Englishmen Underground; Or the Case of the Abdicated Playwright

Francis Bacon would have redeemed himself in Nietzsche’s eyes if he had turned out to be Shakespeare. We can see from Ecce Homo ‘Why I am so Clever’ section four, that he indeed entertained the idea: ‘I am instinctively certain that Lord Bacon is the originator of this uncanniest species of literature’. A man who has dealt with truth to the extent that Bacon did, must have been an artist too. What makes Bacon particularly disappointing in Nietzsche’s view, was his failure to live up to this status: instead of fathering English tragedy, he merely chose to inaugurate a scientific method that took man out of the world and even set him up in opposition to it. This, however, still makes him an artist, only a much lesser one.

            Nietzsche mentions Bacon exactly seven times. While he obviously did not obsess about him to the extent that he did over a figure like Wagner, a few significant references make it clear that Bacon represents important aspects of the philosophical tradition against which Nietzsche defines himself. Since Bacon wrote at the beginning of modernity, he played a key role in shaping the direction modernity was to take, particularly its evaluation of the truth question. It is possible to argue that the problems one encounters over Nietzsche’s conception of truth is largely due to a readership that, for all its postmodernist protestations to the contrary, is still firmly steeped in the Baconian tradition. This tradition sees truth as a fundamental underlying condition or state of affairs to be discovered, and the language used in getting there as mere unavoidable baggage: as Samuel Johnson had said about footnotes elucidating obscure parts in Shakespeare, a necessary evil. ‘Truth’, in other words, is that which happens when we read the world well, and if we do not find it, it is due to our faulty methods, not to the structural limitations placed upon us due to our situatedness in time, space, body or linguistic community.

            In Nietzsche’s view, modern philosophy took off on a wild goose chase after truth, while simply taking its attainment for granted, and without inquiring even once whether that earnestly sought truth indeed serves life. What makes Bacon so objectionable, is his delusion that his scientific investigation will automatically improve the conditions of life not only for his countrymen, but for the entire world.

            It is interesting, however, to note the similarities between Nietzsche and the philosopher whose thoughts contain the germ of what would become positivism: both saw the works of their predecessors as being vitiated by an unjustifiable reverence of authority, and a consequent neglect of actual experience. To remedy this, both thinkers invented a new method that would transform the philosophical discourse to follow in their wake, and in doing this, both of them made a point of explicitly ‘sounding out idols’. What set Bacon’s inductive method and Nietzsche’s genealogy apart however, are their respective motivations. For Bacon, the task of the philosopher is a simple one, the amelioration of human life through the achievement of power over nature, using the combined forces of philosophical speculation and the craft-skills employed by the practical arts. Bacon’s method is an ‘innocent’ one – at this early stage in the march of modernity, there is no question about the role of human perspective and motive in the shaping of method. The world would naturally yield to his advances. Knowledge is power, and when embodied in the form of new technical inventions and mechanical discoveries it is the force that drives history.

            The distinguishing feature of Bacon’s epistemology is of course his faith in the method of induction. This method implies that the world can be read like a book; his method smells of Protestantism and the printing press. Nietzsche lists Bacon under the great philosophers for whom philosophy was a question of method, that is, a kind of treasure hunt for knowledge under the right conditions. In aphorism 11394, written between autumn 1887 and March 1888 (KSA 12. 368) he made the following remark: ‘The great methodologists: Aristotle, Bacon, Descartes, A. Comte’. Although the case of Aristotle is much more complex – that the ancients did not pay enough attention to method is one of Bacon’s main objections against them – they all share one idea in particular, namely the notion that the right method would liberate man from his situatedness and prejudices and grant him real knowledge. Bacon’s method is of course so famous, and by now so basic that it hardly needs explication. Unlike Descartes, whose revolutionary method involved a priori reasoning to indubitable truths, Bacon advocated a purely empirical method which, starting from observations and particular events, would move towards wider and wider generalization. He improved upon existing conceptions of scientific method by expounding a method that was more than mere simple enumeration. From the viewpoint of a demonstrable natural science, all particulars were suspect, since all instances of induction no matter how lengthy or carefully done, could guarantee their conclusions but provisionally. Anomalous particulars, for whose clarification empirical science really existed, were particularly problematic. From an ontological perspective, they were the result of variability and coincidence, and could not serve as a foundation for a philosophy based upon universals or regularities. Furthermore, such exceptions provided psychological fodder for superstition and scepticism, two pitfalls Bacon was eager to avoid. He therefore insisted upon the need for checking generalizations by a ‘search for negative instances’. With this, he initiated the concern with the nature of inductive or probable reasoning so prominent in the British tradition, which made an important appearance in John Stuart Mill’s System of Logic, (published a year before Nietzsche’s birth) and would be taken to logical conclusion in Karl Popper’s notion of falsification.

