Transcending Ontological Uncertainty with Nietzsche’s Will to Power

This world is the will to power and nothing besides. And you yourself are also this will to power and nothing besides.– Friedrich NietzscheHuman beings have struggled for centuries to explain their existence: some have thought it meaningless, others God-given. But since the Enlightenment, and the dawn of the Age of Reason, these questions have taken on a new quality. Philosophers, scientists and other great thinkers of the Enlightenment period promoted the power of reason as the force of progress. Through its application, the hierarchical rigidity of ideas like aristocracy and divine ordinance were replaced by individual freedom and rights. But in the time since this period, the Age of Reason has devolved to an era of insecurity, and we have arrived – confused, anxious, and uncertain – at modernity. Some have wondered, “Why has the generalizing of ‘sweet reason’ not produced a world subject to our prediction and control?” This is the lesson we have learned: that the force of reason, and its attendant accumulation of knowledge and understanding, has its limits and its shortcomings.The modern problem, as Anthony Giddens identifies in his book The Consequences of Reason, is that the power of knowledge and reason has come up against a brick wall of uncertainty. It has become apparent that “no amount of accumulated knowledge about social life could encompass all circumstances of its implementation, even if such knowledge were wholly distinct from the environment to which it is applied.” It might have once been thought possible that reason could account for all circumstances, but we have since learned that it is not. This is the nature of risk. Despite the accuracy of our knowledge, and the agility of our reason, circumstance will not come under our control. We can never, and will never, conquer risk. During modernity, in the era following the great Age of Reason, reason does not have the power to overcome uncertainty. “…The equation of knowledge with certitude has turned out to be misconceived.” Uncertainty is not a problem, on its own, but the particular threat of this modern uncertainty is that it arises from circumstances that we have created ourselves. Our environment of risk does not emanate so much from nature and warfare as it does from reflexive threats: threats – like the airplanes we invented flying into the skyscrapers we built – that we have had a hand in making. Here lies risk – that the airplane will fly into that building – at the center of our modern feelings of insecurity, an outcome of reason.Modern ontological insecurity comes from this promise of reason as a source of legitimacy and power, and its failure to deliver absolute certainty. The tension between reason’s promise and its inability to conquer circumstances of our own creation is a source of metaphysical angst. Giddens identifies two mechanisms we use to combat that angst and provide for normal function. Being “constantly and consciously anxious…would paralyze ordinary day-to-day life.” So, knowing that these risks are outside of our control, we conjure a “vague and generalized sense of trust in distant events,” a feeling of fate that helps us prevent these events from occupying the forefront of our minds. Fate emerges out of modern anxiety as a way to avoid a sense of existential dread about the risks we face, and a method for carrying on with the day-to-day tasks of living life.According to Giddens, this final contradiction – of a purportedly rational society employing a sense of fate to combat the insecurity it feels as a result of circumstances which are outside its control but of its own creation – is what informs the quality of modernity. It ensures that we remain riders, not drivers, of the juggernaut. It is also, apparently, inescapable because our efforts to accumulate more knowledge and employ the force of reason against this uncertainty only circle back against us: “New knowledge (concepts, theories, findings) [do] not simply render the social world more transparent, but [alter] its nature, spinning it off in novel directions.” The more firmly we grasp onto knowledge about the world, the faster that world changes. For example, suppose that a woman getting married in New York City today knows that she faces about a 50% chance of divorce. This statistic, while having no actual bearing on an individual woman’s chances of staying happily married changes how she thinks about her future in comparison to a woman who knows nothing about her chances of divorce. Though we may try, “we cannot seize ‘history’ and bend it readily to our collective purposes.” In this way, knowledge actually contributes to further uncertainty, heightening those circumstances we are powerless to affect.According to the model that Giddens lays out — of the conflict between rationality and fate, and our inability to exact agency of over the unstoppable juggernaut of modernity – modern agents are relatively powerless. But there is another perspective: a way of reorienting ourselves with respect to modern circumstances that might strengthen our tenuous grip on the juggernaut.If we are in search of a sort of transcendence of the modern paradigm – a way in which we might come to terms with its juggernaut nature, and discern some agency for ourselves – it might seem unusual to turn to Friedrich Nietzsche, known for his rejection of morality and truth (a rejection he shares with the doctrine of nihilism). But Nietzsche’s brand of nihilism evolves from his interpretation of truth as an unfixed, evolving phenomena. If we trace the evolution of his thought it becomes clear that he rejects the metaphysical in order to ground us more firmly in the here-and-now. This grounding gives rise to the source of will to power, the force that Nietzsche believes to be responsible for the greatest of human projects. Only when we embrace his vision does it become clear that, rather than evoking life’s meaninglessness, Nietzsche’s way of thought illuminates a path through which we might begin to steer the juggernaut.While certain of Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas overlap with nihilism, they do not originate from the same assumption. Nihilism posits life is devoid of meaning, while Nietzsche is more concerned with the nature of the facts and knowledge that give rise to belief in metaphysical ideas. He insists: “In so far as the word ‘knowledge’ has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, and has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.” This is Nietzsche’s rejection of absolute truth – because only real-world, tangible things that present themselves before us are evident, and it is not justifiable to interpret beyond what is evident. Therefore, knowledge is not fixed or immutable, but fluid and subject to change: just as life, itself, is constantly evolving. Using the metaphor of life as a painting, Nietzsche further explains:…this painting – that which we men call life and experience – has gradually become, and is indeed still fully in process of becoming, and should thus not be regarded as a fixed magnitude from which one might draw a conclusion as to the originator (the sufficient reason)… There is a motion to existence, in both its distinct past and prospective future. Since “life and experience” have always been and continue to be in the process of changing, it is unreasonable to “draw a conclusion” above or beyond what is certain. Here, we can see that Nietzsche does not reject the metaphysical for the purpose of declaring life meaningless: according to his way of thinking, and rigorous methods of thought, there is simply no justification for believing in it. The instability of claims to knowledge is precisely the same phenomenon that Giddens argues is central to modernity’s inherent insecurity. Nothing we know or believe is stable because it is always subject to change. In this context, Nietzsche can help to explain where modern insecurity comes from:Look, isn’t our need for knowledge precisely this need for the familiar, the will to uncover everything strange, unusual, and questionable something that no longer disturbs us? Is it not the instinct of fear that bids us to know? And is the jubilation of those who attain knowledge not the jubilation over the restoration of a sense of security? If knowledge produces security, then it is easy to see why an era in which knowledge is not certain is an era of great uncertainty. “Reflexively applied knowledge” is metaphysically empty because, in modern times, “the equation of knowledge with certitude has turned out to be misconceived,” and thus knowledge is not necessarily productive of absolute truth. When our quest for certain or absolute knowledge is unsuccessful, so do our feelings of insecurity overwhelm us.Nietzsche circumvents this dilemma by denying the necessity of the very claims to absolute knowledge that we find at the center of our modern insecurity. According to his conception, there is nothing beyond this life and this experience that could serve as a standard – not morals, not truth, and not God – and thus any search for metaphysical truth is in vain. In light of this conception, the only alternative to nihilism, and the only option for Nietzsche (who believes in nothing beyond the here-and-now) is to identify some force at the center of the world he characterizes. To Nietzsche, the answer is clear; human history has been the expression of will to power. In its greatest conquests, of war and empires, and its highest achievements, of art and culture, humanity has been discharging its power. Nietzsche explains his conception at the end of Will to Power:And do you know what ‘the world’ is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms…This world is the will to power – and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power – and nothing besides! This both exemplifies the central position of power in Nietzsche’s vision of the world, and demonstrates how that vision excludes claims to absolute knowledge that give rise to modern insecurity. The world is not simply the will to power, it is nothing besides. Every action, every creation, every triumph and every failure is an expression of this fundamental force. And because our world “only transforms” – it is without beginning or end, it neither grows nor shrinks, and yet contains an enormous amount of force and energy — the only things we can be sure of are those that exist now, here, right in front of us.It now seems possible to reconcile the insecurity arising from the juggernaut-like quality of modernity with Nietzsche’s vision of a positive will to power. In his explication of such a will, one which (as James Der Derian explains) is “an active and affective force of becoming, from which values and meanings…are produced which affirm life,” Nietzsche directs us away from our fear of insecurity. Such a fear, at the root of modern ontological anxiety, is what motivates our pursuit of knowledge. It is “the instinct of fear that bids us to know.” Nietzsche directs us to the dawn of a new era, beyond the Age of Reason, where we do not long to pin down that which is not certain or predictable, but employ our will in activities that engage the world around us in a healthy way. This is a vision of life as a painting, still in the process of being unrolled. As Nietzsche says, “that which we men call life and experience – has gradually become, is indeed still fully in process of becoming…” It is misguided, therefore, to search for a fixed principle as a means of generalizing about existence. Instead, our efforts should embrace that force – power – which Nietzsche views as the fundamental drive of all humanity. To do so is to embrace a positive will to power: that act of “becoming” which, like art, is a creative process directed towards something constructive. We create our own lives, we will our own existence, and do not become victims of the modern forces – like insecurity or uncertainty – to which modern circumstances might make us slaves.Understood in this way, as a guiding philosophy of existence that grounds us in reality, Nietzsche’s will to power is the antidote to the disembedded, uncertain, anxious society that we have become. He directs our focus away from feelings that are rooted in a search for metaphysical security by claiming that there is none to be found. While it denies the metaphysical, his philosophy occupies the same transcendent plain, albeit in a real-world fashion. Nietzsche denies Giddens’ juggernaut by refusing to acknowledge any inherent order or disorder within the universe. But there is still tension between the nihilism of a perspective that denies any absolute truth, and the transcendent demension of the will to power. Thus, Nietzsche’s philosophy retains a paradox, preventing it from hardening into a didactic doctrine. It remains an experiment in reorienting ourselves away from the uncertainties of the modern world.BibliographyDer Derian, James. “The Value of Security: Hobbes, Marx, Nietzsche, and Baudrillard.” On Security. Ed. Ronnie D. Lipshutz. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, 24-45.Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 1990.Nietzsche, Friedrich. Human, All Too Human. Translated and edited by R.J. Hollindale. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Nietzsche, Friedrich. Will to Power: An Attempted Transvaluation of All Values. Translated by Anthony M. Ludovici. Edinburgh: T.N. Foulis, 1910.Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Bernard Arthur Owen Williams, Josefine Nauckhoff, and Adrian Del Caro. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.