Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Nature and Cosmology

Second Edition

by Alistair Moles (Author)
©2023 Monographs XXIV, 486 Pages


Nietzsche’s doctrine of the "eternal recurrence of the same"—the conception that the universe of events repeats itself in the same sequence, to infinity—is often taken to be logically incoherent: if an event recurs, it is not identically the same as the event itself, and if taken as self-identical cannot be the recurrence of anything. This book offers a new interpretation of the doctrine so as to rescue it from the charge of incoherence. It shows that the doctrine is an outgrowth of ideas found in Nietzsche’s philosophy of nature, among them that space is Riemannian (finite yet without external boundary) and that time is relative to events, not an independently existing continuum which underlies events.

"Moles’ book is an impressive attempt to work out the cosmology suggested by Nietzsche’s numerous but scattered observations and suggestions concerning force, space, time, power and power-relationships, and culminating in his conception of the world in terms of ‘will to power’ and in his idea of ‘eternal recurrence.’ This book is a welcome contribution to the literature, and will have to be reckoned with by anyone who is concerned to do justice to the full range of Nietzsche’s philosophical thinking."—Richard Schacht, Executive Director, North American Nietzsche Society; Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"In this book, Alistair Moles brings to light a dimension of Nietzsche’s philosophy which most past commentators have neglected. He carries out a thorough exploration of Nietzsche’s conception of nature, presenting a coherent picture which he manages to link both with classical philosophy and with modern science. Drawing on the whole range of Nietzsche’s writings, his account shows an impressive depth of detail and scholarship. However, it also goes well beyond exposition. The concepts of force and space receive a particularly subtle and satisfying elaboration, which leads to the high point of the book: a highly original reconstruction of the controversial doctrine of eternal recurrence. This chapter alone deserves to give rise to much discussion among Nietzsche scholars. The book as a whole should serve to counter a tendency to see Nietzsche only in terms of the concerns of moral, political or literary theory. It helps us to recognize him as a compete philosopher, and in doing so it makes a major contribution to our understanding of this important thinker."—Robin Small, Monash University

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Key to Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • 1 Questions of Method
  • 2 Nietzsche’s Attack on Substance
  • 3 The Will to Power in Human Nature
  • 4 The Will to Power in Societies and Organic Nature
  • 5 The Will to Power in Inorganic Nature
  • 6 Necessity
  • 7 Temporality
  • 8 Space
  • 9 Recurrence
  • 10 Critics of Recurrence
  • Postscript
  • Bibliography

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I am excited to see this book available to the public again. Moles offers an excellent contribution to Nietzsche studies, especially with respect to Nietzsche’s theoretical philosophy. Unfortunately, the book seems to have been overlooked by many in our field. To help correct this oversight, my goal is to lay out some strong reasons for delving into the book. First, however, it will help to have a summary of Moles’s project.

Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Nature and Cosmology concerns Nietzsche’s philosophical understanding of the nature of the universe. After presenting key features of Nietzsche’s methodology, such as his naturalism, Moles begins by laying out Nietzsche’s challenges to philosophical accounts of substance, which, according to Moles, inform Nietzsche’s attacks on received philosophical views of human nature, society, organic nature, and inorganic nature. Moles then explains how Nietzsche develops a conception of force—roughly “will to power”—to understand the nature of human individuals, and, since individuals cannot be understood apart from the contexts in which they are embedded, Moles expands his analysis to understand Nietzsche’s view of social groups and living systems. Features of this analysis are in turn used to develop an explanatory model for understanding Nietzsche’s conception of force in the inorganic world. This leads Moles to explain Nietzsche’s rejection of mechanistic atomism and his unique ←ix | x→positive conceptions of necessity, chance, temporality, eternity, space, and eternal recurrence. Moles finishes by addressing criticisms of the eternal recurrence and situating Nietzsche’s cosmology with other models of the universe advanced by scientific cosmologists.

The discussion throughout is clear, provocative, insightful, and sometimes astutely critical—and the research is first-rate. To enjoy the ride, however, readers need to accept the Nachlass into their hearts. The second section of Moles’s Introduction provides thoughtful reasons for why he utilizes the unpublished writings, so check that out. I should also add that there have been recent illuminating developments in the debate over using the notebooks that back Moles’s approach (see Huang (2019) “Did Nietzsche want his notes burned? Some reflections on the Nachlass problem.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 27(6), 1194–1214). Regardless of one’s stance towards the Nachlass, however, Moles uses the unpublished writings exactly as he should: he presents an astoundingly detailed and wide-ranging account of Nietzsche’s thinking.

Why does the book stand out? First, as mentioned, it is well done. Notable examples include the discussion of the intellect (chapter 1); force (chapter 5), time and space (chapters 7, 8), and eternal recurrence (chapters 9 and 10). The detail of some of these discussions, such as the treatment of time and space, remains arguably unprecedented in the secondary literature. See also the extensive endnotes, which are often not just informative but also creatively expansive (for just two examples, see chapter 3, note 294 and chapter 9, note 36).

Moles’s book also stands out when compared to most commentary at the time, and it holds its ground when compared to a good deal of contemporary commentary. It makes significant advancements in Nietzsche studies and addresses key issues in current Nietzsche scholarship. Here are some examples. In the first chapter, Moles discusses Nietzsche on naturalism (chapter 1, I) and historical methodology (chapter 1, II). His second chapter attends to language (chapter 2, I); debunking arguments against belief in substance (chapter 2, II, III); and memory (chapter 2, III). The third chapter contains readings of Nietzsche’s denial of the substantial, self-identical ego (chapter 3, I); freedom and free will (chapter 3, I, II); consciousness, action, affect, willing, pain and pleasure, and the passions (chapter 3, II); and the body and features of drives (chapter 3, III). The fourth chapter continues this discussion by looking at drives constructed by social forces (chapter 4, I); growth or power between hierarchically situated social groups (chapter 4, II); commanding, obeying, mastery, and decline in living organisms (chapter 4, III); and critiques of natural selection (chapter 4, III).

←x | xi→

In the fifth chapter Moles investigates Nietzsche’s understanding of force, activity, process, and monistic intentionality (chapter 5, II, III). The sixth addresses criticisms of efficient causality (chapter 6, I); occasionalist necessity (chapter 6, II); and contingency in natural events (chapter 6, III). The seventh examines criticisms of Newtonian temporality (chapter 7, I); temporality as a product of will to power (chapter 7, II) and will to power and eternity (chapter 7, III). The eighth looks at challenges to objective space (chapter 8, I); the transcendental ideality of space (chapter 8, I); the relation of force to space (chapter 8, II); how forces communicate, how forces are continuous, and how forces operate according to a new conception of action at a distance (chapter 8, II); and spatial infinity and finitude (chapter 8, III). The final two chapters lay out Moles’s cosmological reading of the eternal recurrence (chapter 9) as well as his systematic defense against prominent criticisms of the cosmological reading (chapter 10).

Finally, Moles does an impressive job locating Nietzsche’s ideas in the history of philosophy and connecting Nietzsche’s ideas to developments after his time, including advances in contemporary physics and cosmology. For example, in chapter two Moles looks at how Nietzsche’s view of grammar, which grounds his view of perception, compares with Chomsky’s universal grammar thesis (chapter 2, I), and how Nietzsche’s idealist epistemology compares with Kant and Lange’s (chapter 2, III). The third chapter examinees how Kant’s view of empirical and transcendental self-consciousness, partly developed to challenge Hume’s view of unified self-consciousness, might apply to Nietzsche’s attack on the substantial, self-identical ego (chapter 3, I).

The fifth chapter illuminates how Nietzsche’s conception of dynamic force compares with conceptions advanced by Newton, Boscovich, Leibniz, and Kant (chapter 5, III). The sixth contains detailed discussions of how Nietzsche’s occasionalism compares with versions developed by Malebranche and Spinoza (chapter 6, I, II); how Nietzsche’s criticisms of causality compare to Hume’s criticisms and Kant’s transcendental deduction of causality (chapter 6, I); and how Spinoza’s conception of causality illuminates Nietzsche’s will to power cosmology and ontological kind monism (chapter 6, III). The seventh looks at how Nietzsche challenges Newton’s conception of time as linear, continuous, and infinite (chapter 7, I) and how Nietzsche develops a quantum theory of time (chapter 7, II).

In the eighth chapter, Moles lays out how Nietzsche’s transcendental ideality of space compares with similar views developed by Kant and Schopenhauer (chapter 8, I); how Nietzsche’s view of spatial infinity and finitude compares with views offered by Leibniz, Boscovich, and Kant (chapter 8, III); and how Nietzsche anticipates cosmological implications of Einstein’s Special Theory of ←xi | xii→Relativity (chapter 8, III). In chapter ten he investigates how the cosmological reading of the eternal recurrence in not undermined by 20th century physics (chapter 10, II). Many other views are discussed, including those developed by Piaget, Freud, Tarski, Reimann, and Zöllner.

Let me summarize before you open the book. Moles’s project is insightful and original. It consistently explores new territory in Nietzsche studies. It makes powerful headway on central issues in contemporary scholarship. It is historically informed in unprecedented ways. It is nicely grounded in an informative understanding of physics. And it is extremely well researched and well written. I hope you enjoy it.

Justin Remhof

←xii | xiii→


“The additional selections from his own books, notes, and letters aim to round out the picture of his development, his versatility, his inexhaustibility.”—The Portable Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann (1954:2)

“Inexhaustible”—what does it mean to claim this of a man whose life was spent in thought? At the time the word was written, many commentaries on Nietzsche’s life of thought had not sufficiently penetrated its depths of subtleties, but had been stopped short by an opinion that Nietzsche was a supporter of German supremacist ambitions, or was an advocate of the use of unbridled force over others, or was totally opposed to all that the Judeo-Christian tradition had wrought, or other such judgment. One goal of Kaufmann’s work was to show the superficiality of all these opinions. But in more recent decades, such superficiality of judgment is no longer a concern, since there has been a surge of profound new literature about Nietzsche. Yet Kaufmann’s claim echoes as a premonition: its truth is just as evident today. And how so? Because for all the profundity of insight into Nietzsche’s thinking, there is still no general agreement about how this body of thought is to be interpreted, no convergence of scholarly opinion, but perhaps even greater differences than ever before.

Nietzsche repudiated the notion that there is any absolute truth to be discovered in the world; some commentators have taken this as an announcement of the end of philosophy’s traditional role—at least in the post-medieval or “modern” era—of seeking to provide the independent foundation of truth upon which all other genuine knowledge claims, such as those of science, must be built. Taken ←xiii | xiv→in this way, Nietzsche is one of the first “post-modern” philosophers, a giant who long ago foresaw the implications for our own time of this crumbling of our epistemological bedrock; while we ourselves are just beginning to experience it in the breakdown of faith in old institutions, in the spread of relativism, in the growing need for individuals whose reinterpretations of events are convincing enough to give (at least temporarily) some sense of meaning and coherence to contemporary life. Bernd Magnus has given the most brilliant and complete articulation of this type of interpretation, and perhaps has done more than anyone else in recent years to elevate Nietzsche’s stature as a philosopher.

There are also those who pick up Nietzsche’s theme that the structures embedded in our language are not the mirror of nature, but more the other way around: it serves as the model for our understanding of ourselves, and so for the way we choose to live our lives. An author in whom writing is a dominant passion does not live first and write secondly, or incidentally; instead, life becomes itself a species of literature. Alexander Nehamas is among the best representatives of this type of Nietzsche interpretation.

Closely allied to this view of Nietzsche is that of the textualists. Their point of departure is Nietzsche’s claim that there are no ultimate facts to be found in our perception of nature, but only interpretations. There is no original text of the world, against which interpretations can be checked for veracity. A new interpretation thrives in part by building on old ones, in part by destroying them. There is an ongoing stratification of interpretations, but any attempt to provide an archaeology is itself interpretive; there is no original or primal interpretation, no primordial first stratum. What makes new interpretations plausible is the success of their réprisement, or reappropriation, of the text as hitherto interpreted: they must meet intrinsic standards of coherence and depth of illumination, since there are no extrinsic standards to judge them by. The Yale school of Paul de Man, Harold Bloom and others has been the dominant influence on this interpretation of Nietzsche.

For them, all knowledge conforms to the paradigm of literary criticism: just as the critic, if good, gives new meaning to and insight into the work (which has no original meaning, since even its author’s view of it is interpretation), so the natural or social scientist gives new insight into events in the world, criticizing and improving on old formulations of their meanings. That the interpretive language of a physicist, for example, is a system of equations with its own inner mathematical consistency, makes no essential difference; it still remains a species of language, adapted to its purpose, and every new scientific theory is a text ←xiv | xv→embodying its own standards of critical evaluation. This view has been promoted strongly and eloquently by Richard Rorty.

On the other hand, there are authors who have discovered different possibilities of interpretation—who have found in Nietzsche not only such postmodern themes but also quite well articulated views on many different topics, from aesthetics to religion, from education to ethics, from epistemology to criticism of the mechanistic account of natural events and its replacement with what he calls a “dynamical” view of the world. These authors have labored to systematize Nietzsche’s various writings on such topics, and have presented organized accounts of Nietzsche as a philosopher in a more traditional sense. Arthur Danto is one such author; but the most detailed of these accounts, and the one that presents the richest critical analysis, is that by Richard Schacht.

