Review of Anthony Jensen, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of History

In chapter three, Jensen makes an original argument in which he rejects any attempt to see Birth of Tragedy as continuous with Nietzsche’s contiguous works. Instead, Jensen frames Nietzsche’s treatment of tragedy as a sudden break with prominent philological and historiographical methodologies of his time, a break he would soon denounce. Much of this chapter is spent developing a very clear and compelling account of Schopenhauer’s aesthetic intuition (Anschauung). Jensen argues that Nietzsche’s account of Greek tragedy breaks with his other writings insofar as it offers supernatural explanations and relies upon a Schopenhaurian notion of objectivity. Because Jensen sees Nietzsche holding onto both ontological and representational realism in this work, he reads Nietzsche as making objective claims that are grounded in aesthetic intuition, which breaks through the subject-object dichotomy to perceive pure ideas without mediation. This is a problem for Nietzsche because it shows an internal inconsistency: Nietzsche’s account claims objective status but is not verifiable. While Jensen’s account of aesthetic intuition is helpful for understanding some of what Nietzsche is up to in the Birth of Tragedy, Jensen’s argument would benefit from additional support here. Why should we think Nietzsche wanted to provide a timeless account of the essence of Greek tragedy when he gives an account of tragedy that shows it developing from the interplay of historical forces? And if he did not, why would we assume Nietzsche is holding as tightly to representational realism in his first book as Jensen assumes?

The next two chapters lay out Nietzsche’s mature meta-historical position, first in terms of Nietzsche’s critiques of scientistic and teleological historiography and in terms of Nietzsche’s positive account. Nietzsche’s critiques of “historical sense” should be familiar to his readers, and Jensen’s reconstruction provides rich details that place Nietzsche in dialogue with his predecessors and contemporaries. In the fifth chapter, Jensen explicitly argues for what he takes to be Nietzsche’s own position, which Jensen charts along three axes: description, explanation, and objectivity.

Jensen here employs a two-step argument aimed at showing that Nietzsche is an anti-realist regarding descriptive and explanatory representation. Drawing primarily upon Nietzsche’s Truth and Lies…” essay, Jensen argues that the mature Nietzsche thinks historical events are too complex to be properly communicated, understood, or recorded. Because our language is only ever an approximation of the effects of the material world on our sense organs, we cannot use it to describe reality as it is. Furthermore, since reality is more complex than the impressions it makes upon us, it is too complex to be recorded or causally tracked. Thus, Nietzsche cannot be a realist about representation, and the historian cannot hope to offer an account that corresponds directly to historical events. These ontological and epistemological claims commit the mature Nietzsche to an anti-realist view of representation at the level of explanation as well. If reality is more complex than we can properly perceive, then we also cannot derive general laws or causal structures from particular historical events. Our explanations of historical events and processes will always reveal our particular, historical, and perspectival interpretations.

To save this position from accusations of relativism, Jensen insists upon a Nietzschean notion of objectivity. The thrust of Jensen’s argument is that Nietzsche maintains a criterion of consensus among like types. While subjects might be singular for Nietzsche, they nevertheless have physiological drives and willed aims in common. Moreover, because the historian is historically situated in a shared world, she will also be situated within a community that shares a framework for making sense of the world at the level of language and institutions. Jensen appeals to consensus among like types living in a shared sphere of meaning as the criterion of objectivity that keeps Nietzsche from sliding into the sort of full-blown relativism that would make him irrelevant to philosophy of history.

While Jensen’s argument for objectivity is laudable insofar as he moves deftly between very difficult and dynamic aspects of Nietzsche’s thought and manages to hold his footing while doing so, it would take more to make his claims ultimately convincing. Jensen appears to ascribe the democratic ideal of stable consensus to Nietzsche, which is at odds with Nietzsche’s condemnation of “herd mentality” and insistence on perpetual “overcoming.” At times, Jensen appeals to the criterion of “health” in order to show that Nietzsche gives us a way to differentiate between conflicting historical accounts (based on their ability to serve life and the flourishing of will to power), and here the argument is more promising. Still it is unclear why we would want to call this “objectivity.” There are surely ways to distinguish perspectivism from relativism that do not require us to hold so tightly to terms Nietzsche seems to eschew.

Jensen’s last two chapters show the position he sketches in chapter five at work in the Genealogy and Ecce Homo. His reading of the former focuses on the concept of emergence to highlight contingency and the necessity of conflict between competing historical accounts, while also distinguishing perspectivism from postmodern approaches. His reading of the latter rejects attempts to dismiss Nietzsche’s autobiographical work or align it with contemporary standpoint epistemologies. Jensen does this by stressing Nietzsche’s ontological realism even within the context of an ontology of a self that is always in progress, engaged in dynamic and mutually constitutive interactions with a world that is itself fluid. Jensen’s reading of Ecce Homo is inspired and nicely articulates much of what makes Nietzsche’s account of history indispensable for his vision of will to power. Despite the fact that Jensen seems invested in maintaining the subject-object split in the post-Birth works, the force of his reading suggests that this dichotomy is undermined by Nietzsche’s ontological project. This is worth taking seriously, not only to do justice to Nietzsche’s own thinking, but also to more thoroughly understand some possible implications of retaining objectivity alongside Nietzsche’s perspectivism.


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