Christoph Cox. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 35, Issue 2. April 1997.
Formerly taken to endorse a profound skepticism and relativism, Nietzsche’s “doctrine of perspectivism” recently has been seen to fit within traditional conceptions of epistemology and ontology.’ In the most recent and influential study of the matter, Maudemarie Clark maintains that, properly understood, perspectivism is “an obvious and nonproblematic doctrine.” In a similar vein, Brian Leiter has recently argued that “perspectivism turns out to be much less radical than is usually supposed,” that, with this doctrine, “Nietzsche … is merely rehashing familiar Kantian themes, minus the rigor of Kant’s exposition.” According to both Clark and Leiter, perspectivism simply presents an analogy between certain obvious features of human vision and less immediately obvious features of human knowledge.
I will argue that Nietzsche’s perspectivism is less obvious, more problematic, and more interesting than these recent accounts take it to be. Moreover, the perspectivism I attribute to Nietzsche undermines a central presupposition of these accounts: namely, that there exists a simple, stable subject who has perspectives. Before turning to the notion of subjectivity affirmed by Nietzsche’s perspectivism, a word must be said about the “doctrine of perspectivism” itself.
Perspective and Affective Interpretation
As the name of a doctrine, “perspectivism” is a critical construct. The term is found only once in Nietzsche’s published work and only twice in The Will to Power, the well-known collection of his unpublished notes. Moreover, the term is misleading, since it suggests that a visual metaphor provides the key to Nietzsche’s theory of knowledge. But this is not the case. Indeed, in the passage on perspectivity that both Clark and Leiter take to be decisive, Nietzsche intimately associates the notion of “perspective” with a very different, nonvisual notion: that of “affective interpretation.” Nietzsche writes:
“[O]bjectivity” [ought to be] understood not as “contemplation without interest” (which is a nonsensical absurdity), but as the ability to have one’s For and Against under control and to engage and disengage them, so that one knows how to employ a variety of perspectives and affective interpretations [Perspectiven und Affect-Interpretationen] in the service of knowledge. Henceforth, my dear philosophers, let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject”; let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as “pure reason,” “absolute spirituality,” “knowledge in itself”: these always demand that we should think of an eye that is completely unthinkable, an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces [die aktiven und interpretirenden Krafte], through which alone seeing becomes a seeing-something, are supposed to be lacking; these always demand of the eye an absurdity and a nonsense. There is only a perspective seeing [ein perspektivisches Sehen], only a perspective “knowing” [ein perspektivisches “Erkennen”]; and the more affects we allow to speak about something, the more eyes, different eyes, we can lend to the thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be. But to eliminate the will altogether, to suspend each and every affect, supposing we were capable of this—what would that mean but to castrate the intellect? (III 12)
Here, Nietzsche entwines the notion of “perspective” with that of “affective interpretation.” He claims that a perspective is constituted and directed by a matrix of “active and interpreting forces,” which allow something to appear as a particular something. A “perspective,” then, would seem to be an ontological and evaluative horizon opened up by the operation of a particular “affective interpretation.”
Sifting through the various texts on perspectivity, one finds a number of passages in which the language of perspective is closely associated with the language of interpretation. “Further investigation reveals that the language of interpretation is more common in Nietzsche than the language of perspective.” Virtually every sphere of human activity—from “morality” to “physics” and “natural science,” to “rational thought” in general—is called, in one passage or another, an “interpretation.” Indeed, for Nietzsche, “interpretation” seems to be present wherever there is “meaning” and “value” at all.
Given this, I want to suggest that commentators have been wrong to read Nietzsche’s “perspective” language too narrowly, as developing a simple analogy between seeing and knowing. Instead, I will argue that we should read Nietzsche’s “perspective” language within the broader bounds of a general theory of interpretation. Unlike the notion of “perspective”—which, literally construed, generates serious epistemological difficulties,—the notion of “interpretation” operates within a rich and increasingly important literary and philosophical tradition. Taking what has been called “the interpretive turn,” “Continental” and “analytic” philosophers have come to argue that our knowledge is not an edifice built upon a foundation of indubitable beliefs, but rather an interpretive web of mutually supporting beliefs and desires that is constantly being rewoven. These philosophers maintain that we are always already immersed in a world full of significances that we pretheoretically understand, and that the role of epistemology is to discover how particular sensory experiences, beliefs, and desires relate to our understanding as a whole and vice versa.
