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Luca Lupo, Le colombe dello scettico. Riflessioni di Nietzsche sulla coscienza negli anni 1880-1888

Pisa: ETS, 2006. 267 pp. ISBN: 978-884671629-3 € 17,00 (Paperback)

Reviewed by Pietro Gori


Le colombe dello scettico focuses on Nietzsche’s dealing with consciousness during his middle and late years, from 1880 to 1888. The investigation that Luca Lupo carries on in this book is exhaustive and quite useful in the field of the Nietzsche studies, since it concerns a tricky topic that until now has not been taken as subject of a complete study. The reason why dealing with this subject is not so easy is that the notion of consciousness can only be found in few passages of Nietzsche’s published works, and he never gives a complete treatment of it. This is a problem that involves many other topics of Nietzsche’s writings, but in the case of the notion of consciousness it is most evident that his thinking never comes to a last word on the questions he deals with. As Lupo shows in the first pages of his book, one cannot talk about a “treatment” of this subject as much as of many others since in Nietzsche’s writings one can only find sketches of his reflections rather than complete theories. Indeed, Nietzsche carried on his observations through “temporary resting points and ever changing perspectives” (p. 17). Starting from this idea, Lupo tries to find an orientation in both Nietzsche’s published and unpublished writings by finding some pages that one can take as reference points to develop a kind of text mapping that he defines as a “philosophical cartography” (p. 18).

In the four chapters into which the book is divided Lupo shows how Nietzsche defines the higher psychical functions. The first section concerns the drives, paying attention to the “causality drive” (Ursachentrieb), that according to Nietzsche is the ground of any higher conscious experience (p. 72, p. 85). Lupo then deals with the single psychical functions, treating separately the triad composed by knowing, thinking and willing, and the main subject of his investigation, the notion of consciousness. In the last chapter of the book one finds some observations on the later statements presented by Nietzsche on these topics and on the role played by the language. The investigation starts from 1888, from the pages of Twilight of the Idols in which Nietzsche is concerning with the idea of causality. Then Lupo comes back to 1880, to follow the development of Nietzsche’s thought from the first ideas on consciousness he presents in the notebooks of that year to the later observations that one can find in the unpublished writings from 1888. This circular shape directly follows from the methodological choice made by Lupo, since his aim is to reconstruct Nietzsche’s thought on consciousness following the guiding lines that one can find in his writings itself. Thus, Lupo reads Nietzsche’s notebooks looking for the ideas, the perspectives, the main results of other scientists and thinkers of his time that lead Nietzsche to the statements that one can find in his published books. Lupo carries on his research close to Nietzsche’s writings, trying to show what he was really thinking and what he wanted to tell us. That’s why he leaves out any reference to the contemporary debate. His main aim is not to discuss any possible comparison with 20th century psychology or the latest results of neurobiological studies, even though his way of arguing reveals his interest in the main outcomes presented by the cognitive science. For instance, Lupo refers to the ideas of Daniel Dennett in a section in which he shows how Nietzsche deals with the mind-body problem (even if not describing it with these words) and argues that one can bring the mind back to the corporeal functions. In doing this—according to what Dennett himself once said—Nietzsche adopts “a rich and remarkable view of the materialistic and evolutionary basis of our knowledge” and thinks in a pure anti-Cartesian way (p. 135).

The main outcome reached by Lupo is a description of both the consciousness and the psychical functions related with it, in line with a naturalized perspective, i.e. a view that pays attention to the physiological ground from which these functions arise and that cannot be seen as different from them on the ontological plane. “The conscious phenomena are signs of the drive level beneath” that leads the organism and that actually is the organism itself (p. 155). Therefore, Lupo shows that Nietzsche sharply rejects any statement claming our thought to be a pure spiritual process, i.e. the ideas presented by the old psychological views. Rather, his observations on consciousness are in compliance with the scientific results of his time, and one can consider them as the first steps of a new way of thinking. This is the case for the notion of I, which according to Nietzsche definitely plays no role as author of the actions and the thought processes themselves. This is also the case for the crucial notion of will, bound up with the same false view of the relationship between author and actions, a relationship that during the ‘80s Nietzsche tries to redefine by rejecting the dualism that follows from it (p. 125). Nevertheless, despite this idea that the higher functions are emergent states of some processes of the organism, one cannot say that Nietzsche is a materialistic reductionist. Lupo is quite clear on this, since it’s a statement that can change our view on Nietzsche’s philosophy. He thinks that Nietzsche was interested in the idea of a biological basis of our consciousness, for it could be the starting point of a pure philosophical investigation. Moreover, he writes that in Nietzsche’s view “a biological and physiological solution does not completely answer the questions about consciousness” (p. 32). That is, the naturalized perspective is better for him, it’s a more interesting starting point to carry out research on consciousness than the pure rational views and the metaphysical prejudices of the old schools, according to which consciousness was a “faculty” having a kind of both ontological and epistemological priority.

Leaving these observations on the content of the book, one can say that what is also interesting about Lupo’s work is the method he adopts to carry out his research. He plays close attention to Nietzsche’s call for the value of a good reading, i.e. a slow and careful reading that one must adopt to properly understand his writings (p. 18). Thus, Lupo starts from some relevant aphorisms of the published works—such as BGE 16 and GS 354—and analyzes their content by carrying on a deep investigation into the unpublished writings. According to him, the Nachlaβ is “the mirror of the development, of the genesis of Nietzsche’s thought” (p. 19), so one must study it to find the useful elements for reconstructing Nietzsche’s way of arguing. The explicit aim of Lupo is to show the effort of the philosophical investigation, and to describe Nietzsche’s working in a new way (p. 18). Thus, he enters into what he calls the “workshop” of this author, the laboratory where Nietzsche builds up his ideas and carries on an everlasting work. In this place one cannot find a thinker whose philosophy is the mere result of his intuition, but rather a man who “ceaselessly goes back to his observations and tries to find many different points of view to describe the same object, looking for the right focal point instead of the truth at any cost” (ibid.). Obviously, this way of thinking makes Nietzsche’s work incomplete, since many of his observations cannot reach a complete form and become “theories”. This is quite clear if one considers the inconstancy and changeability that characterize Nietzsche’s lexicon, and that are the sign of a work in progress as much as of the theoretical uncertainty of the thinker himself. The main evidence of this “theoretical fluidity” is the richness of the range of words that Nietzsche uses to define some relevant notions related to the wider theme of the consciousness. The examples that Lupo gives are that of the “time inversion” (p. 47) and that of the consciousness status of “feeling” (pp. 99 ss.); they are both described by Nietzsche with many different words, and one cannot find an univocal and final definition of them.

Therefore, with this book Lupo reaches two important outcomes: first of all, he deals with a subject of great interest that has not yet been deeply investigated; secondly, he clearly shows that the content of the unpublished notes can help us to describe Nietzsche in a new way, quite different from the poetic image drawn by the first scholars. Moreover, the notebooks reveal a great theoretical value, since their content is necessary to enlighten the more obscure pages of Nietzsche’s works and—why not?—even those which seem to be the most clear. Of course, as Lupo points out, one must not give to these writings the value of texts, since they are the place in which Nietzsche just noted his ideas and elaborated them, and not a work in which one can find some final remarks (maybe, the only exception are some notes that seem to be richer and that have a well organized structure). Thus, one should hear this call to a good reading—the starting point of Lupo’s investigation—and try to engage in a dialogue with Nietzsche through his notebooks, since they are an indispensible tool for understanding his philosophy without prejudice and all the false and misleading interpretations.

Università degli studi di Padova