Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The End

I never did "autobiographical" stuff on here, but as it's the last one I feel it's the right way to close this thing. I began this blog shortly before I embarked on my undergraduate degree in philosophy some years ago, looking at it as a way to chart the development of my understanding. I had a lot to say when I was younger but as I've grown I realise that if you are concerned about the truth silence will often do.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Nietzsche: Unity and Self

It has been some time since I posted anything like this, and needless to say life is now something else entirely! In any case, here are some of my latest thoughts (more to come):

In this essay I am going to consider the question of the self, the drives, and of unity in Nietzsche’s writings. I defend an interpretation of Nietzsche’s view which holds that unity is the predominance of one drive or drives over all others, an interpretation which we will call the predominance thesis. To this end I will engage with recent arguments against the predominance thesis put forward by Paul Katsafanas. I will begin in section I with a brief consideration of the drives in order to situate the unified self within Nietzsche’s wider drive psychology. In section II I present evidence in favour of the predominance thesis before going on to consider Katsafanas’ textual objections in section III. Section IV will consider Katsafanas’ philosophical objection leading us to consider how far we might go in attributing acts to an agent in light of the findings of the predominance thesis.


So what is the self for Nietzsche? In order to get a foothold on this question we should briefly consider an account of the self which Nietzsche explicitly rejects:

From now on, my dear philosophers, let us be wary of the dangerous old conceptual fable which posited a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject”… (GM III.12)

While innumerable iterations of this same notion have appeared throughout the Western philosophical tradition and beyond, we will briefly consider the Kantian account (as one of Nietzsche’s favoured antagonists). Kant’s claim, broadly speaking, is that one cannot be identified with their “empirical consciousness”, that inner states must be attributable to a pure subject which transcends their empirical consciousness. Inner states are mutable and flux whereas the transcendental subject must be immutable and invariant in order to sustain its identity throughout a succession of such states. This idea of a self as distinct from its conscious acts feeds into a conception of agency wherein the subject enjoys a measure of distance from its impulses. As Christine Korsgaard puts it:

[W]hen you deliberate, it is as if there were something over and above all of your desires, something which is you, and which chooses which desire to act on.[1]

But the self, for Nietzsche, is not something which stands over the world from a lofty transcendental vantage but rather stands immersed within it. To “suspend the feelings altogether”, he writes, amounts to the “castration of the intellect” (GM III.12). Ken Gemes is keen to point out, however, that Nietzsche’s critiques are not simply outright eliminations of these cherished notions but often rather attempts to ask again what is meant by soul, spirit, free will, etc.[2] Nietzsche writes:

Let [“soul atomism”] be allowed to designate that belief which regards the soul as being something indestructible, eternal, indivisible […] this belief ought to be ejected from science! Between ourselves, it is not at all necessary by that same act to get rid of ‘the soul’ itself […] the road to new forms and refinements of the soul-hypothesis stands open: and such conceptions as ‘mortal soul’, and ‘soul as multiplicity of the subject’ and ‘soul as social structure of the drives and emotions’ want henceforth to possess civic rights in science. (BGE 12)

This idea of the soul as social structure is an instructive metaphor and one through which we can approach the problem of the unity of self. The idea of a plural self stands in a special relation with another notion central to Nietzsche’s mature thought: the will to power. The notion of the drives, present throughout Nietzsche’s work (indeed right down to his philological studies[3]), is tied to this notion of willing:

He who wills adds in this way the sensations of pleasure of the successful executive agents, the serviceable ‘under-wills’ or ‘under-souls’ – for our body is only a social structure composed of many souls […] what happens here is what happens in every well-constructed and happy commonwealth: the ruling class identifies itself with the successes of the commonwealth. (BGE 19)

The illusion of an atomistic soul is, then, the result of the dominant drives identifying with the whole work which the ‘under-wills’ carry out under their command. When we experience a clash of drives we fall prey to the idea that “we” as transcendent arbiter are overseeing the conflict, assessing the relative virtues of each drive in the way Korsgaard imagines. Nietzsche arguess that our intellect, weighing in on the conflict, is only the “blind tool of another drive” - that the experience of combating a drive is actually just one drive “complaining about another” (D 109). The intellect, of course, cannot bring any of its own force to bear on the conflict because, despite our imagining it as “essentially opposed to the instincts”, it is “actually nothing but a certain behaviour of the instincts towards one another” (GS 333, see also BGE 36). In a note from 1885 Nietzsche considers that consciousness, while experienced superficially as a unity distinct from the manifold of impulses, is actually the result of the “interaction and struggle” of a “multiplicity of subjects”:

