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Hume and Nietzsche: Moral Psychology (short essay) 
7th-Aug-2008 08:56 pm
Moral Psychology is the study of the human mind as it relates to morality and moral conduct. A moral psychologist typically provides us with an analysis of such concepts as agency, action, character, selfhood and freedom, amongst others.

David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche are both moral psychologists in this sense. My aim here is twofold: to describe their basic answers to moral-psychological questions, and to explore the extent to which Nietzsche can be said to be distinct from Hume. This is a troubling question for anyone interested in Nietzsche as an original thinker, for both surface and depth readings reveal that his moral psychology has a strikingly Humean character. It is also a potentially troubling issue for "neo-Humeans", who constitute the numerical majority in analytic ethical philosophy. For if Nietzsche is close to Hume, then Hume is also close to Nietzsche, and Humeans may not be able to avoid confronting distinctly Nietzschean doubts about morality and social conduct.

1. Metaphilosophical Motivation

Both Hume and Nietzsche1 advocate a kind of naturalism. This is a weak naturalism, for it does not seek to give science authority over philosophical inquiry, nor does it commit itself to a specific ontological or metaphysical picture. Rather, it seeks to (a) place the human mind firmly in the realm of nature, as subject to the same mechanisms that drive all other natural events, and (b) investigate the world in a way that is roughly congruent with our best current conception(s) of nature:

Human minds are not strangers in nature, but inextricably parts of it. (Hume, T 1.2.1)

To translate man back into nature, to become master over the many vain and overly enthusiastic interpretations that have been scrawled over homo natural to see to it that man stands today... deaf to the siren-songs of old metaphysical bird-catchers who have been piping at him all too long: "you are more, you are higher, you are of a different origin!" (Nietzsche, BGE 230)

Furthermore, the motivation for this general position is common to both thinkers. Hume and Nietzsche saw old rationalist/dualist philosophies as both absurd and harmful: such systems were committed to extravagant and contradictory metaphysical claims which hinder philosophical progress. Furthermore, they alienated humanity from its position in nature—an effect Hume referred to as "anxiety"—and underpinned religious or "monkish" practises which greatly accentuated this alienation. Both Nietzsche and Hume believe quite strongly that coming to see ourselves as we really are will banish these bugbears from human life.

To this end, both thinkers ask us to engage in honest, realistic psychology. "Psychology is once more the path to the fundamental problems," writes Nietzsche (BGE 23), and Hume agrees:

the only expedient, from which we can hope for success in our philosophical researches, is to leave the tedious lingering method, which we have hitherto followed, and instead of taking now and then a castle or village on the frontier, to march up directly to the capital or center of these sciences, to human nature itself." (T Intro)

2. Selfhood

Hume and Nietzsche militate against the notion of a unified self, both at-a-time and, a fortiori, over time.

Hume's quest for a Newtonian "science of the mind" lead him to classify all mental events as either impressions (sensory) or ideas (copies of sensory impressions, distinguished from the former by diminished vivacity or force). The self, or ego, as he says, is just "a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity." (Treatise 4.6)

Similarly, here is an infamous pair of passages from Nietzsche:

Just as the popular mind separates the lightning from its flash and takes the latter for an action, for the operation of a subject called lightning, so popular morality also separates strength from expressions of strength, as if there were a neutral substratum behind the strong man, which was free to express strength or not to do so. But there is no such substratum; there is no "being" behind doing... "the doer" is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything... But the way is open for new acceptations and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as “soul as social structure of the instincts and passions” (GM 13, BGE 12)

For Nietzsche, the experience of willing lies in a certain kind of pleasure, a feeling of self-mastery and increase of power that comes with all success. This experience leads us to mistakenly posit a simple, unitary cause, the ego. (BGE 19)

