Is Nietzsche a Latourian?
“While Nietzsche had little to say about the particular goals and practices of the natural sciences, his rejection of universals and absolutes shows a radical deflation of notions of transcendent scientific Truth.” (Shapin 56)
In it’s off-hand manner, this quote illustrates the prevalence of the belief expressed in its first clause – that is, that Nietzsche was essentially unconcerned with the sciences. There are many reasons one might come to this conclusion; after all, Nietzsche never devoted an entire work to the subject, and references to science are sparsely scattered throughout his corpus. Yet the goal of this paper will be to argue that this position could not be further from the truth; Nietzsche has much to say on the topic, and he crafts a number of substantive positions. It is even possible, from his criticism of the subject, to construct a general philosophy of science along Nietzschean lines. All that is necessary, as Nietzsche himself would admit, is a modest effort of interpretation. To conclude this overly brief essay, I will then show that, once such a philosophy has been presented, it shares remarkable affinities with the philosophy of Bruno Latour.
Nietzsche’s Treatment of the Ascetic Ideal
The underlying motives of Nietzsche’s philosophy can be best brought into relief by a condensed examination of Nietzsche’s distinction between the ascetic philosopher and the ascetic priest. In typical Nietzschean fashion, asceticism alone (or “in itself”) is neither a good nor a bad practice. Rather, one must question the fashion in which asceticism is being employed, always relative to a given context. So it must be asked: is the asceticism in question an affirmation of life? A buoyant “Yes” to existence? The “optimum condition for the highest and boldest spirituality” (GM III 7)? Or is it instead a denial of life and a sneering ressentiment? This is the question Nietzsche sets out to answer in the third essay of The Genealogy of Morals, and for anybody who is modestly familiar with his work, the answer is not surprising.
Nietzsche finds that the asceticism of the philosopher – his asceticism, of course – is a source of strength. To cultivate one’s intellect, one’s philosophical taste and style, it is necessary to possess certain things:
Freedom from compulsion, disturbance, noise, from tasks, duties, worries; clear heads; the dance, leap, and flight of ideas; good air, thin, clear, open, dry, like the air of the heights through which all animal being becomes more spiritual and acquires wings. (GM III 8)
In this sense, the philosopher is drawn to asceticism because it offers the best environment in which to pursue philosophical insight. Nietzsche is careful to point out that there is “nothing of ‘virtue’ in this” (GM III 8). His is not an objective moral; it is not asceticism as a goal that all humans must achieve. Rather, the ascetic philosopher sees this practice as something that “affirms his existence and only his existence,” no more and no less (GM III 7).
The asceticism of the priest, on the other hand, is a form of sickness and decay. The priest posits the existence of another world (the heavens), a world more “real” and of somehow higher value than this one. This act devalues this world, reducing it to “mere” appearance. In this guise, asceticism “treats life as a wrong road on which one must finally walk back to the point where it begins” (GM III 11). This asceticism is not a means by which to hone a skill or talent towards its highest exemplification, but is instead asceticism as an ideal “in itself.” As such, it becomes a universal goal; the priest “demands that one go along with him”, unlike the philosopher who claimed asceticism only for himself (GM III 11).
However, one can always ask the following question: why is this a problem? And the answer to this question is what provides the motivating factor for Nietzsche’s broader philosophy. For Nietzsche, the highest goal, the loftiest ideal, is art. As he proclaimed in the Birth of Tragedy, “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified” (BT 5). But Nietzsche’s art is not just any art. In fact, Nietzsche would denote many things as an art that are not normally considered art, while at the same time he would certainly say that most art has no aesthetic value.
In his eyes, to qualify as true art, the work of the artist must express what he calls “life affirmation.” He paraded this notion under different labels at different times, but the essential thrust was always the same. For Nietzsche, the world is a Heraclitean “monster of energy, without beginning, without end… a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many… eternally changing, eternally flooding back” (WP 1067). To be art in a Nietzschean sense, one must express themselves as a part of this flux and change. Whereas the “weak” might see this as a cause for utter despair, that everything we do is fleeting, Nietzsche sees this as a reason for celebration. It is only through the desire to mold and give form to this flux – not in opposition to it, but in full awareness of the ephemeral process and as its fullest expression – that artists can become a part of that eternal change, that they can become “advocates and justifiers of all impermanence” (Z II 2). This is why Nietzsche writes that the “selective and cultivating influence” (i.e. the artistic, aesthetic influence) is “always destructive as well as creative and form-giving” (BGE 61).
