In German: "Nietzsche über Vernunft - "Meine wiederhergestellte Vernunft", in: Rationalität und Prärationalität, eds. Jan Beaufort and Peter Prechtl, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1998, 107-115.

Wolfgang Welsch

Nietzsche on Reason

"My restored reason"

Nietzsche is thought of as someone who destroys reason. As such he has been attacked by authors ranging from Lukács through to Habermas.(1) In the following I would like to introduce his attempt at a restoration of reason.

To be sure, Nietzsche declared that "human reason" is "not all that reasonable"(2) and that "not only the reason of millennia", but "their madness too" breaks out in us (Zarathustra, 189).(3) But Nietzsche also suggested a novel view of reason, which he called his "restored reason" ("The Four Great Errors", 2, Twilight, 58).(4) In the following I would like to set out this perspective on reason. To me it seems worth thinking about (even though, of course, it is only one possible perspective on reason and, in the first place, that of Nietzsche).

In three prepatory steps I will provide a short reconstruction of Nietzsche's theses on reason. First of all I will set out Nietzsches pragmatic reinterpretation of reason, secondly the relationship of reason to different types of life and then, thirdly, the relation between reason and passion. Following this, in a fourth step, I will move on to Nietzsche's "restored reason".

1. From truth to usefulness - the pragmatic reinterpretation of reason

Nietzsche's criticism of the standard view of reason is well known. This view advocates the dogma of unsoiled knowledge, or "immaculate perception" (Zarathustra, 233). Reason, one says, does nothing to things, but wants only to cognize them. The activity of reason is apprehended as pure theory, as viewing, as contemplation of the being.

Against this Nietzsche objects, firstly, that reason in fact does something quite different: it does not simply render things, but schematizes them, knocks them into shape, reshapes them as lies. "`Reason' is the cause of our falsification of the evidence of the senses" (`Reason in Philosophy', 2, Twilight, 75). Nietzsche continually points out the way in which we cover up the singularity and variability of phenomena by means of fictive generality and constancy.(5)

Going beyond such singular objections, however, Nietzsche questions the whole principle of the conventional understanding of reason. He calls the "contemplation" (Beschaulichkeit) purported of reason "emasculated leers" (Zarathustra, 235). The theoretician does not simply contemplate, but distorts, and this he does in castrating conditions. He denies the share of instinctive drives (Triebe) in cognition and thus falls short of the whole constitution of cognition. Since, in fact, cognition is not about truth, but about usefulness: "[...] the trust in reason and its categories [...] proves only the usefulness, itself proven by experience, of such for life: not their `truth'" (Autumn 1887, vol. 12, 352). "The whole apparatus of knowledge is an apparatus for abstraction and simplification - directed not to knowledge, but to obtaining power over things" (Summer-Autumn 1884, vol. 11, 164). Humans do not desire truth at all, but "the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth" (On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, 81).

In brief: cognition is not theoretical, but pragmatic in nature. It is a `means to life'. Reason is merely one of life's instruments (cf. Beyond Good and Evil, 191, 104).(6) - It remains only to ask, for which type of life? I will expand on this while dealing with the second point.

Before doing this I would like to clarify one more thing: Nietzsche is not criticizing cognition with his pragmatic reinterpretation. In no way does he question its productiveness. On the contrary, reshaping the world through lies to be a human world is according to Nietzsche absolutely purposeful and correct. It is precisely through the pragmatic reinterpretation of cognition that Nietzsche justifies its apparent failings as being useful strategies.

What Nietzsche in fact criticizes - and this, however, he does vehemently - is the traditional apphrehension of cognition, the traditional interpretation thereof, with its being interpreted as pure theory, as the search for truth instead of usefulness. Put another way, in this first step Nietzsche is not at all critical of reason, but critical of theories of reason. He refutes the well-established, logico-theoretical view of reason and replaces it with an instrumental, pragmatic model. His attacks are not directed against knowledge, but against the theses of philosophers about knowledge. It seems that, to this day, parts of the philosophers' guild have not forgiven him for this. Nietzsche hit the mark and the wound is deep. This explains why - especially in puncto reason - he is still so often overlaid with blind criticism.

On the whole, however, it must be said that the thesis of this first step - Nietzsche's pragmatic interpretation of cognition - is today widely accepted. The traditional adequational theory of truth has long since become untenable, and Nietzsche, with his pragmatic turn, appears to pave the way for Wittgenstein or Rorty.

