Lecture Notes, Philosophy 151

Nietzsche's Metaphysics

November 14, 1995

In his time, Friedrich Nietzsche was the most radical philosopher the Western tradition had ever produced; he posed a fundamental challenge to the rationalism that has dominated Western philosophy since Plato. Trained in classical linguistics, Nietzsche in his earliest work described two conflicting "spirits" in Greek culture.

The Dionysian (after the god Dionysis) spirit was passionate and communal. By contrast, the Apollonian (after the god Apollo) is orderly and individualistic. Dionysian art is music, Apollonian, sculpture and painting. Ultimately they are combined in the great tragic plays of the Greeks.

With Socrates, a "brand-new daemon" appears on the scene. He is the theoretical man, fundamentally anti-Dionysian, whose "illusion" is "that thought, guided by the thread of causation, might plumb the farthest abysses of being and even correct it" (The Birth of Tragedy, Chapter XV). Here is the origin of philosophy as we know it, and its fundamental tendencies are Apollonian, "disguised as logical schematism" ((The Birth of Tragedy, Chapter XIV).

From the outset, ancient Greek philosophy struggled with the opposition of being and becoming, of the permanent and the transitory. On the side of becoming stood Heraclitus, who held that the world is in a state of constant flux. Nietzsche took this view to heart, claiming that there is no "real," but only an "apparent" world -- a world as it appears to the senses. He maintained that Heraclitus had wrongly accused the senses of presenting an image of permanence. Instead, it is "reason" which is responsible for "the lie of unity, the lie of thinghood, of substance, of permanence" ("'Reason' in Philosophy," Section 2).

Nietzsche was in his own way an extreme empiricist. The senses reveal things only as they appear, but there is nothing more to things than their appearance. Since all appearing takes place from a certain perspective, there is nothing to distinguish one perspective as superior to any other. But however revealing the senses are, their testimony stands mute in the face of "reason," which distinguishes a "real" or "true" world over against the apparent.

There are at least two ways in which we conceptually represent the world as permanent. For existing objects, change is regarded as no more than the replacement of "accidental" properties while "essential" properties endure. Suppose with Aristotle that a human being is a rational animal. Then change (growth, learning, illness, etc.) in an individual human takes place against the enduring backdrop of rationality and animal nature. The individual endures so long as it partakes of its essence.

Another way of understanding permanence in the face of change is to describe the individual itself as unchanging. The atoms suffer no alteration, but only reconfiguration. Since they are not subject to change, the source of their motion is located outside them, in necessary "laws" of nature.

Essence, atom, law: all are products of the drive of human reason to place an ever-changing world into conceptual strait-jackets, to turn dynamic processes into "concept-mummies." The highest concept of all, that of the "most real being" (God) is the most mummified. It is abstracted entirely from the world of changing objects. To call such a being the cause of itself (Latin: "causa sui") exposes the emptiness of the conception.

What is wrong with bringing diverse objects under abstract conceptions? The problem, Nietzsche argued, was that things are always only similar, never identical. (A similar point was made in the mid-twentieth century by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who held that general concepts express "family resemblances" among individuals.) We regard diverse items as identical or falling under a single concept because it is useful, even necessary, to do so. But this usefulness masks the fundamental untruth of categorization.

Abstract concepts are formulated in language, and language is the province of social beings. (Again the comparison can be made with Wittgenstein, who argued that there can be no "private language.) Nietzsche traced the emergence of self-consciousness to the social need for communication. He endorsed Leibniz's claim that consciousness does not imply self-consciousness: one can think, feel and will without "mirroring" these activities in one's own mind. But when engaged in a social existence, we need to be able to represent our own place in the network of social relations. But bringing ourselves under concepts has the same effect as categorizing other things. Our individual uniqueness is covered up, and we think of ourselves in terms shared by the group. "Everything which becomes conscious becomes just thereby shallow, meager, relatively stupid, -- a generalization, a symbol, a characteristic of the herd" (The Gay Science, section 354).

What remains when the leveling influence of concepts is removed is a world in flux. Individual enduring beings are replaced by centers of power, and action is the discharge of power. Conversely, power can be repressed or redirected. As with Schopenhauer, there is no qualitative break in the description of action between the organic and inorganic, conscious and unconscious. Nietzsche is renowned these days for his analysis of human norms on the basis of power-relationships.

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