Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Pyrrhonian Revival in Montaigne and Nietzsche

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Pyrrhonian Revival in Montaigne and Nietzsche

Article excerpt

Michel de Montaigne occupies a unique place in Nietzsche's history of ideas. He is one of a very few figures for whom Nietzsche expresses deep admiration and about whom he has virtually nothing critical to say. This is a rare enough mark of distinction; but contrary to what it might lead us to expect, the relationship between Montaigne and Nietzsche has seldom been carefully examined. There has yet to be a book-length study devoted solely to Montaigne and Nietzsche,1 and article-length treatments of the relationship between their works and thought have been surprisingly scarce. What discussions there have been tend to locate the connections between Nietzsche and Montaigne mainly in matters of either literary or personal style,2 but studies that examine Montaigne's influence on Nietzsche with an eye toward philosophical rather than literary or stylistic issues have been almost non-existent.3 This dearth of treatments can be explained, at least in part, by the fact that, while Montaigne is rightly recognized for the literary merits of his work and for its subsequent influence on later prose stylists (and not only in French), his work on the whole has seldom been appreciated as having any philosophical value in its own right. Small wonder, then, that the connection between Montaigne and Nietzsche has appeared more significant to commentators on Montaigne who are interested in tracing his influence on later thinkers than to scholars of Nietzsche-even those Nietzsche scholars who take an acute interest in his intellectual heritage. What I will argue here is that Montaigne makes a more concrete and philosophically more substantive contribution to Nietzsche's thought than has generally been appreciated; specifically, by giving impetus to the naturalism that develops in Human, All Too Human as an antidote to Schopenhauer's pessimistic metaphysics of will.

In this essay, I present a two-fold thesis about Montaigne's influence on Nietzsche's early work. First, I will argue that the "naturalistic turn" in Human, All Too Human reflects Nietzsche's engagement with Montaigne during a crucial moment in the development of his thought. Second, I will demonstrate that the naturalism Nietzsche adopts from Montaigne has roots in the tradition of Pyrrhonian skepticism that Montaigne carries forward into the Renaissance. In the end, a better understanding of the skeptical ancestry of Nietzsche's naturalism should help us make better sense of Human, All Too Human and its immediate successors in Nietzsche's oeuvre, which cultivate what otherwise seems to be an uneasy partnership between naturalism and skepticism.

I. It is by now widely accepted that Nietzsche's estimation of the value of the techniques and methods of the natural sciences undergoes radical revision in the period culminating in the first volume of Human, All Too Human (HAH),4 a book sometimes described as inaugurating a "positivist" phase in Nietzsche's work. From the first of its nine major sections, "Of First and Last Things," HAH narrates a struggle between science on the one hand and philosophy on the other. It is important to note the breadth of the extension of the term "science" (Wissenschaff), which includes not only what we think of as the "hard" or physical sciences (physics, chemistry, and the like) but also areas of inquiry we now consider "behavioral sciences" such as psychology and sociologyand, Nietzsche would say, philology as well. "Philosophy," by contrast is specified more narrowly. As Nietzsche uses the term throughout HAH, "philosophy" is usually shorthand for "metaphysical philosophy" and singles out for criticism the discourse of metaphysics that has dominated the philosophical landscape at least since Plato.

In the sense in which Nietzsche worries about it "metaphysical philosophy" promotes speculation about such supra-sensible entities as Platonic forms, Descartes's "immaterial substances," and Kantian things-in-themselves. That its contributions include, for instance, theories about the existence and immortality of the soul accounts for Nietzsche's grouping "metaphysical philosophy" together with religion and art as "arts of narcosis. …

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