From Descartes to Nietzsche in 4 Easy Steps


Step 1: Start With Yourself

Prior to Descartes, philosophy typically started with metaphysics. It was, in a way, metaphysics seeking epistemology. Truth was considered objective in itself, while a person’s reason was understood to be subjective. In Christian terms, this worked out to faith seeking understanding. What Descartes decided to do was turn this on its head and start with epistemology. What he hoped to accomplish was to construct a philosophy built on clear and distinct ideas. He would systematically doubt everything he could until he got to the bottom of his thinking. In the midst of this, he realized that his own doubting was proof of his existence, and so he found his first clear and distinct idea and we all remember that by cogito ergo sum.

From this point on, philosophy began to proceed not from a metaphysical starting point, but an epistemological one. It was now understanding seeking faith. This created an epistemic gap that no one has successfully closed. Descartes, along with Leibniz and Spinoza were the in the rationalistic school of philosophy and all relied on formulating their epistemology on the basis of clear and distinct ideas. What is baffling is that they all supposedly started from “clear and distinct” ideas and proceeded logically to the conclusions that followed from those; yet each had a radically different outcome. It seemed then that the ideas were not quite so clear or so distinct.

Rationalism was still more or less following a correspondence theory of truth, assuming that truth is what corresponds to reality. The problem became how to bring ideas and reality itself into fruitful contact. It was believed that truth was objective, but contra pre-modernism, now it was assumed that rationality was objective too. It was simply a matter of following the right steps to get to the truth. It was now believe possible to gain a “God’s eye” objective view of any subject at hand. By starting with yourself, you could build a non-religious, rational philosophy of yourself.

Step 2: Prioritize Your Senses

Rationalism was not the only approach. The other option on the table was empiricism. Philosophers in this school include John Locke first, but later George Berkeley and David Hume. This approach, first formulated by Locke relied on sense perception as a starting point. In Locke’s account, we have substances and properties. Substances are the more basic of the two, and are capable of having certain attributes attached to them (i.e. properties). I can formulate the truth about the chair, to use an example, by bringing my ideas of the chair and the chair itself into spatio-temporal union. I must examine the chair in detail to make sure my ideas of it correspond to how it really is.

This still maintained the epistemic gap, and the issue arose as to how to know whether or not we know the substances themselves, or merely the properties that they have as attributes. The question of whether or not I know the “chairness” of the chair apart from its specific attributes is what Locke was wrestling with to some extent, but was certainly what those after him would pick up on. Hume jumped all over this, and eventually acknowledged that given the empirical approach, we are all basically “Locked” up in our own perceptions. We can’t actually know reality itself. For Hume, all we have are bundled of properties, there are no substances.

Taking this further, one can see it affects our understanding of causation. Fundamental to Hume’s philosophy is his account of causation. He argued that our minds are conditioned to perceive causation, but we don’t actually apprehend it directly. We see temporal sequences of events, and then infer causality, but we don’t actually “see” causality. I may see the cue stick strike a cue ball that then strikes the 8 ball sending it into the corner pocket and infer that my opponent just caused all of that to happen but I don’t actually see, in an empirical sense of actually witnessing with my senses, the actual causation. If all I can perceive then are bundles of properties, and I can’t link validate that events are linked through causation, I really can’t know much of anything.

So, after Hume there is not only an epistemic gap between appearance and reality, there is no way to bridge it, although it could be argued that wasn’t Hume’s goal in the first place. Hume would eventually get frustrated with all of this and instead of writing more books opt for backgammon with his friends. It was around this time though that Immanuel Kant arose from his dogmatic slumber and decided to move things on to step 3.

Step 3: Create Your Own Reality

Kant, like Plato was a synthesizer. Whereas Plato synthesized two different streams of pre-Socratic thought, Kant attempted to synthesize the rational and empirical approach. Kant, like Berkeley saw reality as mind dependent, but with one huge difference. Berkeley saw reality as mind dependent and structured by God, and we merely sought to think God’s thoughts after Him. For Kant though, reality is mind dependent but structured by the individual. In a sense, you create your own reality by structuring your perceptions of reality into some kind of coherent system of thought. In a way, this shifted the burden of truth from corresponding to reality to merely cohering with the rest of one’s knowledge. Truth was now in some ways what cohered to my way of thinking, whether or not it actually corresponded to external reality.

In critiquing pure reason, he proposed there are 4 types of judgments:

  • Analytic (subject contains predicate)
  • Synthetic (subject neither contains nor denies predicate)
  • A priori (independent of experience)
  • A posteriori (dependent on experience).

Each kind of judgment is to be one of the first two, and one of the second two. The prize was synthetic a priori judgments, those that brought us new information, yet were not dependent on experience. Kant also made the distinction between what he called the noumenal realm which is reality as it is in itself, and the phenomenal realm, which is reality as I perceive it. God may well exist, but if he does, it is in the noumenal realm of which we don’t have direct access (except for Kant).

How Kant knew there was such a distinction is curious. In essence, Kant proposed to have god-like knowledge of the limits of reason and thus must have transcended human knowing in order gain this understanding. The only way to really critique his proposal of the limits of reason would be to transcend his transcendence. This of course isn’t possible, so ironically, philosophy has somewhat taken Kant’s word final, and many postmodern philosophers are basically just hyper-Kantians. However, before getting there, someone needed to come along and simplify Kant’s two structured reality (noumenal/phenomenal) into a simpler form.

Step 4: Get Rid of the True Creator

Enter Nietzsche. Unlike the previously mentioned philosopher (except for maybe Hume), Nietzsche didn’t see a need to salvage the belief in God. In fact, for Nietzsche, belief in God had become unbelievable and rather than arguing against it, he assumed it as a starting point. “God is dead, and we have killed him,” the madman in Nietzsche’s writing would proclaim. As I understand it, Nietzsche basically sought to go ahead and just dispense with the noumenal realm altogether. If we can’t know it, let’s just get rid of it. Nietzsche doesn’t seem as preoccupied with epistemology as the previous philosophers surveyed do, but he did have a bent toward naturalizing everything. Interestingly, in this process the self gets deified to some extent as once God is removed from the picture the aseity vacuum has to suck something into place. If God is not in that position, man will occupy it.

Nietzsche in effect helped shift the definition of truth further away from corresponding to reality on to what “works.” Truth in this sense is what gets me to my goals. Nietzsche rightly understood that without God in the picture, there is no foundation for meaning, for morals, or for logic. There is only the power play left. We are to celebrate the joy inherent in this revelation. While we may not be able to truly know reality in itself, that is no matter, we need to rush headlong into creating a beautiful life for ourselves that we would be content to relive over and over again. It seems by the time we get to Nietzsche, we have gone from faith seeking understanding, to understanding seeking faith, to now just understanding, and an understanding that exerts power. As we embrace this joyful wisdom, we are all on our way to becoming Übermenschen in our own unique ways.


Author: Nate

I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 thoughts on “From Descartes to Nietzsche in 4 Easy Steps”

  1. So would you suggest if someone wants to have a starting point in philosophy to begin with the thinkers in the order you have them here. This is very helpful for me. Any other advice for getting started in philosophy.

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