Intellectual traditions in the work of Darwin and Nietzsche

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Scientists and philosophers, those who bring about ideas breaking with traditional world views, being themselves children of intellectual traditions, are likely to make use of intellectual traditions. This is the case for a revolutionary scientist like Charles Darwin, but does it also apply to the thinker who broke with the philosophical tradition – Friedrich Nietzsche?

Darwin’s work shows Romantic aspects. We frequently encounter admiring depictions of the beauties of nature. „We see these beautiful co-adaptations most plainly in the humblest parasite … in the plumed seed which is wafted by the gentlest breeze“ (1). Not only in this regard he draws upon the Romantic. In his quest for understanding nature, he also puts on Kant’s spectacles of perception and makes the world and ourselves understandable. His observations of plants and animals on a heath (2) leads him to insights about ourselves: “’So profound is our ignorance, and so high our presumption that we marvel when he hear of the extinction of an organic being; and as we do not see the cause, we invoke cataclysm to desolate the world …” (2).

Darwin takes recourse to Empiricism as well. He was concerned with what Kant called the phenomenal world. He studied surface and effect. When performing studies in order to derive the relation of animals and plants to each other (3), he only takes into account things perceivable by sensory experiences. He examines the plants visually. He even goes one step further by incorporating quantities: „twelve species of plants flourished in the plantations ..six insectivorous birds were very common in the plantations … I counted thirty-two little trees, and one of them with twenty-six rings of growth … “ (3). He takes recourse to a fundamental aspect of Utilitarianism: Taking measurable and countable entities and bringing them into an equation yields something of substance: “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” (4). Quantity of measurable entities matter in order to derive a conclusion.

Darwin stands even more in the tradition of Utilitarianism. By dispelling the notion of ‘species’ as a real thing, he helps devaluating hitherto valued entities, showing their lack of essence. Where the idealist would like to see a distinct species, an ideal or at least a to-be-perfected entity, there is actually nothing than gradual and imperceptible change. „It may … be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing … the slightest variations, rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good, silently and insensibly working“ (5). By bringing to the fore the genealogy of things, Darwin reduces hitherto idealized entities to their mere expedience. There is no ‘species’. It is merely a term, invented for dealing with a complicated world.

Friedrich NietzscheNietzsche assumes a starting point in the tradition of ancient Greece, in which being “human, all-too-human” was embraced. The ancient Greek Gods showed human traits which would have been in Judaeo-Christian ages considered immoral. They did not deny their animal urges: “…this, fortunately, Is revealed by the merest glance at the Greek gods, those reflections of noble and self-controlled man, in whom the animal in man felt himself deified … and did not rage against himself.” (6). There is no moral ideal here. Importantly, Nietzsche is not idealizing that state either.

Here ends Nietzsche harnessing the intellectual past and here begins his genealogy of it. Ever since Socrates and Plato, with the advent of the denial of animal instincts and the pursue of an ideal in lieu of it, Nietzsche critically scrutinizes intellectual tradition.

Religion and western philosophy, Judaeo-Christian ethics and the secularisation of it, Enlightenment as well as arts and sciences, are all the maintainers of an unhealthy ‘slave morality’, the constituents of which are resentment (a reversal of values, strength and health as ‘evil ‘instead of good, suffering and weakness as ‘good’ instead of bad, upheld by religion) (7), guilt and bad conscience (the result of a creditor and debtor relationship, with punishment as  sustaining tool) (8), and the ascetic ideal (the denial of a life in pleasure for an ideal, both in arts and sciences) (9).

For Nietzsche, the “will to power” is key. That “will to power” also steers and governs even slave morality. The urge for dominance is present even in the weak and rebels with resentment; in the individual it clashes with the internalized ascetic ideal, leading to bad conscience. Hence, all intellectual traditions with their ideals lead to sickness. Nietzsche rejects the intellectual framework of the past altogether.

Darwin, albeit debunking godlike humankind as myth, makes use of ideals in intellectual traditions:  fascination with nature and scientific objectivity in the quest for the truth, and he paves their path into the future: natural sciences prevail to this day. Nietzsche, discrediting and doing away with ideals, rejects making use of them. If anything, he ushers in a new tradition, the tradition of psychology: There is no ideal to meet. It is about trying to live mentally healthy – while pursuing the ideal of science.

1) 2) 3) 5) Darwin, The Origin of Species
4) Bentham, A Fragment on Government
6) 7) 8) 9) Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals


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