of a morality of the type ‘good versus bad,’ that is, ‘habitual cultural practices versus forbidden cultural practices,’ the subjugated group developed a reactionary sense of morality. ‘Good versus bad’ became, in their eyes, ‘good versus evil.’ The subjugated ones understood the supremacy of the powerful ones as an actual, intentional bitterness against them. While this dynamics of powers, disguised in positions of morality, is common to the whole of human history, Nietzsche focused in particular on one historical instance of it: the subjugation of the Jewish people under the militarily powerful Romans, leading ultimately to a reversal, and the victory of the reactive morality of the ‘weak’, a ‘moral of the slaves.’ Thus, as we can see, the concept of force, initially borrowed from science, is central in Nietzsche’s theory of morality.

In Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche explains how important this force is: it even bypasses the speculated command of the ‘subject’ over his actions. Note, in the following passage, Nietzsche’s reliance upon the vocabulary of physics, when he explains that our inner drives are these fundamental expressions of forces:

“A quantum of force is equivalent to a quantum of drive, effect – more, it is nothing other than precisely this very driving, willing, effecting, and only owing to the seduction of language (and of the fundamental errors of reason that are petrified in it) which conceives and misconceives all effects as conditioned by something that causes effects, by a “subject,” can it appear otherwise” (Nietzsche 1989, 45).

By the ‘seduction of language’, Nietzsche refers here to the tendency of earlier philosophers to succumb to the temptation offered by language, which often leads one to believe, and in turn, to affirm, that our actions are the effects of particular causes, that is, of the human’s capacity to judge before acting. It is thus also a strong criticism of causality that Nietzsche operates through his discussion of morality: human reason is not the cause of our actions. And on a larger scale, the very categories of cause and effect must be radically revised.

Truth and value, force, cause and effect: Nietzsche’s language is one that is deeply imbued in a scientific culture. Via his cardinal critique of Kant, it is the scientific aspiration of modern philosophers to naively reach the truth, which Nietzsche attempted to fight through his œuvre. His reliance upon the lexicon of science, for virtually all of his own properly new contributions, can be seen as an effort of subversion on science’s hegemonic power on the culture of 19th century Europe. Nietzsche ‘sounds’ scientific intentionally, perhaps for the sake of inverting the habitual meaning of a scientific term, which allowed him, in turn, to express his profound skepticism in front of the scientific project. It is an almost playful relation to this intellectual culture that Nietzsche, ironically, represents: a game of hide-and-seek with science.


Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Nietzsche, Friedrich W. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter A. Kaufmann, and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Nietzsche, Friedrich W. Vérié et Mensonge au Sens Extra-moral. Trans. Nils Gascuel. Arles: Actes Sud, 1997.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Fragments Posthumes : Automne 1885-automne 1887. Trans. Julien Hertier. Paris: Gallimard, 1982.

Image courtesy: Emerson Pingarilho