Perspectival explanation

We are left with unfortunately little direct evidence to decipher how Nietzsche could maintain the meaningfulness of his anti-realist historiographical accounts while simultaneously offering a devastating critique of their capacity to represent a real past beyond the passages we’ve already analyzed. My strategy for the rest of this book is to first explicate precisely what Nietzsche’s theory was in this section and then in Chapters 6 and 7 to show how his most famous later historiographical works - Die Genealogie der Moral and Ecce homo - exemplify this theory. If I am successful, I will show how both those works convey the meaning Nietzsche wishes without having their efficacy depend upon their correspondence with a real past. This meta-historical framework I label ‘perspectival explanation.’[1]

“Presuming that our world of desires [Begierden] and passions [Leidenschaften] is the only thing ‘given’ to us as real, that we cannot go up or down to any ‘reality’ other than the reality of our drives [Triebe] - since thinking is only a relation of these drives to one another.”[2] The world, our only reality, is nothing more or less than the sum of perspectives on it, which is to say the sum of the dynamic conglomeration of physiologically centered drives.[3] “[T]he ‘world’ is only a word for the collective play [Gesammtspiel] of these actions.”[4] Given this understanding of reality, perspectivism is the doctrine “according to which every center of force - and not only the human being - construes the whole rest of the world from itself, i.e., measures, touches, forms, according to its own force.”[5] Now, if these drive-based perspectives constitute both the way in which the world is seen and the only way that it can be seen by a particular agent ‘x,’[6] - “bound according to the logic of its consciousness-perspectivism”[7] - then the perspective ‘P’ indicates what the world means for agent ‘x.’ Thus let P(x) express the sphere of meaning for the world in which ‘x’ resides at any given moment. Everything that is the case for ‘x’ is represented by ‘P,’ though this by no means makes any claim about what is the case independent of P(x).133 We must identify particular behaviors of agent ‘x’ simultaneously in two ways, then: first, in the way ‘x’ herself identifies her actions through P(x); and, second, how we - as agent ‘y’ - identify how ‘x’s’ account of P(x) appears through P(y), thus P(P[x])y. This is no more complicated than the proposition, “it sounds like Jane saw something,” when we acknowledge that ‘it sounds’ can only mean ‘it sounds to me as if’ and that ‘Jane saw something’ means ‘Jane reports her mental states as if,’ both under their respective perspectives. The proposition is a truth-value bearing naturalistically verifiable claim about Jane’s experience and my experience of Jane’s experience. But it is no statement about the truth of the world independent ofthose two perspectives. The proposition acknowledges that my experience is derived from the framework of meaning in which I operate, P(y), and that to make an intersubjective claim about the experience of another requires the admission of both the perspectival character of her original claim, P(x), and the perspectival character of my interpretation of P(x), thus P(P[x])y.

Precisely the same strategy is necessary for a perspectival explanation of an historical event or agency. Whether it actually is the case that Caesar crossed the Rubicon because ofpride, greed, avarice, or bloodlust cannot be adjudicated by appeal to representational realist strategies due to Nietzsche’s rejection of traditional motivational explanations. Moreover, it is a question that has no meaning outside of the perspective in which it is understood and therefore not possible to answer apart from the perspective of the one trying to explain the event. While each ascription is a naturalist claim, it is nonetheless an interpolation on the historian’s part - a grafting upon the bare chronicle of events an explanatory story. What is meant by each of these explanatory terms independent of any possible subjective agency is an absurd question, for Nietzsche, as absurd as asking about reality in-itself were we to ‘cut off the head.’ Events and their traces within evidence mean what they mean only because of the interpretive activity of a particular perspective and therefore can only serve as an explanation for an agent who shares at least minimally in the framework of that perspective, that is, of that ‘type’ with which the historian shares his framework of meaningfulness. If the historian represents Caesar’s actions as the result of, say, bloodlust, then let us call that P(h). Presuming the historian did not pull that hypothesis out of thin air, let us say that he was referencing some source from late antiquity P(s) that had been drawn from the now lost diary of one of his lieutenants, P(l), as well as the written words of Caesar himself about the same incident P(c). We thus denote this historian’s explanation of Caesar’s actions as P((P (P[l])[s] • P[c]))(h). The perspectival explanation of the historian is meaningful to him on the basis of evidence from two embedded perspectival sources, the one from the late-antique source and from Caesar, the former of which is further embedded in the perspective of the lieutenant.

