On page 21 of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, I found the following quote:

Suppose someone sees through the boorish naivete of this famous concept of "free will" and manages to get it out of his mind; I would then ask him to carry his "enlightenment" a step further and to rid his mind of the reversal of this misconceived concept of "free will": I mean the "un-free will," which is basically an abuse of cause and effect. We should not erroneously objectify "cause" and "effect" like the natural scientists do (and whoever else thinks naturalistically these days) in accordance with the dominant mechanistic stupidity which would have the cause push and shove until it "effects" something; we should use "cause" and "effect" only as pure concepts, which is to say as conventional functions for the purpose of description and communication, not explanation. In the "in-itself" there is nothing like "causal association," "necessity," or "psychological un-freedom."

I am somewhat confused by this position. First he declares that the "causa sui" is absurd - that we cannot be the cause of our own existence. I assumed from this and other quotes from the book that Nietzsche believed our existence was caused by something else. However, this quote complicated things for me.

Since he makes a specific point to assert that causality doesn't apply to the "in-itself," it seems as if he is only stating that the existence of a thing doesn't need a cause. After all, for there to be a total absence of causation in the universe, we would have to be applying an incredible amount of organization to a completely random mish-mash of disconnected reality-states while perceiving them.

A few sentences after the quote, he attempts to replace the concepts of free and un-free will with strong and weak will, which still seems to imply lots of causality to me (I still don't fully understand Nietzsche's definition of the word "will").

How far does Nietzsche's skepticism of causality go, and can someone provide a semi-simplified explanation of Nietzsche's own vision of a world without causation?

4 Answers 4


Nietzsche here isn't sceptical about cause and effect, but is simply pointing out the naïveté of the mechanistic philosophy which supposes that this is all there is.

Today, we would say he is against reductionism; when we reduce all phenomena to purely mechanical phenomena. Instead, sometimes - yes and sometimes - no:

When I pick a stone and throw it low across the surface of a lake and so skimming it; it is right to model it using mechanical notions - as a particle of matter - so here, yes; but when I speak to a man and then send him on his way, it is generally wrong to think him modelled purely as a particle of matter ignoring all that is animate in him - so here, no; now, this might seem obvious in this description - but it isn't so easily obvious when one looks at the contemporary situation when physicalism reinterprets, refashions and blows new wind and motion into the old mechanistic philosophy.

In this polemical quote, he is against reducing free-will by the 'enlightened' thought which reduces phenomena to a mere mechanics of thought; or in the field of human endeavour or history to see a mere mechanics of historical or social forces - a useful comparison here is the scientific materialism of Marx or the postivist sociology of Comte. In this way, he is against a reductive enlightment that turns thinking into mere formulae and cant.

His polemics is against importing the deterministic notions of cause and effect from Newtonian (or earlier, Epicurean) Physics which apply to inanimate matter in the small (atoms) and in the large (cosmological - stars and galaxies) to matter animated by mind - ie us.

In his final paragraph, when he mentions the 'in-itself'; I assume this is the thing-in-itself, the ding-an-sich; and here is merely repeating what Kant supposed of it, or demonstrated: that nothing specific can be said of it, and in particular we cannot talk about it causality there.

  • Nietzsche does not accept the Kantian notion thing-in-itself. '
    – John Am
    Oct 28, 2015 at 12:19
  • academia.edu/721862/…
    – John Am
    Oct 28, 2015 at 12:21
  • @john am: I'm going by the quote, and there he affirms it's utility. Feb 3, 2016 at 3:52

This might be a Schopenhauerian "in-itself", where whatever persists beyond the phenomenal realm is just One and Absolute. Causation can only be applied to the phenomenal realm, but in this in-itself world there is nothing in "motion" thus there is no causality and thus there is no psychological un-freedom in that "in-itself". Nietzsche is being a cruel satirist here in fact, Kant says that cause is necessary in order to have experience but sensible experience is just a semblance of the "actual and not the in-itself" because of our apriori conditions such as causation close us off from percieving that and then he goes into the intellectual intuition and all that stuff. The physicalists and physicists and so on, however, believe there is nothing more than just the phenomenal realm and causation is not some transcendent thing but something that is experientially entwined into our perceptions. "So who's right?" Nietzsche would ask us while laughing...

  • Just to clarify, you're saying that Kant believes our sensible experience doesn't reflect the true nature of things because our senses require the assumption of causation (something which isn't transcendent, but is a necessary mental tool) to function. Is this correct?
    – ztforster
    Aug 23, 2016 at 14:43

One way to interpret Nietzsche's skepticism of free will is to consider what drove Nietzsche to such a stance.

Nietzsche was a petite bourgeoisie in an historical period where it was very difficult for a petite bourgeoisie to accumulate further wealth and raise his social status. It was the rise of the industrial era. The power of the accumulated wealth was already visible, and big wealth was in a position to limit the mobility and the prospects of other classes. His own life was filled with accidents and poor health. So by his perspective, the notion of free will, that naturally arises from a period of history in which the middle class was able by using hardiness, luck and belief in oneself to sustain or develop their social status, had become an empty concept. With the same method you can understand the problem of the cause and effect. Now, effects seemed uncorrelated to the causes, no reasonable selection of causes could create the necessary effects, i.e., the social sustaining and growth.

"Now" the traditional methods of social rise were obsolete, "a human could no longer satisfy the requirements". It would require a "super-human" to do this. A mystical, immoral way of wealth accumulation and social status. This is the perspective of the petite bourgeoisie, camouflaged behind a criticism of the urban free spirit.


Like all such skepticisms, Nietzsche's on causality extends up to, but not further than, turning over his door-handle, and cursing the gods, the fates, and its manufacturer, inter alia, should it fail to function.

Shakespeare understood Nietzsche well: not (or "~", if that appeals to your symbolic needs) 'a philosopher...who could endure the toothache patiently.'

  • Would you have a reference to the Shakespeare quote? Aug 4, 2018 at 18:42
  • 1
    'I intend to be flesh and blood, not airy philosophy, for there has never yet been a philosopher who could endure a toothache patiently' - Much Ado About Nothing, Act V, Scene 2.
    – jstnms123
    Aug 5, 2018 at 19:29

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