2. Usefulness for which type of life?

In a second step Nietzsche considers the type of life which the activity of reason serves. Roughly speaking he distinguishes between a weak and a strong type of life. "In some it is their deprivations that philosophize; in others, their riches and strengths. The former need their philosophy, whether it be as a prop, a sedative medicine, redemption, elevation, or self-alienation. For the latter it is merely a beautiful luxury [...]" (Gay Science, Preface 2, 33).(7) Nietzsche's own option is unambiguously that of the second position, ascending life, the philosophy of exuberance (cf. "The Problem of Socrates", 12, Twilight, 44).

By contrast, however, cognition is usually in the service of need and aims for the self-preservation of life. The weak type of life which is underlying this constellation must, by so being, aim for self-preservation. It is here that standard reason has its place. It is completely fixed on the advantages for life (cf. Gay Science, 3, 77 f.).

Under the heading "`Reason' in Philosophy" (Twilight, 45) Nietzsche brands conventional philosophy as belonging to this weak type of life. In the history of philosophy "sick thinkers are the more numerous", it being usually "distress that philosophizes" (Gay Science, Preface 2, 34). This explains philosophical endeavours for eternalization. For the weak type of life suspects that it is dedicated to death, and - subconsciously - acts out its awareness of death by pressing for stability through eternalization - indeed "Eternity" is nothing but a euphemistic expression for death. Hence traditional philosophy is "Egyptianism" (Twilight, 45). Philosophers concern themselves with "conceptual mummies" (ibid.), "they become a mortal danger to everything when they worship" (ibid.). "Be a philosopher, be a mummy, represent monotono-theism by a gravedigger-mimicry!" (ibid., 45).

Quite different, however, is that reason which deserves the name "spirit" (Gay Science, 359, 315). For this the whole "fundamental instinct of life" is one quite different. It is concerned not with "self-preservation", but with "expansion of power" (ibid., 349, 291 f.), for which it is prepared to question, and even to sacrifice self-preservation.

From the viewpoint of the "common nature" this orientation of "higher nature" must of course appear irrational. Indeed the higher nature permits itself the luxury of letting reason "pause" at precisely the best moments (ibid., 3, 77). It directs itself to the magnanimous, the noble, the sacrificing, in a word: to the exception - and standard reason has no understanding of this, nor can it have any, for it would indeed be elementarily endangered by such experiences (Daybreak, 448, 188) - So altogether the higher type of reason serves the self-surpassing, not the self-preservational tendencies of life. Moreover, it is characterized by a different relation to the passions, and with this I come to the next point.

3. Reason and passion

a. Transparency of the passions

Standard reason seeks to protect itself from the passions because these endanger its self-preservation project. Higher reason, however, is in league with the passions. Its reasonability, which from the perspective of standard reason looks like unreason, is precisely a "counterreason of passion" (Gay Science, 3, 78).(8)

Nietzsche describes higher reason as a "state of relations between different passions and desires", in which each singular passion is attested with bearing in it a "quantum of reason" (November 1887 - March 1888, vol 13, 131). In the same way Nietzsche understands the intellect as an "interplay of very many intellects" (Summer 1883, vol. 10, 407), namely those intellects already effective in the organic (cf. November 1887 - March 1888, 131). Ultimately, according to Nietzsche, singular thoughts too are altogether "signs of the interplay and fight between affects: they are linked with their hidden roots" (Autumn 1885-Early 1886, vol. 12, 29).

So higher reason thrives on the passions - Nietzsche also calls instinctive drives the prompters of reason (cf. Daybreak, 119, 75).(9) And reason ought not to deny its origin in the passions, nor to sever its link with them. Transparency of the passions - not their suppression - is the ideal. One should allow "beauty, boldness, passion to shine through one's reason" (Winter 1880-81, vol. 9, 393).

Time and time again Nietzsche relates this `great' reason, one linked with the passions, to happiness and joy. "There is a great deal of joy withheld from people, the scent of which has yet to waft to our contemporaries! [...] in the event only that the development of human reason does not stand still!" (Menschliches, Allzumenschliches II, vol. 2, 631)

The contrast to this is formed by the morose standard reason: "In the great majority, the intellect is a clumsy, gloomy, creaking machine that is difficult to start" and they think "`where laughter and gaiety is found, thinking does not amount to anything'" (Gay Science, 327, 257). Nietzsches "restored reason", however, will be a joyful one.

b. Vitalism, or confirmation and criticism of the body?

Before I explain this perspective I want to look at an obvious objection to Nietzsche's suggested recoupling of reason to the passions. Does such a conception not amount to vitalism? By no means. It can be inferred from the section on the "Despisers of the Body" in Zarathustra that this is not the case.

Nietzsche speaks there of the body's "great reason": "There is more reason in your body, than in your best wisdom" (Zarathustra, 146f.).(10) "The body is a great reason [...]. An instrument of your body is also your little reason, [...] a little instrument and toy of your great reason" (ibid., 146). Thus reason is not straightforwardly - vitalistically - depreciated in favor of the body. Rather the body itself is understood as bearing reason, the deeper reason of the body is even the actual govenor of superficial reason.(11) - But to what extent is this really more than vitalism masked in the terminology of reason? Why does it mean something different?

It must not be ignored that Nietzsche is also a critic of the body. He understands the body as a store of experience from the history of humanity. But the history of humanity was an experiment in which manic forms and mistakes came about - these too became "body and will" (ibid., 189). Hence a straightforward affirmation of the body is ruled out. The mere regress to passion does not suffice. (In the end one might thus finish up with the passions of the weak.) A critique of the passions is also necessary. But how is this possible? Is there such reason that, being amidst the passions, can simultaneously become the authority for their criticism? - With this question I come to Nietzsche's ideal of a "restored reason".

4. Restored reason - life as an experiment for the seeker of knowledge

a. The measure: "the degree of reason in strength"

To be sure, according to Nietzsche only a reason allied with the passions can be true reason. But reason, ultimately, must be more than a plaything of the passions. It must also be a faculty of intervention and modification within the midst of the passions. Nietzsche's thinking aims for a form of reason which retroacts on the passions and is capable of regulating them.

Nietzsche criticizes the exaltation of mere force. (He really is no Darwinist.) To simply base things on the measure of strength (Kraft) is according to him still always an "ancient custom of slaves" (Daybreak, 548, 220). The true "degree of worthiness" is to be determined not according to the measure of strength, but according to another measure: according to the "degree of reason in strength [...]: we must assess to what extent precisely strength has been overcome by something higher, in the service of which it now stands as means and instrument!" (ibid.)(12)

The strength of passions are hence to be taken into service by reason of higher standing. Whereas reason previously appeared to be the instrument and means of the passions or life, the passions are now declared to be an instrument of reason. Does this mean that Nietzsche has changed his position? No, he has added to it. Now as then reason thrives on the passions and their strengths, but it also retroacts on them, selects and adapts them, effects a regulation of their proper influxes and drives. It is this retroaction which matters to Nietzsche. Of the one-way street from passion to reason he makes a two-way street between the passions and reason.

Nietzsche emphasizes the novelty and the significance of his idea. The idea that what matters is the "victory [of reason] over strength" (ibid., 550) has been completely overlooked. But he is sure that this will be the future "rank of greatness"; through this the evaluation of the past will also be amended (ibid.).

b. Man as a plastic sculptor of his self

What are the consequences of this novel reason? In complying with this, man directs his powers "to his own taming, to cleansing his own fantasy, to order and selection in the flow of tasks and sudden fancies" (ibid.). He directs himself "to himself as a work" (ibid.), becomes a "plastic sculptor of his self" (Early summer 1883, vol. 10, 276).

Nietzsche recommends conscious strategies of such self-shaping dealing with the passions. For instance, he says one should not free oneself too quickly from pain, but instead intensify it - so as to be able to draw from this "all the higher powers" (ibid.). The Gay Science documents this experience. At the end of the preface Nietzsche declares: "In the end, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe sickness, also from the sickness of severe suspicion, one returns newborn, having shed one's skin, more ticklish and malicious, with a more delicate taste for joy, with a tenderer tongue for all good things, with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more childlike and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever been before" (Gay Science, Preface 4, 37). - Whoever has stepped through the abysses of reflection leaves them with modified senses and passions. Reason can change us in an elementary manner.

c. Life as an experiment for the seeker of knowledge

This leads Nietzsche to the idea of life as an "experiment for the seeker of knowledge" (ibid., 324, 255) which he develops in the Gay Science. The standard view had maintained that knowledge has nothing to do with life. In opposition to this Nietzsche had explained, in a first step, that cognition is to be understood as a means to life. Now, however, - in a further step leading to Nietzsche's actual position - he apprehends life itself as an experimental object of knowledge, and does this along with all its risks: "[...] we others who thirst after reason, are determined to scrutinize our experiences as severely as a scientific experiment - hour after hour, day after day. We ourselves wish to be our experiments and guinea pigs" (ibid., 319, 253). "[...] the genuine philosopher [...] feels the burden and the duty of a hundred attempts and temptations of life - he risks himself constantly" (Beyond Good and Evil, 205, 125).

Nietzsche calls this idea - of "life as a means to knowledge" - his "great liberator" (Gay Science, 324, 255). To be a philosopher in future means, for him, to understand and practice life as an "experiment" and a "means to knowledge" (ibid., 253 and 255, cf. ibid., 51, 115).

This is the meaning of Gay Science. To others, says Nietzsche, knowledge may be "a bed to rest on, or the way to such a bed, or a diversion, or a form of leisure", but "for me it is a world of dangers and victories in which heroic feelings, too, find places to dance and play. `Life as a means to knowledge' - with this principle in one's heart one can live not only boldly but even gaily, and laugh gaily, too" (Ibid., 324, 255).

d. "My restored reason"

Nietzsche calls this novel reason - which works with the passions and makes life an "experiment for the seeker of knowledge" (ibid.) - his "restored reason" (Twilight, 58). It is tailored in a very unusual manner. Firstly, it views cognition not as the contemplation of the being or as an instrument serving life, but conversely makes one's own life an experiment of cognition. Secondly, "restored reason" does not deny the passions, but is in league with them, yet in such a way that it simultaneously mantles and guides the passions. Thirdly, it does not decree refusals and false solemnity, but is "superficial - out of profundity" (vgl. Gay Science, Preface 4, 38) and hence also full of pain and pleasure. And, fourthly, it is a form of reason for metamorphosing the passions and inventing the self. In this spirit Nietzsche states "Anyone who has come even part of the way to the freedom of reason cannot feel himself to be anything other than a wanderer upon the earth" (Human All Too Human I, 638, 302)(13) and, on another occasion, that "the sole happiness lies in reason" (March 1875, vol. 8, 36).

e. `Restoration'

One might suspect Nietzsche of returning in this way to a classical position after all, one according to which reason rules over life. But this is not so. Nietzsche's restoration of reason, firstly, does not comply with the traditional denial of passion, but, conversely, aims precisely at regaining the assurance of instinct.(14) Secondly, Nietzsche does not restitute, say, the position of contemplative theory, but remains a consistent pragmatist - now in the sense of experiment. Thirdly, this reason directs itself not outwardly, but primarily to "itself as a work"" (Daybreak, 548, 220). And, fourthly, it is not observational, but transformative.

The talk of `restoration' does not aim for the restoration of an old concept of reason, but is meant in the sense of convalescence. Thus in the Gay Science - which I read as being a document of this "restored reason" altogether - Nietzsche expressed this in the following way: "This whole book is nothing but a bit of merry-making after long privation and powerlessness, the rejoicing of strength that is returning, of a reawakened belief in a tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, of a sudden sense of and anticipation of a future, of impending adventures, of seas that are open again, of goals that are permitted again, believed again" (Gay Science, Preface 1, 32). "[...] for convalescence was unexpected. `Gay Science': that signifies the saturnalia of a spirit who has patiently resisted a terrible, long pressure - patiently, severely, coldly, without submitting, but also without hope - and who is now all at once attacked by hope, the hope for health, and the intoxication of convalescence." (ibid.)

So, on the one hand, it is a matter of regaining an older, pre-reason position: the primacy of the passions. But, on the other hand, this occurs such that a new declination comes about: in the seeker of knowledge's experiment the dynamics of the passions are linked with reason, and are influenced and guided thereby. In Nietzsche's conception of reason, which links `reason' and `passion', it is no longer the force of passion as such, but the `degree of reason in strength' which is decisive (cf. Daybreak, 548, 220).

In addition, this restored "great reason" bears a strictly individualistic index. Standard reason was collective reason. Great reason, however, which thrives on the passions and makes one's life an experiment, is the reason of an individual - right through to great solitude: "High and independent spirituality, the will to stand alone, even a great reason" elevate "an individual above the herd" (Beyond Good and Evil, 201, 113 f.).(15) They are the hallmarks of "free spirits" of the "new philosophers" (ibid., 44, 56). And these are "the born, sworn, jealous friends of solitude, of our own most profound, most midnightly, most middaily solitude" (ibid.).

