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Description and introspection
Just as Nietzsche undermined the causal role of the ‘I’ in traditional autobiographical explanations, his Ecce homo challenged the ubiquitous assumption about its possible description through introspection. “Becoming what one is presupposes that one doesn’t have even the slightest sense [dass man nicht im Entferntesten ahnt] what one is.” Why should this be? Since Socrates, knowing thyself has been among the preeminent philosophical projects, and philosophers of history have believed no differently. The epistemic privilege of introspection has been the very fulcrum whereby late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth-century philosophers distinguished science and history in terms of the methodological distinction between Erklaren and Verstehen, between explaining and understanding. For the Baden neo-Kantians and later for the British meta-historians Collingwood and Oakeshott, the appeal of historical Verstehen rested on the premise that we have a privileged access into precisely one kind of object in the universe: minds, which operate within historical processes and socio-historical contexts. In contrast to the positivists, and in keeping with Nietzsche, they both denied that we could establish behavioral laws by which to explain particular human actions. Yet by analogy with our own experiences, apprehended immediately through introspection, we do come to a more vivid and complete ‘sympathetic’ understanding of the unity of life and culture, of how agents bring about actions. The objects of the natural sciences, on the other hand, must remain forever external to the scientists who explain them. Though evident in historiographical Verstehen generally, autobiography would be the most exemplary case of the reliability of self-knowledge since here not even analogy to other minds was required. As Crispin Wright puts it: “Selves have the best evidence about themselves.”48
We’ve seen throughout that Nietzsche’s historical philosophy had been developed in large part through critical engagement with his Erzieher, Schopenhauer. From the awkward adaptation of his theory of aesthetic intuition in The Birth of Tragedy to the harsh rejection of it in the course of positing his own perspectival theory in the Genealogy, it seems here too, in his last word on himself, that Nietzsche remains engaged with Schopenhauer’s thought. Like a good Kantian, Schopenhauer regarded time and space as transcendental conditions of experience rather than subsistent external entities. All phenomena, insofar as they are experienced, bear those subjective temporal and spatial features - except one: the source of the intuitions of space, time, and causality is not itself cognized in the same manner as those external objects which result from that source’s activity. It would not be correct to say that we ‘know’ this source, since knowledge always requires the mediation of the transcendental conditions of experience. But for Schopenhauer we need not posit a merely transcendental unity of self, since outside the principle of sufficient reason we can attain an immediate and non-experiential apprehension - an unmit- telbare Selbstbeobachtung — of the affective side of our inner nature. While our bodies are conceptualized and understood in a phenomenal way, no different from every other body in the universe, we have a privileged and immediate ‘secret path’ into the ‘noumenal’ side of the ‘I.’ And what we apprehend is not the Christian soul or the Cartesian res cogitans, but a willing, desiring, striving, avoiding, detesting, fearing - in short, a continuous fluctuation of feelings of compulsion and aversion. Of this we are both immediately sure and absolutely aware: that the essence of our selves, that which underlies that menagerie of affects, is the Will.
That Nietzsche shared with Schopenhauer the rejection of the Cartesian version of the self and self-knowledge is well known. The two would also share the contention that introspection grants us a naturalistic vision ofaffects rather than of thoughts. There was, nevertheless, an essential difference. For Schopenhauer these affects manifest themselves to our apprehension in a temporally individuated fashion. But because the very temporal succession by which they are individuated is nothing more than the transcendental condition of inner sense, they must only be a mediated experience of what is really the essence ofourselves. Therefore the Will, the essence ofourselves and ultimately of the world must be atemporal through and through.
Nietzsche’s critique of self-knowledge takes a unique track here. One of the main reasons he denies the self-evidence of mental states concerns their intrinsically historical character. For in direct opposition to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche thinks that the self is no timeless eternal substratum that could even in principle be understood through description, much less through an unmittelbare Selbstbeobachtung, but that it is a dynamic continuous with the rest of nature — a part of that endless stream of becoming. We ourselves are nothing but that Fortstromen. To separate expressed affects from the self is like distinguishing lightning from the flash. One unreflectively presumes that there is an ontological difference between the subject and the action or event, and that the subject thereby must cause the event to occur. Just as it is an unwarranted leap to think there must be a subsistent thing named ‘wave’ that flows or a ‘lightning’ that lightens, so Nietzsche denies the assumption that a persistent self must underlie agency.
