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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic

by Richard Bett (Baltimore)

Nietzsche's engagement with Greek philosophy and Greek culture is


no news. He started his career as a professor of classical philology; and
although he was shunned in the profession even before he resigned
from it for health reasons, his discussions of Socrates, of Greek tragedy
and of many other aspects of the Greek world continue to be widely
read — much more so than the work of even his most famous philologi-
cal detractor Wilamowitz.l What is not well known, however, is that
among the Greek thinkers towards whom Nietzsche at various times
turned his attention. are the Greek skeptics.2 The material in the
Nietzsche corpus dealing with Greek skepticism is not, of course, any-
where near as extensive or as prominent as that dealing with Socrates
or Plato. But there is enough there to show that his interest in, and
knowledge of, Greek skepticism was considerable. Sometimes he talks
specifically about the Greek skeptics, while at other times he talks
about skepticism in a more general way. But even in the latter case, it
is often plausible to suppose that the Greek skeptics are at least among
the thinkers he has in mind.
Anyone professionally concerned with the Greek skeptics can find
plenty in Nietzsche's references to them that is intriguing and sugges-
tive. But it is not only from some narrowly antiquarian point of view
that these references may be worth studying. For as any reader of
Nietzsche would no doubt expect, when he talks about the skeptics, he
typically expresses opinions about them; and his implicit or explicit

1
Wilamowitz (Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff) published a "rejoinder" (Er-
widrung) to Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, entitled Zukunftsphilologiel, "phil-
ology of the future" (Berlin, 1872). Wilamowitz's judgement, though damaging
to Nietzsche's reputation among classicists, was not universally assented to; it
incited a reply of its own from Nietzsche's friend and fellow-classicist Erwin
Rohde — which in turn incited a second Zukunftsphilologie pamphlet from Wila-
mowitz, directed against what he called Rohde's "rescue attempts" (Rettungsver-
suche) (Berlin, 1873).
2
For example, a recent book by Victor Tejera entitled Nietzsche and Greek
Thought (Dordrecht, 1987) has no mention of Greek skepticism.

Archiv f. Gesch. d. Philosophie 82. Bd., S. 62-86


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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic 63

verdicts about skepticism may have an interesting bearing upon his


own philosophy. It is not uncommon to hear Nietzsche himself referred
to as a skeptic; one can also find interpreters for whom it is important
to deny that this label applies to him. An examination of Nietzsche's
own treatment of Greek skepticism, and of his related remarks about
skepticism more generally, may be expected to help us in clarifying
the degree to which, or the ways in which, his philosophizing may
appropriately be viewed as a form of skepticism. I want, then, both to
explore the question of Nietzsche's knowledge of, and attitudes to-
wards, Greek skepticism, and to consider, in light ofthat exploration,
the relations between his philosophical ideas and those ideas standardly
thought of as skeptical - particularly those of the Greek skeptics them-
selves. We shall see that, as is usual with Nietzsche, no simple resolu-
tions of these issues will do.

We may start with a passage written at the very end of Nietzsche's


career. In Ecce Homo Nietzsche talks about his reading habits — about
the selectiveness of his choice of books, and about the fact that when
engaged in hard creative work he avoids books as much as possible. In
the course of this discussion he remarks: "I must count back half a
year before catching myself with a book in my hand. What was it? —
A superb study by Victor Brochard, Les Sceptiques Grecs, in which my
Laertiana are also put to good use. The skeptics, the only honorable
type among the equivocal, quinquivocal tribe of philosophers!"3 The
value judgement with which the passage closes is remarkable, and we
shall return to it; but the passage is striking for other reasons as well.
Nietzsche's judgement about the book is sharp; for any serious student
of Greek skepticism, Brochard's Les Sceptiques Grecs4 is still an indis-
pensable aid. In addition, the passage suggests that at this period,
Nietzsche's interest in the subject of Greek skepticism was very strong.
In the same passage, Nietzsche says that even when he does permit
himself to read — which is by no means all the time - he almost always
surrounds himself with the same relatively small number of books; his
willingness to read Brochard appears to constitute a rare exception. Of
course, one should not necessarily take Ecce Homo at face value as
sober autobiography; as Alexander Nehamas in particular has empha-
3
"Why I am so Clever", section 3. I follow the translation in Basic Writings of
Nietzsche, translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York, 1968).
4
Paris, 1887 - 2nd edition 1923.

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64 Richard Bett

sized, Nietzsche is in a sense creating or inventing himself in this work.5


But in this case there are various pieces of supporting evidence. First,
it is entirely believable that Nietzsche would be reading little in this
period, for much less subtle reasons than he suggests here.6 By this
time, in the fall of 1888, his sickness was far advanced, about to erupt
into insanity;7 among other things, he was nearly blind, so that reading
of any kind must have cost him considerable effort.8 Then again, in the
Nachlass for the fall of 1888 the title "Scep<tiques> gr<ecs>" appears in
a fragmentary list;9 But immediately afterwards, in the Colli-Montinari
edition, appear notes saying "don't buy any books!" and "don't read
any books!"10 Brochard's book does indeed seem to have seized his
interest, then, in an exceptional way. Besides, the book only appeared
in 1887; if Nietzsche is telling the truth when he says that he read it
"half a year" ago, he must have obtained it almost as soon as it was
published.11 (It is not clear, in fact, how he came to know about it so

5
Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), es-
pecially chapter 6.
6
In fact it is not quite true that, at the time of composing Ecce Homo (October
1888), he had not even handled a book for half a year. In June of that year he
was reading Stendhal's Rome, Naples and Florence and also Ludwig Nohl's Leben
Wagners', in May he was reading a French translation of Manu's book of laws,
and also browsed in Löscher's bookstore in Turin. See letters to Heinrich Köse-
litz (Peter Gast) of June 20, May 31 and May 17 1888, in Nietzsche Briefwechsel:
Kritische Gesamtausgabe, edd. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin/
New York, 1975-1984) III.5, pp. 337-339, 324-326 and 315-317 respectively.
After that, however, he does not appear to mention any reading in his letters
until November (Strindberg; see letters to Köselitz, November 18 (op. cit.,
pp. 477-479) and to Georg Brandes, November 20 (pp. 482 f.)).
7
At the time of composition of Ecce Homo, he was actually feeling much better
than usual; but his health had been very bad for much of the previous summer.
See letter to Köselitz, October 30, and to Malwida von Meysenbug, end of July,
pp. 460-463 and 377-379 respectively in Nietzsche Briefwechsel III.5.
8
"Three-quarters blind" was his own description in a letter to Georg Brandes of
December 2, 1887 (p. 207 in Nietzsche Briefwechsel III.5). But as early as 1873
his bad eyesight had led him to dictate a letter rather than write it himself (letter
to Erwin Rohde, October 18, 1873, pp. 166-169 in Nietzsche Briefwechsel II.3).
9
V. 13, p. 579 in Friedrich Nietzsche, Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe
in 15 Bänden, edd. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin/New York,
1980) - hereafter cited as KSA.
10
KSA v. 13, pp. 579, 580 ("keine Bücher kaufen!", "keine Bücher lesen!").
11
Given that he was reading other books in May and June (see above, n. 6), and
that he claims that this was the last book he had read, one might suppose that
"half a year" is an exaggeration. However, the sudden spate of references, to
ancient skeptics in his unpublished writings of the first few months of 1888 (see
below) suggest that this dating is accurate.