            According to Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil section 252, Francis Bacon’s neat distinctions ‘signify an attack on the philosophical spirit’. For Bacon, first of all, it is possible to draw a rigid distinction between physics and metaphysics. The former investigates variable and particular causes, the latter reflects on general and constant ones, for which the term form is used. Forms are more general than the four Aristotelian causes and that is why Bacon’s discussion of the forms of substances as the most general properties of matter is the last step for the human mind when investigating nature. Metaphysics is distinct from philosophia prima. The latter marks the position in the system where general categories of a general theory of science are treated firstly as universal categories of thought, and secondly, as relevant for all disciplines. To his credit, however, final causes are discredited, since they lead to difficulties in science and tempt us to amalgamate theological and teleological points of doctrine. At the summit of Bacon’s pyramid of knowledge are the laws of nature (the most general principles). At its base the pyramid starts with observations, which, if properly done, are value-free and objective, moves on to invariant relations and then to more inclusive correlations until it reaches the stage of forms. The process of generalization ascends from natural history via physics towards metaphysics, whereas accidental correlations and relations are eliminated by the method of exclusion. It must be emphasized that metaphysics has a special meaning for Bacon. This concept first excludes the infinity of individual experience by generalization with a teleological focus and second, opens our mind to generate more possibilities for the efficient application of general laws.

Bacon is remembered in particular for giving this method a name, and raising what was hitherto mere common sense to the status of scientific method and giving it an entirely new importance. The word ‘induction’ itself is not used too frequently, but in the Novum Organum it is used in particular to qualify an intellectual behaviour and logical procedure that are supposed to be entirely new.

            From a hermeneutical perspective there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as a genuine break with the past. Even the idea that one has to break with the past in order to find a legitimate basis for one’s thought, has a history, and the history of this idea is closely intertwined with the history of the ‘break’ between antiquity and the new order of Christianity. Bacon’s thought is to a certain extent already the product of history, rather than its originator. The Novum Organum has a distinctly religious flavour: Bacon was relying on ‘divine assistance’ and he held that natural histories should be collected with ‘religious care’.

            In contrast to John Donne, who in true Hesiodian fashion wrote in a poem published six years after The Advancement of Learning, ‘Our age is iron, and rusty too’ (Donne, J. 1986:45)  Bacon advanced the notion that history may in fact be progressive, that is, moving in an onward and even upward ascent, and not merely in a cyclical fashion as Aristotle – and in a strangely transformed way, Nietzsche too – held. In the Advancement of Learning, the idea is offered hesitantly, more like a kind of hopeful hypothesis. But in later works such as the New Organon, it becomes a very real theory, so much so that it can almost be regarded as a promised destiny: Enlightenment and a better world, Bacon insists, lie within our power; they require only the cooperation of learned citizens and the active development of the arts and sciences. In this work, Bacon writes: ‘Now the true and lawful goal of the sciences is none other than this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers’ (Bacon 1960: 18). The key concept here is efficiency, Bacon is no mere innocent defender of induction. For one, he refuses to acknowledge limits. In one of his soaring flights of fancy he writes:

Above all, if a man could succeed, not in striking out some particular invention, however useful, but in kindling a light in nature – a light which should by its very rising touch and illuminate all border regions that confine upon the circle of our present state of knowledge, and so spreading further and further should presently disclose all that is hidden and most secret in the world (Bacon 1980: 62).

Enlightenment thinking, that epitome of human self-assertion, is essentially optimistic: where faith failed, reason will succeed. Or rather, if faith provided the way back to innocence, reason would restore man’s dominion over nature. As he states toward the end of The New Atlantis: ‘the end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and the secret motions of things and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible’. For Bacon, science had a collaborative, and above all, democratic character, with individual achievements contributing to it overall success. The extension of man’s power over nature is not the work of a private investigator who keeps his findings secret, but the fruit of an organized community funded (hopefully) by the state. For Bacon, the ideal scientist forms part of an enlightened community of Platonic rulers, willing to share knowledge – among themselves. In the Redargutio philosophiarum he portrays such a community, a theme that would grow to it utopian extreme in The New Atlantis:

Then he told me in Paris that a friend had taken him along and introduced him to a gathering, ‘the sight of which’, he said, ‘would rejoice your eyes. It was the happiest experience of my life’. There were some fifty men there, all of mature year, not a young man among them, all bearing the stamp of dignity and probity… At his entry, they were chatting easily among themselves but sitting in rows as if expecting somebody. Not long after, there entered a man of peaceful and serene air, save that his face had become habituated to the expression of pity… he took his seat, not on a platform or pulpit, but on a level with the rest and delivered the following address…(Bacon 1968: III, 559).

