Motivational explanations

Nietzsche’s subtitle tells us that the task of Ecce homo is not to explain what he is exactly, but how he has become what he is. And, to be more precise, the German third-person neuter pronoun - “Wie man wird, was man ist” - suggests that the book will offer a general lesson about becoming and about explaining that becoming in writing. Traditional positivist-minded historians, who are narrativists only in the wide sense of the word, would at this point seek to provide an explanation of the phenomenon in question in the manner of deduction-under-law that we examined in our fifth chapter. And Nietzsche does at least intimate such an explanation in the section “Warum ich so klug bin?” That explanation utilizes general causes under which Nietzsche’s particular development is offered as a sort of tacit deduction.

If you look at it this way, even life’s mistakes have their own meaning and value, the occasional side roads and wrong turns, the delays, the ‘modesties,’

the seriousness wasted on tasks that lie beyond the task. [...]--In the

meantime, the organizing, governing ‘idea’ keeps growing deep inside - it starts commanding [sie beginnt zu befehlen], it slowly leads back from out of the side roads and wrong turns, it gets the individual qualities and virtues ready, since at some point these will prove indispensable as means to the whole.34

Here we seem to be presented some general laws of development. There is a general governing ‘idea’ that orders change in an organism. The accessory conditions, these occasional side roads and modesties that channel the governing idea consist presumably in the naturalistic circumstances he mentions a bit later, factors including his “nutrition, location and climate, and means of recuperation.”35 Nietzsche claims that these accessory conditions were necessary to make him ‘become who he is,’ to channel his “surface consciousness” into all of the activities that constitute his past:

ever says so in his autobiography. The question is meaningful independent of the autobiography. Whether Zarathustra has a mole on his left knee, however, depends entirely on whether Nietzsche chose to describe him as such. The question is meaningless outside the fictive narration.

  • 34 EH “klug,” 9; KSA 6, 293ff. Emphasis on the word “it” is my own addition.
  • 35 EH “klug,” 8; KSA 6, 291. Cf. Domino (2002), 51—62.

an incredible multiplicity that is nonetheless the converse of chaos - this was the precondition, the lengthy, secret work and artistry of my instinct. Its higher protection manifested itself so strongly that I had absolutely no idea [in keinem Falle auch nur geahnt habe] what was growing inside me, - and then one day all my capabilities suddenly leapt out, ripened to full bloom.[1]

Yet Nietzsche’s explanatory framework is bizarrely insufficient to explain how he became what he is. An identical diet, exercise habit, or climate can hardly be considered sufficient conditions for developing a “ruling idea” approximately similar to the one Nietzsche had, hardly suitable as nomothetic propositions by which to deduce the reasons Nietzsche ‘became who he is.’ That Nietzsche had ‘no idea’ what was about to ‘leap out’ of itself suggests the inadequacy of positivist visions of historical explanation. In that more traditional framework, one expects some combination of natural external conditions functioning only as necessary conditions - born at such a time, in such a place, to such parents - under the direction of the sufficient condition of that person’s motivated decisions. Yet an account of Nietzsche ever ‘willing himself’ to become what he is is conspicuously absent here. Notice the disconnect between the ‘I’ and the ‘it’ that is growing inside him. Nietzsche stresses the unintentional, unmotivated quality of his character decisions. This is not an accidental omission. “To ‘will’ something, to ‘strive’ after something, to have a ‘goal,’ a ‘wish’ in view - I know nothing of this from experience.”37 Because for Nietzsche the notion of a single, freely determining deliberative will is at least problematic, for reasons we examined previously, he could not with consistency utilize a model of historical explanation that presupposed a “motive will” as the generative cause of historical change.

Today we don’t believe a single word of all this. The ‘inner world’ is full of illusions and will-o’-the-wisps [ Trugbilder und Irrlichter]: the will is one of them. The will doesn’t move anything any more, and so it does not explain anything any more either - it just accompanies processes [Vorgange], but it can be missing too. [...] And how about the ‘I’! That has become a fable, a fiction, a play on words: it has stopped thinking, feeling, and willing altogether! ... What follows from this? There are no mental causes whatsoever [gar keinegeistigen Ursachen]! All the purported empirical evidence for this goes to the devil! That’s what follows! - And we really screwed up this ‘empirical evidence’ - we used it to create the world as a cause-world, will-world, and mind-world.38

An unreflective habit of seeking a cause for a certain sensation and subsequently furnishing ‘a whole little novel’ about some hidden mental event sufficient to bring about the action leads the traditional autobiographer to interpret what happens in a life as ‘willed,’ as the consequence of the action of a substantial thing called the will or the self. “We want there to be a reason why we find ourselves so and so.”[2] Realist autobiographers perform this bit of self-delusion, too, as nearly everyone prefers the comfort of explanation to the “dangerous, anxiety-provoking, upsetting” state of the “unfami- liar.”[3] While interpretations of this sort get us no closer to the ‘true essence’ of the object under investigation, this does not mean there is not a good reason for its pervasiveness. There are deep-rooted psychological reasons why nearly all people’s perspectives prejudice them to interpret a single self- controlled motive principle rather than a flux of drives as the fulcrum of


Error of false causation. - In every age, people have believed that they knew what a cause [Ursache] is: but how did we get this knowledge, or, more precisely, how did we get this belief that we have knowledge? From the realm of the famous ‘inner facts’ [“inneren Thatsachen”], none of which has ever proven factual. We believed that our acts of will were causally efficacious [ursachlich]; we thought that here, at least, we had caught causality in the act. Nobody doubted that consciousness was the place to look for all the ante- cedentia of an act, its causes, and that you would be able to find these causes there as well - as ‘motives’: otherwise the action could hardly be considered free, and nobody could really be held responsible for it.[5]

Because a great multitude of perspectives rests content with such motivational explanations, and only very rarely seeks, say, a physiognomic ground for agency, reference to a ‘self or ‘will’ evidently renders familiar the previously unfamiliar, and therefore counts, from their perspectives, as having satisfied the drive to knowledge.

Herein one sees clearly the difference between Nietzsche's anti-realist perspectival explanation and a realist explanation utilizing motivational causes. When R. G. Collingwood, on behalf of the realists, argued that the ‘thought side’ presents the sufficient condition for a historiographical explanation, he tended to mean deliberate practical decisions - most basically ‘why’ agents did what they did alongside the conditions needed to carry out that action.[6] [7] For him, we only understand the actions of Caesar when we have explicated the motivations that led him to his deeds.

Descriptions of his external conditions — the size of his army, the monies at his disposal, etc. - are interesting enough, but leave us without the crucial understanding of Caesar’s inner motivations, which can be ferreted out by way of commonsense psychology. For the younger Nietzsche, too, the attempt to explain historical events according to the motivations of their agents was at least half the battle of philology. For the more mature Nietzsche, however, this entire project is little more than superstition.

Every thoughtless person believes that the will alone is effective [Wirkende]; that willing is something simple, simply given, non-derivative, intelligible- in-itself. He is convinced that when he does something, e.g. strikes something, it is he who is striking, and that he did the striking because he wanted to strike. [.. .] The will is to him a magically efficacious power: the belief in the will as the cause of effects is the belief in magically working forces.[8]

Since no appeal to the self s free rational selection of the activities and habits that typically constitute the ‘I’ of an autobiography is viable, it follows that autobiography ought not involve an explanation-under-law whose sufficient condition is a free and deliberative causal principle. Reference to what an agent claims to have wished, wanted, desired, or intended may serve as a convincing explanation to some, but in no way can prove or demonstrate why the event - in the case of autobiography: the becoming of a ‘person’ - took place as it did.

There are no mental causes whatsoever! [. ..] All things that happen [Geschehen] are considered deeds [Thun], all deeds considered the consequence of a will, the world became a multitude of agents [ Thatern], an agent (a ‘subject’) pushed its way under all events. People project their three inner ‘facts’ out of themselves and onto the world - the facts they believed in most fervently: the will, the mind, and the I.

For those readers who look for a demonstrative motivational explanation for how Nietzsche became who he is, Ecce homo will indeed be a ‘plain failure.’ Yet such a standard Nietzsche himself already rejected. He thinks that the positivistic framework went nowhere toward proving anything about the object of their deductions. And he denied the possibility of employing ‘the will, the mind, and the I’ as a causal mechanism within explanations of agency. Because of that, Ecce homo varies so wildly from traditional autobiography - hardly because its author is either psychologically afflicted or else intentionally writing fiction - in order to explain himself in a way consistent with his own philosophy of history.

44 FW127; KSA 3, 482.

  • [1] EH “klug,” 9; KSA 6, 294. 37 EH “klug,” 9; KSA 6, 294ff. 38 GD “Irrthumer,” 3; KSA 6, 9off.
  • [2] GD “Irrthumer,” 4; KSA 6, 92; see also GM1,13; KSA 5, 279. 2 GD “Irrthumer,” 5; KSA 6, 93.
  • [3] 41 Cf. HL 1; KSA 1, 248ff. 4 GD “Irrthumer,” 3; KSA 6, 90.
  • [4] 43 To avoid potential confusion, Collingwood is typically considered an idealist insofar as he concentrates on
  • [5] the subjective or ‘ideal’ side of human activity rather than its external expressions. However, in my
  • [6] juxtaposition of realism and anti-realism, Collingwood would clearly count for the former insofar as he
  • [7] believes his descriptions of the mental life of agents corresponds to what is actually the case.
  • [8] 2 GD “Irrthumer,” 3; KSA 6, 91.
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