Skip to main content

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, including Franz 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 the historical background of these questions, exposing the complex ways in which they recur in contemporary philosophical debate.

208 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

History: History of Ideas

History of Science

Philosophy: Philosophy of Religion

Philosophy of Science


"There is much of value here. Deeply insightful is Woodford’s account of Nietzsche’s focus on power and how often that is the motivation behind moral codes and their enforcement. . . . Peter Woodford has written a most interesting work that is highly stimulating and that left one reviewer all ready for a (Darwinian?) fight. The best kind of book!"


"This is a fine book.  Beginning with Nietzsche and proceeding through three of his important but under-studied followers, Woodford traces the fortunes of the notion that a broadly Darwinian understanding of life provides a basis for reflecting on what values truly inform human existence.  If Nietzsche’s work inaugurated an important set of discussions in this area, Woodford demonstrates that neither his own conclusions nor his way of framing the matter dominated what we now refer to as the Lebensphilosophie movement.  He also argues, convincingly, that the questions over which Nietzsche, Overbeck, Simmel, and Rickert argued have hardly been settled today.  Expect a revival of interest in these figures, and in the idea of Lebensphilosophie in general, to follow from this work."

Andrew Dole, Amherst College

“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

"Woodford offers a compelling account of an extremely important problem of European philosophical thought that needs more attention than it tends to receive. His cogent summaries of Rickert’s work in particular are a valuable service, considering only Rickert’s work on the philosophy of history and historical sciences is very widely read in English."

Reading Religion

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press