The similarities here are manifest: our minds do not have any intrinsic unity to which the term "self" can properly refer, rather, they are collections or "bundles" of events (drives) which may align with or struggle against one another in a myriad of ways. Both thinkers use political models to describe what a person really is. Hume tells us we should "more properly compare the soul to a republic or commonwealth, in which the several members [impressions and ideas] are united by ties of government and subordination, and give rise to persons, who propagate the same republic in the incessant change of its parts" (T 261)

3. Action and The Will

Nietzsche and Hume attack the old platonic conception of a "free will" in lock-step with one another. This picture, roughly, involves a rational intellect which sits above the appetites and ultimately chooses which appetites will express themselves in action. This will is usually not considered to be part of the natural/empirical order, and it is this consequence which irks both Hume and Nietzsche, who offer two seamlessly interchangeable refutations:

"A quantum of force is equivalent to a quantum of drive, will, effect—more, it is nothing other than precisely this very driving, willing, effecting..." (GM 13)

"the distinction, which we often make betwixt power and the exercise of it, is without foundation... the terms of efficacy, agency, power, force, energy, necessity, connexion, and productive quality, are all nearly synonymous” (T 1.3.14)

Since we are nothing above and beyond events, there is nothing for this "free will" to be: it is a causa sui, "a sort of rape and perversion of logic... the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense" (BGE 21).

When they discover an erroneous or empty concept such as "Free will" or "the self", Nietzsche and Hume engage in a sort of error-theorizing which is structurally the same. Peter Kail (2006) has called this a "projective explanation", whereby belief in those concepts is "explained by appeal to independently intelligible features of psychology", rather than by reference to the way the world really is1.

For example, Nietzsche believes that our erroneous concepts of selfhood and especially of "free will" serve a moral purpose: they are the creation of individuals (slave-moralists) for whom the concepts have aided the fulfillment of their drives. For Hume, our errors are more cognitive. In the case of our belief in free will, we mistake the operation of a calm but nonetheless strong psychological passion for the operation of a platonic rational will. In the case of selfhood, we project a unity on ourselves in the same way that we assume that objects in the world are unified and stable (when sensation tells us otherwise):

In order to justify to ourselves this absurdity, we often feign some new and unintelligible principle, that connects the objects together and prevents their interruption or variation. Thus we feign the continu’d existence of the perceptions of the senses, to remove the interruption; and run into the notion of a soul, and self, and substance, to disguise the variation. (T; SBN 254)

4. Freedom and Action

So, of what use is the notion of "freedom"? If compatibilism is the doctrine that our ordinary, pretheoretical, Platonic concept of rational freedom can survive under a view of humans as mechanisms, then neither Nietzsche nor Hume counts as a compatibilist. Rather, both endorse revised concepts of freedom, and thus of action itself. Hume and Nietzsche hold that while all choices are caused in some sense, we may nonetheless move towards what is today called a capability-conception of freedom. Here is Hume:

By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; this is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may. Now this hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to every one who is not a prisoner and in chains. Here, then, is no subject of dispute. (EHU 8.1)

We may thus draw a contrast between two agents who both have a strong desire to lift a very heavy rock. One is strong enough to do so, the other is not, and thus in this particular instance, the strong one is free while the weaker one is not. Here is Nietzsche, again strikingly similar:

How is freedom measured in individuals and peoples? According to the resistance which must be overcome, according to the exertion required to remain on top. The highest type of free men should be sought where the highest resistance is constantly overcome... the free man is a warrior (Twilight, aph 38)

5. Consequences: Freedom, Human Nature and Morality

While Nietzsche follows Hume in viewing freedom as capability, he follows this thought to its seemingly logical conclusion and asserts a typology of persons. His "free spirits"3 are those who can discharge their wills and who seek always to overcome both society and even self. It is clear enough that such clearly contingent abilities will not be apportioned evenly throughout a population, and since freedom is so inherently desirable, it must be constantly fought for by and thereby earned by the strongest members of a population.

Hume's basically liberal political theory is meant to ensure that, through the internalization of moral virtues, each person can be free to express his or her drives. He bases this theory on an optimistic view of the content of natural human drives: we are naturally prone to feeling and acting on sympathy. Furthermore, as many neo-Humeans (see Bernard Williams, "Internal and External Reasons") are fond of repeating, education can inculcate virtuous dispositions in others so that we may all naturally gravitate towards mutual freedom of action.

So, while both thinkers deflate the role of reason in Human life and assert the primacy of affective drives, the content of those drives becomes the key point of contention between them. This, however, does not mitigate the extraordinary structural similarity between the moral psychology of Hume and Nietzsche. This point should thus be recognized by Nietzsche scholars: that a great number of his psychological ideas, both negative and positive, were anticipated by Hume in something very near to their precise form. Furthermore his method of offering "projective explanations" probably originated in its robust form via the same Scottish philosopher Nietzsche unwisely derided as "an abasement, a depreciation of the idea of a “philosopher”. (BGE 252)

Hume's optimism about human nature, however, is a shadow that looms over neo-Humean moral philosophy. This is because of Hume's somewhat naive lack of attention to both history and to present reality. It was precisely this myopia that Nietzsche caustically describes as characteristic of most philosophers. For it seems that humanity is capable of great natural sympathy and of unfathomable natural cruelty, and if reason cannot ultimately adjudicate between such drives, the moral quality of our world may be in constant jeapordy. It is significant that Harry Frankfurt, a paradigmatic neo-Humean ethicist, has written that:

So far as reason goes, the conflict between us may be irreducible. There may be no way to deal with it, in the end, other than to separate or to slug it out... this is a fact of life.(Frankfurt 2004, italics added)

The "facts of life" uncovered by our minimalist-naturalism have lead us to distinctly anti-moral conclusions. Here, the voice of Nietzsche whipsers in the neo-Humean's ear: why all the fuss about morality, then? Why the concern to vindicate some utilitarian or contractarian version of egalitarian moral theory when your foundational psychological theory has lead you straight to the doorstep of violence, inegalitarianism and power-relations?

I do not believe that Humeans cannot respond here (indeed, many have). Nor do I believe that Nietzsche's vision of a better society is one of great suffering, violence or oppression. I do believe, however, that a recognition of the powerful similarities between the two thinkers should provoke new and interesting questions for those in their respective philosophical camps.

1 Nearly any substantial reading of Nietzsche is controversial, and I am aware that the 'naturalist' reading is opposed by such diverse thinkers as Richard Rorty, Alex Nehemas and Gilles Deleuze. However, there is more than enough textual support in Nietzsche for both pro- and anti-naturalist readings, so my account may be usefully viewed as a Nietzschean moral psychology rather than an excavation of what Nietzsche himself thought. In my opinion, such an excavation is not possible with the texts we now possess.
2 Alasdair MacIntyre calls the offering of such an explanation "the activity of unmasking... that most characteristically modern of activities." (After Virtue 71-72) MacIntyre's work stands as an unmatched critique of Hume's role in the creation of our modern "emotivist" culture, with its associated fact/value dichotomy. This is the culture which has ceased to believe that its evaluations refer to anything other than the contingent drives of its members: in Nietzsche's terms, a culture which has killed God.
3 The German term here is frei Geist. This is important because the term "spirit" has religious overtones in our language. But geist is not translatable into a single term, it also strongly connotes mind and, crucially, motivation.
(Deleted comment)
8th-Aug-2008 04:24 pm (UTC)
Very interesting read. I haven't seen Hume's and Nietzsche's (alleged) naturalism so closely paired as you have attempted (and, I think, convincingly so) here.

It is interesting that it has taken so long for people to notice it, especially in Hume studies. Leiter (2002) gives a great summary of the similarities he takes their positions to have. A very interesting thing about both of them is their desire to recast the human being as an animal, as part of the natural order in this sense. As such, Hume is a proto-Darwinian thinker, and we do know that Darwin read him extensively.

