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Beyond Good and Evil Chapter One: Part 20

In part 19 of Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the will was something complex—a commonwealth of interdependent parts which could only be properly understood when examined together.

In Part 20, he returns his focus to philosophy in general, and applies that same principal of interdependence to the numerous philosophical concepts that have arisen over the course of history.

“…however suddenly and arbitrarily they seem to appear in the history of thought, they nevertheless belong just as much to a system as all the members of the fauna of a continent…”

While different philosophies may seem to pop up at random, founded by far flung individuals and often at odds with one another, Nietzsche says that “Their thinking is, in fact, far less a discovery than a recognition, a remembering, a return and a homecoming to a remote, primordial, and inclusive household of the soul…”

This definitely sounds familiar. Nietzsche has talked before about how philosophers tend (in his view) to misrepresent the origins of their philosophies. What they claim to be the result of honest investigation and introspection is more often just a dressed-up version of their own prejudices and preconceived notions.

By providing longwinded, intricate reasoning for what they claim to be original ideas, they make it easier to argue that their own longstanding worldviews are provable and objectively attained. I was inclined to agree with this view and, for my part, there’s at least one philosopher who comes to mind who has a habit of burying his observations under an avalanche of flowery language.

Part 20 identifies another misunderstanding (or willful misrepresentation) on the part of philosophers. It states that the concepts which philosophers claim as original insights are really just inevitable occurrences in the ever-evolving ecosystem of philosophy.

Just as the act of willing involves a misguided sense of agency, the inception of a new philosophy is accompanied by a sense of having created something on the part of the philosopher. But this sense is little more than a byproduct of the much more inaccessible process whereby a new philosophical concept appears. This also ties into Nietzsche’s conviction that philosophy is as much governed by instinct as any other human behavior. Again, I can’t help but think back to the idea of “foreground estimates” that Nietzsche has previously mentioned.

It makes sense that Nietzsche would take this stance regarding the origin of philosophical concepts, especially in light of his convictions about the will. If our actions are all but inevitable, and the feeling of having caused them is just a byproduct of an inaccessible process, then how can one claim ownership of something as complex as an entire philosophical concept?

Nietzsche’s view on the interconnectedness of philosophies is not surprising, but he also offers a specific explanation for this conviction:

“The strange family resemblance of all Indian, Greek, and German philosophizing is explained easily enough. Where there is affinity of languages, it cannot fail…owing to the unconscious domination and guidance by similar grammatical functions—that everything is prepared at the outset for a similar development and sequence of philosophical systems…”

This is a neat idea, and I think it holds water. Language is the framework on which a person’s entire life and identity is built. It shapes our relationships with other people, helps us articulate our inner lives and communicate complex concepts, and is a prerequisite to most of our creative and investigative pursuits. Given the fact that it suffuses every facet of our lives—that it is us, in a sense—it follows that it would as much make use of us as we would of it.

Nietzsche claims that the concept of the subject is more developed in Indo-European languages, and that this concept is less developed in Ural-Altaic languages[1]. As a result, people who speak Ural-Altaic languages (examples of this now-obsolete language classification are Turkish and Finnish) are more likely to look outward when contemplating the world.

This implies (though he doesn’t say it explicitly) that the obsession with agency and freedom in western philosophy has linguistic origins. Of course, the order in which thought, language, and philosophy appeared in human history merits its own discussion.

The only languages I speak are Indo-European languages, so I can’t say off the cuff whether I agree or disagree with his comparison. But it does seem logical, assuming Nietzsche is right about the differences between the grammar of the two language families. The language one speaks defines the limits of their ability to describe their experience, after all, so Nietzsche is definitely onto something here.

Part 20 is fairly short, but it gives us a lot to ponder. Just like those that came before it, it demands that the reader relentlessly question their beliefs, especially those that seem most obvious. But its use of language as an explanation for worldview is fairly new for Nietzsche, with the exception of one or two mentions of grammar in previous sections of BGaE.

We must, of course, remember how fond he is of generalization, so it would be worth scrutinizing how well he’s represented non-Indo-European languages here. But I do think he’s right to point out the significance of language in determining worldview.

As a final thought, I’d also like to mention that this is one of the first times Nietzsche has acknowledged the existence of non-western-European philosophical traditions. This is something that I’ve been trying to keep in mind as I read through BGaE, and I encourage you to do the same as you continue to read my hackneyed analyses. Imagine how much longer and more complex this book would be if Nietzsche hadn’t limited his wanderings to the western world!   


[1] I studied Linguistics at university, and was surprised that I couldn’t remember any mention of this language family during my studies. The reason for this, as a quick Wikipedia search informed me, is that the Ural-Altaic category of languages was rejected over fifty years ago.

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