What Locke Lacked

Karl Jaspers once expressed his frustration when reading Nietzsche with the exclamation that nowhere did Nietzsche express an opinion without contradicting himself somewhere else. In the case of John Locke however, Nietzsche leaves very little doubt as to his true feelings about the father of modern liberalism. ‘Je méprise Locke’. It is clear that Nietzsche did not exactly harbour feelings of generosity towards the cornerstone of modern liberal thought.Upon reading further however, it transpires that even in this case, Nietzsche is not making a simple statement.


For one, Nietzsche is not saying, but quoting – the full sentence reads: ‘[I]t was Locke of whom Schelling said, understandably, ‘Je méprise Locke, in their fight against the English-mechanistic doltification of the world, Hegel and Schopenhauer were of one mind (with Goethe) – these two hostile brother geniuses in philosophy who strove apart toward opposite poles of the German spirit and in the process wrong each other as only brothers can’ (BGE 252). By quoting, rather than making an original statement, Nietzsche made a sly, rhetorical thrust towards the philosophical tradition that willingly sacrificed its artistic birthright for the pottage of empiricism. The decreasing interest in rhetorical thinking during the Enlightenment can be traced to a fundamental epistemological break that began in Europe from the seventeenth century onwards. Philosophy began to lose its intellectual status as the most fundamental discipline within the order of knowledge, and was replaced, in Germany, with historicist paradigms – especially from the 1800s – but in England, this replacement occurred even earlier and by the specialist discourses of the scientific disciplines, such as physics, physiology and biology, that introduced a new conception of progress and the empirical. The tension between rhetoric and philosophy in Locke’s work is a resurrection of an ancient conflict that can be traced to what Nietzsche viewed as Plato’s unGreek rejection of eloquence in favour of dialectical argument. With this comes the rejection of politics in its agonal form; as Hannah Arendt has also shown, the rise of epistēmē is in effect the death of doxa. And the exchange of the pre-subjective world of the public sphere for the determined world of interiorized subject inevitably leads to the sacrifice of genuine political freedom.

What is truly at stake in finding Lockean traces in Nietzsche’s oeuvre is the question as to why rhetoric and trope should be so problematic. After all, Locke’s political subject is nothing but the product of metaphor. Locke, however, denounces the art of rhetoric as the ‘perfect cheat’: ‘if we speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the Art of Rhetorick, besides Order and Clearance, all the artificial and figurative application of Words Eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgement, and so indeed are the perfect cheat…’ (Locke 1975: III 10) As the cynical postmodernist might expect, Locke then goes ahead to slander rhetoric further in gender terms: ‘Eloquence, like the fair sex, has too prevailing beauties in it to suffer itself ever to be spoken against. And it is in vain to find fault with those arts of deceiving, wherein men find pleasure to be deceived’ (Locke 1975: III 10).

Martha Nussbaum writes in this regard that ‘Locke writes that the rhetorical and emotive elements of style are rather like a woman: amusing and even delightful when kept in their place, dangerous and corrupting if permitted to take control’. (Nussbaum 1986: 16).

Nietzsche, too, realized this, but famously, took it in his stride:

Language and the prejudices upon which language is based very often act as obstacles in our path when we proceed to explore inner phenomena and impulses… Wrath, hatred, pity, desire, recognition, joy, pain: all these are names indicating extreme conditions; the milder and the middle stages, and even more particularly the ever active lower stages, escape our attention, and yet it is they which weave the warp and woof of our character and destiny (Daybreak, 115).

As was the case with Hobbes and Bacon, Locke’s call for a re-assessment of knowledge is aimed at the Scholastic obscurity that he detects in theologically inspired philosophy. Like Hobbes, he rejects rhetoric’s ability to ‘rouse the mind’ as ‘practically useless’ and sided with the Royal Society’s famously misleading motto of nullius in verba and the search for a universal language of clear and accurate terms that would allow for philosophical reasoning free from linguistic pollution. Or better still, a wordless discourse (Condillac 1967: 114). Even if he does leave room for rhetoric, it is as something extra, something external to ‘true’ discourse, the pretty icing on the cake of ‘real’ thinking. Already at the outset of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke picks up upon the Baconian understanding of language and holds that linguistic obscuration is the root cause of most philosophical misunderstanding: ‘The greatest part of the Questions and Controversies that perplex Mankind depend on the doubtful and uncertain use of Words, or which is the same, indetermined Ideas, which they are made to stand for’ (Locke 1975: 13).

There is, however, a John Locke that at times sounds almost like Nietzsche, a topological Locke whose subtle ideas are more forcefully restated in Nietzsche. In more eloquent language, of course. This is a Locke that had to be repressed so that empiricism could live. As the Foucauldian would be able to confirm, this was no innocent epistemological move, but a deliberate power strategy: with the successes of the natural sciences, it no longer paid as well to invest in rhetoric. Today, however, Nietzsche’s influence has been so pervasive, so all-encompassing, that contemporary interpreters of canonical figures tend to present them as having really been postmodern figures avant la lettre. It is today almost as hard to find genuine transcendental and foundational thinkers in the history of philosophy as it was to find Nazis in Germany after the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945. After Nietzsche, everyone is embarrassed, and as a result, the world of criticism is today littered with ironists.[1] From a Nietzschean perspective however, there is something downright slavish about such denials: denying one’s flaws is but a single step away from denying one’s virtues. This is why Locke is despised: for Nietzsche, quality, strength and courage are far more important than its exactitude. Nowhere does Nietzsche denounce anyone for simply not getting his facts correct. On the contrary: ‘The falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment; in this respect our new language may sound strangest. The question is to what extent it is life-promoting, life-serving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating (BGE 4). Consider too, for example, the almost complete absence of a denouncement of scholasticism in particular, on Nietzsche’s ‘hit list’: Christianity itself is of course well presented, but either in its totality, or else in its modern form, as the case of Luther proves. What matters is not the correctness of proposition, but its potency. What makes Locke so contemptible in Nietzsche’s view, is that he extolled the least important aspects of human existence, namely what we all have in common, and turned it into a doctrine. He continued Bacon and Hobbes’s attempts to be the final legislators, the lawmakers that would end the human capacity for lawmaking altogether.

