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International Phenomenological Society

Boscovich Contra Nietzsche


Author(s): Robin Small
Source: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Mar., 1986), pp. 419-435
Published by: International Phenomenological Society
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andPhenomenological
Research
Philosophy
Vol. XLVI, No. 3, Marchi986

BoscovichContraNietzsche
ROBIN SMALL

Monash University

An interest
in physicaltheoryis evidentin manyofthewritingsof Nietzon hisideasofan important
sche.So too is theinfluence
thinker
oftheprein thedevelopment
viouscentury
whose significance
of modernscienceis
perhaps still not fullyrecognized.Nietzscheencounteredthe work of
RogerJosephBoscovichat an earlystagein hiscareer,and was impressed
byitsrelevanceto his own concerns.'In ithe foundan alternative
to traditionalformsofatomism:forBoscovich,atomswereno longersolidparticlesbut instead 'points of matter',located in space but withoutany
extensionoftheirown. Boscovicharguedthatall thepropertiesattributed
to mattercould be explainedin termsof the propertiesof force.Each
pointof matterin his theoryservesas thecenterof a fieldof force,which
variesin a rathercomplicatedway accordingto distancein orderto give
riseto the familiarphenomenaof bodies and theirbehavior.
In laterwritingsNietzschepaid tributeto thetheoryof Boscovichas a
discoveryto be rankedwiththe contributionof Copernicusto human
knowledge.'Justas Copernicushad shown the apparentimmobility
of
theearthto be an illusion,so Boscovichrevealedtheapparentsolidityof
materialsubstanceto be a fictionbased on theunreliablecharacterofour
senses.Materialisticatomismcould thusbe describedas "one of thebest
refutedtheoriesthereare."3In place ofthisdoctrinewe shouldinsteadsee
theworldas consistingof 'centersof force'.4It is the "states,alterations,
See K. Schlechtaand A. Anders,Friedrich
Vondenverborgenen
Nietzsche:
Anfdngen
seinesPhilosophierens
Cannstatt:FriedrichFrommannVerlag, i96z),
(Stuttgart-Bad

pp. 127-53.
KGW V/z, p. 54i and VII/z, p. z64. "KGW" here indicatesNietzsche,Kritische
ed. G. Colli and M. Montinari(Berlin-NewYork: Walterde
Gesamtausgabe:
Werke,
Gruyter,1973- ).
BeyondGood and Evil,Sect. iz. Where available the Englishtranslationsof Walter
Kaufmannhave been used.
KGW VIII/3,pp. i63, i65 and i68 (The Willto Power,Sect. 567, 636, and io66,
respectively).
Nietzschealso uses the terms'atoms of force':KGW VII/3,p. 284 (The
WilltoPower,Sect.637, and 64z), and 'pointsof force':KGW VII/3,p. 378 and VIII/i,
p. 90.

BOSCOVICH

CONTRA NIETZSCHE

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4I9

combinationsand developments"'of thesecentersof force,the variationsin their"orderand relation,"6thataccordingto Nietzscheconstitutetheprocessesof nature.


ofBoscoIn a recentarticle,GeorgeJ.Stackhas analysedtheinfluence
vichon Nietzschein some detail.7I do not intendto repeathis account.
I wishto disMy concernin thisarticleis to do somethingquitedifferent:
cuss some ideas overwhichBoscovichand Nietzschestandopposed. Of
ofthesame,a
centralimportancehereis theidea oftheeternalrecurrence
themewhose importancein Nietzsche'sthoughtcan hardlybe overestimated. In many of his writings(thoughprimarilythose found in his
unpublishednotebooks)Nietzscheattemptsto supportthisdoctrinein
termsofideas based at leastinparton hisreadingofBoscovich.Yet when
we look intoBoscovich'sTheoryof NaturalPhilosophy,we findthathe
describesa theorywhichis verysimilarto theone defendedbyNietzsche,
and offerswhat is clearlyintendedto be a refutationof it.8 It is this
conflictthatI intendto discuss.In additionI will mentiona numberof
morerecentdiscussionsofthesame theme,and showto whatextentthey
continuethe same dispute.
Boscovich'sobjectionsare raised againstan argumentwhichhe presentsin thisway:
The combinationof a finitenumberof termsare finitein number;but the combinations
throughoutthe whole of infiniteeternitymusthave been infinitein number,even if we
assumethatwhatis understoodbythenameof combinationsis thewhole seriespertaining
agitationoftheatoms,ifall cases hapto so manythousandsofyears.Hence,in a fortuitous
things,one ofthemis boundto
penequally,as is alwaysthecase in a longseriesoffortuitous
recuran infinitenumberof timesin turn.9

The firstreplyhe makesto thisargumentis an objectionto anyargument


has a cause, he
whichrelieson the conceptof chance. Since everything
claims,thosewho use such arguments"errin thefactthattheyconsider
Ratherthisis a term
thatis initselftrulyfortuitous."
thatthereis anything
whichwe use when we are ignorantof the cause of something.
point
Having made thisobjection,Boscovichmoveson to a different
whichis rathermorecomplex:"But,leavingthatoutofaccount,itis quite
numberofterms
falseto saythatthenumberofcombinationsfroma finite
5KGW V/z,P- 421-

6 Ibid., p. 398.
7
8

G. J. Stack, "Nietzsche and Boscovich's Natural Philosophy,"PacificPhilosophical


Quarterly
6z (i98i): 69-87.
but only as an
Stack mentionsBoscovich'srejectionof the idea of eternalrecurrence,

"assumption."
Ibid.,p. 73.

9 Boscovich,A Theoryof Natural Philosophy,trans.J. M. Child (Cambridge,Mass.:


M.I.T. Press,i966), p. i9i.

42O

ROBIN

SMALL

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oftheuniverse
totheconstitution
thatarenecessary
is finite,
ifall things
concerns
question
that
the
crucial
sees
clearly
Boscovich
areconsidered."
Ifwe imagareformed.
oftheseelements
thewayinwhichcombinations
ordertobe
onlytheir
alonga singlelineandconsider
inethemas arranged
willnotbe opento hisobjection.
theargument
significant,
I readilyacknowledgethismuch;that,ifall thelettersthatgo to forma poem ofVirgilare
shakenhaphazardin a bag, and thentakenout of it,and all thelettersare setin order,one
thatcombinationwhichformed
aftertheother,and thisoperationis carriedon indefinitely,
thepoem of Virgilwill returnaftera numberof times,ifthisnumberis greaterthansome
definitenumber.

oftheuniverse'
morethanthis.For
involves
However,the'constitution
itinvolves
thearrangements
ofthepointsofmatter
withina
one thing,
in
andmoreover
is infinitely
divisible
spacewhichhasthreedimensions,
tobelocatedalonga
theseterms
eachofthem.Thusevenifwedo imagine
oflocationsforthislinewith
number
singleline,therewillbe an infinite
whenwe
ofspace.Furthermore,
respect
to eachofthethreedimensions
of
onthislinebut
takeintoaccountnotonlytheorderofthepoints matter
theirdistancesfromone another,we findthateach of themcan be
totheothers.
inaninfinite
number
ofpossiblewayswithrespect
arranged
ofmotionofthepoints
thepossiblespeedsand directions
Considering
Boscovichthusconcludes:
addsstillmoreordersofinfinity.
higherthanthe
of an orderthatis immensely
Hence,thenumberofcombinationsis infinite
ofinstantsoftime;and thus,notonlydoes itfollowthatnotall thecomorderoftheinfinity
numberoftimes,buttheratioevenofthosethat
binationsarenotboundto returnan infinite
of a veryhighorder.
do not returnis infinite,

interms
of
method
ofargument
thatBoscovich's
We shouldunderstand
is
thatallsuchthinking
withhisinsistence
isnotincompatible
probability
Itisdesigned
toshow
ad hominem.
Forthisisanargumentum
misguided.
thatifwe do lookat theworldas a wholeintermsonlyofthepossible
thatthe
we mustarriveat theconclusion
ofitselements,
combinations
Boscoisinfinitely
combination
ofanyparticular
improbable.
occurrence
further
in arguingfora divineprovivichwantsto use thisconclusion
denceas theonlycausewhichcan, as he puts it, 'overcome' such an
lineof
We are nothereconcernedwiththisfurther
infinite
improbability.
exceptto notehow manyoftheassumptionsoftheargumentfor
thought,
are in factacceptedbyBoscovich.He does forinstance
eternalrecurrence
accept thatthe numberof pointsof matteris finite.'0This indeedprovideshimwithanotherargumentfortheexistenceof God: how else can
we accountforthe factthatthereare thisnumberof pointsratherthan

Ibid.,p.

i92.

BOSCOVICH

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42I

some other?" He also acceptsthatthetotalityof matteroccupiesonlya


finitespace. Yet he does notacceptthefirst
premiseoftheargument,
that
the combinationsof a finitenumberof termsare finitein number.Nor
does he accept the model whichpresentsthesecombinationsas determinedbychance,sincethisis incompatiblewiththeprinciplethateverythingmusthave a definitecause.
Let us turnnow to the argumentused by Nietzscheas an attempted
of his doctrineof eternalrecurrence,
and to some of the
demonstration
objectionsmade againstit in recentyears.We shallsee thattheseare to a
largeextentsimplyrestatements
of theobjectionsmade by Boscovichto
the argumenthe describes.Firstof all we should remindourselvesof a
typicalversionof the argumentfoundin the notebooksof Nietzsche:
Iftheworldmaybe thoughtofas a certaindefinite
quantityofforceand as a certaindefinite
and therenumberof centersof force- and everyotherrepresentation
remainsindefinite
foreuseless- itfollowsthat,in thegreatdice gameofexistence,itmustpass througha calculablenumberofcombinations.In infinite
time,everypossiblecombinationwould at some
numberof times.And since
timeor otherbe realized;more:itwould be realizedan infinite
all otherpossiblecombinationswould
betweeneverycombinationand its nextrecurrence
have to takeplace, and each ofthesecombinationsconditionstheentiresequenceofcombinationsin thesame series,a circularmovementof absolutelyidenticalseriesis thusdemonstrated.'1

Althoughwe mighthave picked various other passages, this one is


suitableforourpurposenotjustbecauseitis veryoftencited,butbecause
it bringsout the presencein the argumentnot only of the elementof
chance,but also of theprincipleof determinism.
Each makes an importo the argument.Firstthe argument
tant,in factessential,contribution
fromprobabilityis used to show thatin an infinite
timeeverypossible
stateof forcemustrecur.Then Nietzschearguesthatifanystateof force
does recur,thestatesof forceto whichit is linkedbythisprinciplemust
also recur.As he puts it in Thus Spake Zarathustra,"Are not all things
thatthismomentdraws afterit all thatis to
knottedtogetherso firmly
come?"'3 This in turnleads to a conclusionabout eternalrecurrence:"If
- then
onlyone momentoftheworldwereto return- said thelightning
would have to return.14
everything

"
I

I'
14

Ibid., p. '93.
KGW VIII/3,p. i68 (The Will to Power, Sect. io66).
Thus Spake Zarathustra,"On the Vision and the Riddle."
KGWVII/I,p. 503. Cf.J.S. Mill,A System
ofLogic(London: Longman,1970), p. 277:
"And ifanyparticularstateoftheentireuniversecould everrecura secondtime,all subsequentstateswould returntoo."

422

ROBIN

SMALL

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in thissense: he holds thatthetotalstateof


Nietzscheis a determinist
theworldat anyone momentconditionsthetotalstateoftheworldat any
othermoment.The questionis: how arewe to understandthis?Nietzsche
in thathe repudiatesseveral
partscompanywithtraditionaldeterminism
of such determination.
commonideas about the significance
He denies
thatthereare laws of naturewhich compel eventsto take one course
ratherthananother.'5He deniesthatcauses bringabout theireffectsby
pushingand pressingotherobjects.'6These are attemptsto interpret
naturein termsof everydayhuman activitieswhich are assumedto be
understoodbecause of theirfamiliarity.
Nietzsche'sansweris thatthey
are notunderstoodat all, and thattherealnatureofour own actionsis as
unknownto us as anythingin the outsideworld. He concludesthat a
causal accountofnaturalprocessesis notan 'explanation',ifthisexpressionis usedto meana reductionoftheunfamiliar
to thefamiliar,butonly
an 'interpretation'.
ofnature,however,is nottouchedbythesecritiThe mathematization
cisms.On the contrary,Nietzscheseemsto be aware thatthisresearch
programcan proceedwithmoresuccessifitis no longerhinderedbymisleadingassociations.To cease thinkingof forceas Druck und Stoss,and
is onlyto giveup a modelwhichhas shown
ofatomsas solid Klfimpchen,
itselfto be inadequate,not to invalidatethe theoryfor which it was
designed.It is afterall thescientiststhemselveswho have demandedthe
couldnotuse littleclumpsofatoms
change:"The mathematical
physicists
fortheirscience:therefore
theyconstructa worldofpointsof force,with
whichone can calculate."7 His model hereis Boscovich,who he points
out was not an idealistbut a mathematician.'8
Nietzschegoes beyond
Boscovichinsomeways:hisgeneralattackon thenotionofnatural'laws'
would preventhimfromtalkingof a 'law of force'in theway Boscovich
does, and he criticizesthe'dynamicatom' as notyetfarenoughremoved
fromthesolid atomof traditionalthinking.'9
But again all thesechanges
do not alterhis convictionthatthe world is calculable.The problemis
onlyto findthemodelwhichbestallows us to graspthenatureofthiscalculability.
One mightbe puzzledbyNietzsche'sabilityto combinea kindofdeterminismwithan argumentwhichcomparesbecomingto a 'dice game',
and talksof "theenormouslyaccidentalcharusestheidea ofprobability,
'5
I6

17
I8

MixedOpinionsandMaxims,Sect.9; TheGayScience,Sect.io9.
KGWVII/3p. 224.
KGWVII/3,p. 378.
Selected
Letters
ofFriedrich
Nietzsche,
ed. andtrans.C. Middleton
(Chicago:Univer-

sityof Chicago Press,i969),


'9

p. i8z (Letterof zo March i88z).

KGWVIII/3,p. 50 (TheWillto Power,Sect. 634).

BOSCOVICH

CONTRA NIETZSCHE

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4Z3

Ivan Soll makes thispointwhen he writes:


acterof combinations.""0
time,everypostheory,hissayingthat"in infinite
Nietzsche'suse oftheidiomofprobability
siblecombinationwould at some timeor otherbe realized,"is notto be takenat facevalue.
withhis talkof "thegreatdice game of existence"and "therealizationof
For,intertwined
thatis at odds withthe
everypossiblecombination"we findtheexpressionofa determinism
idea thatchangesin theworld are to be understoodon themodelof a dice game and that
holdingthateverypossible
to interpretNietzscheas straightforwardly
makes it difficult
combinationwill in factbe realized."'

This argumenthas a strangefeature.One can readilysee thatifit were


would be an easy task. We could
valid, the refutationof determinism
simplybypointingouttheactualoccurrence
accomplishsucha refutation
grantedto
anycredibility
of dice gamesin thereal world.Or conversely,
determinism
would turntheactualoccurrenceof dicegamesintoa philoseemsveryplausible,on
sophicalproblem.Neitherof thesealternatives
and the
the face of it. This suggeststhat the doctrineof determinism
theoryof probabilityneed not be seen as 'at odds' witheach other.After
is to be
all, Laplace's classic statementof the principleof determinism
foundin thesecond chapterof his PhilosophicalEssay on Probabilities,
whereit is followedby an account of probabilityin whichdice games
figureas an examplemorethanonce." Nietzsche'sstatementthat"The
hands of necessityshake the dice-boxof chance"" is the metaphorical
expressionof a pointwhichis not as paradoxicalas it mayat firstseem.
Yet I thinkthereis someforcein theseremarksofSoll. Perhapsitis this:
in natural
suggeststhepresenceof patternsand regularities
determinism
processes,and thedice game imagesuggeststheabsenceof anysuchpatterns.Yet presencein realitydoes notimplypresencewithinthescope of
humanknowledge.Nietzscheholds thatthe processof becomingis far
withinourpowersofobservation.Formany
morecomplexthananything
that
thisis so - in thecase of dice games,for
phenomenawe do admit
cause and effect
example- butforotherswe supposethatwe can identify
In Nietzsche'sview thisis simplyan illusion.Even
withsome certainty.
withthephenomenawhichare closestto us, our own mentalstates,our
of thewhole process.We simplify
awarenessextendsonlyto a fragment
10

KGW VII/z, p.5 I.

I. Soll, "Reflectionson Recurrence:A Re-examinationof Nietzsche's Doctrine,die

Essays,ed. R.
A Collection
ofCritical
inNietzsche:
des Gleichen,"
EwigeWiederkehr
ii

23

Solomon (New York: Doubleday Anchor,1973), p. 328.


Laplace, A PhilosophicalEssay on Probabilities,trans.F. W. Truscottand F. L. Emory
(New York: Dover, 1952), p. 3: "Presenteventsareconnectedwithpreviousones bya tie
based upon theevidentprinciplethata thingcannotoccurwithouta cause whichproduces it."
TheDawn,Sect. 130.