The assumption of one single subject is perhaps unnecessary; perhaps it is just as permissible to assume a multiplicity of subjects, whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our thought and consciousness in general. (WP 490, my emphasis)

Nietzsche presents us with a commonwealth composed of souls which are conceived as active drives or wills, breaking entirely with the theory of a unitary soul whose ideal is disinterested contemplation. Proponents of the “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject” tend to hold that being in the grip of an impulse distorts one’s view. While Nietzsche certainly accepts that drives can oppose knowledge[4] he also denies that there is any knowledge, any seeing at all without drives. Indeed, disinterested contemplation, as an “eye from nowhere”, could not have the “active power of interpretation which turns seeing into seeing something” (GM III.12, my emphasis). An eye which “sees from nowhere”, Nietzsche writes, “is impossible to imagine”. But what exactly is this active power of interpretation?

In so far as the word ‘knowledge’ has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings. - ‘Perspectivism.’

It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm. (WP 481)

So the drives themselves are the locus of evaluative power, their evaluations entrenched in our thinking and perceiving. But what of this question of unity of the self when Nietzsche has stressed this subject-multiplicity so much? Many commentators in fact take Nietzsche to be a “prophet of disunity”, as denying the possibility of any unitary self whatsoever.[5] In the next section we will look deeper into how Nietzschean unity stands with respect to the manifold self.


The version of the predominance thesis which I hope to defend can be summarised in four broad claims which we will now spend some time with: (1) the self is constituted by a plurality of drives, (2) unity of self is a condition wherein one drive (or group of drives) dominates all others, (3) consciousness is a mode of the interaction between drives, (4) unity is a precondition of genuine agency.

In Composing the Soul, Graham Parkes notes that, despite Nietzsche’s emphasis on the multiplicity of drives in the soul, he nonetheless also stresses the importance of disciplining those drives and imposing order upon them.[6] Nietzsche speaks disparagingly of a “feeble vacillation back and forth between different drives” (HH 278) and in passages like D 272, BGE 200, and BGE 208 we see him diagnosing corruption resulting from:

inheritance of a diversified descent, that is to say contrary and often not merely contrary drives and values which struggle with one another and rarely leave one another in peace – such a man of late cultures and broken lights will, on average, be a rather weak man… (BGE 200)

Having too many drives which interfere with one another can exhaust a person, leading Nietzsche to declare that:

that which becomes most profoundly sick and degenerates in such hybrids is the will… (BGE 208)

Owing to our subject-multiplicity we often find that first this evaluation then that comes to the fore in a fruitless shifting back and forth between weaker drives, none of which can develop any momentum. Nietzsche writes that “a dance is not a languid reeling back and forth between drives” but rather requires “strength and suppleness” (HH 278). The predominance thesis, then, holds that unity in an agent emerges when a drive or drives come to dominate all other drives, putting an end to this “fruitless back and forth”. Nietzsche writes:

The multitude and disgregation of impulses and the lack of any systematic order among [the drives] result in a ‘weak will’; their co-ordination under a single predominant impulse results in a ‘strong will’: in the first case it is the oscillation and the lack of gravity; in the latter, the precision and clarity of direction. (WP 46)

We see that lack of systematic order among impulses results in a weak will, whereas a predominant drive offers one “precision and clarity of direction”. As an illustrative example of unity we might consider the ascetic philosopher from essay three of the Genealogy. The meaning of the ascetic ideal for the philosopher is to properly cultivate the soil where knowledge grows and so to turn away from other drives which may squander the nervous energy required. Nietzsche, for instance, remarks that the philosopher “loathes marriage” as an “obstacle and disaster on the path to the optimum” (GM III.7) and that the “domineering passion” of these philosophers may also have had to “bridle an unrestrained and irritable pride or a wilful sensuality” (GM III.8). Significantly, this is not out of “hatred of the senses” but the “will of their domineering instinct (GM III.8). This domineering drive suspends any other drives which would deprive it of its “clarity of direction”, at least “in times of pregnancy”.

Nietzsche seems to think of predominance as a necessary condition of the great person. In Essay II of the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche insists that the history of morality up to now has been preparing for the advent of a sovereign individual who has the right to make promises - one who has their own “independent, enduring will” (GM II.2, my emphasis). Elsewhere Nietzsche speaks of how for the Germans the “the strength to will, and to will one thing for a long time” was stronger (BGE 208). In the same passage he speaks of a coming age of grand politics” which can set its goals “thousands of years ahead”.

Similarly in The Gay Science we see Nietzsche talking of this protracted will with respect to science, insisting that a study of moral matters will take several generations, “centuries of experimentation”, to complete (GS 7). Though he certainly has his reservations about whether science’s “cyclopic buildings” are possible at all, nevertheless we see a sense in all of this that truly great tasks demand extended efforts which cannot permit of interruption from competing drives. For the great man must have a “long logic in all his activity” and “the ability to extend his will across great stretches of his life” (WP 962). The domineering drive has to be powerful enough to defend “against accidents, even ‘against fate’” (GM II.2).

A disunified soul, however, would not be able to accomplish the things which, e.g. the ascetic philosopher accomplishes. As a result of lacking the strength to placate intervening drives, one’s existence would be a series of short-lived projects wherein the only persistent activities one might pursue are when we are forced to do something. As Ken Gemes puts it:

Consider [Nietzsche’s] account of herd man; he is a mere collection of ever fluctuating, competing drives, with different drives dominating at different times. Such an animal cannot take on genuine commitments to the future, for such a being has no genuine continuity over time.[7]

Interestingly, however, Gemes holds that one must be unified in order to have a character at all, which implies that one must be unified in order for actions to be able to be attributable to that character.

To have a character is to have a stable, unified, and integrated hierarchy of drives […] Modern man, who is at the mercy of a menagerie of competing forces, internal and external, has no such character.[8]

The distinction between genuine action and mere behaviour is here construed as the difference between being the locus of various disorganised forces and being “the effective agent behind a doing”.[9] Though being the effective agent “behind” a doing cannot be the same thing as being a conscious I which stands distinct from the drives and co-ordinates their operation from afar.[10] The sense of selfhood bound to this kind of agency develops out of a predominant drive:

The I is not the attitude of one being to several (drives, thoughts, etc.) but the ego is a plurality of person-like forces, of which now this one now that one stands in the foreground and regards the others […] as the drives are in conflict, the feeling of the I is always strongest where the preponderance is […] Instinctively we make the predominant quantity momentarily into the whole ego and place all weaker drives perspectivally farther away… (KSA 9:6[70]; 1180)[11]

Unity demands that our “thoughts, desires, and actions are not haphazard but are instead connected to one another”[12] by means of the organising drive. Only then can we describe the operations of our psyche as manifesting a “self” - though a self which, unlike the atomistic soul, is more of an effect than a cause. Being a genuine agent, then, means having a character - something which, owing to our initial condition as a disorganised nexus of forces, we must first achieve.

It is clear from Nietzsche’s writings that the emergence of a predominant drive occurs prior to the event of conscious deliberation. The great person’s devotion to an idea or a cause grips them “inevitably, fatefully, involuntarily, as a river bursting its banks is involuntary” - the culmination of historic/physiological forces finally being discharged (TI IX.44). Elsewhere Nietzsche affirms the notion that development of the drives is a chance affair:

This alimentation thus becomes the work of chance: our daily experiences toss willy-nilly to this drive or that drive some prey that it seizes greedily, but the whole coming and going of these events exists completely apart from any meaningful connection to the alimentary needs of the sum drives (D 119).

This lack of conscious choice is reminiscent of the image of mounting “lack of gravity” in WP 46, evoking the idea that this will is not something we stand over and control but rather something which grounds us and pulls us inexorably in one direction. Nietzsche writes:

“I have no idea what I’m doing! I have no idea what I should do!” You’re right, but make no mistake about it: you are being done! moment by every moment! Humanity has, through all ages, confused the active and the passive, it is the everlasting grammatical blunder. (D 120)

Unity of self, then, is something which happens to us, like all strivings of will, and which therefore takes a bit of fortuity and the right circumstances to bring about. Even if we choose, as Nietzsche did, to move to places more conducive to creativity, to judge a place more “conducive” is still an evaluation and the work of a drive.