The reason, then, that Nietzsche criticizes ascetic priests so harshly is that their withdrawal from the world is a form of metaphysical suicide. The belief in an objective world (a metaphysical world, the heavens) turns the priest away from the real world. Subsequently, any activity within the realm of change and flux becomes devalued, and this results in the diminution of the self. Whereas the philosopher withdraws from the world in order to generate thought and better prepare themselves to write epochal books – books that will influence generations and inspire others to action and even to write yet more books which will inspire others in turn (and in this way mold the world as a sort of Nietzschean artistic act) – the ascetic priest withdraws from the world purely for the sake of withdrawing, not in order to influence it more strongly from another angle. Ascetic priests do not want to give form to a certain part of the world. They do not want “to become a master over something in life,” but to mold and become master over “life itself, over its most profound, powerful, and basic conditions” (GM III 11). This becomes a drive against all other drives, one that turns against itself and ties itself in knots. Thus the highest goal for the ascetic priest, in Nietzsche’s eyes, is the disappearance of the self from the Heraclitean flow and flux of life – in other words, death.
Obviously, this topic is by no means exhausted. There are volumes of books which could be (and have been) written on the subject and many questions to be raised. However, for the purposes of this modest essay, this brusque overview will have to suffice.
Nietzsche and Science
It would be very easy to simply discount Nietzsche as anti-scientific. In the passages where he does discuss science, it is always with what one could comfortably label a “critical tone.” For example, in aphorism twenty-two of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche attacks physicists for inventing the laws of nature and portraying them as though they adhered in the world itself. According to Nietzsche, this is bad philology. “It is no matter of fact, no ‘text,’ but rather only a naively humanitarian emendation and perversion of meaning, with which you make abundant concessions to the democratic instincts of the modern soul!” Not only have physicists, according to Nietzsche, wrongly concluded that natural laws are real and objective entities, they have done so as an appeal to (or as a direct consequence of) the decadent morals of their contemporary culture, a double crime.
Nietzsche then concludes with an illuminating remark, “Supposing that this also is only interpretation – and you will be eager enough to make this objection? – well, so much the better.” Many have taken this to show that Nietzsche is tipping his own hand, that he admits here that his own philosophy is self-contradictory. If Nietzsche criticizes physics for being “mere” interpretation, is it then not true that his own critique is thereby only “mere” interpretation? Yes and no. Nietzsche is not criticizing physics as only being interpretation, but as being bad interpretation. If it had been good interpretation, strong interpretation, Nietzsche would certainly consent. He himself argues that to have meaning a fact must first be interpreted, that “in itself it just stands there, stupid to all eternity” (GM III 7). However, Nietzsche judges the physicists interpretation as weak and unable to correctly diagnose the physicist’s own role in the creation of scientific laws.
In another passage where Nietzsche discusses science, he describes it as an “unconscious, involuntary, hidden, and subterranean ally” of the ascetic ideal, and claims that science and ascetic ideals share a common foundation in the “impoverishment of life” (GM III 25). That is to say that – like the ascetic priests who posit the existence of an objective, moral heaven which serves as the only justification for the imperfect, “fallen” world – scientists posit the existence of an objective, “external” world where scientific laws obtain and contrast it with the bizarre chaos of the world of “mere” appearance. The creation of this other world (for Nietzsche, a non-world) has the same effect on scientists as it does on priests: scientists look to reduce the role of the individual as much as possible to the “pure, will-less, painless, timeless, knowing subject,” to somehow use “an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are proposed to be lacking” (GM III 12). This theoretical disintegration of the self, the paradoxical disappearance of the subject from his or her own activity, lies at the heart of Nietzsche’s critique of science just as it does for his critique of the ascetic priest.
Does this mean that science is necessarily a decadent enterprise? It would be easy to answer in the affirmative, and that does seem to be the first inclination. If science is the hidden ally of the ascetic ideal, obviously Nietzsche would stand against it. But it is not at all clear that this is the case. Remember that before Nietzsche turned to critique the ascetic ideal, he had to specify exactly what kind of asceticism he was discussing. Asceticism, by itself, is meaningless. The crucial point was whether or not asceticism was used in service of life. In the case of the philosopher, Nietzsche found that it was. In the case of the priest, exactly the opposite. Likewise, it seems that science, alone and before interpretation, is meaningless. To be able to determine the value of science, we must be able to ask whose science it is that we are discussing. This leaves open a peculiar possibility: just as there could be a Nietzschean asceticism, there could also be a Nietzschean science.
If we are to take Nietzsche’s remarks concerning science at face value, it seems that he is critiquing science as it is imagined by typical rationalist philosophers of science (though he never mentions any particular scientists or thinkers and only criticizes “science” as some kind of monolithic entity). For these thinkers, science is the search for pure, objective knowledge (about the physical world) for its own sake, and if that is the case then Nietzsche would certainly object to it along the lines outlined above. However, what if science appeared under a different guise? Is there a form science could take so that it would not be decadent or life-negating in Nietzsche’s eyes?
The answer to the question must unequivocally be yes. If the concept of asceticism cannot be life-inhibiting in itself, then neither can science be. But what form would science have to take so that it served life in the ascendant sense? While this question is vast and probably deserving of an entire book, the major features can be discerned rather easily.
First, scientists could not be reduced to passive, objective observers. One of the reasons Nietzsche criticizes science as aiding the ascetic ideal is because, as noted above, it somehow paradoxically removes the individual, with their will and personal investment, from the sphere of his own activity, at least at a theoretical ideal. For Nietzsche, not only is this impossible, but it is not even desirable. Nietzschean scientists would not be indifferent to the science they are performing; they would be involved, invested, and in search of personal gain.
Second, any “truths” provided by such a science would be provisional, fallible, and, most importantly, interpretive. They would not reveal natural law; they would not qualify as objective knowledge or “justified true belief;” and they would certainly not approximate the asymptotic ideal of truth, which Nietzsche would say is directly correlated with the ascetic ideal. Also important, interpretation here does not mean the passive collecting of facts. Interpretation, in Nietzsche, is very much an activity within the world. As Babich notes, “Constructive or creative interpretation must be understood as world-interaction: a direct, manipulative, effective assertion of a perspective” (Babich 232).
Third, it would not in any way reduce the dignity of man, but would rather exalt it. For Nietzsche, science “has at present the object of dissuading man from his former respect for himself, as if this had been nothing but a piece of bizarre conceit” (GM III 25). This can also be seen as a corollary of the first two points; when theorized as the disinterested, disconnected observers of universal natural laws, a scientist could only shrink before the enormity of the facts that overshadowed him; he cannot even see the creativity in his own actions. A Nietzschean science, however, would be the active creation (not discovery) of interpretive laws by invested scientists. Thus the scientist would regain their role and their dignity.
(As an aside, Nietzsche’s inclusion of the words “at present” is telling; it hints that science could be interpreted otherwise, that there is indeed a possibility of a Nietzschean science.)
Fourth, science would not be valued as a goal in itself in the sense of a pure search for knowledge; instead, it would become a means to an end. Asceticism becomes a problem when it ceases being a tool of personal fulfillment (as in the case of philosophers) and is transformed instead into a universal goal (by ascetic priests). Likewise, science for scientists would need to be (just as asceticism for philosophers) no more than a tool which allows them to more strongly influence and manipulate the world, which brings us to the final point.
Fifth, and most importantly, science would need to be a full expression of the chaotic flux that is the world. That is to say, this science would have to be an activity that enacts changes in the world; it must be form-giving in the same sense of Nietzschean art as outlined above. But it would not seek permanence; Nietzschean science would be perfectly aware that all is temporary and changing and would seek to manipulate the world in order to take part in that change, not in opposition to it.