424

ROBIN SMALL

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and thusmisrepresent
whathappensin fitting
it intoour setof concepts,
and in proceedingto use theseas themodel foran understanding
of the
processesof 'outside' reality.The real patternsin both cases remain
unknownto us. Fromthisone can see whyNietzscheuses thedice game
image;he wantsus to extendtheadmissionwe makewithrespectto dice
gamesto coverthewholeof reality,and recognizeeveryotherprocessas
equallybeyondourpowerto calculateand predictwithrealcertainty.
But
once again,thisis nota denialoftheprincipleofdeterminism.
Whatgives
Soll's argumentitsappeal is, I think,our tendencyto place confidencein
our knowledgeof reality.Fromthisstandpointdeterminism
has always
been takenas an optimisticdoctrine,providinga reassurancethatsuch
confidence
is notmisplaced,and thatoursearchesforcauseswillnotbe in
vain. If thisis an illusion(as Nietzschealleges) it is at least a beneficent
one,perhapsevenone of thoseerrorswhichhe holdsto be indispensable
fortheconductof life.Certainlya recognitionof 'thegreatdice game of
existence'is not likelyto be advocatedforanypracticaladvantage.But
relevantto thepresentdiscussion.Nietzthisconcernis not particularly
inhisargumentdoes notassume
sche'suse oftheprincipleofdeterminism
that we in fact possess knowledgeof even a single causal link. It is
sufficient
forhimto claimthatthetotalstateoftheworldat each moment
determines
thetotalstateoftheworldat each othermoment;and thereis
no inconsistency
betweenthisand histalkof "thegreatdicegameofexis"
tence.
Boscovich'sfirst
was based
objectionto thetheoryofeternalrecurrence
of chancewereinconsistent
on theclaimthatconsiderations
witha commitmentto determinism.His second objection was quite different,
because it dependedon approachingthe argumentabout chance on its
own terms.I turnnow to a closerexaminationof thisapproach.
Similarargumentsput forwardby later writershave been directed
specificallyagainstNietzsche'stheoryof eternalrecurrence.The bestknownof all such argumentsis thatof GeorgSimmel,firstpublishedin
Simmeluses a simplemodel to show thata finitenumberof eleI907.
4 He asks us to
mentsneed not have a finitenumberof combinations.
imaginethreewheelsofequal size,rotatingon thesame axis. One pointis
ofeach wheel,thethreepointsare arranged
markedon thecircumference
in one straightline,and thewheelsare set in motion.The secondwheel
rotatestwiceas fastas thefirstand thethirdat i/X timesthespeedof the
first.Simmelclaimsthat,howeverlongthewheelsturn,"thestateof the
threepointsfromwhichthemovementbegancan neverrecurin all eter-

24

thirdedition (Miinchen-Leipzig:Verlag von


und Nietzsche,
Simmel,Schopenhauer
Dunckerund Humblot,I 03), p. i83.

BOSCOVICH

CONTRA NIETZSCHE

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4Z5

nity."Thus thefinitudeof thenumberof elementsdoes not ensurethat


theirstateat any one momentwill eventuallybe repeated.
One can see that this argumentis valid by followinga reductioad
absurdumprocedure.Let us supposethatat sometimethethreepointsdo
returnto theiroriginalline-up.We can tellwhenthefirst
wheelreturnsto
itsinitialposition,becausewheneverthishappens,and onlywhenithappens,thepointson thefirstand secondwheelsare aligned.Havingnoted
thisfactwe can forgetthesecondwheel,whose functionis to enableus to
identify
completerevolutionsof thefirstwheelwithoutreference
to outside objects." Now suppose thatthethirdwheeltoo returnsto itsoriginal position.Clearlythefirstand thirdwheelswilleach have revolvedan
integralnumberof times.If we call thesenumbersa and b respectively,
thengivenour information
about therelativespeedsofthewheels,it fol=
lows thatb akr.But nris an irrationalnumber,whichmeansthatthere
areno twointegersa and b forwhichtheformulaar= a/bholdstrue.Thus
our hypothesisthatthe originalpositioncan again be reachedmustbe
abandoned,because it has led to a contradiction.
This argumenthas been describedas a "simplemathematicalrefutation."z6 Yet it dependson theassumptionthatan irrationalnumbersuch
as arcan be used to measuresomethingin thereal world,in thiscase the
speedof a movingobject.Now in orderto thinkofspeed in thisway,we
mustmakethesame assumptioneitherabout space or about time.Given
thepositionof arin thedenominatoroftheexpressionused here,itseems
to be servingas a measureoftime.This recallsthepremiseofBoscovich's
claim thatthe numberof possible arrangements
of unextendedobjects
Thatargumentrestedon
evenwithina finite
partofspace mustbe infinite.
of space; thisone restson assumingthe
assumingtheinfinite
divisibility
oftime.Grantingthevalidityofthereductioad absurinfinite
divisibility
dum argumentjust discussed,then,we are stillable to choose whichof
Our choice
severalpremisesto abandon in orderto avoid contradiction.
need not be the same as Simmel's.
Severalrecentwritershave attemptedto offera different
replyto Simmel's argument.Ivan Soll for instance writes: "Simmel's refutation
ofpatternsofrecombination
dependsupon thepossibility
beingregulated
are ruledout,but,ifNietzschedid indeedhold
so thatcertainrepetitions
that the recombinationwas random,Simmel's argumentswould lose

25

z6

Simmeladds thata threadis heldin place acrossthewheelsin orderto markthestarting


position;if thisremainsit seemsto me thatthe second wheel is superfluous.
K. Jasper,Nietzsche:An Introduction
to the Understanding
of his Philosophical
Activity,
trans.C. F. Wallraffand F. J. Schmitz(Chicago: HenryRegneryCompany,
i965), p. 355.

4z6

ROBIN SMALL

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someof itsforce."17In a similarway,JoeKruegersupportsone interpretationof eternalrecurrence


byarguingthat"The advantageof thevariationthesisis thatin itsrelianceupon therandomcharacterofrecombination it providesa methodof escape fromSimmel'sargumentagainst
unirecurrencesince that argumentis dependentupon a deterministic
verse."i28
BerndMagnus too criticizesSimmelforthe way in which "he
has ruledout randomizedconfigurations."
He concludes: "The persuasivenessof Simmel'sconclusion,that the numberof configurations
or
is infinite,
combinationof configurations
dependsentirelyon the introductionof a formulawhichdefines
theoutcomein advance.The formula
rathercuriously,
thattheorderofconfigurations
suggests,
is notsubjectto
probabilityrequirements.
That is a particularly
odd oversightwhenone
attemptsto offera cogentcounterexample."29
All theserepliesto Simmelrelyon thecontrastbetweenchanceor randomnesson theone hand and determinism
on theother.But whereasin
Boscovich's firstobjection this contrastis used against the notion of
chance,thesewritersturntheargumentaround.TheycriticizeSimmelfor
settingup hisexamplein a way thateliminatestheelementofchancealtogether.It is truethatSimmeldoes this.He assumesnotonlythatdeterminismholdstrue,butalso thattheformulagoverning
thecourseofeventsis
availableand can be stated.Yet does an introduction
ofchancelessenthe
forceof his argument?To bringin thiselementwe need denyonlySimmel'ssecondassumption.Let us suppose,then,thatthesethreewheelsare
allowed to move away fromtheircommonaxis or to move at different
speeds,and thatthesevariationsare allowedto occurat random.The outcome is simplythatthenumberof possiblesituationsis increasedbysevIn other words, Boscovich's second objection
eral orders of infinity.
immediately
becomesapplicable.The recurrence
oftheoriginalcombinationis no longerruledout bya principleofdeterminism,
butitis ruledout
In theoriginalexample,therecurrence
bya principleofprobability.
ofthe
same state is impossible;in our revisedversionit is merelyinfinitely
improbable.This seemsnotto be muchofan improvement.
Can we overcometheproblembykeepingthepresenceof chanceto some minimum?
Supposewe do so byallowingthespeed ofjustone of thethreewheelsto
varyat random,meanwhilekeepingthewheelon thesameaxis as theothers. Since onlya singlevariableis now involved,only a singleorderof

27
z8

29

Soll, art.cit.,p. 328.


J. Krueger,"NietzscheanRecurrenceas a Cosmological Hypothesis,"Journalof the
History
of Philosophy
i6 (1978): 44z.
B. Magnus,Nietzsche's
Existential
Imperative
(Bloomington-London:
Indiana UniversityPress,1978), p. 93.

BOSCOVICH

CONTRA NIETZSCHE

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4Z7

infinity
is introducedintotherangeof possiblecombinations.But thisis
thatwe attributeto thelengthof timethrough
thesame kindof infinity
whichthemovementtakesplace. In thatcase, an estimationof theprobofanyone stateis impossible.We are leftwithan
abilityoftherecurrence
indeterminate
result,which neitherproves nor disprovesthe theoryof
eternalrecurrence.
We mightnotebeforeleavingSimmel'sargumentthatanotherattempt
fromthosejust conhas beenmade to offera reply,along linesdifferent
sidered. Arnold Zuboff argues that Simmel fails to consider the
'phenomenalcharacter'of his example.He writes:"How manydifferent
phenomenalpossibilitiesare therein Simmel'sline-upofwheels?I would
say that therecan be only finitephenomenallydiscernibleline-ups."3"
Therefore,he concludes,althoughSimmelis correctin sayingthatthe
will neverrecur,it is also correctto say thatsome
originalconfiguration
will occur which is phenomenallyindistinguishable
from
configuration
that one. Furthermore, whereas actual repetition would be
unlikely,"thisphenomenalrepetitionwill in contrast
"overwhelmingly
be "overwhelmingly
likely."
This I thinkis a sound argument.Certainlyour sensesare limitedin
betweensituations.That beingthecase,
theirabilityto detectdifferences
the wheels in Simmel'sexample would at some timereach a position
whichwould appear to us to be thesame as theiroriginalposition.For
some of us, of course,thatmighthappenquite soon. The questionhoweveris: whatdoes thisprove?It seemsto me thatitmissesthepointofthe
of the
Nietzschespeaks of therecurrence
doctrineof eternalrecurrence.
and
a
of
the
he
insists
on
distinction
between
verysharp
similar,
same,not
thetwo: "The similaris nota degreeofthesame: rathersomething
totally
fromthe same.""i Further,he deniesthatany of thethingswe
different
taketo be thesame are reallythesame.This is one ofthebasic illusionsof
ourexperience:thatin orderto organizeitintoa patternwhichwillallow
we identify
thingsas thesamewhenthey
us to cope withourenvironment,
are merelysimilar.Nietzscheassertshoweverthatrealityis a processof
absolute becoming:"The treeis somethingnew in everymoment:the
formis assertedby us because we cannot perceivethe finestabsolute
"3Z
movement.
on thispointare to
thatNietzsche'sinsistences
Now itis quitestriking
be foundin muchthesameplaces as hissketchesofthedoctrineof eternal
Nietzscheplaces
That is becausethetwo are complementary:
recurrence.

30
31
3

A. Zuboff,"Nietzscheand EternalRecurrence."in Solomon,op. cit.,p. 354.


KGW V/z,P- 4?3
Ibid., Pa 452-

4z8

ROBIN SMALL

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greatimportanceon the'sameness'ofeternalrecurrence
preciselybecause
he denies the samenessof anythingelse. He even offersan argument
designedto prove thatthis is impossible:two thingsthe same as each
otherand existingat thesame timewould have to have thesame causes,
and thatin turnwould implyan endlessregress."Thus we would haveto
assumethatsomethingthesame had beenpresentback into all eternity,
despiteeveryalterationofthegeneralstateand creationofnewproperties
- an impossibleassumption!"33
I takeit thatNietzsche'sreasonforrulin
ing out thisassumptionas impossiblelies in his view thateverything
realityis relatedto everything
else,or inotherwords,thatthereis onlyone
world. If we accept this assumption,we mustrejectthe notionof any
seriesof causes whichwould standapart fromthegeneralcourseof the
world.Thus in turnwe mustrejecttheclaimthatwithinone stateof the
world therecan existtwo thingsthe same as each other.
It would not be trueto say thatZuboff'scommenton Simmel'sargumentdeniesanyof thesepoints.Whythenshouldit be open to criticism?
thenotionof 'phenomenal'reality
One mightcriticizeit forintroducing
intotheargumentat all. The pointis notjustthatthisis out of place in a
but thatit is out of place in consideringa concept
thoughtexperiment,
I refer
whichcan be approachedonlyin termsof a thoughtexperiment.
As
again to theconceptof sameness,as it figuresin Nietzsche'sthinking.
ofthesame
manycommentators
have pointedout,theeternalrecurrence
is not an eventforwhichevidenceof theempiricalkindcan be provided.
Nor can familiarkindsofexperiencebe citedin itssupport.Ifforinstance
I could remembertheoccurrencein a previouscycleof the experienceI
haveat thismoment,itwould notbe thesameexperienceafterall,because
itwould containthisadded element.In justthesameway,I cannotforesee
can I (as some
ofthissameexperience.Nor therefore
thefuturerecurrence
writersseemto think)have anyof thekindsof feelingsabout thisrecurconrencewhichwould presupposesucha cognition.Anotherinteresting
sequenceis thatcommon-sense
questionsabout thecriterionof personal
forinstance,simplymake no sense in thiscontext.Such quesidentity,
tionsariseonlyforconceptswhichcan be appliedto experienceintheway
thathas specifically
beenruledout byNietzschefortheconceptof sameness.Thisis notto saythatitis uselessor meaningless,
onlythatitsuse and
in kind.
meaningare ratherdifferent
For thesereasonsit seemsto me thatZuboff'scommentdoes not do
oftheconbecauseitmodifiesthestrictness
justiceto Simmel'sargument,
ceptof sameness.In thisrespectSimmel'sargumentis noticeablyfaithful
as a result.Nor
to thedoctrinewhichitattacks,and all themoreeffective
33