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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic 65

quickly; there appear to be no references to it in his letters.) Finally, he


must have read it rather carefully in order to see that his "Laertiana"
— that is, his early scholarly works on Diogenes Laertius - were "put
to good use". I have counted just five references to Nietzsche in
Brochard, all buried in footnotes. And Brochard has no index or bibli-
ography; Nietzsche could not have done what some of us do on acquir-
ing a new book in our own field, which is to look immediately at the
index or bibliography to see if our own work is mentioned.
In the Nachlaß for early 1888 - that is, around the same time as he seems to
have been reading Brochard - there appear more than ten notes or brief discussions
in which Pyrrho, the supposed original skeptic, is talked about;12 some, but not all,
of these found their way into the collection of notes published by Nietzsche's sister
under the title The Will to Power.13 Some of them refer to specific incidents in the
life of Pyrrho recounted in Diogenes Laertius, which he must have come to know
during his youthful studies of Diogenes; but they are probably being recalled to his
memory through his reading of Brochard. One refers to a scathing description of
Plato by Pyrrho's follower Timon;14 this too is quoted by Diogenes (among other
people), but is also referred to in Brochard.15 From the same period in the Nachlass,
there are also some remarks about skepticism which do not name any specific skep-
tic; but sometimes it is clear that Greek skepticism in particular is intended, or that
it is at least part of what he has in mind.16 In addition, there is a remark about
skeptics in the Antichrist (section 12) which appears closely related to the verdict he
delivers on the skeptics in the passage from Ecce Homo.
I have already alluded to Nietzsche's early scholarly work on Diogenes Laertius. It
is from this period, at the very beginning of his career, that the other main evidence of
a significant interest in ancient skepticism derives; and as one might expect, it is in this
period, far more than in any other, that one finds detailed evidence that Nietzsche read,
and thought deeply about, the ancient sources relating to Greek skepticism. As it hap-

12
See KSA v. 13, pp. 264f., 276-278, 293, 311 f., 324, 332, 347, 378, 403, 446.
13
See sections 428, 434, 437, 442, 455 in the edition of Walter Kaufmann,
translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York, 1968); The
Will to Power will be cited hereafter as WP, with citations by section number,
and quotations from it will follow the Kaufmann/Hollingdale translation. Un-
surprisingly, one fragment that does not appear in WP (KSA v. 13, p. 347) has
to do with the story (from Diogenes Laertius, 9.66) that Pyrrho was disturbed
from his usual equanimity - the one time this happened, according to Nietzsche,
though the text does not in fact specify this - by an incident involving his sister;
Nietzsche jokingly traces to this incident an alleged fear of sisters on the part of
philosophers in general.
u
15
KSA v. 13, p. 293 = WP 428.
DL 3.26, Brochard p. 82 (in the 1923 edition). For the other ancient sources, see
M. Di Marco, Timone di Fliunte: Silli (Rome, 1989), p. 79.
16
See especially KSA v. 13, pp. 285 f. = WP 458, in which the ancient skeptics are
specifically mentioned; also v, 13, p. 422 «= WP 414, which seems to be a model
for the section of The Antichrist cited below.

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66 Richard Bett

pens, the evidence is not so much in Nietzsche's three published works on Diogenes.17
Here I have found only three places where he discusses specific points concerning the
life of Pyrrho, the main source on skepticism in Diogenes;18 and in one of these places,
he commits what would now be generally regarded as a fairly basic error.19 However,
if one looks behind the published works to the notes that preceded them, a rather dif-
ferent picture emerges. Already in December 1866 he refers, in a letter to his teacher
Ritschl, to a work on Timon by the classicist Kurt Wachsmuth.20 And in his notes from
the late 1860s there are plentiful references to Pyrrhonian skepticism in general, and to
Pyrrho, Timon, Aenesidemus, Sextus Empiricus and other Pyrrhonians in particular;
the references are sometimes strictly philological in nature, and at other times bear
more broadly upon the history of philosophy.21 Under the latter heading, Nietzsche
shows a particular interest in the philosophical links between Pyrrho and Democritus;
Pyrrho is said at one point to have followed Democritus5 epistemological ideas22 (an
entirely respectable view, though arguably a mistaken one),23 and at other points to
have followed his ethical outlook24 (which seems to be in a broad sense correct).25
17
De Laertii Diogenis fontibus, Analecta Laertiana and Beitr ge zur Quellenkunde
und Kritik des Laertius Diogenes, in Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Werke, II. l (edd.
Fritz Bonmann & Mario Carpitella — general series editors Giorgio Colli and
Mazzino Montinari — Berlin/New York, 1982). The material in this volume does
not appear in KSA.
18
See pp. 178 f., 206 f., 222 f. in the edition cited in the previous note. Besides these,
there are occasional other mentions of the life of Pyrrho, but only as part of
more general arguments referring to numerous other lives as well.
19
On pp. 206 f. he is discussing DL 9.70, where a certain Theodosius is said to
have denied, for various reasons, that skepticism should be called Pyrrhonism.
Nietzsche infers that Theodosius was a skeptic, but not a Pyrrhonian skeptic.
But it seems clear that the point is, rather, that those thinkers usually called
Pyrrhonians, among whom Theodosius will have numbered himself, should not
employ or accept this label — not that Theodosius identified himself with a dif-
ferent skeptical tradition. For the details, see Jonathan Barnes, "Diogenes Laer-
tius IX 61 — 116: The Philosophy of Pyrrhonism", Aufstieg und Niedergang der
R mischen Welt II.36.6, pp. 4241-4301, at pp. 4284-4286.
20
Nietzsche Briefwechsel 1.2, pp. 188 f.
21
See, e.g., v. 3, pp. 269, 332, v. 4, pp. 36, 38, 42, 47, 49, 63, 68, 78, 86, 90, 388,
v. 5, pp. 41, 43, 131, 152—161, 260 in Friedrich Nietzsche, Fr he Schriften, edd.
Hans Joachim Mette and Karl Schlechta (Munich, 1994) — hereafter cited as
FS.
22
FS v. 3, p. 332.
23
Arguably mistaken because many scholars (though not by any means all) now
hold that Pyrrho's central philosophical attitudes were much more of a meta-
physical than an epistemological character. For discussion of the issue, and an
argument for the metaphysical interpretation, see Richard Bett, "Aristocles on
Timon on Pyrrho: The Text, its Logic and its Credibility", Oxford Studies in
Ancient Philosophy 12 (1994), pp. 137-181.
24
FS v. 4, pp. 63, 90.
25
Democritus promoted an ideal of ευθυμία ('good spirits') which, to judge from
its description in the fragments and other ancient sources, appears closely related
to the αταραξία ('freedom from worry') strived for by Pyrrho and other Pyrrhon-

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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic 67

There are also remarks on the philosophical common ground between Pyrrho or the
Pyrrhonians and other schools, such as the Stoics.26 In any case, the general impression
to be derived from this material is of a scholar who knows the history of Greek skepti-
cism very well, and who considers it an important episode in the wider history of Greek
philosophy. As I said, Diogenes' treatment of skepticism is almost entirely confined to
a single section of his work, the life of Pyrrho; Nietzsche seems to have involved himself
with skepticism to a greater degree than he would have had to do purely in his role as
a scholar of Diogenes Laertius.
Between the very early and the very late phases of Nietzsche's career,
evidence of an interest in ancient skepticism is much scarcer. Outside
these periods, Pyrrho is mentioned only once; he appears in The Wan-
derer and his Shadow, in a peculiar little dialogue with an unnamed old
man,27 and the connections between the ideas Tyrrho' expresses in this
dialogue and the ideas Pyrrho or other ancient skeptics really ex-
pressed, while not non-existent, are certainly pretty loose.28 And be-
sides Pyrrho, no ancient skeptic is ever cited by name (again, outside
the very early and the very late writings). The terms 'skeptic' and 'skep-
ticism' do of course occasionally appear in Nietzsche's works.29 But it
is often clear that no specifically philosophical skepticism is meant; and
even when the context is philosophical, it is not always clear whether
Nietzsche has in mind those ancient philosophers who were actually
called skeptics, or some more generally skeptical species of thought
which might be encountered in any period in the history of philosophy,
ancient or modern. (The same might be said, incidentally, of some ref-
erences to skepticism even in the late writings of 1888, the period in

ian skeptics. See fragments 68B3 and 68B191 in H. Diels, rev. W. Kranz, Die
Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Berlin, 6th edition 1951 - many subsequent re-
printings); Cicero, De Finibus 5.23, 87; Diogenes Laertius 9.45; Stobaeus 11.52,
15-19. The last of these texts even says that Democritus named his ideal αταρ-
αξία, in addition to several other names; this may well be anachronistic, but it
does not seriously misrepresent the view in question.
26
E.g., FS v. 4, p. 42 (Stoics), v. 4, p. 36 (Epicureans).
27
28
Section 213.
It is claimed in a footnote in R. J. Hollingdale's translation (of Human, All-Too-
Human in its final expanded version, including Mixed Opinions and Maxims and
The Wanderer and his Shadow (Cambridge, 1986)) that this dialogue is modeled
after Timon's dialogue Pytho* I see no reason to believe this; among other things,
Pytho has not survived and we know virtually nothing about it.
29
See, e.g., (by section numbers) Human, All-too-Human 21, 631, Daybreak 120,
155, 477, The Gay Science 64, 110 f., 122, 265, Beyond Good and Evil 54, 208-
211 On the Genealogy of Morals IIL24. From the Nachlass, see also, e,g M KSA
v. 11, p. 605 (June-July 1885); v. 12, pp. 143 f. - WP 410 (Fall 1885-Fall 1886);
p. 340 « WP 101 and p. 428 = WP 380 (Fall 1887).

