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Nietzsche’s Will to Power

Lecturer: Vincent Lê

Originally Taught: Summer School 2024

This course provides an in-depth look at Nietzsche’s infamous but often misunderstood doctrine of “the will to power” by reconstructing how it is presented, developed and refined in his published works, his unpublished notebooks and contemporary Nietzsche scholarship. In doing so, the course also aims to show how the doctrine can still be of use today in drawing out overlooked critical insights and important stakes in contemporary philosophical debates and discussions around questions of agency, free will, ethics and the nature of intelligence.

Lecture 1 — Why Will to Power Today?

Before directly focusing on Nietzsche, the first lecture sets out to show how his often-dismissed doctrine of the will to power can still be relevant in our contemporary philosophical conjuncture. In particular, we will look at how the doctrine can be productively contrasted almost point by point with prominent contemporary philosopher Nick Bostrom’s theory of intelligent agency such as the latter is based on two key theses. Firstly, Bostrom’s central “orthogonality thesis” holds that intelligence is a sheer capacity or purely instrumental power that agents can use in the pursuit of virtually any goal of their choosing. Secondly, his other central “instrumental convergence thesis” holds that intelligent agents are likely to pursue certain subgoals or “basic drives” like “self-preservation,” “goal-content integrity,” “cognitive enhancement,” “creativity” and “resource acquisition” as the universally necessary means of pursuing any other primary goals they might have. As we will see, Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power exhibits some striking similarities with Bostrom’s account of intelligent agency, but also significant and insightful differences that raise important implications, questions and stakes.


Lecture 2 — The Will to Power in the Published Works

The second lecture introduces Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power by tracing its appearance in his published works, from its earliest anticipations in the “pessimism of strength,” the “feeling of power” and the “drive for knowledge” mentioned in his early and middle period works, to its explicit development in the post-Thus Spoke Zarathustra writings. In particular, I draw out the way it is conceived in the published works as a drive of all humans and perhaps even all life that is even more fundamental than our instinct for self-preservation as we strive to distinguish ourselves from others by amassing ever more power and performing ever greater feats of mastery and strength.


  • Friedrich Nietzsche, “On a Thousand and One Goals” and “Self-Overcoming,” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, eds. Adrian Del Caro and Robert B. Pippin, trans. Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 42-44, 88-90.

Lecture 3 — Interpreting the Will to Power

The third lecture considers some of the major scholarly interpretations of the will to power as both a psychological and a metaphysical doctrine before siding with a metaphysical (as well as constitutivist) reading of the will to power as a universal and quasi-normative drive that all goal-directed agents are committed to pursuing simply by virtue of pursuing any action at all.


  • Maudemarie Clark and David Dudrick, “Introduction,” in The Soul of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 1-10.
  • Paul Katsafanas, “Introduction,” in Agency and the Foundation of Ethics: Nietzschean Constitutivism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 1-5.
  • Tsarina Doyle, “Introduction,” in Nietzsche’s Metaphysics of the Will to Power: The Possibility of Value (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 1-16.

Lecture 4 — The Will to Power in the Unpublished Notebooks

By comparing and contrasting Bostrom’s basic drives to be creative, cognitively enhance oneself and acquire resources with at least some of the several ways in which Nietzsche speculates about the doctrine in his unpublished 1880s notebooks, the fourth lecture explores the hypothesis that the will to power might be a fundamental drive because it is the necessary, universal means of pursuing any other end. It is here that we draw out a key difference between what we might call Bostrom’s weak instrumental convergence thesis and a more Nietzschean inspired strong instrumental convergence thesis. As we look at in the first lecture, Bostrom holds that intelligence, creativity and resource optimization are the universally useful but secondary means of pursuing any other more primary ends of our choosing. Drawing on Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power, this lecture instead considers the stronger hypothesis that any other ends we might have are just the contingent means of getting us to pursue power—as inflected through Bostrom’s basic drives to mean intelligence, creativity and resource optimization—as our primary end


  • Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power: Selections from the Notebooks of the 1880s, ed. R. Kevin Hell, trans. R. Kevin Hill and Michael A. Scarpitti (London: Penguin Books, 2017), sections 666-715, pp. 374-406.

Lecture 5 — Loose Ends

In the fifth and final lecture, we will see that, unlike Bostrom’s other basic self-preservation drive, Nietzsche denies that self-preservation is as fundamental as the will to power—qua intelligence, creativity and resource optimization—on the basis that it can just as well impede the latter as it can facilitate it. This reconstruction of Nietzsche’s will to power and comparative study with Bostrom’s basic drives will then permit us to conclude the course by critically examining Bostom’s conception of agency as being devoid of any fundamental values, norms, ends or goals. According to an alternative Nietzschean model of intelligent agents, Bostrom might just be overlooking the potential for ever more advanced intelligences to pursue neither the ends we gave them or our freely chosen ends, but to pursue power an ultimate end in itself.


  • Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power: Selections from the Notebooks of the 1880s, ed. R. Kevin Hell, trans. R. Kevin Hill and Michael A. Scarpitti (London: Penguin Books, 2017), sections 666-715, pp. 374-406.