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Agency and the Foundations of EthicsNietzschean Constitutivism$

Paul Katsafanas

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199645077

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199645077.001.0001

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(p.243) Appendix: Is Nietzsche Really a Constitutivist?

(p.243) Appendix: Is Nietzsche Really a Constitutivist?

Agency and the Foundations of Ethics
Oxford University Press

I have argued on roughly Nietzschean grounds that will to power is a constitutive aim of action. As noted earlier, my primary goal in this volume has been the defense of a constitutivist theory rather than full-fledged textual exegesis. I do think that the arguments given in Chapters 6 through 8 represent Nietzsche’s actual view, but given the complexity of Nietzsche’s texts, establishing his commitment to this view would necessitate a book of its own.1 Accordingly, I have presented the view articulated in these chapters as a Nietzschean view rather than Nietzsche’s view. For present purposes, the question of whether the theory is true is more important than the question of whether it is Nietzsche’s.

Nevertheless, I am aware that many readers of Nietzsche will be astonished by my suggestion that his theory is best interpreted along constitutivist lines. How could Nietzsche, of all philosophers, think that ethics is grounded in action? Could he really believe that it’s possible to derive universal reasons from facts about agency? Isn’t Nietzsche a great skeptic about ethics, attempting not to construct a theory but to knock down all theories?

In short, my answer is no. It is certainly easier to see what Nietzsche is against than what he is for; his texts devote far more space to critique than to the construction of a positive view. However, as I pointed out in Chapter 6, Nietzsche’s ethical critiques are inextricably bound up with the articulation of a positive view: his critiques presuppose that power has a privileged normative status. “Only as creators can we destroy,” he writes (GS 58).

Given that many readers may find my use of Nietzsche surprising, I do want to spend a moment addressing some central interpretive concerns. My goal in this appendix is not to establish, decisively, that my reading of Nietzsche is correct; I lack the space for such a task. My goal is more modest: I will show that my interpretation of Nietzsche cannot be casually dismissed. In particular, I will argue that many initial misgivings about attributing a constitutivist view to Nietzsche are based on confusions.

With this in mind, let me mention six reasons for resisting my reading of Nietzsche. This list may not be exhaustive, but it includes the most common reactions to my reading.

  1. 1) The constitutivist theory is a version of Kantianism, so the constitutivist reading of Nietzsche implies that Nietzsche is a Kantian. But this is absurd; Kant is one of Nietzsche’s central targets.

  2. 2) The constitutivist theory implies that there are universal reasons, but Nietzsche denies that there are any universal reasons.

  3. 3) The various distinctions that I draw in the previous chapters—such as the distinction between the force and the ubiquity of reasons—aren’t present in Nietzsche’s texts.

  4. (p.244) 4) The constitutivist theory is incompatible with Nietzsche’s model of agency.

  5. 5) The constitutivist theory is a theory, an articulated ethical view; but Nietzsche does not offer any positive theories at all. He is engaged in a purely critical project.

  6. 6) The constitutivist theory is based on two ideas: (a) Nietzsche gives power a privileged normative status, and (b) Nietzsche thinks we can justify the claim that power has a privileged normative status. But we can reject one or both of these claims.

Objections (1)–(4) can be dealt with rather quickly; I will address them in Section 1. Section 2 examines (5), and Section 3 considers (6).

1. The First Four Objections

Let’s start with objection (1). I take it as a datum that Nietzsche is not endorsing a Kantian ethical theory; his texts are unambiguously critical of Kant. Thus, claim (1) would be a decisive objection to my reading. However, claim (1) is based on a misunderstanding. As I explained in Chapter 1, constitutivism is more properly Humean than Kantian. It is simply a historical accident that the currently prominent versions of constitutivism, defended by Korsgaard and Velleman, are Kantian. However, the version of constitutivism that I attribute to Nietzsche is quite close to what I called, in Chapter 1, a Humean constitutivism. Put simply: I am not claiming that Nietzsche is a Kantian; I am claiming that he is a more sophisticated version of Hume.

This brings us to a related concern, expressed in objection (2). At the very least, constitutivism resembles Kantianism in holding that there are certain universal reasons. But doesn’t Nietzsche deny that there are any universal reasons?

