Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 11 November 2012

POSTCARD FROM ATHENS - Nietzsche and Plato on Art and Science, or The Wille zur Macht between Logos and Poiesis

Owing to the gratifying response from our friends to this piece, I ought to premit that this is a very rough draft of the first part of Chapter 3 of our "Nietzschebuch". Those friends who are interested should check again in the next few days when we should have the second part of this chapter, and then ultimately the final part. I should invite friends respectfully to read this material carefully because it is from here that the entire foundations of our critique of "science" - and especially of "economic science" - will be constructed.

The Wille zur Macht between Logos and Poiesis

That instinct towards the formation of metaphors,
that fundamental instinct of man, which we cannot
reason away for one moment— for thereby we should
reason away man himself—is in truth not defeated
nor even subdued by the fact that out of its evaporated products,
the ideas, a regular and rigid new
world [science] has been built as a stronghold for it. This
instinct seeks for itself a new realm of action and
another river-bed, and finds it in Mythos and more
generally in Art. (UWL, 188)

The “instinct toward the formation of metaphors” is a “fundamental instinct of man” because it is impossible for “thought” to ec-sist, to take place, to occur, without a re-presentation of its ob-ject – of that upon which thought re-flects -, so that this re-presentation must be dif-ferent from that ob-ject, no matter how much and how hard “thought” may wish “to imitate” its ob-ject, which remains distinct in that it is in-dependent of the thought process itself, from its “re-ality” that is “separate” though it may be (as we will see) co-naturate with thought. In other words, the “content” of thought, its object, is not generated by thought; and yet it is impossible even to imagine an “object” that is independent of thought. If we tried “to reason away for one moment” this “fundamental instinct of man”, then, “we should reason away man himself”, because the one characteristic that distinguishes human beings from other living beings is this ability, indeed necessity, to think by way of meta-phors, by way of this doomed attempt to mimetise life and the world, because thought is necessarily meta-phorical. And the attempt to achieve a total id-entification or complete mimesis of thought and object is something whose futility human beings are aware of precisely by virtue of being able to attempt it – through Art and myth-making.

But if “the instinct toward the formation of metaphors” is inseparable from the very activity of “thinking”, it follows that thought itself is “a fundamental instinct of man”, something peculiar and unique to human beings and whose origin Nietzsche was later to identify and describe more precisely as “the ontogeny of thought” that is the human expression of “the instinct of freedom” or “the will to power”. Impossible, therefore, is the attempt to distinguish and separate the act of perception or intuition from the very act of understanding or inter-preting that act of perception by means of meta-phors: impossible to split the act of perception into the perceiving “subject” and the perceived “object”.

…. [W]hence it clearly follows that that artistic formation of
metaphors, with which every sensation [Empfindung] in us begins,
already presupposes those forms [!],
and is therefore only consummated within them; only out of the
persistency [Verharren, sclerosis, hardening] of these primal forms
the possibility explains itself how afterwards - out of the metaphors
themselves – a structure of ideas could again be compiled. For the
latter is an imitation [Nachahmung, mimickry] of the relations of time,
space and number in the realm of metaphors. (p.186)

Dabei ergibt sich allerdings, dass jene künstlerische Metapherbildung, mit der in uns jede Empfindung beginnt, bereits jene Formen voraussetzt, also in ihnen vollzogen wird; nur aus dem festen Verharren dieser Urformen erklärt sich die Möglichkeit, wie nachher wieder aus den Metaphern selbst ein Bau der Begriffe konstituiert werden konnte. Dieser ist nämlich eine Nachahmung der Zeit-, Raum- und Zahlenverhältnisse auf dem Boden der Metaphern.

Art and mythology are for Nietzsche the human awareness of the im-possibility of bridging this mimetic gap between thought and its object. And this occurs despite the fact that all human perception “begins” with the act of pro-ducing meta-phors and in fact already pre-supposes those metaphorical forms! And yet the constant and “persistent” [Ver-harren] process of thinking in metaphors can inure human beings to rigidify and scleroticise artistic metaphors and myths into a system of symbols and ideas that pretend to order life and the world as if they could truth-fully be id-entical with their objects, as if they could per-fect (that is, achieve technically, by their “doing”) the mimesis, the id-entification of the logos (thought, word) with the world. And this Semiology, this system of ideas and symbols that re-fer to life and the world, “forgets” that each perception or intuition of life and the world is unique: what remains instead is not the “truth” of ideas – their “adequation” to the “thing”, what Nietzsche calls “the adequate expression of an object in the subject” (p.184) – but rather the “activity” that seeks to mimick and repeat this identification in-definitely, as in so-called “scientific experiments” – forgetting that the very “conduct” of “scientific experiments” ends up trans-forming the very “reality” that it means “to test”! (Mach’s “thought-experiments” are the most extreme instance of this process of subjection of the object by the subject through the formal abstraction of “experiments” as if these could be repeated infinitely – which is something resembling madness.)

Clear, therefore, is the critique that Nietzsche moves against Plato’s Socratic condemnation of poiesis, of artistic and mythopoeic activity, and his championing instead of philosophic-scientific or “rational” thought – a condemnation reticently copied by Kant with his definition of Reason as “thought subject to a rule” (and his warning about the “distraction” of music to the philosopher). According to Plato, reason or logic are vastly superior to art or poiesis because they proceed according to the principle of non-contradiction (cf. Bertrand Russell, “Whatever is, is, and cannot both be and not-be”) whereas the former “doings” or activities are at best a “diversion” from the search for truth and at worst an inveigling mystification of reality and therefore an obfuscation of the truth. For Nietzsche, instead, it is the other way around: artistic activity is much more “mimetic” in its imitation of life and the world in that it is far more intuitive than science and its “handmaiden” (Hegel in the Phenomenology) philosophy, because the latter are entirely “con-ventional” activities that seek to replace human intuition with “a structure of ideas or concepts [Begriffe]”, which then degenerate into a mere play on “logic” that “forgets” the necessarily “intuitive” character of the original sensation-perception [Empfindung, Bild]! Not only is life and the world not “logical”, not only is logical mimesis not “truth-ful”, but logic in fact mystifies human intuition more than poiesis because it substitutes a purely con-ventional semiotic structure and symbolism for the immediate human intuitions of reality which it then mistakes for “the essence of things”, for “the Truth” – something that is instead purely metaphorical and can only ec-sist as such.

Let us especially think about the formation of
Ideas [Begriffe]. Every word becomes at once an idea [Begriff] not
by having, as one might presume, to serve as a
reminder for the unique and individual experience happening,
but by having simultaneously to fit innumerable,
more or less similar (which really means never equal,
therefore altogether unequal) cases. Every idea originates
through equating the unequal. As certainly as no
one leaf is exactly similar to any other, so certain
is it that the idea "leaf" has been formed through
an arbitrary omission of these individual differences,
through a forgetting of the differentiating qualities,
and this idea now awakens the notion that in
nature there is, besides the leaves, a something
called the "leaf," perhaps a primal form [Urform] according to which
all leaves were woven, drawn, accurately measured, coloured,
crinkled, painted, but by unskilled hands, so that no copy had
turned out correct and trustworthy as a true copy of the primal
form. [179]

Denken wir besonders noch an die Bildung der Begriffe. Jedes Wort wird sofort dadurch Begriff, dass es eben nicht für das einmalige ganz und gar individualisierte Urerlebnis, dem es sein Entstehen verdankt, etwa als Erinnerung dienen soll, sondern zugleich für zahllose, mehr oder weniger ähnliche, das heißt streng genommen niemals gleiche, also auf lauter ungleiche Fälle passen muss. Jeder Begriff entsteht durch Gleichsetzen des Nichtgleichen. So gewiss nie ein Blatt einem andern ganz gleich ist, so gewiss ist der Begriff Blatt durch beliebiges Fallenlassen dieser individuellen Verschiedenheiten, durch ein Vergessen des Unterscheidenden gebildet und erweckt nun die Vorstellung, als ob es in der Natur außer den Blättern etwas gäbe, das »Blatt« wäre, etwa eine Urform, nach der alle Blätter gewebt, gezeichnet, abgezirkelt, gefärbt, gekräuselt, bemalt wären, aber von ungeschickten Händen, so dass kein Exemplar korrekt und zuverlässig als treues Abbild der Urform ausgefallen wäre.

Paradoxically, it is the “memory” of the experiment, of the “unique and individual experience”, that induces humans into thinking that what they remember is the same as what they are about to do. Were it not for memory, which for Nietzsche is the human faculty that originates “the ontogeny of thought” from instinct to intellect - were humans forgetful like animals, they could never come to forget (Vergessen) the im-mediacy of their perceptions, and therefore con-fuse their memory of their immediate perceptions with “the primal form” [Urform], with “the objects themselves”, with “the essence of things” [Wesen der Dinge]! - Which is and can only be by way of meta-phor, of re-presentation, by way of mimesis or “imitation” – which brings the Semiotic System of Science and Philosophy, their Logos and Ratio-Ordo back to the fundamental reality of Artistic Experience or Poiesis. Just as artistic creation is an “activity”, a “bringing into being” through the “imitation” of life and the world, so are Logic and Science also an “activity”, because experimentation never “repeats” an event but rather “trans-forms” life and the world just as much as artistic poiesis, despite the fact that the Logos of philosophy and science pretends instead to re-produce the “truth” or “essence” of “things”, of “the real world”!

Only by forgetting that primitive world of metaphors,
only by the congelation and coagulation [crystallization and sclerosis] of an
original mass of percepts [Bildermasse] pouring forth
as a fiery liquid out of the primal faculty of human
fancy [intuition], only by the invincible faith, that this sun, this
window, this table is a truth in itself: in short only
by the fact that man forgets himself as subject, and
what is more as an artistically creating subject: only
by all this does he live with some repose, safety and
consequence. (p.184)

 Nur durch das Vergessen jener primitiven Metapherwelt, nur durch das Hart- und Starrwerden einer ursprünglichen, in hitziger Flüssigkeit aus dem Urvermögen menschlicher Phantasie hervorströmenden Bildermasse, nur durch den unbesiegbaren Glauben, diese Sonne, dieses Fenster,dieser Tisch sei eine Wahrheit an sich, kurz nur dadurch, dass der Mensch sich als Subjekt, und zwar als künstlerisch schaffendes Subjekt, vergisst, lebt er mit einiger Ruhe, Sicherheit und Konsequenz:…

…durch diese Unbewusstheit, eben durch dies Vergessen zum Gefühl der Wahrheit (p.181)

Nur durch die Vergesslichkeit kann der Mensch je dazu kommen zu wähnen, er besitze eine »Wahrheit« in dem eben bezeichneten Grade. Wenn er sich nicht mit der Wahrheit in der Form der Tautologie, das heißt mit leeren Hülsen begnügen will, so wird er ewig Illusionen für Wahrheiten einhandeln. Was ist ein Wort? Die Abbildung eines Nervenreizes in Lauten. Von dem Nervenreiz aber Weiterzuschließen auf eine Ursache außer uns, ist bereits das Resultat einer falschen und unberechtigten Anwendung des Satzes vom Grunde.

This symbolic exchange or conceptual mediation has the obvious effect of “distancing” the individual from the immediate “view” (Bild) or “intuition” (Anschauung, a Kantian term) of life and the world so that the “im-mediacy” of that view, intuition or perception grows more remote from its “original” as the amount, frequency and “generality”of conceptual interaction grows greater. Once again, memory is a faculty that paradoxically allows us to forget (!) the im-mediacy of experience; whereas it is forgetfulness (in the Zweite Betrachtung) that enables just such im-mediacy. But this greater “generality” that is allowed by memory and language, by “words and ideas”, increases the “distance” of the symbolic exchange from the “identity” and “uniqueness” of the original human intuition and perception, leaving a large “space” or “chasm” between identity and non-identity that can easily turn symbolic “exchange” into “symbolic manipulation” such that what seem to be “true” identities are in fact the artificial pro-ducts of symbolic manipulation in a double sense – an individual sense and a social sense. At the individual level,  human beings begin to filter their “aesthetic” experiences through systems of symbols (concepts, ideas) that make possible the “distancing” of human experience from its “object” so that the two become con-fused. And at the social level, a more general “anthropomorphism” is produced whereby human beings subject their living activity to “conventional descriptions” of life and the world whose main object is to preserve the existing relations of power in civil society by mistaking its reproduction for “the objective reality” of life and the world!

The disregarding [or the “forgetting” that human memory
enables us to do] of the individual and real furnishes us
with the concept [Begriff, the idea as more than mere perception
or Bild, but as “conscious thought”, as the deception of
self-consciousness” and “logical reflection”], as it likewise also
gives us the form; whereas nature knows of no forms and concepts,
and therefore knows no categories [Gattungen, term used by Kant]
but only an x, to us inaccessible and indefinable.

For our antithesis of individual and categories is anthropomorphic
too and does not come from the essence of things, although on
the other hand we do not dare to say that it does not correspond to it; for that
would be a dogmatic assertion and as such just as
undemonstrable as its contrary. (p.180)


  1. I recently had similar thoughts after reading Kant's first Critique. He defines experience as an intuition placed under a concept and then considers "objects of possible experience" in relation to the concepts that limit them. I always wondered about intuitions of objects that weren't subsumed under concepts.

    I'm glad that I discovered this fascinating blog. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks for the kind and encouraging comment. Please look out for a 'revised' version of this entry and the rest of this chapter of the 'Nietzschebuch', which I should be able to post as early as Monday perhaps. The next post will also contain a brief discussion of Max Weber's approach to "scientific progress" which you may find interesting. Extracts of my 'Weberbuch' can be found on this blog by simply searching in the apposite facility on the front page.