Nietzsche agrees with this turn from foundationalism to holism and with the concomitant turn from first philosophy to naturalism. As we have seen, Nietzsche conceives of the understanding as always directed by one or another “interpretation,” each of which opens up a particular horizon of meaning and value. Nietzsche goes on to argue that the world in which we find ourselves is a world of struggle, and that this struggle is among interpretations, each of which seeks to overwhelm (uberwaltigen, uberwinden) the others by incorporating their terms into its own and articulating these terms according to its own system. This is how “interpretation” is characterized in an important passage from the Genealogy of Morals. Discussing the idea of punishment, Nietzsche pauses to “emphasize [a] major point of historical method”—to distinguish the origin of something from its current purpose. He writes:
[T]he cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart: whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends [auf neue Ansichten ausgelegt], taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, becoming master [ein lberwaltigen, Herrwerden], and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation [ein Neu-Interpretieren], an adjustment through which any previous “meaning” and “purpose” are necessarily obscured or even obliterated. However well one has understood the utility of a physiological organ (or of a legal institution, a social custom, a political usage, a form in art or in a religious cult), this means nothing regarding its origin … [P]urposes and utilities are only signs that a will to power has become master of something less powerful and imposed upon it the character of a function; and the entire history of a “thing,” an organ, a custom can in this way be a continuous sign—chain of ever new interpretations [Interpretationen] and adaptations whose causes do not even have to be related to one another but, on the contrary, in some cases succeed and alternate with one another in purely chance fashion. The “evolution” of a thing, a custom, an organ is thus by no means its progressus toward a goal, even less a logical progressus by the shortest route and with the smallest expenditure of force—but the succession of more or less profound, more or less mutually independent processes of subduing [Uberwaltigungsprozessen], plus the resistances they encounter, the attempts at transformation for the purpose of defense and reaction, and the results of successful counteractions. The form is fluid, but the “meaning” is even more so. (GM II 12).
What is particularly striking, in this passage, is that what Nietzsche calls “interpretation” extends far beyond what the term ordinarily signifies. He claims that “all events in the organic world” and, indeed, “whatever exists” essentially involve interpretation, and that this involvement concerns not only their apprehension by subjects but their very constitution as objects or events. At the end of the section from which the above passage is cited, Nietzsche goes so far as to identify “interpretation” with “the essence of life, its will to power, … the essential priority of the spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces that give new interpretations and directions.” Nietzsche is arguing that “thinghood,” “eventhood,” “history,” “development,” and “evolution” are, at bottom, only manifestations of “will to power,” the incessant drive for interpretation and reinterpretation, forming and re-forming; and that the very origin, history, and growth of “a ‘thing’“ (whether it be an object, a practice, or an institution) should be seen as the consequence of its role in a struggle among interpretations, each of which is “aggressive” and “expansive,” seeking to increase power and control over its environment.
This same generalization and extension of meaning can also be found in Nietzsche’s language of “perspective.” Rather than functioning simply as an optical analog, Nietzsche calls upon the term “perspective” to characterize something about life in general—”the perspective optics of life,” he puts it in Beyond Good and Evil (11, my emphasis). Elsewhere in that text, he speaks of “perspective” as “the basic condition of all life” (Preface), claiming that “there would be no life at all if not on the basis of perspective estimates and appearances” (34) and that “the narrowing of our perspective … [is] a condition of life and growth” (188).
We see, then, that Nietzsche’s “perspective” language is quite peculiar and ought not to be taken at face value. Not only is the language of “perspective” subsumed under the broader language of “interpretation,” but both “perspective” and “interpretation” are generalized far beyond their ordinary senses. “Perspective,” for Nietzsche, comes to characterize the directedness of a particular form of life toward the conditions that preserve and enhance it, conditions that are codified in the “interpretation” that directs the perspective. This can serve as a rough characterization of the notions of “perspective” and “interpretation” as Nietzsche uses them. Yet many questions still remain. The one I want to focus on here is the question of who or what it is that has perspectives and interpretations. We will see that the answer to this question is not, in any sense, simple. Before turning to Nietzsche’s texts, I want first to consider some previous and, I believe, inadequate answers to this question.
The “Subject” of Perspectivism: Two Recent Accounts
One account has it that the proper subjects of perspectives are biological species. This view maintains that, through the process of evolutionary natural selection, each species develops a particular “physico-psychological organization” that mediates its view of the world and ensures that each member of the species apprehends and comprehends just enough of the world, and only in such a way, as to safeguard its survival and flourishing. While every member of the species can adopt different “perspectives” in a limited sense (e.g., by changing position or entering into different circumstances), these nevertheless remain within the general “perspective” of the species as a whole, which is not in any member’s power to change.
