Systematic without a System
The purpose of this post is to show why it makes sense to employ a philosophical methodology systematically used by Aristotle and Nietzsche by explaining why they used it despite it leading to contradictions and no overarching system in their work. Interestingly enough, they arrive at it for different reasons. For Nietzsche it is an outcome of his epistemology and metaphysics. For Aristotle it is an outcome of his dialectical method, probably in response to concrete questions set by his peers or students.
Systematic without a System: The Method of Different Starting Points in Aristotle
There is a tendency among readers of Plato1 and Aristotle2 to see a “system” hidden in their works. Though such attempts may not be devoid of value, some commentators claim they miss the overall point of ancient works:
“Although every written work is a monologue, the philosophical work is always implicitly a dialogue. The dimension of the possible interlocutor is always present within it. This explains the incoherencies and contradictions which modern historians discover with astonishment in the works of ancient philosophers. In philosophical works such as these, thought cannot be expressed according to the pure, absolute necessity of a systematic order. Rather, it must take into account the level of the interlocutor, and the concrete tempo of the logos in which it is expressed. It is the economy proper to a given written logos3 which conditions its thought content, and it is the logos that constitutes a living system which, in the words of Plato, “ought to have its own body…it must not lack either head or feet: it must have a middle and extremities so composed as to suit each other and the whole work.” Each logos is a “system,” but the totality of logoi4 written by an author does not constitute a system. This is obviously true in the case of Plato’s dialogues, but it is equally true in the case of the lectures of Aristotle.”5
As I have noted in my post about doing philosophy6, the Platonic dialogues rather than being pieces of a system were in fact spiritual exercises, customized to the individual interlocutors and intended to form them or exhort them to philosophy. Dialogue practiced with different individuals inevitably brings about different results and conclusions or no conclusion at all. In Aristotle we find a similar absence of a complete system but also one constant characteristic feature:
“For Aristotle’s writings are indeed neither more nor less than lecture-notes; and the error of many Aristotelian scholars has been that they have forgotten this fact, and imagined instead that they were manuals or systematic treatises, intended to propose a complete exposition of a systematic doctrine.
Consequently, they have been astonished at the inconsistencies, and even contradictions, they discovered between one writing and another. As Düring has convincingly shown, Aristotle’s various logoi correspond to the concrete situations created by specific academic debates. Each lesson corresponds to different conditions and a specific problematic. It has inner unity, but its notional content does not overlap precisely with that of any other lesson. Moreover, Aristotle had no intention of setting forth a complete system of reality. Rather, he wished to train his students in the technique of using correct methods in logic, the natural sciences, and ethics. Düring gives an excellent description of the Aristotelian method:
“the most characteristic feature in Aristotle is his incessant discussion of problems. Almost every important assertion is an answer to a question put in a certain way, and is valid only as an answer to this particular question. That which is really interesting in Aristotle is his framing of the problems, not his answers. It is part of his method of inquiry to approach a problem or a group of problems again and again from different angles. His own words are ἄλλην ἀρχὴν ποιησάμενοι [“now, taking a different starting-point…”]7 …From different starting points, αρχαί, he strikes off into different lines of thought and ultimately reaches inconsistent answers. Take as example his discussion of the soul…in each case the answer is the consequence of the manner in which he posits the problem. In short, it is possible to explain this type of inconsistencies as natural results of the method he applies.”8
In the Aristotelian method of “different starting-points,” we can recognize the method Aristophanes attributed to Socrates, and we have seen to what extent all antiquity remained faithful to this method. For this reason, During’s description can in fact apply, mutatis mutandis, to almost all the philosophers of antiquity. Such a method, consisting not in setting forth a system, but in giving precise responses to precisely limited questions, is the heritage – lasting throughout antiquity – of the dialectical method; that is to say, of the dialectical exercise.”9
It is through this characteristic feature that Aristotle’s affinity with Nietzsche’s perspectivism comes to the fore.
Against Systems: Nietzsche’s Perspectivism
“I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” – Friedrich Nietzsche10
Nietzsche never founded a school in the fashion of antiquity despite teaching at the University of Basel. In fact, his most productive philosophical years were after he took early retirement for health reasons. With the exceptions of a few trusted friends he led a largely solitary existence until his mental breakdown and demise. His rationale for choosing a methodology akin to Aristotle’s “different starting points” didn’t have to do with addressing concrete problems that arose in dialogue with various students, nor was it because he was trying to personalize his message to his interlocutors like Plato, but was rather, as we will see later, a direct result of his epistemology and metaphysics.