The predominance thesis, then, can be construed as an account of the conditions necessary for genuine action. A disunified self would be fragmentary and disorganised, unable to participate in something like “grand politics” or the establishment of science’s “cyclopic buildings” without being steered off course by intervening drives. A unified self is a self with a purpose, or as Parkes puts it, a “task”, which is constituted by a strong drive. As we saw in D 109, one comes to identify with the “winning drive” (it defines ones character[13]) which squares with the tendency we have for understanding ourselves and others in terms of the drives which win out in us, perhaps leading us to live a life as “an artist” or maybe even “a soldier”.

We have considered the Nietzschean self as a subject-multiplicity and have explored the possibility of unifying this multiplicity under the governance of a predominant drive or drives. With this interpretation on the table we will next go on to consider Katsafanas’ arguments against the interpretation I have outlined, beginning first with some textual concerns before moving on to the philosophical argument.


Katsafanas wants first to deal with passages like WP 46 cited above which offer the strongest evidence in favour of the predominance thesis. He proceeds by stressing another element of Nietzsche’s attitude toward the drives: his praise of inconsistency and conflict amongst them.[14] Katsafanas cites the following passage (from 1884):

In contrast to the animals, man has cultivated an abundance of contrary drives and impulses within himself: thanks to this synthesis, he is master of the earth […] The highest man would have the greatest multiplicity of drives, in the relatively greatest strength that can be endured. Indeed, where the plant “man” shows himself strongest one finds instincts that conflict powerfully (e.g. in Shakespeare) but are controlled. (WP 966)

In this passage Nietzsche appears not to be praising the dominance of drives over other drives, but rather explicitly encouraging multiplicity and even conflict among the drives (albeit controlled conflict). But are these remarks actually in conflict with the predominance thesis? Taken at face value, we would want to say yes – however this would be to ignore a nuance of Nietzsche’s attitude towards encouraging multiplicity and even conflict among drives. In the passage Katsafanas cites, there is a middle section left unquoted which may provide a clue:

Moralities are the expression of locally limited orders of rank in his multifarious world of drives, so man should not perish through their contradictions. Thus a drive as master, its opposite weakened, refined, as the impulse that provides the stimulus for the activity of the chief drive. (WP 966)

The idea then, it seems, is that conflict amongst the drives is not beneficial “in itself” but is rather intended to provide some sort of stimulation for the chief drive itself. But what kind of stimulation? To help us out here, recall one of the passages on “diversified descent” cited above where we see Nietzsche claiming that internal conflict among drives makes certain types weary:

The man of an era of dissolution […] contains within him the inheritance of a diversified descent, that is to say contrary and not merely contradictory drives and values […] his fundamental desire is that the war he is should come to an end (BGE 200).

As we saw above, Nietzsche feels that these origins can run one down because the various drives expend the energy of the organism in their conflict with one another (D 272). Nietzsche’s praise of inconsistent drives seems strange in this light. The conflicted person becomes exhausted by their inner conflict and simply wishes for it to cease - their happiness in keeping with the happiness of a “sedative”.

If, however, the contrariety and war in such a nature should act as one more stimulus and enticement to life – and if, on the other hand, in addition to powerful and irreconcilable drives, there has also been inherited and cultivated a proper mastery and subtlety in conducting a war against oneself, that is to say self-control […] then there arise those marvellously incomprehensible and unfathomable men […] pre-destined for victory. (BGE 200)

Here we see that a curious feature of Nietzsche’s view is that multiple origins does not necessarily lead to a weakened physiological, and therefore cultural, profile. In fact this conflict can actually serve as the stimulus and strengthening power of one who has practiced self-control and self-mastery, which as we discovered in D 109, can only be the mastery of another drive. In a telling remark at the end of the passage, Nietzsche states that both the weak person craving sedation and the strong who thrive on conflict grow out of the same condition: conflicting drives. The reason for Nietzsche’s ambiguity on the value of conflicting drives, then, is that they can be damaging to the physiologically weak but can actually forge any stronger, more domineering drives.


We should now consider Katsafanas’ philosophical argument against interpreting unity as the predominance of a drive or drives over all others. The argument turns on the idea of genuine agency and claims that we do not want to consider someone who is, for example, dominated by an urge to drink alcohol as manifesting “agential control” when they give in to the urge. Katsafanas uses this example to argue that the predominance thesis makes a mistaken assumption, namely that the dominant part has some special claim to being representative of the self. Rather, he suggests, we tend to locate the agent in the inclinations against the powerful impulse to drink.[15] We often say “they overcame their demons” just as when someone is in the grip of such a passion we might say “they are not themselves”.