Can you clarify what you mean by the difference between "a Nietzschean moral psychology" versus "an excavation of what Nietzsche himself thought"?

Sure. Here I follow Bernard Williams (“Nietzsche’s Minimalist Moral Psychology,” 1995) who in turn follows Michael Foucault in saying that the central question surrounding Nietzsche is not what he thought but to what use he can be put. This is because his texts are, in Williams terms, "booby-trapped" against systematic exigesis: they contain too many internal contradictions on central points to be organized into a coherent whole.

So, I think the most sensible course of action is as follows: if you're going to propose a Nietzschean account of some question, make sure you are able to back it up with significant textual support which makes sense in the context in which it is written. The big mistake is to say "this is what Nietzsche actually thought", because textual evidence to the contrary is almost certain to surface somewhere, and because he's not around to clear things up for us.
10th-Aug-2008 01:47 am (UTC)
I came across this, from Leiter's blog, but maybe you have already encountered it...

Nietzsche…well, he has no coherent system because he knew of the philosopher’s error:

“The philosopher supposes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the structure; but posterity finds its value in the stone which he used for building, and which is used many more times after that for building—better. Thus it finds the value in the fact that the structure can be destroyed and nevertheless retains value as building material.” --Mixed Opinions and Maxims #201

This ties in to what Foucault is saying. He's a slippery and contradictory fellow, but, I think he would agree, so is truth -- it must be contextualized.
10th-Aug-2008 11:08 am (UTC)
Did you just claim that truth is contradictory?
12th-Aug-2008 06:51 am (UTC)
12th-Aug-2008 06:56 am (UTC)
Or, to be more precise, it might seem contradictory if it is not contextualized.
12th-Aug-2008 11:44 am (UTC)
In what context is it true that truth might seem contradictory if it is not contextualized? (And, again, are you claiming that some truths are contradictory?)

Here's my general worry. At some point you'll need to say that some truths are truths across contexts. You can't just stop with "all truths are contextual" since that itself, if true, is in need of a proper context. The natural way to resolve the regress is to say that some truths are true across contexts.

But once you've conceded that, it becomes unclear why you wouldn't want to remove the contextual element in the first place. I'm not sure what work the contextualizing element is doing. If seven is greater than five, then seven is greater than five no matter what the context. If Sally is older than Lisa, then Sally is older than Lisa no matter what the context.
12th-Aug-2008 06:51 pm (UTC)
Actually, er, no, I'm not claiming that some truths are contradictory, but just that they might seem contradictory if not contextualized. I mean that in one context something is true and in another context the opposite is true. Also, there is always that 'True words seem paradoxical', Tao Te Ching 78.

I guess I have more of an existentialist conception of truth. The truth itself requires a mind to realize such truth, so how can truth ever be without context? This idea of some universal abstract truth, without realizing that we are actually reifying the world into abstract symbols and then calling this 'truth'...I mean, it's easy for us to make representations of truth and then confuse this with the truth itself, and I think we don't have a problem of infinite regress if we do not succumb to this confusion.

Is seven greater than five no matter what the context? What if I have to choose between seven twenty-dollar bills and five one hundred-dollar bills? And is Sally older than Lisa no matter what the context? What if Sally gets in a spaceship and goes really fast and we have a twin paradox phenomenon?