Bacon propounded this article of secular faith with evangelical force and a sense of mission that would put many a clergyman to shame. With the Fall, Bacon held, Man had renounced his original power. But all was not lost, the true end of knowledge was nothing less than ‘a restitution and reinvesting… of man to the sovereignty and power… which he had in his first state of creation’(Bacon 1968: III, 222). Not that this would surprise Nietzsche in the slightest. Scientific reason, for all its protests to the contrary, has its roots in the Christian faith in a beneficent order, perhaps even an agent, behind the apparent chaos of the world. Even Christian virtues like humility and charity play a role in Bacon’s method: a lack of vanity was taken to be a measure of the truth of a scientific work, and scientific work was seen as a form of charity towards one’s fellow man. The doctrine of ‘sounding out idols’ suggested too, that opposition to this new method was a kind of heresy, to be smashed by Baconian induction. From a Nietzschean perspective, the underlying assumption that man and nature will of necessity be on the same page, is far less radical than Bacon’s biographers usually assume. For all his scientific interest in the world, Bacon too exhibits the anti-worldly ethos that Nietzsche considered to be the defining characteristic of Christianity in general and the Protestant tradition in particular. Bacon complains for example, that men – although possessing a ‘natural inclination to know’ too seldom push that capacity into the service of all mankind:

As if there were sought in knowledge a couch, whereupon to rest a searching and a restless spirit; for a wandering and varying mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state, for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or a commanding ground, for strife and contention; or a shop, for profit and sale; and not a rich storehouse, for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate (my emphasis) (Bacon 1873: 259).

What strikes one at once in this paragraph is the fact that man’s estate, the human condition, requires relief or redemption. For a man who was almost credited with writing the works of Shakespeare, Bacon has the distinctly anti-tragic attitude of Christianity itself. Whether or not his protestations against atheism were done in a spirit of authenticity or not, Bacon sees human vulnerability, be it physiological pain, socio-political conditions or the fundamental character of existence in itself, as something to be redressed by knowledge. And at this stage, this is a very real possibility. In The Advancement of Learning he states: ‘Learning conquers or mitigates the fear of death and adverse fortune’.[1]

For all the protests to the contrary, there is a distinctly utopian element in Bacon’s writing. In the Cogitata et visa he writes explicitly:

It may be that there are some on whose ear my frequent and honourable mention of practical activities makes a harsh and unpleasing sound because they are wholly given over in love and reverence to contemplation. Let them bethink themselves that they are the enemies of their own desires. For in Nature, practical results are not only the means to improve their well-being, but the guarantee of truth. The rule of religion, that a man should show his faith by his works, holds good in natural philosophy too. Science also must be known by works. It is by the witness of works, rather than by logic or even observation, that truth is revealed and established. Whence it follows that the improvement of man’s mind, and the improvement of his lot is one and the same thing (My emphasis, Bacon 1973: 612).

Nietzsche, the lover of masks and the defender of illusion, could never forgive Christianity for introducing one illusion in particular to the world: the illusion that the source of ‘all our woe’, namely the world itself, and the subject that suffers in it, can be rendered transparent and brought under rational control. Simply put, Bacon argued that error and uncertainty arose because the wrong method was employed; in particular, experience and observation were not correctly used. Bacon reveals his alchemistic origins in his philosophical acts of subtraction. Like an alchemist who, through a process of careful distillation, hopes to reveal the essential ore of a precious metal, so Bacon, in early enlightenment fashion, hopes to remove the unnecessary elements that prevent our direct access to the things themselves. Drawing on standard Christian metaphor, Bacon calls these obscuring elements ‘idols of the mind’ that stand in the way of our worshipping of the true ‘God’ namely pure, unadulterated sense experience. He writes: ‘The human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds (Bacon 1960: Aphorism XIV). Once we have become attached to some habit of reading regularity into the world where it does not really belong, we tend to discount any experience which does not fit our preconceptions.

The human understanding, when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate (Bacon 1960: Aphorism XIV).

For Bacon this is an enormous problem. One almost detects a conspiracy theory of error and uncertainty, that the valiant rationalist must attack and defeat, using the right method. Revealing his immersion in the Christian framework again, he draws upon the famous image of Christian rebirth as a precondition for inheriting eternal life, this time, however, the reward is not heaven, but true knowledge. We ‘are to become as little children’, who observe the world with an innocent eye undistorted by prejudice.

The understanding must be completely cleared and freed [of prejudice] so that access to the kingdom of man, which I founded upon the sciences, may resemble that of the Kingdom of Heaven, where no admission is conceded except to children (Bacon 1960: Aphorism LXVIII).

One idol to be sounded out, is the rhetorical ‘decorations’ that ‘pollute’ pure rational discourse. To see how pervasive this prejudice against the ‘superfluous’ stretches, it is necessary to refer to the droll Johnson again: ‘A dictionary of the English language might be compiled from Bacon’s works alone’ (Johnson 1978:112). This implies that Bacon used a ‘neutral’ or ‘plain’, if elegant, language that directly corresponds to reality. As early as Bacon’s Instauratio, there is a clear distinction between ‘essential’ knowledge, which refers basically to empirical knowledge, and the ‘superfluous’ or merely ‘decoratory’ forms of knowledge. Like the genuine Renaissance man that he was, Bacon considered not only science, but also the entire scope of his contemporary culture. Within this scope, he finds a variety of forms of knowledge and puts them into three distinct categories. First are the Empirics (who include magicians, alchemists, dyers, chemists and artisans in general; in short everyone that transforms materials and creates something else from them). Then there are the Philosophers or Reasoners, who identify all knowledge with dispute and dialectic, and finally the Humanists who associate knowledge with mere affectations and tend to identify knowledge with rhetoric, words and graceful oratory style.(Bacon 1973: 282). While this tripartite of sophistry is replaced in the Novum Organum by new examples of false learning, it is significant that Bacon separates knowledge from the language within which it is conceived, thereby inaugurating the long philosophical tradition of the suppression of metaphor that would be turned upon its head by Nietzsche.

