The “innocence of becoming”: Nietzsche, Whitehead, and Nihilism as a Pathological Transitional Stage between Monism and Pluralism

It is remarkable how similar Nietzsche’s musings on perspectivism are to Whitehead’s process-relational ontology. I was reminded of their congruence while re-reading excerpts from Nietzsche’s The Will to Power (published in Mark Taylor’s Deconstruction in Context). Of course, one might read Whitehead’s somewhat Platonic cosmological scheme (which includes reformed conceptions of teleology, god, eternal objects, and so on) as directly opposed to Nietzsche’s purely immanent approach. In this post, I want to suggest that Whitehead’s process-relational cosmology at least indicates one way forward toward a post-nihilistic theory and practice.


Nihilism, according to Nietzsche, is a “psychological state” characterized by the feeling of “being ashamed in front of oneself, as if one had deceived oneself all too long” with the belief that the event we call “the universe” is about something, that “something is to be achieved through the process–and now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing” (DiC, 192). Nietzsche’s first target in dismissing the supposed aim or telos of cosmic evolution seems to be the notion, long cherished by philosophers and theologians alike, that humanity is at the center of things and/or is the end toward which all things move. His second target is the human desire to achieve a “unity” of knowledge based in some supposed ontological monism: “underneath all becoming there is no grand unity” (DiC, 193). Finally, his third target is the metaphysical belief in a “true world.” Instead of the ancient philosophical dichotomy between the one true reality of Being and the many false appearances of becoming, Nietzsche desires to affirm “the reality of becoming as the only reality.” Unfortunately, despite his desire to affirm such an aimless, pluralistic, processual reality, Nietzsche finds himself stuck in a sort of nihilistic stasis: “one…cannot endure this world though one does not want to deny it.”

“Nihilism represents a pathological transitional stage,” writes Nietzsche. “What is pathological,” he continues, “is the tremendous generalization, the inference that there is no meaning at all” (DiC, 194). In other words, once the three traditional categories of Reason–Aim, Unity, Being–have been shown not to apply to the actual universe, but only to a fictitious universe invented by our psychological need for existential security, there remains the constructive task of re-evaluating the universe according to more adequate categories. “Adequate” not according to the standards of abstract Reason, which serve only to construe reality as though human consciousness was “the meaning and measure of the value of things,” but rather categories adequate to the standard of life itself, namely, the will to power.

“In order for a particular species to maintain itself and increase its power, its conception of reality must comprehend enough of the calculable and constant for it to base a scheme of behavior on it. The utility of preservation–not some abstract-theoretical need not to be deceived–stands as the motive behind the development of the organs of knowledge–they develop in such a way that their observations suffice for our preservation. In other words: the measure of the desire for knowledge depends upon the measure to which the will to power grows in a species: a species grasps a certain amount of reality in order to become master of it, in order to press it into service” (197-198).

Nietzsche’s interpretation of the human intellect is nearly identical to the evolutionary epistemology articulated by Bergson and James, perhaps Whitehead’s two most important philosophical influences. This view of the intellect as a pragmatic survival mechanism rather than a revealer of objective truth demands a total re-imagination of philosophy’s methods and goals. For Bergson, it meant abandoning intellect (at least for the purposes of philosophy) and developing a new organ of perception: philosophical intuition. For James, it meant construing philosophy “as more a matter of passionate vision than of logic…logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards” (A Pluralistic Universe, 710). For Whitehead, it meant analogizing philosophy to “imaginative art” (Modes of Thought, 117). Whitehead continues, in a rather Nietzschean vein: “The degeneracy of mankind is distinguished from its uprise by the dominance of chill abstractions, divorced from aesthetic content” (MoT, 123). Philosophy’s role, then, as a critic of abstractions, is to prevent “the abstractive experience” achieved by rational consciousness from “destroying its own massive basis for survival.” In Nietzsche’s terms, a post-nihilist philosophy must continually remind us that the concept “leaf” is but a passing puff of air compared with “the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth,” that is, the encounter with actual leaves, no two of which are ever the same (On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, excerpted in DiC, 218-219).

