- Nietzsches Philosophie des Unbewussten ed. by Jutta Georg and Claus Zittel
Nietzsches Philosophie des Unbewussten, the third volume in De Gruyter’s recently launched Nietzsche Heute/Nietzsche Today series, collects more than twenty articles ostensibly devoted to the theme of the unconscious in Nietzsche’s philosophy. However, it is not always easy to determine what each article contributes to the volume topic. This may reflect the fact that the chapters derive from the 2011 conference of the Nietzsche-Gesellschaft, which aimed to provide a multifaceted treatment of whatever falls under the label unconscious in Nietzsche’s philosophy. Transferred into book form, this liberal attitude creates a rather disorienting juxtaposition of themes and approaches, rather than a lively variety of perspectives on a common topic—or, at least, that is this reader’s impression. Since the articles differ considerably in quality, length, and pertinence to the volume topic, I shall focus on those that strike me as addressing important aspects of, and offering interesting insights into, Nietzsche’s “philosophy of the unconscious.”
Before proceeding to this task, however, there is a further, perhaps more serious shortcoming of Nietzsches Philosophie des Unbewussten that I should point out. For the book is likely to disappoint the expectation, arguably raised by the title of the series as well as by some remarks to be found in the editors’ introduction, that some of the contributions will engage with Nietzsche’s view of the unconscious from contemporary perspectives. The editors, for instance, claim that, “given the contemporary boom in the explanatory models of cognitive psychology, Nietzsche’s philosophy of the unconscious becomes … relevant, since it has the potential to act as a critical corrective to a narrow-minded naturalism” (2; all translations are my own). This is a controversial claim, and opens up several important questions. How is Nietzsche’s naturalism different from, or even superior to, that of today’s cognitive psychology? How do his views about the unconscious grounds of the mind, agency, and the self compare with contemporary models? And how do they fare in light of recent findings in neuroscience, moral psychology, cognitive anthropology, and so on? Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, the chapters included in the volume do not address such questions.
I now turn to the chapters that I found most pertinent and insightful. Some articles explore the relation between Nietzsche’s view of the unconscious and the psychoanalytic tradition. Günter Gödde’s contribution is particularly significant in this regard, as it clearly articulates the idea that Nietzsche belongs to what Gödde calls the “instinctual-irrational” tradition of the unconscious inaugurated by Schopenhauer and culminating in Freud’s theory. Gödde substantiates this idea by showing that all three figures characterize the unconscious with similar sets of metaphors and by pointing out strong analogies between the roles the notion plays in Nietzsche’s and in Freud’s theories. However, Gödde also goes further by arguing that Nietzsche’s ideas bear no substantial relation to two other important traditions of the unconscious, the “romantic-vital” and the “cognitive.” At least regarding the latter tradition, which goes back to Leibniz’s thesis that there are representations in our mind that remain unconscious, this claim is unpersuasive. For in two of the most important published passages in which he deals with consciousness, aphorisms 354 and 357 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche explicitly endorses Leibniz’s thesis. He was also familiar with, and seems to have accepted, the idea that some mental states, such as perceptions, involve the processing of unconscious representations. Gödde’s case therefore seems only partially convincing.
In his chapter, Martin Liebscher persuasively argues that Nietzsche’s first engagement with the notion of the unconscious is largely passive, and that his genuine philosophical elaboration of it starts only with his so-called “middle” period. Here, Liebscher defends two claims. First, he argues that, by abandoning the kind of Schopenhauerian monism that inspired his early work, Nietzsche also abandons his previous conception of the unconscious as a...