Ibid.,p. 421. See also ibid.,p. 4z8.

BOSCOVICH

CONTRA NIETZSCHE

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4Z9

does itseemrightto criticizeSimmel'sexampleforbeing'arbitrary'


or for
not being'plausible',as ifa thoughtexperimentwere bound to observe
such requirements.
Fromthepointof view of possibleargumentsabout
probability,
Simmel'sexampleis relatively
favorableto Nietzsche'scase,
as we haveseen.My conclusionis thatnoneoftheserepliesdirectsitselfto
thetrulyimportant
Beforelookingintothis,
aspectofSimmel'sargument.
I
however, wishto mentionone morerecentcriticism
of Nietzsche'sdoctrinewhichbears a strongaffinity
to Boscovich'ssecond objection.
ArthurDanto has rejectedNietzsche'sargumentfor reasons which
have to do withthenotionofenergy.(For thepurposeofthisdiscussion,I
will followNietzschein usingtheword 'force'as equivalentto 'energy',
incorrectthoughthisis in termsof modernusage.) He writes:
Imagine
someconservative
thetotalenergy
energy
system
ofwhichhassomefinite
number,
iskinetic.
say6,wheresomeoftheenergy
so
Supposeagainthatthekinetic
energy
increases,
butat a ratesuchthatthefirst
6 whilethelatter
thepotential
energy
decreases,
approaches
o. Theselimitscouldbe approached
approaches
without
and
indefinitely
beingreached,
beaninfinite
number
of'states'ofkinetic
therecouldinprinciple
a different
energy,
having
at everyinstant,
therecurrence
magnitude
without
ofanysinglemagnitude.34

In thisexample,the total stateof energyat any one timeis simplythis


kineticenergyand the potentialenergythat remains,and the relation
betweenthe two is just the relationbetweentheirrespectivequantities.
Danto is arguingthatsincean infinite
numberofsuchmeasuresare possible evenwithinthestatedlimit,thenumberoftotalstatesofenergyis also
In a footnotehe statestheunderlying
infinite.
principleof theargument:
"It clearlydoesn'tfollowfromthefactthatthesumis finitethatthereis a
finitudeof parts." It is theapplicationof thismathematicaltruthto the
case of energythatprovidesDanto's argumentwithitspoint.But again,
thequestionof thatapplicationis nota purelymathematicalone. Rather
it is a questionabout thecharacterof energy.Is it possiblefora certain
kindofenergyto approachthezerolimitindefinitely
withoutreachingit?
Or is thererathera quantumof energywhichrepresents
thelimitof any
in thiscentury
suchprocess?Many scientists
haveheldthatthereis sucha
quantum,and if theyare correct,Danto's argumentmust be invalid.
WhetheranyofNietzsche'svariousremarkson thesubjectofforcecan be
seen as makingthesame claimseemsto me unclear.Certainlyhe denies
thatforcecan everbe dividedintoequal parts;thisis one ofhisarguments
againstthepossibilityof a stateof equilibrium.35
Equal divisionis only

A. Danto,"Nietzsche,"
inA Critical
History
ofWestern
Philosophy,
ed. D. J.O'Con-

nor (New York: The FreePress,i964), p. 400. See also A. Danto, Nietzscheas Philosopher (New York: The Macmillan Company,i965), p. zo6.
KGW V/z,p. 4z8.

430

ROBIN

SMALL

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one case,and does notruleout otherdivisions.Yet one mightarguethatif


forcewere infinitely
divisible,a divisionof any forceinto equal parts
would alwaysbe possible.Ifitis not,thenforcecannotbe infinitely
divisible. Again,Nietzschedoes saythat"theworldmaybe thoughtofas a certaindefinite
quantityofforceand as a certaindefinite
numberofcentersof
"6 From thisit does not followthateach centerof forcealways
force.
containsthesamequantityofforce.In Danto's examplethetotalquantity
ofenergyis constant,and so is thenumberofitscomponents,buteach of
thesevariesin the quantityof energyit contains.If howeverNietzsche
does holdthateveryparticularforceis constantinquantity,thenumberof
possibletotalstatesofforcewillagain be finite.In thatcase,theconstancy
of thetotalamountof forcewould no longerbe a basic assumption,but
rathera consequenceof theconstancyof boththenumberof forcesand
theirindividualquantitiesof force.Nietzschewould agreewithone featureof Danto's example,however:his distinction
betweenpotentialand
kineticenergy,and hisassumptionthatthesameenergycan at one timebe
potentialand at anothertimekineticenergy.Thisdoes notaffectthemain
argument,because such changesare not alterationsin the quantityof
to notehow farthisexampleis in accordwith
energy.Still,itis interesting
Nietzsche'sapproachto physicaltheory.Thisis a pointwhichI willreturn
to laterin the discussion.
Turningnow to the otherobjectionsbased on the notionof infinite
we can see a certaindifference
divisibility,
betweenthem.Boscovich's
originalobjectionis statedin termsof space, while Simmel'sexample
appears to relyon the idea thattimeis infinitely
divisible.These might
seemto be exactlyanalogous arguments.Howeverit is noticeablethatin
both Nietzsche's proof of eternal recurrenceand in the argument
describedby Boscovichthesignificance
of space is ratherdifferent
from
thatof time.Nietzschesaysnothingabout space in mostof his presentations of this argument,but most commentatorsassume that what he
meansby 'combinations'is to be explainedin termsof space. In Boscovich'sargument,
wherespace is mentioned,
itis in orderto specifywhatis
meantbya 'combination'ofterms.Timeon theotherhand is statedto be
infinite
as a premiseofeach argument,
and itscontribution
is a muchmore
directone. So I thinkwe have to deal witheach case in its own right.
Let us returntherefore
to Simmel'sargument.Would Nietzscheagree
withthepremiseunderlying
theapplicationof arto the measurement
of
time?Does he regardtimeas infinitely
divisible?The answerto thisis
unclear.37
Yet itwould be in keepingwithNietzsche'sapproachto offera
36
37

KGWVIII/3,p. i68 (TheWillto Power,Sect.io66).


In hisearlysketchfora theoryof'timeatoms',Nietzschedoes say: "Time is nota contin-

BOSCOVICH

CONTRA NIETZSCHE

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431

replyto Simmel'sobjectionalongtheselines:"Iftimewereinfinitely
divisible,thenevenwithina finitespan oftimetherewould be an infinite
number of momentsat whichcombinationsof forcescould take place. But
thereare onlya finitenumberof such combinations.Thereforemustnot
everyone of themoccurwithin,say,thenextminute?Includingtheone
whichis the same as thepresentstateof affairs?But we know thatthis
does not happen. Thereforewe mustrejectthe assumptionthattimeis
infinitely
divisible."
This is justa versionofNietzsche'sown basic argument,
turnedaround
in muchthe same way as his argumentagainstthe possibilityof a final
state."8It stilldependshoweveron thepremisethatthecombinationsof a
finitenumberoftermsare finitein number.We mightchoose to abandon
thispremisein orderto avoid thefalseconclusionof theargumentrather
thantheotherone. That possibilitybringsus back again to thequestion
raisedbyBoscovichabout combinationsofterms.Itseemsthatwe cannot
avoid confronting
theproblemof understanding
justhow suchcombinations are constituted.That thisis the crucialquestionis seen in Boscovich'saccount.As we noted,he mentionsa situationin whichthenumber
of combinationsof a finitenumberof termsis indeedfinite,namelythe
in whichthelettersforming
a poemofVirgilare arrangedand
experiment
rearrangedat randombutalwaysin a singleorder.Here thecombination
is formedin a simpleway: each termcomes eitherbeforeor aftereach
otherone in the sequence, and the sum of theserelationsis all thatis
neededto definea particularcombination.But accordingto Boscovich,
ofpointsof matterin space involverelationswhichare
thearrangements
not limitedin this way, and thereforethe same conclusioncannot be
reached.
We can ask variousquestionsabout the relationsbetweencentersof
forcewhichNietzschethinksmakethemintocombinations.Arethey,for
or symmetrical
or transitive
relations?One thingseems
example,reflexive
to be clear:theycannotbe relationswhichadmitofdegrees.This pointis
who arguesthat
madein an articleon eternalrecurrence
byM. C. Sterling,
we needmakeonlytheassumptionthatcombinationsare formedby "an
all-or-nonesortof interaction"to arriveat theconclusionthatthenumberof combinationsof a finitenumberof centersof forcewill be finite.39
This howeveris not a completeargument;in factit is onlya beginning.
That thereare no degreesof interactiondoes not implythatthereis not

38

39

uum at all, ratherthereare onlytotallydistincttimepoints,not a line." KGW 111/4,


p.
as faras I know.
i8i. But he does not returnto thisthemein laterwritings,
See e.g. KGW V/z,p. 432.
M. C. Sterling,"RecentDiscussionsof EternalRecurrence:Some CriticalComments,"
NietzscheStudien6 (1977): z65.

432

ROBIN

SMALL

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more than one kind of interaction.Sterlingassumeswithoutargument


thatthisis thecase. He assumestoo thatanyrelationbetweencentersof
forcemustbe a symmetrical
one. Hence hisstatement:"Accordingto this,
overand above their
therewould be no otherstatesoftheseforce-centers
beingeithercombinedor not combined."Such assumptionsenable his
argumentto proceedto its conclusion,but theirunexplainedstatusalso
castsitsplausibilityintosome doubt. In therestof thisdiscussion,I will
offersome suggestionswhich may provide assistancein approaching
theseunansweredquestions.
Nietzschedoes giveus some clues as to thekindsof relationsbetween
centersof forcewhichconstitutea particularcombination.In generalhe
calls them'power-relationships'.40
It appears thata power-relationship
is that"thestronger
is asymmetrical.
Whathappensin suchan interaction
becomes masterof the weaker,in so faras the lattercannot assertits
degreeof independence."4'In otherwords,therelationis one ofthecontrolor dominationof one forceby another.Severalfeaturesof thisconrelaceptcan be statedreadilyenough:forinstance,thatit is a transitive
tion,or thatwhereasa forcecan controlmorethanone otherforce,one
forcecannotbe controlledbymorethanone force.Suchpointsalso open
up the possibilityof indirectas well as directrelationsbetweenforces,
how Nietzschecan holdthateverywhichwould helpus inunderstanding
else.
thingis somehowrelatedto everything
of space in
One interesting
questionhere is: what is the significance
Nietzschestatesone important
fact:thateveryforce
power-relationships?
has a certainrange.Justas we see thingsonlywithina certainhorizon,so
"In thesame
too all our sensesare activeonlywithinparticularlimits.42
and only
way,everyforcehas itssphere;itactsonlyso farand so strongly
a
not
of
limitation."43
on thisand that, on anything
Similarly
else, sphere
Nietzschewrites,"Evenin thedomainoftheinorganican atomofforceis
Withoutthis limitation,he
concernedonly with its neighborhood."44
in one respect,and thatwould be
claims,a forcewould be indeterminate
somethingof an absurdity.Nietzschedoes not howeversay thatthereis
any otherrole of space in theinteractionof forces.That is: he does not
suggestthattherelationofcontrolor powervariesin degreeas a continuous functionof distance.This beingthe case, the argumentconcerning
space used by Boscovichis one which would not apply to Nietzsche's
40

KGWV/z,P. 224 and 259, VII/3,P. 387 andVIII/i,p. 133 (TheWillto Power,Sect.
631).

