How did Nietzsche criticize the Thing-in-itself from Kantian philosophy?

There are two popular claims:

  1. Nietzsche thought that we only know causation from experiences and and so cannot legitimately claim that there must be something that causes the experiences themselves,

  2. Nietzsche just supplanted the Thing-in-itself with his Will to Power.

Regarding 1., it surely must be more than that? This criticism would not be very original.

Regarding 2., did he, really? The source of the Will to Power are the experiencing subjects, so how can it be even related to the Thing-in-itself?

  • 1
    As I wrote in a comment to the answer, a profound discussion of this would include a discussion of Schopenhauer's "Will", which Schopenhauer (seeing his philosophy as amendment and completion of Kant's) explicitly, self-admittedly, and to great lengths, argues to be the intrinsic determination of Kant's thing-in-itself. In my eyes, Nietzsche largely followed that (consciously or unconsciously, but we know how strongly Schopenhauer influenced him) and just specifies "Will" to"Will to Power". Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 15:59
  • It was actually Hume, in Western philosophy who suggested we cannot legitimately infer the notion of cause from experience. It's this question that awoke 'Kant from his dogmatic slumber'. And in fact Hume's question was anticipated by al-Ghazali several centuries earlier. It's not surprising that Nietzsche doesn't acknowledge his debt to Hume since he does this elsewhere in his thinking. Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 20:22

4 Answers 4


Two different criticisms of the thing-in-itself can be found in Nietzsche's work, a good review is Riccardi, Nietzsche’s critique of Kant’s thing in itself.

Both criticisms argue that the idea is inconsistent. The first, more straightforward one, can be found in Gay Science and is sketched in the OP. It is that Kant applies the notion of causality to infer the existence of thing-in-itself whereas he himself previously restricted the category of causality to appearances only.

"Kant was no longer entitled to his distinction between “appearance” and “thing in itself” – he had denied himself the right to continue to distinguish in this old, traditional way having rejected as invalid the inference from the appearance to a cause of the appearance – in accordance with his understanding of the concept of causality and of its purely intra-phenomenal validity."

This was a common objection already prior to Nietzsche. Riccardi suggests that Nietzsche here copied almost literally a passage from Teichmüller's 1882 metaphysical treatise. The problem with it is that this is not how Kant arrived at his thing-in-itself. It is not the cause of appearances for him, but merely a conceptual plug: if there are appearances then there is something that appears. The relation between them is not that of causation, but of abstract expression. Put more positively, the thing-in-itself is a noumenal completion of phenomena. The above may be a valid criticism of some quasi-Kantian misconceptions, but it has nothing on Kant himself.

Nietzsche's second criticism is more to the point. He argues that positing a relationless propertyless "thing", which Kant's thing-in-itself must be, is even conceptually absurd. This line of reasoning appears in Kritische Studienausgabe c. 1887:

"The “thing in itself” [is] absurd. If I remove all relations, all “properties”[,] all “activities” of a thing, then the thing does not remain left. [...] The “in itself” is even an absurd conception: a “constitution in itself” is non-sense; we always have the concept “being”, “thing” only as the concept of relation."

Anderson unfolds Nietzsche’s second argument as follows in Nietzsche’s Views on Truth and the Kantian Background of His Epistemology:

"The unknowability of things in themselves is part of their very conception: it arises not from some contingent deficiency or incompleteness in our experience or theorizing to date, but from general and inevitable limitations on our cognitive resources, most importantly the lack of intellectual intuitions capable of representing such objects. This means that in attempting to conceive of things in themselves, we outstrip the legitimate realm of our concepts, and therefore stop making sense altogether".

Now to the Will to Power. It is true that many early commentators pointed out Nietzsche's own inconsistency in presenting the Will to Power as a sort of beyondly thing that he rejected in Kant as incoherent, and passages like aphorism 36 of Beyond Good and Evil give quite a bit of fodder to that. It is also true that Nietzsche seems to need a common referent for his "perspectives" in epistemology, and that the Will to Power fits the bill. Moreover, although he generally uses the term ambiguously and confusingly, he does described it as "the essence of the world".

However, we should remember from Gay Science that

"What things are called is unspeakably more important than what they are [...]: what started as appearance in the end nearly always becomes essence and effectively acts as its essence!"

It is this "essence" that the Will to Power likely refers to at its core, the Relations-Welt essence, not the beyondly essence of metaphysics that Kant relegated to his relationless thing-in-itself. "There is no “essence in itself”, relations first constitute essences", as Nietzsche says in Kritische Studienausgabe. On this interpretation, the Will to Power only summarizes the world as given to us (in the integrated sense of "us", split up into perspectives), the world of appearances, it does not reintroduce the thing-in-itself or "supplant" it.

