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Stefan Lorenz Sorgner, Menschenwürde nach Nietzsche: Die Geschichte eines Begriffes

Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2010. 288 pp. ISBN 978-3-534-20931-6. Cloth, $65.00.

Reviewed by Greg Whitlock

In his Menschenwürde nach Nietzsche: Die Geschichte eines Begriffes (Human Dignity according to/after Nietzsche: The History of a Concept), Sorgner conceived a bold plan and executed it remarkably well with noteworthy results. His plan entailed presenting four paradigmatic notions of human dignity; next, presenting Nietzsche’s critical evaluation of the notion of human dignity in relation to the four paradigms; and finally, reflecting on Nietzsche’s criticism in a way that embraced much of it and, consequently, largely rejected the humanist notion of the dignity of man. Sorgner took the additional steps of arguing for a posthumanism to replace the outmoded humanist notion of human dignity, as he had developed it. Each phase of the plan was carried out with care in every detail.

Although Sorgner takes every occasion to locate the reader within its structure with elaborate signposting, the overall organization of his book may prove to be difficult even for the careful reader to grasp. Sorgner devotes his first chapter to the necessary and sufficient conditions for the notions of human dignity that interest him and Nietzsche. Thus he indicates the scope of the criticism of human dignity to follow. Then he devotes a long section of the work to paradigmatic notions of human dignity to give the reader a sense of the variety of different notions of specifically human dignity. They possess all the necessary conditions for the sort of concept that interests Sorgner; the notion of necessary dignity. For many readers, it may become easy to get lost in the long presentation, though again Sorgner pays great attention to highlighting his organization. A long rendition of Nietzsche’s theories of will to power, genealogy, and perspectivism follows, which, since it is not immediately directed toward the notion of dignity, may be overwhelming. But Sorgner’s interpretation of Gay Science 115, which follows the presentation, is well worth the wait. The reader finds Nietzsche attacking the four theories so elaborately portrayed. Sorgner works through an impressive interpretation of the short aphorism, though at many spots the usual conflicts of interpretation will break out. In my own case, I considered Sorgner’s interpretations to be, if anything, too literal, rather than too loosely connected to the text. And in particular, my own interpretation of Nietzsche on science, notably the figures Darwin and Lamarck, differs from Sorgner’s. In crucial places concerning Darwin and Nietzsche, Sorgner gives inadequate evidence, in my opinion. Nor does Sorgner show evidence of hidden sources of Nietzsche’s scientific thought experiments. Other readers, of course, may object to other details in his interpretation. But what he does accomplish is to present a highly plausible, careful rendition of Nietzsche’s thoughts on human dignity. Sorgner proves that he has, after Nietzsche’s metaphor, “long legs.” This section of the book definitely rewards the two long marches required to reach it. Sorgner’s Nietzsche is a quite complex and nuanced interpretation, and Nietzsche’s argument in GS 115 and connected notes and published passages succeed in their iconoclastic campaign.

The reader must understand, further, that the book under consideration contains a certain irony or sarcasm. That Sorgner disagrees with Nietzsche about contingent human dignity is something of a façade, since contingent dignity really interests Sorgner little in comparison to the comparatively decisive attack that has been launched on the sacred citadel of human dignity at the heart of the Platonic Christian Kantian tradition. On one reading of Sorgner, “normative equality” may have become something of a cynical Hobbesian gesture.

In the final wing of his labyrinthine architectonic, Sorgner attempts to advance beyond Nietzsche’s position into a post-dignity, post-equality post humanism. This is truly where Sorgner comes into his own. I found a great deal of what Sorgner writes to be interesting and much in the spirit of Nietzsche; a scientifically-informed critical hermeneutic concerned with humanity as a changing species, and well beyond any traditional Platonic or Christian concept of man. As such, we may rightfully consider Sorgner’s book as something of a dangerous question mark, asking about the destiny, limits and future of man, including genetic enhancement.

Basic elements of his analysis—the six conditions of a definition of human dignity—are laid out in the first chapter. What Sorgner calls his concept of “nongradational dignity” has six conditions, which are individually necessary and jointly sufficient. First, dignity cannot stand alone, but must be continually bound to a bearer. Second, a bearer receives the quality of “dignity” if it possesses, in a nongradational manner, a trait X in which dignity is grounded. Third, between bearers of the trait there occurs a relation of equality, that is, all bearers of dignity possess trait X, which is nongradational and on the basis of which the relation between them may be described as descriptive equality. Fourth, the equality of the bearers implies a normative equality, an equality of consideration that is connected to a concept of the social good. Fifth, the bearer of dignity assumes a special place in nature. Sixth, the notion of dignity is expressed by the word dignity or an equivalent in a foreign language. (This last condition will strike many readers as questionable.)

Necessary dignity is a property that belongs to the bearer of the property necessarily such that it is metaphysically impossible for the bearer not to have it. Meaning that the bearer could not be the type of thing it is without bearing the property. Contingent dignity is a property that the bearer of the property does not have necessarily, i.e., dignity that is earned or lost due to virtuous or vicious behavior. The concept property is used such that it can refer both to the constitution as well as to interdependencies (relations, dependencies) of an object. In this context, Sorgner analytically distinguishes between several options how the concept dignity can be employed, and makes clear with which usage he is almost entirely concerned; namely, necessary dignity.

In the next four chapters, Sorgner considers four paradigmatic concepts of human dignity––those of: Cicero (dignity from being a human being and from virtue), Giannozzo Manetti (dignity from man’s likeness to God), Pico Della Mirandola (dignity from free will, an immortal soul and salvation through Christ), and Immanuel Kant (dignity from the faculties of reason). The author effectively shows that these notions of dignity depend upon belief in free will, an immortal soul, and God. Being a human being, bearing a likeness to God, having free will and an immortal soul, along with possessing the faculties of reasonthese are said to be special, unique qualities that distinguish man from all other creatures and that give humanity its dignity. Approximately one quarter of the book concerns itself with these classical humanist notions.

The sixth chapter is about one hundred pages in length, or around one third of the book. It begins with a careful description of Nietzsche’s actual (few) statements concerning Cicero, Renaissance virtú authors (Manetti, Della Mirandola), and Kant. The author then goes on a meticulous point-by-point account of the foundations of Nietzsche’s philosophy from his epistemology and theory of will to power through his ethics and criticism of morals. Sorgner’s detailed rendition of Nietzsche’s thought constitutes about fifty pages of this long chapter. The author’s treatment of Nietzsche is masterly. Sorgner very closely ties his presentation of Nietzsche’s thought to a rather literal reading of the texts. He emphasizes the Nachlass in his interpretations and produces an extensive selection of quotations to support his position.

The author then spends the remaining fifty pages of Chapter 6 by discussing GS 115, which presents the four errors Nietzsche detected in the notion of human dignity. First, man has known himself only incompletely. Due to his evolutionary advantage of consciousness, man has erroneously placed himself partially outside the world of causation. Pico, in particular, believed that man has dignity because he is aware of himself as a free agent responsible for himself. The mistake of attributing an immaterial mind and/or soul stems from this failure to understand that there is no free will. Instead, Nietzsche uses a theory of will to power for a new understanding of mankind. Second, he has attributed fictitious properties to himself. This error accounts for the ideas of free will and the immaterial soul. The priest type uses these ideas along with his consequent invention, the idea of sin, as instruments of torture to promote his own will to power. Sorgner details the manners in which Kant and the virtue moralists promoted these fictions. Third, man has placed himself in a false relation to the animals and nature. In their own ways, Platonism and Christianity (but also Kantianism) placed mankind as the crown of creation. Most notably to Nietzsche, the priest type has falsified the rank and order of man out of an act of ressentiment-laden will to power. Man is rather halfway between ape and overman. Man has dignity only as a means to the overman. Man is the sick animal, not the being above animals. Fourth, man has created ever new tablets of good and evil, and has always taken them as eternal and unconditional. But no such values exist. Perspectivism and the genealogy of morals reject any sort of unconditional value, any eternal tablet of the good. The notion of human dignity is a hold-over from the medieval Christian worldview and continues to survive only in slave moralities. So far as possible given scant passages, Sorgner ties these errors back to the notions of human dignity presented by Cicero, Manetti, Della Mirandola, and Kant. As Sorgner proceeds through each error in impressive detail, he shows how the four paradigmatic models of dignity commit the error under discussion, and consequently Sorgner concludes with Nietzsche that the classical humanist notion of human dignity should be rejected (though not entirely). As he explains Nietzsche’s four points, Sorgner continually refers back to his elaborate rendition of Nietzsche’s epistemology, theory of will to power, and genealogy of morals earlier in the chapter.

The final chapter comprises Sorgner’s reflections on human dignity after its destructive criticism by Nietzsche. In short, Sorgner agrees with Nietzsche’s rejection of any special place in nature that man supposedly occupies, and agrees with Nietzsche’s rejection of any special quality that distinguishes mankind from all other species (free will, an immortal soul, the faculty of reason, the likeness of God, and so on). But Sorgner rejects Nietzsche’s adamant criticism of human equality. The author affirms the normative equality of man, while rejecting the humanist tradition concerning human dignity. In doing so, he wishes to agree with Germany’s liberal democratic, pluralistic society while rejecting the metaphysics of Platonism and Christianity.

Throughout his book, Sorgner makes clear he has assessed human dignity after the impact of Nietzsche in relation to two important issues: the bioethics of genetic enhancement and German constitutional law. The advent of genetic enhancement has made possible a post-human future, which Sorgner explicates with an analogy to education. Just as some epigenetic traits, such as language mastery, may be transmitted to the next generation by education, so some acquired traits may be passed along through inheritance of a Lamarckian sort. This opens up a post humanist future that bears many similarities to Nietzsche’s understanding of the Übermensch. As for German constitutional law, Sorgner argues that the strong emphasis on human dignity in the wording of the Constitution should be at least revised because the concept as it is currently understood no longer enjoys widespread acceptance due to its Platonic and Christian traces.

Strictly subjectively, the final chapter was my favorite part of the book. Reading it, as Sorgner stepped his way through a theoretical and political minefield, was gripping, to say the least. His primary points concerning Nietzsche are, first, that Nietzsche’s explicit criticism of notions of necessary human dignity are highly accurate and should be accepted by and large; and second, Nietzsche’s implicit criticism of notions of contingent human dignity should be rejected. His bold, even audacious, criticism of the notion of human dignity as it relates to German constitutional law, his provocative leaps into post-human bioethics, and his rather sweeping embrace of Nietzsche, still an intellectual author of Nazism to many in Germany and elsewhere, may be difficult to appreciate for readers outside of Germany. But for those who understand that its author has assumed the task of taking steps beyond Nietzsche, Sorgner’s Menschenwürde nach Nietzsche will clearly represent a stunning and remarkable achievement.

Parkland College