Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

You are here: Home » Journal of Nietzsche Studies » Reviews » Robin Small, Time and Becoming in Nietzsche’s Thought
Document Actions

Robin Small, Time and Becoming in Nietzsche’s Thought

London and NewYork: Continuum, 2010. xii + 202 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4411-8965-3. Cloth, $120.00.

Reviewed by Wolter Hartog

Nietzsche’s interpretation and conceptualization of becoming has already generated a lot of discussion, but less attention has been paid to his treatment of the specifically temporal aspects of the process of becoming. And to the extent that Nietzsche’s approach to time and temporality has been discussed, the issue tends to be reduced to his thought of eternal recurrence. In his new study, Robin Small argues that there is much more to say about Nietzsche’s conception of temporality: about “his approach to questions about the nature of becoming, and about past, present and future,” about the specifically human experience of temporality, and about the interconnected notions of memory, guilt, and responsibility (2).

Small’s first two chapters are dedicated to showing the interrelations between the two main themes of his book, time and becoming. Small argues that Nietzsche regarded the “reality of becoming” as an absolute fact, and he shows how Nietzsche developed his main arguments for this fact in dialogue with contemporaries such as Afrikan Spir, Eduard von Hartmann, Philipp Mainländer, and Eugen Dühring.  According to Small, Nietzsche presents time primarily as an interpretation of the fact of becoming, and he distinguishes from this a more primal, actual time(-chaos)—that is, the time of becoming itself, in which the representation of time takes place. As a part of the struggle of becoming, Small argues, the human organism acquires a personal “measure of time”—a notion inspired by Karl Ernst von Baer—on the basis of which it projects a particular rhythm as a form upon the continuous process of becoming. With this context in mind, Small devotes his third chapter to a careful analysis of Nietzsche’s early design of a “time-atom theory” (KSA 7:26[12]).  Small interprets this theory as an attempt to develop an alternative to the dominant scientific outlook that goes back to the ancient atomistic and Eleatic thinkers and that gives priority to space over time. He concludes, however, that Nietzsche’s attempt to invert this model in his theory of temporal “time-points” cannot account for the radical continuity of becoming and eventually leads to “a hyper-Eleatic apotheosis of the moment as a radically isolated monad”—something the later Nietzsche will consider “an unreal abstraction from becoming” (76-7).

According to Small, Nietzsche starts to use new, metaphorical expressions to symbolize time, motion, and becoming in his later work, especially in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  More specifically, Small argues in the fourth and fifth chapters of his book that the images of the mountain path, the gateway, and the lanes in the “On the Vision and the Riddle” chapter of Z presuppose a context of power and conflict. The mountain path symbolizes the parts of time, whereas the gateway and the lanes represent the forms (eideai) of time (past, present, and future). Accordingly, the mountain path, stretched out between the high peak and the abyss down below, and in tension between the way upward and the way down, symbolizes the struggle of forces within the human organism. As a result of this struggle, the human organism acquires its personal measure of time. Accordingly, Small interprets the image of the gateway-Augenblick not just as a perspectival representation of the forms of time (past and future, from the perspective of the present moment), but also as a dynamic representation of the conflict between past and future.

Now, according to Small, recognizing the perspectival and dynamic nature of the moment is of pivotal importance for understanding the riddle of the gateway. He argues that Zarathustra blames the dwarf for discarding the perspectival aspect of the moment when he replies that “all that is straight lies,” and that “all truth is crooked,” and from these concludes that “time itself is a circle.”[1]  In a very interesting discovery, Small finds a literal parallel between the reply of the dwarf and a passage in Gustav Teichmüller’s Darwinismus und Philosophie.[2] In this passage, Teichmüller describes how an ordinary, perspectival experience of time would appear in light of his doctrine that “time behaves like a circle,” namely as an experience, “in which the crooked must appear straight and the straight appear crooked” (115). Accordingly, Zarathustra’s rebuke of the dwarf’s response is a rejection of Teichmüller’s conception of the world as a circular, timeless totality. Zarathustra reproaches the dwarf for trying to go beyond the appearance of perspectival time in order to resolve the conflict between past and future by arriving at the reality of circular time, in which this contradiction appears to be an illusion. By contrast, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra does not believe in overcoming appearance for the sake of reality, and moreover, would take the image of a circle to be insufficient for representing recurring time, since it dismisses the movement of time.

Small next makes the even more challenging argument that the symbolization of time as a circle actually implies finite time.  It cannot imply the infinite time that it is traditionally supposed to represent and that is presupposed by Zarathustra’s image of the gateway with its infinite lanes. After all, he argues, a circle has a finite magnitude and therefore two points on it are always positioned at a finite distance from each other. And so, he concludes,we arrive at the following dilemma:

we can speak of a circular time, within which any event occurs just once, or at most a finite number of times, or else of an infinite time within which a finite number of events occur again and again, but not both (129).

Accordingly, a circle can only serve to represent the sequence of events that recur infinitely many times, but not infinite time itself. In order to include infinite time as well, we should imagine an additional finger, which traverses the circumference of the circle (the recurring events) again and again.  But in that case, Small argues, we revert to a linear model of time.