I addressed this concern in Chapter 8, arguing that Nietzsche is a parametric universalist. Nietzsche certainly does reject universalism in one sense—the universalism present in figures such as Kant, who holds that there is one normative standard that generates the same normative results for all rational agents. But I’ve argued that Nietzsche’s texts make it clear that he is committed to a quite different type of universalism, which I’ve called parametric universalism. On this reading, Nietzsche does think that there is one universally valid normative standard: power. However, other, more particular values can vary.

Let’s turn to objection (3). I concede this point: in order to make the Nietzschean version of constitutivism succeed, we must introduce various distinctions and complications that are not explicitly present in Nietzsche’s texts. For example, as Chapter 7 explained, we must be more precise about the way in which values can conflict with power; we must recognize a distinction between pro tanto and all things considered reasons; and, if we adopt certain views of reasons, we may need to appeal to a notion of agential activity in order to explain why we should treat the will to power as normative rather than merely compulsive. This does not show that Nietzsche is not a constitutivist; it simply shows that Nietzsche failed to consider certain sophisticated philosophical objections to his view. This is hardly surprising.

Finally, consider objection (4). Is constitutivism really compatible with Nietzsche’s model of agency? In particular, doesn’t the model of agency required by the constitutivist reading seem altogether too reflective for Nietzsche?

Nietzsche certainly doesn’t imagine agents reflectively considering their reasons for action at every moment, or engaging in bouts of deliberation prior to each action. Indeed, as I pointed out in Chapter 7, Section 3, Nietzsche claims that most of our actions are habitual, relatively unreflective, and automatic. But, as I noted in the same section, this is compatible with my (p.245) reading of Nietzsche’s will to power thesis. As I interpret him, Nietzsche does not imagine that agents will reflectively consider the relation between power and particular actions and values at each moment; rather, he envisions agents periodically assessing their actions and values, primarily in a retrospective fashion. So the will to power thesis, as I interpret it, does not rely on an excessively intellectualistic or reflective model of agency; on the contrary, it requires only the minimal claim that agents periodically reflect on their actions and values and sometimes adjust these actions and values in light of this reflection.

Of course, some interpreters will object even to this modest thesis. For a few interpreters read Nietzsche as denying the very possibility of reflective thought’s having a causal impact on action. Brian Leiter, for example, has argued that Nietzsche is an epiphenomenalist about conscious willing (Leiter 2001 and 2007). If this interpretation is correct—if Nietzsche treats conscious thought or conscious willing as causally inert—then my reading of his will to power thesis would, indeed, be problematic. However, in other works I have argued that Leiter’s epiphenomenalist reading of Nietzsche is indefensible.2 If my arguments on that point are correct, then my interpretation of the will to power thesis is perfectly compatible with Nietzsche’s model of agency.

2. Does Nietzsche Offer Theories?

Above, I’ve addressed various concerns about the details of the theory that I attribute to Nietzsche. However, some readers will object not to the details of my interpretation, but to the very idea that Nietzsche offers philosophical theories. For some readers interpret Nietzsche as an opponent of all philosophical theorizing. To cite just two prominent examples: Bernard Williams (1994) claims that Nietzsche’s texts are “booby trapped” against the extraction of philosophical theories—in other words, that Nietzsche’s concerns are purely critical rather than constructive. Robert Pippin has recently defended Williams’ claim at some length (2010).3 If this is correct—if Nietzsche’s texts are designed so that any attempt to extract a theory will fail—then, of course, my reading will be unsuccessful.

