- The Deed Is Everything: Nietzsche on Will and Action by Aaron Ridley
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. 224 PP.
isbn: 978-0-198-82544-9. Cloth, $60.00.
Aaron Ridley's The Deed Is Everything: Nietzsche on Will and Action uses the notion of expressivism to draw together several strands of Nietzschean thought into a view that both challenges and complements previous accounts of agency in general and previous secondary-literature accounts of Nietzsche's view of agency in particular. The book consists of an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion. In this review, I briefly discuss each chapter with a particular focus on Ridley's distinction between the "letter" and the "spirit" of an action, a distinction that seems to me crucial to Ridley's conception of expressivism's advantages over other theories of agency. The "letter" of an action comprises the aspects of the action that [End Page 342] can be stated in formulable rules; the "spirit" of the action comprises the aspects of the action that outstrip or transcend formulable rules. Actions of the same type share the same letter but may differ in spirit. Ridley suggests that only expressivist views of agency can contain appropriate space for the notion of an action's spirit, and I take his commitment to the importance of this notion to be the animating concern of his view.
The first chapter sets up two opposing accounts of the connection between will and action; Ridley calls these two accounts "empiricist" and "expressivist." On the (more commonly accepted) empiricist account, the link between will and action is causal: will causes action. On the expressivist account, the link between will and action is expressive: action expresses will. Ridley argues that, despite its comparative marginality, the expressivist approach "deserve[s] to be taken seriously" (22). He notes that he does not aim to prove that expressivism is true and empiricism false; rather, he aims to put empiricism "under a certain sort of oblique or attritional pressure" (22) and to show that expressivism is a useful approach for relieving that pressure. That pressure amounts to a phenomenologically grounded case for understanding agency holistically—for seeing it not as "will plus action" (as empiricism tends to do) but instead as "will in action" (31). The hard cases for empiricism, Ridley argues, are "essentially non-basic" actions, meaning that their "success-conditions [. . .] cannot be (non-trivially) specified in advance of the deed itself" (40). Ridley offers several examples of essentially nonbasic actions, among them "Wittgenstein's case of finding the right word—or of finding the word that is on the tip of one's tongue" (40). Ridley identifies this action as essentially nonbasic because "it is only in finding the word that I discover which word I meant; and the success conditions of that enterprise could not have been specified in advance, except trivially (e.g., by saying that success in finding equals finding successfully)" (40). These relevant success conditions help to constitute the spirit beyond the trivially specifiable letter, and Ridley argues that expressivism can do a much more adequate job of attending to that spirit.
In chapter 2, Ridley makes his case for reading Nietzsche as an expressivist. Ridley's main opponent in this section is not so much the empiricist as the eliminativist—that is, the interpreter who claims "that Nietzsche is in the business of explaining agency away" (70). Ridley grants that Nietzsche's discussions of both will and action might reasonably lead us to see those concepts "as rich, dark, deep, and—perhaps—ultimately inscrutable" (70). However, Ridley argues, the deep complexities of will and action to which [End Page 343] Nietzsche draws our attention cause more trouble for the empiricist than for the expressivist: those complexities mostly involve skepticism toward, first, the strength (and perhaps even the possibility) of the causal link between will and action and, second, the reliability of a particular sort of introspection—the Cartesian sort that relies on "an introspectable simple that can be identified with the self" (73)—as a guide to the connection between will and action. Since expressivism does...