Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     Consequently, under the cover of positivism, Nietzsche pursued entirely different goals. He used positivism and scientism for secondary purposes: at one time, he needed to seem cheerful, inquisitive, derisive, et cetera; at another, he needed a theory to which a sick and suffering man could turn when rejecting the judgments that were naturally springing up inside him. For us, all this can be only of a purely psychological interest, especially as Nietzsche always shaped his own course and merely waited for the opportunity to liberate himself from the theory that was hampering him and to speak boldly in his own way. But daring needs talent and strength; it needs a weapon for the fight, and several years passed before Nietzsche decided to proclaim his "underground" ideas openly. Incidentally, I suppose that true positivists would prefer not to have Human, All-Too-Human and Dawn in their libraries. Despite the fact that in these books Nietzsche wages unceasing war on metaphysics, he reveals in his scientific endeavors an anxiety that verges on tactlessness. The strength of positivism lies in its ability to pass in silence over all problems regarded by it as fundamentally unsolvable, and to direct our attention only to those aspects of life in which there are no irreconcilable contradictions: after all, the limits of our knowledge end at precisely the point where irreconcilable contradictions begin.

     In this sense, Kantian idealism is, as we know, a most reliable ally of positivism, and the celebrated argument between Whewell and Mill, if it was not, strictly speaking, an argument over words and scientific terminology, was, at any rate, of very limited theoretical significance. [William Whewell (1794-1866), an English philosopher, remembered for his work on the theory of induction and for his interest in the physical sciences - S.R.]. Albert Lange, in condemning Mill and assuming the defense of Whewell and Kant, merely displayed for us one more example of human bias.[Friedrich Albert Lange (1828-1875), a German philosopher, a neo-Kantian, one of the leaders of the "Back-to-Kant" movement - S.R.]. I would go further: in my opinion, it was not Mill, as Lange states, but more probably Whewell who displayed a certain amount of bad faith. Why did they have to drive Mill to foolish admissions? Anyone else in the latter's place would have found it possible in some way or other to dodge them and avoid assuming the responsibility for extreme conclusions, which, as we know, always compromise all kinds of theories. Doesn't the Kantian theory of the a priori lead to absurdity - to what in philosophical language is called theoretical egoism, i.e., to the necessity of each person's thinking that apart from himself, there is no one else in the entire universe? Even the most conscientious Kantians do not conceal this. Schopenhauer, for example, frankly states that theoretical egoism cannot be refuted. But this does not in the least prevent him from developing his philosophical theses, which proceed from Kantian principles. When an unexpected obstacle arises, he laughs it off. Theoretical egoism, he says, is indeed an impregnable fortress, but the garrison stationed in it is so weak that one can, without even capturing it, boldly advance and not fear attack from the rear. And that is about the only way to save idealism from the reductio ad absurdum that threatens it. Another more widespread and reliable method is simply to forget about theoretical egoism, to ignore it. If Mill had wanted to resort to such methods, he could have concluded his polemic a good deal more successfully. But Mill was an honest man. Mill was honesty personified, even when compared with the Germans, who claim this virtue solely for themselves. And yet his honesty is depicted as bad faith! I do not know if Mill had occasion to read Lange's book, but, if he did, it probably once again confirmed in his eyes the hackneyed truth according to which there is no justice among men.

     And in what did they see Mill's bad faith? Unlike Kant, he did not want to acknowledge nonempirical knowledge, and in the causal connection of phenomena, he saw only their factual, true, but not necessary, relation. It goes without saying that it never occurred to Mill to attack the immutability of the laws of nature. But isn't the experience of several millennia adequate proof of immutability? Why then resort to a dangerous metaphysical method of proof, when, as a matter of fact, no one in our time any longer seriously doubts the regularity of natural phenomena? Metaphysics frightened the positive thinker. Today, people proclaim the apriority of the law of causality, the ideality of space and time, and tomorrow, on the very same basis, they will justify clairvoyance, dancing tables, witchcraft, or what have you. To Mill, acceptance of apriorism seemed a most hazardous step for philosophy. And, after all, his anxiety was not without basis: the very near future showed that he was right. Schopenhauer had already used Kant's theory of the ideality of time to explain the phenomenon of clairvoyance. And his conclusion is logically irreproachable. If time is a form of our knowledge, if, consequently, we only know as the present, past, and future that which actually occurs outside time, i.e., synchronously (it is all the same), then it means we cannot see the past or the future, not because it is altogether impossible, but merely because our cognitive abilities are fashioned in a certain way. But our cognitive abilities, like the whole of our mental organization, are not immutable. Among the billions of normal people being born, it is possible from time to time to have deviations from the norm. Perhaps a brain will sometime be formed in such a way that its possessor will not perceive phenomena in time, and consequently, for him, the future and the past will merge with the present, and he will be able to predict events that have not yet happened and to see those that for others have already been swallowed by history. As you see, the consistency in this deduction is purely "mathematical." Mill, with his conscientiousness, would have been reluctantly obliged to believe in clairvoyance if he acknowledged the apriority of time. Worse still, he probably would not even have avoided theoretical egoism, and would have been obliged to declare that he alone existed in the whole universe! So that he had serious grounds to dread Kantian idealism. But this does not at all mean that the cause of science was any less dear to his heart than it was to Kant's, or that he was not trying to prove once and for all the truth of the regularity of natural phenomena: he was merely avoiding dangerous hypotheses and risky methods of proof.

