Nietzsche, Consciousness and Virtue Ethics

I was recently intrigued to encounter Nietzsche’s evolutionary account of consciousness and find how completely I agreed with it. I would use different language but the point is pretty much the same: a faculty slowly emerges from our biological nature which, as we attain awareness of it, comes to be seen as constituting our essence (partly because, as I’d add, it becomes increasingly important for everyday life as human systems grow in complexity):

Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic and hence also what is most unfinished and unstrong. Consciousness gives rise to countless errors that lead an animal or man to perish sooner than necessary, “exceeding destiny,” as Homer puts it. If the conserving association of the instincts were not so very much more powerful, and if it did not serve on the whole as a regulator, humanity would have to perish of its misjudgements and its fantasies with open eyes, of its lack of thoroughness and its credulity – in short, of its consciousness; rather, without he former, humanity would long have disappeared.

Before a function is fully developed and mature it constitutes a danger for the organism, and it is good if during in the interval it is subjected to some tyranny. Thus consciousness is tyrannised – least by our pride in it. One thinks that it constitutes the kernel of man; what is abiding, eternal, ultimate and most original in him. One takes consciousness for a determinate magnitude. One denies its growth and its intermittences. One takes it for the “unity of the organism”.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book One: 11

What I find more difficult to understand is the normative account Nietzsche develops on the back of this. He seems to argue that taking “consciousness for a determinate magnitude” which is the “unity of the organism” leads to a lack of attentiveness to the possibilities inherent in the capacity of being conscious. In taking consciousness as self-present and self-grounded, we fail to recognise the potential for change and growth (self-transcendence?) inherent in possessing this capacity:

This ridiculous overestimation and misunderstanding of consciousness has the very useful consequence that it prevents an all too fast development of consciousness. Believing that they possess consciousness, men have not exerted themselves very much to acquire it; and things haven’t changed much in this respect. To this day the task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and is not yet clearly discernible; it is a task that is seen only by those who have comprehend that so far we have incorporated only our errors and that all our consciousness relates to errors.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book One: 11

What really intrigues me is this notion of the “task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive”. Surely this was the psychological foundation of virtue ethics? My understanding of Aristotelian ethics is that it rests on the cultivation of virtuous dispositions i.e. becoming someone who habitually acts in ways which embodiy the virtues. So the point is not that virtue rests on a passive reproduction of dominant norms (i.e. being socialised to act ethically and then consistently doing so) but rather that it is an achievement, in which we develop the right habits of action but also our understanding and enjoyment of them. It’s an active process in which we cultivate our character, rather than an escape from activity through the inculcation of habit. There’s a nice passage in Andrew Sayer in which he discusses the projects of self which such activity can give rise to:

We may intermittently “take stock” and evaluate our virtues and vices, or more simply our character […] We may feel we must be more assertive, more outgoing, less lazy, etc, and try to change ourselves through repeated practice in the hope that we become habituated to acting in these ways, so that it becomes “second nature”. This can be difficult not only because of the inertia of our existing embodied dispositions but because it may fail to bring the hoped-for effects and positive feedback.

– Andrew Sayer, Why Things Matter to people, Pg 131

Everyone who has attempted to change their behaviour has likely experienced difficulties in doing so. We are not infinitely malleable. We are often not malleable at all. It is our character, this assemblage of embodied dispositions, which enables and constrains this malleability. I can’t make any sense of Nietzsche’s discussion of “incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive” unless this is what it’s talking about: we can act back on ourselves and change who we are. For instance this is what I take him to be doing in Ecce Homo. Furthermore, the notion of consciousness as the “unity of the organism” undermines our propensity for doing so, with the ghostly subjectivity it implies working to hide this (limited) mailability of our character.

But these aren’t new ideas. Surely Nietzsche the philologist would be very much aware of this fact. So have I missed his point? Is this simply overstatement on his part? Are the distinctively neo-Aristotelian concepts through which I’m making sense of this much more modish than I realised, such as to be unrecognisable to Nietzsche when he looked back through the history of ideas? If that passage were rewritten as a claim about ‘modernity’s man’ then I can understand it perfectly. As it stands, I’m slightly baffled. I’m fine with things I don’t understand. I’m fine with things I do understand. I get intellectually frustrated when I feel I understand something and yet also feel that I don’t.

The same is true of the talk of ‘errors’ at the end of the passage. Am I just too wedded to the ideas through which I can’t help but interpret this? If so that would be an interesting example of dispositionality. But the only sense I can make of “we have incorporated only our errors” is an accusation that character-cultivation has thus far been entirely a matter of prohibitions, encompassing what we should not become rather than what we should. But again, it’s the same problem. This seems obviously untrue to me.

3 responses to “Nietzsche, Consciousness and Virtue Ethics”

  1. Hi, I was reading your post while searching for Nietzsche’s thoughts on consciousness. I’d like to give you another perspective on the questions you posed at the end of your essay. You might disagree, but I think any external input can help move us further in our understanding/contemplation of things, so I’ll share.
    Your doubts are about the statements: “incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive” and “we have incorporated only our errors”. As I understand, you are interpreting his thoughts attributing them to the development of the character of 1 person. However, I read it as talking about the developing consciousness of human civilization, the human animal. To give a modern example: when he says we should make knowledge instinctive, I would imagine the development of human kind where environmentally friendly living would be instinctive and not something you need to educate people on as much as we do now. We have the knowledge, but not enough time has passed yet to make this knowledge that pollution hurts us, that it actually could kill us (like smoking can cause an individual human to die) instinctive (many individuals have developed it, but as a whole species we haven’t). We have only incorporated our errors also can point to some human instinctual behaviour that we don’t share with our predecessors, however, which cannot be considered virtues. Like maybe the habit/instinct of hedonism? To this, I should give it a bit more thought and come back with a better example.
    What do you think? 🙂

  2. I find that very plausible! It’s my bias to always think about individuals unless otherwise specified (my PhD was about personal change and biographical research) and I need to check this sometimes….

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