Katsafanas is troubled by the notion that if “the deliberating agent’s thoughts and actions are guided, sometimes decisively, by her drives, can the actions that issue from her genuinely be regarded as her doings?”[16] He remarks that “it seems perverse to claim that when such an alcoholic succumbs to his addiction he is manifesting agential control”.[17] Indeed, we tend to see an alcoholic as the victim of a drive to intoxication but do not see, for example, a mountain climber as the victim of a drive to conquer (or whatever it happens to be). The alcoholic themselves may see their impulses as an alien force impinging upon them and making them do something they don’t want to do. We say they “give in” to the urge – the “they” being the agent who reflectively judges alcohol to be harmful. How might we deal with this objection?

Alva Noë makes an interesting and often overlooked point about addiction and like behaviours: they are meaningful in the context of the addict’s life. Noë situates addictive behaviour amidst:

the pattern of needs, options, values, preferences and pressures that structure the person's ongoing life in a community with others.[18]

That one is not merely under assault by blind and impersonal forces and that these actions rather make sense in the context of an addict’s life is something we could imagine Nietzsche considering. After all, his talk of drives is laden with personal metaphor, even leading some commentators to consider the drives to be agents in their own right.[19] Without entering too deeply into what precisely Nietzsche means to imply with this agential language, it is enough to say that the drives are not simply portrayed as blind, mechanistic processes (even if we are in the dark over what the drives are striving for, or why). Nietzsche’s remarks on the “English psychologists” forewarn us against interpreting the “directing force of human development” as “passive, automatic, reflex-like” (GM I.1). He writes elsewhere:

The causa sui is the best self-contradiction hitherto imagined […] the desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in that metaphysical superlative sense […] the desire to bear the whole and sole responsibilities for one’s actions and to absolve God, world, ancestors, chance, society from responsibility from them is nothing more than the desire to be precisely that causa sui […] I would ask whoever [banishes this conception of free will] also banish […] ‘unfree will’.  ‘Unfree will’ is a myth: in real life it is only a question of strong and weak wills… (BGE 21, my emphasis).

Nietzsche chastises both proponents of the “metaphysical superlative” account of free will, seeking to be their own causa sui, and the proponents of the “unfree will”, who Nietzsche pens as hoping to be absolved of the burden of responsibility. The idea of an “unfree will” echoes the interpretation of man as “passive, automatic, reflex-like” which beckons Nietzsche ire in GM I.1. It is not, then, that one has “metaphysical freedom”, that we are not determined by participation in necessity, but nor is it that we are merely clockwork mechanisms behaving passively. The only story is the story of strong and weak wills, their evaluations, and their struggles.

While we saw that Nietzsche insists we are “being done”, that we confuse “the active and passive”, nonetheless he is also keen to stress the active power of interpretation which drives bring to bear (GM III.12). The drive or drives which constitute a given person’s addiction tend toneutralize the value of everything else”[20], rendering things one once cherished, or things one otherwise might have cherished, as uninteresting or simply not valuable:

Owing to the contrasts other states of consciousness present and to the wasteful squandering of their nervous energy, people who live for sublime and enraptured moments are usually wretched and disconsolate; they view those moments [of intoxication] as their true self and the misery and despair as the effect of everything “outside the self; thus, the thought of their environment, their age, their entire world fills them with vengeful emotions. (D 50)

While not only referring to people who literally crave intoxication through drugs[21], these remarks contribute nicely towards painting a more personal picture of addiction. Nietzsche writes that a wasteful squandering of energy precedes the destitute condition of chasing intoxication. One whose nervous energy is routinely squandered should tend to feel lethargic and will accordingly seek comfort, tranquillity, and exhibit an unwillingness to take on bold tasks. Nietzsche describes this character-type as “world weary”, and insists that any other ends - be they moral, artistic, religious – are for them merely an impediment to intoxication. This drive to intoxication subordinates all others, evaluating everything else negatively as possibilities which merely stand in the way of one’s only access to “sublime and enraptured moments”.

