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Nietzsche’s Daybreak: Toward a Naturalized Theory of Autonomy

Carl B. Sachs

Abstract: Any interpretation of Nietzsche’s criticisms of morality must show whether or not Nietzsche is entitled both to deny free will and to be concerned with furthering human freedom. Here I will show that Nietzsche is entitled to both claims if his theory of freedom is set in the context of a naturalistic drive-psychology. The drive-psychology allows Nietzsche to develop a modifi ed but recognizable account of freedom as autonomy. I situate this development in Nietzsche’s thought through a close reading of Daybreak (Morgenröte). In conclusion I contrast Nietzsche’s naturalistic account of autonomy with the transcendental account developed by Kant.

 Nietzsche’s readers are often struck by an apparent incongruity at the heart of his thought. On the one hand, Nietzsche ruthlessly demolishes our cherished self-understandings, and in particular those connected with morality and religion. He denies, for example, that we have free will, or that mental life is entirely transparent to consciousness. If, however, we neither have free will nor can we be sure that we know our own motives, then it might seem as though we do not have the sort of freedom that we had believed we possessed. On the other hand, Nietzsche’s ‘demolition projects’ are themselves deeply connected with the advancement of human freedom. If one considers the extent to which Nietzsche’s critical project rests on broadly naturalistic methods and concepts, it seems that he attempts to maintain the value and signifi cance of freedom while at the same time rejecting the idea of “free will” and of the transparency of mental life to consciousness. Can Nietzsche consistently both criticize morality on naturalistic grounds and yet insist on the possibility and desirability of freedom? While I disagree with those scholars who regard this incongruity as a “paradox,”[1] I agree that if Nietzsche does not have the resources with which to construct a response to this problem, then his entire project is threatened with incoherence.

I argue here that Daybreak[2] articulates this problem and contains one of Nietzsche’s fi rst attempts at a solution. Daybreak is of particular interest because of its status in the evolution of Nietzsche’s critique of morality. When Nietzsche evaluated Daybreak in Ecce Homo, he asserted that “with this book my campaign against morality begins.”[3] If we are to take Nietzsche at his word—always a risky proposition—then we should read Daybreak as presenting a critique of morality that is importantly different from the polemics of Human, All-too-Human, The Wanderer and His Shadow, and earlier texts.

What emerges in Daybreak, I will argue, is the difference between autonomy and morality.[4] In light of this difference Nietzsche was able to write, seven years later in On the Genealogy of Morality, of “the sovereign individual . . . the autonomous over-moral individual (“autonomy” [autonom] and “morality” [sittlich] have nothing to do with each other).”[5] Nietzsche articulates the distinction between morality and autonomy in terms of the dynamics of drives and affects elaborated in Daybreak, which analyzes psychological phenomena in terms of drives and their histories. The drive-psychology allows Nietzsche to develop an account of what I call “the material conditions of subjectivity”: the historical, social, and natural conditions that make possible a given form of subjectivity. It is in terms of this account of subjectivity that Nietzsche develops the difference between morality and autonomy.

In what follows I fi rst turn to the theory of drives as an account of the material conditions of subjectivity (I). I then show how Nietzsche uses this theory in order to conceptualize morality as a form of what I call “heteronomous subjectivity” (II). Nietzsche’s positive account of freedom as a form of “autonomous subjectivity” is then developed (III), and I conclude with a consideration of how Nietzsche’s account of heteronomy and autonomy both differs from and agrees with that of Kant (IV).


I. The Material Conditions of Subjectivity

In referring to the material conditions of subjectivity, I want to show how Nietzsche is committed to thinking of subjectivity as conditioned by historical, social, psychological, and even biological factors. All of these factors in turn admit of a methodologically naturalistic analysis.[6] While all of these factors play some role in the criticisms of morality in Daybreak, Nietzsche devotes the most attention to developing a naturalistic psychology of the unconscious. This theory of “the drives and affects” specifi es how conceptually structured mental states (i.e., propositional attitudes such as beliefs, thoughts, and desire) and their affective correlates are conditioned by unconscious drives and impulses. Though philosophers prior to Nietzsche had developed a theory of the unconscious, Nietzsche is distinctive in that, like Freud, he regards the unconscious as simultaneously individual and general.[7] The unconscious is individual in that it exerts causal influence on an individual’s thoughts, desires, motivations, and actions. The unconscious is general in that it comprises the drives and instincts of our shared biological and cultural heritage. There will therefore be both individual and general components to the unconscious, the relative importance of which will depend on which aspects of our cognitive and affective evaluations one is interested in understanding.

With the assumption that there are unconscious psychological states, Nietzsche is committed to the assertion that conscious thought rests on a ground that cannot be conceptually articulated and to that extent cannot be rendered an object of consciousness. Nietzsche claims that unconscious mental states include “drives,”[8] “sensations,”[9] and even thoughts (“conclusions grow up in us like fungus: one morning they are there, we know not how, and they gaze upon us, morose and grey”).[10] All of these cases are alluded to in Nietzsche’s use of “the drives” (alternatively, “the drives and affects”). Nietzsche assumes that consciousness is not self-supporting or self-maintaining; what one calls the ‘soul’ is just “the sum of the inner movements which a man finds easy, and as a consequence performs gracefully and with pleasure.”[11] Nor does Nietzsche allow us to consider the intellect as somehow separate from the drives:

[O]ur intellect is only the blind instrument of another drive which is a rival of the drive whose vehemence is tormenting us… [A]t bottom it is one drive which is complaining about another; that is to say: for us to become aware that we are suffering from the vehemence of a drive presupposes the existence of another equally vehement drive or even more vehement drive, and that a struggle is in prospect in which our intellect is going to have to take sides.[12]

In cases where the intellect is positioned in a conflict between drives—which is to say, throughout the entirety of one’s psychological existence—it is not even clear if the intellect has any choice as to which side to take; it may be that the intellect must simply take the side of the stronger drive.[13]

A distinctive feature of Nietzsche’s psychology concerns the plasticity of the unconscious: the unconscious is partially conditioned by past experiences.[14] For this to be true, it has to be the case that conscious states can causally influence unconscious states. As Nietzsche argues, “whether or not he has a courteous memory in the end determines . . . whether he regards his own inclinations and intentions with a noble, benevolent, or mistrustful eye; and it determines, finally, the nature of these inclinations and intentions themselves.”[15] That is, one’s conscious attitudes toward one’s inclinations and intentions—which are usually regarded as unconscious states—can nevertheless causally affect those states.