     And then his opponents, for their part, presented him with the following objection: if the regularity of natural phenomena can be proved only by experience, i.e., by the events of history, then it must be assumed that, in principle - theoretically at least - it, too, can sometime come to an end. At present, regularity still prevails, but one fine day, the reign of arbitrariness will begin. Or: here on earth, there is causality, but somewhere on a distant planet, there is not. You cannot provide any evidence to the contrary, for historical observation can be only of limited and relative significance. Anyone else in Mill's place would have in some way or other extricated himself, but Mill could not help being honest, and he admitted that we indeed have no evidence as far as the future and as far as distant planets are concerned. This means, to put it more simply, that objects that until now have been at rest have not moved of their own accord without an outside cause, but that tomorrow everything might take a different turn: stones might fly into the air, mountains might move from their places, and rivers might flow backwards.[1]

     That is, once again, none of this will actually happen: the history of a thousand years attests to this convincingly enough, but in principle, such a possibility cannot be denied. This, or almost this, is what Mill said, or more accurately, what he was obliged to say. It is clear that a positivist accepts such conclusions reluctantly, and only in those cases where the unusually well-developed conscience of a scholar impels him to do so. It is also clear why Mill looked so pained and crushed when he made these admissions. Lange, having correctly noted that Mill's customary serene and equable frame of mind had betrayed him, hastened to inform his readers that the reason for it was a guilty conscience: Mill felt that he was driven to the wall, and, as he was unwilling to admit his error, he allowed conclusions that were patently absurd to him. As a matter of fact, it was just the reverse: Mill had sacrificed to his conscience not "truth," but his peace of mind. The idea of the possibility of effect without cause was odious to him to the very depths of his soul; it tormented him, and if there had been the slightest possibility, he would have repudiated it. But what had he been offered by the idealists? A priori concepts, with the prospect of dancing tables and a belief in clairvoyance? In that case, it would be better to have effect without cause somewhere off in the far distance and after many thousands of years (almost a priori causality). First of all, you do not deceive yourself here, and secondly, when all is said and done, no one will ever use this thesis, as it cannot be put into practice and as no one needs it - even Kant himself did not strive for more. So there was just one unpleasant moment, but, on the other hand, the empirical basis for the reliability of our knowledge is a bulwark against skepticism with which no metaphysical theories of knowledge, not even Kantian, bear comparison.

     The reader sees that Mill's opponents were not conscientious. I do not think that they failed to sense the vulnerability of idealism. Anyone even slightly versed in philosophical problems knows very well that no system has as yet been devised that is entirely free of contradictions. Perhaps we should not say that too loudly, but, as you know, even Schopenhauer declared that every philosophy that does not acknowledge premises is a fraud. Only the uninitiated do not know this secret. And if this is so, it means that common literary decency demanded that Whewell and Lange leave Mill alone, that they not touch his premises, and that they not go beyond a certain point in the argument. They had both theoretical egoism and clairvoyance on their conscience - great and grievous sins, no matter how cleverly Schopenhauer joked about the matter. They should have forgiven the positivists effect without cause in the sense that Mill allowed it. One can rid oneself of such conclusions only by means of premises - why then should proof be demanded from Mill? And, above all, to what do such demands lead? They can only undermine confidence in science in general - i.e., in all attempts to simplify, pacify, smooth out, and tame reality. They only open the way to skepticism, which, like a vulture after prey, pursues all sorts of dogmas that have been carried to absurdity; consequently, because of completely unwarranted theoretical claims, they betray the common cause to the most dangerous enemy that can possibly exist. For the chief task of science as well as morality consists in providing people with a firm foundation in life, in teaching them to know what is and what is not, what one may do, and what one may not. However, the means to achieve this are a secondary matter; at any rate, they are not so important as to forget the main goal because of them. How poorly the Kantians understand this, yet how well Kant himself knew it! Despite the fact that he could not help rejoicing and thinking highly of his new point of view in philosophy, he saw in Hume not his enemy, but an ally and precursor, and he esteemed Hume's argumentation highly. And, after all, Mill is probably as important to science as Hume. Just note the patience and knowledge of his field that he displays in his System of Logic or in his treatise on utilitarianism as he avoids all reefs encountered on his way; how steadily and devotedly, and with what a firm and reliable hand he guides his scholarly ship to the shore inhabited by positivism, i.e., certainty, evidence, and finally, the crowning virtue, Kantian-Tolstoyan stability. Isn't that a colossal merit? And do a priori judgments really lead to greater stability and clarity than Mill's method?

