Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Abbey, Franco, and Johnson on Nietzsche's Middle Period

I have written a long series of posts defending the writings of Nietzsche's middle period as superior to his early and late writings, and I have argued that the strength of those middle writings depends largely on Nietzsche's embrace of Darwinian science.  As I have indicated, my thinking here has been much influenced by Lou Salomé's argument that the scientific skepticism of Nietzsche's middle writings is free from the delusional Dionysian longings that ruin his early and late writings.  I agree with Salomé about this, although I stress more than she did the Darwinian character of the science that Nietzsche adopted in his middle period.

In recent years, some scholars have given some attention to Nietzsche's middle period, but none of them have properly responded to Salomé's account.  Here I will briefly comment on three of them--Ruth Abbey, Paul Franco, and Dirk Johnson.

Abbey's Nietzsche's Middle Period (Oxford University Press, 2000) revives Salomé's position in presenting Nietzsche's middle writings as the most defensible of his writings, because these middle writings are free from the extremism of his other writings, and it was this extremism that was so easily appropriated by the Nazis.  Abbey recognizes that this division of Nietzsche's writing into early, middle, and late originated with Salomé, but Abbey is silent about Salomé's argument that the early and late writings were ruined by an unscientific religious longing.

Abbey recognizes that Nietzsche in his middle period appeals again and again to the natural sciences, but she doesn't see very clearly the specific influence of Darwinian science (coming through Paul Rée and others) (17, 145-46).  She sees five general themes running throughout the middle period: genealogy, naturalism, rationalism, custom, and community life.  But she does not see how all of these themes were shaped by Darwinian science, particularly as coming from Darwin's Descent of Man.  Although she recognizes Nietzsche's preoccupation with the "evolution of morality," she doesn't consider the Darwinian origins of this concern.  This is more than just a minor scholarly quibble, because if one sees the Darwinian foundation of Nietzsche's middle period, then one can see the possibility that Nietzsche's thinking from this period might be open to verification or falsification by contemporary Darwinian science.

In contrast to Abbey's argument for setting Nietzsche's middle writings apart from, and above, his early and later writings, Franco--in Nietzsche's Enlightenment: The Free-Spirit Trilogy of the Middle Period (University of Chicago Press, 2011)--claims that the middle writings are part of a continuous development of Nietzsche's thought with no sharp breaks or contradictions. 

Oddly enough, Franco ignores Salomé's reading of Nietzsche, but Franco does quote from Nietzsche's remarks to Salomé about how his completion of Book 5 of The Gay Science represented a break from the "free spirit" of his middle writings.  Franco dismisses these explicit statements of a sharp break in his intellectual development by saying: "Nietzsche no doubt simplifies his philosophical development here, exaggerating the break between his free-spirit writings and the emerging outlook of his later writings" (161). 

Franco also ignores the many places in Nietzsche's middle writings where he explicitly rejects the teachings that emerge in his later writings--the Ubermensch, will to power, eternal recurrence, and Dionysian intoxication.  Franco does admit, however, that the artist-philosopher of Nietzsche's late writings uses religion in a way that "sharply differentiates" him from the free spirit of the middle period (188, 216-17).  Franco also passes over the distinctive endorsement of liberal politics in Nietzsche's middle period, although he admits that what Nietzsche says in Human, All Too Human "sounds almost liberal" (192). 

Unlike Abbey, Franco does recognize the importance of Darwinian science for Nietzsche's middle period (31, 60-63).  But then he doesn't reflect on the fact that the teachings of the later Nietzsche have no grounding in empirical science.  Franco observes: "Unfortunately, Nietzsche's attempts to scientifically prove the eternal recurrence as a cosmological theory all seem to fail" (159).  But then he moves on without any further thought about the oddly fictional if not delusional character of Nietzsche's teachings in his later writings.

In Nietzsche's Anti-Darwinism (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Dirk Johnson gives more attention to Darwinism in Nietzsche's writings than do Abbey or Franco.  But whereas Abbey defends Nietzsche's middle writings as superior to his later writings, Johnson dismisses this in one sentence: "I am skeptical of her negative assessment regarding the final period" (2).  Beyond that one sentence, he never directly responds to Abbey--or to Salomé.

Johnson likes the Nietzsche of the later writings, but he doesn't like Darwin or naturalistic morality.  So he defends the anti-Darwinism of the later Nietzsche, and he tries to show that even in his middle period, Nietzsche is departing from Darwin.  To do this, he makes some strange arguments.  For example, he claims that when Nietzsche rejected a sharp dichotomy between "altruism" and "egoism," he was attacking an idea that was fundamental for Darwin.  But Johnson doesn't mention the fact that Darwin does not even use the word "altruism" in either the Origin of Species or The Descent of Man.

Since Johnson never confronts Salomé's position, he never responds to her argument about how Nietzsche's religious longings motivated the teachings of his later writings.  He insists that Nietzsche's teaching of eternal recurrence "is neither a new faith, nor a cosmology, nor a metaphysical doctrine, but an anti-faith" (72).  But Johnson repeatedly recognizes that eternal recurrence is tied to Nietzsche's "Dionysian spirit"  and the "redemption" of the world by the Ubermensch (77, 200, 202, 206, 208, 210, 212).  Johnson ignores the religious character of this teaching, which Nietzsche explicitly identifies as a "faith" (for example, TI, "Skirmishes," 49).  Johnson offers an extensive (and confusing) commentary on the Genealogy of Morals.  But he never reflects on the religious imagery of that book in its prophecy of "the redeeming man of great love and contempt" who must come one day to redeem the earth and give hope to man (GM, 3.24).

As I have indicated in some previous posts on Ayn Rand and evolution, she seemed to have the same kind of strange ambivalence about Darwinian evolution that one sees in Nietzsche.  Like Nietzsche, she was a fervent atheist.  But also like Nietzsche, she wanted to say that man "transcends" nature, and this heroic transcendence suggested some kind of atheistic religiosity in rejecting Darwinism as a threat to human dignity.  And yet, at the same time, Rand often spoke of "man's rights" as conditions for the survival of the human organism--suggesting a teleological conception of human biology that was elaborated by Harry Binswanger.

There is some value in all of this recent scholarship on Nietzsche's middle period.  But in some fundamental respects, Lou Salomé's book on Nietzsche is still unsurpassed in the depth of its account of Nietzsche's science in his middle period and his religiosity in his early and late periods.


Ruth Abbey said...

When I published my book on NIetzsche's middle period in 2000, I was hoping to return scholarly attention to these rich but neglected works. I wanted to open a debate about them, not have the last word (as if that would be possible in Nietzsche studies anyway!) So I am thrilled to see that readers like Larry Arnhart and Paul Franco are going back to them and finding new veins of interpretation. It's true that I don't discuss Darwin nor Salome's work on Nietzsche's religiosity, although I do use her book in other ways.

Troy Camplin said...

Depending on how you understand eternal recurrence, Nietzsche may have been quite untimely in his cosmology:

Chaos theory was first developed in the 1960's, but one can see in the way Nietzsche tries to explain eternal recurrence that he seems to have had an intuitive understanding of it.