The Moral Meaning of Nature

Nietzsche's Darwinian Religion and Its Critics

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Peter J. Woodford
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , March
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


While the main impact of Darwinian evolutionary theory on Anglophone religious thought was its critique of theology based on apparent design in nature, in Germany theories of biological evolution created more problems for traditional understandings of the validity of moral ideals. Peter Woodford asks, “what is the moral meaning of nature?” for a generation of thinkers that needed to contend with a problematically non-teleological conception of nature (3). He focuses on four thinkers: Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Overbeck, Georg Simmel, and Heinrich Rickert. Woodford argues that Nietzsche was the source of a new vitalist conception of human values that would be furthered and adjusted by Overbeck and Simmel, to be ultimately critiqued by Rickert from the vantage point of a neo-Kantianism that rejected the coherence of a vitalist account of moral meaning. 

In the first chapter, Woodford discusses how Nietzsche sought to achieve a revaluation of values that aligned with the new Darwinian perspective of biological life, by positing life as autotelic, or driven toward itself as an end (37). This provides a way forward for conceiving of values, and even of a future “religion,” beyond and in light of the Darwinian impasse. At the same time, questions remained after Nietzsche as to what sort of normative authority this vitalist religiosity offered. That is, just because life values its own affirmation, this still offers no sort of grounding or validity for such valuation. 

In the second chapter, Woodford looks at Franz Overbeck, a colleague and friend of Nietzsche’s from the theology department of the University of Basel, whose own theory of religion overlaps substantially with Nietzschean concerns to explain human values in light of modern naturalist challenges to morality. Overbeck challenged modern theological conceptions of Christian identity by arguing for an original version of Christianity (Urchristentum) that was defined by its asceticism and rejection of the world. This theory of Christianity was premised on a sharp distinction between scientific and theological theories of religion, which Overbeck developed in his inaugural lecture as a faculty member at Basel, and in his book How Christian is Our Present-Day Theology. The insight offered by Overbeck was not biologistic, per se, in the same sense that Nietzsche’s was, but it had a common goal of critiquing theories of value that failed to take into account the immanent drives determining religious life.

The third chapter discusses Georg Simmel, whose value theory shared with Nietzsche a concern to naturalize our understanding of the sources of value, or, differently put, to recognize the formative rather than merely nihilistic role that Darwinian biologism plays in the explanation of moral ideals. Woodford argues significantly that the writings of Simmel’s middle and later career, which are more often identified as Neo-Kantian or metaphysical, should actually be understood as continuing his earlier naturalist impulses (81). Simmel’s philosophy of money, for instance, established the “moral meaning of nature,” in the social reality of value expressed through the process of exchange in a money economy. Simmel stands as a bridge between Nietzsche’s utter rejection of rational validity over and against natural drives, and a Kantian derivation of values. This would make him a significant conversation partner for Neo-Kantian criticism of Nietzsche’s Darwinian religion. 

The final chapter addresses this Neo-Kantian criticism in the work of Heinrich Rickert. Rickert sought to translate a theory of value from the Kantian ought (Sollen), which he argued must be separated entirely from nature, but which also, even as distinct from any ontological status, asserts a rational validity and indeed is presupposed by our knowledge of the natural world. This dualism stands in direct opposition to any Nietzschean or post-Nietzschean vitalism that grounds value in evolutionary nature, and Rickert made that opposition explicit in his Die Philosophie des Lebens. Rickert thought that life philosophy was a fashionable current in philosophy, but was ultimately incoherent, in large part because he affirmed (with Overbeck, though to different ends) a sharp distinction between the natural sciences and those ways of human knowing which assert valid values. A scientific view of life presupposes certain values, but cannot attain them from biological life.

Woodford’s framing is well-described in the subtitle of the book: “Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and its Critics.” At the risk of criticizing the author of a genuinely good book merely for not writing the book that the reviewer would have written, the framing of this study as one of Darwinian biologism does not strike me as ideal. The sort of naturalism that threatened a philosophical account of human values—even biologistic and scientistic naturalism in particular—was pervasive in late 19th century philosophy and was often mediated by monistic and materialistic philosophies within Germany. This makes it difficult to chart paths of influence, and ultimately it is unclear what is gained by rooting Nietzschean vitalism in Darwin himself. Darwin’s own writings are not discussed by Woodford, and our understanding of Nietzsche, Simmel, and especially Overbeck does not suffer from this absence.

Another way of framing the problem of value formation would be to speak only in terms of Rickert’s critique of Nietzschean and post-Nietzschean vitalist accounts of fundamental human values, without reference to Darwin at all. Darwin is certainly always in the air in this history, but Woodford’s narrative is really Neo-Kantian. To borrow some terminology from the chapter on Rickert, this study has a “rational teleology” rather than a “merely biological or vital teleology,” though this is not obvious from how the problem is initially presented. One expects a book that derives Lebensphilosophie from Darwin’s work, and Rickert’s response to this general philosophical mood. But Nietzsche is really presented as the root of Overbeck and Simmel’s work, and Rickert offers a response to Simmel and Nietzsche. Simmel and Rickert, so far as I am aware, did not really engage with the work of Franz Overbeck. Overbeck is included in this cast of thinkers because of his closeness to Nietzsche and the helpfulness of his historical theory of an ascetic lebensideal of Christianity, rather than his Darwinism or Rickert’s opposition to him. Simmel is an obvious post-Nietzsche thinker to discuss simply by his own merits as a philosopher of value, but especially so given the way Woodford’s narrative is framed by the ultimate response of Rickert. 

These hesitancies in framing come from a genuine enthusiasm about Woodford’s work, and perhaps are simply narcissism of small differences. Woodford offers a compelling account of an extremely important problem of European philosophical thought that needs more attention than it tends to receive. His cogent summaries of Rickert’s work in particular are a valuable service, considering only Rickert’s work on the philosophy of history and historical sciences is very widely read in English.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Evan Kuehn is Theological Librarian at the Rolfing Library at Trinity International University.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter J. Woodford is Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, where he is collaborating with scientists and philosophers to study the evolution of cooperation and its potential for understanding the roots of human ethical and religious dispositions.  He received his Ph.D. in Modern Western Philosophy, Religious Thought, and Ethics from Stanford University.

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