catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Nietzsche – the first evolutionary epistemologist?

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Readers will by now have noticed this is my second blogpost on Nietzsche in the last few days. This is because I have been re-reading his ‘The Gay Science’ and rediscovering certain passages in the book in light of more recent ideas I’ve come across in the last few years.

And now I’ll draw attention to para 111 in Book 3 which suggests that Nietzsche may have anticipated many ideas in evolutionary epistemology that were developed by Popper and Bartley in the 20th century.

What is evolutionary epistemology? It’s basically the attempt to explain human cognitive processes and human cognitive models in naturalistic terms. Some good introductions to the concept can be found here, here and here.

Anyway here is the passage from Nietzsche which moved me to write this post, where he offers intriguing explanations for how our minds evolved basic concepts of logic. Of course none of this is new today (though some of these concepts have only recently filtered down to more ‘practical’ areas such as behaviourial finance and economics) but the ingenuity of this philologist writing in the late 19th century is still amazing:

How did logic come into existence in man’s head? Certainly out of illogic, whose realm originally must have been immense. Innumerable beings who made inferences in a way different from ours perished: for all that, their ways might have been truer! Those, for example, who did not know how to find often enough what is “equal” as regards both nourishment and hostile animals, who subsumed things too slowly and cautiously, were favored with a lesser probability of survival than those who guessed immediately upon encountering similar instances that they must be equal. The dominant tendency, however, to treat as equal what is merely similar, an illogical tendency—for nothing is really equal—is what first created any basis for logic.

In order that the concept of substance could originate—which is indispensable for logic although in the strictest sense nothing real corresponds to it—it was likewise necessary that for a long time one did not see nor perceive the changes in things; the beings that did not see so precisely had an advantage over those that saw everything “in flux.” At bottom, every high degree of caution in making inferences and every skeptical tendency constitute a great danger for life. No living beings would have survived if the opposite tendency, to affirm rather than suspend judgment, to err and make up things rather than wait, to assent rather than negate, to pass judgment rather than be just—had not been bred to the point where it became extraordinarily strong.

The course of logical ideas and inferences in our brain today corresponds to a process and a struggle among impulses that are, taken singly, very illogical and unjust; we generally experience only the result of this struggle: this primeval mechanism now runs its course so quickly and is so well concealed.


Written by Admin

May 29, 2006 at 10:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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