Yet this explanation proves nothing whatsoever about the actual motives that may have led Caesar to cross the Rubicon. Even should one ignore the obvious selectivity involved in affixing a single necessary cause for such an over-determined event, the term “bloodlust,” considered independently of (h), (s), (l), and (c), fails to explain why the actual events occurred as they did; it fails to correspond to the ‘real facts’ of history since it will, as discussed above, run into the singularity and opacity objections. It nevertheless illustrates something crucial about both the historian whose explanation it was P(h), Caesar P(c), the account of late antiquity P(s), the lieutenant P(l), and in fact any readers that accept the explanation as valid. Their acceptance indicates that there is at least one shared element in their world of meaning - in this case the way what is named ‘bloodlust’ contributes to aggressive actions - such that the explanation can dissolve to their satisfaction and to the satisfaction of any agents whose Ps overlap in that respect what was formerly unknown (Caesar’s action) into what is believed to be known (the effects of bloodlust).[8]

This, Nietzsche himself declares, is what a historical explanation really does. “Historical explanation is a reduction to a succession that we are accustomed to [ein uns gewohntes Aufeinander]: through analogy.”135 To a positivist, such a perspectival explanation would demonstrate precisely nothing about the real world since for them one cannot claim to ‘know’ that which can never be demonstrated. But this affect of an explanation is nevertheless just what Nietzsche labels ‘knowing’ in his peculiar sense: “The known [Das Bekannte]: i.e., what we are accustomed to [das woran wir gewohnt sind], so that we no longer wonder about it, the everyday, any kind of rule to which we are habituated, all and everything in which we know [wissen] ourselves to be at home.”136 In place of the compulsion of logic, Nietzsche claims that in fact a certain satisfaction is attained when we order a phenomenon previously unfamiliar to us under what we feel is familiar. The result of this feeling, rather than of some proof, is what we tend to label ‘knowing.’ “[T]he first representation [Vorstellung] that can explain the unfamiliar in familiar terms [das Unbekannte als bekannt erklart] feels good enough to be ‘taken as true.’ Proof of pleasure (‘strength’) as the criterion of truth.”137 This is especially true of history, for “[h]istory wants to overcome the strange [das Befremden uberwinden],” rather than demonstrate a single absolute interpretation, turning every unfamiliar phenomenon into an “Alt-Bekannt.”138 The pleasure we feel by having explained away the unfamiliar is the physiognomic award for an increase of power. “Here the sudden feeling of power that an idea arouses in its originator is everywhere accounted proof of its value: - and since one knows no way of honoring an idea other than by calling it ‘true’ - How else could it be so effective?”139 An anti-realist representation is convincing, then, because such an intra-perspectival familiarity with an explanation satisfies our desire for familiarity with a previously unknown phenomenon.

The occurrence of revolutions, for example, is explained by reference to the repression of the lower classes - as if there is a simple and general phenomenon called the ‘lower classes,’ as if that simple and universal

right about Nietzsche, then his version has an advantage over Ankersmit’s in two key respects. First, Ankersmit holds a naive view of subjectivity that fails to account for the physiognomic factors within account construction and adjudication. Second, Ankersmit’s view is burdened by a seemingly willy- nilly choice among whatever historical interpretations strike their aesthetic fancies or agree with their political views. Historians themselves seem far more entrenched in their perspectives, as Nietzsche maintains, than such arbitrary choices would suggest. The appeal of an historical account concerns more than one’s political leanings.

  • 135 NFApril-June 1885, 34[55]; KSA 11, 438. 136 FW355; KSA 3, 594.
  • 137 GD “Irrthumer,” 5; KSA 6, 93. 138 NF fall 1878, 32[21]; KSA 8, 563.
  • 139 NF spring 1888, 14157]; KSA 13, 245. See also FW 355; KSA 3, 594. For a useful discussion of interpretation adjudication, see Larmore (2004), I72ff.

phenomenon always has transparent motivation called ‘repression,’ which the trained historian can somehow decipher and apply to the universal phenomenon ‘revolution.’ The singularity of historical cases and the opacity of mental states would each preclude the possibility of an adequate explanation under this sort of Hempelian positivist rubric. Under Nietzsche’s perspectival model, however, such an explanation would satisfy the inquirer were he or she empathetically familiar with that proximate and abbreviated symbol ‘repression’ and thereafter feel well pleased that the situation is sufficiently understood. That feeling of conviction in no way magically makes true the explanation of events from which that feeling arose in the correspondential sense.[9] Then again, the correspondential adequacy of an interpretation is not the issue for an anti-realist perspectival explanation; the question is simply no longer whether the explanation reflects the character of reality or correctly orders a particular instance under a universal law, but whether and how widely it strikes others who share in that perspectival world as convincing.[10] Nietzsche has effectively changed explaining ‘why’ into ‘explaining for whom.’

Explanation is thus not a proof by logical deduction, but a psychological expression of what the drives that constitute the subjectivity of a particular historian are already disposed to accept.[11] Nietzsche writes in the Gotzen- Dammerung.

That something already known [Bekanntes], experienced, written into memory, is selected as the cause is the first consequence of this requirement. The new, the unexperienced [Unerlebte], the strange, will be precluded as the cause. So we are not looking for just any type of explanation of the cause, we are looking for a chosen, preferred type of explanation, one that will most quickly and reliably displace the feeling of unfamiliarity and novelty, the feeling that we are dealing with something we have never encountered before - the most accustomed explanation [gewdhnlichsten Erklarungen]. Consequence: a certain type of causal attribution becomes increasingly prevalent, concentrates itself into a system, and finally emerges as dominant, i.e., it simply precludes other causes and explanations. The banker thinks immediately of his "business,” the Christian of "sin,” the girl of her love.[12]

Irrespective of the inherent logical problems, most people, or at least the people convinced by the majority of historical explanations, presume the validity of deducing particular historical events from general laws. Most people believe Lee surrendered honorably at Appomattox courthouse because that is how honorable generals generally act when faced with exhausted troops and insurmountable odds of victory. However, what was genuinely in his mind that caused him to sign the surrender is nevertheless forever indemonstrable. The historian, like everyone else, seeks these preferred causes according to his or her perspective and the audience who judges the cogency of the explanation seeks similar causes regardless of whether such causes demonstrate anything about the actual state of things. Rather than excising the subject for the sake of some supposedly unbiased demonstration, perspectival explanation relies precisely on the fact that historical judgment is constituted by given forms of subjectivity, by affects that distort the character of reality in a particular way. But because the various types of historians share at least some common framework of distortion, their subjective distortions themselves allow them to come to a psychological agreement about the case in question, even ifnever a universal dictum that all must agree upon. Given our earlier definition, such explanations would be labeled ‘objective’ within their typological framework of judgment.

If Nietzsche’s theory sounds strange, it will perhaps do to show that a less rhetorical version was proposed by a major philosopher of history of the twentieth century, W. H. Walsh. He, too, denied that Hempelian deduction could demonstrate what it set out to do because of the inherent particularity of historical events and agents. And, alongside Collingwood and Oakeshott, he too denied that historiography should even be in the business of trying to mimic the natural sciences. History is not a predictive science, but a ‘colligation’ of explanatory terms intended to render known what had previously been unknown.

What we want from historians is [...] an account which brings out their connections and bearing one on another. And when historians are in a position to give such an account it may be said that they have succeeded in ‘making sense of or ‘understanding’ their material. [. ..] To explain is to render intelligible; it is to find meaning and point in material initially not seen to have meaning and point.[13]

Walsh had sufficient psychological sophistication to realize that people are convinced by all sorts of claims they cannot demonstrate, and that the measure of acceptance is more typically the extent to which an explanation fits within their existing worldview. As for trying to ‘prove’ by way of deduction, writes Walsh, “argument is futile” - “perspective theory would accept the existence of irreducibly different points of view among historians.”[14] Although Walsh was indifferent to the physiognomic constituencies of judgment,146 both he and Nietzsche consider explanation in terms of its psychological interrelation with the perspective of the particular reader to whom it is addressed.

In contrast to interpreters like Iggers and Gossman who claim that Nietzsche just ‘hated' history, then, I have shown here that Nietzsche does have serious epistemological and ontological critiques of then-popular forms of historiography that stand alongside his better-known complaints about its cultural consequences, critiques that in some respects anticipate twentieth-century philosophy of history. More than that, I have tried to show here that Nietzsche also had an affirmative theory about what historiography can in fact be. But if I am right about attributing to Nietzsche both a representational anti-realist theory of historical judgment and a perspectival theory of explanation, then a new problem arises. What would differentiate these anti-realist perspectival explanations from mere stories? Mere rhetorical fictions? “Die Geschichte,” Nietzsche himself says, “ist eine Vermeintlichkeit [supposition] - nichts miehr.”147 If we are under no logical compulsion to accept the validity of historical arguments and are only convinced because of some psychologically predisposed suppositions, then isn't their value merely relative to the agents who happen to share in a particularly well-predisposed type? Is Nietzsche, in other words, an historical relativist?

