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Christian J. Emden, Nietzsche on Language, Consciousness, and the Body

Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005

Reviewed by M. Gregory Oakes


In his Nietzsche on Language, Consciousness, and the Body, Christian J. Emden makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought. The general focus of Emden’s study is Nietzsche’s account of mind and knowledge as informed by their physiological and cultural setting. Emden approaches Nietzsche from a historiographical perspective, situating Nietzsche in the context of 19th Century German thought. Philosophers and historians of ideas will find much to appreciate in this well-researched and well-written study.

Emden’s study reveals a Nietzsche firmly embedded in the intellectual tradition of his time, and while Emden eschews evaluating Nietzsche’s work, the resulting interpretation reveals a clear, careful, and complex thinker. The 19th Century was a vigorous intellectual period in Europe, and Nietzsche was witness to important developments in philosophy, linguistics, history, anthropology, sociology, philology, and psychology, as well as in biology, chemistry, physics, and human physiology. Attention to Nietzsche’s interest in these topics helps diminish the problematic and even radical appearance of Nietzsche’s thought, according to Emden. In the following, I summarize Emden’s interpretation of Nietzsche, and then offer brief evaluative remarks. (A philosopher, I speak less to Emden’s knowledgeable discussion of German intellectual history.)

Of primary concern to Emden is the epistemological integrity of Nietzsche’s work, and the key element here is Nietzsche’s account of metaphor. Metaphor is at bottom a rhetorical phenomenon, a linguistic structure of considerable interest in its own right. Nietzsche maintains, however, that metaphor is intrinsic to all linguistic representation, and thus to thought and knowledge generally, which view raises significant logical difficulties. If all language is metaphor — if, that is, there is no literal meaning or use in language — then the concept of metaphor itself threatens to collapse as marking no distinction in linguistic kind.

Relevant to Nietzsche’s understanding of metaphor is his early interest in rhetoric, which quickly takes on philosophical significance. As a relatively mainstream participant in the philological studies of his time, Nietzsche explored the relationship between language and culture as found in classical Greece and Rome, where a principal issue is the proper role of rhetoric in public discourse. This issue is the subject of early lectures and writing by Nietzsche, in which he addresses the vexed relationship between rhetorical thought and philosophical discourse: these are two sides of the same coin, he finds, where a proper sophist is aware of the aesthetic dimension of our main epistemological tool — language. As presented by Emden, we see Nietzsche’s work in the context of his philological peers, many of whom held views similar to those of Nietzsche, or even more “radical”; by comparison, Nietzsche’s views appear at once judicious and penetrating. Nietzsche emerges from his philological studies as a philosopher puzzling over the joint truth-bearing and persuasive roles of language. He differs from his philological contemporaries in emphasizing the philosophical significance of a rhetorical problem, but his allegiance to philology distinguishes him from many philosophical observers, as well. Where Plato and Locke reject eloquence as inappropriate to philosophy, and where Leibniz recognizes the difficulties of avoiding it, Nietzsche embraces the rhetorical element as inherent in language.

Nietzsche’s understanding of metaphor is strongly influenced by his perception of the seat of mind and language as in the body. This relationship is the subject of early as well as late attention. In his early work, Nietzsche’s concern is with signs and the referential capacity of language. His rejection of direct linguistic reference to reality is a consequence of his interpretation of language as an organic process: we can refer only and at best to sensory stimuli and the beliefs they inspire. This raises the question how communication is possible, to which Nietzsche responds with his doctrine of metaphor. Metaphor is a means of transferring a sign from one human to another, but because no linguistic sign refers directly to reality, communication will necessarily be indeterminate. This indeterminacy is underscored by the physiological processes grounding the mental, a subject of increasing prominence in Nietzsche’s later work. In the 19th Century, these processes were understood in terms of “organic electricity”, and as one who suffered from several nervous maladies, Nietzsche was doubly sensitive to the question of their significance for human conscious experience.

Metaphor and physiology meet most importantly in memory, where Nietzsche finds the seat of human consciousness. The central question remains, however: how are human thought and knowledge possible if thought consists in indeterminate metaphor, a product of mindless physical process? As revealed by Emden, Nietzsche demonstrates both courage and restraint in addressing this matter. He has the courage to draw the logical conclusion of his contemporary physiological and linguistic sciences: clearly, the human mind is a product of human physiology, in conjunction with the broader influences of social interaction — in particular, the need for communication. On the other hand, Nietzsche is careful not to fall into a facile reductionism about the mental. Rather, he does what the best philosophers do: hold up for our inspection the terms of an issue, advancing our understanding by delineating their connection to other terms and fields, while detailing the significance of the issue for our personal lives and cultural institutions. In other words, the problems inherent in Nietzsche’s metaphorical account of memory, of language, and ultimately of consciousness, knowledge, mind, and society are best understood not as the excesses of a maverick philosopher, but as the legitimate efforts to synthesize the rapidly evolving and complex terms of a profound and persistent problem. Nietzsche does not solve the mind-body problem; nor should we expect him to do. But his efforts to advance towards a solution are natural, in the context of 19th Century Germany, and exhilarating in the context of human thought at large.

Readers will judge for themselves the merits of Emden’s analysis, which I found plausible and well-documented. Likely, the reader will be impressed with Emden’s scholarship, as I was. Emden’s knowledge of Nietzsche’s work is comprehensive and detailed, and he has discovered new sources of interest in Nietzsche’s lectures and lecture notes. His knowledge of historical work in the sciences, linguistics, philology, anthropology, and related fields is likewise admirable. And philosophers will be especially pleased at his familiarity with not only the history of philosophy, but also its most important voices on both sides of the continental divide. Valuable bibliography and endnotes complete the package.

Winthrop University