Latour and Science
In Science in Action, Bruno Latour acts as a tour guide of sorts, leading an ambitious “dissenter” along the winding paths and narrow halls of “technoscience.” During this journey, Latour shows us something peculiar: that we must distinguish between what he calls the two faces of Janus, the difference between ready-made-science and science-in-action, if we are to understand how science works. Latour follows technoscience wherever it leads, taking his reader through the tangled web of scientific literature and peer-reviewed journals, through the cluttered laboratories where science is made, and then out and away from the offices of academia into the realms of industry and politicking. In the process, he finds that scientists do not take part in an objective, disinterested pursuit of truth where different theories are posited and debated while nature acts as the final arbiter. Rather, scientists gather allies to fight for their cause, to defend the thesis they are trying to propose. Nature is not the referee at all, but the end result of the settlement of hard-fought controversies (Latour 1988, 99)
In Irreductions, Latour writes that “what we call ‘science’ is made up of a large array of elements whose power we prefer to attribute to a few” (Latour 1987, 213). Even though it was published beforehand, Science in Action could be seen as Latour’s effort to reveal the surprising diversity of these myriad actors that he only hints at in Irreductions. Exploring how science works before controversies are settled, Latour finds “a fantastic increase in the number of elements tied to the fate of a claim – papers, laboratories, new objects, professions, interest groups, non-human allies – so many, indeed, that if one wished to question a fact or bypass an artefact one might be confronted by so many black boxes that it would become an impossible task: the claim is to be borrowed as a matter of fact, and the machine or instrument put to use without further ado” (Latour 1988, 179). The end result of these scientists’ hard work is the creation of such “black boxes”: these can be facts, ideas, and theories, or they can be machines, computers, and technology; all that matters is that they function properly.
No matter how controversial their history, how complex their inner workings, how large the commercial or academic networks that hold them in place, only their input and output count. (Latour 1988, 3)
Of course, there is much more to be said about all the particulars of Science in Action, and it is obviously impossible to condense an entire book into a few paragraphs. However, all that is necessary for the purposes of this essay is to note that, for Latour, science is nowhere near to the pure search for objective knowledge. Instead, it is the communal activity of numerous agents – scientists, among others – working towards the creation of effective black boxes. These “actors” pool various resources of various kinds together, enlisting all types of allies and black boxes to their cause, and then arrange them and fit them together in a certain way so that they “act as one,” as “a unified whole” (Latour, 1988, 131).
This final product, the gelling of the multifarious parts into a single black box, has two effects. First, with all of its constituents forming a stable whole, it is more difficult to open the black box and dissect its various parts. Second, as a corollary, it makes it undesirable do so in the first place. As long as the black box performs its input-output function as it should, it will not be questioned. However, if it does cease to function (or if another black box that relies on it ceases to function), then it may come into question, and it will have to face a “trial of strength”; it will either become stronger or perish. In short, a well-constructed black box performs its function, but more importantly, it resists all but the strongest attempts to dismantle it (for no black box, no matter how stable, is invincible).
“Whatever resists is real” (Latour 1987, 158). This is what Latour claims towards the very outset of Irreductions. “The real is not one thing among others but rather gradients of resistance” (Latour 1987, 159). So, to sum up his view, scientists keep creating their black boxes, their corpuscles and neutrinos, their cathode ray tubes and their Large Hadron Colliders, and among that mess of shape and structure, whatever cannot be broken down and dismantled, wherever there is no one who is strong enough to break the links between the various allies, that is what is most real. That is what remains, what resists.
Latour and Nietzschean Science
One thing that is immediately clear from this once-again-brief analysis of Latour is that it is remarkably congruous with the five features of Nietzschean science as they were outlined above. First, Latour, like Nietzsche, does not see disinterested observers but involved scientists who have motives and personal investments at stake. Second, any facts created through Latourian science, just as for Nietzsche, are provisional, fallible and interpretive in the active, Nietzschean sense. Third, man’s role and dignity in science is no longer diminished in the face of universal and objective law, but rather, scientists can recapture their agency as the creators and manufacturers of science itself. Fourth, the distinction between “pure” and “applied” science is completely dissolved; it is no longer in any way a goal “in itself.” And finally, science, in the creation of black boxes that give a recognizable shape to the world and serve as a foundation for the creation of yet other black boxes, is a form-giving activity in the mold of a Nietzschean art – just like the ascetic philosopher who influences the change and flux of the world through their work.