            There is something distinctly soteriological about the ideal of objectivity itself. Soteriology can take many forms, but be it religious, psychoanalytical, philosophical or economical, such narratives usually begin with a grand claim that humanity (or in some cases, only part of it, as the obvious case of Marxism suggests) has become estranged or alienated from something of fundamental importance and then proceed to describe the remedy by which this estrangement is to be overcome. Bacon practices a kind of epistemological soteriology by searching for an original experience of direct objectivity before the inevitable pollution by human perspective.

            Throughout his work, Nietzsche opposes this spectatorial paradigm of rationalism which emphasizes clarity and certitude over passion and will. Rather than critiquing the primacy of sight, however, he suggests that men should use a new mode of productive, poetic vision to enrich their lives. The distinterested spectator tends to think of Truth almost in quantifiable terms: the truth, which must be hunted down and captured at all costs. This is precisely his problem with Bacon: instead of rejoicing in man’s capacity to be a player on life’s stage, Bacon turned him into a mere spectator. Wherever man posits ‘non-contradictory ideals’ (unwidersprechlichen Ideale) there is in a truth a spectacle: ‘eine Schauspeilerei (wie bei Bacon)’ as Nietzsche writes in a note from the Nachlass, (Aphorism 5860, Spring 1881-Summer 1882, KSA 9.476). Coming from the Latin spectaculum ‘to look’, the modern word has connotations of something put on display, deliberately turned into an object for viewing, and put at a distance fom the viewer himself. As always when writing on Bacon, Nietzsche allows for associations with the stage to creep in: what is so problematic for Nietzsche is that Bacon allowed for a gap to develop between viewer and viewed, instead of exploiting the dramatic possibilities implied by spectatorship.

            Nietzsche denies that the quest for objectivity arises from a desire to do justice to the facts because modern man lacks the stern will required for just action. Instead, an evaluative notion of truth is required. As we shall see, truth is created, not discovered, and it should be done based on the needs of the present. For Nietzsche, objectivity is a mere ruse, a refuge for those who refuse to enact their judgments upon the world. This is a typical attitude of the latecomers upon the historical scene. They are not objective, only impotent. In the second Untimely Meditation he states that historical education and the bourgeois coat tend to go together, prompting him to ask: ‘Is a race of eunuchs needed to watch over the great historical world-harem? Pure objectivity would certainly characterize such a race’ (UM II, 5).

            Central to Nietzsche’s diagnosis of nihilism is his account of modernity. The description of the loss in modernity of a centre of gravity recalls other critics’ examinations of modernity, most notably that of Karl Marx, who famously described his age as one where all ‘fixed fast-frozen relationships are swept away… all that is solid melts into air’. Authors like Marx, Max Weber, Georg Simmel and even Charles Baudelaire located these changes in the deteriorating material conditions of the contemporary urban society, but Nietzsche insists that the crisis of modernity was largely one of values, specifically of the internal logic of Western cultural values. This logic is one of a persistent belief in metaphysical certitude. Much of Western thought pace Bacon is consequently devoted to the problem of establishing a grounding for cultural values when the time for such a thing was clearly over and the age of what Hannah Arendt has called ‘thinking without a banister’ had arrived. Trying to impart this message to his audience, Nietzsche adopts a genealogical strategy and returns again and again to the origins of the epistemolophilia so prominent in Western philosophy since the seventeenth century. In the case of the erroneous claims metaphysics makes to ‘knowledge’, the motivating force is the ‘pathos of truth’. This pathos demands fixity, static conceptual points of reference around which a network of beliefs can be nurtured. This ‘truth’ comes to be stabilized and eventually fixed by means of concepts, and as such, becomes capable of being owned. ‘Philosophy and religion [are] a longing for property…’ (PHT, 60). So much for pure objectivity.

            This ‘English’ morality (which is not of course limited to the English) is the apotheosis of a long developed anti-worldly and anti-tragic ethos that bluntly refuses to acknowledge the gap between human experience and the independent operation of the world, the world as a realm distinct from and indifferent to the human subject, which realm Nietzsche re-thinks as the eternal recurrence. There is a certain small-mindedness, characteristic of the humanist subject at his most petty, to the notion that the world was made to fit man and that it is merely a question of bringing man into harmony with a given worldly order.