It is certainly the case that Nietzsche’s “perspective” language most frequently appears in contexts that discuss the conditions necessary for particular species (especially humans) to preserve themselves and to enhance their power. Yet, the interpretation of perspectivism generated by this account commits Nietzsche to a position that, I believe, he does not accept: the position that every species is in principle unable to apprehend both the world as it is in itself and the world as it is apprehended by other species. Nietzsche does not seem to believe, for example, that there is anything like a specifically human “perspective,” a unified and coherent totality rigorously differentiable from the “perspectives” of other species. First of all, Nietzsche’s naturalism commits him to regard all living beings as, in fundamental respects, similar. He claims, for instance, that the human process of cognition is only a more complex and specialized form of the process of ingestion (“incorporation” or “assimilation”) found in the protoplasm. Indeed, a central theme of Nietzsche’s later work is the notion that knowledge is only a form of will to power, the drive to incorporate and subdue found in all organisms and species. Secondly, Nietzsche argues that the human species itself does not have a unified worldview, but rather is divided into a host of antagonistic “perspectives” or “interpretations”: e.g., master and slave, Dionysian and Christian, Homeric and Platonic, Roman and Judaic, and various hybrids of these. Such differences of perspective, for Nietzsche, are not merely minor differences of opinion; on the contrary, they designate significantly different modes of perception, desire, cognition, evaluation, and action that compose different forms of life.
Thus, rather than demarcating insurmountable divisions between species, perspectives mark both extra—and intra—species differences and similarities. According to Nietzsche, the biological field is crossed by a continuum of perspectives, none of which is in principle disjoint from another, but each of which can be shown to differ from others in important respects and to significant degrees. The subject of perspectivism, then, must be something other than biological species.
Clark and Leiter present an account of perspectivism that explicitly rejects the skepticism endorsed by the “species view.” Instead, they construe perspectivism as a doctrine limited to the description of human knowledge. Claiming that the doctrine simply draws an analogy between a commonsense conception of human vision and a commonsense conception of human knowing, Clark and Leiter maintain that the subject of perspectivism is simply the ordinary, individual, human viewer/knower.
Leiter begins from the obvious premises that “necessarily, we see an object from a particular perspective: e.g., from a certain angle, from a certain distance, under certain conditions,” and “the more perspectives we enjoy the more angles we see the object from—the better our conception of what the object is actually like will be.” He goes on to argue, by analogy, that “necessarily, we know an object from a particular perspective: i.e., from the standpoint of particular interests and needs,” and “the more perspectives we enjoy—the more interests we employ in knowing the object—the better our conception of what the object is like will be.” His argument concludes that, contrary to an overzealous skepticism, “we do indeed have knowledge of the world, though it is never disinterested, never complete, and can always benefit from additional non-distorting [cognitive] perspectives.”
This account thus maintains that, just as there is no visual perspective that in principle is unavailable to us, so too there is no knowledge that in principle escapes our grasp. Unlike the skeptical account, this realist account has the benefit of acknowledging Nietzsche’s claim that we have access to other perspectives. It suggests that, just as we can gain a new visual perspective on the object of vision by changing our position relative to it, so too can we gain different cognitive perspectives on the object of knowledge by bringing different sets of cognitive interests to bear upon it. Moreover, insofar as it grants the interest-ladenness of all inquiry, it suggests that we might come to appreciate and acknowledge the legitimacy of perspectival interests other than our own, even if we ourselves do not share them.
Yet this construal of the subject of perspectivism also runs into difficulties. Foremost among these, I think, is its assumption of a pre-given subject who has perspectives or interpretations. According to the commonsense account of vision called upon by the realist interpretation, when I move around an object, there is a change of perspective but no change of subject; that is, it is the same I that takes up different perspectives. Perspectives are cumulative and thus, too, is knowledge. While one cannot simultaneously inhabit different perspectives, one can nonetheless consecutively take up a number of different perspectives on the same object and thus gain a richer visual sense of it. The situation is analogous in the cognitive case, according to the realist account. It argues that, although our knowledge is always “interested,” we can bring a variety of “cognitive interests” to bear upon an object and thus come to know it better. Once again, across these different sets of “cognitive interests,” there is a central, stable subject who consecutively occupies these different sets of interests and thus accumulates a more complete knowledge of the object on which these interests are brought to bear. Leiter writes: “The more perspectives we enjoy—for example, the more interests we employ in knowing the object—the better our conception of what the object is like will be.”
This view does, of course, receive some support from the passage privileged by both Clark and Leiter. After all, in that passage, Nietzsche claims that: “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about a thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe the thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity’, be” (GM III 12). This certainly lends some credence to the notion of perspective accumulation proposed by the realist interpretation. Yet one of the major problems with this interpretation is that it focuses too narrowly on this passage and, more specifically, on the optical metaphor presented in the passage, to the neglect of other features of the passage and Nietzsche’s other central concerns. As I have indicated, it neglects to discuss the explicit connection between perspective and interpretation developed in this passage, a connection which we have seen to be fundamental to an understanding of perspectivism. Furthermore-and more important for the present discussion—it fails to take into account another central feature of Nietzsche’s later work: his critique of the notion of a pre-given subject-what he calls “ego-substance” (TI III 5).
