In this article series, we will examine some competing perspectives on Nietzsche’s understanding of the mind and the will. Brian Leiter famously reads Nietzsche as an incompatibilist, a determinist or fatalist, and an epiphenomenalist. That is, Nietzsche rejects the idea that free will is compatible with a determined universe, that humans possess the power of contrary choice, and Nietzsche affirms that mental properties are merely the effects of antecedent material causes, and exhibit no causal efficacy in their own right. To use the analogy of William James, mental properties are similar to steam coming from a locomotive. He furthermore argues that contemporary empirical psychology supports Nietzsche’s views on the subject.
Nietzsche has a couple famous texts which lend themselves readily to an epiphenomenalist reading:
“We laugh at him who steps out of his room at the moment when the sun steps out of its room, and then says: “I will that the sun shall rise”; and at him who cannot stop a wheel, and says: “I will that it shall roll”; and at him who is thrown down in wrestling, and says: “here I lie, but I will lie here!” But, all laughter aside, are we ourselves ever acting any differently whenever we employ the expression “I will””?
The well-known passage comes from Nietzsche’s work “Daybreak.” As Leiter points out, Nietzsche seems to express a similar sentiment in The Gay Science, when he says that “the feeling of will suffices for a person “to assume cause and effect.”” In other words, humans experience “will” as being the cause of some behavior, when what we experience as the mental property of “will” is merely the effect of antecedent causes. Leiter notes that, for Nietzsche, we do not merely “feel” ourselves engaging in movement, but decide that we are the authors of this movement, and ascribe to ourselves such autonomy and superiority(Leiter, 2007). For Nietzsche, it is a proposition such as “I will pet the dog” that provides a certain feeling of superiority or activity to the act of doing so. Furthermore, we attribute this action to a substantial, indivisible ego(Leiter, 2007). Furthermore, as Leiter notes, this feeling of power or agency produces pleasure.
Nietzsche rejects the commonsensical notion according to which thought commands will(Leiter, 2007). The “will,” for Nietzsche, is the moment of our identification of corporal feeling with propositional content. That is, we feel ourselves get up and we identify that movement with the proposition “I will get up,” and it is from this process that one has the experiencing of “willing.” As suggested before, the “I” which supposedly performs this action is of special interest to Nietzsche(Leiter, 2007).
Leiter notes that Nietzsche is here speaking of a certain paradox according to which, while the body presumably obeys the will (not that it really does, for Nietzsche, as we have seen), the both obeys even as it “commands.” The I, as Leiter points out, is seen by us as the commander rather than the one obeying. Leiter quotes Nietzsche’s explanation of why we tend to identify the “I” or the self with the feeling of commanding rather than obeying(Leiter, 2007).
Thus, attributing the will to a commander rather than to one obeying provides the feeling of power, which itself provides the feeling of pleasure. Nietzsche furthermore notes in “Beyond Good and Evil” that the traditional Cartesian understanding of the mind is mistaken(Leiter, 2007). Thoughts are autonomous and do not belong to an “I.” They come whenever they want to, rather than being the result of an autonomous I. Thoughts assert themselves, and these thoughts are not preceded by a will. They simply appear. Indeed, thoughts appear to us without our even “experiencing” the will(Leiter, 2007).
Note, as Leiter does, that Nietzsche does not take the will to be autonomous in any respect whatsoever. What we refer to as the “will” is merely an experience. That is all. Thus, when we say “I will get up,” we are, strictly speaking, talking nonsense(Leiter, 2007). There is no “will” which constitutes the agency of our thinking about getting up. Our decision to attach an “I” to this “will” is likewise totally arbitrary(Leiter, 2007). Thoughts merely force their way into our consciousness. In this case, a thought is attached to our bodily feeling as we move, and we attribute it to a superior I because it produces the feeling of power(Leiter, 2007).
Nietzsche sees numerous illusions as arising from the commonsense understanding of the mind, the will, and the relation of the two to one another. For example, he argues that cause and effect are confused with one another(Leiter, 2007). He uses the example from Cornaro of the man who attributed his long life to his meager diet, when it was his slow metabolism which gave rise to both. Human beings are physiologically necessitated to perform certain actions, and refrain from others, and that human believes that these effects of his physiology are the causes of other things, when these behaviors and other aspects of the person are the results of physiology(Leiter, 2007). Errors in causality are also found in joining “motives” with thoughts. Instead, we falsely attribute nonexistent motives to thoughts and behaviors, causing us to mistake the cause of the latter. Indeed, we tend to construct ad hoc explanations for thoughts and actions to retroactively explain them(Leiter, 2007).
Leiter, Brian (2007). Nietzsche’s Theory of the Will [vol. 7, no. 7, pp. 1-15]