Although Small’s argument is quite intriguing, I do not think that it reflects Nietzsche’s actual considerations. Nietzsche did not seem to have a problem with talking about eternal recurrence in terms of a circular course or repetition (Kreislauf, wiederholung; cf. e.g. KSA 9:11[157], 11[203], 11[311]), and he continually makes use of traditional images of cyclical time, such as the wheel (Rad) of time and the image of the ourobouros. So I would argue that, rather than refuting the dwarf’s assertion that time is a circle, Zarathustra spells out the concrete implications of this assertion for himself and the dwarf and the very moment they are in. In advocating the thought of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche does seem to want to overcome the model of linear mechanistic time, which still implies a causal and teleological logic (cf. esp. KSA 13:14[188]). And he seems to want to do this with a circular model, in which every event or “moment” has its own necessity (cf. e.g. KSA 12:5[71].7; 13:14[79]), without being causally determined by previous events or occurrences (since this presupposes a linear logic again).

When Small argues that we presuppose a linear model of time if we imagine time to traverse the circumference of the circle more than one time, he himself seems to revert to a linear model of thinking that is not strictly obligatory. We could imagine time traversing a circle time and again, without being able to determine its start or end position, and thereby postulate its infinity. If we want to determine the length of time in this model, we either need to establish a beginning and end position, or occupy a position within the circle itself, and thereby indeed enter into a linear model of time again. But this act, just like the act of counting the number of times around the circle, is simply incompatible with a circular model of time. So, although Small’s argument that the circular model necessarily presupposes finite time is not compelling, it does point to the limits of this model.  We should therefore conclude that both external models of time end up in anomaly and are eventually inadequate to represent the very notion of the “world as a circular course [Kreislauf], which has repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game in infinitum” (KSA 13:14[188], my own translation).

For this reason, Small is right in emphasizing that for Nietzsche the thought of eternal recurrence is only significant from a perspectival standpoint within the infinite, circular course of becoming (as opposed to any attempt to represent the thought from an external point of view) (139). In addition, he nicely points out that it is only when the thought is formulated in tensed language of past and future (McTaggart’s A-series), relative to the perspective of the present moment, that it can have significance for human life and for the concrete individual in his temporal condition (140-2). The final two chapters are dedicated to pointing out this precise relevance of the thought of eternal recurrence. In the seventh chapter, Small demonstrates convincingly that the eternal perspective and impact, which the thought is supposed to bring about and which enables “man to see himself from a distance and as something past and whole,” distinguishes Nietzsche’s philosophy, together with traditional religious worldviews, from the modern political secularism that only brings about self-conceited and “fleeting individuals” (142-7). By contrast, the eternal perspective should incite the individual to change himself the way he is, just as the young shepherd in “On the Vision and Riddle” is transformed and overcomes himself.

With regard to the how and what of this self-overcoming, Small notes that the relevant text remains very ambiguous, and he himself remains rather ambiguous as well. The final chapter tries to develop this “higher state of being” (152) by way of Zarathustra’s notion of “the way of greatness” in the opening chapter of part III of Z (“The Wanderer”). Small interprets the way of greatness as another stage that is beyond the lanes of the gateway and the mountain path, which are associated with walking and climbing, respectively.  But the forms of movement of the way of greatness are those of dancing and flying (151-6). Dancing symbolizes the overcoming of conflict and the attainment of harmony, while flying represents the overcoming of gravity, and together, they illustrate the achievement of complete freedom and power (cf. Z III “Before Sunrise”; BGE 193). According to Small, the temporal mode connected to the way of greatness is the "hour" (Stunde), which in contrast to the conflict of past and future in the moment, encompasses and incorporates past and future into a reconciling, living present (158-161). “Of all Nietzsche’s temporal concepts,” Small writes, the notion of the hour “is the most neglected by scholars” (161) and yet it “is one of Nietzsche’s most important insights, and the culminating point of his thinking on time and becoming” (157). Moreover, Small suggests, “Nietzsche’s concept of the hour is the clearest expression of [the] possibility” of “reconciliation with time and something higher than any reconciliation” (166). While this suggestion is certainly interesting, I find it disappointing, especially in light of the promising preceding chapters, that Small has not been able offer a clearer account of the concept of the hour and the associated way of greatness.

Having said this, however, Small’s book remains on the whole an outstanding and valuable piece of scholarly work. Especially exemplary is Small’s research on Nietzsche’s own sources and the way in which he is able to use this research to shed light on Nietzsche’s texts. In addition, Small’s exposition of the relation between Nietzsche’s concepts of time and becoming is highly illuminating, and his proposal to read the central texts in Z in light of this ontological background is at least worth considering. For these reasons I would classify Small’s book as another landmark in the study of Nietzsche’s conception of temporality alongside Joan Stambaugh’s Untersuchungen zum Problem der Zeit bei Nietzsche,[3] and I would recommend it as indispensable in connection with the central themes he discusses.

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Leuven University) & Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO)


[1]Here and throughout I follow Small’s translations of passages from Z.

[2] It is not certain whether Nietzsche read the book in which the literal phrase that “from a mere perspectival picture” on time, “the crooked must appear straight and the straight appear crooked” appears, namely in: Gustav Teichmüller, Darwinismus und Philosophie (Dorpat: C. Mattiesen, 1877), 43. However, it is remarkable that Teichmüller explicitly refers to the passage in his later work, Die wirkliche und die scheinbare Welt. Neue Grundlegung der Metaphysik (Breslau: Wilhelm Koebner, 1882), 239, which Nietzsche almost certainly studied. Cf. also Thomas Brobjer, Nietzsche’s Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 52, 96-7, 137n5.

[3] J. Stambaugh, Untersuchungen zum Problem der Zeit bei Nietzsche (Den Haag: Nijhof, 1959) [Translation: Joan Stambaugh, The Problem of Time in Nietzsche, trans. John Fred Humphrey (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1987)].