It seems, however, that this conclusion was too quick, and there is still one glaring problem with this interpretation. That is the fact that Nietzsche’s stance is a normative one, whereas Latour’s seems to be descriptive. To elucidate, Latour argues that we have to distinguish between the two simultaneously talking faces of Janus, that we must take care to note the difference between what scientists say and what scientists do. In fact, Nietzsche argues the same thing, that science is really an interpretive enterprise (in the Nietzschean sense) and that only by denying this aspect does it present itself as approximate knowledge of the objective world (Babich 230).
Nietzsche does not mean to diminish or ridicule the scientific project in its essence, but in its image of itself – that is, if it takes its project (and it does) to offer an account of the objective world by means of its approximative truths. (Babiche 236)
Whereas Nietzsche claims that this is a problem, Latour seems to simply note that this is just the state of affairs. Latour argues, “Scientists say this while all along they are really doing that;” while Nietzsche argues, “Scientists should not say this while all along they are really doing that.”
At least, this image of Latour holds if one restricts the analysis to Science in Action. Even if one turns to Irreductions, it seems that Latour maintains this descriptive stance. He neither condones nor condemns. However, in the last few passages of the work, he does in fact take a normative turn, and this turn does in fact seem to indicate that scientists should not be allowed to continue speaking in one way (“right over might;” “pure science”) and acting in another (“right is a part of might;” “technoscience”).
As soon as “right” is divided from “might,” or “reason” from “force,” right and reason are weakened because we no longer understand their weaknesses, and we steal the only way of becoming just and reasonable that is available to those who are scorned. These two losses leave the field free for the wicked. I call this a crime, the only one that we will need in this essay. (Latour 1987, 233)
To oppose right and might is criminal because it leaves the field free for the wicked while pretending to defend it with the potency of what is right. But what is right is without force except “in principle.” And so, being unable to ensure that what is right is strong, people have acted as though what was strong was wicked. The strong have simply occupied the space left vacant by those who despise them in all innocence. (Latour 1987, 234)
The truly astonishing part is that this is essentially Nietzsche’s critique of ressentiment, but aimed towards science instead of morality! The advocates of right and reason have deprived themselves of the use of all other forms of force; theirs is a force that operates only “in principle.” Without recourse to other forms of influence, they labeled the strong “the wicked” – just as the weak look up at the noble and label them evil in Nietzsche’s account of ressentiment. Latour notes that this actually weakens those who utilize “pure reason,” because it strips them of any way to defend themselves from other kinds of force. Therefore, it is not exactly correct to say that Latour’s philosophy of science is not normative. In fact, it is ultimately normative, and along Nietzschean lines.
When Nietzsche criticizes scientists for their faith in universal laws, he conjures up an image of an alternative viewpoint,
Somebody might come along who, with opposite intentions and modes of interpretation, could read out of the same “nature,” and with regard to the same phenomena, rather the tyrannically inconsiderate and relentless enforcement of claims of power – an interpreter who would picture the unexceptional and unconditional aspects of all “will to power” so vividly that almost every word, even the word ‘tyranny’ itself, would eventually seem unsuitable, or a weakening and attenuating metaphor – being too human – but he might, nevertheless, end by asserting the same about this world as you do, namely, that it has a ‘necessary’ and ‘calculable’ course, not because laws obtain in it, but because they are absolutely lacking (BGE 22).
This description rings eerily familiar, given the striking parallels we have noted.
Note: Because page numbers vary widely across different editions and translations, Nietzsche’s works are referred to by title abbreviations and section numbers rather than traditional names and page numbers in MLA style. AC is The Antichrist, BGE is Beyond Good and Evil, BT is The Birth of Tragedy, GM is On the Genealogy of Morals, Z is Thus Spoke Zarathustra, WP is The Will To Power.
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