Nietzsche: ignorance sets us free

We should be grateful for uncertainty

Dealing with uncertainty is a part of human life. Since human cognitive abilities are not up to the task of elucidating reality, we might think that we are forever doomed to an epistemic prison. Clinging to the illusion of certainty in the form of a "faith" or a "conviction" is no real antidote either. But according to Bernard Reginster, Nietzsche thinks that uncertainty should be a cause for gratitude rather than nihilistic despair. Once we see curiosity as a desire for inquiry rather than certainty, then we can begin to see how uncertainty evokes attraction rather than aversion. The joy we experience when raising endless new questions is thus a reason to feel grateful, not distressed.


Nietzsche once observes that “there may actually be puritanical fanatics of conscience who prefer even a certain nothing to an uncertain something to lie down on—and die. But this is nihilism and the sign of a mortally weary soul” (Beyond Good and Evil, §10). It is easy enough to see why we desire certainty: it settles us, by making us know where we stand, and delivers us from paralyzing anxiety. And yet, Nietzsche argues, the single-minded hankering for it is a sign of nihilistic weariness. In one respect, it is easy to see why: the world is vast both in size and complexity, and human cognitive abilities are not equal to the task of elucidating it. There is, therefore, no hope for the human being ever to feel fully settled in it. From the perspective of an uncompromising desire for certainty, life in such a world is bound to cause distress and invite repudiation [1].  And fanatically clinging to the illusion of certainty, in the form of a “faith” or a “conviction,” is no real antidote to this nihilism for, as Nietzsche also observes, such clinging already reeks of desperation.

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Nietzsche’s own antidote is “freedom of spirit (or mind),” which he describes as the condition of the individual who has managed to “take leave of all faith and every wish for certainty, being practiced in maintaining himself on insubstantial ropes and possibilities” (The Gay Science, §347). This characterization may suggest that the free spirit simply gives up on the quest for knowledge and resigns himself to live in uncertainty. But such resignation would be less an antidote to nihilistic weariness than quiet acquiescence to it. On the contrary, the free spirit does not to abandon the quest for knowledge; he is a seeker after knowledge, animated by a true spirit of inquiry. Moreover, he finds in the pursuit of knowledge a ground for affirming life, rather than repudiating it:

“No, life has not disappointed me. On the contrary, I find it truer, more desirable and mysterious every year—ever since the day when the great liberator came to me: the idea that life could be an experiment of the seeker after knowledge … with this principle in one’s heart one can live not only boldly but even gaily, and laugh gaily, too.” (ibid., §324)

How must the free spirit conceive of the quest for knowledge, so that it becomes a ground for the affirmation of a life in a world bound to remain shrouded in uncertainty? In the free spirit, Nietzsche tells us, this quest is driven by curiosity. At first glance, this does not help to answer our question. Curiosity, after all, is still a desire to know, and so a desire to overcome uncertainty. Since the free spirit lives, like the rest of us, in a world in which this desire is doomed to be frustrated, it seems as though he, too, should find life disappointing.


Curiosity can be disappointed as much by the resolution of “problems” as by their recalcitrance


But when it is considered closely, the desire to know may assume two very different forms. It is natural, in the first place, to assume that it is fueled by an aversion for uncertainty. Uncertainty evokes anxiety, a sense of danger that motivates the individual who is subject to it to engage in activities designed to eliminate it. But in the curiosity that animates the free spirit, the desire to know is associated, instead, with an attraction for uncertainty—“the attraction of everything problematic, the delight in an x,” as Nietzsche puts it (ibid., Preface §3). This seems paradoxical, and yet it reflects the distinctive character of that curiosity. We come to see this when we observe that curiosity can be disappointed in two seemingly conflicting ways. Insofar as it is a desire to know, curiosity can be disappointed by the failure to gain knowledge of its object. But it can also be disappointed by this very knowledge, when it is accompanied by the recognition that it is impossible to ever gain new knowledge of its object. In other words, curiosity can be disappointed as much by the resolution of “problems” as by their recalcitrance.

We experience the piquing of curiosity, when it is an expression of aversion for uncertainty, as painful stimulation, and the inquiries it motivates are designed to eliminate it. In this case, gaining knowledge leaves us in a state of restful contentment. But the piquing of curiosity can also be experienced as pleasant stimulation. In this case, the satisfaction of our curiosity (through gaining knowledge) can leave us restless, hankering for new problems or questions to rekindle our curiosity. This explains why, to the individual driven by curiosity, the problematic and questionable features of existence evoke attraction, rather than aversion.

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We can make sense of the paradoxical character of the curiosity of the free spirit if we suppose that it is not simply a desire for an epistemic state, such as knowing or being certain, but for an epistemic activity, specifically the activity of inquiry. This is arguably just what Nietzsche has in mind when he repeatedly describes the free spirit as a “seeker after knowledge,” who is animated not by the “the passion for possessing the truth” but by the “passion for seeking the truth” (Human, All Too Human, I §630). If curiosity is a desire for inquiry, then we should expect the uncertainty associated with problems and questions to evoke attraction, rather than aversion: they present opportunities for inquiry. And yet, we should also expect curiosity to be frustrated by the failure to overcome uncertainty, since gaining knowledge is, after all, the aim of inquiry.  

The individual filled with aversion for uncertainty is bound to take a dim view of life in a world replete with problems and questions that his cognitive capacities are ultimately not adequate to resolve. By contrast, to the individual driven by the curiosity of the free spirit, the world will appear “cheerful and transfigured” (ibid., §638), its infinite strangeness now being what makes it worthy of interest and affirmation.


In Nietzsche’s view, convictions are prisons in another, even more pernicious way: they cripple curiosity


“The vigor of a mind, its freedom,” Nietzsche declares, “is proved by skepticism … Convictions are prisons.” (The Anti-Christ, §54) A conviction is the belief that one possesses the unqualified truth. It is natural to suppose that convictions are “prisons” insofar as they block critical review, and make it more difficult to rid oneself of false or unjustified beliefs. But in Nietzsche’s view, convictions are prisons in another, even more pernicious way: they cripple curiosity. For to those who believe themselves to be already in possession of the unqualified truth, the world loses its mysterious and problematic character: there is nothing left for them to explore or discover—nothing to pique their curiosity. This is why the debunking of “convictions” is a way of freeing—opening, as we might appropriately say—their minds. To a free spirit, the seemingly endless new questions raised by a relentless criticism of what Nietzsche calls the “ideal”—the best of received knowledge—is cause not for distress, but for gratitude:

“And now, after we have long been on our way in this manner, we argonauts of the ideal, … it will seem to us as if, as a reward, we now confronted an as yet undiscovered country whose boundaries nobody has yet surveyed, something beyond all the lands and nooks of the ideal so far, a world so over-rich in what is beautiful, strange, questionable, terrible, and divine that our curiosity as well as our craving to possess it has got beside itself. Ah, now nothing will satiate us anymore!” (The Gay Science, §382)

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[1] The “fanatical” desire for certainty discussed here should not be confused with another life-repudiating desire Nietzsche describes elsewhere as the “unconditional will to truth” (On the Genealogy of Morality, III §24), which rests on the conviction that the knowledge of truth is of overriding importance. This will to truth expresses a life-negating stance because, Nietzsche argues, life aims at “semblance, meaning error, deception, simulation, delusion, self-delusion” (The Gay Science, §344). Willing truth at all costs is therefore turning one’s back on the “world of life.” The rejection of semblance is not identical with the intolerance for uncertainty I discuss in the present essay, for the reason that semblance often involves a feeling of certainty.

Cited Works

The Anti-Christ, R. J. Hollingdale trans. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1968.
Beyond Good and Evil, W. Kaufmann trans. New York: Random House, 1966.
On the Genealogy of Morals, W. Kaufmann trans. New York: Random House, 1969.The Gay Science, W. Kaufmann trans, New York: Random House, 1974.
Human, All Too Human, R. J. Hollingdale trans. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

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