Anyways, I have no coherent theory of truth, but since I was really commenting on Nietzsche's views,

The falseness of a judgement is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgement; in this respect our new language may sound strangest. The question is to what extent it is life-promoting, life-preserving, species-promoting, perhaps even species-cultivating. And we are fundamentally inclined to claim that the falsest judgements (which include the synthetic judgements a priori) are the most indispensible for us; that without accepting the fictions of logic, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the unconditional and self-identical, without a constant falsification of the world by means of numbers, man could not live--that renouncing false judgements would mean renouncing life and a denial of life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life...
--Nietzsche, BGE 1.4

I've been trying to make sense of this passage, and I'm not sure if I am interpreting him correctly here, but I believe he is calling the synthetic a priori judgements, which includes mathematical judgements, the falsest judgements, an invented fiction, and that seems paradoxical, but they are the most useful.
12th-Aug-2008 07:07 pm (UTC)
Ok. I think I see the thrust of your position.
8th-Aug-2008 01:49 pm (UTC)
Help me out with the Hume exegesis here.

"Here is Hume:

Liberty... consists in the absence of hindrances to the execution of one's decisions... it is a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will-, that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may... " (EHU 8.1, 95)."

This sounds like something a good compatibilist could endorse. Why do you conclude that "neither Nietzsche nor Hume counts as a compatibilist" and then use this quote to justify the part about Hume?
8th-Aug-2008 04:04 pm (UTC)
I suppose I meant compatibilist in a nonstandard sense, I certainly did not mean to imply that Hume is not a compatibilist in the sense that we ordinarily use the term. That's what the word "Platonic" was supposed to indicate in that somewhat clumsy section. The point is certainly not central to any of my theses, so I hereby drop it.
8th-Aug-2008 01:55 pm (UTC)
Here's another thing I don't understand. You say all this:

"Here is Nietzsche, again strikingly similar:

How is freedom measured in individuals and peoples? According to the resistance which must be overcome, according to the exertion required to remain on top. The highest type of free men should be sought where the highest resistance is constantly overcome..."

But what is this supposed to be similar to? Presumably the previous Hume quote which includes this:

"Liberty... consists in the absence of hindrances to the execution of one's decisions..."

It seems to me that Hume is arguing that freedom requires the lack of constraints and Nietzsche is arguing that freedom requires the presence of constraints. That, to me, makes the positions striking dissimiler.
8th-Aug-2008 01:59 pm (UTC)
8th-Aug-2008 04:02 pm (UTC)
You're right, this question needs considering. It seems that my Hume source (the Cambridge Companion, actually) misquoted his Enquiry, which reads:

"By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; this is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may."

For Nietzsche, a free spirit not only requires resistance but constantly overcomes it (this is the doctrine of will to power, in essence). Hume doesn't place such a constraint on a free individual: such a person is only able to (counerfactually, we can suppose) act according to determinations of their will.

So I think in one sense, you're absolutely right: there's a crucial active/passive distinction going on here that I ignored. However, I'd still like to maintain that both define freedom in terms of power, and both would point to the strong person who can actually lift the rock and say: there is a free agent.

Thanks for this, I'll definitely include a distinction between actual and possible exercises of power in future drafts, should there happen to be any.
10th-Aug-2008 04:07 am (UTC)
Excellent essay! I have long suspected similarities between these two, but have not written anything on it. I first became suspicious through the genealogy of Hume’s influence on Kant, and the little known fact that Nietzsche wanted to do a dissertation on Kant.

There is much to be discovered here!
31st-Aug-2012 04:39 am (UTC)
¿Por qué siempre los filósofos contemporáneos asumen que las teorías actuales están mejor paradas que las anteriores? veo que este un ejemplo de una lectura limitada tanto de Hume como de Nietzsche, que está simplemente acomodada toda en términos contemporáneos, lo cual no permite comprender mejor lo que estaban diciendo los autores. ¿por qué no les conceden el beneficio de la duda y los estudian con juicios antes de asumir que para lo único que sirven es para aportar a sus teorías contemporáneas, si éstas podrían estar tan acertadas como erradas como las de Hume y Nietzsche? Al parecer la filosofía se está convirtiendo en un cúmulo de sectas.Unos por un lado volviendo dioses a autores antiguos y otro volviéndose dioses a si mismos. Al parecer las enseñanzas de Hume y Nietzsche no fueron comprendidas.
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