     But, as was already stated, the argument between idealism and positivism and even materialism is, in the final analysis a mere argument over words. However much the opposing sides taunt each other, it is clear to an outside observer that they are essentially in agreement, and that it is the same old story: one friend does not recognize another. As for Nietzsche, only his early works can be connected with one of the existing schools of philosophy. But beginning with Human, All-Too-Human, i.e., from the moment he viewed the world with his own eyes, he immediately withdrew to a point equidistant from all systems. From positivism and materialism, he took a weapon with which to fight idealism, and vice versa, as he wanted nothing more sincerely and profoundly than the destruction of all world views that had been devised by man. The "stability," which was considered the supreme and ultimate goal of philosophical systems, and which all founders of such schools had laid claim to, not only did not attract him, it frightened him. Kant, the materialists, and Mill had needed it, because it guaranteed them the immutability of that position in life that was dear to them. But Nietzsche strove above all to change his position: what could stability promise him? The "savoir pour prévoir" or the regularity with which positivism had tried to lure us sounded to him like insulting mockery. What could he foresee? That one cannot return the past? That he would never be cured and would finally lose his mind? He knew this without either positivism or science. But did Kantian idealism, with its crowning virtue - the morality of the categorical imperative - tell him anything else? Nietzsche was and always remained sympathetic only to the language of skepticism - and not, of course, the skepticism of the drawing room or the study, which amounts to witty remarks or theorizing, but the skepticism that permeates a man's entire soul and unsettles his life forever. Zarathustra says: "The shore has disappeared from my sight, the waves of the infinite have engulfed me." What could be done here by the positivists or idealists, who think that their entire task is to convince man of the proximity of the shore, to conceal infinity from him, and to restrict him to the limited sphere of phenomena that are the same for all people, that yield to precise definition, that are customary and comprehensible?

     For Mill, the necessity of acknowledging the possibility of effect without cause, even on a distant planet, was most distressing. Lange, following in Kant's footsteps, accepted apriorism merely not to see himself forced to acknowledge randomness in nature. But all their worries were alien to Nietzsche; on the contrary, their apprehensions were his hopes. His life had meaning, it could only have meaning, if all scientific systems were merely voluntary self-restraint of the timorous human mind. His life’s task amounted precisely to going beyond the limits of those spheres into which he had been driven by the traditions of science and morality. Thence his hatred for science, which found expression in his fight against philosophical systems and in his aversion to morality, which inspired the formula "beyond good and evil." There was just one question for Nietzsche: "Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?" [Nietzsche, op. cit., IV, 113] Do you know those simple words, which are filled with such infinite grief and bitterness? Such a question can have but one answer: both human science, which has accommodated itself to the average, everyday life, and human morality, which justifies, extols, sanctifies, and raises norms to laws (the pious memory of Rostov’s administration, "goodness is God"), are false. Or to use Nietzsche's words: nothing is true, everything is permitted - or a revaluation of all values.

[1] I think it necessary to explain that I am presenting Mill's views in "my own words." Mill, of course, does not speak of "tomorrow" (he reserves tomorrow for positivism), nor does he mention mountains that move or rivers that flow backwards: I have added all these specific examples in my own name, for the sake of clarity, of course. But to avoid criticism, I shall quote the appropriate passage from his Logic:

"I am convinced that anyone accustomed to abstraction and analysis, who will fairly exert his faculties for the purpose will, when his imagination has once learnt to entertain the notion, find no difficulty in conceiving that in some one, for instance, of the many firmaments into which sidereal astronomy now divides the universe, events may succeed one another at random without any fixed law; nor can anything in our experience or in our mental nature constitute a sufficient, or indeed any reason for believing that this is nowhere the case.
Were we to suppose (what it is perfectly possible to imagine) that the present order of the universe were brought to an end, and that a chaos succeeded in which there was no fixed succession of events and the past gave no assurance of the future; if a human body were miraculously kept alive to witness this change, he surely would soon cease to believe in any uniformity, the uniformity itself no longer existing." (A System of Logic, Book III, Chapter 21 § 1.)

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC