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An impossible argument in Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations

I am recently coming to suspect that Nietzsche, that most naturalist of philosophers, was a vitalist. This leads him into trouble, but not the usual troubles. When I call Nie­tzsche a vitalist, I do not mean that he thought an additional, non-physical law or princi­ple was needed to account for the phenomenon of life. (Perhaps that is what his will to power is. I don’t know. In any event I am focusing on the younger Nietzsche.) Rather, I mean that he viewed life as something special, something that perhaps not all living organisms possess. [All citations will be to the Cambridge editions of Untimely Meditations, translated by R.J. Hollingdale and edited by Daniel Breazeale.]

This comes out when Nietzsche says, in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, that history should serve life rather than life serve history. What Nietzsche means by “life” is only a subset of what there is to living beings. Consider the following passage, in which Nietzsche asks of possessors of life (in the vitalistic sense):

What was left of them to bury! Only the dross, refuse, vanity, animality that had always weighed them down and that was now consigned to oblivion after having for long been the object of their contempt. But one thing will live, the monogram of their most essential being, a work, an act, a piece of rare enlightenment, a creation: it will live because posterity cannot do without it. (69)

Here life is not our living bodies, but our “essential being”, which may be found in a work or an act, and which remains even when our bodies are decayed. Nietzsche at one point (I haven’t been able to track it down) suggests a pruning metaphor: the great individual prunes himself, shedding that which is not life or not in service of life, preserving only what is or serves life. Life is only a small part of the living organism, if any.

It is this life that history is supposed to serve. We can well imagine utilitarianism or Christianity has been useful for the preservation of the species, yet Nietzsche could still adamantly respond: yes, but they have not served life! The same is true for history: its application could preserve the human race, perhaps, but not human life.

Nietzsche, later in the essay, gives an argument for why history must serve life—for its own sake!

As cities collapse and grow desolate when there is an earthquake and man erects his house on volcanic land only in fear and trembling and only briefly, so life itself caves in and grows weak and fearful when the concept-quake caused by science robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal. Is life to dominate knowledge and science, or is knowledge to dominate life? Which of these two forces is the higher and more decisive? There can be no doubt: life is the higher, the dominating force, for knowledge which annihilated life would have annihilated itself with it. Knowledge presupposes life and thus has in the preservation of life the same interest as any creature has in its own continued existence. (121)

(Note: Nietzsche in the essay considers whether or not history should be a science or an art. So when Nietzsche considers science and life, history is included under science, I believe.)

There is an uncontroversial sense in which knowledge presupposes life: it requires living beings to carry it out. But what I have been suggesting is precisely that Nietzsche has been developing a sense of ‘life’ that is distinct from that of living beings: life may be found even after the death of the living being (think how often in his later philosophy Nietzsche praises the life that squanders itself—or even think of the very idea of untimeliness and posthumous birth), and the living being can exist without life, if those living parts have been pruned away, leaving only the dross and vanity.

Nietzsche’s argument turns on an equivocation: history presupposes living beings, and Nietzsche slides from this uncontroversial claim to the much more interesting view that history presupposes life. Nietzsche’s argument is impossible: his peculiar definition of ‘life’ makes it so.

I don’t wish to speculate why Nietzsche fell into this mistake. Carelessness, perhaps, or maybe it was deliberate. It is an interesting mistake, in my view, since so much of Nietzsche’s work is premised on the idea that something might be incredibly harmful to life, to health, without having the slightest negative consequences for the preservation of the species. Nietzsche confronts, again and again, the possibility and even reality of what is non-life in humans dominating what is life in them. Yet here he would rule out that possibility a priori. A defensive maneuver, perhaps? A retreat from a terrible truth he was not yet ready to face?

I do not know.

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