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68 Richard Bett

which I have shown that Nietzsche displays a renewed focus on the


Greek skeptics.)30
Despite this comparative dearth of material, however, the writings
from this intermediate period also prove to have some relevance to the
topics I wish to explore. Many of these vaguer remarks about skepti-
cism do seem to be at least as applicable to the Greek skeptics as to
skeptics of some other variety; and whether or not this is so, they are
often worth considering for the light they may be able to shed on the
relations between skepticism and Nietzsche's own philosophy. To this
latter theme I therefore now turn. I shall be returning shortly to
Nietzsche's explicit utterances, at various periods, on the subject of
skeptics and skepticism; but it will be helpful first to step back for a
moment, and to consider Nietzsche's position vis- -vis skepticism in
more general terms.

II

Is Nietzsche a skeptic? In some loose sense it seems plain that he is,


and this was recognized very quickly; the two-volume history of skepti-
cism by Raoul Richter31, published just after the turn of the century,
begins with Greek skepticism and ends with Nietzsche. Richter sees, of
course, that temperamentally, or in terms of the practical attitudes and
ways of life that they recommend, Nietzsche and the Greek skeptics are
poles apart;32 the Greek skeptics, or at least the Pyrrhonian skeptics,
recommend skepticism for the αταραξία, the untroubled existence, that
it supposedly promotes, whereas for Nietzsche the avoidance of trouble
and strife is decidedly not a priority. But Richter nonetheless has no
hesitation in including Nietzsche under the heading of skeptic, and in
insisting that he belongs under this heading in every phase of his writ-
ing life.33 The reason seems to be — though this is not really spelled out
— that Nietzsche always dissented from a certain traditional optimistic
picture of the prospects for philosophy, or for inquiry more generally.
According to this picture, the world is as it is objectively — that is,
independently of our attempts to describe it; yet our accounts of how
30
See Twilight of the Idols, "How the True World' Finally became a Fable", Anti-
christ section 54. From the Nachlass, see also KSA v. 13, pp. 22 f., 122 (Novem-
ber 1887-March 1888); p. 264 = WP43 and p. 321 = WP 401 (early 1888).
31
Der Skeptizismus in der Philosophie (Leipzig, 1904) and Der Skeptizismus in der
Philosophie und seine berwindung (Leipzig, 1908). ι
32
Vol. 2, pp. 459 f.
33
Vol. 2, p. 463. "

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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic 69

the world is have a real possibility of being objectively correct - that


is, of describing the world as it objectively is - and we have a real
possibility, when this is so, of knowing that it is so. This picture natu-
rally is refined in many different ways in different periods or at the
hands of different philosophers; but it seems clear enough that most of
the standard figures in the history of philosophy, at least prior to Kant,
signed on to some version of it or other. Someone who does not sign
on to this picture may in a broad but recognizable sense be called a
skeptic; and Nietzsche, Richter seems to be claiming, never signed on
to it.
I think that this is largely, though not entirely true. For much, if not
most, of his career Nietzsche dissents from this traditional picture in
one way or another — though not always in exactly the same way;
most commonly his dissent takes the form of a suspicion of traditional
conceptions of truth.34 The clearest example from his early writings is
the unpublished essay "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense"35;
the clearest example of all is probably the 'perspectivism' of many of
his mature works, notably The Gay Science and Beyond Good and Evil.
Such suspicion is not, however, universal in Nietzsche. The Birth of
Tragedy, with its strange Schopenhauer-influenced view of a formless,
Dionysian ultimate reality, to which Greek tragedy, at least until it was
wrecked by Euripides, afforded access, does not seem to qualify as
skeptical by the standard I just proposed. I would also maintain — and
this is perhaps more controversial — that the late works of 1888, nota-
bly Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist, are unexpectedly non-skep-
tical, or even dogmatic. I shall return to this point near the end. How-
ever, this still leaves a substantial body of writing in which some form
of skeptical outlook (where 'skeptical' is still understood in the loose
sense explained above) is prominent.

34
On developments in Nietzsche's views on truth, see Maudemarie Clark, Nietzsche
on Truth and Philosophy (Cambridge, 1990). Clark does not actually address the
question whether, or in what sense, Nietzsche was a skeptic; indeed, the word
'skepticism' does not even appear in the index, and hardly at all in the entire
book (the only occurrence I have found is on p. 45, in a context having to do
with Putnam and Colin McGinn, not Nietzsche). Nevertheless, Clark's discussion
is certainly relevant to my current concerns, and her understanding of Nietzsche's
mature conception of truth seems to be broadly compatible with the conclusions
35
for which I argue in this section; see below, n. 44.
KSA v. 1, pp. 875-890, translated by Daniel Breazeale in Truth and Philosophy:
Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the 1870s (Atlantic Highlands, NJ,
1979).

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70 Richard Bett

It is not unusual nowadays, at least in the scholarship in English, to


see Nietzsche referred to as a skeptic;36 usually the implied or explicit
basis for this label is something like the one given in the previous para-
graphs. But it is also possible to find authors claiming that it is a mis-
take to call Nietzsche a skeptic.37 And though the grounds offered for
this latter view are more diffuse, there is at least one important sense
in which these authors are also right. Those modes of thinking usually
described as skeptical, in both ancient and modern philosophy, charac-
teristically center around the difficulty or impossibility of determining
how the world really, objectively is; this applies just as much, say, to
Sextus as to Descartes' First Meditation. Now, this way of thinking of
course takes for granted the legitimacy of the concept of 'the way the
world really, objectively is'; it makes no sense to worry about whether
we can know how things are in themselves if one rejects the very notion
of 'how things are in themselves'. Thus, by a stricter and more precise
standard, it is fair to say that someone who actually does reject this
notion is not a skeptic. A radical relativist, for example, who thinks
that the truth of all statements is relative to some framework or con-
ceptual scheme, is not in this sense a skeptic38 — even though, in the
looser sense considered a minute ago, relativism would be a form of
skepticism. And it seems that the same should be said of Nietzsche.
For suspicion of the notion of 'how things are in themselves' does seem
to recur in many of Nietzsche's writings; indeed, this is an important

36
See, e.g., Leslie Paul Thiele, "Out from the Shadows of God: Nietzschean
Scepticism and Political Practice", International Studies in Philosophy 27 (1995),
pp. 55—72; Robert Hull, "Skepticism, enigma and integrity: Horizons of affirma-
tion in Nietzsche's philosophy", Man and World 23 (1990), pp. 375-391; Glen
T. Martin, "A Critique of Nietzsche's Metaphysical Scepticism", International
Studies in Philosophy 19 (1987), pp. 51-59; Philip J. Kain, "Nietzsche, Skepti-
cism, and Eternal Recurrence", Canadian Journal of Philosophy 13 (1983),
pp. 365-387; Bernd Magnus, "Nietzsche's Mitigated Skepticism", Nietzsche Stu-
dien 9 (1980), pp. 260-267; Adi Parush, "Nietzsche on the Skeptic's Life", Re-
view of Metaphysics 29 (1975-1976), pp. 523-542.
37
See Wolfgang Fuchs, "Post-Modernism is not a Scepticism", in Scepticism: Inter-
disciplinary Approaches, Proceedings of the Second International Symposium of
Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Research (Athens, 1990), pp. 207—217; Alexan-
der Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature, pp. 83 f.
38
It does not follow that a skeptic can have no legitimate concern with relativity
— as is suggested, for example, by Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes, The Modes
of Scepticism (Cambridge, 1985); on this, see Richard Bett, "Sextus' Against the
Ethicists: Scepticism, Relativism or Both?", Apeiron 27 (1994), pp. 123-161, esp.
section IV.

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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic 71

aspect of what is usually called (though only occasionally by himself)39


his perspectivism. In "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" he
states "that the insect or bird perceives an entirely different world from
the one humans do, and that the question as to which of these percep-
tions of the world is more correct is quite meaningless"40. And versions
of the same idea can be found in those mature works in which
Nietzsche's perspectivism is most prominent. In The Gay Science he
ridicules the notion of a thing's having an essence entirely divorced
from its appearances; in Beyond Good and Evil he says that " 'absolute
knowledge' and the 'thing in itself involve a contradictio in adjecto";
and in a famous passage of On the Genealogy of Morals he states that
"There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective knowing".41
Though the last passage goes on to say that the more perspectives we
employ, the greater will be our objectivity, the word Objectivity' is
placed in quotation marks; the point is that objectivity in the tradi-
tional sense of a grasp of things as they are in themselves is precisely
what perspectivism shows to be self-contradictory. Numerous notes
from the 1880s that appear in The Will to Power also adhere to this
general picture.42
In the earlier Human All-Too-Human, by contrast, Nietzsche sounds
as if he accepts a more traditional conception of objectivity. In a sec-
tion entitled "Metaphysical world", he says "It is true, there might be
a metaphysical world; one can hardly dispute the absolute possibility
of it. We see all things by means of our human head, and cannot chop
it off"43. But even here, when it appears that he is leaving room for
notions such as the thing in itself, he adds "though it remains to won-
der what would be left of the world if indeed it [i. e., our head] had
been cut off" — which seems immediately to reintroduce doubt about
such notions. We should conclude, then, that an important strand in
Nietzsche's work is, in a narrower usage of the term, non-skeptical or
even anti-skeptical; in this mood, at least, he does not share the sense,
common to those ways of thinking normally labeled as skeptical in

39
40
See, e.g., The Gay Science section 354, WP 481.
I follow Breazeale's translation (see above, n. 35), p. 86; the original is at KSA
41
v.l, p. 884.
Gay Science, section 54; Beyond Good and Evil, section 16; Genealogy of Morals,
III. 12. For both Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals, I follow
Walter Kaufmann's translations in Basic Writings of Nietzsche.
42
43
E.g., 481,556, 567f.
Section 9.1 follow the translation of Marion Faber with Stephen Lehmann (Lin-
coln, Nebraska, 1984).

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72 Richard Bett

both the ancient and the modern periods, of our being cut off from the
true nature of things - for the very idea of 'the true nature of things'
is simply nonsensical in his eyes.
So the answer to the question 'Is Nietzsche a skeptic?' is 'yes and
no'; both those who claim that he is a skeptic, and those who claim that
he is not, say something important and correct.44 Given the elasticity of
the term 'skepticism', in philosophical as well as in ordinary language,
it would be pointless to insist that only the narrower usage (according
to which Nietzsche does not qualify as a skeptic) is appropriate. But
far more important, in any case, than that terminological issue is the
connection between the two main points I have emphasized in this sec-
tion and Nietzsche's expressed attitudes towards the ancient skeptics
and towards skeptical modes of thought in general. For it turns out
that Nietzsche is notably ambivalent towards skepticism; and the dual
response at which we have arrived on the question of Nietzsche's own
skeptical credentials is, I think, a large part of the explanation for this
ambivalence. He makes common cause with the skeptics in their oppo-
sition to the traditional pretensions of philosophy; but since he rejects,
much of the time, the traditional conception of objective truth — which
the skeptics accept — he is also importantly at odds with them. His
ambivalence is a little more complicated than this, but this is at any
rate central to the story. The next section takes up these matters in
greater detail.

Ill

The early scholarly writings do not betray any particular attitude


towards the Greek skeptics — except, as I said, a substantial interest in
them. Nietzsche is here in the role of the sober and detached philolo-
gist, not given to value judgements about the topics with which he is
dealing. He was shortly to break out of this mold, when he wrote
44
This seems to be in agreement with the interpretation of Clark, Nietzsche on
Truth and Philosophy — even though, as mentioned earlier (n. 34), Clark does not
frame her discussion in terms of the question whether Nietzsche was a skeptic.
According to Clark (pp. 60 f.), Nietzsche holds on the one hand "that we cannot
know things-in-themselves, and thus that, contrary to Descartes, the truth we
are capable of discovering does not satisfy the metaphysical correspondence the-
ory", but on the other hand "that he denies the very conceivability of the thing-
in-itself'. These remarks occur in the context of a discussion of how Nietzsche
does and does not agree with Kant; but they would also seem to be readily
applicable to the issue that has,occupied us here.

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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic 73

The Birth of Tragedy - and thereby to earn the widespread scorn of


philologists; but at this stage he is still a relatively staid member of the
profession. It is very different, of course, when at the end of his work-
ing life he reads Brochard and again gets interested in skepticism. I.
have already quoted his comment on the skeptics from Ecce Homo;
they are "the only honorable type among the equivocal, quinquivocal
tribe of philosophers". On a similar note, as I also remarked earlier, is
a comment from The Antichrist. In section 12 Nietzsche attacks most
figures in the history of philosophy for being "simply unaware of the
most basic requirements of intellectual honesty"45. But he opens the
passage by making an explicit exception from this generally damning
verdict for the skeptics, whom he here refers to as "the decent type in
the history of philosophy". Later in the same work (section 52) he
describes "philology" as "in a very broad sense, the art of reading
well", where what is being 'read' need not be just books, but any 'text',
in the use of that term now standard among thinkers of a postmodern-
ist bent; immediately afterwards he characterizes philology, so under-
stood, as "ephexis in interpretation". Ephexis, at least as Nietzsche ap-
pears to intend it here, means something like 'restraint'; but it is a close
etymological correlate of εποχή, the Pyrrhonists' standard term for
suspension of judgement, and Nietzsche must have been aware of this.
Responsible and honest thought, then (again the word 'decency' (An-
stand) occurs in this section), requires the kind of caution exhibited
preeminently by the skeptics — and not at all by Christian theologians,
which is his reason for raising the subject. And a couple of sections
later (54), Nietzsche asserts at some length that "great spirits are skep-
tics", where skepticism consists in a "freedom from all kinds of convic-
tions". The necessary connection between skepticism and greatness is
also explored in notes from the Nachlass of late 1887 and early 1888.46
And in notes from early 1888 Pyrrho is represented as one of "the more
profound natures of antiquity", who saw through the "play-acting" of
those Greek philosophers, notably Plato but including many others,
who promoted virtue as the means to happiness;47 he is also described
as the one original philosopher after Socrates.48

45
I follow the translation in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Wal-
46
ter Kaufmann (New York, 1954).
KSA v. 12, p. 428 = WP 380; v. 13, pp. 22 f. (virtually but not quite the same as
WP 963, and also clearly a prototype of Antichrist 54).
4
? KSA v. 13, pp. 311 f. = WP 434.
4
« KSA v. 13, p. 278 = WP 437.

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74 Richard Bett

All this seems to add up to a very positive vote for the skeptics during the last
year or so of Nietzsche's working life. But this is not the whole story. Even in the
passage where Pyrrho is named as the only original philosopher after Socrates, he
is also referred to as a "nihilist", always a term with pejorative connotations in
Nietzsche. And in numerous other notes from the same period, Nietzsche describes
either Pyrrho or the skeptics in general as "decadent"49, one of his favorite terms of
abuse. In one passage Pyrrho is even described as the "high point" (Höhepunkt) in
the decadence of Greek philosophy — a trend that is supposed to have started with
Socrates.50 Pyrrho's decadence is here also connected with his "Buddhist" tenden-
cies, and this connection is explored in more detail in another passage, which specifi-
cally alludes to Diogenes' story of Pyrrho's having consorted with the Naked Wise
Men in India;51 the grounds for this view of Pyrrho seem to be both his ethical ideal
of untroubledness and his withdrawal from all scientific ambitions or pretensions -
that is, his refusal to commit himself to any determinate account of how things are.
In keeping with Nietzsche's discussion of Buddhism in several sections of The Anti-
christ — where besides being called nihilistic and decadent, it is said to be a religion
of exhausted, enervated spirits or cultures52 — there is also a note in the Nachlass
claiming that Pyrrho's skepticism was inspired by "a need for rest, a weariness"53.
In several other notes, the decadence inherent to skepticism is said to be connected
with the fact that skepticism (like most other philosophies, in fact) has a moral origin
or aim.54 It is not immediately clear what this means. One passage reads: "One
must act; consequently rules of conduct are needed' — said even the skeptics of
antiquity. The urgent need for a decision as an argument for considering something
truer'55 But the notion that values, or for that matter any other views about the
world, have their origin in practical or other psychological needs is commonplace in
Nietzsche's works, and would hardly serve to distinguish decadents from other peo-
ple. A deeper claim is suggested by another passage,56 which opens as follows: "Mo-
rality as the supreme value, in all phases of philosophy (even among the skeptics).
Result: this world is good for nothing, there must be a 'real world'. What really
determines the supreme value here? What is morality really? The instinct of deca-
dence; it is the exhausted and disinherited who in this way take their revenge and
play the master." Here it is clear that 'morality' does not refer to just any system of
values, but specifically to life-denying or world-denying values - the ones that
Nietzsche elsewhere associates especially with the ascetic ideal and with Christianity.
And the point is that the positing of a 'real world', whose true nature is entirely
independent of our experiencing things in any particular way, must be the result of
an urge to deny or devalue the world as ordinarily experienced - precisely the same

49
E. g., KSA v. 13, p. 264 = WP 43; p. 403.
50
KSA v. 13, p. 265.
51
KSA v. 13, pp. 276 f. = WP 437. On Pyrrho as Buddhist, see also pp. 264, 378.
52
Sections 20-23.
53
KSA v. 13, p. 446 = WP 455.
54
KSA v. 13, p. 321 = WP 401; p. 324 = WP 442.
55
KSA v. 13, pp. 285 f. = WP 458.
56
KSA v. 13, p. 321 = WP

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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic 75

kind of urge as is behind the values and world-view characteristic of Christianity.


From this perspective, of course, the person who claims to know the nature of this
ulterior real world and the person who suspends judgement about it are both equally
objectionable. However, one could well interpret the posture of suspension of judge-
ment as yet a further level of rejection of or withdrawal from everyday healthy
instincts. Though Nietzsche does not develop that line of thought in the passage just
referred to, it seemed to be part of the point in one of the passages mentioned earlier;
and this is perhaps why Pyrrho is elsewhere labeled the high point of decadence in
Greek philosophy.
As I noted earlier, Nietzsche has much less to say about skepticism
between the beginning and the end of his working life. But what there
is, primarily from his mature works of the early and middle 1880s,
seems to show much the same ambivalence as we have seen in the latest
period of his work. In The Gay Science skepticism and honesty are
again spoken of in the same breath;57 but in the very next section
skepticism — and specifically that form of it, the ancient form, that
consists in suspension of judgement — is described as a danger for life,
by contrast with the healthy stance of affirmation. In On the Genealogy
of Morals, the "ephectic bent" — that is, the tendency to suspend judge-
ment — is listed as one of the virtues of the philosopher;58 but later in
the same essay contemporary thinkers of a skeptic or "ephectic" turn
of mind are said, despite their own image of themselves as liberated,
to be still in thrall to the ascetic ideal, because "they still have faith in
truth", which is "faith in a metaphysical value"59. In Beyond Good and
Evil modern philosophy itself is characterized as "an epistemological
skepticism", and this is associated with its being, "covertly or overtly,
anti-Christian"60 — surely a positive feature in Nietzsche's eyes; yet in
an unpublished note from the same period (1885-86), Nietzsche writes
that "the skeptical-epochistic attitude" of Kant, Hegel and Schopen-
hauer has "a moral origin"61 - precisely one of the features that he
elsewhere seizes on as grounds for criticism.
One might of course say that this pervasive ambivalence about skep-
ticism is simply an example of the kaleidoscopic, or anti-systematic,
nature of Nietzsche's writing; as he himself says in Twilight of the Idols,
"The will to system is a lack of integrity"62. But in this case I think

57 Section 110.
58
III.9.
59 IH.24.
60
Section 54.
61
62
KSA v. 12, pp. 143 f. = WP 410.
"Maxims and Arrows", 26.1 follow Walter Kaufmann's translation, in The Port-
able Nietzsche.

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76 Richard Bett

that a more flat-footed explanation is available; indeed, an explanation


has already begun to emerge over the last several pages. Nietzsche's
positive assessments of skepticism are typically connected with his cri-
tiques of various forms of philosophical or religious dogmatism. Philo-
sophers, theologians, prophets and others have always put forward
views about the world. But almost always, they have put forward these
views as more than mere 'views'; they have advanced them, rather, as
capturing the objective or absolute nature of things. It is this preten-
sion, above all, to which Nietzsche objects. Philosophies and religions
are expressions of the psychology — or even, as he sometimes says,
the physiology — of their creators, rather than insights into a wholly
independent reality. "Gradually it has become clear to me", he writes
in Beyond Good and Evil (section 6), "what every great philosophy so
far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind
of involuntary or unconscious memoir". And in a development of the
same point a few sections later (9), he accuses the Stoics of imposing
their own "morality" or "ideal" on the world under the guise of simply
describing the nature of things, and adds the generalization that philos-
ophy "always creates the world in its own image".
Now, in contexts such as these Nietzsche is strikingly close to the
ancient Pyrrhonists. Sextus Empiricus, too, is suspicious of all claims
purporting to capture the real nature of an underlying reality — that
is, all the theories of non-skeptical philosophers, or 'dogmatists', as he
calls them. As far as he is concerned, such theories are indeed a form
of "involuntary or unconscious memoir", and the skeptical Modes63
are among the devices he employs to bring this out; any view that
purports to capture the real nature of things is bound to be affected by
the particular circumstances of its author, and so is bound to be, pre-
cisely, a particular view on the world rather than an impersonal grasp
of its essence. Sextus could easily have called large parts of his own
writings what Nietzsche calls Part I of Beyond Good and Evil, from
which my last quotation was taken — "On the Prejudices of Philo-
sophers". Given the similarity in the attitudes towards traditional phi-
losophy expressed by Nietzsche and by those skeptics with whose ideas
he was most familiar, it should not be surprising that recurring positive
estimations of skepticism are to be found in Nietzsche's writing — par-
ticularly in contexts where traditional philosophy is part of the subject-
matter.

63
PH 1.31 -179.

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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic 77

What of the negative side? As we have seen, Nietzsche accuses skeptics


of decadence and various associated shortcomings. This is partly because
of their emasculated ideal (as Nietzsche would doubtless have seen it) of
αταραξία, and partly because of their willingness, along with virtually all
other philosophers, to posit a real or metaphysical world (albeit one
about which they make no definite claims). But it is also, I suggested, be-
cause of their very attitude of suspension of judgement; this intellectual
posture seems sometimes to be interpreted by Nietzsche as itself a symp-
tom of decline, as a kind of disengagement revealing that one is funda-
mentally ill at ease with one's place in the world, or even with one's exist-
ing in the world at all. But now, how can Nietzsche both be against the
claims of philosophers and others to have captured the objective or abso-
lute truth, and be against suspension of judgement? This needs a little
more examination; and a helpful place to look, I think, is his picture in
Beyond Good and Evil of what he calls the "new philosophers" - or, ac-
cording to the subtitle of the book, the "Philosophy of the Future".64
Recall the quotation from a few paragraphs back: "Gradually it has
become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been:
namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary
or unconscious memoir." The words "so far" suggest that Nietzsche
envisages a possible future stage in which philosophy grows into some-
thing different; and it may sound as if this imagined future state is
one in which philosophies were not mere "personal confession[s]", but
instead genuine mirrorings of the way things are in themselves — what
philosophy has always strived for but never yet attained. But given
Nietzsche's suspicion of the very idea of 'the way things are in them-
selves', this cannot be the point. Rather, the contrast must be between
philosophies that masquerade as mirrorings of the way things are in
themselves, but in fact are only personal confessions, and possible fu-
ture philosophies that make no such pretense; or, in other words, be-
tween philosophies that are "involuntary or unconscious memoir[s]",
and philosophies that are quite self-conscious about being particular
views of the world rather than any kind of absolute truth.65 So when
64
On this theme see Alexander Nehamas, "Who Are "The Philosophers of the Fu-
ture?': A Reading of Beyond Good and Evil", in Robert C. Solomon and Kath-
leen M. Higgins, edd., Reading Nietzsche (Oxford, 1988), pp. 46-67.
65
It might be wondered why, if the very concept of absolute truth makes no sense,
it should be important for philosophers to admit that absolute truth is not what
they are offering. As far as I can tell, Nietzsche does not explicitly address this
issue. But the answer is surely that if some concept of absolute truth did make
sense, and if philosophers could actually achieve absolute truth, then the status
and authority of their pronouncements would be immeasurably greater than they

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78 Richard Bett

Nietzsche points forward to a new form of philosophy, he certainly


does not have in mind a philosophy that actually achieves what philos-
ophy has always aspired to achieve. Nor, however, does he have in
mind a philosophy that consists in suspension of judgement. He wants
his new philosophers to be opinionated — provided, of course, that
they recognize their opinions for what they are, not as statements of
some absolute truth. He wants them self-consciously to create visions
of things, even perhaps self-consciously to create visions of things in
their own image. At any rate, he is very clear that whether one is a new
philosopher or not, one's views are an expression of the type of person
one is; the real test, for him, is (in a sense that would need a lot of
unpacking) the quality of the vision, and hence the quality of the per-
sonality behind it. The skeptics who refrained as a matter of policy
from all visions and views, thereby made plain their enfeebled constitu-
tions; as Nietzsche saw it, they were simply not up to this kind of task.
The contrast between what Nietzsche disapproves of and what he approves of in
skepticism is particularly, vivid in several adjacent sections in the latter part of Be-
yond Good and Evil In section 208 Nietzsche describes skepticism — specifically the
putative skepticism of his own day — as a symptom of "nervous exhaustion and
sickliness" (a sickliness brought on by the mixing of races and classes, though we
can part company with him on that); his account is much the same as we have seen
in numerous other places. In the next two sections, however, he introduces the notion
of a "stronger type of skepticism", a type which is associated both with Frederick
the Great and German culture (including German.philology and history since Fred-
erick's time) and the philosophers of the future. It is not obvious what Nietzsche
means by this "stronger type of skepticism". But one thing he says of it is that "it
does not believe but does not lose itself in the process" (209). In the philosophical
arena, at least, I take it that this means, or includes, something like the following.
The 'stronger skeptic' shares with the standard skeptic a detachment from, or a
refusal to accept on its own terms, any of those philosophies which claim to have

in fact are; the terms on which these pronouncements were to be assessed would
be quite different from what they in fact are; and our own deliberations about
whether or not to accept these pronouncements would need to take a quite dif-
ferent form from that which they should in fact assume. Since, according to
Nietzsche, philosophy has standardly assumed that the concept of absolute truth
is coherent, and that such truth is in principle attainable, it would be very natural
for him to regard the admission by his new philosophers that they are not offer-
ing their conclusions as absolute truth as a revolutionary, and salutary, move.
From the fact that a certain concept is incoherent, it does not follow that no
work is done by emphasizing one's rejection of that concept; the important ques-
tion is what role acceptance of that concept has played in the previous history
of thought. And Nietzsche clearly thinks that belief in the concept of absolute
truth has played an immense- role in the history of philosophy prior to himself.

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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic 79

settled how things are in themselves - that is, virtually any previous philosophy;
but this does not lead for the 'stronger skeptic', as it does for the standard skeptic,
to the cultivating of intellectual detachment as an end in itself. In section 210
Nietzsche says that this skepticism constitutes only one feature of the new philo-
sopher and not the whole. And in the next section he suggests that perhaps the
genuine philosopher - a character closely related to, if not identical with, the philo-
sopher of the future - must have been a skeptic at some time, but that this and many
other roles (including that of dogmatist) "are merely preconditions of his task", that
task being to "create values". In creating values, one must doubtless be aware that
that is what one is doing, rather than limning some absolute reality. But the task of
creating values requires a psychological attitude that is anything but suspensive. It
requires a kind of imposing of oneself on the world; as Nietzsche says of these value-
creating philosophers, "Their 'knowing' [note again the quotation marks] is creating,
their creating is a legislation, their will to truth is - mil to power9'.

IV

Just as Nietzsche is and is not a skeptic, then, so he is favorable and


unfavorable towards skeptics ancient and modern, and these two points
are connected in numerous ways. I want to end by focusing on the
question of the relation between the remarks on skepticism in
Nietzsche's late writings of 1888, when his interest in ancient skepticism
specifically was reactivated, and the remarks in the works preceding
these. We have seen that a generally similar ambivalent attitude
towards skepticism seems to prevail both in 1888 and before; but there
are two notable differences between the two periods. First, the positive
assessments of skepticism seem to become more outspoken in the late
writings. Skepticism comes to be described as the only type of philoso-
phy with honesty, and skepticism comes to be thought of as a necessary
component of greatness; nothing in the earlier works seems to go so
far. Second, the negative assessments of skepticism in the late writings
are only in unpublished remarks (in which I include, of course, Tlie Will
to Power); the verdicts in the books Nietzsche published or intended to
publish in 1888 are wholly positive.66

66
The only possible exception is in Twilight of the Idols, "How the True World'
Finally Became a Fable", 3, where Kant's version of the idea of a 'True World"
is said to be the same as the Christian version except that it is "seen through mist
and skepticism". But it is not clear that any particular verdict, for or against, is
here being offered on skepticism itself. It is true that elsewhere skepticism's reli-
ance on the concept of a 'true world' is taken as grounds for criticism; but that
theme is not placed on display here.

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80 Richard Bett

The explanation for this, I suggest, has to do with the distinctive


character of these late works themselves. For it is here that Nietzsche's
dismissal both of Christianity and all that he sees as connected with it,
and of philosophy as traditionally conceived, becomes most outspoken.
In On the Genealogy of Morals his critique of the ascetic ideal, while
certainly trenchant, is tempered with the admission that this ideal has
had certain major historical effects which he himself is willing to regard
as beneficial. There are hints of the same kind of view on Beyond Good
and Evil61 In The Antichrist, by contrast, his tirade against Christianity
is quite unmitigated. Again, in Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche
portrays the history of philosophy as the history of a variety of 'preju-
dices'. The tone is critical, certainly, and even mocking; and yet it seems
clear that the future philosophy he here envisages is by no means
wholly discontinuous with philosophy as previously practised.68 But in
Twilight of the Idols, and also The Antichrist, traditional philosophy is
persistently portrayed as (with rare exceptions such as the skeptics and
Heraclitus) no more than a catalog of glaring and pernicious errors.69
Now, since Nietzsche's approval of skepticism tends, as I argued, to
occur in connection with his critiques of religion and traditional philos-
ophy, it is not surprising that, in the period in which such critiques are
at their most uncompromising, his approval of skepticism would also
be at its strongest and his disapproval omitted from mention —
whereas in the earlier period, in which the critiques are more nuanced,
the attitude towards skepticism would also be less single-mindedly posi-
tive. We know from the unpublished writings that, even in 1888,
Nietzsche's misgivings about skepticism had not disappeared; indeed,
they are all the more obvious given the greater number and the greater
specificity of his remarks about skepticism in this period, the period
when he read Brochard. But in the published works of that year he
does not allow us to see these misgivings; and this is of a piece with
his refusal, in these works, to allow that there is anything valuable in
traditional philosophy or Christianity.

67
See especially section 188.
68
See especially sections 21 Of., discussed above for their remarks on skepticism.
Here there is a firm division between genuine philosophers and what Nietzsche
calls "philosophical laborers", among whom Kant and Hegel are numbered; yet
philosophical laborers are said to be an essential precondition for the emergence
of genuine philosophers — in fact, it may be that genuine philosophers them-
selves must previously have been philosophical laborers.
69
In Twilight of the Idols, see especially " 'Reason' in Philosophy" (in section 2 of
which Heraclitus is labeled an exception) and "The Four Great Errors"; in The
Antichrist, again see especially section 12.

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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic 81

There is another reason why the criticism of skepticism as decadent does not
appear in these works. We have seen that one basis for this criticism is Nietzsche's
view that suspension of judgement is itself a symptom of an unhealthy desire not
to engage with the world, and that he instead recommends the imposing of new
interpretations upon things - without, however, losing one's awareness that they
are interpretations. But this recommendation, prominent in Beyond Good and Evil
and also present in On the Genealogy of Morals70, is not to be found in the published
works of 1888. Here, on the contrary, the interpretation of things seems itself to
come in for criticism, as tantamount to their distortion. As I mentioned earlier, in
The Antichrist (section 52) Nietzsche speaks approvingly of philology as involving
"ephexis [restraint] in interpretation"; in the same passage he characterizes it as "the
art of reading well — of reading facts without falsifying them by interpretation" (my
emphasis). Christianity, in his view, engages in precisely that kind of falsification;
earlier he alleges that "In Christianity neither morality nor religion has even a single
point of contact with reality"71. Similarly in Twilight of the Idols we are told that
"Moral judgements agree with religious ones in believing in realities which are no
realities. Morality is merely an interpretation of certain phenomena — more pre-
cisely, a misinterpretation"72. These books seem, then, to offer a very different out-
look from Beyond Good and Evil and related works. There is no suggestion that our
views of the world are never other than interpretation, or that the cultivating of
dynamic new interpretations is what philosophers should be about; rather, inter-
pretations are to be eschewed, because they get in the way of reality. In these works,
therefore, there is no room for criticism of the skeptics on the grounds that they
suspend judgement rather than throwing themselves into the task of interpretation;
for here Nietzsche expresses a suspicion of interpretations just as strong as that of
the skeptics themselves.
But this leads to a peculiar consequence. At the same time as
Nietzsche distances himself from a set of ideas that elsewhere serve as
a criticism of skepticism, he also becomes more distant from skepticism
itself. For in saying that Christianity has no contact with reality, and
that morality is a misinterpretation, he at least gives the impression
that he himself is in possession of the objective truth; there are various
misguided views of reality, and then there is reality as it actually is, and
Nietzsche seems to present himself as showing us the latter. But if so,
of course, Nietzsche comes across as anything but a skeptic in these
works — in either the strict or the loose senses distinguished earlier; he
seems to accept the concept of objective truth - which skeptics in the
strict sense also accept - but he also seems to speak as if he knows
what the objective truth is, which no skeptic would ever do. It may be

70
Again, I am thinking particularly of the discussion of perspective in 111.12.
71
72
Section 15.
"The Improvers of Mankind", section 1.

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82 Richard Bett

objected that Twilight of the Idols contains a whole chapter devoted to


a rejection of the idea of a True World'. But here the focus is on
the separateness, the other-worldly character, of the various historical
versions of this idea; Nietzsche's problem seems to be with the fact that
these have displaced reality from where it truly belongs — namely, in
the here and now - and not with the concept of objective reality as
such. Indeed, as he says immediately before the chapter on the 'True
World', "The reasons for which 'this' world has been characterized as
'apparent' are the very reasons which indicate its reality"73. No suspi-
cion is expressed, here or anywhere else in the book, about the very
notion of reality; 'reality' is not placed in quotation marks, as we saw
that Objectivity' was in On The Genealogy of Morals. In other words,
Nietzsche's perspectivism seems to be absent from the published works
of 1888.74 We know from the unpublished notes that he had not simply
abandoned it in this period; to take just one striking example, a frag-
ment from early 1888 scornfully exclaims: "As if a world would still
remain over after one deducted the perspective!"75 This makes it all
the more surprising that the published works seem to take a stance
incompatible with perspectivism.76 However, if I am right that this is
73
"Reason in Philosophy", section 6.
74
Jorge Salaquarda, "Nietzsche and the Judaeo-Christian Tradition" (in Bernd
Magnus and Kathleen M. Higgins, edd., The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche
(Cambridge, 1996), pp. 90-118) suggests (pp. 108f.) that Nietzsche's perspectiv-
ism is incompatible with his critique of Christianity as mere interpretation. But
in The Antichrist, at any rate, it seems to me that this is no problem; for The
Antichrist shows no trace of perspectivism.
75
KSA v. 13, p. 371 = WP 567.
76
A proper explanation of this phenomenon would require a whole separate in-
quiry; but a few remarks on the subject may be attempted here. Given the
discrepancy between the published and unpublished writings of 1888, any simple
explanation in terms of a shift of views seems inadequate. One might perhaps
suggest that he is experimenting, but is not yet fully comfortable, with the aban-
donment of perspectivism. But in that case one would expect that the experi-
menting would have taken place in the unpublished writings, not the published
ones. And besides, in the absence of any later works, towards which the 1888
works might be thought to represent a transitional phase, a hypothesis of this
kind seems impossible to verify. Another explanation might be that these late
works tend to draw an especially close connection between philosophy and
Christianity; this is clearly true of the Antichrist, but is arguably true of Twilight
of the Idols as well (and the section on the idea of a True World', discussed just
above in the main text, seems to be a good example of this). If so, it is perhaps
understandable that the focus would shift away from the specifically philosophi-
cal issue of the viability of traditional conceptions of objective truth, and towards
those objectionable features that traditional philosophy might be thought to
share with Christianity. But this, of course, only invites the question why (if it is

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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic 83

so, there is an important sense in which these works are more anti-
skeptical than those from earlier periods, even at the same time as they
are more consistently and vocally approving of skepticism.
This point also has a counterpart at the level of method and style - a topic about
which I have said very little, but which is clearly of prime importance in considering
Nietzsche. Methodologically, much of Nietzsche's published work before 1888 has
significant points of kinship with ancient skepticism; this is perhaps particularly true
of The Gay Science and Beyond Good and Evil, but by no means only those. It is
characteristic of his method of writing in small, disjointed sections - his 'aphoristic'
style, as it is often called - that his books are hard, if not impossible, to read as
adding up to a single, consistent point of view. Instead, he throws out a wide variety
of ideas on some subject, often from apparently very differing perspectives; and it
is frequently very hard to tell whether, or how far, he seriously means what he is
saying. As he himself suggests in the final section of Beyond Good and Evil, he does
not want his books to be seen as consisting of a body of truths; his relation to their
contents is much more elusive and evasive than that. Bernard Williams recently
expressed it well: "With Nietzsche [...]", writes Williams, "the resistance to the con-
tinuation of philosophy by ordinary means is built into the text, which is booby-
trapped not only against recovering theory from it, but, in many cases, against any
systematic exegesis that assimilates it to theory"77. Nowadays this kind of distancing
strategy, this rejection of straightforward assertoric modes of utterance, is familiar
in many intellectual circles; but if one were to search for a parallel case from before
Nietzsche's time, one of the most obvious would be the writings of Sextus. (Another,
incidentally, would be Montaigne; but then, Montaigne's links with ancient Pyrrhon-
ism are clear and undisputed.)78