However, Nietzsche’s lack of a system was not just the outcome of his method, as we saw in Aristotle, but additionally based on an explicit rejection of system-building, without being blind to some of its benefits. Walter Kaufmann summarizes the reasons for Nietzsche’s rejection and appreciation of systems in the following elucidative excerpt:
“A system must necessarily be based on premises that by its very nature it cannot question. This was one of Nietzsche’s objections, although he did not put the point this way himself. The systematic thinker starts with a number of primary assumptions from which he draws a net of inferences and thus deduces his system; but he cannot, from within his system, establish the truth of his premises. He takes them for granted, and even if they should seem “self-evident” to him, they may not seem so to others. They are in that sense arbitrary and reducible to the subjective make-up of the thinker. A strikingly similar view is found in William James: “A philosophy is the expression of a man’s intimate character.” And, Nietzsche would add, of the philosopher’s moral notions.
While the early Nietzsche suggests that one may “delight in such systems, even if they should be entirely mistaken,” because they are after all expressions of the humanity of “great human beings” (IV, 151), it is plain that the same point can be turned negatively – and after thinking the matter over for some years, Nietzsche gave vehement expression to the other side of the question.
The will to a system: in a philosopher, morally speaking, a subtle corruption, a disease of the character; amorally speaking, his will to appear more stupid than he is…I am not bigoted enough for a system-and not even for my system [XIV, 313].
What Nietzsche objects to is the failure to question one’s own assumptions. The philosopher who boasts of a system would appear more stupid than he is, inasmuch as he refuses to think about his premises. This is one of the recurrent themes of Nietzsche’s later thought, and in characteristic fashion he often formulated it in more offensive language: “the will to a system is a lack of integrity”. Building systems seems, moreover, to lack ultimate seriousness. It seems playful to elaborate conclusions which must necessarily follow from assumed and unquestioned premises; any child can do that: “building systems is childishness” (XIV, 366; XVI, 68).
As Nietzsche ponders the question further, he turns the point positively once more, reconciling his early appreciation of systems with his later insight that they narrow thought artificially:
The different philosophic systems are to be considered as educational methods11 of the spirit: they have always developed one particular force of the spirit12 best by their one-sided demand to see things just so and not otherwise [XVI, 76].
The development of Nietzsche’s view of philosophic systems, as here suggested, is reminiscent of Hegel’s dialectic. This, however, does not mean that his statements contradict each other or that he claims that reality is self-contradictory. Only unqualified judgments about reality involve us in superficial inconsistencies: thus systems are good, but also bad. The contradiction disappears as soon as we qualify such statements and specify in what respects systems are good and bad. Systems, says Nietzsche, are good insofar as they reveal the character of a great thinker – but this goodness is independent of the truth of the system. The system is reducible to a set of premises which cannot be questioned within the framework of the system-and these basic assumptions give expression to the mental make-up of the philosopher. This affirmation of the goodness or value of systems contains, implicitly (an sich, as Hegel would say), a negative truth about systems-and Nietzsche proceeds to state this truth explicitly (für sich). The thinker who believes in the ultimate truth of his system, without questioning its presuppositions, appears more stupid than he is: he refuses to think beyond a certain point; and this is, according to Nietzsche, a subtle moral corruption. In this sense, systems are bad-but this assertion does not contradict the earlier affirmation that they are good: rather it follows from this very affirmation. They are not good in every way, and their being good in one way involves their being bad in another. An und für sich, systems are neither unqualifiedly good nor entirely bad. When we consider them as a whole, we become aware of both their Nutzen und Nachteil, their usefulness and their disadvantages. No one system reveals the entire truth; at best, each organizes one point of view or perspective. We must consider many perspectives, and a philosopher should not imprison his thought in one system.”13
In view of these considerations, Nietzsche adopted a philosophical approach which he called perspectivism (Perspektivismus). However, before we provide a detailed exposition of perspectivism, it is important to quickly avoid something suggested by the last sentences from the excerpt quoted above by Kaufmann, through a crucial clarification:
“…perspectivism is a claim about knowledge; it is not a claim about truth, and it does not entail that truth is relative to perspective. Further, ‘perspectives’ are constituted by affects, not beliefs. The point is not that knowledge is always from the viewpoint of a particular set of beliefs and that there are always alternative sets that would ground equally good views of an object. Such a view inevitably saddles perspectivism with relativism and problems of self-reference. Nietzsche’s explicit point in describing knowledge as perspectival is to guard against conceiving of knowledge as ‘disinterested contemplation’.[…]
Because knowledge is always acquired from the viewpoint of particular interests and values, there are therefore always other affective sets that would focus attention on different aspects of reality. Nietzsche’s use of the metaphor of perspective thus implies that knowledge is limited in the sense that there are always other things to know, but not that perspectives block our access to truth. Affects are our access, the basis of all access to truth. If its perspectival character raises any problems for knowledge, it is only because being locked into a particular perspective can make one unable to appreciate features of reality that are apparent from other perspectives. Nietzsche’s solution is simple: the more affects we know how to bring to bear on a matter, the more complete our knowledge of it will be.
This does not mean that true knowledge requires assuming as many perspectives as possible. Knowledge does not require complete knowledge, and complete knowledge is not Nietzsche’s epistemological ideal. In fact, he suggests that the greatest scholars tend to serve knowledge by immersing themselves deeply and thoroughly in some particular perspective, so much so that they damage themselves as human beings. The situation is different for philosophers because their ultimate responsibility is not knowledge, but values14. To undertake the task to which Nietzsche assigns them, they need practice in shifting perspectives15. This explains much that is distinctive about his way of writing philosophy: why it involves so much affect and seems so given to extremes of expression. He uses different affective stances – assuming them for a while – in order to show us features of reality that are visible from them. More importantly, by moving from one perspective to another, he attempts to show philosophers the kind of ‘objectivity’ that is required for their task: objectivity understood not as disinterested contemplation, but as a matter of not being locked into any particular valuational perspective, as an ability to move from one affective set to another.”16
Now that this particular point is clarified, let’s turn to a detailed exposition of Nietzsche’s perspectivism, which I’ll take from my MA dissertation17:
Perspectivism and Interpretation
Nietzsche…[claims] that all knowledge is necessarily perspectival. Like Quine and others, this means that cognition happens from somewhere – namely the biological animal we are – and the nature of this animal determines how we shall cognise the world.
An important consequence of this view shared by Quine and Nietzsche is that it rejects the long-standing philosophical tradition between “real” knowledge (scientia) and mere belief or opinion (doxa)18. That tradition usually identifies “real” knowledge with, for example, a proposition of mathematics19 that is demonstrated by a strict proof, with important characteristics like infallibility and certainty; this however, hardly fits with the idea of knowledge as a biological phenomenon that helps the human animal to get by in its dealings with the world20.
This shared view between them, sheds light on why both thinkers place emphasis on the relation between physiology and knowledge. Nietzsche for example, is notorious for accusing philosophers of lacking knowledge of physiology21 and failing to place methodological priority on the body22; as he writes in the Antichrist: “‘Pure spirit’ is pure stupidity: if we deduct the nervous system and the senses, […] we miscalculate – that’s all!”23
On a similar vein, for Quine physiology and psychology helps us understand how we gain information about the world24; because in the end, “it is only through stimulation of our nerve-endings by energy impinging on our sensory surfaces that we human beings know anything at all about the world”25. For Quine and Nietzsche a philosophical theory that disregards the findings of physiology, psychology or those of any other relevant science, in view of their shared naturalism, is simply a bad theory26.
In addition to the biological sense of perspectivism, there is also another sense in which knowledge is perspectival and I will elucidate by drawing from a section in On the Genealogy of Morals:
Henceforth, my dear philosophers, let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject”; let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as “pure reason”, “absolute spirituality”, “knowledge in itself”: they always demand that we should think of an eye that is completely unthinkable, an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpretive forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking; these always demand of the eye an absurdity and a nonsense. There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be. But to eliminate the will altogether, to suspend each and every affect, supposing we were capable of this – what would that mean but to castrate the intellect?27
Having acknowledged that cognition happens from a biological organism, Nietzsche asks us to reject that the possibility that cognition happens in a “will-less, painless, timeless” knowing subject. He then invites us to draw a similarity between the sensory perception of seeing and the cognitive one of knowing. In the case of vision, where and when (day, night) you are in relation to an object affects the view of the object that you are seeing; in changing your spatio-temporal relationship with the object, you acquire different views of it. Though you might change the position from which you’ll view the object, you cannot negate the perspectival character of vision – you always look at something from somewhere.
Clark suggests that in the case of cognition the metaphorical equivalent of our eyes can be not only our web of beliefs but also “those factors on the side of the subject responsible for beliefs such as cognitive capacities and practical interests”28 Just as it is impossible to conceive of an object from no particular perspective, in the same way one cannot perceive something outside his web of beliefs, cognitive capacities and interests. The point to remember, is that this incapacity is in no way significant:
“Since things have no “objective” character – no intelligible character that is independent of how they can appear – the perspectival or “subjective” character of knowledge cannot deprive us of anything we could reasonably want or for which we could have any cognitive use.”29. The basic motivation behind this conclusion, is the idea that knowledge is relational:
One would like to know what things-in-themselves are; but behold, there are no things-in-themselves! But even supposing there were an in-itself, an unconditioned thing, it would for that very reason be unknowable! Something unconditioned cannot be known; otherwise it would not be unconditioned!…Coming to know means “to place oneself in a conditional relation to something”; to feel oneself conditioned by something and oneself to condition it – it is therefore under all circumstances establishing, denoting, and making-conscious of conditions (not forthcoming entities, things, what is “in-itself”).30
It is what the late Whitehead elegantly captured by the phrase “We are in the world and the world is in us”31 arguably, the two are interdependent and mutually irreducible. We understand the world by interpreting it. But the entities that we posit are not “given” but are rather part of our interpretation. Nietzsche’s objection against positivism, was never its scientific spirit, but its presumption that the “facts” it talks about are independent of our interpretive activities:
Against positivism, which halts at phenomena – “There are only facts” – I would say: No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact “in itself”: perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing.
“Everything is subjective,” you say; but even this is interpretation. The “subject” is not something given, it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is. – Finally, is it necessary to posit an interpreter behind interpretation? Even this is invention, hypothesis.
In so far as the word “knowledge” has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings. – “Perspectivism.”32
Anyone familiar with Quine33, Sellars34 and Goodman35 can readily discern their affinities to Nietzsche. However, let us focus a bit on the second paragraph of the section by Nietzsche we quoted above.
Nietzsche claims that the “subject” is not something given, but rather invented and projected behind what there is36. Let us presume that we grant the point, that knowledge is perspectival in the sense that we cannot intelligibly conceive any objects outside our biological constitution and web of beliefs. However, the “subject” was mainly a result of naïve psychology and our grammatical structures. Shouldn’t we ask how this model came about in the first place? Couldn’t it have been because it was the only one capable of describing reality as it is in-itself? Nietzsche’s replies to these questions bring him even closer to 20th century philosophy, for he has already thought of this question: “Must all philosophy not ultimately bring to light the preconditions upon which the process of reason depends? – our belief in the “ego” as substance, as the sole reality from which we ascribe reality to things in general?”37. However, when we try to bring to light these preconditions,
The oldest “realism” at last comes to light: at the same time that the entire religious history of mankind is recognized as the history of the soul superstition. Here we come to a limit: our thinking itself involves this belief (with its distinction of substance, accident; deed, doer etc.); to let it go means: being no longer able to think.
But that a belief, however necessary it may be for the preservation of a species, has nothing to do with truth, one knows from the fact that, e.g. we have to believe in time, space, and motion without feeling compelled to grant them absolute reality.38
We recognize the “limit” when we try to formulate the question. For example in asking “What brings about the “deed/doer’ model?”39 we are presupposing it – we presuppose that there is something that brings it (“wills it”) about. We cannot use our language to think outside the schemas of our language: “We cease to think when we refuse to do so under the constraint of language; we barely reach the doubt that sees this limitation as a limitation. Rational thought is interpretation according to a scheme that we cannot throw off.”40 Just as an object becomes unintelligible if we try to discount our biological constitution and web of beliefs, so do any entities if we try to conceive them outside language, since “entities constitute themselves only interior to the grammatically preconceived relation above all between the “accidental” predicate and the “underlying” subject”41. To try to change our language would as self-defeating as trying to view the world from nowhere. Nietzsche insists that “we cannot change our means of expression at will: it is possible to understand to what extent they are mere signs.”42 However, “the demand for an adequate mode of expression”43, for “a net of ‘clear concepts’”44 he deems to be “senseless” for
It is of the essence of a language, a means of expression, to express a mere relationship – The concept “truth” is nonsensical. The entire domain of “true-false” applies only to relations, not to an “in-itself”–there is no “essence-in-itself” (it is only relations that constitute an essence–), just as there can be no “knowledge-in-itself”.45
The important point to remember is that once Nietzsche denies the “in-itself”, we are not left with “appearances”: “We have abolished the real world: what world is left? The apparent world perhaps?…But no! With the real world we have also abolished the apparent world!”46 Thus the entities our perspectives and language posit are not “posits” in a derogatory sense; as Quine wrote:
To call a posit ‘a posit’ is not to patronize it…Everything to which we concede existence is a posit from the standpoint of a description of the theory-building process, and simultaneously real from the standpoint of the theory that is being built. Nor let us look down on the standpoint of the theory as make-believe; for we can never do better than occupy a standpoint of some theory or other; the best we can muster at the time.47
In other words, perspectivism and interpretation are inevitable but that’s the best we can do.
