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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Volume 28, Number 3, 2014,

pp. 327-334 (Article)

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Nietzsche on Causation
Joshua Rayman
university of south florida

abstract: Snowed by his affirmation of certain model natural sciences, popular

naturalist readings of Nietzsche, which assert that he is engaged in giving causal
explanations of various human phenomena, fail to account for his critique of causality. This critique is at the heart of his critiques of metaphysics and natural science, for
causality is the mechanism by which metaphysical concepts are generated and nature
is transformed into a system of universal laws. I explain this connection by reference to
his Aristotelian interpretation of causality and examine the radical entailments of this
keywords: Nietzsche, causality, Hume, naturalism, Aristotle

Nietzsches critique of causality is at the heart of his critiques of metaphysics and natural science, for causality is the mechanism by which metaphysical concepts are generated and nature is transformed into a system
of universal laws. Yet the nature, variety, and radical entailments of his critique of causality have been insufficiently appreciated in the scholarship.
By eliminating cause, he deals a death blow to the naturalism currently in
vogue in Nietzsche studies,1 according to which Nietzsche is engaged in
giving causal explanations of various human phenomena.2 The mistake is
to read his metaphysically deflationary views concerning nonnatural causality and his privileging of nature and philosophical psychology, physics,
journal of speculative philosophy, vol. 28, no. 3, 2014
Copyright 2014 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

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c hemistry, and biology as acceptance of natural causality.3 Nietzsche uses

physics and chemistry for his critique of causality, disputing the logic that
science is possible should prove to us a principle of causality (Early 1888,
14[81], KSA 13.26061). So, any reading of Nietzschean naturalism will
have to reconstruct his model sciences without causality, a task facilitated
by the fact that many sciences have embraced noncausal, probabilistic
thinking similar to the kind permitted by Hume and Nietzsches regulative
or useful fictions.4 A more difficult hurdle for this nonmetaphysical, noncausal account of the sciences is that by regarding causality as intertwined
with or basic to the metaphysics of subjectivity, objectivity, action, and freedom of the will, Nietzsches radically skeptical attitude toward natural and
nonnatural causality deprives us of the language and metaphysical concepts that we have traditionally used to explain the order and connection
of events in the world. The only thing remaining is the occurrence: In the
belief in cause and effect the main thing is always forgotten: the occurrence
itself [das Geschehen selbst] (Early 1888, 14[81], KSA 13.261). Yet, without
causality, we lack a language to describe change. Hence, Nietzsches critique of causality radically delimits the possibilities for such alternative
explanatory candidates as scientific naturalisms, pragmatisms, and will to
Nietzsches critique of causality is explicitly Humean,5 an empiricist
critique that the meaning, proper source, and validation of a concept consist in its psychological derivation from sensation or feeling. What cannot
be derived from the senses is the product of imagination with no real existence. Causality is an example of just such an imaginary product. According to Nietzsche, We have absolutely no experience of a cause (Early 1888,
14[98], KSA 13.274): Every ground of movement and change remains
invisible to us. . . . [C]onsciousness never delivers us an example of cause
and effect (Early 1888, 14[145], KSA 13.329). Hence, sense experience
cannot supply a ground for the application of causal explanations even to
observed changes. The absence of any experience of causality also warrants
Hume and Nietzsche in denying that the concept of causality even has a
meaning.6 Nietzsche argues that there is not what Kant meant, no sense
of causality (Early 1888, 14[98], KSA 13.276): We have nothing of a sense
of efficient cause [Sinn der causa efficiens] (1885, 2[83], KSA 12.102). We
have not given sense or meaning to the concept of cause by deriving it from
some experience or feeling, and thus, according to the empiricist criterion
of meaning, it has no meaning.7

