The truth of a historical description, in the most commonsense meaning in Nietzsche’s day and our own, is its accurate correspondence with the past as it really was. Yet even apart from the necessary prejudice that colors every account, Nietzsche thinks that our propositions generally and our historiographical propositions specifically are of such a character that they can never adequate to the way the past really was.[1] There are at least two dominant strands by which Nietzsche reaches this conclusion, and both concern the ontology of the past which the historian is to describe. First, because the actual occurrences of history are far too complex to ever be exhausted in writing, historiography will always abbreviate and summarize rather than re-present the events of the past. Second, because the actual structure and continuity of those events never actually existed in the empirically observable world, every descriptive story told about the past will distort the events in-themselves. One can find statements in Nietzsche’s corpus that would seem to support both of these contentions.47 For example, “all becoming conscious involves a great and thorough corruption [Verderbniss], falsification [Falschung], superficialization [Veroberflachlichung], and generalization [Generalisation].48

Let us examine the first argument, a claim about ontological overcomplexity which Nietzsche held since his reading of the post-Kantian naturalists, especially Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz,49 Friedrich Albert Lange,50 Johann Zollner,51 Gustav Gerber,52 and later the empirio- positivist Ernst Mach.53 In the unfinished and unpublished “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873), Nietzsche’s aim is to demonstrate that human language does not directly correspond to things as they are in themselves, and, further, to deny that human experience has access into the world as it stands outside our experience of it. Anschauung, though used differently from the Schopenhauerian-mystical employment in The Birth of Tragedy,54 is again the key term. The production of what Nietzsche calls Anschauungsmetaphern or anschaulich Metaphern operates on two levels.55 On the first, the act of translation is the operation by which the world’s material effect on our sense organs comes to be construed as a coherent mental representation in accordance with our epistemic and psychological facticities - the Kantian categories on the one hand, and, on the other, the entire dynamic of pre-conceptual drives considered physiognomically.56 [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

The transference from nerve stimulus to mental image takes place underneath conscious volition and yet remains tied to the psyche of the subject. On the second level, the mental image is imitated to form an articulated sound. When those sounds are formed into words, they are then subject to being judged ‘true’ or ‘false’ under the rules of established linguistic practices within the particular society in which they are generated. But as a sound cannot wholly and perfectly represent an image, since it is always filtered through that subjective facticity, we cannot assert any direct correspondence between that image and that sound other than a ‘metaphorical’ translation between the two domains.

While every idea in the mind is presented to it originally as a sensory experience, the act of experiencing and the process of transforming those experiences into mental images is too complex, for Nietzsche, to allow for any straightforward one-to-one correspondential description of the world as it actually does impact the senses.[11] The ‘clever animals’ forget that these words hold no correspondential relation with the world-itself, and perhaps that is necessarily so for the sake of designating the constituents of reality in a meaningful way that enables them to get on with the business of life.[12] Inconvenient truths are typically ignored when presented alongside convenient illusions.

Words themselves are intended to be referential; the objects of reference, however, cannot be adequately represented by the word insofar as they are too complex.[13] Nevertheless, structured linguistic utterances can be ‘meaningful’ in the sense that they garner assent as an appropriately arranged group of interpretable meanings. They tend to be considered ‘objective,’ according to our earlier definition, when they are presented in the company of sufficiently like-typed judges. Concepts and words are abbreviated designatory symbols that can be used in all sorts of useful ways, though they cannot be presumed to reflect the character of reality.[14] Nietzsche writes in 1880, “A thought, no less than a word, is only a symbol: one cannot speak of a congruity between the thought and the real. The real is some kind of drive-movement.”[15] And in an 1885 note, he elaborates:

A sentence such as “two things that are identical to a third are identical to each other” presupposes 1) things 2) identities: neither exist. But with this invented [erfundenen] rigid concept- and number-world man gains a means to grasp a huge quantity of facts with symbols [Zeichen] and imprint them in memory. This symbol-apparatus [Zeichen-Apparat] is his superiority precisely because it distances him as far as possible from the individual facts. The reduction of experiences to symbols [Zeichen], and the increasing quantity of things which can thereby be grasped, is his highest power. The mental is the ability to be master through symbols [Zeichen] of a huge quantity of facts. This mental world, this symbol-world, is sheer ‘appearance and deception’ [‘Schein und Trug’], just as every ‘thing of appearance’ already is.[16]