Although Locke, even after the postmodern revolution, remains very much the liberal and metaphysician that he always was, there is a suppressed Other to the familiar thinker of the tabula rasa and the Social Contract that makes an appearance in Nietzsche. It is unclear whether Nietzsche specifically studied any Locke beyond his undergraduate years, but he goes so far as to say in the Will to Power section 101 that Germany had to be prepared for the scientific clarity of thinkers like Locke and Hume; for the heavy-handed metaphysical tradition they were too ‘superficial’. In the context of lamenting the belatedness of the German philosophical tradition in general, Nietzsche praises the brightness, scepticism and Voltairean clarity that Nietzsche took as representing the best of eighteenth century Western thinking. In the UM II: 9, chastising the Germans, he writes that ‘A worthy Englishman finds them lacking in delicacy and perception’. However, it was the implicit rhetorical critique of calcified metaphysical concepts that inspired Nietzsche’s positive appraisal of the British empiricists. Central metaphysical concepts, such as substance, cause and subject, simply vanish in the face of empiricist critique, where such concepts are construed as ‘ideas’. Nevertheless, the empiricist tradition is at a loss to explain why the mind mistakenly assumes that it possesses such concepts, and after a strong ideational annihilation, empiricism tends to slip into a psychological dead end, merely lamenting the limitations of the ‘mind’. After a while, the empiricist tradition simply stopped thinking. For Locke, sounding suspiciously like Nietzsche, the insistence upon an underlying substratum is an example of the inability to use the mind well: ‘not imagining how these simple Ideas can subsist by themselves, we accustom ourselves to suppose some Substratum; the Idea to which we give the name. Substance is nothing but the supposed, but unknown support of those Qualities, we find existing, which we imagine can not subsist sine re sustante. [B]ecause we cannot conceive how these qualities can subsist alone, we conceive of them existing in, and supported by, some common subject’ (Locke 1975: 196). For Locke, the mind’s ability to exceed what is implanted upon it by the senses is an impediment to knowledge: Locke envisages the ideal operation of the rational mind in strictly passive terms. Out of its weaknesses, habits, incapacities and chance, the mind ascribes characteristics to itself and to the world it, in fact does not possess. Nietzsche likewise acknowledges the violence done to the world, for example in the act of nomenclature, but it is not an obstacle to truth, but a precondition for it. The act of naming is articulated by limits, not substances. Although he is sometimes inclined to describe the constitution of concepts in terms of a physiological necessity, in The Book of the Philosopher he describes it as a mode of artistic creation:

There is a force in us, which allows the main traits of the reflected image to be perceived with more intensity and a force which emphasizes the same rhythm over the actual imprecision. This must be an artistic force, because it creates. Its principle means is to overlook, to omit, to ignore, hence, anti-scientific, for it does not have the same regard for all that is observed (BP, 70-72).

English philosophy’s greatest tragedy is not that it lacked Nietzsche’s fundamental insight as to man’s freedom in creating his world, rather than to be mere students of it, but that they were once in full possession of these insights. Not only have they failed to act upon them, but they positively saw them as a burden to be liberated from as soon as possible. For Nietzsche by contrast, it is the unartistic life that is hardly worth living. He was indeed the one figure in the history of philosophy that harboured no illusions as to our ability to escape our entanglement in language. ‘The intellect unfolds its principle powers in dissimulation’ (HAH 6). Truth, whatever it may ultimately be, refuses to yield to the prosaic advances of the ideal language. Truth manifests itself only in game-playing, cycles of concealment and exposure and demands persuasion, passion and style. As a result, rhetoric is by no means a hindrance to the pursuit of truth, if anything, it is the only way in which she can be apprehended. Like Molière’s bourgeois gentleman, who discovers that he has been speaking prose for 40 years without realizing it, we human beings are artists despite our most earnest efforts to be truth-tellers. As we shall see below, any effort to escape from our metaphysical prisons into the clear transparency of unhindered truth, will be thwarted by our very embodied and linguistic existence. Artists are the only ones who at least appear to be honest about these matters:

Artists have here perhaps a finer intuition; they who know only too well that precisely when they no longer do anything ‘arbitrarily’, and everything of necessity, their feeling of freedom, of subtlety, of power, of creatively fixing, disposing, and shaping, reaches its climax–in short, that necessity and ‘freedom of will’ are then the same thing with them (BGE, 213).

Empricists in particular are but artists in denial of their status. The rise of empiricism signifies the replacement of an obvious rhetorical language game with the calcified vocabulary of the modern sciences. Games are still being played, the only difference now is that the rules have become much stricter, and the game-like character of discourse of knowledge in the West has become hidden. But even artists in denial have their particular uses: at least the Associatives – Locke, Hume, Berkeley, Hartley – have dealt with the Rationalist delusions of the Platonic-Augustinian-Cartesian variety. Locke’s immediate achievement was to unseat the broadly NeoPlatonic notion that the mind and world share a common divinely imposed structure, in favour of a more modest naturalistic conception of human capacities, according to which experience of the world is seen as the origin of knowledge insofar as it provides – more or less – direct access to sensible objects as a source for mental images and ideas.