The situation within Nietzsche scholarship at the present time seems quite confusing, therefore—there are fundamental differences even in the methods of interpretation, not to mention the results. This book does not offer any attempt to resolve the conflict, but if anything contributes to making matters more complex yet, by adding another thread to the tapestry. It draws attention to Nietzsche’s admiration for science, and the distinction he draws between scientific and non-scientific forms of interpretation, the latter including most of philosophy and all of religion. It becomes evident that Nietzsche bad a higher estimation of the scientific world-view (although it can be shown that he had criticisms to make of it, too). But this distinction doesn’t fit well with the textualists’ view of Nietzsche: how can this distinction and higher valuation be justified? Also, Nietzsche did claim that one scientific viewpoint he expected soon to become dominant was (in a sense to be explained later) “truer” than an older one; he also spent much time writing down notes detailing this viewpoint, some of which found their way into published books.

Indeed, not much attention has been paid (at least in the English-speaking world) to the evidence that Nietzsche was interested in scientific thinking of his day, and read much scientific literature, both when a professor at the University of Basel, and later after his retirement. It is also not widely known that his supposed disciple and occasional secretary, the composer Heinrich Köselitz, was very well read in current scientific developments and continually reinforced Nietzsche’s base of information by talking and writing to him about new publications—even mailing copies of them to Nietzsche on request. Many of these new ideas then showed up in Nietzsche’s own writings. The main thesis presented in this book is that some of Nietzsche’s ideas about the natural world, and even his extension ←xv | xvi→of these ideas into a cosmology, can be understood more fully if their sources are taken into account.

Yet, it might be objected, why promote an interpretation such as this, which appears to demonstrate that Nietzsche is an author of the second rank, in debt to creative thinkers but not himself creative to a high degree? Instead, why not emphasize his greatest claim to fame, his forging of a new, postmodern way of thinking? But at this point it must be suggested that posing the questions in this way draws the alternatives too simply. There are two reasons for this suggestion.

The first reason: all thinkers borrow from earlier ideas, but this does not necessarily imply any loss of originality. In Nietzsche’s case, not only did these borrowed ideas spark an enormous and highly original creative outpouring: they also provided the occasion for an extraordinary transformation and synthesis. In the process of this work Nietzsche anticipated ideas whose full development was achieved only in the twentieth century revolution in physics, and which few, perhaps none, of his contemporaries bad foreseen. But if his thinking can be proved to represent a hash, rather than a rehash, what is his unique contribution? Here too there is no simple answer. One of the aims of this book, however, is to show that Nietzsche anticipated the cosmological viewpoint embedded in Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and Max Planck’s quantum theory, several decades before these were published. If this thesis can be supported, Nietzsche’s historical significance is remarkable. If he really is their philosophical precursor, his claim to originality is surely guaranteed.

The second reason: perhaps it is not necessary to assume that thinkers must be categorized as either original or derivative (but not both), likewise either postmodern or traditional, repudiators of “truth” or promoters of their own truths. There is the danger of a false dilemma here. There is the possibility that Nietzsche was all of these, in different ways. In what follows it will appear that at least one aspect of his thinking has its own inner dynamism and evolutionary development—that precisely the conclusions he reached in one dimension of thought propelled him into another dimension, even though his view of the new world transcends that of the old and can hardly be rendered consistent with it.

If this is the case, a Proteus of thought, a self-transforming power, exists in Nietzsche’s philosophy. And here finally a new aspect of its inexhaustibility would emerge, one which will always reduce to partiality any interpretation which tries to grasp it, recognize one form only—and then let go.

“On many paths and by many ways I came to my truth: it was not on one ladder that I climbed to the height where my eye roams over my distance” (Z III.11/2)

←xvi | xvii→


The author is indebted to so many individuals and organizations that recalling all of them is beyond feasibility. But there are several who deserve special mention. Without the assistance of some of those mentioned below, the work could not have been completed in its present form; and without the support of others, it could not have been completed at all. If in spite of this it remains seriously misguided, flawed or incomplete, it is because listening to good advice is a lesson he has not yet learned.

Thanks to Hanne-lis Nyskov for helping germinate the main idea.

Thanks to Milic Capek for instructing me on the differences between classical and contemporary physics, and for providing me with the model of Nietzsche interpretation (based on the first of these) which I came to see as most profoundly wrong. Indirectly and unintentionally he compelled me in the different direction my own thinking took.

Thanks to Joel Friedman for uncountable hours of intense discussion and patient, constructively critical manuscript reading; to Bill Bossart for dozens of insights into the prior history of conceptions Nietzsche drew from; and to Neil Gilbert, who instructed me in the art of scholarship.