            Until genealogy arrived on the philosophical scene, philosophers have secretly regarded themselves as code-breakers rather than creators, and their task as uncovering the elusive rational order beneath all chaos. Finding the blueprint to life would naturally enable us to finally control the uncontrollable, and that, of course, is bourgeois or slave heaven:

In all seriousness: the innocence of our thinkers is somehow touching and evokes reverence, when today they still step before consciousness with the request that it should please give them honest answers; for example, whether it is ‘real’, and why it so resolutely keeps the external world at a distance, and other questions of that kind. The faith in ‘immediate certainties’ is a moral naiveté that reflects honor on us philosophers; but – after all we should not be ‘merely moral’ men. Apart from morality, this faith is a stupidity that reflects little honor on us (BGE 34).

Modernity would have it that depth is the dimension of truth. However, depth is a deceptive dimension in Nietzsche: there is such a thing as going too deep. The subject itself was born in response to the need to find something stable, something beyond change. In Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics the term subjectum refers to that upon which all other entities are predicated without itself being a predicate of something else. The search for this fountainhead became the aim of nearly all of modern philosophy in one way or another, with the noteworthy exception of David Hume. According to Michel Foucault, depth is not an essential quality of either selves or the world. It is a dimension that comes into being as a correlate of a variety of technologies that operates upon the self, and structures its relationship with the world. Philosophical ‘divers’, who venture deep into the folds of subjectivity in the hope of finding a ‘real’ self, are however bound to come up with nothing, or even worse, lose themselves entirely in the labyrinth of language. For Nietzsche, with his healthy proto-Hellenic outlook, there is such a thing as descending so far that depth becomes counterproductive:


Order of rank. There are, first of all, superficial thinkers; secondly, deep thinkers – those who go down into the depth of a thing; thirdly, thorough thinkers, who thoroughly explore the grounds of a thing – which is worth very much more than merely going down into depths! – finally those who stick their heads into the swamp: which ought not to be a sign either of depth or of thoroughness! They are the dear departed underground. (Daybreak 446).


There is no better way to escape the world than to go underground. And no better place for the artist who refuses his vocation in order to flee than into the depths of finite rules and absolute facts. Bacon is a case of the artist refusing his vocation – for Bacon was an artist – and thereby abandoning that which makes him most human. Given the enormity of the tradition that sprang up in his footsteps, one can say that Bacon was an artist and he did legislate, only in such a way as to make the end of creation and artistic legislation an end in itself.

We know, however, from Bacon’s own hand that he was by no means indifferent to the aesthetic domain. Bacon’s style is as integral to his project as is Nietzsche’s to his, and it is particularly interesting to note the extent to which both thinkers made use of the aphorism. Despite Zarathustra’s protestations, great minds sometimes do think alike. In his work L’Entretien Infini, Maurice Blanchot indicates that no trope disturbs the apparently snug sense of full textual presence quite as much as an aphorism — the short terse, incisive remark that responds to the genius and inspiration of a critical mind, but it resists all forms of catechism and formalization. It is a turn of phrase and thought that directs itself beyond a fixed idea, a fixed place-holder in a system of rules or beliefs. Nietzsche’s relationship to the aphorism is decidedly more complex than that of Bacon, whose easily remembered aphorisms are aimed at bolstering foundations, not to subvert them. Nietzsche provides an interesting reason for writing in aphorism. By employing this mode, Nietzsche goes against the grain of traditional philosophical literature. His style requires expansive rather than abbreviated techniques of interpretation that leaves much more room for play and margin for error than traditional philosophy. He writes: ‘I am brief, my readers must become long and comprehensive in order to bring up and together all that I have thought and thought deep down’ (EH, 340). Bacon, for all his attempts at clarity and certainty, is not really that different. Bacon’s mother famously describes her son’s writing as ‘enigmatic, folded writing’ and Stanley Fish demonstrates how Bacon’s Essays exemplifies his attitude by breaking the mind’s passivity, and aiding the resistance to its natural propensity to remain in the comfort zone of common opinions. Fish goes as far as to describe the Essays as ‘unfinished’ – a very Nietzschean compliment – and likens the reading of a Baconian essay to the reading of two essays: the Bacon’s original text, and the text that develops between the reader and the original text. Because of their richness, the promise they hold, they force the reader to become active in his engagement with the text. The reader has to ‘fill in’ the text, allow it to become part of his referential framework, so that—as Gadamer might have said, a process of exchange between the text and the reader can take place.

What is more, importantly, is that the text is only the most obvious form of exchange between self and world, or as a cynical anti-postmodernist might have said, the most analyzable. According to Nietzsche, what can be said about the text, is also true of mere observation. Everything that happens consists of a group of phenomena that are gathered and selected by an interpretative being.

