Nietzsche on the Discontinuity Between Definitions and History

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.

11 thoughts on “Nietzsche on the Discontinuity Between Definitions and History

  1. Every thing that has history is immersed in the relativity of time and space. Beeing is outside the world. It has no name. You can not speak about it. Its virtue surrounds us -we see it acting- but we can’t see it or say what it’s like. Its ineffable like the God of Eckhart or the the Tao of Lao Tse. Or the En-Sof of the Kabbalah.-
    Would be pleased if you followed my blog.

  2. I don’t know whether Nietzsche was the first to have this insight, but certainly today it is not very surprising. Wittgenstein’s conception of family-resemblances and the way that reference is extended in new cases by way of judgments as to whether the new thing “suitably resembles” the already established cases, certainly takes this insight as one of its central inspirations.

    By the by, this has always been one of the key problems in Aesthetics: How can one define ‘art’, when both the conception of art and the things that count as art are continuously evolving? This is why the family-resemblance approach to reference got so much traction in Aesthetics, although I myself have wondered on several occasions whether it really solves the problem there.

    ==Dan K.

    1. Dan,

      I’m not sure myself of its originality. And certainly, I think over the course of the twentieth-century, it’s come to be a central insight. It might have been that positivistic and analytic theorizing suggested sharper definitions and accurate conceptual analysis was possible, and in doing so, increased the radical impact of Nietzsche’s statement. Wittgenstein’s writings, as you point out, also contributed to this point becoming central.

      The point about aesthetics is a good one; it probably warrants a longer response; hopefully, one I’ll try and make in a post soon (I’ve been thinking about this, interestingly enough, in the context of whether ‘unique’ novels can still be written, given so many established genres and themes.)

      1. The last thing you say is funny, as I am about 250 pages into a novel that I am working on, which I hope will be unique. It is halfway between the traditional novel and the graphic novel, in the same way that the graphic novel is halfway between the traditional comic book and the novel. When I talk to people about it, I describe it as a “graphical” novel.

        What I find most interesting about the issue of definitions and, for lack of a better word, fluidity, is our ability to successfully communicate with one another, using these very slippery words. One would expect more misunderstandings than one actually gets.


  3. Dan,

    Good luck with the novel; I’d like to see it when it’s done. (By the way, my conclusion is inclined to be that I think they can be written, largely because readers keep changing, as does the world they are embedded in.)

    Also, as for communication, while we do successfully manage. I think the difficulties of personal relationships and political discourse show that that success is perhaps limited.

  4. Samir,

    A very stimulating read as always. Enjoyed it. Also, there is a small spelling error, an extra ‘i’ in semiotically. Third line from the end.


    1. Nishath,

      Thanks for the comment (and the correction!). Glad you liked the post. Hope you’ve tackled that Nietzsche question you were dealing with the last time we corresponded.

      1. You’re welcome, and yes, I have managed to get a few answers regarding that question.

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