Locke is famous for placing the source of knowledge in the senses. He is a ‘concept’ empiricist rather than a crude ‘knowledge’ empiricist. He is, however, not consistently empiricist, and held that our concepts are drawn from experience, not simply that all our knowledge is based upon experience. Before commencing with the attack on innate ideas proper, he prepares the metaphorical ground. For Locke, the mind is some kind of space within which objects are to be had and observed, as a piece of furniture is to be owned and perceived in a room. Having defined ‘Idea’ as that ‘which is the Object of Understanding when a Man thinks’, he proposes to find the solution as to how ideas enter the mind. For the innatists, the question is simply never a problem, since the mind is not conceived as some kind of room into which ideas enter, but as a substance upon which ideas are written, stamped or engraved. Locke redescribes the innatist’s position in terms of a bipartite figurative representation of mind: the mind is now an engraved substance and an eye which sees, reads and decodes the message written there. The eye, at least, is now part of the thinking thing. He then proceeds to rebut the dogmatist argument from universal assent or assent by all who have come to the use of reason. Ideas, after all, are what exists before the mind in thought, and propositions are ideas in relation. For Locke, to take either knowledge or ideas to be innately imprinted upon the mind in a merely dispositional sense – and they are clearly not even actual from birth – would be contrary to any intelligible notion of ‘being in the mind’. ‘Whatever idea was never perceived by the mind, was never in the mind’ (Locke 1975: 116). Locke conceded dispositional knowledge and ideas, retained by memory, and capable of being revived, but he understands both intentionality and knowledge in terms of perception, and finds nonsensical the notion of perception which has never been conscious and actual. This strongly intuitionist model rules out innatism as an intelligible possibility. Book II of the Essay is devoted to establishing that all our ideas are derived from experience, that is, the way in which we conceive of the world (and ourselves) is ultimately determined by the way in which we experience the world, and (and ourselves). ‘Experience’ in this context includes not only ‘sense’, but also reflexive awareness of our own mental operations. For Descartes, the innateness of such ideas as ‘substance’, ‘thought’ and even ‘God’ consists in the potentiality of the mind’s reflecting on itself, and human reason is only accidentally involved with the senses. What is truly revolutionary in Locke’s thought is that, for the first time in modern philosophy, there are no purely intellectual ideas. Man is no more just a brain in a vat; he has come to his senses, or at least come to acknowledge them. The task traditionally assigned to intellect, namely universal thought, Locke now assigns to ‘abstraction’, or the basic classification of ‘ideas’. There are ideas of ‘sensations’ derived from our outer senses, and ideas of reflection, which are those ideas of which we become aware through introspection, for example, thinking, believing and willing. Ideas in the Lockean sense can refer to a variety of antecedents. Like Descartes, he uses it both for representative states or acts of the mind, and frequently for the represented objects in the mind, the so-called immediate objects of perception and mind. There is however, also a more classical sense of sensations as signs of their unknown causes in the motion of atoms or ‘corpuscules’ – a sense that Locke employed to point away from the Cartesian and scholastic presumption of intrinsically representative elements in thought, towards a purely causal understanding of representation, treating ideas as blank sensory effects in the mind. Book II also confronts the indeterminacy of language in its distinction between simple and complex ideas. The former, directly experienced through the senses, have no other ideas contained within them, and are qualities like red, cold and sweet. Like atoms, they can neither be created, nor destroyed. Complex ideas are compounded out of simple ideas, and the mind is capable of imagining complex arrangements of simple ideas that have no counterpart in the real world, such as a unicorn. Although he admits – again with a faint Nietzschean flavour – that ‘the free usage of ordinary language’ is constrained by various pragmatic considerations and linguistic conventions, he makes it clear throughout Book III of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding that the conglomeration of the properties of an object is not entirely haphazard or arbitrary nor entirely dependent upon authority, but on observation: ‘the mind combines those ideas it observes to constantly go together’ (Locke 1975: 116). However, even at the stage of simple ideas, Locke already runs into Nietzschean problems. He explicitly refers to sensory experiences such as sights, smells and sounds as the products of a clear and direct form of perception. Such simple ideas represent an unmediated access to reality, and to external objects to be precise. One such example might be ‘the smell of a Rose.’ (Locke 1975: 119). However, as Walker 1994: 169) points out, given the complexity of the botanical world, it may not be that easy to distinguish the smell of a rose specifically from other flowers. Simple ideas thus tend to be vague and dependent upon specific circumstances, an idea that Nietzsche developed to a more sophisticated level in his notion of perspectivism. Furthermore, already at this level the problem of metaphoricity asserts itself. In order to distinguish the smell of a rose at all, one needs a complex referential framework for purposes of differentiation. The smell of a rose only makes sense because it differs from the smell of cut grass, lemons or manure. Difference is already present at the olfactory level. Thus, any attempt to determine simple ideas proves that simple ideas are never truly simple or determined. Humans survive only through illusions: ‘Their senses nowhere lead to truth; on the contrary, they are content to receive stimuli and, as it were, to engage in a groping game on the backs of things’ (TL 1). Smells, colours, sounds, and all other impressions are strictly speaking signs and therefore require interpretation.

Despite the persistent attacks on Descartes, that which Locke shares with him is perhaps more significant from a Nietzschean point of view than their technical differences. For one, they both hoped to provide a neutral, universal account of knowledge, although they located its fundamental basis in different places. Regardless of Locke’s sensitivity towards the limitations of the empirical sciences – they can never hope for the absolute degree of certainty to be found in the mathematical sciences – Locke still treated the ‘senses’ as a kind of universal ‘organ’ implying that the experience of at least the ‘simple’ ideas must be accompanied by a universal similitude. Locke proposed not only the mind as a tabula rasa, but strictly speaking, a uniformity of sense experience which would mean that the senses played no role in the construction of simple experiences – in other words, sensa rasa, or ‘clean senses’. Locke regarded the question of identity as first and foremost an epistemological question. To know is a foundational activity, the human being’s first and foremost raison d’être is to establish a condition of certainty about the world in which he finds himself. To admit to the fundamental differences in sense experience would amount to a crisis of early subjectivity. Thus, if the role of the body had to be admitted to link man to the world again, it could only have been in a highly rudimentary, constricted fashion. If the greatest scandal in philosophy is the failed attempt to prove the existence of the outside world, then the fact that Locke, who appeared to have such a firm grip on the body – as empiricists and proud extollers of common sense the English were more ‘sensual’ than the Germans (BGE 252) – allowed the body to slip from his fingers, is a close second.

In one respect at least, Locke is quite right: ideas are first in our perceptions. But it does not end there: Locke’s final conclusions simply elucidated the first stage in our complex relationship with the world. Reflection does not set in so long after sensation as Locke claims: ‘It is pretty late, before most Children get Ideas of the Operations of their own Minds’ (Locke 1975: 117). Experience and thought, though, is not a step by step experience, nor do they preclude each other, but imply each other: the body begins to think before the mind does. And it proves Nietzsche’s point that the primary purpose, not only of thinking, but of human existence as such, is not to know, but to evaluate, to judge and to measure. As much as man’s mind tried for a neutral rationalism, his body made him into an artist. Sense perception is not neutral, but evaluative:


Our perceptions, as we understand them: i. e., the sum of all those perceptions the becoming- conscious of which was useful and essential to us and to the entire organic process–therefore not all perceptions in general (e. g., not the electric); this means: we have senses for only a selection of perceptions–those with which we have to concern ourselves in order to preserve ourselves. Consciousness is present only to the extent that consciousness is useful. It cannot be doubted that all sense perceptions are permeated with value judgments (useful and harmful–consequently, pleasant or unpleasant). Each individual colour is also for us an expression of value (although we seldom admit it, or do so only after a protracted impression of exclusively the same colour; e. g., a prisoner in prison, or a lunatic). Thus insects also react differently to different colours: some like this colour, some that; e. g., ants (WP 505, NL 1885-1886).


Empiricism is not truly a theory of the outside world; it is merely a prison of language that employs other guards. Decidedly better guards, if the persistence of the doctrine of realism is anything to go by. It has achieved what even Bentham’s Panopticon never could: it created a prison whose ultimate nature goes completely undetected by those who work and live within its walls.

My eyes, however weak or strong they may be, can only see a certain distance, and it is within the space encompassed by this distance that I live and move, the line of this horizon constitutes my immediate fate, in great things and small, from which I cannot escape. Around every being there is described a similar concentric circle, which has a mid-point and is peculiar to him. Our ears enclose us within a comparable circle and so does our sense of touch. Now it is by these horizons within which each of us encloses his senses as if behind prison walls, that we measure the world, we say this is near and this is far, this is big and this is soft: this measuring we call sensation—and it is all of it an error! According to the average quantity of experiences and excitations possible to us at any particular point in time one measures one’s life as being short or long, poor or rich, full or empty: And according to the average human life one measures that of all other creatures—all of it an error! If our eyes were a hundredfold sharper, man would appear to us tremendously tall; it is possible indeed, to imagine organs by virtue of which he would be felt as immeasurable. On the other hand, organs could be so constituted that whole solar systems were viewed contracted and packed together like a single cell: and to all beings of an opposite constitution a cell of the human body could present itself, in motion, construction and harmony, as a solar system. The habits of our senses have woven us into lies and deception of sensation: these again are the basis of all our judgements and ‘knowledge’—there is absolutely no escape, no back way or bypath into the real world! We sit within our net, we spiders, and whatever we may catch in it, we can catch nothing at all except that which allows itself to be caught in precisely our net (Daybreak, 117).

Our ideas are connected to such an extent to the medium through which they entered the mind that anything but a perspectival existence is impossible. Because our physiological and sensory capabilities restrict our apprehension of the world, we cannot but have a very limited perspective on the world. Therefore, what we experience through our senses are impressions, not objective knowledge. The German word for perception, Wahrnehmen, means ‘taking-as-true’. Our physical existence acts as a kind of ‘filter’ through which perception is possible. Philosophy tends to treat this as a problem to overcome; at least since the Enlightenment the body has become alien, a strange barrier to the pure knowledge that can be accessed through the mind. Nothing, however, undermines metaphysical dualism as effectively as genuine awareness of physical existence. In its peculiarly enigmatic fashion – Nietzsche might have called it ‘feminine’ – the body refuses to be separated from its secrets. In contrast with the standard dualist assumption that the mind directs the body, Nietzsche claims that the body creates while the soul is merely one of its products: ‘the awakened one, the knowing one, saith:  ‘Body am I entirely, and nothing more; and soul is only the name of something in the body’ (Z I, ‘The Despisers of the Body’) The body does not stand alone either, but appears to be deeply intertwined with language.


It is on tropes, not unconscious reasonings that our sensory perceptions rest. Identifying like with like – discovering some similarity between one thing and another is the fundamental process. Memory lives by this activity and continually exerts itself. Confusion is the originary phenomenon – This presupposes the act of seeing forms. The image in the eye regulates our recognition, rhythm our sense of hearing. We would never achieve representation of time by means of the eye alone, nor a representation of space by means of the ear alone. The sense of causality corresponds to the tactile sense.

At first we see images of the eye only in us, we hear sound only in us, from there the admission to an outer world is a big step. Plants, for example, have no sense of an outer world. The tactile sense and the visual image simultaneously give two sensations side by side; because they always appear together; they awaken the representation of a connection through metaphor – for not all the things which appear together are connected. (BP, 134).


