Modern philosophy is fraught with methodological problems. This is evident even from the beginning of the enlightenment, in that text which established the problematic which was to govern the development of European philosophy throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—Descartes’ Discourse on Method. Descartes’ primary question—how should I use my reason to discover the truth?—haunts us even to this day. This question develops and is transformed throughout the early modern period, but perhaps its most striking transformation—a transformation therefore of the very method and form of modern philosophy—is undertaken late in the nineteenth century by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche’s stylistic development from his early to more advanced works reflects a shift in his methodology. Thus, to see why Nietzsche disapproves, in his “Attempt at a Self-Criticism,” of the form of The Birth of Tragedy, calling it “an impossible book” and leveling against it a number of criticisms including that it is “image-mad” and “disdainful of proof,” one must examine Nietzsche’s methodological development in the context of modern philosophy at large. In this essay we will see how Nietzsche’s shift in method reflects an abandonment of the Cartesian problematic and a rebellion (perfected in the later works) against the standards of enlightenment rationalistic inquiry.
We begin with Descartes. It is quite clear from his works and the scrupulosity with which he sought approval from Church authorities that Descartes did not see himself as a rebel. His seminal Meditations on First Philosophy claims in its Introduction to be merely a compilation of existing arguments for the existence of God and immortality of the soul. However, it is highly tempting for us to read Descartes as a philosophical counterpart to Martin Luther, i.e. as an intellectual rebel. In a way, the association between Luther and Descartes is highly appropriate, because they share a similar set of problems. Luther’s proclamation at the Diet of Worms, “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders,” establishes the same transformation in Christian theology that Descartes inadvertently establishes in Christian philosophy. Through the history of Christianity, it had been standard practice to appeal to the Church Fathers for support in one’s arguments, just as it had become customary in Scholastic philosophy to appeal to Aristotle as an ultimate authority. All appeals to authority, however, have now been ruled out.
What is this transformation that eliminates all authority? For Descartes (we must leave Luther behind), it grows out of a fairly small and simple argumentative trick. Warming himself by his fire, it occurs to him that perhaps there are substantive claims which even the most radical skeptic cannot deny. Perhaps, thinks Descartes, if we isolate these indubitable truths, we can use them to erect a new philosophical system, one with greater precision and clarity than the old Scholastic labyrinth of his Jesuit schoolmasters. And so he sets up a method for doing philosophy. First, accept the skeptic’s challenge and sift away all but the most necessary, indubitable truths. Second, once these truths have been isolated, develop and extend them into a system. This is the project of modern rationalism: to find an adamantine foundational principle and build upon it stone by stone until one establishes an indestructible belief system. It is a new understanding of Christ’s idea of building upon the rock.
Descartes’ project faces problems from the beginning. His reasoning from dubito to sum does not satisfy the skepticism that precedes it, and his arguments for God and the external world are far from indubitable. Moreover, the task of encompassing the entire world through a logical extension of sum seems as difficult as erecting a pyramid upside down so that it rests only on the capstone. Mere logic and appeals to “self-evidence”, “clarity” or “distinctness” seem insufficient to bind one stone on the next and prevent the whole structure from falling apart. And indeed it does fall apart. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are littered with philosophical systems based on this Cartesian methodology, each different in some way from the last. Even the empiricists begin (as their name indicates) with a skeptical outlook on the world, and though when they are finished they reclaim far less of our old knowledge than the rationalists, the only forms of evidence they admit are reason and sensible intuition. Dubito and cogito are the first principles of enlightenment philosophy, and both verbs remain solidly in the first person singular.
With Kant, however, the broadest ambitions of the rationalists are reined in and the Cartesian project begins to lose sway. Where his predecessors saw philosophy’s task as systematically rediscovering the world, Kant sees the fundamental project of philosophy as determining the bounds of reason. In his “Transcendental Doctrine of Method” at the end of the Critique of Pure Reason, he places “What can I know?” first among the three fundamental questions of philosophy. His system still takes shape as an answer to the skeptic’s challenge, but he ends up surrendering the Ding an sich, the world as it is in itself, to his opponent. Kant claims to prove that the skeptic is right to a significant degree: we can never really know the world of mere things; all we have access to are phenomena. After Kant, the fruitfulness of the Cartesian approach to philosophy is open to question and much of the nineteenth century in philosophy is spent testing and re-imagining the limits of reason and its relevance to human life.
Into this post-Kantian world falls the young Nietzsche. Nietzsche, unlike Kant and his successors, is not a professional philosopher, but a philologist, and so his work does not begin as a systematic philosophical construction but as a historical-critical analysis. It is clear that Nietzsche considers himself separate from the body of philosophers, but also that he is universally recognized today not only as a philosopher but as one of the most influential in the past two centuries. But what sort of philosopher is he, and how does his work relate to the philosophical problematic of his predecessors?
We should note first of all that Nietzsche enters the philosophical scene obliquely. He does not enter by the gate of metaphysics or dialectic, but takes a particular lesson from history and draws out of it a diagnosis for his own time. In The Birth of Tragedy we see the roots of the famous Nietzschean “genealogy”, which was to achieve its greatest form in the Genealogy of Morality and later to be revived and developed by Michel Foucault. However, The Birth of Tragedy is not yet a proper genealogy, since it examines something Nietzsche thinks the West has lost, rather than deconstructing a dominant concept or aspect of our mores. Here Nietzsche celebrates the achievement of the Greeks in its own right, and suggests that tragedy is being reborn in the work of Richard Wagner.
To understand why Nietzsche was later dissatisfied with this “impossible” book, it is important to consider the task of The Birth of Tragedy as it finds its place within his corpus. It is quite clear that the purpose of the book is not to explore the historical origins of Attic tragedy. In other words, it is not properly a work of philology. The ideas it stirs up in its deepest moments go far beyond the scope of classical history or even German high romantic opera. They strike against the very core of European bourgeois culture, of Christianity, of western self-understanding during the modern era. But what is the form of the book? It is an academic essay made up of about two dozen chapters, each of which moves through some aspect of the subject--a book with so much energy and passion that it thrusts well beyond its ostensible purpose and into an ill-defined void of metaphysical inquiry. But where does the excess fall, if not in philology? If we understand The Birth of Tragedy instead as a work of philosophy, it is a strange one. It lacks an argument, not only logically, but also in terms of its final message. What are we to take from this short essay but the music and images of its rhetoric? Certainly not just a deeper understanding of the Greeks. But how could it claim to give us some greater vision of ourselves either?
Thus Nietzsche critiques his early work, calling it “badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, in places saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, without the will to logical cleanliness, very convinced and therefore disdainful of proof, mistrustful even of the propriety of proof … an arrogant and rhapsodic book that sought to exclude … the profanum vulgus of ‘the educated’ even more than ‘the mass’ or ‘folk.’” Much emphasis is placed on the lack of logical cleanliness, which extends to The Birth of Tragedy’s “image madness” and “disdain of proof.” And yet, when we look at Nietzsche’s later works, works written close to the composition of the “Self-Criticism” and even those written later, we see a similar disdain of proof, a similar preference for image over argument. Zarathustra, after all, is merely a collage of highly metaphorical sermons and aphorisms about man’s place in the world. How, then, are we to understand this critique? Is Nietzsche simply inconsistent?
The key is in noting the shift in Nietzsche’s project between The Birth of Tragedy and the later works. Here the essay is ostensibly the work of a classical philologist, a young professor attempting to contribute to his field. This is not a book primarily concerned with philosophy or philosophers, and though it engages Schopenhauer on many points, it is still (imperfectly) centered on the Greeks. The later works focus much more on the present day, the west in its modernity, issues of morality and truth at the hands of the philosophers and priests. And so we should not confine our understanding of Nietzsche’s criticisms to a narrowly “Analytic” or even Enlightenment conception of logical cleanliness or order of imagery, especially since it is clear from the beginning that Nietzsche believes the logic of modernity to be fundamentally life-denying. Rather, logical cleanliness is to be understood as the adherence to an ordered mythos which is capable of structuring the observations and evaluations given in a text. Successful argument (here Nietzsche rescues argument from the paradox of analysis and restores it to its roots in rhetoric) is the successful incorporation of phenomena into a conceptual scheme. When Nietzsche suggests, in On the Genealogy of Morality, that we must reexamine the value of our values, he gives us access to the secret of his method. This question of the value of values, just as his critique of the deceptiveness of truth, reflects a volatilizing activity which sees no deeper ground beneath the questions and answers given. To put into question the very significance of transcendental concepts like truth and goodness is to laughingly throw away the phantom of the Kantian noumenon and self-consciously to break up and reconstitute the very order of things. It is in this sense that Nietzsche is anti-metaphysical, as Heidegger would say. He stands apart from entities in a solitary clearing where the evaluative role of language becomes evident and man’s dwelling in language itself becomes open to modification.
Nietzsche sees the possibility of transforming the mythos of the West, and thus the fault of The Birth of Tragedy is not that it has fallen short of being a stereotypically German philosophical essay, nor that it has somehow failed in an attempt to form proofs according to the standards of Descartes or Russell, but that the images and ideas, the mythic tendencies and overall the musicality of this little book are too unrestrained, too young and passionate, that they do not cohere and cannot adequately understand themselves. In Zarathustra we learn the Overman; Zarathustra knows what he does in his sermons, sees how it is his own life which tears away at the structures of being, truth and value, and does not need to appeal to a god for it. In the later works, Nietzsche has thrown off the weight of his academic appointment, expanded his critique of modernity, philosophy and Christianity, and has transformed his method accordingly. He no longer writes essays, but aphorisms. He no longer stands with any (Wagnerian) party against the main, but simply alone. The critique of The Birth of Tragedy is a master’s critique of himself for ever allowing himself to have been an apprentice.