From The Genealogy of Morals, Essay 2, Section 13:
Only something which has no history is capable of being defined.
The first time I read the Genealogy, I somehow skipped this line, or at least did not pay undue attention to it. When I read the Genealogy again, I didn’t miss it, and I paid attention: I underlined it, put the book down, and went for a walk. This is no exaggeration; I did have to stop reading for a bit so that I could think about what I had just read. Nietzsche, more than any other philosopher, manages, somehow, effortlessly to produce line after line like this, rich and textured, pregnant with diverse possibilities, meanings, and allusions. Freud famously said he had to stop reading Nietzsche not just because he feared he would find that Nietzsche had anticipated too many of his ideas but also because–as he noted on another occasion–he found the constant barrage of ideas and philosophical theses too rich to digest all at once. While Nietzsche is immensely readable, he is not ‘unputdownable.’ Quite the contrary.
Incidentally, the line that precedes this sentence, reads, in full:
(Today it is impossible to say clearly why we really punish; all ideas in which an entire process is semiotically summarized elude definition. Only something which has no history is capable of being defined)
Only Nietzsche, I think, could have written such a line as part of a parenthetical remark, and only he, I think, could have used that line as a follow-up to the clause that precedes it, amplifying and sharpening it brilliantly.
The line I have quoted is a famous line, and the shelves of libraries the world over creak under the weight of scholarship related to its meanings. (Now I exaggerate, but I’m posting on Nietzsche here, so these sorts of excesses should be forgiven. Constant engagement with a mode of discourse often tends to induce those same modes in oneself.)
But consider, just for a moment, how much Nietzsche manages to encapsulate in his statement: an acknowledgement of the Heraclitean nature of being as endless becoming, of its history as a ‘record’ of change and contingency, and given the nature of definition as either a statement of identity or the enumeration of necessary and sufficient conditions–so that the definiens and definiendum are linked by a biconditional–the clear, stark, opposition between the two. Being is in time, and thus has history; definitions place themselves outside of time, by attempting to circumscribe, delineate, and establish sharp boundaries. The two are destined never to meet.
The mathematician’s or logician’s definitions work within a formally defined system with tightly anchored meanings; their formal structure, their definite anchoring of symbols is what makes possible their definitions. So the ‘eternal’ truths of mathematics and logic are timeless precisely because they rest on symbols whose meaning is anchored within a formal system and thus, lack history. (Of course, for Nietzsche, even this is a sort of elaborate fiction, an agreement to look past the histories of meanings of the symbols employed; for these systems’ ideas too, have entire processes ‘semiotically summarized’ within them.) For anything else, subject to history and interpretation, caught up in systems of constant reinterpretation and articulation, truth can remain a moving target.