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nietzsche on causation


But Nietzsche is not satisfied with merely translating causal metaphysics

into regulative fictions (JGB 21, KSA 5.36),8 for he regards causality as inextricable from the metaphysics of the subject, object, will, and intention.
Hence, he argues that the overcoming of causality entails the overcoming
of metaphysics. He says that the thing, the subject, the will, the intentionall inhere in the concept cause; that we have grasped together our
feeling of will, our feeling of freedom, our feeling of responsibility and our
intention of an action in the concept cause; and that a thing is a sum
of its effects, bound synthetically by a concept, image (Early 1888, 14[98],
KSA 13.275). If all major metaphysical concepts are contained analytically
within the concept of cause, then the critique of causality destroys these
metaphysical concepts. But this alleged entailment is hardly self-evident,
for the concepts of causality, subjectivity, objectivity, freedom, will, and so
forth do not seem analytically reducible to one another, singly or in combination. Causality seems too narrow, for example, to include notions of consciousness and too broad to include the specific differentia of thinghood.
What explains this connection to a larger metaphysics is Nietzsches
Aristotelian understanding of causality as material, formal, final, and efficient, rather than the narrow modern sense of efficient causality. His identification and critique of final and efficient causes undermine intentionalism
and teleology. Thus, his identification of intentionalism as the key problem
in causal attribution should not be taken merely as another modern scientific criticism of Aristotelian final causes, for he argues that efficient cause
and final cause are one in their basic conception (Early 1888, 14[98], KSA
13.275); both are invalid in their common reliance on metaphysical intentions. Hence, he parts from modern or early modern science in applying
its critique of final causality to efficient causality as well. Viewing the world
on the model of intentional consciousness leads us to see occurrences as a
doing, which entails a doer, an independent subject acting through intentional willing: Psychologically accounted, the whole concept [of cause]
comes to us from the subjective conviction that we are causes, namely, that
the arm moves itself. . . . But that is an error (Early 1888, 14[98], KSA
13.274). It is an error because we differentiate ourselves, the doers, from
the deed and we make use of this schema everywhere, we search for a
doer for every occurrence (Early 1888, 14[98], KSA 13.274). This explains
why Nietzsche argues that the concept of causality contains within it the
notion of subjectivity: Our understanding of an occurrence consists in
that we invented a subject which would be responsible for the fact that

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something occurred and how it occurred (Early 1888, 14[98], KSA 13.274).
Similarly, we understand the will to do this and that as cause because the
action follows on it (Early 1888, 14[98], KSA 13.274). But in examining our
experience, we never unearth the cause: Cause is not found at all: from
some cases, where it seemed given to us and from where we have projected
it into the understanding of the occurrence, the self-deception is demonstrated [nachgewiesen] (Early 1888, 14[98], KSA 13.274). Thus, we lack any
justification for asserting that our experiences are caused by free will. And
thus, for Nietzsche, efficient and final causal claims conceived in terms of
intentionality underwrite our belief in metaphysical subjects and objects,
which he elsewhere ascribes to our historically conditioned belief in grammar, grammatical subjects and predicates. Nietzsches critique of the material and formal causes similarly undermines metaphysics in rejecting their
explanation of factical changes by reference to static objective correlates
of the metaphysical subject and universal essences removed from change.
The ahistorical universality of the formal cause cannot stand in a world
defined by flux, as in Nietzsches account, and the material cause falls with
his concomitant rejection of matter or atoms as a final hiding place for
static universals, as something that stands fixed, the belief in substance
[Stoff], in matter (JGB 12, KSA 5.26). In this sense, Nietzsches critique of
causality undermines an entire metaphysics.
But he sets up different models of how the critique of causality can be
used to undermine the belief in other metaphysical concepts, structural parallelism, causal foundationalism, and metaphysical foundationalism. The
argument to structural parallelism asserts that we seek such metaphysical
concepts, like causation, to explain change; the atom itself is still such an
imagined [hinzugedachtes] thing and originary subject [Ursubjekt] (Early
1888, 14[98], KSA 13.275). Causation involves the same metaphysical leap
as the atom, thing, and transcendental subject, as an imagined explanation for change that transcends all experience. On this view, Nietzsches
critique of causality would undermine these other metaphysical concepts
not because causality was fundamental to them but because they all relied
on the same kinds of metaphysical arguments. The structural parallelism
between the argument to causality and the argument to thinghood, atomism, and so forth would mean that to bring down the first would be to bring
down the rest.
In the metaphysical foundationalist model, Nietzsche attacks the concepts underwriting causality: Finally, we conceive that things, consequently

