S. Pearl Brilmyer: Impassioned Objectivity: Nietzsche, Hardy, and the Science of Fiction

A late portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

by S. Pearl Brilmyer

This essay was peer-reviewed by the editorial board of b2o: an online journal.

Scholarship on Victorian literature and science has often drawn parallels between the attempts of nineteenth-century scientists to produce an accurate and objective account of the world and the ambition of realist novelists to represent reality in all its shining and particularate detail. Realist epistemology, the story goes, finds an analogue in the ethically charged project of nineteenth-century scientific objectivity, which aspired to minimize the distortive effects of the embodied perspective of the observer through self-imposed rules and automated processes. Third person narration, the proliferation of descriptive detail, increased attention to physical objects and landscapes—such strategies contributed to the production of a “reality effect” in fiction analogous to that of nineteenth-century scientific work.

In this short provocation, I turn to Nietzsche in an attempt to trouble this story about the relationship between objectivity and the realist novel as well as to inspire reflection on the way that we as scholars of Victorian literature call upon the work of historians, and in particular historians of science, in order to situate and theorize our literary objects. It is a commonplace now in discussions of Victorian literature and science to cite Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s seminal study Objectivity (2007) as a means of characterizing the realist desire to produce an view of reality untainted by the desires, concerns, and affects of all-too-embodied and willful subjects.[1] Although Daston and Galison’s taxonomy—in which categories such as “mechanical objectivity” and “structural objectivity” signal conceptually discrete but historically overlapping scientific-epistemological paradigms—has proven incredibly useful for literary scholars interested in tracing confluences between literary and scientific movements, to align the aesthetic aims of nineteenth-century realism with the epistemological aspirations of scientific objectivity risks eliding the extent to which realist artists not only did not always seek to know the world, but sought to critique and transform modes of scientific knowledge production (2010 [2007]: 5).[2]

In what follows, I thus add my own term—impassioned objectivity—to Daston and Galison’s taxonomy in order to describe the specifically literary mode of representation that Victorian realists cultivated in their description of reality. This mode of objectivity, I argue—quite unlike the paradigms of scientific objectivity that Daston and Gallison describe—aspired to multiply, rather than subtract, affect.

In his essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” (1874) however, Nietzsche warns against the reduction of a vast spectrum of historically situated voices—literary, scientific, philosophical, political—to a single historical episteme. Collected in the book Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche’s essay advocates for increased critical attention to “untimely” works that do not reproduce the dominant epistemological paradigm of a time, but somehow transcend it. In so doing, the piece inspires reflection on the dangers of effacing the distinction between literary and scientific practice, as if both were mere expressions of a broader spirit of the time.

But Nietzsche’s musings on history and life become even more relevant to our concerns when he begins to address the relationship between objectivity and affect. Expressing discontent, in his own untimely fashion, with the equation of objectivity with bodily abnegation and self-restraint (the paradigm of objectivity, importantly, that Daston and Galison propose shapes Nietzsche’s era) Nietzsche criticizes practices of description that aspire to the minimization of affect and the erasure of self. In the mode of historicism Nietzsche’s essay sets out to critique, “the subject,” he puts it, “becomes silent and wholly imperceptible. What is then preferred [in this paradigm] is that which produces no emotion at all… One goes so far, indeed, as to believe that he to whom a moment of the past means nothing at all is the proper man to describe it” (1997 [1874]: 93).

“These naive historians call the assessment of the opinions and deeds of the past according to the everyday standards of the present, ‘objectivity,’” he writes (90). Curiously though, rather than insisting upon the impossibility of objective account of history, Nietzsche goes on to recuperate objectivity as a worthy ideal. As he argues a few pages later, “objectivity [Objektivität] is required, but as a positive quality” (93).

What does it mean for objectivity to be a positive quality?

Objectivity, he explains, is “a moment of composition of the highest sort.” It involves—and I must admit I adore this phrase—“loving absorption in … empirical data” (93). While for the historian Nietzsche critiques, the description of reality is a subtractive process—a diminishment of perspective, feeling, and the trace of the body—in Nietzsche, objective description is additive. It aggregates, multiplies, and differentiates affects. Thus, much later, in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), “the more feelings [Affekte] we allow to come to expression … the more complete our ‘concept’ of it, our ‘objectivity’ [Objektivität], will be” (2009 [1887]: 98; emphasis in original). Conceived of “positively,” objectivity thus entails the affirmation rather than the negation of feeling. While one intense feeling about a thing might not make one very objective about it, having different, conflicting feelings might. The valorization of the diversification of affect in the production of knowledge is what I am calling impassioned objectivity.

I propose a similarly additive strategy for our approach to the Victorian discourse of objectivity, which philosophers Nietzsche, as well as novelists—especially realists—of the period, did not merely echo or confirm but altered, recuperated, transformed in diverse and often untimely ways. In his 1891 essay, “The Science of Fiction,” to cite just one example in closing, Thomas Hardy develops a critique of objectivity strikingly similar to that of Nietzsche. Denouncing the aspiration of what he calls “scientific realists” to the ideal of objectivity in their imitation of the scientific method in their literary practice, Hardy argues that what the literary naturalist cannot but “maintain in theory what he abandons in practice,” defining his “impartiality as a passion, and plan as a caprice” (2001 [1891]: 101-2). Like Nietzsche, who in “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” argues that the truly objective historian is the ultimate artist, in “The Science of Fiction” thus Hardy envisions a literary practice attuned rather than averse to the impulses of the body, a “science of fiction” that would build upon “the fruits of closest observation” to produce a “widened knowledge of the universe and its forces, and man’s position therein” (101-2).


Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. 2010 [2007]. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.

Hardy, Thomas. 2001 [1891]. “The Science of Fiction” in The Nineteenth-Century Novel: A Critical Reader, edited by Stephen Regan, 100–4. London: Routledge.

Levine, George. 2002. Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2009 [1887]. On the Genealogy of Morals. Translated by Douglass Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1997 [1874]. “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” in Untimely Meditations, 57-124. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


[1] See for example Levine (2002), who argues that, like Daston and Galison’s nineteenth-century scientists, Victorian realism expresses a “willingness to repress the aspiring, desiring, emotion-ridden self and everything merely personal, contingent, historical, material that might get in the way of acquiring knowledge” (2).

[2] For Daston and Galison “mechanical objectivity” names the paradigm of objectivity emergent in the mid nineteenth, while “structural objectivity” replaces the former in the 1880s (2010 [2007]: 5). Proponents of structural objectivity, Daston and Galison writes, “understood the threat of subjectivity in different terms than the advocates of mechanical objectivity had: the enemy was no longer the willful self that projected perfections and expectations onto the data; rather, it was a private self, locked in its own world of experience, which differed qualitatively from that of all other selves” (45).



S. Pearl Brilmyer is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently completing a manuscript, Character Density: Late Victorian Realism and the Science of Description.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here