One thing Nietzsche does stress is that things have multiple meanings which are prone to change over time (see e.g., GM II.13 for punishment and all of GM III on ascetic ideals) and addiction is no exception to this. What it means to be addicted to something is related intimately to the personal circumstances of that agent. Characterising the alcoholic’s craving as a mere “drive to drink” gives the impression that impersonal forces are at work. Bearing in mind Nietzsche’s remarks about the drive to intoxication we might be better off describing it, e.g. as a will to sublime feelings in one who has a hard time experiencing them without alcohol, or perhaps an attempt to nullify one’s recurring anxieties. However we make sense of it, it is important is to distinguish the ruling passion from a blind mechanical force and to situate the drive in the context of the agent’s life. An alcoholic may be struggling with their family situation, career, or perhaps dealing with a personal trauma.

When we step aside from the interpretation of addiction which sees it as akin to an impersonal impulse, it seems far less perverse to accept the conclusion that giving in to those cravings is an act attributable to the agent. Rather than seeing the addict as a hapless victim of a wayward drive, it may indeed turn out to be more illuminating if we pay attention to why an addict behaves like they do. From this perspective we might indeed come to understand the alcoholic’s giving in to their impulse to drink as the action most reflective of their character, by virtue of its being the predominant response to one’s circumstances. For better or worse, the drives which come to dominate a person also become characteristic of them, representing their life circumstances and how they cope with them.


We have considered textual evidence in favour of interpreting Nietzsche as intending by “unity” a predominance of one drive or drives over others. We have explored notions of genuine agency and mere behaviour common to contemporary discussions in the philosophy of action and have considered what the predominance thesis suggests about how Nietzsche’s drive psychology stands with respect to the distinction. To this end we also considered Paul Katsafanas’ textual and philosophical objections, concluding that Katsafanas’ philosophical argument characterises the phenomenon of addiction in ways that are improper to the personal character of the phenomenon itself and which, on my understanding, Nietzsche would not accept.


·         Gemes, K. “Nietzsche on Free Will, Autonomy, and the Sovereign Individual”, in “Nietzsche on Freedom and Autonomy”, Eds. Gemes & May, Oxford University Press, 2009

·         Gemes, K. “Postmodernism’s Use and Abuse of Nietzsche”, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 62, No. 2, 2001

·         Katsafanas, P. “Nietzsche’s Philosophical Psychology”, (available at:

·         Katsafanas, P. “The Concept of Unified Agency in Nietzsche, Plato, and Schiller”, in Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 49, No. 1 , 2011

·         Korsgaard, C. “The Sources of Normativity” Cambridge University Press, 1996

·         Nehamas, A. “Nietzsche: Life as Literature”, Harvard University Press, 1985

·         Nietzsche, F. “Beyond Good and Evil”, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 2003

·         Nietzsche, F. “Dawn”, trans. Brittain Smith, Stanford University Press, 2011

·         Nietzsche, F. “Ecce Homo”, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 2004

·         Nietzsche, F. “Human, All Too Human”, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, 1988

·         Nietzsche, F. “On the Genealogy of Morals”, trans. Douglas Smith, Oxford University Press, 2008

·         Nietzsche, F. “The Gay Science”, trans. Walter Kaufmann, Vintage Books, 1974

·         Nietzsche, F. “The Will to Power”, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale, Vintage Books, 1968

·         Nietzsche, F. “Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ”, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 2003

·         Noë, A. “Addiction: A Disorder of Choice?” (

·         Parkes, G. “Composing the Soul”, University of Chicago Press, 1994

[1] Korsgaard, C. “The Sources of Normativity” Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 100
[2] Gemes, K. “Nietzsche on Free Will, Autonomy, and the Sovereign Individual”, in “Nietzsche on Freedom and Autonomy”, Eds. Gemes & May, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 44-46 (henceforth “NFAS”)
[3] Parkes, G. “Composing the Soul”, University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 274 (henceforth “CS”)
[4] See e.g. KSA 9:11[141], cited in Parkes, G. “Composing the Soul”, University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 305 (henceforth “CS”)
[5] Gemes, K. “Postmodernism’s Use and Abuse of Nietzsche”, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 62, No. 2, 2001, p. 339 (henceforth “PUA”)
[6] Parkes, G. CS”, p. 280
[7] Gemes, K. “PUA”, p. 343
[8] Gemes, K. NFAS”, p. 38 (my emphasis)
[9] Ibid. p. 34 (note: to be “behind” a doing in this sense simply means to be responsible for it)
[10] Ibid. p. 48
[11] Cited in Parkes, G. “CS”, p. 292 and p. 447 (my emphasis)
[12] Nehamas, A. “Nietzsche: Life as Literature”, Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 7  (cited in Gemes, K. “PUA”)
[13] Gemes, K. “NFAS”, p. 48
[14] Katsafanas, P. “The Concept of Unified Agency in Nietzsche, Plato, and Schiller”, in Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 49, No. 1 , 2011, p. 97 (henceforth “CUA”)
[15] Katsafanas, P. “CUA”, p. 98
[16] Katsafanas, P. “Nietzsche’s Philosophical Psychology”, (available at:, p. 40 (henceforth “NPP”)
[17] Katsafanas, P. “CUA”, p. 99
[19] See e.g., Katsafanas, P. “NPP”, pp. 4-7 for a helpful discussion of the “homuncular reading” and its proponents.
[21] D 188 seems to allow feeling inspired by a charming leader of some kind to qualify as intoxication in this broad sense.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Way of Eastern Philosophy