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even atoms effect [wirken] nothing: because they are just not there . . . that the
concept causality is completely unusablefrom a necessary sequence of
conditions its causal-relationship does not follow (that means its effecting
power to make 1 leap to 2, to 3, to 4, to 5) (Early 1888, 14[98], KSA 13.275).
Causality cannot exist, because it presupposes the existence of certain nonexistent metaphysical entities such as atoms. This account subordinates
the critique of causality to a greater metaphysical critique of atoms and
things, reversing the order of precedence we have often seen in Nietzsches
critique of causality. Here causality does not underlie an entire metaphysics; an entire metaphysics underlies causality, and with the absence of the
metaphysics, causality disappears as well. This approach is also at work
above in Nietzsches view that intentionalist belief in subjects underlies any
causal metaphysics. On this account, the critique of causality would work
through the critique of a general metaphysics of subjects and objects, and
hence, the general undermining of metaphysics would precede and make
possible any critique of causality.
In a third model, the critique of causality is basic to the critique of
metaphysics because causality grasps in itself the properties of metaphysical entities: But the thing in which we believe is invented in addition
[hinzuerfunden] only as ferment [Ferment] for various predicates. If the
thing effects, that thus means that: we grasp all remaining properties,
which otherwise are still present at hand here and momentarily latent, as
cause, that now a single property steps forward: i.e. we take the sum of its
properties x as cause of property x: which is after all entirely dumb and
crazy! The subject or the thing (Fall 1885Fall 1886, 2[87], KSA 12.105).
The entailments of a critique of causality differ according to which of
these three models of the relationship between causality and metaphysics inheres. If metaphysics underlies causality, then its critique would
undermine causality, but a critique of causality might very well leave metaphysics standing unchallenged, cutting off one of its branches but not its
roots. However, if metaphysics simply derives analytically from causality or
depends logically on it, or there is a structural parallelism between causality
and metaphysics, a relation of equality, then the critique of causality simultaneously constitutes a critique of metaphysics. In the latter cases, causalitys end eliminates an entire metaphysical system, along with the language
and concepts of change. Even in the former case, where the elimination of
causality brings with it no necessary further entailments, causalitys demise
obviates any explanation of the sequence of events. Whether causality is at

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the basis of, parallel to, or inextricable from metaphysics, its elimination
creates the need to replace an entire metaphysical system. Forthis reason,
the significance of rejecting causality goes far beyond replacing one
mechanistic explanation of relations among things and events to the central
metaphysical conceptions of the self, world, and being.

1. See Ken Gemes and Christopher Janaway, Naturalism and Value in
Nietzsche: Review of Nietzsche on Morality by Brian Leiter, Philosophy and
Phenomenological Research 71, no. 3 (November 2005): 72940; Maudemarie Clark,
Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990);
Brian Leiter, Perspectivism in Nietzsches Genealogy of Morals, in Nietzsche,
Genealogy, Morality, ed. Richard Schacht (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1994), 33457; Brian Leiter, Nietzsche on Morality (New York: Routledge,
2002); Richard Schacht, Nietzsche (London: Routledge, 1983); John Richardson,
Nietzsches System (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). Gemes and Janaway
disagree with Leiters view that an insistence on causal explanation instantiates
agreement with the natural sciences, on grounds that the natural sciences do not
always apply causal forms of explanation, which is correct but ignores the fact that
Nietzsche rejects causal explanation. It is difficult to see how Leiter can recognize
Nietzsches affinity with the naturalist camp of Freud and Hume (Gemes and
Janaway, Naturalism and Value in Nietzsche, 731) when the latter provides the
model for Nietzsches critique of causality.
Quotations of Nietzsche come from Friedrich Nietzsche, Kritische
Studienausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (New York: Walter de
Gruyter, 196777 and 1988); hereafter cited as KSA by volume and page number,
along with the Nachla fragment or specific work being cited. All translations are
my own.
2. Gemes and Janaway, Naturalism and Value in Nietzsche, 731; Leiter,
Nietzsche on Morality, 5, 8, 1011.
3. Nietzsche accords psychology a high status. When it is freed from moral
prejudices and fears and grasped as morphology and doctrine of the development
of the will to power, as I grasp it, psychology is once again the path to the basic
problems (Jenseits von Gut und Bse [JGB] 23, 04/08/1886, KSA 5.3839);
psychologically reckoned: the concept cause is our feeling of power of the
so-called will [Wollen]our concept effect the superstition [Aberglaube] that
the feeling of power is power itself, which moves [bewegt] (1888, 14[81], KSA
13.260). He favors the biological study of morality (1887, 8[4], KSA 12.333). He
refers to a chemistry of moral, religious, aesthetic representations and sensations
[Empfindungen] (Menschliches Allzumenschliches, 1.1, KSA 2.23) and argues that

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inchemistry it is shown that all matter drives its force [jeder Stoff seine Kraft
so weit treibt] as far as it can (1885, 34[51], KSA 11.436). He says that we have
dragged in [eingeschleppt] the unchanging, always still from metaphysics, my Lord
Physicists [meine Herren Physiker] (1888, 14[187], KSA 13.374). And finally, he says,
Long live, physics! (Die frhliche Wissenschaft [FW], 335, KSA 3.560).
4. Hans Seigfried develops Nietzsches affirmation of science in an explicitly
noncausal direction. Hans Seigfried, Autonomy and Quantum Physics:
Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Heisenberg, Philosophy of Science 57, no. 4
(December1990): 61930, at 628.
5. Nietzsches frequent references to Hume most often concern his critique of
causality. In Nietzsches library, there was a German edition of Humes Dialogues
Concerning Natural Religion (C279 David Hume, Gesprche ber natrliche Religion
[Leipzig, 1781]); early on in his notes for a work called On Teleology, Nietzsche
wrote down the name of Humes text (Goethe-Schiller-Archiv, Weimar, 10: 71/63,
s. 55 or 56 [pagination unmarked]); in an early manuscript of Karl Schaarschmidts
Allgemeine Geschichte der Philosophie in the Nietzsche Archive, he wrote the names
Berkeley and Hume in the margin where Schaarschmidt refers to Humes attack
on the concept of causality (Goethe-Schiller-Archiv, Weimar, 7: 71/41, s. 25);
in AprilJune 1885, Nietzsche wrote a note approving Humes critique of the
attempt to provide a rational ground for the concept of causality (but rejecting the
request to provide a rational ground for rational ground; 34[70], KSA 11.442); he
wrote another note at the time that Hume explained the sense of causality from
custom (34[82], KSA 11.445); and he wrote further on Humes critique of causality
in the Fall 1885Fall 1886 notes (2[83], KSA 12.1023) and in The Gay Science:
Let us recall . . . Kants monstrous question marks, which he wrote of the concept
causality,not that he had doubted its right [Recht] in general like Hume: he
began much more cautiously to delimit the realm within which this concept has
sense in general (FW 357, KSA 3.598).
6. Nietzsche uses the empiricist criteria of knowledge and meaning without
accepting many empiricist tenets. His contemporaneous published work of the
mid- to late 1880s criticizes standard empiricist understandings of experience for
their individualistic, ahistorical assumptions and their reduction of experience
to sensation. His genealogies provide an alternative to an empiricist account
of sensation as the origin of ideas. Thus, he says that the jurisdiction [Bann]
of determinate grammatical functions is in the final ground the jurisdiction of
physiological judgments of value and conditions of race [Rasse-Bedingungen].So
much for the refutation [Zurckweisung] of Lockes superficiality in regard to
the origin of ideas (JGB 20, KSA 5.35). Ideas originate not in the individuals
abstraction from the sensation of singular individuals but from the common
metaphysics of grammar shared within language families, which metaphysics
is itself determined by physiological and racial conditions. Nietzsche also
argues against the reduction of science to sense evidence, praising physics for its

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resistance to sense evidence and the eternally popular sensualism (JGB 14, KSA
5.28), though the antiteleologists and Darwinists oppose this resistance to the
senses (dumbly) and the imperative that the investigation of knowledge can only
proceed through the senses is attractive to a future race of rough machinists and
bridge builders (JGB 14, KSA 5.2829): In order to pursue physiology with a good
conscience, one must hold that the sense organs are not appearances in the sense
of the idealist philosophy: as such they could be no causes! Sensualism at least
therein as a regulative hypothesis, in order not to say as a heuristic principle . . .
would the outside world be the work of our organs? But then our body, as a piece
of this outside world, would be the work of our organs! This is, as it seems to me,
a fundamental reductio ad absurdum: assuming that the concept of a causa sui is
something fundamentally absurd. Consequently is the outside world not the work
of our organs? (JGB 15, KSA 5.29). Hence, Nietzsche is no thoroughgoing
empiricist in the Humean or Lockean sense, for he criticizes empiricists for
equating sense experience with knowledge, assigning to individuals the capacity
of autonomously constructing ideas independently of society, and identifying all
reality by discrete individuals.
7. Hume also argues in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion that we can
rule out cause because it is contradictory, which is a distinct criticism from
the one dependent on the empirical criterion of meaning: thus, he speaks of
the contradictions which adhere to the very ideas of matter, cause and effect,
extension, space, time, motion; and in a word, quantity of all kinds (David Hume,
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith [Indianapolis:
Bobbs-Merrill, 1947], 131). Berkeleys critique of matter similarly depends
sometimes on the assertion of contradiction in the very idea and sometimes on
the absence of an intuitive source of the idea.
8. For instance, Nietzsche notes that pleasure and displeasure [Lust und
Unlust] are mere consequences [Folge], mere accompanying appearance
[Begleiterscheinung] (Early 1888, 14[174], KSA 13.360).

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