Beyond this denial, both similes carry a seldom-noticed historiographical implication. Like the flow of the river or the flash of lightning, the subjective expressions of affects are ephemeral; they come into being and pass away, emerge and descend as an event within an historical process. Just as we see only the afterimage of the actual flash due to the physiognomy of our eyes and brain, so too is what we introspect of our affects only an historical afterimage interpreted necessarily through the physiognomy of our drives. Self-observation is nothing immediate, but a continuous process that, if anything, precludes the possibility of locating a subsistent object underneath the continually accumulating interpretations. And just as what we for convenience designate a ‘thing’ - a wave or lightning - does not actually persist, so too is our designation of the self only an abbreviation or symbol for what is actually experienced in that moment and then covered over by ever-new experiences. This is why an unmittelbare Selbstbeobachtung is not nearly sufficient for us to ‘know ourselves.’ This is why “we require Geschichte.”
The becoming of one’s self - its history - is thus the only avenue by which to approach the character of the self, even as its historical character prohibits representational realism about it. The self is as little permanent as any other expression. If the selfs becoming-itself within the flow of its history resists the realist’s hope that static designations and discrete concepts can adequately describe it as an object, then any autobiographers who retain that hope “deceive themselves about their own state: they had to fictitiously attribute to themselves impersonality and duration without change; they had to misconstrue the nature of the knower, deny the force of drives [Gewalt der Triebe] in knowledge, and generally conceive reason as a completely free, self-originated activity.” Nietzsche recognizes that the constitutive drives of subjectivity within the autobiographer, those that circumscribe the predispositions that color his judgment, function over time like the harmonics of a ringing bell. And just as the genealogist “in whose ear the clock has just struck the twelve strokes of midday, suddenly wakes up to ask himself, ‘What hour just struck actually?,’” autobiographers too are left to “rub our ears and ask in astonishment and complete embarrassment, ‘Through what have we actually just lived?’ further, ‘who actually are we?’” The drives of the historian are a product of history, “the outcome of [...] earlier aberrations, passions, and errors,” a product that is in fact interpreted as constituted by the historical acts of his own interpretive historiography. This historiographical act is, like every other act within history, a particularly meaningful symbolic designation that results from that conflict of drives within a perspective. “Thus does the body go through history, a becoming and a struggling.”60 And so does the character- dynamic of the historian who thus acts. We represent ourselves to ourselves as if we were some free and rational alpha-point that willfully interprets as they wish. But a properly genealogical uncovering of the self reveals no such point any more than it could reveal the single real essence of good or evil, just a continuously shifting agonistic competition of drives that seeks to overwrite previously fixed interpretations. Insofar as we believe we are the ones who are interpreting ourselves here, we look upon the river of history from within a raft we believed fixed and steady while the rest of the landscape rushes by. We consider ourselves, perhaps must consider ourselves just like the ‘objects’ and ‘events’ that we write about: as fixed and stable things. But given that reality is historical through and through, there are none. Nothing stands fast.
Nietzsche’s views thus pose an identical problem to the two parties of an autobiography. First, the object of the study is itself nothing atemporal, but, like all things and events, thoroughly historical, as vast and as complicated a process of interpretations and over-writings as that of the meaning of good and evil, punishment, or ascetic ideals. Traditional linguistic designations will fail to adequately describe it insofar as the things described are historical and particular while the words used to describe those things are static and general. “ We are none of us that which we appear to be in accordance with the states for which alone we have consciousness and words [...]; those cruder outbursts of which alone we are aware make us misunderstand ourselves. ” Second, the author of the study is himself no atemporal unified subject, no transparent alpha point free from the drives and impulses that constitute the interpretive act. Quite the contrary, that act of writing history exposes how deeply the subject is fractured into convoluted and sometimes mutually adverse drives. “Strange! I am controlled at every moment by the thought that my history [Geschichte] isn’t just a personal one, that I do something for many if I live thus, and shape myself thus, and designate myself thus: it’s always as if I am a multiplicity.” All self-aware auto- genealogists are therefore caught in a sort of double-blind of history: events and those who write about them are both in a perpetual state of becoming, which renders the description and explanation of a discrete object by a discrete subject impossible in a realist way.65
An anti-realist, however, holds that the world and our representation of it may well be disjointed. He retains his static symbols since “man condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming [ein Werden],” i.e., a rigorous representational realist, “would no longer believe in his own being [sein eigenes Sein], would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in this river of becoming [Strome des Werdens].”66 And just this disconnect between what Nietzsche thinks the world is and how it must be described, we argued in our previous chapter, was what necessitated his anti-realist perspectival descriptions in the Genealogy of Morals. The case here in Ecce homo is a more profound application of Nietzsche’s meta-history. For whereas the ‘text’ of values, punishment, and ascetic ideals has entirely disappeared under the historical process of interpretation, here what is interpreted is in fact the interpreter. The subject and the object, which must both be considered historically, is Nietzsche.
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