- Nietzsche on Language, Consciousness, and the Body
In his Nietzsche on Language, Consciousness, and the Body, Christian J. Emden makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought. The general focus of Emden’s [End Page 192] study is Nietzsche’s account of mind and knowledge as informed by their physiological and cultural setting. Emden approaches Nietzsche from a historiographical perspective, situating Nietzsche in the context of nineteenth-century German thought. Philosophers and historians of ideas will find much to appreciate in this well-researched and well-written study.
Emden’s study reveals a Nietzsche firmly embedded in the intellectual tradition of his time, and while Emden eschews evaluating Nietzsche’s work, the resulting interpretation reveals a clear, careful, and complex thinker. The nineteenth century was a vigorous intellectual period in Europe, and Nietzsche was witness to important developments in philosophy, linguistics, history, anthropology, sociology, philology, and psychology, as well as in biology, chemistry, physics, and human physiology. Attention to Nietzsche’s interest in these topics helps diminish the problematic and even radical appearance of Nietzsche’s thought, according to Emden. In the following, I summarize Emden’s interpretation of Nietzsche and then offer brief evaluative remarks. (A philosopher, I speak less to Emden’s knowledgeable discussion of German intellectual history.)
Of primary concern to Emden is the epistemological integrity of Nietzsche’s work, and the key element here is Nietzsche’s account of metaphor. Metaphor is at bottom a rhetorical phenomenon, a linguistic structure of considerable interest in its own right. Nietzsche maintains, however, that metaphor is intrinsic to all linguistic representation and thus to thought and knowledge generally. This view raises significant logical difficulties. If all language is metaphor—if, that is, there is no literal meaning or use in language—then the concept of metaphor itself threatens to collapse as marking no distinction in linguistic kind.
Relevant to Nietzsche’s understanding of metaphor is his early interest in rhetoric, which quickly takes on philosophical significance. As a relatively mainstream participant in the philological studies of his time, Nietzsche explored the relationship between language and culture as found in classical Greece and Rome, where a principal issue is the proper role of rhetoric in public discourse. This issue is the subject of early lectures and writing by Nietzsche, in which he addresses the vexed relationship between rhetorical thought and philosophical discourse: these are two sides of the same coin, he finds, where a proper sophist is aware of the aesthetic dimension of our main epistemological tool—language. As presented by Emden, we see Nietzsche’s work in the context of his philological peers, many of whom held views similar to those of Nietzsche or even more “radical”; by comparison, Nietzsche’s views appear at once judicious and penetrating. Nietzsche emerges from his philological studies as a philosopher puzzling over the joint truth-bearing and persuasive roles of language. He differs from his philological contemporaries in emphasizing the philosophical significance of a rhetorical problem, but his allegiance to philology distinguishes him from many philosophical observers, as well. Where Plato and Locke reject eloquence as inappropriate to philosophy, and where Leibniz recognizes the difficulties of avoiding it, Nietzsche embraces the rhetorical element as inherent in language.
Nietzsche’s understanding of metaphor is strongly influenced by his perception of the seat of mind and language as in the body. This relationship is the subject of early as well as late attention. In his early work, Nietzsche’s concern is with signs and the referential capacity of language. His rejection of direct linguistic reference to reality is a consequence of his interpretation of language as an organic process: we can refer only and at best to sensory stimuli and the beliefs they inspire. This raises the question of how communication is possible, to which Nietzsche responds with his doctrine of metaphor. Metaphor is a means of transferring a sign from one human to another, but because no linguistic sign refers directly to reality, communication will necessarily be indeterminate. This...