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The Moral Meaning of Nature

Nietzsche’s Darwinian Religion and Its Critics

What, if anything, does biological evolution tell us about the nature of religion, ethical values, or even the meaning and purpose of life? The Moral Meaning of Nature sheds new light on these enduring questions by examining the significance of an earlier—and unjustly neglected—discussion of Darwin in late nineteenth-century Germany.

We start with Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings staged one of the first confrontations with the Christian tradition using the resources of Darwinian thought. The lebensphilosophie, or “life-philosophy,” that arose from his engagement with evolutionary ideas drew responses from other influential thinkers, includingFranz Overbeck, Georg Simmel, and Heinrich Rickert. These critics all offered cogent challenges to Nietzsche’s appropriation of the newly transforming biological sciences, his negotiation between science and religion, and his interpretation of the implications of Darwinian thought. They also each proposed alternative ways of making sense of Nietzsche’s unique question concerning the meaning of biological evolution “for life.” At the heart of the discussion were debates about the relation of facts and values, the place of divine purpose in the understanding of nonhuman and human agency, the concept of life, and the question of whether the sciences could offer resources to satisfy the human urge to discover sources of value in biological processes. The Moral Meaning of Nature focuses on thehistorical background of these questions, exposing the complex ways in which they recur in contemporary philosophical debate.

Author Information

Peter J. Woodford is a research associate at the University of Cambridge.


“In The Moral Meaning of Nature, Peter Woodford raises the question of the impact of naturalistic approaches to life on conceptions of value, science, and religion in the late nineteenth century, taking Friedrich Nietzsche as his point of departure. Woodford does an excellent job of showing how the concept of ‘life’ connects many strands of Nietzsche’s thought while also engaging a constellation of authors and their approaches, such as Overbeck and the study of religion, Simmel and the study of sociology, and Rickert and the neo-Kantian approach to values.”
— John H. Smith, University of California, Irvine

Audience: Professional and scholarly;