However, my response to this objection is straightforward: what looks like a “trap” or a contradiction in Nietzsche’s texts is often revealed, upon closer examination, to arise from an impoverished view of the philosophical options. Once we rethink some of our own presuppositions, these alleged contradictions often dissolve. Consider a simple example: in Twilight, Nietzsche both denies and affirms the causal efficacy of the will. He first writes, “The ‘inner world’ is full of phantoms and illusions: the will is one of them. The will no longer moves anything, hence does not explain anything—it merely accompanies events; it can even be absent” (TI VI.3). This passage seems to deny the causal efficacy of the will. Yet, a few pages (p.246) later, Nietzsche says that certain individuals have the capacity to will, where willing is defined as the power “not to react at once to a stimulus, but to gain control of all the inhibiting, excluding instincts…the essential feature is precisely not to ‘will’, to be able to suspend decision. All unspirituality, all vulgar commonness, depend on an inability to resist a stimulus: one must react, one follows every impulse” (TI VIII.6). So, within a few pages, we have the denial and the affirmation of the causal efficacy of the will. On the Williams/Pippin reading, this is a booby trap, designed to thwart philosophical theorizing. But, in fact, there is no deep mystery or ineluctable tension here: Nietzsche is merely denying one conception of the will and replacing it with another.4 As the texts make clear, he denies the existence of the libertarian will, the will conceived as a faculty exempt from determination by prior events. But he accepts the existence of the will conceived in more naturalistically respectable terms: as a capacity, not exempt from causal determination, which enables agents to counter the effects of certain motives, and whose strength varies from individual to individual.5

In short: what looks like a series of “booby traps” or contradictions turns out to be perfectly consistent and sensible, provided that we don’t assume that the only legitimate conception of the will is the libertarian account. This is just one example, but the point generalizes: when Nietzsche seems to be asserting both P and not-P, a more careful reading typically reveals that he is drawing subtle distinctions or introducing novel ways of dividing the conceptual space.

In light of this, let’s take stock of the state of the debate. I claim that Nietzsche is offering an ethical theory. My opponents claim that Nietzsche offers no theories of any kind, because his texts are designed to thwart theorizing. If the claim that Nietzsche is not a theorist is to be more than a bare assertion, then we need to show what, in particular, is wrong with my reading of him as a constitutivist. The objection cannot be: Nietzsche offers no theories, therefore your reading is wrong. The objection must be more specific than this. It must show where, in particular, my reading goes wrong. It will then collapse into one of the other, more specific objections.

3. Objections to the Reliance on the will to Power Thesis

Chapter 6 relied on two interpretive claims: Nietzsche gives power a privileged normative status, and Nietzsche claims that each instance of action aims at power. These interpretive claims are relatively uncontroversial: they constitute an exceedingly common interpretation of Nietzsche.6 Nonetheless, some skeptical commentators argue that there are grounds for rejecting one or both of the claims. In this and the following sections, I will argue that these skeptics are mistaken; Nietzsche’s commitment to the two claims is clear.

(p.247) There are three potential objections, which I will address in turn. First, some commentators argue that Nietzsche eventually abandoned his will to power thesis. Second, Brian Leiter has recently argued that Nietzsche views will to power as unimportant. Third, Leiter has also claimed that Nietzsche rejects the idea that each action aims at power. If these claims are correct, they might suggest a different resolution to the interpretive problem that I canvassed in Chapter 6: perhaps Nietzsche resolves the interpretive problem simply by giving up his claim that power has a privileged normative status. Below, I argue that this is not the case.

3.1 Does Nietzsche Abandon his will to Power Thesis?

Let’s start with the first point. Commentators sometimes claim that Nietzsche ultimately rejected his will to power project. For example, Leiter writes that “recent scholarship has cast doubt on whether Nietzsche ultimately accepted” a will to power thesis according to which “all life (actions, events) reflects the will to power” (Leiter 2002, 139). Hollingdale claims that Nietzsche “abandoned” his project of revaluing values in terms of will to power (Hollingdale 1999, 220). Young goes even further, writing that Nietzsche rejected the very idea that all actions manifest will to power (Young 2010, 542–6). If this is right, then my interpretation of Nietzsche would not be consistent with his mature view.

However, these claims are highly misleading; they are speculations based on dubious interpretations of textual evidence. To see why, we need to disentangle a few threads.7

Part of the controversy surrounding Nietzsche’s attitudes toward will to power arises from the nature of the book published as The Will to Power. This book is a haphazard, disorganized collection of extracts from Nietzsche’s notebooks, pasted together and organized under often arbitrary headings by Nietzsche’s sister and her editors; it not only falsifies the order of Nietzsche’s notes, but includes notes that Nietzsche expressly discarded. I take it as obvious that this pseudo-book has no value; I have not relied on it here.

Another controversy arises over whether Nietzsche himself intended to publish a work titled The Will to Power. At times, he did: from 1884 to 1888, Nietzsche’s notebooks are full of plans to write either a book or a series of books that would focus on the revaluation of values and the will to power. His notebooks reveal that Nietzsche tried out several different titles, often settling on some variant of The Will to Power or The Revaluation of All Values. By September 1888, Nietzsche has settled on a four-book series called The Revaluation of All Values. Then we come to two stories that are thought by Young, Leiter, Hollingdale, and others to have a decisive bearing on Nietzsche’s thought.

Let’s start with the first story. From June to September 1888, Nietzsche stayed at a guesthouse in Sils-Maria and composed many notes on will to power and other topics. Hollingdale (1999, 250) claims that when Nietzsche departed, he left behind and instructed his landlord to throw out many of these 1888 notebook writings; however, Hollingdale tells us that the landlord saved the manuscripts, and some of them were ultimately published in the Will to Power. Others (p.248) have repeated Hollingdale’s story, claiming that Nietzsche wanted his notebooks destroyed; see, for example, Leiter (2002, xvii) and Young (2010, 628 note 9). This story is often cited in support of the idea that Nietzsche abandoned his will to power project: after all, if Nietzsche consigned so many of his writings on will to power to the wastebasket, he can hardly have regarded those notes as important! However, the story is apocryphal. Hollingdale’s only cited source for this story is a magazine article from 1893, but as Magnus (1986) points out, this article is flatly inconsistent with Hollingdale’s claims: the article says that Nietzsche left behind and instructed his landlord to throw out not notebooks, but page proofs of Twilight of the Idols.8 So this story appears to be a mere myth that has somehow managed to live on in certain areas of Nietzsche scholarship.

This brings us to the second story. As mentioned above, by September 1888, Nietzsche has settled on a four-book series on the revaluation of values. His notes from this period treat The Antichrist as one of these four books. Then we come to the point which concerns Young, Hollingdale, Leiter, and others: in certain notes from mid to late November 1888, Nietzsche presents The Antichrist not as one part of, but as the totality of, his Revaluation of All Values.9 Nietzsche’s productive life ends shortly thereafter: by mid December 1888, Nietzsche is slipping into insanity.10

What should we make of this? I am inclined to say: very little. After all, we do not need to speculate about Nietzsche’s plans for unwritten works in order to support his claims about will to power. Nietzsche’s actual published works from Zarathustra to the Antichrist provide ample evidence for the claim that all actions manifest will to power and that will to power is the principle of revaluation, as I have indicated above.11

But some commentators think we can infer a great deal from the history outlined above. In particular, some commentators conclude that because several notes from mid to late November 1888 treat the Antichrist as the totality of the Revaluation of All Values, Nietzsche must have abandoned his will to power thesis. For example, Hollingdale writes that Nietzsche “abandoned” his revaluation project because he recognized that “the Revaluation was no advance upon the philosophy completed in Zarathustra” (Hollingdale 1999, 220). Leiter makes a similar claim (2002, xvii). Analogously, in his recent biography of Nietzsche, Julian Young reviews the notebook evidence mentioned above and concludes that “the claim that all human motivation can be reduced to will to power” is “abandoned in the works of 1888” (Young 2010, 546). Young speculates that Nietzsche’s “intellectual integrity required him to reject his original, (p.249) all-embracing system”—that is, prevented him from the allegedly reductive attempt to find a basic principle for all action (Young 2010, 542). For, according to Young, in late 1888 Nietzsche “becomes open to the variety of human motivations and no longer tries to force them all onto the procrustean bed of the will to power” (Young 2010, 546).12

This conclusion strikes me as both extremely dubious and of only biographical interest. To start with the latter point: suppose we assume that in his notebook writings of November 1888, Nietzsche came to reject his own will to power thesis. (Suppose, for example, a note turned up in which Nietzsche wrote “my will to power thesis was an error: values should not be evaluated in terms of will to power!”) Then we would need to ask whether unpublished notebook material from the last weeks of Nietzsche’s sane life should be taken as more important than Nietzsche’s great 1883–8 works—from Zarathustra to Beyond Good and Evil to the Genealogy to Twilight and the Antichrist—which clearly endorse the will to power thesis. It seems to me obvious that the answer would be no.13

But this brings us to the first point: the claim that Nietzsche rejects the will to power thesis is nothing more than speculation based on the thinnest of textual evidence. Two points bear emphasizing. First, one can certainly question the inference from a changing title to a rejection of a central doctrine. That a philosopher no longer intends to write a series of books focusing on a particular topic does not imply that the philosopher has abandoned or modified his beliefs about the topic. Perhaps Nietzsche came to feel that one book—The Antichrist—offered a sufficient analysis of will to power. Or perhaps other problems had come to seem more interesting or more gripping. It is an immense interpretive leap to infer that because Nietzsche might have abandoned plans to write a four-book series focusing on will to power, he came to reject his will to power doctrine.14

(p.250) Second, the evidence for the claim that Nietzsche regarded the Antichrist as the totality of the Revaluation is highly questionable. To be sure, there are a few letters from mid and late November 1888 in which Nietzsche seems to refer to the Antichrist as the totality of the Revaluation. But, as Thomas Brobjer points out in a recent study of Nietzsche’s notes,

when Nietzsche very carefully revised his EH manuscript—“weighing each word on a gold scale” (KSB 8: letter to Köselitz, 9 December 1888)—in early December, he did not change the reference to A as “the first book”…Still more important, when he revised his NCW in the latter part of December, which he had begun writing and compiling on December 12, he then again refers to A as the “first book of the revaluation of values.” (Brobjer 2010, 21–2)

So a few letters from mid to late November seem to treat the Antichrist as the totality of the revaluation project, whereas notes and published material prior to mid November and throughout December consistently treat the Antichrist as one part of a four-book series. The idea that Nietzsche rejects his will to power thesis, then, is based on giving an overridingly authoritative status to a few brief remarks from two weeks of Nietzsche’s life.

In sum: the claim that Nietzsche abandoned his will to power thesis turns out to be based either on an apocryphal tale originating in Hollingdale’s biography or on a highly dubious inference from mixed evidence about the number of volumes in a series that Nietzsche planned to write. This is hardly the stuff on which to base a rejection of a central theme in a philosopher’s published works.

3.2 Does Nietzsche View will to Power as Unimportant?

This brings us to the second question: is will to power a central theme in the published works? Given the evidence adduced in Chapter 6, Section 1.1, this question might seem surprising. Nevertheless, Brian Leiter has repeatedly claimed that Nietzsche views will to power as “unimportant” (Leiter forthcoming a, Section 3). Leiter argues that if Nietzsche really viewed will to power as an important component of his philosophical thought, then

it is hard to understand why he says almost nothing about will to power…in the two major self-reflective moments in the Nietzschean corpus: his last major work, Ecce Homo, where he reviews and assesses his life and writings, including specifically all his prior books (EH III); and the series of new prefaces he wrote for the Birth of Tragedy, Human, All-too-Human, Daybreak, and The Gay Science in 1886, in which he revisits his major themes. That this putative “fundamental principle” [will to power] merits no mention on either occasion suggests that its role in Nietzsche’s thought has been overstated. (Leiter 2002, 142; cf. Leiter forthcoming a, Section 3)

In this passage, Leiter first claims that Nietzsche says “almost nothing” about will to power in his autobiography Ecce Homo. He then notes that Nietzsche doesn’t mention will to power in the series of 1886 prefaces for his pre-Zarathustra books. This, allegedly, casts doubt on the importance of the will to power thesis.

However, both of these arguments are deeply problematic. Start with Leiter’s claim about the 1886 prefaces. In fact, it is completely unsurprising that Nietzsche’s prefaces for his pre-Zarathustra books don’t mention will to power—for will to power is first introduced in Zarathustra itself! (p.251) The fact that the prefaces do not mention a topic which none of these works discuss is no evidence against will to power’s importance.15

So let’s consider Leiter’s other argument: the claim that Ecce Homo says “almost nothing” about will to power. Two points are relevant. First, Nietzsche wrote Ecce Homo as a retrospective looking-back and summing-up of his developments. As he penned Ecce Homo, his notebooks are full of plans for a volume entitled Revaluation of All Values or Will to Power. Given that he intended to write a new work on will to power, it would make sense if he devoted no space to it in his retrospective work Ecce Homo. (Indeed, in a letter of November 20, 1888, Nietzsche describes Ecce Homo as a “prelude to the Revaluation of All Values”; see Middleton [1996, 326] for a translation of the letter.)

But this brings us to a second point: the claim that Ecce Homo says “almost nothing” about will to power is at best misleading. The phrase “will to power” [Wille zur Macht] occurs four times in Ecce Homo, “power” occurs an additional five times, and “will of life” or “will to life” occurs three times.16 In total, then, there are no less than twelve separate references to power and its cognate terms in Ecce Homo.

Perhaps Leiter’s claim is that because will to power is mentioned only twelve times—or because the precise phrase “Wille zur Macht” occurs only four times—it cannot be an important topic for Nietzsche. But even this charitable reading won’t help Leiter. Suppose we take a given topic that Leiter thinks is among Nietzsche’s central concerns, and ask how many times it is mentioned in Ecce Homo. For example, Leiter notes that one of Nietzsche’s concerns is the rejection of a certain conception of free will (Leiter 2002, 87–101). Discussions of free will occur only four times in EH. Surely we cannot conclude, from this, that Nietzsche abandons or considers unimportant his critique of free will.

In light of these considerations, I conclude that there are no good reasons for denying that will to power is one of Nietzsche’s central concerns. His commitment to the will to power thesis is clear throughout his late works.

3.3 Does Nietzsche Reject the Idea that each Action Aims at Power?

This brings us to a final interpretive objection. I have relied on the claim that will to power is present in every action. However, Brian Leiter has argued that Nietzsche in fact rejects this claim. Leiter writes,

Nietzsche repeatedly makes claims inconsistent with the thesis that “the essence of life” is will to power. So, for example, he writes: “Life itself is to my mind the instinct for growth, for durability, for accumulation of forces, for power: where the will to power is lacking there is decline. It is my contention that all the supreme values of mankind lack this will” (A 6). But if all actions manifested this will, then this will could never be found lacking. Yet Nietzsche thinks it can be lacking, which means he must countenance the possibility that not all organic phenomena are will to power. (Leiter 2002, 141)

(p.252) In short, Leiter takes these two claims to be incompatible:

  1. 1) Each action manifests will to power, and

  2. 2) Certain actions lack will to power.

Nietzsche certainly accepts (2). Does this give us a reason to reject claim (1)?

In fact, it does not. There are two reasons to doubt Leiter’s argument. First, if the passage cited above really were incompatible with the claim that all actions manifest will to power, then the principle of charity would dictate interpreting it as a sloppy phrasing rather than Nietzsche’s deliberate rejection of claim (1). After all, this is just one passage, whereas versions of claim (1) occur in many places throughout Nietzsche’s texts (as Chapter 6 demonstrated).17

However, this brings us to the second problem: there is no need to dismiss the above passage. Given our reconstructions above, we can see that claims (1) and (2) are in fact perfectly compatible. Claim (2) should be interpreted not as the claim that certain actions express no will to power whatsoever, but rather that certain actions manifest only minimal amounts of will to power. After all, when some property X can be present to different degrees, we often use the phrase “X is lacking” to mean that X is present only to a minimal extent. (The German word translated as “lacking” is “fehlen”, which operates analogously.) For example, the claim “Bill’s athletic prowess is lacking” does not mean that Bill has absolutely no ability to engage in athletic endeavors, but that his ability to do so is below average. The claim “Tom’s cooking abilities are lacking” does not mean that Tom has absolutely no capacity to cook, but that his ability to do so is limited. Just so, claim (2) indicates that the will to power is present to a low degree, rather than completely absent.18

For these reasons, there is no conflict between Nietzsche’s claim that will to power is lacking and his claim that will to power is omnipresent. Nietzsche does, indeed, assert that every action manifests will to power.

