Nietzsche: The Self as Interpreted


Nietzsche wants to critique "foundations". It is that which traditionally allows us to have knowledge, and to be certain about our knowledge, to be certain about the nature and existence of the external world, to be sure that our actions are the right ones.

The history of philosophy is one characterized by the search for foundations -- forms (Plato), God (Christianity, Middle Ages), mind and correct method (Descartes), external reality (Locke), internal reality (Kant), spirit (Hegel), will (Schopenhauer). It is this foundationalism which Nietzsche sees exemplified in Christianity, and which he intends to overthrow.

Nietzsche's Alternative to Foundationalism

First, he declares the death of God. By this, he means to say that the foundations that we have relied on for so long, are just illusion. Most traditional religion and philosophy, starting with Christianity, are "incomplete nihilism". They are a lie, told by people who have something to gain by keeping the masses in line.

This is especially clear in the case of ethics. It is one thing for a priest or a philosopher to tell people what to do; it is another to ascribe those moral codes to a God. In fact, Nietzsche is saying that the emperor has no clothes. There is nothing to the idea of foundations at all, and we have all just bought it for so long we don't realize this.

Thus Spake Zarathustra: Zarathustra comes to announce the coming of the Ubermensch, the overman. Note the religious, John the Baptist parallels. Zarathustra walks into the middle of a market place, and announces that God is dead. This announcement means that individuals are free to create, to act, to live in any of an infinite number of ways.

Will To Power

How is this possible? Because basically we are a will to power. Everyone has (is) a will to power. This, however, does not mean that there is a unified faculty of the mind or the soul called "will", which is the agency of all our actions. There is only a "will to" or "will for" something. This is the basic feature of life. It is the basic drive of humanity.

If there is anything lying behind the experienced world - like Kant's noumenal, Hegel's absolute spirit, Christian God, whatever - then this world is an illusion. Thus, any attempt to "make sense" out of the world with a unifying metaphysical theory is to deny that the world is real. It is to exercise the will to power, but as part of the herd, in an attitude of revenge on those that are really able to transcend themselves. There is therefore no basis for a unified ethical, epistemological, or metaphysical theory. This is to search for order (Apollo) and turn one's back on life (Dionysus). The recognition of the will to power is the recognition of the decadence of appealing to foundations.


Our true selves lie immeasurably over us. The Ubermensch is the repudiation of conformity to any single norm. It is the antithesis of mediocrity and stagnation.

Zarathustra: "Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman - a rope over an abyss." Man reaches for ideals he cannot attain short of crossing this abyss. The alternative is to 1) fall into the abyss, or 2) join the herd. In man there is both creator and creature.

Christianity has thwarted this development. It has held back the overman. It is the revenge of the herd on the powerful. The revenge comes by the imposition of morality, by the denial of the will to power and the desires based on it.

The Ubermensch, then, is the one who has overcome his animal nature, organized the chaos of his passions, sublimated his impulses, and given style to his character. He has created himself; he has become free through the will to power.

Eternal Return

Eternal recurrence is a view of the self. cf. Joyful Wisdom p. 270. "If my life were to occur, then it could recur only in identical fashion." The Ubermensch is able to affirm life, while the member of the herd is terrified by it.

This is because there is no "self" behind the sum total of all the experiences and decisions. There is no "you" to do anything differently. If anything was different, then the world would be different.

But what about insignificant things? Insignificant things aren't part of the world. We create the world. We read it and ourselves like a story, in which we are creating the story-line. We are not trying to figure out what the author meant, but interpreting as we go along. The Ubermensch chooses their interpretation. The herd has it chosen for them.

This notion of a story is important. We are like the authors and the readers of our own story at the same time. We choose what is important to include, and we choose the interpretation to give things. There is no transcendental notion of significance by which we judge ourselves. We are not trying to find some cosmic significance, for there is nothing behind the sum total of our experience. No God, no inner self. Only the will to power.

Push the story notion further. Authors are not blamed for creating morally repugnant character, only boring, mediocre ones. So too for Nietzsche. The will to power could lead to morally bad characters, under some notion of morality. That's ok.

So, Nietzsche questions the value of truth and knowledge as transcendental. There is only perspectival seeing. There is only interpretation. There is no grand unified picture of the world. This doesn't mean that just any story is worthwhile. Nietzsche does not advocate a capricious position. We come to our perspective only after great effort. Its like interpreting a story -
Gulliver's Travels, for instance. There is nothing there but interpretation. There is no bedrock, no "most basic", "most nearly correct" interpretation.

Everything, including the self, is the sum of its effects and relationships. Nothing has any features of its own; everything is constituted through relation. We tend to think in terms of objects because that's the way our language works. However, our language deceives us.

This is what Nietzsche thinks happens for all of us in "real" life. Who is the "real" me? There is only interpretation, the relationships to other persons. There is no "core" individual, that makes sense of all the other "masks". There is nothing but Mask. (persona)

So, Nietzsche doesn't talk about ontology, but genealogy. A person is constituted by a genealogy - the story of their connections. There can be many genealogies. Strong persons (Ubermensch) take control of their own genealogy and write their own story. The masses have their story written for them.