Deep and lasting gratitude to Bernd Magnus, for extraordinary support and caring friendship: taking on the task of ex officio dissertation committee member; ←xvii | xviii→travelling hundreds of miles to assist me in defending a viewpoint on Nietzsche which he himself does not share; introducing me to the North American Nietzsche Society and the excellent scholars who belong to it; supporting me in submitting papers to it; encouraging me to apply for his summer seminar program; and many other kindnesses.

Thanks to fellow members of the North American Nietzsche Society for critical comments on some preliminary versions of parts of this work, given as papers there: especially to Harold Alderman, Daniel Breazeale, George Stack, Richard Schacht.

Much gratitude to the National Endowment for the Humanities for abundant assistance: first in enabling me to attend Bernd Magnus’ remarkable Summer Seminar (on the influence of Nietzsche on postmodern thought) at the University of California, Riverside, in 1985; and then in awarding me a Summer Stipend in 1986, which allowed me to investigate the influence of certain scientific writers (primarily Robert Mayer and Friedrich Zöllner) on Nietzsche’s philosophy of nature.

Appreciation to Robin Small for being a forerunner in exploring many aspects of Nietzsche’s scientific interests, and for being an energetic correspondent willing to supply me with many documents and ideas.

Thanks to all the participants in and visitors to the Summer Seminar, especially those who opened my eyes to new perspectives: Kathleen Higgins, Christine Keyt, Diane Michelfelder, Dan Shaw.

Gratitude to California State University at Sacramento, for awarding me a Scholarly and Creative Activity grant, which enabled me to undertake the task of upgrading a text which had been unscrutinized for years (so that it would be acceptable for publication), and which covered the costs of preparing the manuscript according to the publisher’s specifications.

Thanks to Olaf Scholz, and especially to Daniela Ubsdell, for undertaking the heroic task of documenting nearly a thousand of Nietzsche’s notebook entries published in an antiquated German edition of his complete works (the best that was available to me when this work was begun in the early 1970’s), and then finding them in the newer and definitive—and completely different—Colli-Montinari edition.

Thanks to my father, David Moles, for identifying and translating the quotation from Agamemnon, at the end of Chapter Five; and thanks to my daughter, Dehra Moles, for helping substitute new footnote references for old ones in the main text.

←xviii | xix→

Last but by no means least, thanks to Suzanne Elliott for the use of her marvellously equipped Macintosh II; and especially to Spencer W. Brown of Spencer’s Publication of Sacramento, California, for taking on the massive job of OCR scanning almost 600 pages of an originally typewritten manuscript, editing it admirably, and allowing me almost unlimited freedom to make all the necessary alterations.

←xx | xxi→

Key to Abbreviations

Published Works

The following abbreviations of published works are used (dates of publication given in parentheses):


The Birth of Tragedy (1872)

Untimely Meditations


#2 The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (1873)


#3 Schopenhauer as Educator (1874)


#4 Richard Wagner in Bayreuth (l 876)

Human, All-too-human


#1 Human, All-too-human (1878)


#2 Mixed Opinions and Maxims (1879)


#3 The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880)


The Dawn (1881)


The Gay Science (1882)


Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-85)


Beyond Good and Evil (1886)


The Genealogy of Morals (1887)


The Case of Wagner (1888)


Twilight of the Idols (1888)


The Antichrist (1888)


Ecce Homo (1908)


Nietzsche Contra Wagner (1888)

←xxi | xxii→

These published works are cited by the abbreviated titles given above, followed by section or aphorism number. For example: GS 360 refers to section 360 of The Gay Science. If there are divisions within a work (so that the numbering begins anew with each) the citation refers first to the number of the division (book, part, essay or chapter) in Roman numerals, and then to the number of the section (aphorism or discourse) in Arabic numerals. For example: GM 11.17 refers to section 17 of the second essay in The Genealogy of Morals. The works cited in this manner are Z, GM, TI, EH and NCW. If there are subsections within sections, the citation refers first to the number of the division, then to the number of the section, and last to the number of the subsection, again in Arabic numerals. For example: Z IIl.12/1 refers to the first subsection of the twelfth discourse of the third part of Thus Spake Zarathustra. An exception is made in the case of the third chapter of EH, where the sections which deal with Nietzsche’s commentaries on his own earlier books are cited using the abbreviations for the books themselves: for example, EH BT.1, EH Z.2, and so on.


XXIV, 486
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (January)
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Lausanne, Oxford, 2023. XXIV, 486 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Alistair Moles (Author)

Alistair Moles is currently an instructor in philosophy at Sierra College, California. He has published articles on certain aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy of nature and has received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Davis and his B.A. from Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland.


Title: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Nature and Cosmology
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