4I
42
43

44

KGWVII/3,P. 283 (TheWillto Power,Sect.630).


The Dawn, Sect. 117.

KGWV/i,p. 642.
KGWVII/3,P. 284 (TheWillto Power,Sect.637).

BOSCOVICH

CONTRA NIETZSCHE

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433

account.
The point is incidentallyclosely linked with Nietzsche's denial of
infinite
space. He writesthat"Only on thefalseassumptionof an infinite
space, in whichforceevaporates,so to speak,is thefinalstatean unproductive, dead one."h45 I take it that what Nietzsche means by
'evaporation'is a situationin whicheveryforcepasses out oftherangeof
everyotherforce.If forceswere arrangedand rearrangedat random
withinan infinite
space, theoccurrenceof thissituationat some timeor
otherwould be veryprobable.But in thatcase therewould be no more
interactionbetweenforces,and a 'finalstate' would resultof the kind
whichNietzschetakesto be impossibleforreasonsexpressedin a differentargument:"If an equilibriumofforcehad beenreachedat anytimeat
all, it would stillexist:thusithas nevercome about. The presentstateof
thingscontradictsthe assumption."46
I now turnagain to Nietzsche'sdescriptionof a power-relationship
as
one in which "the strongerbecomesmasterof theweaker." The words
stronger'and 'weaker' here do not referto the quantitiesof forcecontained on each side, for Nietzsche emphasizesthat a small forcecan
'becomemaster'ofa muchlargerforce.To understandwhathe meanswe
mustnotethedistinction
betweentwo different
kindsof force,or rather
two different
formswhichanyparticularforcecan take.Nietzschespeaks
of 'latentforce'and 'livingforce',followingtheterminology
of contemporarywriterssuch as RobertMayer.47When a force'becomes master'
of anotherforce,it controlsthetendencyof thisforceto assumeone or
otherof theseforms.That is: itdetermines
whethera latentforceremains
as itis or turnsintoa livingforce,and whethera livingforceremainsa living forceor becomesa latentforce.In the modernterminology
used in
Danto's example,thesealterationsare the transformation
of potential
energyintokineticenergyand viceversa.More generally,
then,we can say
thatthestrength
of a forcelies in itspowerovertheaccumulationor the
discharge(Ausl6sung)of otherforces.48Nietzschealso makes the dis-

4
4

48

KGW VII/i, p. i i. Sterlingcommentson thispassage that"the assumptionof infinite


space would renderwhatI call 'all-or-noneinteraction'muchlessplausible."Art.cit.,p.
z66. This seemsan arbitrary
In theexampleprovidedbyBoscovich,in which
statement.
certainlettersare arrangedalong a line,thefiniteor infinite
lengthof thelinemakesno
difference
to therelationsbetweentheletters.Yet theseare 'all-or-none'relationsin the
sensethattheydo not obtainto thisor thatdegree.Whyshouldextendingthisto three
dimensionsmake a difference?
KGW V/z,p. 432.
R. B. Lindsay,JuliusRobert Mayer: Prophet of Energy(Oxford: PergamonPress,
'973).

KGWV/z,pp-349-5I,

434

390-9i

and439-40.

ROBIN SMALL

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tinctionherebetweena 'directingforce'and a 'drivingforce'.He points


out thatpeople oftenmistakeone fortheother:"One has mistakenthe
helmsmanfor the steam."49They suppose that 'more power' implies
itis theeconomicaluse offorcewhichis the
'moreforce'.On thecontrary,
The directingforce which
criterionof power in such interactions.5"
expends as littleas possible of its own force,like the helmsmanwho
directsthe course of a ship with the touch of a hand, has the most
power.5'The idea thatthiskindof cause has to be equal to its effectis
simplya fallacy,based on the assumptionthateverycause is a driving
force.
This brief sketch allows us to see that Nietzsche's idea of
'combinations'of centersof forcesinvolvesrelationswhich are not as
simpleas one mightat firstthink.Severalformsof forcehave been mentioned,suchas thelatentand 'living'forms;and one mightadd theother
distinctionsbetweenheat, motion,electricity
and so on, whichwould
make thetotalpicturemorecomplicated.The transformations
of forces
are theirinteractions
are of variouskinds,and so too therefore
and combinations.Yet as far as our presentdiscussionis concerned,the main
questionis justwhetherthereare onlya finitenumberof ways forsuch
combinationsto be formed.Nothingwe have said rulesthisout. The distinctionbetweenseveralkinds of controlexercisedby one forceover
anotherdoes notimplythatthereare degreesofthisrelation.We can concludethatthereis as yetno reasonto regardBoscovich'ssecondobjection
as a refutation
ofNietzsche'stheoryofeternalrecurrence.
The mainvalue
of his arguments,and of those recentargumentwhichhave proceeded
along similarpaths,is thattheyforceus to look more closelyinto the
structure
of thisremarkabledoctrine.

4 TheGayScience,
Sect.36o.
50
KGWVIII/z,p. zoi (TheWillto Power,Sect.639), and VIII/3,p. 53 (The Willto
Power, Sect. 689). For a different
use of this 'principleof economy',see R. Small,
"Nietzsche'sGod", PhilosophyToday z6 (i98z): pp. 48-49.
It shouldbe notedthatnothingat all is said in thisdiscussionabout thewill to power,
thatis, about the driveto gain more and morepower. This is anothertopic,and one
whichrequiresa different
approachfromthekindfollowedhere.I mentionithereonlyto
preventconfusion.
5I

BOSCOVICH

CONTRA NIETZSCHE

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435