Review of C. J. Emden “Nietzsche’s Naturalism. Philosophy and the Life Sciences in the Nineteenth Century”

by François Blom-Peters


Review of C. J. Emden “Nietzsche’s Naturalism. Philosophy and the Life Sciences in the Nineteenth Century” (2014). Cambridge University Press.


TI = Twilight of the Idols
HA = Human, All too Human
KRW = Kritische Gesamtausgabe

We have here a very impressive summation of the intellectual context in which Nietzsche evolved and which supported his philosophical project. To this end, the author makes great use of Nietzsche’s Nachlaß, of his correspondence and even of the records of his book loans, allowing us to directly appreciate Nietzsche’s preoccupations. Furthermore, he offers us a thorough presentation of the scientific context which, as is demonstrated by the latter documents, was of first importance to Nietzsche. In doing so, the author shows among other things the inadequacy of some common readings of Nietzsche’s work which share the common flaw of understanding his scientific context from today’s perspective.

In this article I want to give some general presentation of the main theses of the book concerning the interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. I will roughly follow the book’s structure but will limit myself to the first two sections for the sake of brevity. I will therefore start with Emden by situating Nietzsche within the biological sciences of its time and the problem of natural evolution in general, and Darwin’s theory of natural selection in particular. Then follows a discussion on the possibility of knowledge about natural phenomena in the context of Kant and neo-kantianism, focusing on the notion of causality and teleology in nature. The problems raised in this section are then given a solution through Nietzsche’s peculiar historical perspective. Finally, I introduce the last section of the book, where these epistemological considerations are generalized to a more practical level.

  1. Nietzsche and the science of his time

The author argues for a novel naturalistic reading of Nietzsche that doesn’t falsely apply today’s conception of science as a largely unified process, of which mathematics and physics are the paradigm, to the very different context of 19th century life sciences. For Nietzsche, science didn’t draw its normative authority from its method and formal unity, but from the fact that it is a process in which we constantly interact with the material world, that is, from the practice of science: observations and experimentations. Science therefore doesn’t need an external standard to support its claims : « Facts are already normative in the sense that they make certain claims on us, that is, they shape the way we act, think, imagine, and so on, while norms emerge to be factual in the sense that we cannot escape the claims they make »[1]. According to Emden, this attention to scientific practice, to science in the making, is what Nietzsche hints at when he talks of « historical philosophizing »[2]: the philosopher cannot stand outside life, drawing his normative claims from beyond to give them the appearance of eternity – for it is the eternity of metaphysics and faith. This entails however that we are always liable to error and might even hold incompatible views at some point. But this is the fate of any honest researcher of truth.

More specifically, this retrospective illusion of unity in science has also been applied to the discussion of Nietzsche’s relation with Darwin. There are I think two main points in Emden’s criticism here. First, he stresses the fact the we shouldn’t confuse Darwin and Darwinism. That is, we shouldn’t confuse Darwin’s thesis on evolution through the natural selection of living beings, with the more socio-philosophical consequences that some have drawn on this basis, most notably Herbert Spencer (and Darwin himself in some passages of his later works). This is to be considered a dubious extrapolation, which seems to be the main target of Nietzsche’s criticism.

In order then to understand Nietzsche’s position in regard to Darwin’s “purely natural” theses, we must pay attention to a second shortcoming. Namely, that we would regard life sciences in general, and the problem of evolution more specifically, from our own point view, in which the principles of natural selection have been clearly established as the main motives behind natural evolution. In fact, Darwin’s theory was at the time only one theory among other competing theories trying to give an account of a problem – the problem of evolution – that was not only empirical but also deeply rooted in german Naturphilosophie. A synthesis of these theories – mainly natural selection, morphology and cell theory – and the complete rejection of metaphysical vocabulary (“the Spirit of Life”, “the Thinking Principle” …) was yet long to come.

  1. Evolution, teleology and causality

This rejection of metaphysical talk was of course strongly grounded into the critical philosophy of Kant. Precisely, it is grounded in Kant’s critique of teleology and the ascription of purposiveness in nature. According to Kant, purposiveness can be only considered as « … a formal principle, belonging to the observer’s power of judgment, rather than to the objects observed »[3]. This view was at the time widely held among scientists, with an important tweak from the first generation of neo-kantians: the rejection, or at least the downplay of the a priori and of the thing-in-itself, considered as superfluous metaphysical concepts, and the naturalization of Kant’s a priori conditions of cognition. This view, according to Emden, was Nietzsche’s basis in his reading of Kant.

Now, it seems that Darwin’s theory on the evolution of species would fit quite nicely within this framework. Indeed, Darwin seems to get rid of teleology « … by introducing an explanatory model for evolution that is empirically verifiable and conceives of evolution in terms of functions instead of goals »[4]. Functions are understood by Nietzsche as « whatever contributes to the robustness of any given organism in the present: something has a function if it contributes to the preservation, reproduction, and growth of an organism, supporting its overall viability »[5]. By referring to functions instead of goals, one avoids the presupposition of some transcendent principle that guides evolution toward some sort of ideal state, since the ascription of a function to some object only requires that the object has some impact on the present overall situation of the organism.

However, according to Emden, this notion of biological function is still problematic. First, it still pertains to some degree to the teleological discourse, even though it seems to be cleared of its metaphysical undertones. This problem is related to a second issue, concerning Nietzsche’s views on causality. Indeed, it seems that, for Nietzsche, teleology and causality (at least in one sense of causality, cf. infra) are deeply related, as is notably indicated by one of his personal notes: « The belief in causae falls with the belief in a télos (against Spinoza and his causalism) »[6]. His critique of causality would precisely target the kind of reified causality that Spinoza endorses, a causality that belongs to nature as opposed to causality as a formal principle or condition for human knowledge. This again rests on some neo-kantian view of causality as « … a regulative principle … seen as the outcome of our biological organization »[7].