Despite Nietzsche’s appeal to a more natural man (GM I, 6), there is no physis without nomos. Nietzsche does not simply unite the two; he has re-thought their relationship entirely, suggesting that what we call physis, nature or the world, is nothing more than an illusion that we create through the nomos, because we forget that the law, or metaphysical framework within which we operate, is itself merely a human convention. Nomos creates physis through generality: we become so accustomed to our rules and habits that they begin to pass for nature. What Baconian humanists tend to forget, is that it is their own participation in the world that makes experience of a world possible,  (See for example, aphorism no 11393, NL 85-88 KSA 12.366). Even mere perception is a selective, world-constitutive operation in the manner of that ultimate impersonal ‘artist’, the will to power. This means that there is an aesthetic dimension even to man’s simplest judgments.


You sober people who feel well-armed against passion and fantasies and would like to turn your emptiness into a matter of pride and an ornament: you call yourselves realists and hint that the world really is the way it appears to you. As if reality stood unveiled before you only, and you yourselves were perhaps the best part of it. […] You are still burdened with those estimates which have their origins in the passions of loves of former centuries. Your sobriety still contains a secret and inextinguishable drunkenness. Your love of ‘reality’ for example – oh that is a primeval ‘love’. Every feeling and sensation contains a piece of this old love; and some fantasy, some prejudice, some fear and so much else has contributed to it, and worked on it. That mountain there! That cloud there! What is ‘real’ in that? Subtract the phantasm and every human contribution from it, my sober friends! If you can! If you can forget your descent, your past, your training – all of your humanity and animality. There is no reality for us – not for you either, my sober friends. We are not nearly so different as you think, and perhaps our good will to transcend intoxication is as respectable as your faith that you are incapable of intoxication (GS 57).


Note however, that Nietzsche takes it for granted that there is a cloud, that there is a mountain. He is not engaging in juvenile hypotheses about the existence of the material objects in question. For Bacon, knowledge ended with its collection and its categorization. For Nietzsche, this is merely the beginning. How one employs a particular notion, what it means in one’s context, and what it says about the knower, is far more important than its being verified as ‘correct’. For Bacon, method is a way to liberate man from his necessary perspectival existence; for Nietzsche, it is perspective that makes method possible in the first place. It makes everything, including thinking itself possible, and is therefore a fact to be celebrated, not to be denied or wished away. Perspective makes man by necessity an artist; it is perhaps Nature at her most democratic.

I interpret therefore I am. Like Moliere’s bourgeois gentleman, who had been speaking prose for forty years without realizing it, we have been artists all along, this despite our most earnest efforts to be metaphysicians or ‘scientists’ and discover the thing-in-itself, the final truth beyond any interpretation. For Nietzsche, all interpretation is creation inasmuch as it is engaged in the re-interpretation and re-configuration of the world. As will be demonstrated throughout this book, every intellectual construction or category imposed upon the world, notwithstanding its claims to ‘objectivity’, has an artistic and therefore subjective dimension to it. Art carries out a selective, world-constitutive operation in the manner of that ultimate impersonal ‘artist’, the will to power.

To interpret is to see in a particular way, at the expense of other possibilities of interpretation. We ourselves are the source of this interpretative injustice, or more correctly, our need for a world in which it is possible to live, is the source. To a certain extent, then, man is the measure of the world, but only his world. In a note from the Nachlass he writes: ‘Is the world for us not merely a construction under a measure? As son as this arbitrary measure disappears, dies the world!’ (Aphorism 5797, NL 82-84, KSA 9.454). Man is thus a contingent measure and our measurements do not refer to an original, underlying reality. What we call reality is the result not only of our limited perspectives upon the world, but the interplay of those perspectives themselves.


In another note, written about four years later, Nietzsche writes:


The history of philosophy is a secret raging against the preconditions of life, against the value feeling of life, against partisanship in favour of life. Philosophers have never hesitated to affirm a world, provided that contradicted this world and furnished them with a pretext for speaking ill of the world. It has hitherto been the grand school of slander, and it has imposed itself to such an extent today that our science, which proclaims itself the advocate of life, has accepted the basic slanderous position, and treated this world as apparent, this chain of causes as mere phenomenal. What is it that really hates here? (WP 461, Mar-June 1888).


This is good, no great, news. Creativity, which since Euripides, Socrates and Plato has been treated with such contempt, is in Nietzsche’s eyes not only the last remedy against nihilism but also man’s greatest gift. It is impossible to think of value itself without some form of perspectivism. As Nietzsche writes in WP 244 (Nov 1887- Mar 1888):


Knowledge and wisdom have in themselves no value; no more than goodness: one must first be in possession of the goal from which these qualities derive their value or non-value – there could be a goal in the light of which great knowledge might represent a great disvalue, if for instance, a high degree of deception were one of the prerequisites for the enhancement of life; likewise if goodness were perhaps able to paralyze and discourage the springs of great longing.