It's regrettable that I often come across philosophers who decry Eastern philosophy for it's "lack of rigour", or who find fault with the lack of argument*. After deciding to undertake a concerted study of Eastern philosophy it quickly became apparent to me that here lay two very different modes of engaging in the work of philosophy. In a nutshell, misunderstandings come down to quite different methodological approaches which uncover truth in two different respects. What stands as truth in one mode does not stand as truth in another. 

With this considered, it is easy to see why a "Western" philosopher may disregard Eastern philosophy as nonsense, because the way to truth in which the Western philosopher typically moves is different. There is no premise-conclusion structure. Claims seem merely to appear on the page.** In lieu of an experiential connection to phenomena, thought relies on cognition to deliver us to truth. When confronted with this situation we begin from things which we are reasonably sure are true and then produce the logical consequences of those things in order to discover further truths which we are not independently sure are true. A claim which simply stands on a page can lead us down neither route.

Much philosophy which comes from what you might call a broadly "Eastern" perspective lays great emphasis on practice. And by that I mean it is much closer to what you might typically think of as the development of a skill such as painting rather than aptitude in largely cognitive operations. In Eastern philosophy a great deal of effort is made towards ammending one's way of being (gardening, walking, practicing sitting meditation, etc.) As far as I can explain it with words, the basic idea is to stop your racing thoughts because the ways in which we habitually think are too hasty/shallow or simply block us from seeing a phenomenon which we're attempting to perceive. The central claim is that learning to calm these thoughts can alter the mode of your perception in such a way as to open you up to different kinds of insights, unable to be appreciated in other modes.

Instead of offering arguments or providing evidence, then, the business of this kind of philosophy gets underway in inviting somebody to see for themselves by practice. In this respect there is hope for mutual understanding: our shared respect for concrete experience. And I can tell you that it is possible to discover truths in this way, but I cannot hope to convince you of that. What I do know is that you will never be able to appreciate the truth as disclosed through such methods by reading words off a page. And that is why they don't present arguments.

Another unfortunate misunderstanding of Eastern philosophy is that because it cherishes "ignorance" that it is for stupidity and laziness. But again, this comes down to a failure to appreciate the different modes in which one can discover truth. It is not what we think of as ignorance which these methods espouse, but rather having too much knowlege and not enough understanding. The idea is that one becomes more ignorant the more knowledge one acquires. Knowledge can give us access to truth, but too much knowledge can prevent us from seeing the truth. It's simple enough to appreciate this and doesn't even require hours of skillful stillness under a cherry blossom! We can all recall times when we got in trouble by hanging onto too many beliefs about how things are, disregarding what was before our eyes. This popular dismissive understanding of Eastern philosophy is arguably one such case.


* I am well aware that there is a body of argumentative philosophy in India, China, and elsewhere - I do not aim to defend these philosophies here, and all references to Eastern philosophy should be taken to refer to the various forms of what is perhaps shortsightedly described as "mystic" philosophy. I am also aware that many of these "mystics" did engage in public discussion (Chuang-Tzu would often wind up Hui-Tzu, for instance), but the work is not to be found solely or even primarily in debate.

** This criticism often lands on the doorstep of many Western philosophers. I have heard it said of Nietzsche and it is certainly not uncommon to find this said of Martin Heidegger's work. There are well documented similarities in methodology between Eastern thinkers and the particular stream of Western philosophy in which Nietzsche and Heidegger stand. This short essay can stand as a defence of those philosophies as well.