This claim however, doesn’t entail some sort of biological constructivism, according to which our rational claims about the world can be explained by our biological organization. Such an explanation of what causality (as a rational claim about the world) is would itself be of the kind that Nietzsche rejects. Indeed, it seems that Nietzsche distinguishes two senses in which to understand causality. First in the sense of an explanation, which objectifies causality and would be a metaphysical and teleological conception. This conception arises from the experience of the will as causal agent and the I as acting subject[8]. It is rejected because it holds relations of causation to be natural kinds, to be part of nature itself, while they are in fact only principles that make nature intelligible to us, derived from our biological organisation.

  1. Development from and toward

At this point, such considerations seem to entail a strong scepticism about the objective validity of our knowledge of nature. At the very least, they undermine clear teleological claims, that is, claims that explain the actual state of things by referring to some extrinsic or intrinsic goal to be pursued. For instance, the claim that natural evolution is a caused by some drive toward « perfection of structure »[9], and subsequently all the developments of social darwinism. But Nietzsche goes further, since he claims it is an error to ascribe causality to nature itself. How then, can we understand the laws of evolution in nature ?

Emden here introduces the notions of genealogy and path-dependence, and the second sense of causality which is related these notions. He sets out two models of development (or evolution in the broad sense). One is the teleological model of goals which is rejected by Nietzsche. The other is the « path dependent development of patterns and functions »[10]. This model is purely historical: it is only in retrospective that we can understand a development. It entails a counterfactual notion of causality « … which simply states that if an event, practice, or phenomenon in the past had been different, a present event, practice, or phenomenon “would have differed accordingly.” »[11]. In other words, the former model of development is conceived as a development toward a future state, while the latter is merely a development from a past state. This development is in great part the result of pure chance and randomness, even though it isn’t completely arbitrary: we can still establish some laws for the more local processes and variations.

When it comes to the understanding of natural evolution, the path-development model certainly seems to correspond, at least in its outlines, with current biological science. A classical illustration is the evolution of eyes. Eyes were not developed so that we could see (goal teleology). Instead, they are the result of a series of random changes, some of those becoming stable traits of species because they served the interests of the organisms within their environment, that is, they had a biological function. Therefore, sight cannot be said to be the reason for eyes without committing to goal teleology, therefore to unwarranted metaphysics. More generally, the question: “why, for what purpose do we have eyes ?”, is just not a relevant question. A better question would be: “by which processes do they appear in species?”.

These two questions illustrate a further conceptual opposition used by Emden to flesh out the main opposition at work between teleology and path-dependence, goal and function, from and toward: the opposition between explanation and description. We now (finally) find an alternative to the “explicative” model of causation that was criticized earlier. If we cannot explain things by making their so-called causes the reasons for their being, for fear of ascribing to nature some illegitimate purpose, we can still describe the process by which they have come to be.

  1. Values and normativity

According to Emden, the previous developments pertain to the more general problem of normativity, which is the central problem of any naturalistic philosophy, and therefore the main problem to which Nietzsche is confronted. It is stated as such: « How can we obtain an understanding of the sources of normativity without appealing to normativity as a standard separate from the agency, affects, conceptual commitments, and also cells and organs, that make us natural beings? »[12].

Emden is not absolutely clear about what that problem entails. Here is how I understand it. Normativity refers to the fact that we judge our actions, practices, theories… that we attribute them some value (good/bad, right/wrong…). This judgment is supposed (if it wants to hold some normative authority) to be somewhat objective, or at least, not completely arbitrary. Therefore, it needs a standard, a common measure with which to judge the value of different things, to differentiate what is good and bad, right and wrong. There are two traditional options here. One is idealism, in which we assume some transcendent standard, say Ideas, values-in-themselves, independent of their particular application. The other is materialism, in which the standard is to be found in the particular constitution of the evaluating subject, say its biological organization. One can argue this is actually a dilemma, because one option is merely an illusion, while the other can only lead to skepticism about values. Nietzsche’s problem, in that context, would be to find a third way.

Nietzsche’s solution has already been roughly presented as far as epistemic normativity is concerned: our understanding of nature is dependent on our history of natural beings (yet not explained by it). In a similar way, moral norms can neither be explained by our natural history (against darwinism or the more recent sociobiology – more generally against moral anti-realism), nor by appeal to some transcendent objective values (against moral realism). They are historical, but not merely historical: otherwise they wouldn’t have that binding normative force that we ascribe them. The solution draws on the same distinctions previously made, but I won’t get into it, since this would add too much length to an already quite fuzzy paper.

  1. Concluding remarks

With this article I hope I could give you some insight into a very interesting piece of work which introduced me to a completely new approach to Nietzsche and raised countless issues about his interpretation. The book was also an extensive journey into the history of biological science, a topic which I have only slightly grazed in this paper. More generally, it was a compelling and challenging discussion about great philosophical issues, such as the possibility of knowledge and freedom, and our place in the world.


[1] p. 69
[2] p. 69 (HA 1 : 2)
[3] p. 85
[4] p. 92
[5] p. 141
[6] p. 105 (KGW viii/1, 2 [83])
[7] p. 118
[8] see TI « The Four Great Errors »
[9] p. 92 (in Darwin, « On the Origin of Species »)
[10] p. 128
[11] Ibid.
[12] p. 1

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