Nietzsche’s Critique of “Ego-Substance”
A critique of the notion of mental—or subject—substance is found throughout Nietzsche’s later work. This critique is a result of his naturalism, which is both antimetaphysical (against the posit of any otherworldly entity or explanatory principle) and holistic (against every absolute foundation or origin). Thus, Nietzsche considers theological the belief that there must be some “being” or subject-substratum “behind doing, effecting, becoming” (GM I 13). To assume such a being is to posit an otherworldly entity that initiates the happenings, effects, and appearances that constitute the natural world while remaining outside that world, unchanged by its contingencies and exigencies. The notion of ego-substance is also a form of the “myth of the given,” what Nietzsche calls the myth of “immediate certainties,” those simple, atomic, unities that are supposed to serve as the absolute foundation of all being and knowing. Nietzsche’s naturalism rejects the idea that there is any entity that is not essentially dependent upon other entities for its genesis and continued existence, and the idea that there is any fundamental, obvious fact that need not justify itself by relation to other “facts.” For, according to Nietzsche, there are “facts” only against the background of a particular interpretation, and the only entities that exist are natural, i.e., essentially relational and contingent, entities. Thus, in rejecting the foundational presuppositions of “materialistic atomism,” Nietzsche also rejects what he calls “soul atomism …, the belief which regards the soul as something indestructible, eternal, indivisible, as a monad, as an atomon” (BGE 12). Such an idea, he claims, is not only supernatural, but also fails to account satisfactorily for important features of human psychology, which reveals the subject to be an amalgamation of competing impulses and drives rather than an atomic unity.
As Nietzsche himself acknowledges, this critique of mental substance stems from the critique of that notion by Hume and Kant. Following Hume, Kant argues that, since the subject or self is not discoverable among the contents of experience, some other justification must be sought for its postulation. Nietzsche takes up this line of thought in Beyond Good and Evil. For Nietzsche, as for Kant and Hume, we only ever experience impressions, actions, and effects, but never the “subject” that is supposed to have those impressions or initiate those actions and effects. Yet, whereas Kant came to regard the notion of the self as a formal requirement of reason and to posit the antinaturalistic notions of noumenal self and noumenal causality, Nietzsche comes to regard the self as merely a grammatical habit that supports a moral fiction. For the radical empiricist Nietzsche—who maintained neither Kant’s distinctions between intuition, understanding, and reason, nor Kant’s conviction that practical reason must be taken for granted and its postulates deduced—we have justification only for belief in actions, effects, doings, becomings, and appearances; and it is merely a “seduction of language” that leads us to posit a “’being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; `the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything” (GM I 13).42 Furthermore, this linguistic habit serves the Christian, moral purpose of making some isolable thing, i.e., a specific subject, responsible and accountable for these actions and deeds. The separation of doer from deed, the subsequent removal of this doer from the conditioned and contingent world of effects and happenings, and, finally, the ascription of a “free will” to this subject, Nietzsche argues, serve to isolate some being as responsible for every eventuality and to claim that this being was free to do otherwise.
Of course Nietzsche also criticizes determinism, the notion of “unfree will” (BGE 21). But this is not the place to delve into what would be a lengthy discussion of Nietzsche’s philosophy of mind or moral theory. I simply want to indicate that a critique of the notion of a pre-given subject-substratum is basic to Nietzsche’s naturalism. The point is that, for Nietzsche, the assumption of such a “free will” behind every action seeks the source of the contingent and the conditional in something given and unconditioned, in short, something unworldly. According to Nietzsche, this scenario “deprives becoming of its innocence”—and it is the primary goal of Nietzsche’s project to restore the “innocence of becoming.”
Nietzsche’s Conception of Subjectivity: “The Subject As Multiplicity”
This does not mean, however, that we should alter the subject-predicate structure of our grammar or that we should completely do away with the notion of ‘subject’ (or ‘soul’ or ‘ego’ or ‘will’). “Between ourselves,” Nietzsche writes, it is not at all necessary to get rid of “the soul” … and thus to renounce one of the most ancient and venerable hypotheses … But the way is open for new versions and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as “mortal soul,” “soul as subjective multiplicity,” and “soul as social structure of the drives and affects,” want henceforth to have citizens’ rights in science (BGE 12).
Thus, Nietzsche’s rejection of the notion of subject as causa sui, causa prima, or soul atom leads him to construct an alternative conception of subjectivity. Following a recurrent strategy, he begins by reversing our common linguistic and philosophical habits, arguing that what is primary are actions, deeds, accidents, and becomings, rather than subjects, doers, substances, or beings. A naturalistic theory, Nietzsche contends, must start from these former and construct the latter out of them, rather than vice versa. Hence, just as Nietzsche comes to conceive of “a thing” as “the sum of its effects” (WP 551), so, too, does he come to conceive of the subject as the sum of its actions and passions.
Nietzsche’s initial premise is that the natural world in which we are situated and that we observe is, first and foremost, a world of becoming, i.e., a world of myriad actions, happenings, effects, and appearances. Yet we can and do individuate this becoming into particular sets or assemblages. The subject, Nietzsche argues, is just such an assemblage. Subjectivity in general is characterized by a specific set of activities and appearances; and each particular subject is individuated by a peculiar subset of those activities, by a disposition to act in a particular manner and direction.
Yet, for Nietzsche, this unity is only a relative unity. The unity of the subject is the unity of a disposition, merely a probability that groups together a range of more or less similar and more or less connected activities for the purpose of simplification and calculation. Subjects, Nietzsche tells us, are irreducible multiplicities. The disposition that composes them is itself made up of microdispositions—what Nietzsche variously calls “drives” (Triebe), “desires” (Begierden), “instincts” (Instinkte), “powers” (Machte), “forces” (Krafte), “impulses” (Reize, Impulse), “passions” (Leidenschaften), “feelings” (Gefhlen), “affects” (Affekte), pathos (Pathos), etc. Starting from the premise that there are, first and foremost, actions, becomings, and appearances, Nietzsche posits “affects” as the interior states that help to explain and predict these actions, becomings, and appearances.
These affects are as close as one comes to a “bottom floor” in Nietzsche’s multileveled theory of subjectivity. With this hypothesis, Nietzsche would seem to be arguing that the subject is not an atomic unity simply because it can itself be further broken down into component parts. That is, he would seem to be replacing one sort of “subject atomism” with another, taking considerable force away from his critique of “ego-substance.” Indeed, in The Will to Power, Nietzsche seems to say that the “subjects” of interpretations and perspectives are affects:
[M]oral evaluation is an interpretation, a way of interpreting. The interpretation itself is a symptom of certain physiological conditions, likewise of a certain spiritual level of ruling judgments: Who interprets?—Our affects (WP 254). It is our needs that interpret the world: our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm (WP 481).
Here, Nietzsche seems to argue that every affect is or has a particular “For and Against” that makes it a kind of instinctive interpretation, a particular manner of construing and responding to its environing conditions. On the basis of these texts, one might reasonably argue that there is a simple answer to the question “Who or what is the subject of interpretations and perspectives?” and that this answer is simply: “our affects.”
Yet, while affects are in some sense primitive, for Nietzsche, he refuses to conceive them as entities, much less the atomic, singular, and unified entities that could be the proper bearers of perspectives and interpretations. First of all, on a microlevel, Nietzsche thinks of affects as an organic form of the basic “force-points” posited by Roger Boscovich to replace the materialist atom. Boscovich maintains that these basic items are “not … particles of matter in which powers somehow inhere” but dynamic, differential “centers” within a force-field.so They are, as it were, temporary dams or accumulations of force rather than subsisting entities. Second, on a more macrolevel, affects are tendencies and processes (“becomings”) rather than definite entities (“beings”), “Fear,” “love,” “exuberance,” ressentiment, and “envy,” for example, are not adequately described as “things”; rather, they are what Nietzsche calls “dynamic quanta of force or drive” that have their specific expression and direction. Third, affects are, by definition, relational: they relate one state of affairs to another. As the notions of “drive” and “impulse” suggest, affects are a pulling or pushing of the organism in one direction or another. Finally, Nietzsche argues that it makes no sense to speak of an affect in isolation from other affects. We have seen that he considers affects to be, in a rudimentary sense, interpretive. Like the interpretations described in Genealogy III 12, each affect is or has a “For and Against” (Fur und Wider) “that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm” (WP 48 ). Yet, just as interpretations are always essentially engaged in a struggle with other interpretations, just as each interpretation always begins from and tends toward other interpretations that it reinterprets or by which it is reinterpreted, so too each affect is always engaged in a struggle with other affects, each of which “would like to compel the other[s] to accept [it] as a norm.” Affects, Nietzsche tells us, are “dynamic quanta in a relation of tension to all other dynamic quanta: their essence lies in their relation to all other quanta, in their ‘effect’ upon the same” (WP 635, my italics). Indeed, the world is a “becoming,” for Nietzsche, precisely because it is essentially composed of these volatile relations. “My idea,” Nietzsche writes (speaking here of “bodies,” though the same holds for affects and interpretations), “is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power:) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (‘union’) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they conspire together for power. And the process goes on” (WP 636).
Instead of individual affects each with its own interpretation or perspective, then, what we encounter are always “unions” of affects. This description comes closer to capturing Nietzsche’s idea of “perspective” or “interpretation.” While each affect is or has an interpretation in a rudimentary sense, Nietzsche tends to think of interpretations and perspectives as hierarchical aggregates of affects in which some dominate and others are subordinate. Instead of being the proper subjects of interpretations and perspectives, then, affects turn out to be “subjects” only in a political sense: namely, members of the hierarchical structure of an interpretation.
This description recalls our earlier characterization of interpretations as systems of evaluation directed by particular needs. But what is it that unifies a particular system and what makes a particular set of needs dominant? Nietzsche tells us that every interpretation and perspective is oriented toward the preservation and enhancement of a specific level of organization in life, from the individual to the group, the species, or life as a whole. Are the “subjects” of perspectivism, then, perhaps just these particular levels of life? In a sense, the answer is yes; for a particular perspective does represent the “point of view” of a particular type, group, culture, people, etc. Yet, once again, these perspectives are never encountered in isolation. That is, we never come across these perspectives independent of the individual human beings to whom they are attributed. And each individual cuts across all the various levels of life: human beings are individuals as well as members of communities, cultures, subcultures, races, classes, genders, nationalities, religions, political parties, etc. Thus, on the one hand, we always encounter perspectives within individual subjects, while, on the other hand, individual subjects are aggregates of these perspectives and their forms of life.
For Nietzsche, the individual subject is an aggregate on two levels—what are usually called “the physical” and “the spiritual,” “body” and “soul.” According to Nietzsche, however, these do not form the two sides of an opposition between different kinds of entity, but only a difference of degree along a continuum from the more or less unchangeable to the more or less changeable. First, a subject has a quantitative identity insofar as it is born with a basic physical unity: an integral body. Yet even this basic unity and identity are only relative, since, according to Nietzsche, the body itself is “a political structure,” “an aristocracy” (WP 660) or “oligarchy” (GM II i)—a hierarchy of organs, tissues, and cells, each of which has a particular role and function. In a healthy body, these various parts fulfill their functions in service of the whole; while in a sick or dying body, this relation of parts to whole (and thus the integrity of the body) is threatened or dissolving.68 Furthermore, the relatively pre-given unity of the body is not an eternal verity but the product or result of “interpretation” (in Nietzsche’s broad sense of the word), i.e., of millennia of evolutionary struggle.
Second, and more important for the present discussion, a subject has a qualitative identity insofar as it is or has a more or less stable “character” or “self.” But this unity, too. is an aggregate, and, moreover, one that is intimately related to the physical, bodily aggregate. Indeed, Nietzsche argues that the organizational unity of the body provides the proper model for theorizing about the “soul,” “self,” or “subject”:
The body and physiology as the starting point: why?—We gain the correct idea of the nature of our subject-unity, namely as regents at the head of a communality…, also of the dependence of these regents upon the ruled and of an order of rank and division of labor as the conditions that make possible the whole and its parts. In the same way, how living unities continually arise and die and how the “subject” is not eternal; in the same way, that the struggle expresses itself in obeying and commanding, and that a fluctuating assessment of the limits of power is part of life. The relative ignorance in which the regent is kept concerning individual activities and even disturbances within the communality is among the conditions under which rule can be exercised … The most important thing, however, is: that we understand that the ruler and his subjects are of the same kind, all feeling, willing, and thinking (WP 492). This last remark is important; for it suggests that the body not only presents the appropriate framework for a conception of the self, but also that the latter is actually rooted in the former-in the affects, which are at once “physical” and “spiritual,” i.e., interpretive. The affects, then, are the point of contact between “body” and “soul.” In mirroring formulas, Nietzsche tells us that “the soul” is a “social structure of the drives and affects” (BGE 1 2), while the “body is but a social structure composed of many souls” (BGE 1 9). We could summarize this by saying that the self (the physical-spiritual “subject-unity”) is a composite of many “souls,” each of which has its own perspective, its own arrangement of drives and affects, Fors and Againsts. The self is thus an aggregate of many different perspectives and interpretations, each of which is affective, rooted in the various drives, impulses, desires, and passions of the body.
This idea runs throughout Nietzsche’s discussions of subjectivity, selfhood, and character. For instance, in two similar notes from 1884, he writes: [A]ll sorts of contradictory estimations and therefore contradictory drives swarm within one man. This is the expression of the diseased condition in mankind, in contrast to the animals, in which all existing instincts satisfy very specific tasks—this contradictory creature has however in its nature a great method of knowledge: he feels many Fors and Againsts—he raises himself to justice—to a comprehension beyond the estimation of good and evil. The wisest man would be the richest in contradictions, who has feelers for all kinds of men: and, in the midst, his great moments of grandiose harmony-a rare occurrence even in us!—a sort of planetary movement. (WP 259)
In contrast to the animals, man has cultivated an abundance of contrary drives and impulses within himself: thanks to this synthesis he is master of the earth. Moralities are the expression of locally limited orders of rank in this multifarious world of drives: so that man should not perish through their contradictions. Thus a drive as master, its opposite weakened, refined, as the impulse that provides the stimulus for the activity of the chief drive. The highest man would have the greatest multiplicity of drives, in the relatively greatest strength that can be endured. Indeed, where the plant “man” shows itself strongest, one finds driving instincts that powerfully conflict with one another …, but are controlled. (WP 966)
Here, as elsewhere, Nietzsche argues that the human subject is a multiplicity. In contrast with animals, who are composed of only a few, very specific, instinctive “perspectives,” human beings are far more complex-collections of a vast array of competing instincts, affects, drives, desires, beliefs, and capacities, and thus of a vast array of perspectives and interpretations. Hence, human beings are at once very richly endowed and very fragile creatures. Nietzsche contends that, for the most part, human beings have been unable to control the conflict of interpretations and perspectives that compose them. Pushed and pulled in multiple directions, the majority of human beings have shown themselves to be incontinent, unable not to respond to the myriad stimuli to which they are continually subjected. As a defense against this wanton and painful condition, human beings have resorted to a drastic means of achieving order, control, and power: they have declared the entire range of affects evil and resolved to extirpate them. Though it would appear to be a rather rare and extreme manifestation, Nietzsche argues that it is “one of the most widespread and enduring of all phenomena” (GM III 11). He discerns this kind of evaluation not only in the practices of the religious ascetic but also in those of the rationalist philosopher (who distinguishes mind and body and sets the former above the latter), and the scholar-scientist (who strives for objectivity conceived as “contemplation without interest”). Indeed, “[a]part from the ascetic ideal,” Nietzsche maintains, “man, the human animal, had no meaning so far” (GM III 28).
The ascetic solution is not only extreme, but self-defeating. For, in the guise of extirpating the affects and denying the multiplicity of perspectives, it simply endorses one affective perspective and rejects all the others. It, too, manifests a will to power and thus a privileged interpretation and dominant set of affects. Disgusted with sensuous existence, it plots revenge through the separation of mind and body, and the elevation of the “spiritual” and “antinatural” over the bodily and natural. This situation is certainly paradoxicalfor it sets a particular will of life against life itself, an affect against all affects, “nature against something that is also nature” (WP 228)—but it is nonetheless prevalent.
This strange phenomenon, Nietzsche argues, is “the expression of the diseased condition in man,” a sign of nihilism, decadence, and the degeneration of life. In this condition, human beings are primarily reactive and negative. They declare their contradictory nature evil and surmise that there must be a better condition—a good, noncontradictory, extranatural condition and world. Thus, they come to exemplify that unnuanced, binary morality of ressentiment, which declares an other (in this case, the natural and physical) evil and consequently infers that it (in this case, the spiritual) must itself represent the good.
Yet, the contradictory swarm of drives in human beings also presents another possibility. Nietzsche contends that there are rare human beings in whom the many contrary drives, affects, perspectives, and interpretations are managed and organized into a rich and powerful unity. In such beings, all the affective perspectives and interpretations are allowed to express themselves, but in the service of the whole. Such human beings “give style” to their characters. Nietzsche explains:
To “give style” to one’s character-a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large part of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed—both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed is concealed; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime [Erhabene umgedeutet]. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and exploited for distant views; it is meant to beckon toward the far and immeasurable. In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small … It will be the strong and domineering natures that enjoy their finest gaiety in such constraint and perfection under a law of their own … Conversely, it is the weak characters without power over themselves that hate the constraint of style. (GS 290) Against the sensualist and relativist who submits indiscriminately to all drives and perspectives, and against the ascetic who attempts to annihilate the passions altogether, Nietzsche opposes the “highest human,” who affirms that life is essentially affective, and that it essentially involves the will to power (the forming, shaping, organizing, expansive drive of all life). The “highest human” is one capable of incorporating the multiplicity of affective perspectives and employing them in the service of the whole. Thus, Nietzsche says, such a person raises him or herself to “knowledge,” “justice,” and “an estimation beyond good and evil.”
Yet this necessitates a redescription of “knowledge” and “justice.” “Knowledge” can no longer mean “objectivity … understood as ‘contemplation without interest’,” for this is “a nonsensical absurdity” (GM III 12) that denies the affective character of all life and the affective perspectives and interpretations that are the very conditions for any knowledge whatsoever. Similarly, “justice” can no longer mean the equalization of power, the prevention of struggle, and the insurance of peace, for this represents “a principle hostile to life” (GM II 1 i), since it denies “the relations of supremacy under which the phenomenon of ‘life’ comes to be” (BGE 19). Rather, for these “higher types,” “knowledge” and “justice” signify the affirmation of affective life and of the organizing force that controls it in the service of the subject as a whole.
There is no better formulation of these aims than the passage on perspectivity cited at the outset. For the “higher types,” “knowledge” and “justice” are precisely “the ability to have one’s For and Against under control and to engage and disengage them, so that one knows how to employ a variety of perspectives and affective interpretations in the service of knowledge.” Such a nuanced, multifaceted estimation is indeed something other than the binary, slavish morality of “good and evil.” It points toward a different ethics: a model of practice firmly rooted in the ethos, one that extols self-control and fine discrimination in the estimation of the particular passions and actions appropriate for every given situation. Indeed, perspectivism might be seen as encapsulating Nietzsche’s conception of practical wisdom: it advocates the cultivation of a variety of affective centers within an overall organization (the subject) that is finely attuned to its capacities and environment, aware of the affective perspectives that are appropriate to a given circumstance, and able skillfully to deploy these perspectives as required.
The Subject As Interpretation
Let me conclude by making explicit the result of this discussion for the issue at hand, the issue of the “subject” of perspectivism. Contrary to recent views, we have seen that the subject of perspectivism cannot simply be the individual human knower presupposed as atomic and given; for Nietzsche maintains, rather, that the human subject is a multiplicity that is constantly being achieved, accomplished, produced. Moreover, the subject does not have these various perspectives and interpretations; rather, they are what the subject is. According to Nietzsche, the subject is nothing over and above the various physical/spiritual affective perspectives and interpretations that compose it, and the relationships between these perspectives and interpretations.
This is not mysterious provided that we take seriously Nietzsche’s conception of the subject as a political organization. Every such organization is a more or less temporary union of various individuals and groups that often have different experiences, views, and desires but agree (or are made to agree) about some central ideas, practices, and goals which supervene and serve to unify the membership. The force of the organization resides in the collective power of its members, in their ability to struggle in a particular direction and yet be flexible and responsive to changing circumstances by drawing upon the capacities of its individual members or subgroups. There is no organization without these members, and no membership without the existence of the organization as a whole.
Nietzsche argues that the subject is just like this. It is nothing over and above the sum and arrangement of the affective perspectives and interpretations that compose it. These are not, and need not be, homogeneous. Indeed, Nietzsche argues that the more heterogeneous they are—provided that they maintain some coherence—the richer and more flexible the whole will be.so This union, however, is “mortal”; it is a changeable entity. Different circumstances force the acquisition of new perspectives and/or the loss of old ones, thus altering the overall structure. And, if these changes are significant enough, or if particular factions cease to remain subordinate to the whole, the whole is threatened or falls apart. Nietzsche writes:
No subject “atoms.” The sphere of the subject constantly growing or decreasing, the center of the system constantly shifting; in cases where it cannot organize the appropriate mass, it breaks into two parts. On the other hand, it can transform a weaker subject into its functionary without destroying it, and to a certain degree form a new unity with it. No “substance,” rather something that in itself strives after greater strength, and that wants to “preserve” itself only indirectly (it wants to surpass itself). (WP 488)
We thus discover not only that the human subject is a fabricated entity, but that its fabrication takes the same form as the fabrication of an interpretation. Recall that, in his highly generalized account of interpretation (GM II 1), Nietzsche writes:
whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adjustment through which any previous “meaning” and “purpose” are necessarily obscured or obliterated.
If “all events in the organic world” are submitted to this process, it is not surprising that this description also applies to the formation of subjectivity. Indeed, we find that Nietzsche not only views the subject as a multiplicity of microinterpretations and microperspectives; he also views the subject itself as a macrointerpretation. The point is simply that, for Nietzsche, interpretation goes all the way down and all the way up. Rather than positing the subject as something removed from the realm of interpretation, something that stands behind and fabricates interpretations, we find that, for Nietzsche, the subject itself is fabricated by and as an interpretation. Thus, the famous passage which claims that there are no facts but only interpretations, concludes:
“Everything is subjective,” you say; but even this is interpretation [Auslegung]. The “subject” is nothing given [nichts Gegebenes], but something added, fabricated, and stuck behind [etwas Hinzu-Erdichtetes, Dahinter-Gestecktes]. Finally, is it necessary to posit an interpreter [Interpreten] behind the interpretation [Interpretationen]? Even this is fiction, hypothesis [Dichtung, Hypothese]. (WP 481)