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Jutta Georg and Claus Zittel (eds.). Nietzsches Philosophie des Unbewussten.

Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2012. xii + 297 pp. ISBN 978-3-11-028206-1.

Reviewed by Mattia Riccardi

Nietzsches Philosophie des Unbewussten, the third volume in De Gruyter’s recently launched series “Nietzsche Heute/Nietsche Today,” collects more than twenty articles ostensibly devoted to the theme of the unconscious in Nietzsche’s philosophy. However, it is not always easy to determine what each article contributes to the volume topic. This may reflect the fact that the papers derive from the 2011 conference of the Nietzsche-Gesellschaft, which aimed to provide a multifaceted treatment of whatever falls under the label unconscious in Nietzsche’s philosophy. Transferred into book form, this liberal attitude creates a rather disorienting juxtaposition of themes and approaches rather than a lively variety of perspectives on a common topic—or, at least, that is this reader’s impression. Since the articles differ considerably in quality, length, and pertinence to the volume topic, I shall focus on those that strike me as addressing important aspects of, and offering interesting insights into, Nietzsche’s “philosophy of the unconscious.”

Before proceeding to this task, however, there is a further, perhaps more serious shortcoming of Nietzsches Philosophie des Unbewussten that I should point out. For the book is likely to disappoint the expectation, arguably raised by the series’ title as well as by some remarks to be found in the editors’ introduction, that some of the contributions will engage with Nietzsche’s view of the unconscious from contemporary perspectives. The editors, for instance, claim that, “given the contemporary boom in the explanatory models of cognitive psychology, Nietzsche’s philosophy of the unconscious becomes … relevant, since it has the potential to act as a critical corrective to a narrow-minded naturalism” (p. 2; all translations are my own). This is a controversial claim, and opens up several important questions. How is Nietzsche’s naturalism different from, or even superior to, that of today’s cognitive psychology? How do his views about the unconscious grounds of the mind, agency, and the self compare with contemporary models? And how do they fare in light of recent findings in neuroscience, moral psychology, cognitive anthropology, and so on? Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, the papers included in the volume do not address such questions.

I now turn to the chapters that I found most pertinent and insightful. Some articles explore the relation between Nietzsche’s view of the unconscious and the psychoanalytic tradition. Günter Gödde’s contribution is particularly significant in this regard, as it clearly articulates the idea that Nietzsche belongs to what Gödde calls the “instinctual-irrational” tradition of the unconscious inaugurated by Schopenhauer and culminating in Freud’s theory. Gödde substantiates this idea by showing that all three figures characterize the unconscious with similar sets of metaphors and by pointing out strong analogies between the roles the notion plays in Nietzsche’s and in Freud’s theories. However, Gödde also goes further than this by arguing that Nietzsche’s ideas bear no substantial relation to two other important traditions of the unconscious, the “romantic-vital” and the “cognitive.” At least regarding the latter tradition, which goes back to Leibniz’s thesis that there are representations in our mind that remain unconscious, this claim is unpersuasive. For in two of the most important published passages in which he deals with consciousness, aphorisms 354 and 357 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche explicitly endorses Leibniz’s thesis. He was also familiar with, and seems to have accepted, the idea that some mental states, such as perceptions, involve the processing of unconscious representations. Gödde’s case therefore seems only partially convincing.

In his chapter, Martin Liebscher persuasively argues that Nietzsche’s first engagement with the notion of the unconscious is largely passive, and that his genuine philosophical elaboration of it starts only with his so-called middle period. Here, Liebscher defends two claims. First, he argues that, by abandoning the kind of Schopenhauerian monism that inspired his early work, Nietzsche also abandons his previous conception of the unconscious as a “collective unity” (p. 103). Second, Liebscher maintains that “with Nietzsche’s theory of the will to power the difference between conscious and unconscious dissolves” (ibid.). This latter claim strikes me as quite implausible. At least as a psychological notion, the will to power figures in a theory that aims at explaining how our conscious actions ultimately result from the unconscious interactions between our drives. As such, it seems to require, rather than to undermine, the distinction between conscious and unconscious.

Rogério Lopes’ chapter investigates the extent to which Nietzsche’s theory of the drives can be classified in the instinctual-irrational tradition, as argued by Gödde. Lopes perceptively questions Gödde’s reading by pointing out important differences between Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Whereas Schopenhauer models his notion of the will on that of desire, Nietzsche’s theory of the drives is based on the “realistically conceived processes of political reflection and agency” (p. 155). More specifically, as Nietzsche takes intentionality to be the essential mark of agency, he does not reduce the will to a matter of blind volitions, as Schopenhauer does. Thus, the “political drive model” he puts forward can be seen as offering a minimal conception of intentionality that has the merit of both avoiding the homunculus fallacy and articulating a non-teleologically-informed view of rationality (ibid.). Thus, Lopes’ intriguing proposal might be called a weak normative reading of Nietzsche’s theory of the drives, and constitutes an interesting alternative to the more demanding normative interpretation recently defended by Maudemarie Clark and David Dudrick in their The Soul of Nietzsche's ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Henry Kerger´s article examines Nietzsche’s answer to the question of how the conscious mind may fit into the physical world. The idea that Kerger focuses on is that what philosophers now call phenomenal states cannot play any causal role in the physical world. Nietzsche makes this claim in an unpublished note of 1883, and in another note of the same period he writes that it is impossible ‘to derive sensation from non-sentient substance’ (KSA 10, p. 649; quoted on p. 223). Nietzsche thus seems to postulate two independent realms, that of phenomenal states and that of physical facts. Although this raises a crucial issue and Kerger tries to clarify the relation between the two realms in terms of “psychophysical parallelism” (pp. 216-17), his proposed reading is confused. For instance, at one point he seems to ascribe to Nietzsche the claim that conscious states are “mere concomitant phenomena” (p. 218), but a few pages later, he rejects an epiphenomenalist reading by arguing that mental states “are not concomitant phenomena in the sense of merely reflecting unconscious physical processes and being causally determined by them” (p. 221).

Other chapters in the book focus on aphorism 354 of The Gay Science, the most elaborate treatment of consciousness found in Nietzsche’s published work. There, he famously argues that consciousness emerged as a side effect of socialization and, in particular, of increasingly sophisticated linguistic intercourse among the members of human communities. Sören Reuter speculates that the aphorism is a “critical reminiscence” (p. 263) of the discussions Nietzsche had in the winter of 1883-1884 with the young physiologist Joseph Paneth, also known for his friendship with Freud. However, this claim seems to be undermined by Reuter’s own remarks about Nietzsche’s unreceptive attitude towards Paneth, whom he mistakenly saw more as a mediocre devotee than as a peer in philosophicis. However that may be, Reuter pauses on some interesting aspects of Paneth’s view of consciousness which help to illustrate the historical context of Nietzsche’s own position—including Paneth’s reaction to Lange’s Gedankenexperiment, anticipating contemporary antireductionist arguments. Reuter also makes some interesting observations about how to interpret Nietzsche’s statement that consciousness is superfluous. In particular, he claims that GS 354 deals with two different notions of consciousness, a “primary, psycho-physiological” notion and a “secondary, broadly sociological-semiotic” one (p. 271; here I read primär as an adjective, rather than an adverb—this appears to be one of the numerous typographical errors in the book), and that the superfluousness claim should be restricted to the second notion. However, Nietzsche seems to think that the kind of physiologically-realized cognitive processes that Reuter’s first notion covers are, in fact, not conscious at all. Therefore, although it is true that Nietzsche’s superfluousness claim does not apply to those processes, this appears to be not because they are conscious in a different sense, but rather because they do not involve any consciousness at all.

In their articles, Jakob Dellinger and Axel Pichler approach this aphorism of The Gay Science from a quite different angle, taking it to exemplify the way in which the peculiar stylistic and argumentative strategies embodied by Nietzsche’s (published) texts convey, so to speak, meta-interpretative clues about the epistemic status of his own claims. On the one hand, Dellinger stresses the self-referential character of the aphorism by noting that, “[a]s long as the text makes the superfluousness of one’s becoming conscious become conscious, it turns out to be an extreme case of that [consciousness’] ‘morbidness’” (p. 240). On the other hand, Pichler argues that what GS 354 supplies is not a theory, but rather a “critical-heuristic narrative” (p. 190). However, the reasoning underlying these conclusions seems questionable to me. To focus on Pichler’s case, his argument assumes a restricted notion of deductively formulated theory (see p. 191) which does not seem very appropriate, since it excludes a good deal of plainly expounded philosophical views. In contrast, Nietzsche’s narratives are described as hypotheses primarily intended as challenges to traditional ideas and making no “claim to definitiveness” (pp. 194-95). However, no theory worthy of the name makes such a claim.

Nietzsche’s take on language in its relation to the conscious-unconscious distinction is also the topic of William Mattioli’s article. Specifically, Mattioli focuses on Nietzsche’s view of language as grounded in a “linguistic-cognitive unconscious” (p. 177) and maintains that Nietzsche shifts from an early imagistic conception of language to a later syntactical one. Mattioli proceeds to argue that this linguistic unconscious is grounded in the instinctual unconscious constituted by the physiological processes occurring in our organism. According to Mattioli, an important difference between these two kinds of unconscious is their accessibility. Whereas we lack any kind of first-person access to the physiological states and events constituting our instinctual unconscious, we can access the unconsciously implemented syntactical structures that constrain our (linguistic) thought (see p. 180). Here, I think, two problems emerge. The first is related to Mattioli’s use of the notion of transcendental—which, although it appears in the title of the article, occurs only twice in the text. In its first occurrence, the term qualifies the first-person access we are supposed to have (only) to the linguistic unconscious (ibid.). However, later in the paper Mattioli claims that both the linguistic and the instinctual unconscious should be seen as transcendental, as they contribute to shape any experience we may have of the world (see p. 181). This suggests some tension in Mattioli’s understanding of the notion. The second, more serious problem regards the idea that we can have first-personal access—through some sort of transcendental route—to the “deep grammar” of our language (p. 178). Given Nietzsche’s rejection of a priori knowledge, I doubt that he ever held this view. More importantly, contemporary linguistics clearly suggests that it is mistaken. This is a particular case where engagement with recent developments in the relevant field would have proved beneficial to the discussion and assessment of Nietzsche’s position.

There is more to the volume than the chapters on which I have focused. Useful information about the historical background of Nietzsche’s views of the unconscious is supplied by Jean-Claude Wolf, Martine Prange, Carlotta Santini, and Anthony Jensen. Also, some authors’ remarks on topics only loosely related to the unconscious are nonetheless intriguing, as in the case of Enrico Müller’s criticism of Nietzsche’s unperceptive understanding of Euripides’ characters and Manos Perrakis’ acute outline of his conception of shame. As a whole, however, the book suffers from the shortcomings I noted at the outset.

Instituto de Filosofia, Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto