It seems that Nietzsche's work has become a crucible wherein all philosophical debates are being fought out. In particular, there is a hiatus in Nietzschean interpretations between more traditional philosophers, with their penchant for clear terminology and logical argument, and continental, often postmodern, thinkers who are more receptive to those poetic invocations of something altogether more elusive. Peter Poellner's book falls within the former camp and subjects Nietzsche's thinking to rigorous scrutiny. He is, however, sufficiently touched by the grandeur of Nietzsche's overall project to lend his considerable analytic skills to a sympathetic reconstruction.
The book's focus is on the later (post-1882) writings, which it engages along two axes: metaphysics and epistemology. This takes Poellner to the heart of Nietzsche's claims regarding the status of reality and our capacity to know it.
While conceding the plausibility of some of Nietzsche's sceptical arguments against knowledge of things in themselves, he nevertheless takes issue with his anti-essentialism. Poellner argues that Nietzsche does surreptitiously hold a metaphysics, exemplified in the will to power, even if it entails a reality that is chaotic and in flux. At the same time, he finds in Nietzsche a claim to have disclosed certain psychological truths which are presented as the efficient cause that lends his work its explanatory force.
This gets Poellner onto familiar terrain: a prominent concern among Nietzsche's critics is the apparently self-contradictory position he tries to sustain. How can he advance the criticisms he does, unless he recognises some alternative truths and values that would validate them? Are his own pronouncements, too, to be subjected to the relativist claims they advance? The book negotiates such problems sensitively. But Poellner does insist that even were we to accept an ontology as unstable as the will to power suggests, this cannot entail, as Nietzsche claimed, the abandoning of logic. The rules of the phenomenal world - Kantian categories such as the law of noncontradiction - must persist. For if Nietzsche were to succumb to the antirationalist temptation their disappearance involves, he would "usher us into the realm of meaninglessness".
This is where I thought Poellner's reconstructive thinking reached the limits of his approach. Freud argued that there is indeed a level of meaning where the laws of noncontradiction are inoperative: in the unconscious. But in his discussion of the unconscious, whether in Nietzsche or Freud, Poellner proves himself a sceptic. Similarly, he is unable to make much sense of Nietzsche's claim that everything is perspectival; that there are no enduring entities with intrinsic properties but only relations. Some engagement with psychoanalytic and poststructuralist themes might have enabled Poellner to accompany Nietzsche a little further into what he dismisses as "meaningless".
I do not wish to understate either the brilliance of Poellner's deductions, nor the fascinating way in which he tries to make sense of Nietzsche's claims. This is an extremely intelligent, closely-argued book that deserves the attention of any serious Nietzsche scholar. Yet for all his rigour, I was not wholly convinced that Poellner had touched what really speaks to us in Nietzsche. Perhaps he felt the same way, for in the book's closing pages he acknowledges that even if Nietzsche were alive to recognise the objections raised, "he would have regarded this merely as a correction of technical 'infelicities', relatively easily accomplished, with ultimately little bearing on what, for him, would have been important about that scheme: the mode of relating to the world which it gives expression to."
Diana Coole is senior lecturer in politics, Queen Mary and Westfield, University of London, and visiting professor, University of California, Irvine.
Author - Peter Poellner
ISBN - 0 19 823517 8
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00
Pages - 320