Perspectival value and historiographical relativism

Nietzsche’s opposition to the universality and objectivity of ascetic scientific historiography found a sympathetic audience among postmodern philosophers and historians.87 Said briefly, postmodern historiography counsels the disintegration of absolute interpretations and inculcates disobedience toward inherited cultural norms. The similarity to Nietzsche’s historiography is apparent. Like Nietzsche, the postmodernists deny the cogency of ascribing ‘laws’ to history and of hoping for a subject-free ‘objective’ description of events. Like Nietzsche, they see scientific historiography’s attempt to present things of the past as they really were and the teleologists’ attempt to adduce the necessary progressive course of history as masks of various human, all-too-human projects.88 And like Nietzsche - in fact, directly following Nietzsche - they reject any ‘one-size-fits-all’ universalist story about the past in deference to “perspectival” or “standpoint” accounts. Nietzsche is very much the precursor to Jean-Frarnjois Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism as “incredulity” toward the single, absolute, all-defining, all-encompassing “meta-narrative.”89 Irrespective of the indelible influence, I think it a mistake to attribute the entire postmodern view of historiography to Nietzsche himself. The most important difference is that, while Nietzsche denies the absolute status of both historiographical descriptions

  • 87
  • 88

I will provide more detail about that influence in the epilogue.

For a fine outline of the evidence between what he calls the falsificationist ‘deniers’ and the truthsupporting ‘common-sensers,’ see Anderson (2005), i85ff. For a treatment of relativism and perspec- tivism specifically in historiography, see especially Born (2010), 236-253.

See Lyotard (1984), xxiv. For an analysis of Lyotard’s relationship to Nietzsche, see Dews (1988), 164—176.

and explanations, he is not a relativist about the value of competing interpretations of historical events.

To illustrate, consider the postmodern adoption of Nietzsche by the most famous contemporary historical theorist, Hayden White. In his now- classic Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), White claims Nietzsche denied that there can be a single historical account that perfectly corresponds to events as they had actually been since all historical judgments falsify the genuine nature of that which they allegedly represent. “To [...] these essentially constrictive conceptions of truth, Nietzsche opposed his own conception of the relativity of every vision of the real.”[1] White begins his argument with a critique of the by-now- familiar positivist theory of explanation and description. Explanations cannot be a matter ofdeduction-under-covering-law, but stand as narratives that bring together various descriptions in meaningful ways. “For it is by figuration that the historian virtually constitutes the subject of the discourse; his explanation is little more than a formalized projection of qualities assigned to the subject in his original figuration of it.”[2] Whether one is a Marxist or a Christian and sees the historical processes as beholden to those patterns, whether one sees ‘tragedy’ or ‘comedy’ as the most edifying story to tell, for White, is a matter ofchoice. All judgments are theory-laden, but whichever theory overlays the judgment is up to the judge; and because of that, the value of every judgment is relative to the judge.92 In a note from 1878, Nietzsche seems to confirm precisely this value relativism: “My way of reporting historical material is actually that I tell about my own experiences [Erlebnisse] with regard to past times and men. Nothing systematic [Zusammenhangendes]: a single thing has emerged for me, nothing more.”93

But Nietzsche’s perspectivism runs much deeper than the level of ideological worldviews or even linguistic conveniences. The explanatory structures placed upon the world, whether scientific or religious, naturalistic or teleological, are not, for Nietzsche, a simple matter of choice - a “little black dress” among “all the costumes of history”94 - but the result of vastly complicated physiognomic and psychological developments over history which result in more or less coagulated ‘perspectives.’ White’s philosophy shows no awareness of this physiognomic substructure. For him, convictions are choices. For Nietzsche, “[o]ur most sacred convictions, unchangeable in regard to our supreme values, are judgments [Urtheile] of our muscles.”95 Beliefs about the past are not simply informed by the psychophysiognomic substrate, in the sense that a bias or prejudice would inform and color the judgment that we, as judges, ultimately decided to make. Beliefs reflect externalizations of particular historically inculcated affects of that substrate, which of themselves not only color but constitute judgment.96 There is no deliberative ‘self,’ for Nietzsche, which remains independent of those judgments. Because of this, there can be no decision about how the historian ‘would like’ to characterize history, any more than the eye can choose the rate at which it ‘would like’ to process images. In both cases, “the perspectival therefore renders the character of ‘what can appear’ [‘Scheznbarkezt’]!”97