Consequently, Nietzsche needs to provide an account of how the drives and affects can, under specifi c socio-historical conditions, generate cognitive and affective evaluations. This account must show how moral evaluations can arise from drives and affects that, considered in themselves, have no moral character at all. Nietzsche argues that drives are interpreted in moral terms only against a background of moral evaluations:

The same drive evolves into a painful feeling of cowardice under the impress of the reproach custom has imposed on this drive: or into the pleasant feeling of humility if it happens that a custom such as the Christian has taken it to its heart and called it good… In itself it has, like every drive, neither this moral character nor any moral character at all, nor even a definite attendant sensation of pleasure or displeasure: it acquires all this, as its second nature, only when it enters into relations with drives already baptized good or evil or is noted as a quality of beings the people has already evaluated and determined in a moral sense.[16]

Nietzsche here argues that no particular drive has any value (much less specifically moral value); in itself (that is, considered in abstraction from all other drives), a drive is simply an impulse or need. The drives acquire value and significance only when interpreted, and such interpretation always takes place within a social context already conditioned by other drives that have already been imprinted with meaning and value. Whether a drive is expressed through feelings of cowardice or of humility—and so whether it is associated with pleasure or pain—is not determined by any properties intrinsic to the drive. The phenomena of moral psychology are grounded in drives and affects that, taken in themselves, have no moral signifi cance or value whatsoever. The concepts and feelings in terms of which we experience our own agency emerge from the relations among drives.

If that is so, then Nietzsche must nevertheless account for the fact that we do not experience ourselves as conflicts among drives and affects, but rather asunifi ed subjects of perception and action. He accounts for this in terms of the inadequacy of our conceptualizations of the drives and affects:

Language and the prejudices upon which language is based are a manifold hindrance to us when we want to explain inner processes and drives: because of the fact, for example, that words really exist only for superlative degrees of these processes and drives… We are none of us that which we appear to be in accordance with the states for which alone we have consciousness and words, and consequently praise and blame; those cruder outbursts of which alone we are aware make us misunderstand ourselves…. Our opinion of ourselves, however, which we have arrived at by this erroneous path, the so-called ‘I,’ is therefore a fellow worker in the construction of our character and our destiny.[17]

Since we lack the requisite conceptual vocabulary for the drives and affects—including our own—we lack immediate, non-inferential consciousness of them. “Our character and destiny” (“unseres Charakters und Schicksals”)—one is immediately reminded of Heraclitus—is therefore formed by something other than what we take ourselves to be essentially. We refer to ourselves as “I” (Ich), and we identify with this “I” or “ego.”[18] Yet the ego is erroneous, for in fact our psychic life is comprised of numerous “inner processes and drives” for which we have neither language nor (and perhaps consequently) consciousness. We are far more than we think we are. The assurances of rational self-consciousness cannot be maintained.

Nietzsche repeatedly insists on the incompleteness of our knowledge of drives and affects: “the primeval delusion still lives on that one knows, and knows quite precisely in every case, how human action is brought about.”[19] However, Nietzsche stresses that, “no amount of knowledge about an act ever suffices to ensure its performance, that the space between knowledge and action has never yet been bridged even in one single instance” (ibid.). It is due to this “unbridgeable space” that, even for someone dedicated to knowledge, “nothing can be more incomplete than the image of the totality of drives which constitute his being.”[20] Our conceptually articulated representations must therefore fall short of capturing the totality of our sensations and affects in their corporeal and visceral context.

With this in mind, we can now return to the problem of subjectivity. On the one hand, Nietzsche’s psychology holds that one’s being is constituted by an unknowable totality of drives. On the other hand, it seems irrefutable, at least as a matter of phenomenological, fi rst-person description, that we understand ourselves as coherent unities and not as a collection of drives. Insofar as we consider ourselves as agents (from a “fi rst-person” perspective), we have non-inferential, immediate knowledge of ourselves as unifi ed subjects of experience and action. Insofar as we consider ourselves as natural organisms, we have empirical, and so inferential, knowledge that we are an assemblage of instincts, drives, and affects. How can a multiplicity of drives and affects constitute a feeling and thinking subject? (Even if the unity of the subject is a just a narrative center of gravity à la Dennett, one still wants to know how that is possible.)

The solution to this problem lies in recognizing that we are never “just” a bundle of drives and affects, but rather we are drives and affects that both interpret and are interpreted. As interpreting, drives construe the indeterminate world (cf. the “unknowable but felt text”)[21] as consisting of meanings and values. As interpreted, though one never has immediate access to the drives themselves, one experiences their activities in the feeling of find ing something meaningful and/or valuable. The drives therefore cause us to regard the world as well-structured. But we understand ourselves as having a place in that world, as the sorts of beings that have a perspective on the world. Since, therefore, the drives constitute our interpretations of the world, they also constitute us vis-à-vis that world. In constructing interpretations of both self and world, the drives organize themselves into a more or less coherent structure. If the structure is sufficiently coherent, then conflicts between drives can be either sublimated or repressed. So long as conflicts between drives can be dealt with in one of those ways, we can say that the drives are organized in a form: “subjectivity.”