Nietzsche’s view has obvious historiographical ramifications. When a historian, say Winckelmann, attempts to articulate the character of Greek antiquity there arises the need for a certain leap since there exist no simple descriptive ‘facts’ that can once and for all yield to posterity the secret of ‘the inner nature of Greek antiquity.’ Instead of describing with perfect accuracy every individual experientially available aspect of ancient Greece, a description which genuinely would, were it possible, correspond to the true nature of the past, Winckelmann can only abbreviate and collate this incredibly diverse welter of experience. In place of a perfectly accurate description, he offers a meaningful symbol: ‘griechischer Heiterkeit.’ His characterization is no accurate correspondential description, nor could it have been, but a two-step artistic construction: one from stimulus to image, the other from image to world view. For that matter, neither is Nietzsche’s characterization of pre-Socratic Greek society as ‘agonistic’ or his claims in the Genealogy that the ‘ascetic priests are (all) like this’ or that ‘Jewish morality is (all) like that’ a correspondential record of his myriad experiences with the evidence. Indeed any historian’s cache of technical terms - ‘revolution,’ ‘migration,’ ‘working-class,’ ‘emperor’ — are cases wherein a single word is to stand as an ideographic designation for a complex, diverse, and non-identical set of features. Caesar and Alexander are identified as ‘emperors,’ though it is a gross imprecision to believe that the term actually designates an identical set of qualities that both possessed. The designations provided by the historian are therefore symbols rather than corresponden- tial references.[17] In a lengthy reflection on the lack of historical sense of traditional philosophers, Nietzsche writes precisely this.

[T]hinking, with respect to the perception of a thing, circumscribes a row of symbols [Zeichen], which presents the memory to him and seeks for similarities; while the person with some similar symbols [einem ahnlichen Zeichen] sets down, holds, grasps [ergreifen] the thing as ‘known’: but he thereby even means he has conceptualized it [begreifen]. Grasping and holding [Das Greifen und Fassen], the appropriation comes to mean for him a knowing [Erkennen], a final knowing; for a long time, the words of human language seem not to be symbols but truths [nicht Zeichen sondern Wahrheiten] in reference to their designated things - and still do to people today.[18]

The second strand of argument Nietzsche employs to deny the correspondence of historical descriptions to the world involves the conceptual structures historians impose on the raw data they are trying to describe.

[O]ne should use ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ only as pure concepts [Begriffe], which is to say, as conventional fictions for the purpose of description and communication, but not explanation [Erklarung]. For the ‘in-itself there is nothing at all like ‘causal association,’ ‘necessity,’ or ‘psychological un-freedom,’ since the ‘effect’ does not follow ‘from the cause,’ no ‘law’ rules over it.[19]

According to Nietzsche, the various explanatory structures historians utilize in the course of their accounts are nothing to be found in the world. They are mind-centered interpolations. Insofar as no ‘because,’ ‘since,’ ‘as a result of,’ ‘generated,’ ‘led to,’ ‘prevented,’ etc. have ever been found by an archeologist alongside the artifacts they dig up, those temporal links of which the writing of history is largely constituted cannot be considered ‘in’ history itself. Claims that historical events are the ‘result’ of some policy, that unpopularity ‘caused’ the downfall of the leader, that a speech ‘inevitably led’ to a mobilization of enemy troops, etc., all involve associations that cannot be found anywhere in the world other than in the mind of the historian. As Michael Oakeshott would later agree, “Historical events are themselves circumstantial convergencies of antecedent historical events; what they are is how they came to be woven.”[20]

But here arises an immediate problem for any reader of Nietzsche. It is apparent that Nietzsche himself employs fully-structured historical accounts in all sorts of ways. How values like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ become instantiated over time, how we come to believe in free will, truth, metaphysical beings, how modern political institutions evolve - all of these and a good many others are immediately recognizable as historical structures that Nietzsche claims to have discovered in the past. And these myriad historical discoveries seem to plainly contradict his meta-historical demand that we recognize the intrinsically constructive nature of historical structures. Is Nietzsche hypocritical in describing what he claims are real states of affairs despite arguing that there can be no realist descriptions due to the ‘over-complexity’ and ‘structural’ objections? Or is he composing historical arguments while mindlessly ignoring the logical consequences of his own meta-history?

  • [1] With respect to true description generally, the argument was first put forth by Clark (1990a), 83. Forsimilar views see Anderson (1996), 307-341; Green (2002), 29-32; Hussain (2004), 326-368.
  • [2] Anderson (2005), 213 offers a relatively exhaustive list of passages in this respect.
  • [3] FW354; KSA 3, 593. See also HL 6; KSA 1, 290; and NFspring 1888, I4[i22]; KSA 13, 30iff. For adiscussion of the falsification of language specifically with reference to the character of becoming, seeDries (2008b), 121—128.
  • [4] See for example Helmholtz ([1867] 1962) ill, i2ff.
  • [5] See Lange (1873—1875) ii, 408—409, and 430—431. For Lange’s influence on Nietzsche, see Salaquarda(1978), 236—260 and (1979), 133—160; Stack (1983); and Breazeale (1989), 91—103. For an enthusiasticearly endorsement of Lange’s position, see Nietzsche to Carl von Gersdorff, end of August, 1866; KSB2, 160.
  • [6] Cf. Zollner (1872), 362.
  • [7] Cf. Gerber (1885) i, 260, and 326—327. On Nietzsche’s relation to Gerber, see Meijers (1988), 369—390.For an overview of Nietzsche’s reading and interpretation of the post-Kantian natural scientists, seeSchlechta and Anders (1962), 60—167; Orsucci (1992), 167—219; and Emden (2005), 91—99. Helpful,too, are the fine collections of Djuric and Simon (1986); and of Brobjer and Moore (2004).
  • [8] See Mach (1886); and again for Mach’s influence see Hussain (2004), 344—355.
  • [9] While Nietzsche describes this perceptual function in naturalistic terms that are a far cry from hispublished mysticism in The Birth of Tragedy, there is still a definite aesthetic coloration. See NFsummer 1872—beginning 1873, 19178]; KSA 7, 445; NF summer 1872—beginning 1873, 19154]; KSA 7,437: “The chemical transformations in inorganic nature are maybe even artistic processes, to name the‘imitative roles’ which a power plays: but there is more! They themselves can play.” Emden (2005),88—i23 is particularly acute on the aesthetic aspects of thinking.
  • [10] WL i; KSA i, 88i—883. 56 WL i; KSA i, 88i. See also Cox (i999), 67ff.
  • [11] NF Winter 1872-1873, 23 [13]; KSA 7, 543. s8 WL1; KSA1, 883. 3 WL 1; KSA 1, 879ft
  • [12] 60 Nietzsche thus stands particularly close to Mach’s position on the symbolic ‘economy’ of mental
  • [13] representation. See Mach (1886), 1—24. I agree with Brobjer that Nietzsche’s reading of Mach marks
  • [14] an important but overlooked connection with critical positivism. Cf. Brobjer (2008), 92ff.
  • [15] NF1880, 6[253]; KSA 9, 263. Compare Helmholtz: “Our ideas of things cannot be anything butsymbols, natural signs for things which we learn how to use in order to regulate our movements andactions.” Helmholtz ([1867] 1962) ill, 19.
  • [16] NF April—June 1885, 34[i3i]; KSA 11, 464. According to Brobjer, this passage is a summary of anargument by Drossbach (1884), who was an important source for Nietzsche’s understanding of antirealist causality. See Brobjer (2008), 227. For further discussion of Drossbach, see also Schmidt(1988), 465—477.
  • [17] There are two exemplary philosophical applications of Nietzsche’s theory of symbols, whose interpretive disagreements are beyond our scope: Abel (1999, 2004), and Stegmaier (2008). With specificreference to historiographical judgment, see Simon (i995), 72—i04.
  • [18] NFJune-July 1885, 38P4]; KSA 11, 614.
  • [19] JGB 21; KSA 5, 36. Malwida von Meysenbug claims to remember a conversation with Nietzsche inwhich he denied the possibility of causality outright. See Meysenbug (1922) 11, 246. Cited in Small(2005), 119.
  • [20] Oakeshott (1999), 73.
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