Draft review of Katsafanas's "The Nietzschean Self"

I'm working on a review of Paul Katsafanas's The Nietzschean Self: Moral Psychology, Agency, and the Unconscious. Here's a draft. It'll have to be cut down by about 50%, but I figured some folks might like to see the extended version.

Philosophical engagement with Nietzsche in the English-speaking world began in earnest in the 1970s with Walter Kaufmann’s translations and commentaries. It matured in spurts, with significant book-length contributions by Alexander Nehamas (Nietzsche: Life as Literature, Harvard University Press, 1985), Maudemarie Clark (Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1990), John Richardson (Nietzsche’s System, Oxford University Press, 1996), and Bernard Reginster (The Affirmation of Life, Harvard University Press, 2006). Paul Katsafanas’s The Nietzschean Self: Moral Psychology, Agency, and the Unconscious marks a consolidation of half a century of scholarship. Whereas previous commentators have often been mesmerized and distracted by the words and phrases Nietzsche italicizes (amor fati, ressentiment, pathos of distance), Katsafanas focuses on the less flashy but more essential components of his moral psychology: consciousness and the unconscious, drives, values, willing, the self, and freedom. The book is organized into eight main chapters bookended by a succinct introduction and a comparison with the moral psychologies of Kant, Hume, and Aristotle. Along the way, Katsafanas engages illuminatingly with both contemporary philosophical work (including both commentary on Nietzsche and non-historical work in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and moral psychology) and Nietzsche’s intellectual predecessors and successors (especially Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Kant, Schiller, Hegel, and Freud). In this review, I summarize the main arguments of the book and offer some criticism.

In two chapters on consciousness and the unconscious, Katsafanas argues that Nietzsche aligns the distinction between conscious and unconscious with the distinction between conceptual content and nonconceptual content. This initially-puzzling equation stems from Nietzsche’s account of language and the way that linguistic communication feeds back on the thoughts it expresses. According to Nietzsche, consciousness arose from the social need to communicate our thoughts, desires, feelings, and emotions. Mental states that did not need to be communicated remained unconscious, while those that demanded communication had to be articulated and regimented in mutually-understandable tokens. Such regimentation tends to simplify the content of the now-conscious mental states and, in some cases, may falsify them by forcing their jagged contours into Procrustean categories. If this is right, conscious thought must be conceptually articulated, but — contrary to Katsafanas’s interpretation — unconscious thought may but needn’t be conceptually articulated. Imagine, for example, someone who says (and therefore conceptually articulates the thought that) the tablecloth is blue. An hour later, she is no longer thinking or talking about the tablecloth, but presumably her unconscious thought that the tablecloth is blue retains its conceptual structure.

In chapter 4, Katsafanas refines the conception of a Nietzschean drive developed in his earlier work, arguing that a drive is a disposition that induces a signature affective orientation, which in turn leads the agent both to engage in a characteristic range of actions and to take herself to be warranted in so doing. Rather than prompting actions directly, then, the agent’s drives entice her to act in characteristic ways by putting her in a frame of mind in which reasons for acting thus appear salient and relevant while other reasons do not. Someone’s sex drive, for example, leads her to see the object of her affection as alluring and attractive, which in turn makes it seem reasonable to pursue that person. Katsafanas also attributes to Nietzsche the stronger claim that drives, via the affective orientations they induce, influence the content of experience itself. In particular, an agent’s drives lead her to see ambiguous evidence as confirmation that a drive-consilient action is warranted. Someone in the grip of an aggressive drive, for example, will tend to see another person’s quick smile as a sneer of contempt that calls for an angry retort rather than as a friendly gesture that calls for a gentler response.

In chapter 5, Katsafanas defines values in terms of drives, arguing that an agent values something just in case she has a drive-induced (positive) affective orientation toward it and doesn’t disapprove of that very orientation. Values are thus a proper subset of the moods, emotions, and affects induced by drives. If this is right, then drives both include and explain values. They include values because the affective orientations that they systematically induce (when not disapproved of) constitute valuations; they explain values because they lead the agent to find warrant for acting in ways that express her values.

Chapter 6 on willing without a (faculty of the) will is one of the only places where Katsafanas resorts to periodization, arguing that while Nietzsche accepts a version of hard incompatibilism in his early works, he shifts to a sort of Spinozist compatibilism in the middle and late works. Is the will the only moral psychological phenomenon about which Nietzsche changed his mind? That would be a curious coincidence. In any event, Katsafanas argues that, while the mature Nietzsche rejects the Kantian idea that it is possible to suspend the influence of motives during reflection and deliberation, someone’s choice is not uniquely determined by the weighted set of her motives because conscious reflection and deliberation interpret motives, and in so doing potentially modulate both their force and their direction. This point is best-attested in Nietzsche’s discussions of suffering, which, he says only motivates aversive action when it is not given meaning; once a meaning is bestowed on suffering, people even seek it out. Nietzsche thus allows a causal role — albeit a supporting rather than starring role — for reflection and deliberation in agency. Katsafanas sells short the novelty and interest of this interpretation when he labels it the ‘vector model’ (160). This is not merely a matter of summing up vectors, with the will adding or subtracting its bit in the context of the larger vectors associated with drives, affects, and desires. Rather, on this view, conscious deliberation modulates both the force and the direction of the agent’s motives. In the language of vector geometry, it functions as a scalar, dot product, or cross product.

One problem for this account of conscious reflection’s role in action arises from the timescale on which it is meant to occur. Katsafanas persuasively argues against expecting punctate episodes of reflection to have much effect in the moment, but he does want reflection to exercise its influence over the course of days and years in an individual’s lifetime. I suggest that this is neither sufficiently social nor sufficiently distal. In most of the passages Katsafanas cites to support his interpretation (D 38, D 103, GS 58, BGE 225, GM III.28), one person’s reflection modulates the motivational economy of other people. Indeed, Nietzsche seems to think that this kind of influence is typically intergenerational, making the appropriate timescale that of decades and centuries, not days and years. The under-socialization of Katsafanas’s interpretation is also evidenced by the fact that only one chapter of the book (chapter 8) is explicitly devoted to the social dimensions of moral psychology.

Chapters 7 through 9 cover Nietzsche’s conceptions of the self, its relation to society, and the kinds of selves that count as either great or free. Katsafanas uses values as a bridge from drives to selfhood, arguing that — while there is a minimal sense in which someone’s self just is their values (cf. Strohminger & Nichols, “The Essential Moral Self,” Cognition, 2014) — Nietzsche has a notion of unified selfhood according to which unity obtains when the agent acts on their values and wouldn’t disapprove of that action were she to learn more about the etiology (though not necessarily the consequences) of her motives. For example, a professor who teaches logic effectively but is motivated, unbeknownst to herself, by a resentful desire to rebuke her father’s illogical political attitudes would count as unified if learning about this hidden motive would not reduce her pride in her teaching but disunified if it would undermine her pride. In defining unified selfhood using a counterfactual conditional with an epistemic antecedent, Katsafanas attributes to Nietzsche the position that selfhood is a modally robust good (Pettit, The Robust Demands of the Good: Ethics with Attachment, Virtue, and Respect, Oxford University Press, 2015). Unlike the majority of other commentators, he conceives of unified selfhood not as a matter of harmony among an agent’s drives or values, but as harmony between their drive-motivated actions and their conscious reflection in nearby possible worlds. Katsafanas further argues that, for Nietzsche, only behavior that springs from a unified self counts as genuine action, rather than mere behavior. While he sometimes vacillates between a stronger version of the counterfactual (if the agent were to gain knowledge of etiology, she would still approve of her action) and a weaker version (if the agent were to gain knowledge of etiology, she wouldn’t disapprove), his view is attractive both as an interpretation of Nietzsche and as a self-standing philosophical theory (Doris, Talking to Ourselves: Reflection, Ignorance, and Agency, Oxford University Press, 2015).

This account of the unified self enables Katsafanas to make sense of Nietzsche’s frequent praise for exemplary agents who manage to navigate a unified course of action despite embodying contrary drives. As long as someone approves of their actions in a modally robust way, the drives and affects that conspire to produce those actions can be a bit of a mess. However, Katsafanas might exaggerate the difference between the within-drives harmony views of other commentators and his own between-drives-and-reflection view. After all, if someone’s drives are sufficiently disordered, she is almost certain to end up acting in ways that express motives that she either disapproves of or would disapprove of were she to learn more about their etiology.

Some unified selves also exemplify what Nietzsche calls greatness or freedom. Katsafanas argues that the former are those individuals who are lucky enough to have a significant impact on their societies and cultures through uptake of their values. By contrast, the latter — regardless of their social impact — don’t just satisfy the counterfactual conditional but actually go through the work of tracking down the etiology of the motivations of (enough of) their actions; they make a point of making the antecedent of the counterfactual true. Katsafanas again undersells the novelty and interest of his position here. Not only does he manage to connect drives, through values and conscious reflection, to the self and freedom, but also he does so in a way that explains the value of self-knowledge: successfully engaging in inquiry into one’s own motives while maintaining an affirmative affective stance partly constitutes Nietzschean freedom. And the prospects of such inquiry are significantly boosted if the agent embodies the distinctive Nietzschean virtues of curiosity (Alfano, “The Most Agreeable of All Vices: Nietzsche as Virtue Epistemology,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 2013) and high-spirited contempt (Alfano, “A Schooling in Contempt: Emotions and the Pathos of Distance,” in Philosophy Minds: Nietzsche, Routledge, 2017).

One might worry that Nietzschean freedom thus characterized is too easily got. What are we to say, for instance, about the insouciant self-scrutinizer who blithely affirms his own actions regardless of what he learns about the etiology of his motives? In chapter 9, Katsafanas argues that Nietzsche’s doctrine of will to power provides substantive constraints to the motives someone can genuinely affirm. The account of will to power on offer is complicated, and readers unfamiliar with Katsafanas’s earlier work may find this chapter difficult to follow. The basic idea, though, is that willing is always a matter of seeking to overcome resistance through action. To the extent, then, that the insouciant self-scrutinizer’s actions fail to seek out or to overcome resistance, they will fail the will-to-power test and hence not be candidates for affirmation, whether actual or counterfactual.

For anyone teaching a seminar on Nietzsche or the history of moral psychology, I can recommend without reservation putting The Nietzschean Self on your syllabus. It may be possible to write a better book on Nietzsche’s moral psychology, but no one has done so yet.