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João Constâncio and Maria João Mayer Branco (eds.), Nietzsche on Instinct and Language

Berlin and Boston: de Gruyter, 2011. xxiv + 295 pp. ISBN: HB: 978-3-11-024656-8. Cloth, $140.

Reviewed by James Pearson

Nietzsche’s critique of the will to truth, and, more specifically, the metaphysical tradition, is inextricable from both his philosophy of language and his turn to physiology. Though the way in which Nietzsche conceived of the intertwinement of language, reason, and the body developed through the course of his philosophical maturation, it is nonetheless a recurrent motif spanning the breadth of his oeuvre. As the editors state in their introduction to Nietzsche on Instinct and Language (NIL), the volume aims at being a “fresh look” at Nietzsche’s repeated attempts to bridge these domains (xv). Beyond this singular and broad explicit aim, however, the volume intimates a number of other more specific aspirations. Indeed, first, this fresh look seems principally concerned with comprehensively mapping this very interrelation across its various formulations.

Another of Nietzsche’s critiques which is of key interest to NIL is his confrontation with the modern habit of preaching the authority and higher worth of reason over and against the compulsions of the body. As is well known, Nietzsche took it upon himself to subvert the diremption and hierarchicisation of these ‘antipodes’; hence, second, the topographical aspect of NIL appears to be directed at illustrating the precise way reason and the body are more properly understood as continuous with one another. Language becomes of prime importance to the volume since, being both a function of the body and the medium of dialectical thought, it represents the connective tissue weaving together mind and body beyond clear distinction.

In addition to the above, the editors’ introduction implies another, corollary objective of the volume—namely, to interrogate the self-reflexive issues raised by Nietzsche’s linguistics. Certainly, one must ask, if Nietzsche accepts language as instinctual and therefore as incapable of expressing a purely rational or transcendent form of truth, then where does this leave the truth value of his own texts? Or, more to the point, how is Nietzsche’s own use of language alive to, and, indeed, how does it embrace, the linguistic limitations of which it speaks? This is described in terms of his struggle to forge a new, critical-philosophical language. Though this is a recurrent theme throughout the eleven articles (which are divided across four chapters) comprising the volume, it is most prominent in the latter half of the book, and one therefore finds the first two chapters laying foundations toward this end. The essays that constitute the first chapter, entitled “Nietzschean Beginnings and Developments,” therefore focus on Nietzsche’s early thoughts concerning language. Andrea Bertino, for example, does so through a series of comparative “notes” on Nietzsche and Herder; subsequently, Chapter Two, “Dissolving an Opposition,” tries to explicate the way in which Nietzsche contests the traditional opposition between language and instinct. Thus, Chiara Piazzesi’s paper from this cluster performs a close reading of GS 14 in order to demonstrate how Nietzsche breaks down the opposition between love and greed, and thereby illustrates the more general point that such bipolar oppositions originate as linguistic phenomena that are then projected onto the objective world; it is then in Chapter Three, “Instinct, Language and Philosophy,” that, in their respective essays, Werner Stegmaier and Scarlett Marton examine in greater depth the broader philosophical consequences of this dissolution of opposites; and finally, the fourth chapter, “The Critique of Morality and the Affirmation of Life,” groups together four articles that survey the connection between Nietzsche’s critique of language and, as its title suggests, the life affirming aspects of his philosophy. From this chapter, Marta Faustino’s paper on the elusive meaning of health in Nietzsche’s work is of most interest.

NIL thus examines a series of fertile and pressing questions regarding Nietzsche’s thoughts on language and the body. Although it is not possible here to provide an overview and analysis of how each of the volume’s eleven papers approaches these questions, by examining a small selection one can obtain a fairly clear picture of the argumentative movement that characterizes the collection as a whole. A good place to start is with Patrick Wotling’s contribution, “What Language do Drives Speak?.” Wotling is less interested in what one might call “language proper”—i.e. conscious, verbal, human communication—so much as the so-called language of the drives. The central argument is that, for Nietzsche, individual conscious thoughts are, contrary to our phenomenological experience, not causally connected. Rather, they are each the superficial effect of deeper processes, rearrangements, and struggles occurring within the infra-conscious community of the drives. To summarize, Wotling’s thesis is that the interaction of the drives is almost exclusively orientated toward their self-hierarchicisation, and that the resulting network of command and subordination, since it is imposed immanently, depends upon some “originary,” affective (as opposed to logico-linguistic) form of communication between these drives (76–7).

Wotling’s paper, while bringing to light some significant problems inhering within Nietzsche’s drive psychology, leaves a number of issues unresolved. One such issue concerns the precise nature of the non-causal relation between language and conscious thought on the one hand, and the instincts and drives on the other. According to Wotling, it is the originary communication of the drives that renders possible language proper (78); yet, as Wotling emphasizes, this relation should not be thought of in terms of causality, since, as is well known, Nietzsche was highly critical of our tendency to fabulate such facile causal connections. But the passages that Wotling cites in order to ground this claim are specifically directed against the idea of the human will as a unified causal force and, concomitantly, the idea that conscious thoughts are the cause of subsequent conscious thoughts (see NL 2[103] KSA 12, p. 112; NL 15[13] KSA 13, p. 414). So, although Wotling argues very competently that, for Nietzsche, there is no horizontal causal relation between conscious thoughts, he does not adequately demonstrate that there is no vertical causal relation between, on the one side, the activity of the drives and, on the other, conscious thought and language proper.

João Constâncio, in the book’s fourth essay, “Instinct and Language in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil,” also engages with this problematic relation. Whereas both Wotling and, in the volume’s opening essay, Bertino (see p.30) present a unidirectional account of this interrelation—starting with the drives and ending with conscious thought—Constâncio contends that: “If we had to think of the relations between conscious and unconscious mental states and processes in terms of causality, we would have to conceive of a bi-directional path of causality, for although conscious mental states are always ‘caused’ and sustained by unconscious mental processes, they also influence and change the life of the unconscious drives. Strictly speaking, however, Nietzsche conceives of such relations in terms of sign- and power-relations” (97). Despite Constâncio’s reference to sign- and power-relations, along with the quotation marks he places either side of “caused,” he still appears to be explaining the relation in question with recourse to a fairly traditional conception of causality. Wotling, Bertino, and Constâncio offer three very different perspectives of this causal connection and, in so doing, invaluably lay the ground for future attempts at resolving these tensions; however, the negative consequence of this pluralism is that NIL ultimately leaves its readers little the wiser as to the precise interrelation of these respective levels.

Having outlined the descriptive aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy of language, Constâncio dedicates the final section of his paper to its normative dimension. This concerns the genesis of a “neue Sprache” (BGE 4)—that is, the “language” Nietzsche suggests ought to replace the diction of the Wissenschaftler he so polemically censures. Alongside Constâncio, both Branco (51–7) and Hay (255) illuminate some of the key features of this “new language,” the consensus between these three analyses being that this is a “language” that rejects the exclusively demonstrative, logo-centric mode of philosophical presentation and chooses, instead, to exploit the creative potential of a non-representational, wholly rhetorical, model of language. Branco, for example, begins her essay with an insightful interpretation of BT and TL in order to demonstrate how the semantic richness of language is dependent upon an author keeping the Dionysian and Apollonian artistic drives in a state of dynamic equilibrium. In other words, much is lost, according to Branco, when the musical, physical (i.e. oral and aural), and metaphorical features of language are suppressed by its more abstract, conceptual tendencies. Branco then concludes that what Nietzsche wants to achieve in his own linguistic praxis is a reinstitution of precisely this kind of balance, namely, by physiologically, as well as intellectually, arousing his readers.

Branco seems well aware that while this new language can in one sense be referred to as a language, it is perhaps better referred to as a “new style”; it is an innovative manner of speaking about the world by means of the existing linguistic framework. For this reason, as Constâncio rightly observes, Nietzsche’s “new language” is “not entirely new” and “does not lead to an alternative grammar of ‘becoming’” (110). To be sure, Nietzsche’s stylistic novelty is less a radical emancipation from our grammatical-linguistic fetters (which we need in order to survive and to make sense of the world) so much as a far tamer rejection of a certain academic approach. Yet, while Constâncio shows awareness of these limitations, NIL lacks a thorough critical examination of the efficaciousness of this new language. If it is grammar and the structure of language proper that govern our metaphysical Weltanschauung and philosophical approach toward that world, how effective a force can Nietzsche’s new subversive style be against the imperial dominance of our current linguistic edifice? Pressing critical questions therefore go unasked, and NIL is left with a tone that is almost excessively celebratory with respect to the innovative and iconoclastic elements of Nietzsche’s work.

Though cohesive structure is something rarely accomplished in the case of any such collection (as opposed to NIL specifically), it must nonetheless be remarked that the volume’s birth from a concentric collection of papers leaves it less structurally unified and with more repetition than is ideal. Furthermore, for a book published by de Gruyter (as part of its Nietzsche Today series), the sheer weight of spelling and grammar errors comes as a surprise—one that unfortunately tarnishes the content of the collection. That notwithstanding, the volume makes comprehensive use of existing secondary material, and so, in this respect, it represents a valuable tool for anyone following a similar line of inquiry. Lastly, though perhaps most importantly, the combined critical perspectives that make up NIL persuasively demonstrate that any serious study of Nietzsche’s physiology—which is currently the subject of so much critical attention––ought to be considered inseparable from his thoughts regarding communication (and, of course, vice versa).

University of Leiden