For Nietzsche, as for Whitehead, the classical concept of “Substance,” that most abstract and stable of eternal ideas, is to be replaced with the processual concept of Power. “The essence of power,” writes Whitehead,

“is the drive towards aesthetic worth for its own sake…It constitutes the drive of the universe. It is efficient cause, maintaining its power of survival. It is final cause, maintaining in the creature its appetition for creation” (MoT, 119).

But wait… Doesn’t this new concept of power sneak teleology back into our conception of the universe? Isn’t this just a regressive slide back into a pre-nihilistic psychology, rather than its overcoming? Here is where Nietzsche’s perspectivism comes into play. While he denies some overarching Meaning underlying all cosmic existence, Nietzsche does not deny meaning outright. Rather, he pluralizes it: the universe “has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings” (DiC, 198). In other words, Whitehead’s rendering of the concept of power as not simply an efficient, but also a final cause, is not the imposition of a Single Destination toward which all creatures are heading. Rather, each and every individual creature is free to create its own meaning: “…every creature different from us senses different qualities and consequently lives in a different world from that in which we live,” writes Nietzsche (DiC, 207). Do not misinterpret this pluralism of perspectives, this ontology of multiple meaning-makers, as the rather banal thesis that there are many perspectives on some underlying reality, material, ideal, or otherwise. This is not the empty sort of pluralism where a single reality is allowed to appear in many guises. “As if a world would still remain over after one deducted the perspectives!” No, this is full blown ontological pluralism:

“Every center of force adopts a perspective on the entire remainder, i.e., its own particular valuation, mode of action, and mode of resistance…There is no other mode of action whatever; and the ‘world’ is only a word for the totality of these actions. Reality consists precisely in this particular action and reaction of every individual part toward the whole … Appearance is an arranged and simplified world, at which our practical instincts have been at work; it is perfectly true of us; that is to say, we live, we are able to live in it: proof of its truth for us–the world, apart from our condition of living in it, the world that we have not reduced to our being, our logic and psychological prejudices, does not exist as a world ‘in itself’; it is essentially a world of relationships; under certain conditions it has a differing aspect from every point; its being is essentially different from every point; it presses upon every point, every point resists it…” (DiC, 207-208).

Nietzsche could very easily have been describing Whitehead’s ontology here. Of course, there remains the issue of working Whitehead’s conceptions of “God” and “eternal objects” into Nietzsche’s scheme. Can this be coherently accomplished? Whitehead’s God is meant as a secular replacement for the supernaturalist images of the past, a God who suffers with the world rather than a God who creates it from a transcendent beyond. In this sense, I think Whitehead and Nietzsche can in fact be reconciled with one another. I’ll have more to say on this point in subsequent posts… [For part two on Whitehead and Nietzsche’s process pluralisms click here].

Further reading: “Two Perspectives on Metaphysical Perspectivism: Nietzsche and Whitehead” by Donald Crosby. 


10 thoughts on “The “innocence of becoming”: Nietzsche, Whitehead, and Nihilism as a Pathological Transitional Stage between Monism and Pluralism

  1. Its interesting to tie Emerson into the discussion since he had an influence on James, of course, but also a still surprisingly little appreciated influence on Nietzsche. The emphasize on power seems to obviously reflect some of the same language that Emerson liked to use. I think that Emerson is perhaps in fact Nietzsche’s most important influence, not just in something as simple as the ideas that they shared, but in the style of thinking, what Charles Pierce might call the habits of thought that Nietzsche picked up from Emerson.

    1. dmf, getting over nihilism wouldn’t bring an end to pathology as such. This isn’t a cure all or sky hook meant to lift us out of becoming and into eternity. Quite the opposite really (the only “aim” here is eternal becoming).

      1. is the only aim really eternal (what would “eternal” mean for the time-limited biological critters of planet Eaarth?) becoming (doesn’t physics sort of take care of that?) or something more like @doctormickey ‘s
        On the Verge of a Planetary Civilization: A Philosophy of Integral Ecology

      2. Whitehead introduces eternality into his conception of the process of reality because he saw no other way to assure the possibility of novelty. If actual occasions were only related to other actual occasions in their past without any taste of unrealized potentia, how could anything new ever happen? Creatures dip into eternality through their anticipatory experience–not of what already is–but of what might be.

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