Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Friedrich Nietzsche has long been recognized as a pivotal thinker in the history of moral philosophy, but until the last quarter century his importance for our understanding of the concepts of truth and knowledge had been largely ignored in English-language scholarship. In my dissertation, I add to the growing discussion on Nietzsche's theory of human cognition. While more attention has recently been given to this dimension of Nietzsche's thought, several key aspects have been largely ignored or insufficiently treated including the effects that the ethical or evaluative domain have on the way we cognize the world, the role that radical skepticism plays in motivating Nietzsche's theory, and the connections between Nietzsche's views on cognition and his larger philosophical project.

What is distinctive about my project is the connection I draw between Nietzsche's critique of the unconditional will to truth in On the Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil and his treatments of epistemological issues. Without understanding this connection, one cannot understand how Nietzsche's distinctive positions on truth, knowledge, and cognition relate his overall project. My dissertation sets out to answer four main questions regarding Nietzsche's theory of cognition, each question corresponding to a chapter of the completed work. In Chapter One I ask what the relationship is between Nietzsche's views on truth, knowledge, and cognition and his larger philosophical project of overcoming nihilism. Here I argue that Nietzsche's views on cognition follow directly from his analysis of the nihilism of post-Christian Europe and that his project of overcoming that nihilism requires a complete revaluation of human knowing. Chapter Two asks what Nietzsche's

relationship is with skepticism and to what extent can Nietzsche be labeled a skeptic. I show that Nietzsche can be squarely placed in the skeptical tradition in philosophy that includes the Ancient Greek skeptics and the modern heuristic skeptic, Descartes. Nietzsche, however, rejects Descartes attempts to escape radical skepticism, and so can be properly labeled a radical skeptic himself. The next chapter asks what Nietzsche's model is for how human cognition functions given that it is not designed to aim for truth (as it is traditionally understood, i.e. correspondence). I explore the ways that his favored metaphors of textual interpretation and optical perspective function in elucidating what goes on when we think, highlighting these metaphors strengths and weaknesses. I ultimately conclude that cognition is a practical endeavor with theoretical objects, leading Nietzsche to reject the Kantian distinction between the practical and theoretical employments of reason. Finally I ask, given Nietzsche's model of how human cognition functions, how should we evaluate competing knowledge claims between individuals? It has been argued that Nietzsche's pespectivism leads to an unacceptable global relativism regarding, if not truth, then at least epistemic justification. I argue that Nietzsche does not need to abandon the most radical of his conclusions, and he can still account for how and why some positions on theoretical and philosophical matters are better than others, and so an unacceptable "anything goes" kind of relativism does not follow from his views.

After answering these four main questions regarding Nietzsche's views on truth, knowledge, and cognition, I look at how a metaphysics is possible for Nietzsche given his skepticism. I argue that one of the ways a philosopher can create the conditions for overcoming nihilism and affirming life is to create a metaphysics that is both ruthlessly honest to one's cognitive commitments and an artistically creative outpouring of one's abundant, healthy drives. I show in this final chapter how a metaphysics that is self-aware of its epistemic limitations fits into some of the contemporary interpretations of Nietzsche's positive project.

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