Higher reason is like a lightning bolt against standard reason: "My wisdom has long gathered like a cloud; it is becoming stiller and darker. Thus does every wisdom that is yet to give birth to lightning bolts. - For these men of today I do not wish to be light, or to be called light. These I wish to blind. Lightening of my wisdom! put out their eyes!" (Zarathustra, 401)

5. The singularity (and academic miscomprehension) of Nietzsche's conception of reason

I cannot disguise the fact that I find Nietzsche's conception of reason fascinating. It refers to the whole human being, not just to the head; it operates with an interplay of reason and passion; it appeals for a form of reason and a form of being which are transformational and transitional; and it links superficiality and depth, pain and happiness as well as experimental life, risks and freedom.

I shall leave it at this brief outline. I have attempted to show what to me seems to be the conception of reason with Nietzsche - and, in passing, to make clear that in the light of such a conception common objections to Nietzsche's dealings with the subject of reason reveal themselves to be ignorant and foolish. There is obviously no trace of totalizing criticism of reason, nor of performative contradiction - nor of a generalized power theorem, which is to make reason inconceivable. On the contrary: Nietzsche did not reject reason wholesale, but criticized one form of reason - standard reason - in the light of another - that of his "restored reason" and urged a switch to the latter. And although this reason is by no means free of power urges, it is not straightforwardly subjected to these, but acts precisely to regulate the passions, strengths and power impulses. Once again: for such reason, it is not strength as such, but the `degree of reason in strength' which is decisive (cf. Daybreak, 548, 220).

The form of reason which Nietzsche conceived of is - especially academically - unusual enough. Ultimately this also applies to its uppermost maxim, the maxim of intellectual integrity. It reads: "Never keep back or bury in silence that which can be thought against your thoughts! Give it praise! It is among the foremost requirements of honesty of thought. Every day you must conduct your campaign against yourself" (Daybreak, 370, 169).(16) - On the way to his critique of reason and finding of reason Nietzsche, which is unusual enough, adhered to this maxim.



1. Cf. Georg Lukács, Die Zerstörung der Vernunft. Der Weg des Irrationalismus von Schelling zu Hitler (Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1954); Jürgen Habermas, Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne. Zwölf Vorlesungen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985).

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, in: Nietzsche, Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bänden, eds Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1980), vol. 2, p. 540. - In the following all translated Nietzsche quotes refer to this edition; the first reference provides volume and page number, subsequently the page number alone; titles are given in abbreviated form, where time intervals are given in place of titles these refer to the Nachgelassene Fragmente.

3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in: The Portable Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1966).

4. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin: London, 1990).

5. "We obtain the concept [...] by overlooking what is individual and actual" (Friedrich Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense", in: Philosophy and Truth. Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the Early 1870's, trans. & ed. Daniel Breazeale (New Jersey: Humanities, 1979), pp. 79-91, here p. 83).

6. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

7. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).

8. Against the conventional depreciation of the passions in favor of an allegedly autonomous reason Nietzsche notes: "The whole view of the order of passions: as if it were right and normal to be guided by reason - whereas passions are the abnormal, dangerous, semi-animalistic [...] The misrecognition of passion and reason, as if the latter were an essence for itself" (November 1887 - March 1888, vol. 13, 131).

9. Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

10. "There is more reason in your body than in your reason. And that, too, which you call your wisdom - who knows why your body has need of precisely this wisdom" (November 1882 - February 1883, vol. 10, 179).

11. An example of this is Nietzsche's thesis that the body of those with small reason, because it in fact wants to die, brings about a mummified philosophy: "Even in your folly and contempt, you despisers of the body, you serve your self. I say unto you: your self itself wants to die and turns away from life" (Zarathustra, 147).

12. Hollingdale renders "Grad der Vernunft in der Kraft" as "degree of rationality in strength"; for Vernunft I reinstate `reason' in this context [trans.].

13. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, I, trans. Gary Handwerk (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).

14. "One acts consummately only in so far as one acts instinctively" (Early 1888, vol. 13, 421).

15. Kaufmann translates `große Vernunft' as `great reason' in Zarathustra, but as `powerful reason' here in BGE. Hence I emend to `great' here so as to maintain terminological consistency [trans.].

16. Nietzsche considered intellectual integrity to be "one of the youngest virtues" (translation corrected, ibid., 456, 191). It is still alien to the upright and unyielding (ibid. and Gay Science, 159, 198 f.). Nietzsche, however, pledges himself fully to this virtue: "nothing today is more precious to me and rarer than honesty" (Zarathustra, 401).


Translation by Andrew Inkpin.

Document update 2 Nov 2000