indeed the case) Nietzsche now treats the two as even more closely connected
than he had done before. Finally, many may be inclined to interpret this phenom-
enon as wholly or partly the product of a stylistic decision. See, for example,
Tracy Strong's introduction to the new Hackett translation (by Richard Polt) of
Twilight of the Idols (Indianapolis, 1997); Strong agrees (p. xx) that "The book
is [...] full of conclusions", and that "The experience of Twilight is an experience
[...] of definiteness, of assertiveness", but accounts for this in terms of stylistic
choices rather than any doctrinal shift, tentative or otherwise. (If this is correct,
incidentally, it does not pose any difficulty for the picture I am proposing. What-
ever Nietzsche's motivations, stylistic or otherwise, this is in fact the attitude
projected by this book and by others of the same period, and it is on these terms
77
that they demand to be considered.)
In "Nietzsche's Minimalist Moral Psychology", European Journal of Philosophy
1 (1993), pp. 4-14 (the quoted sentences are on the first page); reprinted in
Bernard Williams, Making Sense of Humanity (Cambridge, 1995).
78
On the links between Nietzsche and Montaigne, see David Molner, "The Influ-
ence of Montaigne on Nietzsche: A Raison d'Etre in the Sun", Nietzsche Studien
22 (1993), pp* 80-93. For a treatment of Montaigne linking him both to the
ancient Pyrrhonists and to postmodern trends, see David R. Hiley, "The Politics
of Skepticism: A Reading of Montaigne", History of Philosophy Quarterly 9
(1992), pp. 379-399.

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84 Richard Bett

Like Nietzsche, Sextus aims to avoid being pinned down to a single definite view,
and favors the contemplation of a multiplicity of perspectives; Sextus also employs
a variety of literary devices to make clear that his own writing is not to be taken as
philosophical writing of any usual sort. The most obvious of these devices is perhaps
the use of the various stock skeptical 'expressions' such as 'no more' and Ί determine
nothing'. 79 One notable feature of these phrases is their self-applicability, or as Sex-
tus himself puts it, their 'self-canceling' (συμπεριγράφειν);80 and even aside from his
use of such phrases, Sextus sometimes shows himself willing to accept that his argu-
ments are in certain ways self-refuting — for example, at the end of his discussion
of proof.81 It has recently been persuasively argued (in the only article I have ever
seen which is wholly devoted to a comparison between Nietzsche and Sextus)82 that
in this respect, also, the two of them share common ground; Nietzsche, too, fre-
quently lays himself open to charges of self-refutation — as part of a deliberate
strategy, according to the interpretation of this article — and occasionally makes
explicit that he is happy about this state of affairs. (See, in particular, the often
quoted remark from Beyond Good and Evil: "Supposing that this also is only inter-
pretation — and you will be eager enough to make this objection? — well, so much
the better."83) The same may be true on a much broader scale if Bernd Magnus is
right about the 'self-consuming' character of several of Nietzsche's key concepts.84
In any case, there is clearly a good deal of similarity in the self-presentations of
Nietzsche and of Sextus. Of course, their aims are by no means the same. But they
are at one in their sophisticated development of a certain type of voice — a voice
which is in a sense philosophical, but which is radically distinct from the voice of
traditional philosophizing.
But all this, I am saying, is characteristic of Nietzsche's works — or
many of them, at least — before 1888. In the published works of 1888,
the multiplicity of perspectives, the stylistic distancing and the other
features I just mentioned are much less obvious, if they are present at
all. Instead, in The Antichrist we are treated to a single point of view,
argued for in a relentless high pitch. In Twilight of the Idols, too, it
79
See especially PH 1.187-208.
80
PH 1.14, 15,206.
81
M8.480f.
82
Daniel W. Con way and Julie K. Ward, "Physicians of the Soul: Περιτροπή in
Sextus Empiricus and Nietzsche", in Daniel W. Conway and Rudolf Rehn, edd.,
Nietzsche und die antike Philosophie (Trier, 1992), pp. 193-223. Despite the pat-
ronizing comments of L. Deitz in a generally condescending review of the whole
collection (Classical Review N.S. 44 (1994), p. 220), this article contains much
thought-provoking material.
83
Section 22.
84
See Bernd Magnus, "Nietzsche and Postmodern Criticism", Nietzsche Studien 18
(1989), pp. 301-316; Bernd Magnus, Stanley Stewart and Jean-Pierre Mileur,
Nietzsche's Case: Philosophy andlas Literature (New York/London, 1993), esp.
ch. 1.

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Nietzsche on the Skeptics and Nietzsche as Skeptic 85

is relatively easy to detect a unified and consistent attitude towards


philosophy, theology and a number of related matters;85 and the same
might be said of the attitude towards Wagner in The Wagner Case.
These texts do not seem, then, to be 'booby-trapped' in the same way
as many of the earlier works; Nietzsche looks as if he is telling us what
he thinks, and trying to get us to believe it - something much closer
to what philosophers have always done. Ecce Homo is, of course, a
special case. But even here, he at any rate does not address philosophi-
cal, theological and related topics in the radically non-standard fashion
of the earlier works; for, with the exception of a few incidental observa-
tions like the one with which we began, he does not address such topics
at all. Instead, he is engaged in a very peculiar form of self-depiction,
or perhaps self-creation — an exercise which may very well be in some
sense philosophical, but which is not in any overt sense about philoso-
phy.
Thus in the very same works, at the end of his career, in which his
approval of skepticism becomes strongest, the stylistic and method-
ological features which had earlier seemed reminiscent of ancient skep-
ticism are largely abandoned, and the ideas expressed become much
less easily assimilable to anything one might recognize as skepticism.
In The Antichrist in particular, but in Twilight of the Idols as well,
Nietzsche sounds much more like what the ancient skeptics would have
called a negative dogmatist than a skeptic; he is denying a wide range
of cherished beliefs, and thereby apparently committing himself to a
wide range of beliefs of his own. (Nietzsche, incidentally, was well
aware of the difference between negative dogmatism and skepticism; in
a dialogue in Daybreak, one speaker says to another: "You have just
ceased to be a sceptic! For you denyl"s6) I do not suggest that there is
anything problematic about this; one is perfectly entitled to approve of
certain facets of skepticism while remaining a dogmatist. And, as we

85
Again, this is not to deny that stylistic experimentation of some kind is an impor-
tant feature of the book; my point is just that Nietzsche dispenses with, or at
any rate greatly plays down, those traits of style that are friendly to a perspecti-
vist approach. (Here I would emphasize especially the disjointedness of adjacent
sections dealing with recognizably related material. There seems to be much less
of this in Twilight of the Idols than in, say, Beyond Good and Evil; in most chap-
ters, on the contrary, there is a strong impression of continuous, cumulative
argument.) Once more, the salutary remarks of Tracy Strong (see above, n. 76)
on the 'musical' and other stylistic qualities of the book seem to me quite com-
86
patible with the view I have been developing.
Section 477. I follow the translation of R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, 1982).

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86 Richard Bett

have seen, it is quite understandable that Nietzsche's approval of skep-


ticism would increase along with the strength of his polemic against
Christianity and traditional philosophy. Still, there is something in-
triguingly paradoxical about the fact that he becomes more approving
of skepticism even while he himself becomes in various ways less skepti-
cal. But then, as I said at the outset, Nietzsche's relations with skepti-
cism are by no means simple.87

87
An earlier version of this paper was presented at a conference entitled "Le defi
sceptique. Variantes antiques, modernes et postmodernes" — Paris, June 1996.1
thank the participants for their comments; and I especially thank the conference
organizer, Giulia Sissa, for inviting me to take part in this event. I also thank
Susan Hahn for helpful written reactions to the earlier version; and the two
anonymous referees for the Archiv, whose comments prompted a number of final
improvements. , ^ · ;; ;

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