The above line of thought now can be summarized as follows. A form of subjectivity is a mode of evaluation that depends on certain activities for its continuation and enhancement. The required activities are those that are regarded as valuable and meaningful by that form of subjectivity. For this reason, one can say that values are expressions of modes of evaluation. Modes of evaluation, i.e., forms of subjectivity, have conditions of possibility which can be understood through empirically testable psychological and historical hypotheses. A specifi able arrangement of drives is the material condition of possibility for a corresponding mode of subjectivity.

A contrast with Kant’s theory of subjectivity may help clarify Nietzsche’s position. If Kant attempted to determine the formal conditions of any possible subjectivity (and hence purely a priori and therefore universal and necessary), then Nietzsche inaugurates a shift toward thinking of the material conditions of possible forms of subjectivity. “Material conditions” include historical, sociological, psychological, and biological conditions, i.e., conditions which are themselves conditioned. By emphasizing how the conditions of subjectivity are themselves conditioned, Nietzsche’s psychology is consistent with “methodological naturalism”: the methodological exclusion of the a priori.[22] As material rather than formal, the conditions are contingent, not necessary; local, not universal; and plastic, not fixed. For this reason, different socio-historically specifi c conditions make possible different forms of subjectivity as different modes of evaluation. Each mode of evaluation corresponds to a form of subjectivity: a way in which the world shows up as containing affordances of meaning, purpose, and value.

The account of the material conditions of subjectivity in Daybreak can therefore be seen as the thesis that subjectivity is never simply “given,” but instead is constructed over both historical and personal time, that there are as many different forms of subjectivity as there are stable confi gurations of drives, and that there are conditions of possibility that differ from one form of subjectivity to another. We should no longer refer to “the subject” that we discover to be apodictically given to itself. Rather, we interpret ourselves in terms of multiple subjectivities. This means that subjectivities are conditioned by determining structures that, on the one hand, are made and not given, and on the other, are not simply the consequences of the intentions of particular conscious subjects. With this shift in theoretical perspective, Nietzsche can ask how different kinds of subjectivity are made possible by different social conditions, i.e., questions of “breeding.” Only in these terms, I shall argue, can sense be made of Nietzsche’s “campaign against morality” and of what constitutes a “free spirit.


II. Morality as Heteronomous Subjectivity

Throughout Daybreak, Nietzsche maintains both a criticism of “morality” and, in contrast to it, a commitment to the positive value of “individualism.” By this I mean the importance of thinking and feeling for oneself, according to one’s own principles. (One’s existence as a temporally and spatially discrete biological entity may be a necessary condition for individuality in this sense, but it is far from sufficient.) His commitment to individualism drives his criticism of any universalism in morality, according to which whatever is good for one is good for all (and vice-versa):

Every individual action, every individual mode of thought arouses dread; it is impossible to compute what precisely the rarer, choicer, more original spirits in the whole course of history have had to suffer through being felt as evil and dangerous, indeed through feeling themselves to be so. Under the dominion of the morality of custom [die Sittlichkeit des Sittes], originality of every kind has acquired a bad conscience; the sky above the best men is for this reason to this very moment gloomier than it need be.[23]

Nietzsche criticizes “the morality of custom”—which remains our morality far more than we commonly recognize—not only for inhibiting the development of creativity and individuality, but also for inhibiting creativity and individuality precisely by moralizing them. The imposition of moral categories on creativity and individuality means that creative individuals understand themselves in moral terms, and as such, as evil. But Nietzsche also insists that simply being an individual is exceedingly difficult, both because of societal forces which prevent the emergence of individuality, and because of psychological forces which prevent most people from becoming individuals. I want to first look at how Nietzsche analyzes morality, and why Nietzsche regards morality as problematic. I will then show why, on Nietzsche’s analysis, morality is a form of what I call heteronomous subjectivity.

In the course of criticizing morality, Nietzsche makes three points about how society mounts resistance to the cultivation of individuality. First, he notes that individuals are regarded as a threat to social cohesion; this is why one “never tires of enumerating and indicting all that is evil and inimical, prodigal, costly, extravagant in the form individual existence has assumed hitherto, one hopes to manage more cheaply, more safely, more equitably, more uniformly if there only exist large bodies and their members.”[24] I take “large bodies and their members” to be a Nietzschean gloss on the array of socially available identities, i.e., workers associations, social clubs, cultural organization, political associations, media, the university, etc. It is not clear whether Nietzsche is concerned with the existence of people who play no part whatsoever in any of these “large bodies”; what is clear, however, is that Nietzsche is concerned with the value of those who do not find within these large bodies the cognitive and affective resources for constructing their entire identity, and who therefore must engage, to some degree or another, in a process of self-construction.

Second, Nietzsche recognizes that fear of the loss of social cohesion plays an important role in maintaining social cohesion. Although Nietzsche condemns and mocks the “fear of the individual,” he also recognizes that society is right to fear “the danger of dangers—the individual!”[25] This fear is understandable because “the individual” really is a threat to social cohesion, as social cohesion is commonly understood. Nietzsche also asserts that the fear of loss of social cohesion provides a means of libidinal investment, “For it uses up an extraordinary amount of nervous energy, which is thus denied to reflection, brooding, dreaming, worrying, loving, hating.”[26] This fear thereby preventing the expression of those emotional registers by means of which individuality flourishes. Thirdly, Nietzsche claims that morality is one of the principal mechanisms whereby social cohesion is maintained.

Despite his criticisms of morality, it should be emphasized that Nietzsche’s goal through Daybreak is not the abolition of all normative standards and criteria. Rather, he is concerned to reject a particular way of thinking about norms and their place in human affairs—a way of thinking that he calls “morality.” But what exactly is wrong with morality, and what alternative does Nietzsche offer? This question can be approached by way of Nietzsche’s objection: “‘And in summa: what is it you really want changed?’—We want to cease making causes into sinners and consequences into executioners.”[27] The contrast between moral concepts (“sinners” and “executioners”) and naturalistic concepts (“causes” and “consequences”) suggests that at least part of Nietzsche’s hostility toward morality consists in the anti-naturalism presupposed by moral concepts.