Language and the body thus seem to be in a conspiracy against the mind in their refusal to let pure ideas enter consciousness untainted. This is why Locke’s attempt at a sanitized correspondence theory of truth ultimately fails. Even Locke himself alludes to an implicit tropological element in his work. In a passage from ‘On Perception’ which introduces the Molyneux problem, Locke writes:


the mental agent and its objects of knowledge. All the knowing thus gets done by the eye or person that observes, and then interacts with the received material.

The mind is indeed so active that it keeps on positing the idea of substance. Admitting to the usefulness of the ‘Idea of Substance’ in Book II, Locke nevertheless writes that he who chooses to examine himself on the content of substance will find that ‘he has no Idea of it all, but only a Supposition of he knows not what support of such Qualities, which are c

We are farther to consider concerning Perception, that Ideas that we receive in sensation, are often in grown People altered by Judgements, without our taking notice of it. When we set before our Eyes a round Globe, with any uniform Colour, e.g. Gold, Alabaster, or Jet, ‘tis certain, that the Idea thereby imprinted on our Mind, is of a flat circle, variously shadow’d, with several degrees of Brightness and Light coming to our Eyes. But we having by use been accustomed to perceive, what kind of appearance convex Bodies are wont to make in us; what Alterations are made in the reflections of Light, by the difference of the sensible Figures of Bodies, the Judgement presently, by an habitual custom, alters the Appearances into their Causes: So that from that, which truly is a variety of shadow or colour, collecting the figure, and frames to Itself the perception of a convex Figure, and a Uniform Colour, when the Idea we receive from thence, is only a Plain variously coloured, as is evident from Painting (Locke 1975: 145).

It is clear from this paragraph that Locke admits to that very Nietzschean – and Kantian – notion that judgement alters ideas received by the sensation, and importantly for anti-metaphysical purposes, turns appearances into causes. In Locke’s example, the sensations the mind has imprinted upon it is that of ‘a flat circle variously shadowed’ or a Plain variously Coloured’ and the Idea that follows from this is of a convex Figure of a uniform Colour’.

What happens here is no longer pure sensation, but a metonymic event. Although no linguistic substitution takes place, ideas of sensation are ultimately replaced by ideas of judgement, and some sensual mutation occurs.

Locke specifically designates this process of taking and displacement as a habitual contiguity of ideas – of colour, two-dimensional shape and then a three-dimensional figure – and sees it as a causal relationship. The coloured sphere in question causes the appearance or idea of the coloured plain, and the idea of the sphere is the sum of physical impressions that entered the mind plus the mind’s own addition of the third dimension – judgement. As William Walker points out, the substitution of ideas of sensation by ideas of judgement is thus the replacement of ideas of cause by an ideational effect. (Walker 1994: 177). In rhetoric, the name of a cause, for example a discoverer, can be substituted for the name of an effect, namely the discovery itself (e.g. joule after James Prescott Joule). In this case, the idea of a cause (the agent, Joule) takes the place of another idea (the numerical relation between heat and mechanical energy) which is an effect of that cause, in the Kantian sense that Joule interpreted aspects of reality according to certain categories – just as the mind interprets reality according to mental categories. This is a case of mental rhetoric: the substitution of images operates on a similar basis as linguistic tropes.

A further example of how the mind intervenes in perception is with abstract idea like infinity. Infinity cannot make its appearance through the senses, nor can the temporal mind itself truly have an idea of infinity. It is the classic problem of the sublime. For Locke, the idea of infinity is ‘nothing but a supposed endless Progression of the Mind over what repeated Ideas of Space it pleases’. (Locke 1975: 213). The Boylean Locke explains infinity in terms of the sum of its parts: the idea of finite lengths and the ability of the mind to replicate. This is a perfect example of synecdoche: the mind never has a complete picture of the whole of eternity, but pictures it by envisaging a part of it. Synecdoche is the substitution of a word used to designate the part of a thing for a word that designates the whole of that thing. As Walker emphasizes, from a deconstructive point of view, all mathematical concepts stand in a synecdochal relationship to the idea of infinity, as all time-related concepts represent a part of eternity (Walker 1994: 176).However, these synecdochal examples stand in a relationship with something that can never be pictured in total, as a leaf may stand for a plant, or a sail for a ship.

Locke is clearly inconsistent in deciding what the mental agent must do in order to engage in the activity of knowing. He usually claims that knowing is simply the mind’s perception of the ideas and relations between them it contains, but sometimes also claims that it involves mental acts of negation and affirmation (Locke 1975: 494). Furthermore, the mind also answers for acts of separating or joining signs, and assenting and judging (Locke 1974: 591). There is however no major contradiction here, because Locke’s figurative language unambiguously posits a mental agent that exists independently of the mental site represented as an enclosed space which interacts in a variety of ways with the mental space. Metaphors that underline this include those of possession (the mental content that the agent has when conscious), force and impact which suggest the interaction between

apable of producing simple Ideas in us’ (Locke 1975: 295). He continues to claim that ‘we have no clear, or distinct Idea of the Thing we suppose a Support’ (Locke 1975: 296), but still seems hesitant to dismiss the obscure notion of ‘support’ altogether.

One of the reasons why the mind keeps thinking that substance does exist, is that it is incapable of conceiving otherwise.

The Mind being, as I have declared, furnished with a great number of simple Ideas, conveyed in by the Senses, as they are found in exterior things, or by reflection upon its own Operations, takes notice also, that a certain number of these simple Ideas go constantly together; which being presumed to belong to one thing, and words being suited to common Apprehensions, and made use of for quick dispatch, are called so united in one subject, by one Name; which by inadvertency we are apt afterward to talk of and consider as one simple Idea, when indeed it is a Complication of many Ideas together; Because as I have said, not imaging how these simple Ideas can subsist by themselves, we accustom themselves, to suppose some Substratum, wherein they do subsist, and from which they do result, which therefore we call Substance. (Locke 1975: 295).

Nietzsche would seem to agree. He too understood the metaphysical concept of substance as an unchanging substrate:

Fundamental Question of Metaphysics. When one day the history of the genesis of thought comes to be written, the following sentence by a distinguished logician will stand revealed in a new light: ‘The primary universal law of the knowing subject consists in the inner necessity of recognizing every object in itself as being in its own essence something identical with itself, thus self-existent and at bottom always the same and unchanging, in short, as a substance’ (HAH 18).

But Nietzsche does not shrink from dismissing the notion of substance outright. Metaphysics a symptom of a particularly decadent view of the world. At the root of dual-world nihilism, suppose a ‘real’ world behind the world of appearance. For all his claims to empirical precision, Locke is yet another dualist metaphysician who resents the world as it is. Locke ropes in substance again in order to provide a solid foundation for his liberal politics. Again, it must be emphasized that this is the reason for Nietzsche’s contemptuous dismissal of Locke: he was so busy being a philosopher that he forgot to be a human. There is a distinct flavour of what Sartre would call ‘bad faith’ or inauthenticity in Locke’s politics. As was the case with his epistemology, Locke’s politics is built upon the suppression of trope, and in this case upon the confusion of origin. Locke’s liberal subject is a textbook example of the substitution of cause and effect: the subject is an effect of linguistic illusion, not the cause or foundation of the state.

Like Hobbes, Locke disdains the advice that Lewis Caroll would later lay into the mouth of the Red King (‘Begin at the beginning’, the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end, then stop’) and started his account of politics and human nature somewhere in the middle with the subject of free will. To do justice to Nietzsche though, any assumption of a ‘truer’ beginning would make the same errors traditional metaphysics was founded upon. Nietzsche describes these errors as the


Congenital defect of philosophers. All philosophers suffer from the same defect, in that they start with present‑day man and think they can arrive at their goal by analyzing him. Instinctively they let ‘man’ hover before them as an aeterna veritas, something unchanging in all turmoil, a secure measure of things. But everything the philosopher asserts about man is basically no more than a statement about man within a very limited time span. A lack of historical sense is the congenital defect of all philosophers. Some unwittingly even take the most recent form of man, as it developed under the imprint of certain religions or even certain political events, as the fixed form from which one must proceed. They will not understand that man has evolved, that the faculty of knowledge has also evolved, while some of them even permit themselves to spin the whole world from out of this faculty of knowledge. (HAH, 2)

Locke is indeed a Colossus of modernity, but one whose twin projects of providing a concept of human understanding and political foundation undermine each other. The specificity of the experience of perception alone undermines the universality and uniformity necessary to create the subject required for a justifiable liberalism. Since mere physical perspective can generate so much difference, it is only to be expected that political differences would be even more glaring. However, no political order would ever come to pass without obliterating essential differences. The birth of liberalism was as violent as the Empire that would later be justified in its name, even if its political traces are not so obvious. To interpret is to see in a particular way, at the expense of all other possibilities of interpretation. Perspectives that do not fit are simply ignored, or as that other great resurrectionist of modernity, Freud, would concur, simply driven underground. We ourselves are the source of this interpretative injustice, or more correctly, our need for a world in which it is possible to live, is. To a certain extent, then, man is the measure of the world, but only his world. Man is thus a contingent measure and our measurements do not refer to an original, underlying reality. What we call reality is the result not only of our limited perspectives upon the world, but the interplay of those perspectives themselves. The liberal subject is thus a result of, and not a foundation for, the experience of reality. The subject is identified as origin of meaning only through a process of differentiation and reduction, a course through which the will is designated as a psychological property.

Locke takes the existence of the subject of free will – free to exercise political choice such as rising against a tyrant, choosing representatives, or deciding upon political direction – simply for granted. Furthermore, he seems to think that everyone should agree as to what the rules are according to which these events should happen. For him, the liberal subject underlying these choices is clearly fundamental and universal.

Locke’s philosophy of individualism posits the existence of a discreet and isolated individual, with private interests and rights, independent of his linguistic or socio-historical context. C. B. MacPhearson identifies a distinctly possessive quality to Locke’s individualist ethic, notably in the way in which the individual is conceived as proprietor of his own personhood, possessing capacities such as self-reflection and free will. Freedom becomes associated with possession, which the Greeks would associate with slavery, and society conceived in terms of a collection of free and equal individuals who are related to each through their means of achieving material success – which Nietzsche, too, would associate with slave morality. Though Locke has unjustly been tainted, notably by Marxists, with holding that there are no natural rights, save the right to private property, there is no denial that he sees man as emerging from the state of nature into political subjectivity with the advent of commercial activity. Man becomes man by demarcating a piece of nature as his own:

Though the water running in the fountain be everyone’s, yet who can doubt that in the pitcher is his only who drew it out? His labour has taken it out of the hands of nature, where it was common and belonged equally to all her children, and hath thereby appropriated it to himself’ (Locke 1960: 29).

Instead of describing a public good, Locke set up a body of innate, indefeasible rights which limit the power of a community, and stand as bars to prevent interference with the liberty and property of private individuals. Thomas Jefferson held the endowment of all individuals with the equal right to life, liberty and property as axiomatic. Social and moral theorems could be deduced from it, but the rights of the sovereign individual and the importance of his freedom was more obvious than any other ethical principle.