4. Conclusion

Above, I have argued that central objections to and misgivings about my reading of Nietzsche as a constitutivist are groundless. I hope to have shown that there are no straightforward or obvious (p.253) reasons for rejecting my constitutivist reading of Nietzsche. Of course, producing a full-fledged defense of this reading of Nietzsche would require a level of textual work necessitating a volume of its own. I haven’t produced that volume. I’ve simply argued that (1) if we interpret Nietzsche as a constitutivist, then we can resolve a generations-long puzzle about the status of his ethical critiques; (2) the constitutivist interpretation is consonant not just with a stray remark here and there in Nietzsche’s texts, but with his most abiding philosophical concerns and some central features of his works; and (3) the obvious objections to interpreting Nietzsche as a constitutivist can be answered. I think this strongly suggests that Nietzsche’s ethical theory is, indeed, a version of constitutivism.


(1) I do offer interpretive defenses of some aspects of this view in a manuscript in progress entitled The Nietzschean Self: Agency and the Unconscious, as well as in Katsafanas (2011a, 2011b forthcoming a, and forthcoming b).

(2) See, in particular, Katsafanas (2005) and a work in progress entitled “Nietzsche and Kant on the Will: Two Models of Reflective Agency.”

(3) This kind of reading is sometimes supported by quoting Nietzsche’s famous remark: “I mistrust all systematizers. The will to a system is a lack of integrity” (TI I.26). However, as Reginster has argued (2006, 3), Nietzsche most likely has in mind a rather specific sense of system: the post-Kantian demand, articulated (in quite different ways) by thinkers ranging from Reinhold to Fichte to Hegel to Schelling, to account for all philosophical problems in an interconnected way. We can avoid attributing that kind of systematic aspiration to Nietzsche while still maintaining that Nietzsche’s thought is, as Reginster puts it, “organized and logically ordered, and not a haphazard assemblage of brilliant but disconnected ideas” (2006, 3).

(4) Other passages from the late works make it explicit that Nietzsche is rejecting only some conceptions of the will. For example, Nietzsche writes, “today we have taken [man’s] will away altogether, in the sense that we no longer admit the will as a faculty [Vermögen]” (A 14). Notice that Nietzsche says he is rejecting the will as a faculty. While Nietzsche does not explain what he means by “faculty,” it seems natural to assume that conceiving of the will as a faculty involves conceiving of it as causally isolated from the agent’s drives and motives.

(5) I explore Nietzsche’s view of the will in more depth in “Nietzsche and Kant on the Will: Two Models of Reflective Agency.”

(6) To give a brief sampling, all of the following works defend some version of these claims: Kaufmann (1974), Wilcox (1974), Heidegger (1979), Schacht (1983), Hunt (1991), Richardson (1996, 2004), Jaspers (1997), May (1999), Reginster (2006), and Hussain (2011).

(7) I will be concerned only with the claim that will to power is present in all actions. BGE 36 and Nietzsche’s notebooks contain speculations about whether will to power might extend even more broadly—for example, he wonders whether the concept of force can be analyzed in terms of will to power. This metaphysical version of the will to power thesis seems less important to Nietzsche; he appeals to it only once, in a highly hedged manner, in the published works (BGE 36). In any case, it is irrelevant for our purposes. Accordingly, I will not address it here. (For a helpful discussion of this metaphysical version of the will to power thesis, see Clark [1990, 209ff.].)

(8) Magnus speculates that Hollingdale’s actual source for the story must be a “similar but by no means identical tale” in a 1908 work entitled Franz Overbeck und Friedrich Nietzsche: Eine Freundschaft by Carl Bernoulli. For a discussion, see Magnus (1986, 88).

(9) In letters from November 13 and 14, Nietzsche is still treating the Antichrist as “the first book of the transvaluation” (Middleton 1996, 324). But in a letter from November 20 to Brandes, Nietzsche refers to the Antichrist and says “the ‘transvaluation of all values’…lies finished before me” (Middleton 1996, 326); a letter of November 26 to Deussen makes a similar claim. Based on this type of evidence, Mazzoni Montinari argues that Nietzsche abandoned his plan for a four-volume series in mid-November 1888 (Montinari 1982, 92-119).

(10) For an overview of Nietzsche’s notebooks during the 1884–8 period, see for example Magnus (1986), Hollingdale (1999, 217–27), and Young (2010, 534–50).

(11) The published works do not provide sufficient evidence for the metaphysical interpretations of will to power, as discussed by Heidegger and others. But I have not relied on that material; I have focused on the psychological reading of will to power.

