Nietzsche’s English psychologists

Nietzsche’s English psychologists

These English psychologists whom we have to thank for the only attempts up to this point to produce a history of the origins of morality —in themselves they serve up to us no small riddle. By way of a living riddle, they even offer, I confess, something substantially more than their books—they are interesting in themselves! These English psychologists—what do they really want? We find them, willingly or unwillingly, always at the same work, that is, hauling the partie honteuse of our inner world into the foreground, in order to look right there for the truly effective and operative factor which has determined our development, the very place where man’s intellectual pride least wishes to find it.

Nietzsche—On the Genealogy of Morals

At the beginning of On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche mentions the “English psychologists.” I was curious about this and thought that it would become clear on further reading but he does not seem to bring them up again. Not sure what to make of the comments I considered a variety of possibilities.

The English Utilitarians seemed like an obvious choice. They are a frequent target of Nietzsche’s and he has much to say about them. But what he says is different and the description here does not seem to describe them very well.

The English Empiricists seemed like another good option but Nietzsche rarely talks about them and it is hard to associate anything he says here with any of the Empiricists outside of a naturalistic approach to morality that seems to follow from their ideas even if they themselves may not have supported the idea.

The English Naturalists were another possibility. The naturalistic/evolutionary approach is clearly related to their ideas but they did not usually apply it to psychology or moral theory.

The English Novelist George Eliot might be a possibility. Some of her ideas could be interpreted along these lines and I’m fairly sure that Nietzsche knew of her writing and even commented on it somewhere. Thomas Carlyle might be another possibility albeit a long shot. The connections in both instances, while worth considering, were vague and tentative.

None of these were a demonstrably clear match for the description that Nietzsche provides at the beginning of On the Genealogy of Morals. However, Nietzsche’s friend, Paul Rée matches the description in all aspects of Nietzsche’s “English psychologists” accept for the fact that he is neither English nor plural.

Paul Rée was a friend of Nietzsche’s from Prussia. They often worked together and influenced each other. Rée wrote Psychologische Beobachtungen (1875) and Der Ursprung der moralischen Empfindungen (1877) which trace a naturalistic evolution of morality and altruism heavily influenced by (English) naturalists Lamarck and Darwin. These are the works that Nietzsche, tongue-in-cheek, attacks as the “English psychologists.”

Nietzsche describes Rée’s Der Ursprung der moralischen Empfindungen the Preface:

The first stimulus to publish something of my hypothesis concerning the origin of morality was given to me by a lucid, tidy, clever, even precocious little book, in which for the first time I clearly ran into a topsy-turvy, perverse type of genealogical hypothesis—a genuinely English style. It drew me with that power of attraction which everything opposite, everything antipodal, contains. The title of this booklet was The Origin of the Moral Feelings. Its author was Dr Paul Rée, and it appeared in the year 1877.

~ by severalfourmany


  1. I believe Kaufman, in the preface to GM, states that Nietzsche is talking about Paul Ree and in particular his book, “On the Origin of the Moral Sensation,” which you rightly mention above. Though generally he is making a statement about anyone who is trying to give a naturalistic, consequentialist account. These are “English” because Utilitarianism was largely an English phenomenon.
    The most important thing about your article, since it mostly goes over what has been done before, is the recognition that Nietzsche does not waste words, especially in the first aphorism of a section. If you look at GM 2:1 he starts in on the “Sovereign Individual”, but then doesn’t really talk about them again. Brian Leiter takes this to mean that this character isn’t important, but I can’t believe that N would waste his time and the opening to a massive chunk of his book like that.

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