There is a central tenet to John Locke’s thinking that, as conventional as it has become, remains a strange strategy. Like Thomas Hobbes, he justifies modern society by contrasting it with an original state of nature. For Hobbes, as we have seen, the state of nature is but a hypothesis, a conceptual tool in order to elucidate a point. For Locke, however, the state of nature is a very real historical event, although not a condition of a state of war. Man was social by nature, rational and free. Locke drew this inspiration from Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, notably from his idea that church government should be based upon human nature, and not the Bible, which, according to Hooker, told us nothing about human nature. The social contract is a means to escape from nature, friendlier though it be on the Lockean account. For Nietzsche, however, we have never made the escape: we are still holus-bolus in it: ‘being conscious is in no decisive sense the opposite of the instinctive – most of the philosopher’s conscious thinking is secretly directed and compelled into definite channels by his instincts. Behind all logic too, and its apparent autonomy there stand evaluations’ (BGE, 3). Locke makes a singular mistake in thinking the state of nature a distant event. In fact, Nietzsche tells us, we have never left it. We now only wield more sophisticated weapons, such as the guilty conscience, as we shall see in our next chapters. H. G. Wells’ opinions on the Social Contract is much closer to the mark. Writing in Love and Mr Lewisham he opines: ‘The Social Contract is nothing more or less than a vast conspiracy of human beings to lie to and humbug themselves and one another for the general Good. Lies are the mortar that binds the savage individual man into social masonry’ (Wells 1963: 29).

More than three hundred years after Locke, and after being subject to the Nietzschean era that followed after Walter Kaufman’s rehabilitation of Nietzsche, we know that things are not this simple. If Locke were to dismiss rhetoric, he should have written off his rights-possessing subject right after it, for this subject follows from the grammar that produced it. Much happens before the subject sets himself apart from the state of nature. Grammatical concepts such as ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’ structures our thinking to an unavoidable extent, so much so that language contains a hidden philosophical mythology (WS II: ii). Subjects, objects and predicates are in fact anthropologically necessary constructions that help us to order our world and give meaning to our experiences. By insisting upon a picture of language that gives us direct access to the world, we only fool ourselves. And a self-deceived subject is hardly a foundation for politics. Nietzsche writes:

That which separate me most thoroughly from the metaphysicians is: I do not agree to their view that it is the ‘I’ which thinks, rather, I take the ‘I’ itself to be a mental construction, which is of the same category as ‘matter’, ‘thing’, ‘substance’, ‘individual’, ‘purpose’, ‘number’, therefore as a merely regulative fiction according to which we project some kind of permanence… unto a world of becoming. The belief in grammar, in the linguistic subject, object, in verbs, has thus far, subjugated the metaphysicians (KGW VIII, 3 [35]).

For Nietzsche, language is sum of concepts, themselves but the imposition of an artistic sign upon other signs. It is quite literally born ex nihilo; out of the differences that separate the respective signs from each other. There is no originary presence at the birth of language, and any attempt to use it as a foundation is doomed to fail. On Truth and Lies in An Extra-Moral Sense makes it clear: the constraints of meaning are both epistemological and phenomenological. The formally political can only begin at conceptual level, and the larger part of the history of language happens long before that.

Metaphor has no autonomy or epistemological stability in the Nietzschean context. For Nietzsche, to use metaphor means to treat something as identical which has been recognized as similar at one point. This ‘lumping together’ of dissimilar things is the definition of metaphor that appears most frequently in Nietzsche’s work, but he does make use of another, i.e. Aristotle’s classic conception of metaphor, ‘a metaphor is a carrying over of a word whose usual meaning is something else, either from the genus to the species, from the species to the genus, or from species to species or according to proportion’ (Aristotle:1970: 317). Nietzsche takes this notion of a linguistic carrying-over and, finding it too limited, extends it to include any transference from one domain to another, be it literal to figurative, concrete to abstract, physical to spiritual or subject to object. He famously distinguishes three stages of metaphor: ‘To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one’ (TL 1). From the sound, the concept is derived: third metaphor.

The process begins with the first metaphor, the transfer of stimuli from unconscious physiological processes to mental images. In this most primal stage, the process uses synecdoche, which allows for ‘inexactitude of sight’, the power within us that allows us to privilege certain features at the cost of others. The operation of synecdoche selects according to its own ‘persuasion’, according to its own relationship with things. It bars certain stimuli so as to create space for other stimuli, those that allow the individual to have a manageable perspective on the world. Thus the individual begins his own contest of power and domination. In other words, in the chaos of stimuli a space of contest is created where certain species can thrive. Deception plays an important role here, so without the ability to lead astray, language would not exist. Metaphor begins with ostracism or exclusion (Nietzsche uses words such as übersehen, weglassen, überhören) and is followed by activities of displacement, transposition and commutation (umdeuten, übertragen, vertauschen). Language only emerges as a result of an intense agonistic game. Like everything new, it has its origins in its own particular form of violence.

Language is thus the result of a series of metaphorical translations that begins with a nerve impulse and becomes an image, then a sound or word, and only then a concept. This involves transfer through four different spheres, namely the physiological, intellectual, acoustic and abstract spheres. There is no question of a ‘perfect’ translation between the spheres, since the transfer is at best an aesthetic relation, which is of course a relationship that is far from simple. This ‘translation’ is characterized by the move from passive to active. For example, light enters the eye purely passively. It allows us, however, to identify the sensation with the sense and impute causality. The result is the active notion of ‘I saw a light’, which does not really represent what happened. Out of this transposition of cause and effect are born the active subject and the object, from whom all grammatical relations follow. The first two spheres of metaphor exist as the world of pure nerve stimulation and ‘vivid first impressions’ (TL 1). These two spheres operate interactively; the nerve stimulation is purely physiological, but allows the sphere of images, which is psychological, to come into being. The next transformation returns to the physiological, in the creation of sound and other material signifiers that make communication possible. The final construction, the concept, is a linguistically created metaphysical sphere, and it is in this sphere that man’s capacity for artistic legislation really begins, because it is only now that he becomes vaguely aware of his capacity to create. The concept is testimony to man’s capacity to generalize, to fit countless other possible cases.