Pushing back an interpretive choice to the level of a psychological substrate that determines judgments at a subconscious level would indicate that historical judgment is not arbitrary. But it would not prove, a postmodern interpreter like White might argue further, that the value of the judgment issued is any less relative to the perspective of the historian. And since we are left with a subjective interpretation even at this level, the value of an interpretation is still relative to that subject. Though a more considerate portrayal ofNietzsche’s position, this, too, is wrong-headed. Were interpretations evaluated solely with respect to their correspondence with a detached past ‘reality,’ this would present a problem. But, for Nietzsche, even if judgments about the past may not aspire to correspondential truth, and therefore may not be evaluated according to traditional standards like empirical evidence or multiple witnesses, this hardly entails that there are no criteria by which to adjudicate them.98 And Nietzsche is both clear and consistent about which interpretations are ‘better’ than others. He writes, “The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment; in this respect our new language may sound strangest. The question is to what extent it is life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating.”99 He repeats, “The strength of conceptions does not, therefore, depend upon their degree of truth, but on their [...] character as conditions of life.”100 [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

Nietzsche, as scholars have argued, has a quasi-pragmatic theory of true description.[8] This is not to say he accepts the pragmatists’ own criteria of truth as usefulness or worldly success; on the contrary, Nietzsche finds the utilitarian aspects of truth quite distasteful. Interpretations of history are judged in terms of their conduciveness to ‘health,’ whether an interpretation is life-enhancing or life-enervating to the individual, culture, and ultimately species in which it arose. “We need [history] for the sake of life and of action, not so as to turn comfortably away from life and action, let alone for the purpose of extenuating the self-seeking life and the base and cowardly action. Only insofar as history serves life, do we serve it.”[9] Our fourth chapter was devoted to Nietzsche’s critiques ofsome interpreters and praises of others with respect to whether they were ‘strong’ in this sense, which of course would not be possible if history was, in the words of postmodern meta-historian Keith Jenkins, just “one more ‘expression’ in a world of postmodern expressions.”103 Contrast this to Nietzsche: “And so let my proposition be understood and pondered: history can be borne only by strong personalities, weak ones are utterly extinguished by it.”104 The Sach-and Sprach-philological, the critical, antiquarian, and monumental, the teleological, the positivistic, the Judeo-Christian, the Darwinian - none of these interpretations of historical events were considered false either because they fail to correspond to a past in-itself, which is impossible, or else because they involve subjective factors, which all interpretations do anyway. Such interpretations are more typically labeled ‘hostile to life’ by Nietzsche because they involve strategies that cannot propel the power-interests of the interpreters who issued them and indeed fail to recognize that historiography itself is an expression of power. So while the value of an interpretation is delimited by the perspective-overlap of the interpreter and audience, the reality of these perspectives’ power-aims is neither something chosen nor equivocal.

Nietzsche’s own genealogical method, as we have shown throughout this chapter, is just such an attempt to write historiography honestly insofar as it acknowledges its interpretive rather than absolute status, recognizes that subjective power aims rather than a selfless objectivity lie behind its own interpretations, and that its compelling force involves no logical demonstration but an appeal to the perspectival spheres of meaning of its audience. Nietzsche believes his historiography is preferential insofar as it aims neither at absolute truth nor at simply telling one story among many, but as expressing life as will to power. In fact, for Nietzsche, to believe that one’s own perspective, the result of one’s own determinate conglomeration of physiognomically embattled drives, is no better than any other’s, as the postmodern holds, is to deny life - “to castrate the intellect.”[10] Imagining one’s interpretation to be on par with others amounts to the will to negate life, “the principle of disintegration and decay”; life itself is an “imposition [Aufzwangung] of your own form.”[11]

Nietzsche is thus quite far removed from the interpretive value-relativism Hayden White and other postmodern interpreters ascribe to him, despite their shared view about the historian’s structure-imposing activity and impossibility of a single correct account of the past. Nietzsche’s Genealogie simply does not “represent a repudiation of the efforts both to explain history and to emplot it as a drama with any general meaning.”[12] It is not simply one narrative among others.[13] It is structurally an anti-realist representation of the past as it appears in symbols through his perspective and an attempt to convince other like-typed perspectives of its truth by means of making familiar previously unfamiliar phenomena.

  • [1] H. White (1973), 332. 2 H. White (1975), 54. 92 See also Ankersmit (2009), 206.
  • [2] 93 NF summer 1878, 30 [60]; KSA 8, 532. 94 The especially apt image is Shapiro’s (2003), 124-126.
  • [3] NFspring 1888, i5[ii8]; KSA 13, 480.
  • [4] A similar position is presented in Janaway (2007), 47.1 am of the impression, however, that Janawayexaggerates the extent to which the drives are socially conditioned. No doubt many are; but many,for examples, the compulsion of logic, the drives which abbreviate and symbolize our experience, orthe drive for truth, seem to be either innate or at least ingrained at a pre-social level over vast spansof history. Cf. JGB 20; KSA 5, 34. See also Anderson (1999), 47—59; Green (2002), i6iff; Baumgartner(2005), 69—77; Dries (2008a), i0ff.
  • [5] NF spring 1888, 14 [184]; KSA 13, 371.
  • [6] Several recent papers have demonstrated this point thoroughly. Among them see Gemes (1992), 47—65; Leiter (1994), 334—357; Poellner (2001), 85—117.
  • [7] JGB, 4; KSA 5,18. 100 Cf. FW110; KSA 3, 469.
  • [8] See Gemes (1992), 56; Danto (1965), 72, 79—80, 130; Rorty (1982), 205. For a pragmatic view ofadjudication combined with an analysis of historical judgment, see Katrin Meyer (1998), 126—128.
  • [9] HL Vorwort; KSA 1, 245. 103 Jenkins (1995), 9. 104 HL 5; KSA 1, 283.
  • [10] GM ill, 12; KSA 5, 365. See also Richardson (1996), 23ft 106 JGB 259; KSA 5, 207.
  • [11] 107 H. White (1973), 373.
  • [12] 108 My general conclusion here stands close to that of Shapiro (1989), 12. I also interpret Nietzsche’sclaims as a middle-ground between dogmatism and anti-logocentrism, though I suspect he leansmore closely to the latter pole than I do. However insightful I find Shapiro’s reading, I think hisarguments are problematic. First, it is ambiguous what Shapiro means by ‘narrative,’ ‘narration,’ or‘narratology.’ Sometimes these refer minimally to an ‘account,’ when that is taken to mean anypropositional content about a topic. In this loose sense, everything Nietzsche says can be considereda narration, which renders the concept uninformative. In contemporary historiography narration ismore typically considered the antithesis of explanation, as a story among other stories that has nospecial claim to either increasing our knowledge or inherent preferability. See, for example, H. White(i978), 82. In this technical sense, I have argued that Nietzsche is not a narrativist historian sincerepresentational anti-realists do not simply ‘invent’ their accounts; they presume there is a real past,but do not presume that the representation corresponds to it. Second, contrary to Shapiro, not all ofNietzsche’s forms of historiographical representation are identical. Nietzsche himself was careful tolabel his various kinds of writings: ‘Betrachtung, ‘ Genealogie,’ etc. Third, Shapiro consistently resistsa developmental account of Nietzsche’s thought, since that in some way ‘privileges’ the authorialvoice. But if our own reconstruction of Nietzsche’s philosophy of history has proven anything, it ishow substantially his views changed over time. Fourth, because he rejects the development ofNietzsche’s thought, Shapiro feels entitled to concentrate almost exclusively on Also sprach
  • [13] Zarathustra, Der Antichrist, and Ecce homo, while downplaying Nietzsche’s less literary accountsand ignoring his philology. But concentrating on the three most literary works while maintaining athesis about their author’s narrativity skews the evidence in his favor.
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