As a result of understanding themselves through moral concepts and practices, those who regard themselves as moral agents interpret their suffering in nonnaturalistic terms. By insisting on a non-naturalistic interpretation of suffering, morality thereby causes a specific kind of suffering:

Whatever proceeds from the stomach, the intestines, the beating of the heart, the nerves, the bile, the semen—all of those distempers, debilitations, excitations, the whole chance operation of the machine of which we still know so little!—had to be seen by a Christian such as Pascal as a moral and religious phenomenon, and he had to ask whether God or Devil, good or evil, salvation or damnation was to be discovered in them! Oh what an unhappy interpreter! How he had to twist and torment his system! How he had to twist and torment himself so as to be in the right![28]

The moral interpretation of the body and of suffering, here exemplifi ed by Pascal (no doubt Luther would have been an ever better example), conflicts with a naturalistically informed self-knowledge. It also, as the example of Pascal suggests, generates a kind of suffering peculiar to morality. If Pascal had been capable of acknowledging that much of his pain was due to simple “chance operations of the machine”—if he had correctly understood his pain in light of a naturalistic self-understanding—he would have suffered much less.

The case of Pascal suggests that morality presupposes the notion of a fixed identity that is fully transparent to consciousness. Pascal suffers, in part, because he presupposes that basically natural phenomena—i.e., his own body, in all of its fleshy contingency—must be assigned a non-naturalistic interpretation. Consequently, if he suffers, he must be suffering for a reason—because of something he has done, and more fundamentally, because of what he is—and that reason must be made available to consciousness. However, Nietzsche argues, empirical hypotheses regarding the drives and affects indicate that there is no evidentiary basis for the assumption either that we have a fixed and static identity or that all psychological phenomena can be rendered into objects of consciousness. Therefore, he argues, morality relies upon a system of wide-ranging concepts and judgments that have no place within a broadly naturalistic psychology.

Nietzsche criticizes morality because its presuppositions are basically false; more specifically, it uses concepts that are only intelligible in light of presuppositions that are thoroughly undermined by a naturalistic psychology of drives and affects. Consider how Nietzsche characterizes morality in terms of a tendency to identify oneself and others with their social roles. Such identification is only possible if one regards oneself as a fixed identity which can be entirely known to the agent and to others.[29] More specifically, Nietzsche is concerned with the intra-subjective deformations that are grounded in this false presupposition. The belief that one has a fixed identity makes it possible to blame oneself for things in one’s past. If one regards oneself as being a certain kind of person, one can become obsessed with questions as to the kind of person that one is. Is one a “sinner” or a “good person”? Is one going to Hell or to Heaven? The resulting paranoia and self-hatred is both cognitively dangerous and affectively undesirable. It is cognitively dangerous because the obsession with a fixed identity is grounded in false beliefs about the structure of subjectivity (e.g., a denial that subjectivity is constituted by plastic and contingent factors and a denial that consciousness is conditioned by the unconscious).

Nietzsche also criticizes morality on the grounds that the moralistic obsession with fixed identity will therefore tend to undercut or inhibit techniques that would result in increased self-knowledge through the construction of empirical (hence naturalistic) hypotheses about the constitution of one’s subjectivity.[30] An anti-naturalistic morality rejects a naturalistic understanding of subjectivity and invents a different set of concepts with which to interpret suffering.[31] Nietzsche objects to morality because the specifi c concepts (“sin,” “punishment,” “desert”) upon which the moral interpretation depends are not concepts that cohere with methodological naturalism; morality presupposes certain false ideas about human agency. Insofar as the moral interpretation is also invested with considerable hermeneutic authority over us, it also inhibits the cultivation of alternative interpretations which would be more consistent with the commitments of methodological naturalism.

as the moral interpretation is also invested with considerable hermeneutic authority over us, it also inhibits the cultivation of alternative interpretations which would be more consistent with the commitments of methodological naturalism.

Heteronomous subjectivity is made possible by two further features of the moral interpretation. The first, already discussed, is that morality employs anti[1]naturalistic concepts in its interpretation of human agency. The second is that the moral interpretation fails to recognize that it is an interpretation. (In light of the role that the drives and affects play as interpreters of the indeterminate world, a naturalistic psychology is committed to the inescapability of the hermeneutic circle.)[32] Consequently, morality takes itself, and demands that it be so taken, to be the truth about subjectivity tout court. For this reason, moral self-interpretations tend to inhibit the formation of the sort of reflective endorsements that are required for autonomy. Insofar as morality refuses to consider itself as an interpretation, it refuses to acknowledge the truth about itself—namely, that it is only an interpretation and so only a particular form of subjectivity.

By contrast, a fully naturalistic account would be committed to acknowledging that, since we are constituted by multiple interpreting drives and affects, there is no fixed essence that can be rendered transparent to consciousness. Autonomous subjectivity, if it is possible, would consist of the formation of a type of subjectivity in which one is no longer wracked by paranoia, guilt, and self-hatred; it would be a form of subjectivity in which one no longer desires one’s own oppression.[33]


III. Freedom as Autonomous Subjectivity

In order to show that autonomous subjectivity is possible and desirable, Nietzsche needs to retain a conception of freedom while at the same time denying the antinaturalistic postulates (e.g., freedom of the will). He needs, in other words, to insist on the desirability of freedom while at the same time maintaining that “the realm of thought appears to be, in comparison with the realm of action, willing, and experience, a realm of freedom: while in reality it is, as aforesaid, only a realm of surfaces and self-satisfaction.”[34] I will show that Nietzsche is committed to a suitably deflated concept of self-determination that does not conflict with his naturalistic drive-psychology.