Highlighting the Methodological Affinity between Aristotle and Nietzsche
The methodological affinity I wish to highlight, despite obviously being the result of different factors, is between Aristotle’s “method of inquiry to approach a problem of a group of problems again and again from different angles”48 taking different starting points, irrespective of ultimately reaching inconsistent answers, and Nietzsche’s perspectivism. Both Aristotle and Nietzsche in their work tried to approach issues with more eyes, different starting points, and as a result achieved a higher objectivity and completeness in the fields of their investigations, not bothered by the contradictions this method produced or the fact their perspectives hardly cohered into a single system.
It is as if they did philosophy in the spirit of a verse found in Song of Myself, and each in their own way sang with Whitman:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Posterity is forever grateful they did. For they were large and gave us multitudes to ponder.
In the interest of avoiding future perplexity, I want to explicitly state that I am moved by the same spirit and will employ the same method, without lapsing into dogmatic rigidity about it, since different situations at times require different methods49. Obviously, I do not believe contradicting ourselves demonstrates our stature or profundity. In fact most of the times it merely demonstrates that we are wrong. However, the fear of being wrong shouldn’t stop us from doing what leads to the discovery of interesting and relevant truths which is nothing else than practicing our ability to shift perspectives and making bold conjectures50.
For Plato this starts as far back as antiquity, see the Preface from Platonic Readings edited by C.L. Grisworld Jr., The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.
For a brief description of what logos is in Plato please look up section “D. Training in Dialectics and the Ethics of Dialogue” in Doing Philosophy
Logoi is the plural form of logos.
I. Düring, “Aristotle and the heritage from Plato,” Eranos 62 (1964), pp. 97-98.
Just like Aristotle used his works for educating his students, so Nietzsche believed systems could serve a similar educative function.
In other words, formed the spirit rather than inform it, yet another affinity to philosophers in the Socratic tradition, see Doing Philosophy, part C: Forming rather than Informing.
W. Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, p.79-81, Princeton University Press, 1974.
Essentially making perspectivism a spiritual exercise like the ones we described in Doing Philosophy, part F. Note the striking similarity with the effect reading a Platonic dialogue has on the reader by making them take the different perspectives of the interlocutors examining an issue.
M. Clark, “Nietzsche, Friedrich (1844-1900)”, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by E. Craig, Routledge, 1998. Italicized words in the first sentence are mine, so are the italics next to the notes 14 and 15.
A. Pagidas, Nietzsche on Force and Matter, submitted as the final dissertation for the MA in Philosophy at the University of Reading, 2004.
Many (if not most) great philosophers can be said to belong to this tradition. Plato, Descartes, Locke, are just some examples.
F. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, section 489: “The phenomenon of the body is the richer, clearer, more tangible phenomenon: to be given methodological priority.” See also section 492.
We’ve already highlighted some similarities but will add another excerpt to that effect.
His critique of the “myth of the given” in “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” in Science, Perception and Reality, Routledge, 1963.
This was a theme that was elaborated in section 3.C of the dissertation. You can find the full dissertation here.
An exposition of the deed/doer model is found in section 3.C. of my dissertation Nietzsche on Force and Matter under the heading “Psychology and the Metaphysics of Language”.
J. Simon, “Grammar and Truth”, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, p.132, eds. B. Babich & R.S. Cohen, vol.203, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999.