Had we access to true objectivity, nearly every question a human being can ask would be superfluous: every answer would be known. No one would ever need to give his version of how he understood the world. The job would already have been done. Despite the obvious impossibility of ever attaining this state, modern philosophy, in particular transcendental philosophy, has aimed explicitly for a telos of absolute, self-identical truth, whether in terms of the great beyond or in the ideal state. Consequently, the unavoidable activity of judgement has been treated as something provisional, a question to be suspended once the perfect goal has been reached.

‘The death of God’, mentioned by Zarathustra after his encounter with the hermit, and explicitly announced by the madman in the GS 25, is in fact the death of Bacon’s God. It is the death of omniscience itself. Omniscience is not limited to divinity, but is one of humanism’s most characteristic hopes: the positing of a transcendental subject that is capable of knowing it all.

From perspectival limitations, however, springs the potential for creation, the supreme justification for human existence. As we shall see later, Nietzsche evaluates human ‘types’ according to their ability to face their inevitably perspectival existence and make the most of it. This is of crucial importance for understanding the master/slave dichotomy, the task of genealogy, and the operation of the will to power. The immediate consequence of affirming the plurality of perspectives is a re-evaluation of the concept of objectivity. The myth of objectivity, whether understood aesthetically, as the ideal of objects that paint or photograph themselves by their own activity on a purely passive medium, or epistemologically, as ‘truth’, is summarily dealt with: ‘this is a myth’ (UM II, KSA 1.290). Nietzsche is adamant that the ‘will to be objective’ is ‘a modern misunderstanding’. Objective truth implies an implausible selective affinity between the knower and the known. The ideal of objectivity is ridiculous in aesthetics, and shallow and decadent in the domain of epistemology.    The myth of objectivity is also unfruitful, because it makes us forget that the moment of apprehension is a creative moment, the moment when human beings are at their best. The goal of disinterested contemplation presupposes conceptual fictions and requires the positing of a disembodied disinterested knower, ‘an eye turned in no particular direction’. This is one of modernity’s strangest characteristics: the tendency to take man out of nature in order to observe it. As Hans-Georg Gadamer has shown, within Western metaphysics, the ‘objectivist’ conception of nature simply as a collection of ‘things’ is the complement to a ‘subjectivistic’ notion of the self as isolated and disembodied.[2]

For Nietzsche, the price demanded by the spectatorial tradition of rationalism that posits the thinker as a judge who masters reality through his disinterested reflections, was too high: ‘Ah, reason, seriousness, mastery over the affects, the whole somber thing called reflection, all the prerogatives of man: how dearly they have been bought!’ (GM II 3). There are two reasons for this: man has sacrificed his creativity for it, and as we shall see in our subsequent references to The Genealogy of Morals, man has tortured himself into a radically reduced form of humanity in order to attain a goal that is unattainable.

Nietzsche tries to account for the affective components and influencing factors discounted by traditional epistemology. His re-constituted version of ‘objectivity’, usually indicated by quotation marks, acknowledges that knowledge is a function of the embodied expression of affective investment in the world. This, however, should under no circumstances be equated with relativism. Instead, his ‘panoptics’ is an attempt to salvage the possibility of knowledge in the light of the failure of traditional epistemology to provide a usable body of knowledge based on disaffected, disinterested contemplation:


But, as people who seek knowledge, the last thing we should do is to be ungrateful for such determined reversals of customary perspectives and evaluations with which the spirit has for so long raged against itself, with such apparent wickedness and futility. To use this for once to see differently, the will to see things differently, is no small discipline and preparation of the intellect for its coming ‘objectivity,’ and not in the sense of ‘disinterested contemplation’ (which is conceptual nonsense), but as the capability of having power over one’s positive and negative arguments and to raise them and dispose of them so that one knows how to make the various perspectives and interpretations of emotions useful for knowledge (GM III 12, KSA 5.365).


Perspectives, for Nietzsche, are not disembodied points of view hovering disinterestedly over the world. Instead of trying to do away with the notion of perspective, which Nietzsche describes as an act of self-directed castration; we should appropriate the multiplicity of perspectives for a more complete vision of the world. Nietzsche is no minimalist. When it comes to perspectivism, less (or fewer) is not more; more is more. Rather than to see Nietzsche as having no theory of truth, as Maudemarie Clark thinks, it would perhaps be better to describe Nietzsche’s theory of truth as the transformation of the traditional picture of truth as an object to be re- or uncovered into a theory of truth as an event: the truth is not out there, waiting to be found, but happens between observer and observed. Since our conceptual apparatus is so similar, there is never really a problem of absolute relativism. We simply have to agree on certain basic facts about the world. All the same, Nietzsche recommends a plurality of perspectives as guarantee for truth.


The only seeing we have is seeing from a perspective; the only knowledge we have is knowledge from a perspective. The more emotional affects we allow to be expressed in words concerning something, the more eyes, different eyes, we know how to train on the same thing, the more complete our ‘idea’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ will be. But to eliminate the will in general, to suspend all our emotions without exception — even if we were capable of that—what would that be? Wouldn’t we call that castrating the intellect? (GM III, 12, KSA 5.365).


