On Nietzsche’s Late Notebooks

Notebook 36, June - July 1885 36[18]
I take good care not to talk of chemical ‘laws’: that has a moral aftertaste. It is rather a matter of the absolute establishment of power relations: the stronger becomes master of the weaker to the extent that the weaker cannot assert its degree of autonomy - here there is no mercy, no forbearance, even less a respect for ‘laws’!

There is a remarkable insight inside this note, but also a remarkable nonsense. Nietzsche touches on something obvious and primitive about today’s science: its historical inheritance (and subsequent promotion) of a certain animism. The fact that science talks in terms of laws, principles, rules, and so on shows it has hardly shed its primitive past. The historical senses of these terms and concepts are still operative here and there in little ways: ‘laws’ suggest that a thing moves or behaves because it is ordered to do so. By what? By the ‘law’. Just as some ruler in ages past would have forced members of a population through a ‘law’, so too is it believed unconsciously that a scientific law has the power to animate, control, or govern (even in the cybernetic sense). Likewise when it comes to ‘rule’ or ‘principle’ we are dealing with words/concepts that bear more than a passing resemblance to ‘ruler’ and ‘prince’, which whether they have these philological origins, arguably carry with them these senses today. Thus, is it not simply that a scientific ‘law’, so understood and characterized, is ‘moral’. Science today still believes in animism. It believes, for example, that a ‘law’ causes something to happen. This is an inevitable confusion for beings with symbolic reasoning: words and things converge and separate at a single point, the name. Words constitute things, assemble the various sensory impressions together under a single heading. Words (the symbolic in general) in our minds have a quasi-independent cognitive existence. They follow their own combinatorial logic, and they have the characteristics of objects while at the same time they are virtual. Because they are cognitively independent, we end up tricking ourselves into believing that they are physically independent, and there1

fore causally operative in some sense. Something moves or some behavior changes. We say it is the ‘law’ of gravity, or thermodynamics, or entropy that ‘caused’ it. Yet the law intervened nowhere in fact. It did not push a single molecule. The ‘law’ is a symbolic fiction, a label, and a description. This is the insight of the note. When Nietzsche says that a ‘law’ is moral, his comment leads in this direction, as well as in the direction of asking how a law is moral in general. Which is to say: if what is moral is aligned with the good, to what extent is a law which is an external device for control ‘good’? Why do we assume that control is ‘good’? Leaving that question aside, we move to the nonsense of the note. The preoccupation with the stronger, the weaker, and so on is part of Nietzsche’s personal fantasy, his ‘moral’ re-interpretation of phenomena. It is willful, it is intellectually consistent, but it is also driven up out of the depths of his soul for less than purely conscious or intellectually-inspired reasons. It is worth noting here that ‘moral’ has a very specific sense in Nietzsche, at least in the context of these notes. The ‘moral’ has a kind of general, but developed sense meaning ‘meaningful’. Nietzsche perceives the physical universe, the external world as being sufficiently complex that it exceeds causality, it is acausal, in a sense. Any explanation or frame of reference or system of interpretation that is meaningful is something that is external to that physical world whose radically neutrality when it comes to meaning is something we run up against constantly. All of our various interpretations of the world have in common that they are meaningful; which is to say, meaning is the province of thinking beings themselves composed of a complex causality with invisible psychological aspects forming their judgments. Thinking beings for being alive are also pushed by that vitalist aspect; they are alive, they are in motion, so they are full of feeling. Morality, or meaningful interpretations in general, are unavoidable by living beings that think and feel — and that also incidentally will by trying to propel themselves from one point to another. Nietzsche seeks to make that willing conscious. He seeks to take the act of interpreting, of finding/creating meaning in the world, and make it knowing and willful. Thus his framework of interpretation of strength and weakness. The note here is not a simple assertion of that framework, and so


cannot be faulted for that. The comment on the strong and the weak in a chemical reaction is a way of questioning the buried moral assumption that exists in one sense when talking of chemical ‘laws’. However, it would be a simple thing to take issue with the general imputation of strength in any chemical reaction. Rather than pick it apart on logical or sophistic grounds, the question could merely be asked: does strength/weakness immediately suggest itself when pondering the mystery of the physical world at that level? If two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom combine into a water molecule, did the two hydrogen atoms give up their strength thereby? Did they overpower the oxygen atom and ‘force’ it to become water with them? The point is not to criticize even the distant (and vaguely playful) animism that might drive Nietzsche’s own interpretation here, but to ask whether the nature of identity itself on that level does not complicate any attempt to see things in terms of strength/weakness. It is hard to impute a property of strength, for example, when there is no entity to take on the property. What was the oxygen before it was water, for example? That loose floating oxygen atom might have once belonged to a carbon monoxide molecule. Perhaps it is not properly ‘oxygen’ at all, but a broken part of a carbon monoxide molecule. What was the carbon monoxide molecule before though? Was it perhaps ‘actually’ something different? As we reach down into the smallest level, we are dealing with things that have fewer and fewer sensory properties, fewer properties at all other than combination. How does one distinguish, after all, between one oxygen atom and another? They are separate in space and time and they may be a part of this or that other molecule. Other than that there is no distinguishing. Self-identity becomes harder and harder to maintain as we go down, and the Nietzschean interpretation of strength-weakness becomes harder to support as the mystery becomes total.


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