  • [1] The literature on Nietzsche’s theory of perspectivism is massive. Among the more comprehensivecontextualized interpretations, see Schrift (1990) and Figal (2000).
  • [2] JGB 36; KSA 5, 54. See also FW374; KSA 3, 626.
  • [3] This is the meaning, I suggest, of Nietzsche’s enigmatic claim that “the perspectival ... is thefundamental condition of all life.” JGB Vorrede; KSA 5, 12. See also NF spring 1888, 14 [184]; KSA13, 370ff: “The apparent world, i.e., a world that is viewed according to values, ordered, and selectedaccording to values . .. The perspectival therefore provides the character of ‘what can appear’! As if aworld would be left over if one did away with the perspectival! .. . Every center of force adopts aperspective toward the entire remainder, i.e., its own particular valuation, its mode of action, andmode of resistance. The ‘apparent world’ [ scheinbare Welt] reduces itself to its specific action on theworld.” See also NF spring 1880—spring 1881, 10 [100]; KSA 9, 438: “a thing is a sum of excitationswithin us: however, since we are nothing fixed, a thing is also not a fixed sum.
  • [4] NFspring 1888, 14^84]; KSA 13, 371.
  • [5] NF spring 1888, I4[i86]; KSA 13, 373. For passages where Nietzsche articulates the limits of meaningfulness as a function of perspective, see, for examples, JGB 2, 6, and 14.
  • [6] Cf. MaM 1, 9; KSA 2, 29. See also JGB 11 and 14. 132 NF spring 1888, I4[i86]; KSA 13, 373.
  • [7] 133 See also NFApril-June 1885, 34^34]; KSA 11, 465.
  • [8] In this respect my attribution of anti-realist representationalism to Nietzsche is close to the popularcontemporary account of Frank Ankersmit. “[Historical theorists who .. . will explain to us howhistorical narrative and historical reality are or should be related to each other are like philistines whotry to explain artistic merit in terms of photographic precision. In both cases the merits of relevanceand importance are sacrificed to those of precision and accuracy.” Ankersmit (2001), 82. Yet if I am
  • [9] Cf. Anderson (2005), 186—187, 191—192. Anderson discredits this sense of familiarity on evidencefrom passages like JGB 39; KSA 5, 56: “Nobody is very likely to consider a doctrine true merelybecause it makes people happy or virtuous .. . Happiness and virtue are no arguments.” The contextof this passage is the religious feeling of conviction wherein the pleasant feeling associated withholding a certain faith is allegedly supposed to guarantee the truth, in the correspondential sense, ofthat view. Nietzsche certainly does deny this version of realism. But this is a non-issue for the antirealism I attribute to Nietzsche, since the truth of the representation is in no way tied to itscorrespondence to some independent world. What Nietzsche is more concerned with is thepsychology of the conviction a person has when the unfamiliar is made familiar. And in that respect,familiarity — being accustomed to a judgment — works psychologically to convince, if not to prove. Idiscuss this further in my last chapter.
  • [10] Cf. vanTongeren (2000), 141.
  • [11] In this, my interpretation of the justification of a perspectival explanation is similar to that of Leiter’sas concerns genealogy generally. Nietzsche is not trying to logically demonstrate a dogmatic truth,but to appeal, “to those who share Nietzsche’s evaluative taste, those for whom no justification wouldbe required: those who are simply ‘made for it,’ ‘whose ears are related to ours,’ who are ‘predisposedand predestined’ for Nietzsche’s insights.” Leiter (2002), 150. For a critique of Leiter’s position seeOwen (2007), 132—134.
  • [12] GD "Irrthumer,” 5; KSA 6, 93.
  • [13] Walsh (1959), 299. 2 Walsh (1951), 109. 146 See also Walsh (1942), 128—143.
  • [14] 147 NF spring 1880—spring 1881,10^93]; KSA 9, 435.
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