On Nietzsche’s Late Notebooks

Notebook 36, June - July 1885 36[27]
Philosophy in the only way I still allow it to stand, as the most general form of history, as an attempt somehow to describe Heraclitean becoming and to abbreviate it into signs (so to speak, to translate and mummify it into a kind of illusory being).

There is much that can be said about this note. For one, the relationship between philosophy and history. For another, the limitations of becoming in the ‘Heraclitean’ sense. It may be better to start between the two. What does Nietzsche mean by ‘the most general form of history’? As translated, it is at best imprecise. But the meaning is contained in the two bookends, which is to say, it is basically given by its context. Philosophy is ‘allow[ed] to stand’ by Nietzsche as an attempt to ‘translate’ becoming into signs, to take hold of it (becoming) though whatever is seized has an only temporary truth, perhaps even existence. The whole orientation of this note might be put around experience instead, and indeed, in other notes, this is the case. Here it is philosophy as a historical tradition that is the target. Philosophy as a body of work across generations is the set of successive attempts by men to apprehend becoming as if it were being and to say (in signs) what being is (and to say everything about being that can be said). Nietzsche will ‘allow’ for philosophy as this historical attempt, that is, philosophy as historical chronicle of all these attempts. This view is perfectly consistent with someone who also sees philosophy as an ‘unconscious memoir’ of the philosopher. It is also consistent with someone who is a trained classicist and philologist who initially comes to philosophy and sees it from the outside. Especially as a set of texts (signs). The verb to mummify here, provided it is an accurate translation, further evokes the image of philosophy as a set of museum pieces. This is what Nietzsche means by ‘most general form of history’: as historical specimens they provide a history. They are a history, of course, not in the usual sense of direct statements of fact about events, but in the less di1

rect sense of bearing within them their times; and also, within a narrower notion of History, they serve more directly as historical artifacts of the history of thought. Being a true philosopher, however, Nietzsche is not simply reducing philosophy to the history of philosophy. The greater number of academic philosophers today are really nothing more than historians of philosophy, who think their categories into which each philosopher falls (the same categories they give their students) actually mean something. Of course, more often than not, they are just monuments to misunderstanding. For example, in universities today, the first thing you hear about Kant is that he is a transcendental idealist. One can hear this a hundred times before reading Kant. When one does so, one finds a surprise: Kant starts off arguing against idealism, and did not consider himself a ‘transcendental idealist’. Articles today can be found quoting from Schopenhauer supposedly explaining how Kant was a transcendental idealist. But when one reads what Schopenhauer wrote, he does not use the term ‘idealist’ but puts Kant in terms of Kant’s own category: criticism. But no matter. One is constantly tempted with these appeals to becoming to submit them to the negation of the negation. That is, one finds becoming to be a modified being, a constant reflection of being and a reaction to it. How provocative is the concept of becoming, after all, when we have long since left the stale, dormant concept of being behind? Everything is changing, it is said. Is it? I look outside. The wind is blowing leaves around. That is change. The black cabinet in the corner of the room is not changing it is doing nothing. Now, the latter-day Heracliteans would say: ah! it is changing. On the molecular level, things are in constant motion: the wood in the cabinet is slowly decaying; maybe bacteria and other tiny organisms are experiencing whole epic histories. To this one might answer, however: yes, all that is true. But is that identical to your (Heraclitean) change? We might say that everything is in motion, and at a minimum this is so since the earth spins and whirls around in space. But is motion the same as ‘change’? Is simple motion identical (conceptually) to what is meant by (Heraclitean) change? It merely exposes to what extent both doctrines of being and becoming are really only products of an embodied, deictic perspective. Both are constructs heavily reliant on certain sense aspects, the raw materials of experience. ‘Motion’ as an intuitive reality is implicated in the con-


cept of becoming. After all, what are we saying when we say becoming? We imply that it is in motion, but what we are really trying to achieve, to perform by invoking the concept is a sort of bracketing of the logical meaning of a thing. We mean to insinuate an view according to which the logical meaning of a thing that delivers itself to our attention is subject to change, and that we should not be so thoughtlessly captivated by the immediate effect of the presence of some thing under our attention. The doctrine of becoming itself, however, has to be something we constantly remind ourselves of. The black cabinet is not in motion as far as I am concerned. If it started to move itself across the room, I would become concerned. I might concede intellectually that it is in motion (and that I am as well) but I have to remind myself of it at each passing moment for that doctrine to become more powerful than that of being. Of course, when it comes to lifeforms, it is easier. We ‘know’ that we are aging, presumably continually, though materialistically it may be subject to fits and starts, punctuated equilibria, and so on. We see other lifeforms age, everything from people to grapes on the vine. Thus, it is easier to accept that these things are changing, and therefore as proofs of becoming. Both notions, being and becoming, are so cobbled together, however, out of intuitive experience, and so dependent on the embodied perspective, that one wonders if there is anything fundamental about these categories at all. What would a worldview look like without being and becoming? It is less a matter of rejecting them or superceding them as their simply not being in operation. They are only logically demanded in a given body of thought if there is someone logically demanding them, i.e. calling for them. Things are neither permanent nor impermanent ‘in general’ because there are no things in general. Nor are there things specifically. The point here is not that ‘things don’t exist’. There is neither P nor not-P because the initial term is not posited. Some natives in the jungle were written about recently, and it was said that they had no word for hunger. That is, they could not say ‘I am hungry’ in their language. The reason why was that as hunter-gatherers, perpetual foragers for food, whenever food was present they ate it. The sort of feast or famine aspect of human physiology, why when we eat anything more than is immediately required it turns into fat, was clearly evidenced here. They ate whenever food was present, didn’t eat whenever food was not present. The feeling of hunger had no discursive place. Similarly, being and becoming need have no discursive place and need not be a part of our diet.


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