Nietzsche on the Intellectual Conscience

By “intellectual conscience,” Nietzsche means the idea that it is wrong to believe something unless you have good reason to think that the belief is true. Someone with an intellectual conscience will form and endorse beliefs by applying the best epistemic standards known to him or her.

Most of us, Nietzsche thinks, lack an intellectual conscience:

[T]he great majority of people lacks an intellectual conscience. […] I mean: the great majority of people does not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly, without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterward…. (The Gay Science §2.)

Exercising the intellectual conscience, if one does possess it, doesn’t necessarily lead to certainty; on the contrary. The more you subject your beliefs to scrutiny, the less certain you will become about them. This is good, because searching for the truth, as well as finding it, is good. Bernard Reginster puts the point as follows:

[T]he seeker after knowledge must want both knowledge and uncertainty or ignorance. He cannot be a genuine seeker after truth unless he actually wants to find it, but since what he cares about is the search after truth, he must also welcome the uncertainty and ignorance that supply opportunities for it. (The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism.)

Although intellectual conscience is a necessary condition, it is not, Nietzsche seems to think, a sufficient one. The “last idealists of knowledge in whom alone the intellectual conscience dwells today,” namely the scientists, have rendered Christian belief untenable, but they shrink from questioning their own values. “These are by no means free spirits: for they still believe in [the value of] truth.” (On the Genealogy of Morals, III §24.) Continue reading

On Self-Reliance

In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson says that “[w]hat I must do … not what the people think … may serve [as the rule] for the whole difference between greatness and meanness.” Later he adds that “we have not chosen [our occupations] but society has chosen for us.”

If the problem is that society has chosen our occupations for us, then the remedy would seem to be for us to choose for ourselves. But that’s not quite right, because the choice of an occupation – or rather, a vocation or calling – is importantly different from the ordinary exercise of free will.

In “Spiritual Laws” Emerson writes:

I say, do not choose; this is a figure of speech by which I would distinguish what is commonly called choice among men, and which is a partial act, the choice of the hands, of the eyes, of the appetites, and not a whole act of the man. But that which I call right or goodness, is the choice of my constitution; and that which I call heaven, and inwardly aspire after, is the state or circumstance desirable to my constitution; and the action which I in all my years tend to do, is the work for my faculties.

The “work for my faculties” is my vocation or calling. The choice of vocation is not accomplished by “what is commonly called choice” but is rather “the choice of my constitution,” i.e. of my whole self. A vocation chosen by one’s “whole self” is one that defines oneself, and in that way it is more like an unconditional commitment than a decision, relative to the circumstances, to take one course of action rather than another. Committing oneself to a calling is something like yielding to necessity.

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