Malcolm bull’s Anti-Nietzsche presents a fresh approach to, and an independent appropriation of, the work of Nietzsche, a thinker whose writings have been increasingly influential since the end of the nineteenth century. Bull’s discussion is particularly laudable in two respects. First, he faces up to the fact that Nietzsche’s repeated expressions of anti-egalitarianism and his hatred of democracy were not occasional aberrations or mere ‘private’ opinions that had little to do with the more exoteric parts of his philosophy. Nietzsche’s hatred of democracy was all-encompassing and very deeply rooted, while his anti-egalitarianism expressed itself in, and was argumentatively closely connected to, most of his other characteristic beliefs. Second, Bull signally avoids taking cheap shots at Nietzsche’s arguments or in any way discounting them because of their anti-egalitarian consequences. He has the courage to look at them on their own merits. However, despite my admiration for the synoptic power and originality of Bull’s treatment, I have some reservations about his account. These concern the general structure of Nietzsche’s views, the theory of valuation and the question of equality.

There have been two major ways of interpreting Nietzsche’s work. The first was to assume that Nietzsche was trying to be a traditional systematic philosopher, that is, to develop, propagate and defend a fixed, closed, systematically interconnected body of doctrine on some of the recognized topics of ‘philosophy’. Heidegger, who provides an instance of this reading, goes as far as attributing to Nietzsche a metaphysics based on ‘the will-to-power’.footnote1 The second way of reading Nietzsche claims that he conceived of philosophy as an ‘experimental’ or ‘philological’ (that is, interpretative) activity, rather than a closed body of beliefs.footnote2 The philosopher was to be someone who tries out different approaches, hypotheses, valuations and forms of life rather than a member of the Consistency Police. Montaigne is closer to being the model philosopher than Kant or Descartes. Nietzsche’s work, then, contains lots of different strands of argument, which he explores and elaborates more or less fully: many of these are neither consistent nor inconsistent with each other because they are not developed at sufficient length for it to become clear what their consequences really would be—the very idea that one could elaborate ‘all’ their consequences being one that Nietzsche would probably find completely unmotivated. This means that Nietzsche had no ‘system’, and wanted to have none. His work constitutes a succession of experimental hypotheses, suggestions and ‘interpretations’ that yield a series of different ‘perspectives’ on a variety of different subjects.

The proponents of the ‘systematic’ Nietzsche argue that ‘interpretations’ and ‘perspectives’ do not stand by themselves, arising out of nothing. Rather, interpretations must be propounded by some subject, and thus giving a full account of them would require providing something like a metaphysics of that subject. One must always ask: ‘who’ (or ‘what’) is doing the interpreting? The (final) answer will be that it is some form of the will-to-power expressing itself in any given interpretation. Proponents of a perspectivist approach counter this by pointing out that one of Nietzsche’s best-known texts, his Genealogy of Morality (First Treatise) clearly argues that a ‘subject’ is not a necessary foundation for all action, but an interpretative construct added on ex post. To claim that some activity is ‘grounded’ in a subject, is just to give another (perspectival) interpretation of it, for which one may or may not have good reasons. Metaphysical doctrines like ‘the will-to-power’ are just one kind of interpretation. The doctrine of perspectivism does not mean, however, that any given view or belief is just one more perspective among others and therefore in no way better than any other (a position sometimes, rather misleadingly, called ‘relativism’). The Nietzschean perspectivist holds that human beliefs are like maps. There may be different maps of a given area: Ordnance Survey-style maps that mark topographical features like elevation through the use of contour lines, maps that specifically mark the birthplaces of literary figures, maps that show differences in population density, income, rates of unemployment or diabetes, by using a colour code. There is nothing to prevent the perspectivist from claiming that some of these maps are definitely better than others. If I am tracking the incidence of goitre, a map that marks occurrences of the condition is much better than one that does not, regardless of how complete and exact it is in other respects. Equally, however, a map that locates Aberdeen north of Edinburgh is (other things being equal) ‘better than’ one that places it south of York, although it is also the case that if I am really intending to use the map only to orient myself in East Anglia this will not matter much to me.

Nietzsche, then, is concerned not to deny that accuracy, correctness and other traditional epistemological virtues are usually desiderata for beliefs, but merely to affirm that they are sometimes more, sometimes less important, and that it is an open question in each case how much they matter. Thus, it behoves a philosopher to concentrate on discussing what does matter to whom, in what circumstances, and why. A map gives a perspective on the world; that perspective may be more or less accurate, more or less useful, and more or less comprehensive. All the perspectivist needs to deny is that there is, or must be, one single Supermap which combines all the virtues of all possible maps, without loss, and gives one a view of the world that has absolute priority over all others, independent of variations in human purposes, values, interests and context.

Bull belongs with the group of ‘systematic’ readers of Nietzsche—not even mentioning ‘perspectivism’. He focuses on one highly ‘metaphysical’ strand that definitely does exist in Nietzsche, and which seems prima facie particularly far from the strands that perspectivists have thought most interesting and important. He attributes to Nietzsche what is called a ‘transcendental argument’ about valuation.footnote3 The archetypes for ‘transcendental arguments’ are some claims put forward by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason. Roughly speaking, Kant asserts that all objects of human experience must have certain specifiable categorical properties—for example, that of standing in causal relations to other objects of experience—because certain categories, such as ‘causality’, form part of the apparatus through which alone humans can become aware of anything in the realm of sensation and perception. A transcendental argument thus moves from a relatively clear conception of how humans are constituted to a claim that some feature of our world is necessary and that there is no alternative to it. The world of human sensory experience must be one of spatial objects that stand in causal relations to each other, because otherwise we, given who we are as potential cognitive subjects, could have no awareness of it.

The ‘transcendental argument’ that Bull attributes to Nietzsche begins by observing that human beings engage in various forms of ‘valuation’. I (positively) value thick curtains in my study, because they dampen sound; I like drinking tea, but cannot stand (i.e. value negatively, or ‘dis-value’) eggs; I enjoy reading Homer, Montaigne and Virginia Woolf, each for a different set of reasons, but actively dislike the linguistically flaccid platitudes of Wordsworth. I recognize that Dickens was a good, if excessively sentimental, novelist, but most of his work leaves me cold—that is, I am emotionally indifferent to it—and I do not think he is a patch on Balzac. I admire Nelson Mandela for his greatness of spirit and think Tony Blair is a war criminal who belongs behind bars. These are prima facie different kinds of value judgements: some are mere personal preferences (tea), others are more reflective aesthetic (Balzac), instrumental (curtains), ethical (Mandela) or political (Blair) judgements. In some versions of the argument Nietzsche extends the use of ‘value’ beyond the human world altogether into the biological realm, so that the phototropic behaviour of plants is construed as a way in which they positively value light.

Among this list of kinds of valuation, there are no positive or negative judgements that one would be likely to categorize as ‘religious’, such as ‘I avoid eating xyz because there is a divine injunction against it’ or ‘It is good to give to charity because God loves those who are charitable’. This is because I have no religious beliefs. Nevertheless, I can, of course, still positively value vegetarianism or charitable donation on non-religious grounds; or I can enjoy a traditional Catholic mass as a ‘purely aesthetic’ phenomenon. A disproportionate number of the value judgements cited above relate to aesthetic or artistic matters. This seems not inappropriate in view of the significance aesthetic values have for Nietzsche and for many other contemporary thinkers, as Bull acknowledges. However, aesthetic valuation is only one kind of valuing.footnote4 Just as some individual may fail to engage in religious valuation, so, too, he or she can fail to ascribe any positive value to art, a position that Bull calls ‘philistinism’ and discusses at some length.footnote5