Perspectivism thus implies that knowledge is only really possible once our affective engagement with the world is acknowledged. Until this happens, we can at best speak of a desiccated, anaemic simulacrum of knowledge. Nietzsche’s rehabilitation of the metaphoric of vision in pluralist form returns the knower to his body, suffused with affect, inextricably situated in the world and inscribed by the torment and pain inflicted by moralizing mores and disciplining institutions. The task of the Wissenschaftler is to compile as exhaustive an aggregation of radically different perspectives as possible, a chorus of situated voices. In most cases, an overlapping consensus ensures that we have enough of a world in common to make a meaningful conversation about reality possible. The insistence upon locating a single ‘correct’ perspective leads, paradoxically, to an endangerment of truth, for even a rich perspective is and remains but that: a perspective steeped in a unique set of prejudices. Any absolute perspective, no matter how rich and how ‘correct’, leads inevitably to a diminution of knowledge and an impoverished, ascetic existence. By insisting upon a model of nature as merely an object to be analyzed according to the correct method, Bacon has not really conquered Nature. It implies that man still plays according to her rules, her problems and her puzzles. This is a perfect example of negative freedom: the capacity to react only to external stimuli instead of being a legislator to that outside world. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche associates freedom with those that are capable of showing initiative, and to truly act, as opposed to those who are capable of reacting only to external stimuli. Those who remain only scholars are particularly guilty of this: ‘The scholar, who really does nothing except ‘trundle’ with books finally loses the ability to think for himself. If he does not trundle, he does not think. He replies to a stimulus – a thought he has read – finally, he does nothing but react’ (EH II 8). According to Nietzsche, this is particularly true of those who followed in Bacon’s footsteps. In the following chapters, we shall see that there is a marked difference between those who merely reacted upon Nature – also a text in her own right – and those who were truly able to legislate.

If Bacon disguised his scientific ambition and embraced his role as artist, the ultimately nihilistic division between poet/artist and philosopher might never have occurred. But to deny one’s status as artist-legislator is one of the most nihilistic acts possible. From his earliest unpublished manuscripts to his last writings, Nietzsche consistently presents legislation, or the declaration of the highest values, as the real function of the philosopher. There is a comprehensive kind of thought that gathers together, assigns value to and orders all existing knowledge of the world. Genuine philosophers, however, are commanders and legislators. Nietzsche adds the following: philosophers alone determine the ‘whither’ and ‘wherefore’, what is useful and what constitutes utility for men. Plato was such a philosopher. He did not merely dissimulate; he ‘deceived’ himself when he convinced himself that ‘the good’ as he desired it was ‘what a man named Plato had chanced to discover on his way’ (Aphorism 10490, NL 84-85, KSA 11.611).

It would however, be a misconception to think that just because Nietzsche sees truth in constructivist terms, that any old fantasy would do. Contrary to readers who see him purely as a mortal Hermes, defender of tale-spinners, liars and illusionists, Nietzsche despises those who cannot face the facticity that accompanies authentic existence. It is precisely those who are unable to live in the real world that engage in fictitious flights and imagined realities in which they do not suffer. Nietzsche writes in this regard:


Who alone has grounds to lie himself out of actuality? He who suffers from it. But to suffer from actuality is to be a misfortunate actuality… The preponderance of unpleasurable feelings over pleasurable feelings is the cause of fictitious morality and religion: such a preponderance however, provides the formulae for decadence (A 15).


A hint for utilitarians! If one is to lie, lie well: be feminine, and don a mask. A badly told lie has a nasty habit of becoming Truth, as we shall see in our discussion on language. Bacon made a big mistake when he suggested that Nature be treated as valuable spouse, not as courtesan or slave. Quite aside from the morality of objectifying woman/Nature as subject matter for the penetrating glance of the philosopher/scientist, it is folly even to try. One of Nietzsche’s most famous openings for a book reads as follows:


Supposing truth to be a woman – what? Is he suspicion not well-founded that all philosophers, when they have been dogmatists, have had little understanding of woman? That the gruesome earnestness, the clumsy importunity with which they have been in the habit of approaching truth has been inept and improper means for winning a wench. Certainly, she has not let herself be won – and today every kind of dogmatism stands sad and discouraged. If it continues to stand at all! (BGE, Pr).

Nietzsche’s wild woman cannot be domesticated, only be played with, and she loves only warriors. In the chapters that follow, we shall see what happens when the arch-domesticator, the Englishman, tries his hand at Nietzsche’s Woman-Truth, and in our chapter on George Eliot, what a betrayed femininity can do.




[1] Bacon is fond of quoting Virgil’s famous Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causus

                                                                                Quique metus omnes, et inorabile fatum

                                                                                Subjecit pedibus, strepitumque Acherontis avari –

‘Happy is the man who has learned the causes of things’.

[2] Gadamer, H-G. (1967) ‘On the Problem of Self-Understanding’. In Philosophical Hermeneutics (ed) D. E. Linge. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 48-49.


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