Nietzsche’s concept of self-determination can be reconstructed from his theoretical and practical insights concerning the cultivation of individuality. Thus, for example, he claims,“[O]ne should regard oneself as a variable quantity whose capacity for achievement can under favorable circumstances perhaps equal the highest ever known: one should thus reflect on one’s circumstances and spare no effort in observing them.”[35] Here two characteristically Nietzschean themes are sounded: that individualization should be understood as a sort of perfectionism, and that such individualization is accomplished by means of constant and intense observation of oneself and the situations in which one finds oneself. And, in what seems to be a typically self-aggrandizing confession, Nietzsche notes, “If we take the decisive step and enter upon the path which is called our ‘own path,’ then we will find that all those who formerly were our friends are offended once we have taken a distance away from them. What are we to do? My advice is: to inaugurate our sovereignty by promising all our acquaintances a year’s amnesty for all their sins.”[36] Of particular importance here is the assumption (which may have been borne out by Nietzsche’s own experience) that the development of one’s individuality necessarily causes the resentment of one’s “friends and familiars.”

Two further points are worth noting. The fi rst is that Nietzsche, at least so far as Daybreak is concerned, allows that the path to individuality is open and available to everyone. The second is that most people are inhibited from pursuing this path because of either an internal cognitive or affective resistance. Thus, Nietzsche notes, “[A]ll this we are at liberty to do: but how many know we are at liberty to do it? Do the majority not believe in themselves as in complete fully developed facts? Have the great philosophers not put a seal on this prejudice with the doctrine of the unchangeability of character?”[37] In this case it is the denial of psychological fl uidity (which I take to be consistent with ignorance as to the unconscious ground of consciousness) which prevents “most people” from engaging in self-cultivation. But, even apart from this cognitive block, there remains an affective one: even those who engage in self-cultivation still feel that, in doing so, they are “evil”:

[W]e shall restore to men their goodwill towards the actions decried as egoistic and restore to these actions their value—we shall deprive them of their bad conscience! And since they have hitherto been by far the most frequent actions, and will continue to be so for all future time, we thus remove from the entire aspect of action and life its evil appearance! This is a very signifi cant result! When man no longer regards himself as evil he ceases to be so![38]

The vast majority believe that all egoism is evil. As a consequence of having successfully internalized the evaluative framework of morality, they continue to evaluate themselves according to that framework even—or especially—when they violate it.

None of this is to suggest that Nietzsche’s positive ideal should be understood as acting according to whatever whim or passion happens to come along. On the contrary; Nietzsche maintains that even individuals require certain virtues: “Honest towards ourselves and whoever else is a friend to us; brave towards the enemy; magnaminous towards the defeated; polite—always: this is what the four cardinal virtues want us to be.”[39] Nietzsche does not appeal to “traditional virtues,” such as humility or chastity, but he appeals to virtues nevertheless, which suggests that freedom consists of adopting some attitude or set of attitudes toward oneself. Being a free spirit—“one who has become free”—is Nietzsche’s version of autonomy as self-determination. But since self-cultivation requires some fundamental egoism—it is, after all, one’s own self that is taken as intrinsically valuable—self-cultivation also turns out to be evil, as evaluated within the moral framework. Undermining this framework on both cognitive and affective grounds thereby creates the space for an ethics of self-cultivation.[40]

None of this is to suggest that Nietzsche’s positive ideal should be understood as acting according to whatever whim or passion happens to come along. On the contrary; Nietzsche maintains that even individuals require certain virtues: “Honest towards ourselves and whoever else is a friend to us; brave towards the enemy; magnaminous towards the defeated; polite—always: this is what the four cardinal virtues want us to be.”[41] Nietzsche does not appeal to “traditional virtues,” such as humility or chastity, but he appeals to virtues nevertheless, which suggests that freedom consists of adopting some attitude or set of attitudes toward oneself. Being a free spirit—“one who has become free”—is Nietzsche’s version of autonomy as self-determination. But since self-cultivation requires some fundamental egoism—it is, after all, one’s own self that is taken as intrinsically valuable—self-cultivation also turns out to be evil, as evaluated within the moral framework. Undermining this framework on both cognitive and affective grounds thereby creates the space for an ethics of self-cultivation.[42]

Consequently, we see that an autonomous subject has, at a minimum, reflectively endorsed the historically contingent practices whereby the elements came together into a unifi ed willing, desiring, and thinking subject. Furthermore, an autonomous subject has exerted his will to reject those parts of himself which fail to meet the subject’s criteria ofr reflective endorsement, and has engaged (and continues to engage) in practices that bring more drives and affects into the orbit of the conscious, willing ego. Autonomous subjectivity is therefore possible only if one acknowledges that, because one is always already a multiplicity of drives and affects, there is no fixed, self-transparent identity. One is nothing other than a work in progress. The ethical task is not to determine the kind of person one is, but to construct oneself or to work on oneself, both cognitively and affectively—to engage in “the arts of the self.”[43]

We can now use the distinction between heteronomous and autonomous subjectivity to re-cast both Nietzsche’s criticism of morality and the ethics he advances in its place. It is the analysis of morality as heteronomous subjectivity that distinguishes Daybreak as the beginning of Nietzsche’s campaign against morality. Heteronomous subjectivity, as an internalization of domination, is a subjectivity that has been structured through social practices which one has not refl ectively revised and endorsed as one’s own.[44] One might identify with a set of social practices and locate oneself with respect to them, but in doing so one does not lay claim to or take responsibility for one’s own individuality. As a heteronomous subject, I do not act as an individual who bears responsibility for his beliefs, but as someone who does “what one does” as a “good citizen” or “member of society,” in terms of a fixed identity. My intentions and actions are the consequence of how my drives and affects are structured, but the structure itself is not one that I have refl ectively revised or endorsed.

Since the heteronomous subject does not recognize his own heteronomy, he doesn’t see how he himself is imbricated in affective investments and cognitive structures embedded in those social practices in terms of which he understands himself and the world. The totality of conditions and relations, which together determine how the world shows up for him as possessing certain ranges of signifi cance and value, is opaque to his consciousness. As a consequence, one can say that he avoids the material conditions of his own subjectivity. By contrast, an autonomous subjectivity has organized itself by engaging in those practices which contribute to organizing the drives and affects in specifi c ways. An autonomous subject can only be autonomous by participating in the material conditions of her own subjectivity, and this is impossible without a corresponding degree of acknowledgement of those conditions.[45] Hence, we can say that heteronomy and autonomy are characterized by attitudes of avoidance or acknowledgement with respect to the totality of conditions and relations which make them possible. The distinction between heteronomous and autonomous subjectivity can be under[1]stood in terms of the relation between individual consciousness and material conditions (including history and embodiment).

One must notice, however, that there are limits to how far one can go with one’s self-creation. We do not create the raw materials from which we create ourselves: the body, the drives and affects, the discursive and non-discursive practices of the culture into which we are socialized. Recognition of this provides us with an alternative to Leiter’s “paradox” of determinism and self-creation: self-fashioning is contingent on acknowledgement of the material conditions of subjectivity. This contingency works in two respects. Firstly, reflection on the material conditions of subjectivity reveals that subjectivity is not fixed. Secondly, such refl ection is the first step in determining what can be affected and how it can be affected, since one must know what one is in order to influence what one will become. In both respects, acknowledgment of the material conditions of subjectivity is a condi[1]tion of possibility for self-fashioning and not, according to Leiter’s “paradox,” its negation.[46] By engaging in various forms of self-transformation, we come to recognize that identity is not fixed, but rather fluid, provisional, and available for contestation and revision.


IV. Nietzsche vs. Kant: Autonomy and Modernity

In regarding freedom as self-determination, Nietzsche positions himself squarely in the post-Kantian tradition. Yet, in doing so, Nietzsche raises further problems for a charitable interpretation. Arguably the most important and distinctive feature of Kant’s analysis of moral agency is his argument that being a moral agent, i.e., acting on the basis of respect for the moral law—consists of nothing other than correctly understanding one’s own subjectivity. This argument proceeds in two stages. Firstly, Kant argues that an analysis of the concept of morality reveals that morality is nothing other than autonomy. Secondly, Kant argues that autonomy is nothing other than the correct self-understanding of the subject. Consequently, all subjects and only subjects are autonomous, and hence capable of giving themselves the moral law in an act of self-legislation.[47]

By contrast, Nietzsche’s theory of freedom turns on the distinction between heteronomous and autonomous subjectivity, and so requires that we sharply distinguish between subjectivity and autonomy. Here the contrast between Nietzsche and Kant is brought into sharp relief. Kant argues that a subject fails to respect herself qua subject whenever she determines her will according to a principle other than pure practical reason, i.e., herself. For Nietzsche, to be a subject is just to be an organization of forces that have become organized as they are by virtue of the contingencies of biology and of history. Such an organization is never simply “given”: it must be, in some sense, imposed. Consequently all subjectivity is, initially, heteronomous (in a Kantian sense) because it is organized according to procedures and techniques (e.g., tradition, authority) that are external to the organized subject. Hence the question arises for Nietzsche as to how one can become a “free spirit,” how one can become free, or in the terms used here, how can a heteronomous subject become an autonomous subject?

Here lies the paradox of education that concerned Nietzsche at least since his days at Basel: one must work on a heteronomous subject in order to initiate the work on the self that constitutes genuine autonomy. Put otherwise, one must assist, urge, or seduce another into freedom. All subjects begin as heteronomous, subjected to the multiple interests and desires of others: only as a consequence of this are we formed into subjects at all.[48] Subsequently, having become subjects, we can become free, which is to say that we can participate in constructing ourselves as subjects. Therefore, autonomy must always be a work in progress: a subject begins in heteronomy and becomes increasingly autonomous as more of her drives and affects are endorsed refl exively and integrated into her overall character. The account of heteronomous subjectivity is complicated by the fact that most subjects are not merely heteronomous, but are in thrall to an array of socially mediated mechanisms that prevent them from correctly perceiving their own heteronomy. Accordingly, Nietzsche’s ethics must find a way to confront two tasks: to show subjects that they are heteronomous, even (or especially) when they believe that they really are free, and to transform heteronomous subjects into autonomous ones.[49]

By severing the link Kant forged between subjectivity and autonomy, Nietzsche can argue that Kant’s theory of the subject contains an element of heteronomy at its heart.[50] Despite Kant’s attempt to show that the normative force of morality rests on pure practical reason, he nevertheless perpetuates the model of morality as heteronomy. Although one is no longer subjected to external coercion (threats of punishment or promises of reward), Kantian morality still insists on a split within the subject, between the commands of pure practical reason and the sensuous inclinations. The signifi cance of this split was not lost on Nietzsche: “To demand that duty must always be something of a burden—as Kant does—means to demand that it should never become habit and custom: in this demand there is concealed a remnant of ascetic cruelty.”[51] One can neither fully identify oneself with reason (since reason is universal and persons are particular), nor with the sensuous inclinations (since doing so amounts to the denial that we are rational). Kantian moral agency is agency divided against itself. Understood in this way, it is deeply heteronomous:

But up to now the moral law has been supposed to stand above our own likes and dislikes: one did not want actually to impose this law on oneself, one wanted to take it from somewhere or discover it somewhere or have it commanded to one from somewhere.[52]

In other words, we think of the moral law in a way that confutes our own autonomy just because we want to have it given to us rather than as something that we freely impose on ourselves. Genuine autonomy entails that we give up on the desire for a transcendent ground for our normative evaluations. In this respect, Nietzsche retains and approves of the autonomous/heteronomous distinction while shifting morality from one side of the distinction to the other. In doing so, Nietzsche provides a new content for his notion of autonomy: autonomy demands the overcoming of morality in favor of an ethics of self-fashioning.

One may object that autonomy and heteronomy mean, in their “Nietzschean” sense, almost precisely the opposite of what they mean for Kant and for the modern ethical tradition that culminates in Kant. For Kant, autonomy consists of radical motivational independence from all sensuous inclinations. The autonomous subject is one who can take reason alone as a motive for action, i.e., one for whom pure reason can be practical. On the Kantian account, this is nothing other than what it means to be a subject in the first place. Those who act according to some sensuous motive (e.g., fear of being damned in Hell for all eternity) are not merely heteronomous. If I act wrongly, yet insist that I couldn’t help myself, I am implicitly denying my own status as a subject; I fail to distinguish myself from the domain of causally determined objects.[53] In short, Kantian autonomy consists of recognizing one’s independence from nature, and Kantian heteronomy consists of failing to recognize this, and consequently regarding oneself as part of nature. Nietzschean autonomy, on the other hand, consists of having a true self-understanding, which in turn presupposes a correct theory of agency, and a part of that theory holds that agency is thoroughly naturalistic. Conversely, heteronomy consists precisely of the denial of this theory, and so one has an inadequate (i.e., non-naturalistic) account of agency, i.e., one has the kind of cognitively and affectively deficient self-interpretation that characterizes morality.

Despite this substantial difference in their construals of autonomy and how it can be achieved, Kant and Nietzsche share the thought that autonomy is rendered possible by the acknowledgment of the conditions of subjectivity. Kant argues that affirming one’s autonomy is the same as affirming one’s status as a rational being who is not merely at the whims of his inclinations. Denying that one is free, Kant therefore thinks, involves a kind of “performative contradiction” (which is not to deny that some people, and perhaps even most, actually commit it). Nietzsche likewise argues that acknowledgment of one’s material conditions of subjectivity—the organization of drives and affects, the sediment of interpretations, one’s personal past and the past of one’s culture—is required in order to begin working on oneself, transforming one’s self. Self-knowledge and self-transformation go hand-in-hand.

Consequently, the difference between Kant and Nietzsche with respect to their theories of freedom should be seen in light of their differing theories of subjectivity. In regarding subjectivity as a universal and necessary a priori structure, Kantian morality attempts to restrict the relationship with the self that the categorical imperative commands: there are echoes of fixed identity and obedience to authority at the heart of Kantianism. Because Kantian morality insists on ascribing an a priori status to pure practical reason—that is, insists that the form of morality is universal and necessary—it effectively re-introduces heteronomy into autonomy. Against this, Nietzsche’s ethics of autonomy requires that each individual determine for himself (or herself) the kind of being that he (or she) wills to become. Nietzsche’s contribution to the self-understanding of modernity is an attempt to conceive of autonomy in terms of a psychologically naturalistic account of subjectivity. As a consequence, the Nietzschean question is not the Kantian question “What are the formal conditions of any possible autonomy?” but rather “What are the material conditions of an autonomy that is possible for us?” This is not a question posed for all rational beings; it is a question that Nietzsche poses to us. Whether we take up this question—whether we pose it to ourselves—is, in the end, also up to us.




[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Hereafter D.
[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo,“Why I Write Such Good Books,” D:1, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967).
[3] In their introduction to Daybreak, Clark and Leiter also emphasize the origins of Nietzsche’s critique of morality in that text. The analysis presented here differs from theirs only in that I put more emphasis on the philosophy of mind underlying the arguments in D and less emphasis on the origins of moral valuation per se. Maude- marie Clark and Brian Leiter,“Introduction,” in Daybreak, pp. vii–xxxiv.
[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic, trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998), II:2.
[5] By “methodologically naturalistic,” I mean only that the methods and concepts used to explain a given phenomenon are naturalistic in the sense that there is no appeal to an unconditioned ground, value, or cause. I take the insistence that “there are no conditionless conditions” (Rorty) or that “there is no a priori” (Kitcher) to express such a commitment to methodological naturalism. R. Rorty,“Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Reification of Language,” in Essays on Heidegger and Others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 50–65; P. Kitcher, “The Naturalists Return,” Philosophical Review 101: 53–114.
[6] In this respect I distinguish between Nietzsche and Freud on the one hand and previ- ous philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Hartmann, for whom the unconscious is only general, on the other.
[7] D 109.
[8] D 117.
[9] D 382.
[10] D 311.
[11] D 311
[12] D 109.
[13] In light of the fact that D 109 outlines several different methods of attenuating the intensity of a drive, it would appear that the intellect has some capacity for independent choice. Nevertheless, it is on account of the drives that it must choose.
[14] As D 109 suggests, Nietzsche clearly acknowledges that the drives are plastic with respect to their expression. What Nietzsche lacks is a theoretical vocabulary, such as psychoanalysis, with which to explain that plasticity.
[15] D 278.
[16] D 38.
[17] D 115.
[18] In the translation from D 115 I have replaced Hollingdale’s “ego” with “I” as a translation of “Ich.” However, I shall continue to use the term “ego” except where I wish to emphasize the deceptive nature of fi rst-person experience for Nietzsche.
[19] D 116.
[20] D 119.
[21] Ibid.
[22] More precisely, methodological naturalism rules out the absolute conception of apriority. Recent discussions of “transcendental naturalism” have argued that a theory of the relative a priori is consistent with broadly naturalistic epistemological and ontological commitments; see S. Pihlström, Naturalizing the Transcendental: A Pragmatic View (New York: Humanity Books, 2003).
[23] D 9.
[24] D 132.
[25] D 173.
[26] Ibid.
[27] D 208.
[28] D 86.
[29] One might object here that one comes to regard oneself as a fi xed, transparent identity as a consequence of having been treated that way by others. I am uncertain as to what extent Nietzsche would concede that identity is intersubjectively formed, although I think that that view is basically correct.
[30] The obsession with fi xed identity is also affectively undesirable because the obsession leads to self-hatred, as well as to hatred toward other people. Hatred of others can manifest itself as either hatred toward those who are classifi ed in terms of devalued categories, or toward those appear to cut across established categories and thereby threaten the fi ctitious stability of the ego.
[31] The obsession with fi xed identity is also affectively undesirable because the obsession leads to self-hatred, as well as to hatred toward other people. Hatred of others can manifest itself as either hatred toward those who are classifi ed in terms of devalued categories, or toward those appear to cut across established categories and thereby threaten the fi ctitious stability of the ego.
[32] Cox argues that Nietzsche’s naturalism is a “hermeneutic naturalism” that argues for the mutual entailment of naturalism and hermeneutics in the wake of the collapse of traditional metaphysical systems. See C. Cox, Nietzsche: Naturalism and Interpretation. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
[33] In framing of Nietzsche’s criticism of morality as a problematization of how we desire our own oppression, I am indebted to Reich and to Deleuze and Guattari. See W. Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, trans. Mary Boyd Higgins (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1970); see also G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983). The latter’s extensive and multiple debts to Nietzsche are well-known, but are extensively analyzed in E. Holland, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Introduction to Schizoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1999).
[34] D 125.
[35] D 326.
[36] D 484.
[37] D 560.
[38] D 148.
[39] D 556.
[40] Corresponding to his insistence on the cultivation of individuality, Nietzsche denies that there should be a single moral code that applies universally. One should not preach a single morality for everyone, but to “a single individual, and in doing so [one] looks neither to the right nor to the left” (D 194).
[41] The use of “refl ective endorsement” is indebted to Korsgaard; see C. Korsgaard, The Source of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Korsgaard indicates what I regard as a Nietzschan approach to refl ective endorsement in her comments on Williams (74–77), whose own views on moral psychology are very close to a Nietzschean view. See M. Clark, “On the Rejection of Morality: Bernard Williams’ Debt to Nietzsche,” in Nietzsche’s Postmoralism, ed. R. Schacht (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 100–22. The principle difference between Korsgaard’s position and the one here attributed to Nietzsche concerns the status of the self. Korsgaard identifi es the self with something other than its desires—that is, with its principle of choice—whereas Nietzsche identifi es the self with an organized structure of drives and affects.
[42]. “Our drive to knowledge [Erkenntnisleid] has become too strong for us to be able to want happiness without knowledge or the happiness of a strong, fi rmly rooted delusion… Knowledge has in us been transformed into a passion” (D 429).
[43]  I owe the phrase “the arts of the self ” to Connolly, as well as his important point that the arts of the self have both cognitive and affective registers. See W. Connolly, Why I am Not a Secularist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
[44]   The interpretation of self-determination as the capacity to revise norms and practices has been emphasized by Guay; see R. Guay, “Nietzsche on Freedom,” European Journal of Philosophy 10:3: 302–27. In contrast with Guay, I take the object of revision to be one’s own subjectivity, including the drives and affects themselves, and so not merely normatively guided practices. For an interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophical development from D to a perspective close to that defended by Guay, see D. Owen, “Nietzsche, Re-Evaluation and the Turn to Genealogy,” European Journal of Philosophy 11:3: 249–72.
[45] It should be emphasized again that neither the acknowledgment nor the participation can be freely chosen by the subject ab initio. Under conditions where subjects desire their own oppression, they must be seduced into desiring their freedom. The process of seducing people into desiring their own freedom is education.
[46] In fairness to Leiter, he concludes his essay with something like this; the paradox is defused. If so, however, then the “paradox” arises from his attempt to interpret Nietzsche through categories and concept that are alien to Nietzsche’s thought.
[47] These two parts of the argument corresponds roughly to the distinction between parts I–II and part III of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (GMM). In the Critique of Practical Reason (CPrR) Kant also distinguishes between the “analytic” and “synthetic,” although the order of presentation is reversed from that in GMM. In GMM, Kant establishes the biconditional of subjectivity and autonomy through the concept of reason. In other words, Kant attempts to deduce pure practical reason from theoretical reason. In CPrR Kant abandons this strategy, though he continues to regard the moral law as the expression of pure practical reason. For a discussion of this shift in Kant’s moral theory, see H. Allison, Kant’s Theory of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
[48] I take this point to be roughly that we are subjects only insofar as we are members of discursively regulated communities, such that there is no subjectivity prior to membership in at least one such community.
[49] The problem with the latter task is that if one takes it upon oneself to transform heteronomous subjects into autonomous ones, one cannot do so without contradicting their (future) autonomy; on the other hand, heteronomous subjects, as subjects that passively submit to the authority of others, will not take it upon themselves to become their own authority. This is the paradox at the heart of all education as a self-negating authority, a paradox that Nietzsche dramatized in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
[50] Hill presents Nietzsche’s criticisms of Kant as charging Kantianism with kind of crypto-heteronomy; see R. Kevin Hill, Nietzsche’s Critiques: The Kantian Foundations of his Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003). Hill defends this interpretation by reading Genealogy of Morality against Critique of Practical Reason. Nietzsche evidently read CPrR in 1886, but was familiar with it as early as 1881. It is unclear, however, whether he was familiar with it at the time that he was working on Daybreak. I consider it unlikely, because Daybreak does not clearly distinguish between the differences between Kant and Schopenhauer. I therefore consider it more likely that at the time of Daybreak Nietzsche still interpreted Kant’s moral theory through a largely Schopenhauerian lens; cf. D 142.
[51] D 339.
[52] D 108.
[53] In this case, however, I have acted freely, which is to say that I have acted on the basis of some maxim that I have incorporated into my motivational set. But I deny that I have acted from freedom, which is to say that I deny my own subjectivity








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