(12) A word on Young’s rather bizarre claim that Nietzsche abandoned the will to power thesis because he became aware of its inconsistency with the diversity of human motivation (Young 2010, 546). First, one suspects that Nietzsche was aware of the diversity of human motivation before 1888. Second, as Chapter 6, Section 2 explained, the will to power thesis does not conflict with the claim that human beings have diverse motivations. Magnus offers a more nuanced view, arguing that Nietzsche “abandoned the will to power and eternal recurrence as cosmological principles,” but not as psychological principles (Magnus 1986, 84; emphasis added).

(13) Consider an analogy: suppose we discover that, in the last weeks of his life, Kant penned a note reading “I no longer believe that my Categorical Imperative is the supreme principle of morality.” Would this show that Kantians should stop talking about the CI, that they should abandon their reliance on the Groundwork and the Second Critique? Of course not. It would be an interesting biographical detail, but it would not affect the evaluation of the Kantian arguments. Just so with Nietzsche.

(14) Moreover, Nietzsche’s notebooks reveal that he is constantly shifting and modifying his plans, rearranging and shuffling material under different headings and titles. I see no reason to attach any great importance to the titles of future books or the projected lengths of future series. Had Nietzsche’s sanity lasted a few more weeks, we might very well have found yet another projected table of contents for a multi-book Revaluation of Values. Bernard Reginster makes a related point, noting that Nietzsche wrote at least 25 plans for this work. As Reginster puts it, although there are “significant differences among these plans…it is their broad structural similarities that I find most striking. Most of the plans require (1) an examination of the nature and history of European nihilism; (2) a critique of the dominant values, particularly what are referred to as Christian and moral values; (3) a revaluations of these values, which takes the will to power as its principle; and, finally, (4) the doctrine of the eternal recurrence…The order and the manner in which those themes are treated vary from one plan to the next, but these four issues retain their place and their basic significance throughout Nietzsche’s revisions” (Reginster 2006, 17).

(15) To be sure, some of Nietzsche’s 1886 prefaces discuss later developments in his thought (the preface for Birth of Tragedy is most notable in this regard). But they do not attempt to provide a synoptic overview of his later thought.

(16) “Wille zur Macht” occurs in EH Preface 4; EH III “Birth” 4; EH III “Case of Wagner” 1; EH IV.4. “Macht” occurs in EH III “Zarathustra” 2, 3, and 7; EH III “Genealogy”; EH IV.1 and IV.7. The phrase “will to life” occurs in EH II.1, EH III “Birth” 3, and EH III “Case of Wagner” 2.

(17) Leiter also cites two additional passages, but neither passage claims that the will to power is absent. First, he notes that Nietzsche writes, “wherever the will to power declines in any form” (A 17). However, to decline is not to be absent: the claim that certain actions manifest diminished or declining amounts of will to power is certainly compatible with the claim that all actions manifest will to power. Second, Leiter cites Nietzsche’s claim that liberal institutions “undermine the will to power” (TI IX.38). Again, the claim that something is undermined does not suggest that it is absent. An athlete’s aim of completing a race may be undermined by a sudden knee injury, but this hardly means that he did not aim to complete the race.

(18) Maudemarie Clark offers a different argument against will to power. She interprets will to power as “a second-order desire for the ability to satisfy one’s other, or first-order, desires” (1990, 211). She argues that this must be an empirical generalization: we should read Nietzsche as showing that will to power is “an important human motive” (1990, 212). However, like Leiter, Clark denies that this motive is omnipresent: while she concedes that “in calling attention to this motive, Nietzsche does illuminate large areas of human life and behavior,” Clark says that she “resist[s], however, the idea that Nietzsche believed that all behavior is motivated by the desire for power because I do not see any way in which this could be a plausible or interesting hypothesis about human behavior” (1990, 212). I agree with Clark that an omnipresent second-order desire to fulfill first-order desires would be neither plausible nor interesting; but I take this to be a problem with Clark’s interpretation of will to power, rather than with Nietzsche’s theory. For I aim to show that if we interpret will to power as the aim of encountering and overcoming resistance, the will to power thesis is both plausible and interesting.