For between two absolutely different spheres, as between subject and object, there is no causality, no correctness, and no expression; there is, at most, an aesthetic relation: I mean, a suggestive transference, a stammering translation into a completely foreign tongue — for which there is required, in any case, a freely inventive intermediate sphere and mediating force. Appearance is a word that contains many temptations, which is why I avoid it as much as possible. For it is not true that the essence of things appears in the empirical world (TL 1).

In this ‘freely intermediate sphere’ the human capacity for metaphor formation functions, and in this space the interpreted world that we know is born. Our primal relationship with the world is thus aesthetic. Sarah Kofman goes as far as to associate Nietzsche’s use of metaphor with his defence of an aristocratic ethos: ‘Metaphoric style is ‘aristocratic’; it allows people of the same kind [type] to recognize each other; it exclude members of the herd as inappropriate, foul smelling; to speak commonly is to become vulgar’ (Kofman 1972: 163-164).

Truth originates when humans forget that they are ‘artistically creating subjects’ or products of law or stasis and begin to attach ‘invincible faith’ to their perceptions, thereby creating truth itself. For Nietzsche, the key to understanding the ethic of the concept, the ethic of representation, is conviction:

Conviction is the belief that in some point of knowledge one possesses absolute truth. Such a belief presumes, then, that absolute truths exist; likewise, that the perfect methods for arriving at them have been found; finally, that every man who has convictions makes use of these perfect methods. All three assertions prove at once that the man of convictions is not the man of scientific thinking; he stands before us still in the age of theoretical innocence, a child, however grownup he might be otherwise. But throughout thousands of years, people have lived in such childlike assumptions, and from out of them mankind’s mightiest sources of power have flowed (HAH, 630).

Few convictions have proven to be as strong as the conviction of the existence of a fundamental subjectivity. For Nietzsche, it is an illusion, a bundle of drives loosely collected under the name of ‘subject’ —indeed, it is nothing but these drives, willing, and actions in themselves—and it cannot appear as anything else except through the seduction of language (and the fundamental errors of reason petrified in it), which understands and misunderstands all action as conditioned by something which causes actions, by a ‘Subject’ (GM I 13). Subjectivity is a form of linguistic reductionism, and when using language, ‘[w]e enter a realm of crude fetishism when we summon before consciousness the basic presuppositions of the metaphysics of language — in plain talk, the presuppositions of reason. Everywhere reason sees a doer and doing; it believes in will as the cause; it believes in the ego, in the ego as being, in the ego as substance, and it projects this faith in the ego-substance upon all things — only thereby does it first create the concept of ‘thing’ (TI, ‘Reason in Philosophy’ 5). As Nietzsche also states in WP 484, the habit of adding a doer to a deed is a Cartesian leftover that begs more questions than it solves. It is indeed nothing more than an inference according to habit: ‘There is activity, every activity requires an agent, consequently – (BGE, 17). Locke himself found the continuous existence of the self problematic, but did not go as far as Hume’s dissolution of the self into a number of ‘bundles’. After all, even if identity shifts occurred behind the scenes, he required a subject with enough unity to be able to enter into the Social Contract. This subject had to be something more than merely an ‘eternal grammatical blunder’ (D, 120), and willing had to be understood as something simple. For Nietzsche, it is ‘above all complicated, something that is a unit only as a word, a word in which the popular prejudice lurks, which has defeated the always inadequate caution of philosophers’ (BGE, 19).

As Foucault would later demonstrate, it is folly to take the social contract as a measure against violence, for the subject that participated in its formulation, has already been subject to linguistic, social, as well as political violence. Even a brief genealogical probe reveals that no stable concept, not even in its simplest linguistic form, is ever innocent. Behind all apparently clearly circumscribed concepts are the metaphysician’s belief in the principle of identity. This belief is the reason why Michel Haar describes a ‘concept’ as ‘a unit of meaning which comprises and contains, in an identical and total manner, the content it assumes’ Haar 1977: 7). A concept can thus be understood as a single petrified unit of meaning which is distinguishable from other such units. It is, in other words, an attempt to order our understanding of the world into easily manageable units of meaning. Not only death, but language is the great equalizer; silencing unruly differences that would otherwise render neat metaphysical constructions impossible.

            Since conceptually, metaphor preempts contingency, Nietzsche attempts to undermine this assumption of the solidity of the concepts that make up our world by tracing and analyzing the lines of demarcation between the apparently mutually exclusive concepts that form the traditional moral vocabulary of the West. In this way, he traces the operation of the will to power. The most important aspect of this genealogical tracing is the exposition of how a moral community establishes its boundaries by way of its mode of evaluation and differentiation. This enterprise subjects the history of conceptualization to the volatilizing effect of genealogical analysis, and disconnects such treasured metaphysical constructions as good and evil, true and untrue, just and unjust, from any fixed point or reference. From this perspective, the history of language becomes the history of the will to power. The most indispensable concepts that help to order the world are revealed as products of human desire, the more valuable because they are so. After Nietzsche these concepts simply cannot be seen as testifying to an underlying metaphysical reality that determines the ways in which we speak of it.



[1] Paul de Man especially, is inclined to read the entirety of philosophy as an exercise in rhetoric. See  for example de Man’s essay on Locke in ‘The Epistemology of Metaphor’ in S. Sachs, ed. (1979). On Metaphor. Chicago: Chicago University Press.


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