  • 1
    Good answer. Two comments: A) To arguments like "if there are appearances then there is something that appears" Nietzsche would probably retort what he writes in Twilight of the Idols, section "'Reason' in Philosophy", esp. paragraph 5, concluding: "I fear we shall never get rid of God, as long as we still believe in grammar." Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 15:53
  • 1
    B) It might be very worthwhile to draw connections of Nietzsche's "Will to Power" to Schopenhauer's "Will", which Schopenhauer (seeing his philosophy as amendment and completion of Kant's) goes to great lengths to argue as the missing intrinsic determination of Kant's thing-in-itself. In my eyes, Nietzsche largely follows that and just specifies "Will" to"Will to Power". Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 15:54
  • "If there are appearances then there are things that appear". Isn't this a simple rephrasing rather like saying "if there are men, then there are things like men"? In other words, it's a mere tautology hidden by a play of words. Exactly what do you mean by saying that it is a form of "abstract expression"? Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 20:31

Nietzsche's first disagreement is with Plato's ideal forms. In the parable of the cave, these forms were the ideals illuminated by the sun. Nietzsche claimed that rather than values illuminated from without, each person should make their own determination of values.

The idea that the value of something subsists in itself is Kant's thing-in-itself (das Ding an sich): noumenal essences that exist beyond human knowledge, like the forms, only shadows of which are seen in the cave.


I think that his philosophy is based on the fact that " every thing is interpretative" . There is no fact, no thing such as truth, etc. It's like the child saying why all the time. You can answer one, two, three time, but in the end, There is never a real foundation of what we could call truth, facts...
But this "theory" could also be an interpretation of the reality and not the truth. What is the foundation of this philosophy? The fact that everything is not definitive. Every thing moves, truth doesn't exist? He said "the will to power is the innermost essence of being" , there is no fact, no truth. The reality is just values. The truth is a value at a certain moment of time. The reality is constructed to fulfill our will to power. The will of power is life. Everything that threaten or degrades the will to power is ejected or might be ejected by us as an individual or our society ( the death of god, religions, and so on because it kills life). Imagine a mathematical curve where the principal meaning of life is to grow, the life adapts and creates values ( religion, truths , etc) at a certain moment of time ( because it's good for life at this time). If at any time those values that life itself created threaten life to grow more, the life will just get rid of those values. Kant would not tell you that we know causation from experience. He more though that we know experience because we have in ourself, the conditions to unite every objects of the experience into our consciousness : Transcendental apperception. And this idea of transcendental apperception, is the condition of seeing things. Not an idea we have after we experience things. For Nietzsche there is no such thing as truth( or anything like a definitive subject) . Everything can be interpretated, but life chose what will give it the most will to power. But as you said : "Nietzsche just supplanted the Thing-in-itself with his Will to Power"? He is possibly in the a performative contradiction. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Performative_contradiction


I think that, in a nut-shell, Nietzsche's criticism against 'the thing in itself' essentially boils down to 'this a bad way of reasoning'. This is part of his broader critique against metaphysical thinking, which he deems as an after-shot of the religious way of thinking. Nietzsche himself displayed such thinking early on under the influence of Schopenhauer, most notably in the Birth of Tragedy, but he eventually "outgrew it" in his own words.

As for 'the Will to Power', this term is merely a metaphor in lack of better words. In the Will to Power (his published private notes) he writes:

The measure of failure and fatality must grow with the resistance a force seeks to master, and as a force can expend itself only on what resists it, there is necessarily an ingredient of displeasure in every action. But this displeasure acts as a lure of life and strengthens the will to power!

For Nietzsche, the fundamental driving force of all things thus is raw 'expansion', in a certain sense 'growth'. All living life strives to expand, a cell divides, animals will reproduce and overpopulate an environment in favourable conditions, etc. But this applies to non-living matter as well. Perhaps even dark energy, which is contained in space itself and is thought of as causing the accelerated expansion of the observable universe fits what Nietzsche was trying to describe as well. 'Will to Power' is a very high level metaphor that only starts to make sense in higher orders of complexity such as the chimps or human beings.

Seen in this sense, he wasn't trying to supplant anything, rather just trying to explain the nature of the world (universe) with a modern way of thinking for philosophers (the old being the metaphysical way of thinking).

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .